Chapter 16

Time can be a friend, an enemy, or a pain in the ass. One thing it cannot do is stop the days from passing by.

Two weeks later ~ Monday, June 16

Wilmington Home ~ 5:00a.m.

Inez rolled over and ran her hand over the cold, empty space beside her. Apparently, in spite of his promise to get some sleep, her husband never came to bed last night. She slid out from beneath the covers, pulled on her robe, and went in search of her wayward man. He was not difficult to find; he still sat in his favorite chair in the den. Seeing the lines of strain on his face, and the slump of his shoulders, hurt her heart. She decided enough was enough; it was time Buck realized some things were out of his control, no matter how much he wished otherwise.

“You’ve lost your faith, husband,” she said, moving from the doorway to stand in front of him. “I’d hoped the book Ezra gave you would help, but obviously you are struggling still.”

Buck set the book he was reading aside, and pulled her onto his lap. “None of this makes sense to me. I know the seven of us have a unique bond, but what happened to our ancestors in the past has nothing to do with today.”

“Are you certain?” Buck had told her enough about Cowboy and Tracker, and the gift of the Legends book to raise her doubts. “Do you believe Chris was wrong to trust Cowboy, or Vin when he listened to Tracker about Kelli and Trey?”

“No…yes…hell, I’m not sure what to believe anymore. I just cannot accept that ‘they’ knew how much JD would be hurting now.” He pulled a letter from the inside of the book. “This says I’m supposed to let the kid run things his way…not to rein him in, regardless of whether he’s right or wrong.’ He sighed. “Not that I have much choice. JD barely speaks to me anymore, hell, to any of us for that matter.  He spends all his time talking to Casey’s doctors and her lawyer when he should be letting help.”

Inez leaned her head against his. “Maybe all you can do is to wait for him to realize he needs more.”

“I plan to be at Casey’s hearing today. I don’t care if Chris approves or not. JD is not gonna be alone, not while I’m alive.”

“I’m sure Chris doesn’t intend for JD to face the hearing alone anymore than you or the others do.” Inez said and then smiled when the baby kicked. “Our daughter agrees.”

Buck laid his hand on her stomach and gently rubbed over the swollen mound where their baby rested. “Six more weeks’ sweet girl and not a moment sooner, you hear me?” He raised his head and gazed into his wife’s eyes. “I know I’ve been a pain in the ass over all this and distracted lately, but you and our babies are always with me. I love you, Lady, don’t ever doubt that.”

She answered with her eyes, showing him her love and understanding. She reached out to stroke his cheek. “I only want you to find a balance in your emotions, for your own sanity’s sake. I’m not saying give up on JD, it’s not in your nature, but you promised your ‘West End Kids’ you would set up a rodeo at Reins, which will include them. Caleb’s birthday is in two weeks, and we have not even discussed a name for our new daughter yet. Shouldn’t you try to give JD some time to heal, and tend to those things too?”

“Time…” he sighed again. One part of him understood why he needed to wait for JD to come to him, but another part wanted to shake some sense into him and make it happen now. Yet, when JD first tried to explain to him how he felt about his decision to leave MCAT would he have listened?  Answering himself honestly he knew he wouldn’t, anymore than JD was listening now. “You’re right. I promise to get back to work on my plans for the rodeo and we’ll make certain Caleb has the best birthday ever.” He wrapped his arms around her. “Now, as for a name, do you have a preference?”

“I do, if you agree.” She looked up.” When my mama died, mi Tia Isabella took care of me. She loved me and made sure I received an education. Tia helped me come to the United States and cried happy tears when I gained my citizenship. I love her and owe her more than I can ever repay.”

“Isabella Wilmington,” Buck nodded. “I like the sound of that.”

Inez hesitated a moment, then said softly, “Isabella Danielle? JD named Lilah after your mom, and added Bucklin to JJ’s name…I thought …”

He brushed her lips with his. “Thank you. Isabella Danielle it is.” He patted his wife’s belly. “Hear that, sweetheart, you have a name. Bella Wilmington.”

Inez smiled, two seconds and Buck already was calling her Bella. She was certain it would take a least a minute or two. “If you’ll help me up, I’ll start breakfast while you get ready for work.”

“Whatever you say Mama,” Buck said, smiling as he helped her to her feet.  He watched her head into the kitchen and dropped his smile when she disappeared. There was no need to worry her about his problems at work. When Travis called the team back in, it did not take long to realize they needed a helluva lot more than working together to repair the damage between him and Vin.  He was a long way from forgiving Tanner for helping Casey.

Dunne Home ~ 7:00 a.m.

“We’ll have you dressed and ready to go in a jiffy,” JD said, pulling the shirt over JJ’s head. Missus Hastings was great with kids, but he insisted on doing everything for the baby himself. Since his own wounds were healing, he spent more and more time with his children. When he was not in conference with Casey’s doctors or Douglas Banks, he tried to make up for the fact they temporarily only had one parent at home.

JJ made a gurgling noise and kicked his legs.

“Daddy and Aunt Nettie have to be gone a bit today, so you’ll stay with Missus Hastings while your sisters are in day care.” He lifted his son to his shoulder. “I promise we’ll be back as soon as we can.”

JD headed out the door, still ignoring ‘the book’, which rested on the floor in the corner. He was hesitant when Ezra came over last week and talked his way inside. After hearing the reason for his visit, JD was angry and ordered him to leave. No way would he allow Standish, or his alleged mission from the past, make him feel guilty about standing on his own. Throwing the book across the bedroom, he refused to look at it. No damn book, supposedly from his ancestor, was going to change his mind either.

Unseen by JD, a shadow moved to follow him. *This is gonna to be harder than I thought. That boy is pure stubborn to the bone*

Federal Courthouse ~ 8:00 a.m.

Buck paced the hallway, while Chris, Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan sat on the benches lined against the wall. When JD entered with Nettie, he started to go over to them, until he spotted Douglas Banks at their side. The attorney’s presence only served to remind him of why they were here….Casey’s attack on his brother.

“Easy Buck, lower your hackles, and let JD make the first move,” Chris cautioned.

JD glanced over and caught sight of his five brothers. He reckoned he should have anticipated their unsolicited support, but the jolt of unexpected pleasure he felt when he saw them surprised him. Excusing himself to Nettie and Douglas, he walked over to speak to them

“Hey,” he stood in front of Buck and nodded to the men on the bench. “You guys didn’t have to come. This is a closed hearing and except for witnesses, no one is allowed inside.”

“We know,” Buck said. “We just wanted to be here for you …the same as you would for one of us.”

JD sighed and shook his head. “I appreciate you guys thinking about me, but I can handle this.” He hesitated and then continued.  “I know some of you can’t understand why I’m standing by Casey, and fighting to get the charges dropped. The simple truth is…I love her and she‘s worth saving to me. I intend to do everything I can to help her.” 

An awkward silence descended on the group until Nathan finally said, “You look good. Doctor Gilford must be happy with your progress.”

“Yeah, he is. In fact, he’s releasing me this week.” JD took a step closer to Chris. “I’m not coming back to work yet. I planned to come in and talk to you tomorrow about an extended leave of absence.”

Chris willed himself not to react. “No problem, son. I’ll draw it up and drop by the house for your signature…if that’s okay with you.”

JD bobbed his head. “Thanks, I hate to leave the kids more than necessary.”  He glanced over the faces of the men he loved and respected. “I realize how hard this is for all of you. All I ask is for you to try to understand I’m doing what I need to do and give me time to take care of my family.”

Buck swallowed hard, holding back all the words he wanted to say. Instead, he reached out and squeezed JD’s arm. “Just don’t forget we’re here if you need… or want to talk.”

Not trusting himself to speak, JD chewed on his bottom lip, and nodded.

Nettie walked up and lightly touched him on the back. “The attorneys are having a pow wow. I thought I’d come over and join you.” The men stood up to acknowledge her and she motioned for them to sit down. “It’s good to see all of you boys, not that I’m surprised. Family is usually around when they’re needed,” she turned to JD, “even if you don’t realize you do.”

“Yes ma’am. I reckon they are.” JD answered. He watched as the Tanners exited one of the conference rooms. “I need to talk to Vin for a minute…Nettie?”

Nettie patted him on the shoulder. “I’m fine. These handsome young men will keep me company.” She watched him hurry down the hall and sighed. “Don’t give up on our boy. When he falls he’s gonna need strong hands to help him up.”

“None of us are giving up on JD. We’ll be here, no matter how long it takes.” Buck said as he stared down the hall, a bit peeved that obviously JD could talk to Vin with no problem, when he was clearly uncomfortable with them. He muttered under his breath, “We’re here too, Kid, always.”


Five men observed JD approach Vin. The two younger men carried on an intense conversation before Douglas Banks exited the conference room and motioned for JD to follow him down the hall. Vin watched them go, sighed, placed his hand on Kelli’s waist, and headed toward his brothers.

Chris waited until they were close and then stood. “What’s going on?”

“The attorneys came to an agreement. Once the judge approves their motion…”  Vin blew out a breath. “…this thing is over, at least legally.”

“Praise the Lord,” Nettie said.

Kelli knew what was coming and deflected the conversation. “I need to get back to the office for a meetin’ with Travis.” She met Chris’s eyes. “You wouldn’t, by any chance, know what he wants, would you?”

“I do,” Chris said. “He wanted me to go to Texas with him to set up some particulars on the new San Antonio unit. I declined, so you get to go instead. You leave Wednesday and will probably be gone a week. I figured Vin could handle four kids, work, and keep the house from falling down without you there for a few days.” He ignored the glare Vin shot his way. 

“You, sir, have a mean streak.” She shook her head and turned to Nettie. “May I escort you to where JD will be waitin’?”

“Thank you. JD has worked so hard to make this happen, I know he’s relieved.”  Nettie hugged Chris and nodded to the others.

Kelli leaned closer to kiss Vin good-bye. She whispered for his ears only, “Play nice.”

Vin kissed her back and uttered softly under his breath, “Deserter.”

Buck waited until Kelli and Nettie were far enough away not to hear and then growled. “Just like that, it’s over? Casey walks away with no punishment?”

Vin measured his words. “The doctor’s statement sealed the deal. Casey belongs in a hospital, not a prison and this is what JD wants. Once it’s official, he can fill you in on the details.”

“I detect a bit of anxiety on your part, Vin.” Ezra said. “Isn’t this what you wished for?”

“Yes, but now all our evidence will be released and JD wants everything we found in his home returned to him.”

Josiah closed his eyes, saying a silent prayer before asking, “Everything?”

Buck looked from Vin to Josiah. “Well it does belong to JD. What’s the problem?”

Chris wanted to keep things civil and avoid another blowup between Vin and Buck. He decided to intervene. “There was a recording of the attack and a journal Casey kept. I don’t know everything she wrote, but from what little I do know, it could mean more problems for JD.”

“Amen,” Josiah said. “Vin, you can’t let him read ….”

Vin shook his head. “I already told him the worst of it, Josiah, and by law I have to give him Casey’s personal possessions. He gets the journal, but the DVDs …I reckon I might have to look for ‘em. It could take a while, seein’ I don’t rightly remember where I filed ‘em.

* Good, make certain they stay misfiled*.

*No problem, Cowboy, I promise they will never see the light of day.”

*Hold off on returning the guns too.* Chris remembered all too well the dark days of his own grief.

*You got it*

“Guess this is another private matter…no need to clue in the rest of us right?” Buck interrupted, glaring at Vin. “Hell, we’re family too, but we’ve been cut out from the get go. Why would you want to include us now?”

Ezra stood and cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, I regret leaving good company; however. I have an appointment on another legal matter.”

Chris was aware that Ezra’s appointment concerned Linda’s move for custody of the children. “Call me when you’re done.”

“Absolutely,” Ezra answered. “I trust y’all will remember this is a courthouse and family laundry should be aired in private.”

Chris nodded. “We’ll be fine.”

Josiah elbowed Nathan. “Since it appears JD won’t need us hanging around, I suppose we should head back to the office.” The two men stood to leave and walked out with Ezra.

Placing one hand on Buck’s shoulder and the other on Vin’s, Chris guided them to the bench. “Lets sit and wait together.” He made sure he positioned himself between the two.

“Buck, family or not, you know Vin can’t tell you what he found…and… Vin, since we’re not privy to all the information you gathered, we may not see things the way you see them. “So,” he slapped them both on the back, “I say you both should agree to disagree and call a truce.”

Every muscle in Buck’s body tensed. “Is that a suggestion or an order?”

“Whichever works, just do it.” Chris dropped his hands and leaned back. “Here comes JD and Nettie. Smile boys.” The three men stood to meet them.

JD had his hand on Nettie’s arm and a big smile on his face. “We made it past the first big hurdle. The judge accepted the motion. Casey’s gonna be transferred to a private hospital later this afternoon. I won’t be able to see her every day, but at least she won’t be going to prison.”

Chris nodded, the smile on JD’s face was heartwarming, and he could accept the outcome as long as the kid was okay with it. “I’m happy for you.” He nudged Buck’s side. “We all are aren’t we?”

“Yeah,” Buck swallowed hard. “Hey, the days will pass before you know it.”

“Vin, how soon can you get the evidence released?” 

Tanner understood how JD was anxious to read Casey’s journal, and while he would like to delay giving it to him, he knew time was up. “I’ll start the process when I get back to the office. Might take a few days but I’ll get it to you as soon as I can.”

“Great.” JD nodded. “I need to get home and pick up the girls, but in case I forgot to say it, I do appreciate all of you being here today.” He started to leave, but turned back toward Buck. “I know you were counting on me to help with the Rein’s rodeo, but I need to take care of my family first, so you might need to ask someone else. You understand, right?”

“Sure, Kid. You do what you have to, we’ll manage.” Buck reached out and squeezed his arm. “Take care of yourself too.”

Nettie said. “I stay on his case about that all the time. Sometimes, he even listens.”

“Nettie keeps me straight, don’t worry.” JD glanced at his watch. “We really need to go. I’ll talk to you soon, Buck.”

“Yeah…soon,” Buck’s heart clenched as he watched them walk down the hall. He wanted to believe the worst was over for his young brother, but he knew better.

Reins of Change ~ 1:00 p.m.

Cait was in the kitchen when she heard a knock. Thinking it was Jesse or Willard, she answered the door with a smile, which quickly faded. Linda was the last person she expected to see.

“Doctor Broderick, you may remember me, I am Linda Larabee.  I understand from my brother that my daughter, Grace, spends her days here. I want to see her.” Linda did not waste any time with chitchat.

Linda attempted to push past Cait, but she blocked her.

Stepping outside, Cait closed the door behind her. “Grace is a student here; however, you are not on the list of authorized family members to have access to her.”

“I am her mother. I do not need your permission to see my own daughter.” Linda placed her hands on her hips and huffed. “I demand to see her, now.”

“You can stand there and demand until hell freezes over, but without Mister Larabee’s permission it is not possible. Please leave.” Cait enjoyed seeing the look of irritation flash across Linda’s face.

Linda softened her voice to a silky purr. “I am certain Chris just forgot to tell you that we discussed me picking up Grace yesterday evening.” She smiled. “Of course, he was a bit ‘preoccupied’. We had …uh… an intimate reconciliation, which took most of the night.”  Tossing her blonde locks with a shake of her head, she continued, “You know how men are, once the clothes come off, their brains forget to function.”

Cait bit her tongue to keep from losing her temper with this woman. “Miss…”

“It’s Larabee, Missus Christopher Larabee.” Linda smiled. “There’s no need to bother Chris at work. Just bring Grace to me and we’ll be on our way.”

“Grace is in my care and will not leave this property without her father’s permission.” Cait took a step toward Linda, her expression hardening. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but your lies won’t fly around here. Now I want you to leave, before I call the Sheriff’s office and have a Deputy escort you off my land.”

Linda’s eyes turned cold and her voice became hard-edged, “Your land? Part of this property came from the Southern Breeze, and if you plan to keep it, you best remember who you’re talking to. When Chris hears how you’ve treated me, you might just lose the Larabee 7 land as well.”

“I’ll take my chances, Miss Dubois.” Cait stood her ground, refusing to call her Larabee. ”I have a clear title to this land, signed, sealed and legal. You do understand the concept of binding legal documents don’t you?”

Ignoring the dig, Linda fumed. “I will have my daughter and you will regret aligning yourself with my husband.”

“Ex-husband,” Cait corrected her. “Now leave and do not come back.”

Without a word, Linda turned and stalked over to her car, all the while planning revenge against the little nobody who had the nerve to deny her access to her own daughter.

Caitlyn was shaking with anger as she watched Linda drive away. Her first impulse was to call Chris, but then she thought about it, deciding it was better to tell him in person. Grace was safe and he had enough to deal with this morning. Instead, she called Dottie to warn her in case Linda doubled back and went after Cody. Then she called Walter to alert him, requesting that he send someone over to Chris’s house to stand guard over Cody, while she and Grace made a trip to the MCAT office.

MCAT Office -2:00 p.m.

Chris tapped his pen on the desk while he tried to come up with an answer for Vin’s question. “Stall him…hell, blame it on Barlow. JD knows how the U.S. Attorney’s office is anything but fast.”

Vin shrugged a shoulder. “I’ll try, but he knows I should have all the evidence returned by Friday at least.”

“Just give him a few days to adjust to this latest development, before you burst his bubble with that damn journal.”

Vin nodded. “Will do…”

A small blond tornado bursting into Chris’s office interrupted his words. “Daddy, I’m here!” Grace ran over and jumped toward Chris, confident her father would catch her.

“Hey, sweetheart,” Chris caught and hugged his daughter, looking over her head to the woman who followed her. “Cait, this is a pleasant surprise, don’t tell me I forgot…”

Cait shook her head. “We had an errand to run and Grace wanted to see her daddy.  You know Grace, when she sets her mind to something.”

Sensing the tension radiating from Cait, Vin decided to help. “Grace, I have some cookies in my office. You want to sneak away with me and have some?”

“Cookies… Yay,” Grace squealed as she scampered off her Dad’s lap and ran over to her Uncle Vin.

Chris laughed. “She sold out her old man for a cookie.”

“We’ll be back.” Vin scooped her up, threw her over his shoulder and tickled her, closing the door as they exited the room.

Chris stood, walked around his desk and pulled Cait to him. “Now tell me why you’re really here.”

“Linda,” she sighed, “came to Reins and demanded I hand over Grace to her. She said you knew about it. I refused; she got mad, made a few meaningless threats, and finally left. I called Dottie and Walter to warn them Linda was around, and then brought Grace here. I knew you’d want to see for yourself she was all right.” 

“Sonofabitch, I should have known she’d make trouble.” Chris dropped his hands from Cait’s arms and began to pace.” The custody hearing isn’t scheduled until the end of July. My attorney warned me not to contact her before then, but I can’t have her coming around trying to steal my kids.”

Cait moved to block his pacing. “Chris, she is not going to get past, Dottie, Max, me, or anyone on Larabee 7. Listen to your lawyer and stay away from her. She wants you to come after her, to show you have a volatile temper or that you are not willing to let the judge decide. Anything she can use against you she will.  Fight her in court on your terms, not out here on hers.”

He stared at Cait for a moment and then sighed. “You’re right. She’s counting on me to get angry, storm over to Matt’s, make a scene, and give her more to throw at me. I reckon it’s time to tell everyone what’s happening, so they can watch for trouble, but I won’t go looking for it.” He pulled her back into his arms. “Thank you for protecting my daughter.”

“You’d do the same for Jesse if the situation were reversed.” She raised her hand to stroke his jaw. “Trust and faith, Larabee, it’s an unbeatable combination.”

He rested his chin on the top of her head and sighed. “Yeah, trust and faith, we could all use a big dose of both about right now.”

Chapter 17

We never know the impact we will have on the world. All we can do is go out there, live..., and let destiny lead us.

Friday, June 20 ~ 1:00 p.m.

Vin sat in his truck in front of JD’s home for a full five minutes, before he opened the door. The last time he parked here, it was to meet the forensic crew the day after the attack and the memory of that experience, he would just as soon forget. Had it actually been less than a month?  Retrieving a package from the front seat, he took a deep breath and headed toward the porch.

JD stepped out the door, just as he reached the steps. “You sat there so long, I thought you were gonna change your mind about staying.”

“Considered it,” Vin acknowledged.  He stepped onto the porch and joined JD; the two men moved over to the chairs and sat down.

A few moments of awkward silence ensued before JD said. “I’m okay with this, Vin, really. I’ve had time to think about what you told me, and talked to Casey’s doctors. I understand that her illness dictated her behavior.”

“Reckon I just need to worry about you, Kid.” He handed the package to JD. “Casey’s journal. The rest of the stuff won’t be available until next week, but I figured this is what you wanted the most.”

JD nodded. “Yeah, I need to…,” he swallowed hard, “…knowing and seeing are two different things. I know the Casey who wrote this is ill.  Still…” JD clutched the book to his chest. “I have to read her journal to move on.”

The expression on JD’s face would haunt the Texan for a long time. He wanted to rip the book away from JD and tear it into pieces, to spare his brother the pain of reading it. If he thought it possible to stop the hurt he would, but maybe facing the written truth head-on was what JD needed. “Kel’s still out of town, so I’ll be hangin’ close to home for the weekend. If you need me, just holler.” He stood to leave and patted JD on the shoulder before he said, “Remember, you don’t have to face anythin’ alone, unless you choose to.”

JD nodded, rose to his feet, and walked to the edge of the porch with the Texan. “Thanks Vin, for being honest with me and giving me the journal when I know you didn’t want to.”

Vin smiled. “Guess I wasn’t foolin you about makin’ you wait all week.”

“No, but I appreciate why you did. Hell, I’d probably have done the same thing in your place.” He extended his hand. “We’re good?”

Reaching out, Vin gripped JD’s hand. ”Yeah, we’re good. Call me if you need anythin’, day or night, and I’ll be here.”

JD watched Vin leave and hesitated before going back inside. Since Vin had told him everything about Casey, all he could think of was getting his hands on this journal and proving to the world they were wrong.  Deep in his soul, he knew they weren’t though, and he had decided several times not to read the damn thing at all. Yet, he needed to get past his denial and accept the truth, if her words could help him do that, he had to try.


Once inside his bedroom, JD opened the journal. He caressed the pages as tears formed, on seeing the familiar handwriting. Closing the book, he sat quietly on the bed for a moment. This didn't feel right, reading Casey's personal thoughts. After much wrestling with his conscience, JD finally reopened the book…and read.

Page after page revealed the alter ego Casey had been living with…he had been living with. He did not recognize this person at all. She talked about JD as if he were in mortal danger and was convinced the FBI would take him away from her at any given moment. At the same time, her thoughts about JD were conflicting. She clearly loved him, but she was also certain he was conspiring with his family about her behind her back.

It was apparent she partially blamed JD and JJ for not feeling like a real woman anymore, something she began to comment on repeatedly…wanting to feel like a real woman again. Her determination to achieve deliverance reduced JD to heart-wrenching sobs, realization sinking in that his Casey, the woman he loved, the mother of his children and only woman he ever made love to, had cheated on him. As if to torture himself, he read again the damning words, which described Casey’s erotic one-night stand.

Casey’s Journal entry, May 3

"After Becky dumped me to go Wes, I couldn't believe my luck when Antonio invited me to his place. No sooner were we inside his apartment, he had my clothes off and his mouth and hands were all over me. He felt warm and strong and lifted me into his arms. When he led me to the bed, Antonio took his time. I began to feel like myself again. This man saw only the woman I truly am and his movements had me screaming in ecstasy.

I'm sure if his girlfriend hadn't been due back, he would have been more intimate, but I left soon after we were finished."

Casey’s Journal entry, May 4 

"Today, I feel ashamed. What was I thinking? Antonio didn't want me, he wanted another sexual conquest...another notch on his bedpost. He didn't even cuddle me when we were finished, just slapped my ass, rolled off the bed and told me to “move it” because his girlfriend was due back in an hour.  I cried the whole time I dressed and then raced outside to hail a cab.

I called JD and begged him to let me come home. I love him so much and I need him to know. I pray I can make this right. He's the only man I have ever loved and the only man that wants me"

Swiping at his eyes in anger, JD got up from the bed, walked across the room and picked up the book Ezra had given him. He still had not read it yet…maybe it was time. He left Nettie a note, told Missus Hastings he would be back soon, went to the barn, and pulled back a sheet of tarpaulin. The last time he rode his bike, Casey sat behind him. He stroked it lovingly, momentarily transported to happier times before he climbed on, and started the engine. Coasting through the barn doors, he stopped to close them, tucked the books inside his leather jacket, switched off his cell, jammed on his helmet, and tore off. Now he needed to get away, if only for a little while.


JD rode for a good hour or so, not heading toward any particular destination, just enjoying the thrill of riding, free as a bird, the wide-open spaces holding no boundaries, no limits. Eventually he came across a mountain track, which veered off the road. Stopping to assess it, he decided to push on, traveling up the steep incline until he reached the top. He cut the engine, dropped the kickstand, and removed his helmet.  As he moved toward the edge of a grassy knoll ahead of him, he inhaled deeply at the sight of Denver and its surrounding areas beneath him. After a minute, he turned and walked over to a stand of trees, sitting against one of them. A soft breeze ruffled his dark hair, while he removed his jacket, the two books falling to the ground as he did so.

JD stared at the books for a long time, eventually picking up the Legends journal. As he turned it in his hands, a strange, yet eerily familiar voice startled him.

"You can't read the message, if you don't open it."

JD jerked, spinning around to meet whoever had followed him, but there was no one around.  He took a shaky breath, "Jesus, JD, get a're losing it."

"No you're not, and I'm here to prove that to you."

JD jumped to his feet, attempting to draw his gun from his missing belt holster, waving and pointing his now equally empty hand in the air while cursing Vin for holding back his guns.

 "Who are you? Show yourself!" A chuckle drew his gaze toward one of the trees. He gasped as a young dark-haired man with a Bowler hat on his head, and wearing a wool suit with a star pinned on it, stepped forward.

"I guess we're more alike than I realized. Put that ol' invisible gun away, huh?" he chuckled again as he took another step closer. "'Sides, even if you did have one, it's a bit late for bullets to affect me now."

JD's mouth gaped. Whoever this man was, he looked...familiar...too familiar. "Who...who are you?"

The man approached him, dropping to ground next to the tree where JD had been sitting. "How do you ever shave without cutting your nose off? Don't you ever look in a mirror? It's me...I’m one of them… we saw one another briefly last year. Of course reading the book would explain everything...if you ever open it. You must remember Tracker and Cowboy." The ageless sheriff laughed, "You know, Chris really hates that name."

JD dropped to his knees, shaking his head to clear his vision. "Oh God...I have lost it...well, I guess it had to come, with all the shit that's been happening lately or maybe I'm dreaming? Yeah...I can go along with that. Okay  ...say whatever you have to say, and then I can wake up."

Sheriff Dunne looked at him, his expressive hazel eyes showing nothing but compassion. "I know what you've been through...are still going through. They sent me to guide you toward the right path, I'm here to help."

"Who are they?" JD asked, relaxed now as he was convinced he was sleeping.

"The Legendary Seven," he answered. "My brothers...just like the men you hold dear are brothers of your heart. It's our destiny."

JD scowled, eyeing the familiar face as he sat next to him. "Is...Is the old Buck with you?"

The young sheriff smiled. "Yeah...he's with me, although he might take exception to being called old. He still makes fun of my hat and generally gives me a hard time, although, we’re a little different now… matured a little, you know?"

"What about your hat?" JD asked, looking at it. "I reckon it's kind of cool."

He frowned at hearing the odd sounding statement. "Well it doesn't really keep me as cool as a hat should, but...I like it." He glanced off to one side, nodding. "I'm wasting time; I need to explain something to you."

JD looked to where the sheriff had nodded. "Who else is here?"

"Well, he's not really here, but I can see my Buck."

JD's eyes filled. "Wish I could see him."

"Missing your Buck, huh?"

"Yeah, I am."

"You'll reconcile...soon...and you'll both be better for it. need to read our journal. It explains your place with the Seven...why you're so important...why you're the glue that holds them together."

"Are you comparing me to superglue, now?"

Sheriff tilted his head. "What's superglue?"

JD laughed. "Never mind. You were saying?" He figured he'd better hurry this along, he might wake up any minute.

The Sheriff removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. “When you came along, the six men you joined up with saw something in you, which reminded them of themselves, a piece of their youth, overflowing with courage, loyalty, bravado, and optimism. Call it fate, destiny, karma, or plain damn luck, but the truth is, under other circumstances, we’d probably never have chosen the rest as role models or friends because we are all so different. Nevertheless, each of us stands for something the others appreciate. They admire you, you admire them, but they protect you instinctively... guarding the pieces of themselves you possess. I used to fight it...boy, did I ever. Almost died...several times trying to prove myself, to show I was their equal, not their weakest link, same as you have."

At those words, JD stared at him. Could he read his mind?

Sheriff Dunne smiled. "If anything, you’re their strongest link. They need to nurture and protect you, even if they don’t understand all the reasons why. I know you have a call to be your own man, but you don't need to shut them out to become independent.” He chuckled. “That’s something they’ll finally have to come to terms with, even Buck… Embrace your destiny Kid. You can be strong, and still have the most important thing a man could ask for...  you have an eternal bond with six extraordinary men. They know you have their backs, all they want is to watch yours...just a little more intensely...but that’s all part of what made us who we are. Do you understand?"

After a moment, JD nodded, a small smile creeping to his lips. "Yeah, I think I’m beginning to. God...I've been so stupid. I've been pushing away the best thing in my life, just to prove a point." He paled. "What if it's too late? What if they don't want to help me anymore?"

"Ain’t ever gonna happen Kid, all they're waiting on is for you to make the first move...they've been waiting since day one...especially Buck. You'll know when it's time. The book explains everything. My brothers forced my hand to come here because I wasn't sure you were ready, but if there's one thing I've's to trust them...which I did every day, with my life and do now with my spirit. You still have a tough road ahead, but you have six good men waiting on you. Don't fight your fate, and when you're ready, let your brothers help you."

Sheriff Dunne stood, JD following him up. "Are you leaving?"

He nodded. “I have no choice. I did what I came to do and for now, my time is up. I will be seeing you again though and I’m never too far away.  Remember this, you have a lot of love in your heart, don't lock it away. It took me a long time to say it, hell," he laughed, "over a century, but, I love my brothers just like I know you  love yours...enjoy it.  They also return those feelings and tell you all the time, with everything they do and say." With a familiar grin, he touched the brim of his hat, turned and walked away. As fast as he had appeared, he was gone.

Sitting down hard on the ground, JD stared a long time at the empty space where the man from the past had vanished. Finally, he accepted that it had not been a dream, and picked up his Legend journal, reading until the afternoon light began to fade. It was time to go home.

The sight of Nettie and the children on the porch when he rode up the driveway made JD's heart swell with happiness and love. He had called ahead to tell Nettie he was coming home and they waited impatiently for him. He barely had his bike parked and his helmet off before the twins ran toward him. Going down on one knee, he opened his arms to scoop up his girls. They proceeded to tell him about their day, both trying to talk at the same time.  He approached Nettie, who held his youngest, leaned down to kiss her cheek and then JJ.

"Looks like you've been doing some thinking, son."

JD nodded. "Yeah, something like that. Things are much clearer now. I still have a lot to do, and it might not all be smooth sailing, but I can handle whatever fate throws my way. Once Casey's home, we're putting this mess where the past belongs...behind us.”

Chapter 18

Anger may be repressed, denied, hidden and often misdirected, but once unleashed is difficult to recall.

JD opened the door to the master bedroom and stopped dead. Casey was on the bed, naked, a strange man pounding into her as she cried out in pleasure.


Drawing his service weapon, JD fired repeatedly until the pair was a bloody, mangled, lifeless mess.

Barely casting a glance at his handiwork, he turned and strode directly to the phone on the other side of the room to dial a familiar number.



"JD? What's wrong?" The utter despair in his brother's voice cut Buck to the core, a chill sweeping through him. "I'm on my way...y'hear? I'm coming, son..."

JD could hear his brother’s words, but they did not register with his numbed senses. Unable to stop his tears, he stared back at Casey's lifeless eyes and slowly brought his gun to his head. "I'm sorry, Buck...I'm so sorry..." He raised his gun to his temple

About to launch into his familiar litany of soothing, comforting words... a gunshot and a heavy thud caused Buck to jerk as he screamed into the phone. "JD!!"


JD's heaving breaths sounded in the darkness as he bolted upright in his bed. His heart pounded so loudly he was sure Nettie could hear it on the other side of the house.  Snapping on the bedside lamp, he scanned the room and found he was still alone; the clock read five, which meant it must be Saturday morning.

Running a shaky hand over his face, he got up, went to the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and splashed cold water over his face. Still dripping wet, he stared at his reflection in the mirror. He appeared tired, drawn and for the first time in his life, he looked as well as felt his age. Reading Casey's journal must have affected him more than he realized. The words he read earlier played on his mind, particularly the entry of her affair with Antonio. Somehow, he needed to get past this…and quickly.

Vin had promise to help if he asked, well by God, he was going to ask. It was time to take action, and tackle the demon who had invaded his life, head-on. Making a decision, he nodded to himself…he needed to talk to Becky first.

Saturday June 21

 Vin looked across the front seat of his truck at the young man staring out the window. JD’s call had come out of the blue, but he readily agreed to accompany him on a short road trip. He did not know why JD felt the need to talk to Casey's friend, Becky, but he had vowed to support him whenever he asked…so here Vin was, supporting. He just wished the kid would at least say something, but he was not about to push it.

When they arrived at the apartment, JD only had one question. “How much does Becky know about what happened?”

“I only told her Casey had an undiagnosed illness. That I was looking for information about the time she stayed with her to help you fill in some blanks with her memory.” Vin waited for JD to ask for specifics, when he didn’t, he continued, “Becky was eager to help and gave me the details I needed without askin’ too many questions. You can tell her whatever you want to.”

JD nodded. “Casey has a virus and she’s still not well enough for visitors.”

“Works for me, you talk, I’ll just sit and listen.” Vin opened the truck door, got out and joined JD to enter the building.

Becky’s welcome was warm and sincere; she had always liked JD and she was more than willing to help Casey find some peace of mind if she could. While she did not know all the details about her friend’s illness, JD gave her the impression that his wife’s condition was not serious and her memory was only missing minor things, which had occurred over the past month or so.  By the time Becky relayed the events of the time Casey spent with her, he made it appear that she had successfully filled in the missing pieces.

Becky was relieved and smiling when JD thanked her and seemed ready to leave. Vin excused himself and went out to bring the truck around.

Once Vin went outside, JD grasped Becky's hand. "Things have been a bit hectic at Larabee 7 recently. I thought it might be a nice gesture to treat the ladies to a 'girls' night out. Casey seemed to like the club you took her to, but she couldn't recall the name."

Becky smiled. “Just a minute, I'll write the address down for you."

When JD left the apartment, he tucked the paper into his denim jacket pocket. Now all he needed to do was dump Vin, and set his plan into motion. That was going to be tricky.


On the way home JD was chatty and animated. Vin grinned, it had been a long time since he'd seen JD this happy. Becky obviously laid some of the younger man's demons to rest. As they pulled into the Wells' drive, Vin cut the engine, and was about to get out.

"Vin…do you mind? I'm kinda tired…I think I'll head on to bed as soon as I get the kids down." He opened the passenger door to get out. “Thanks for going with me, I appreciate it.”

“Sure thing, Kid,” Tanner waited for the younger man to turn around. "Good to see you smiling again, bro. I'm guessin’ you're startin’ to put a few things behind you."

Dunne nodded. "Yeah, and after tonight, I can cross one more thing off my list."

Nettie came out onto the porch and waved to Vin as he was leaving.

JD smiled as he approached her. "I have one more thing to do, it might take me until late tonight, do you mind…?"

Nettie smiled back at him. "Not at all, honey. You go ahead, we're all fine."

With a nod, JD headed for the barn to get his bike. In minutes, he was heading back toward Denver.

Vin was almost home when he slammed on the brakes and stopped the truck. JD said after tonight I can cross one more thing off my list, not after today. His gut clenched and he pulled out his cell, relieved to see he still had Becky’s name listed. He punched in her number and played a hunch.

"Hey Becky, this is Vin, “I forgot to ask JD so I reckon you could tell me. Were you able to answer his last question?"

"Oh yes, and I hope the Larabee 7 ladies have a great time…it's a really good club for a girl’s night out."

Vin barely thanked her before he slammed the phone shut and exploded. He pounded his fist onto the dashboard. "Stupid…stupid… damnit JD…damnit…fuck and damn it."

 He grabbed the phone again and hit the speed dial button for Chris. "Get your boots on, cowboy; JD's gone bastard huntin’."

"Call Josiah, too," Chris ordered.

"Not Buck?"

"No…JD's not ready, yet… definitely Josiah."

In less than fifteen minutes, the three men were on JD's trail. Vin was running with full lights and siren, praying they would get there in time. They were not going to see JD through all this shit for him to throw it all away on one senseless act. Josiah and Chris were silent, their tension mounted as they drew closer to the club.


JD walked into the darkened club, looked around, took a seat at the bar, and ordered a club soda. He needed a clear head for this. He touched the bartender's arm to stop him from leaving after he received his drink.

"Is Antonio here tonight?"

The man eyed him a little suspiciously. JD laughed. "He's a friend of mine, I was in town, thought I'd look him up."

The bartender nodded. "Yeah, he's here…should be on stage in five minutes."


Five minutes later, JD caught sight of the man who had robbed him of something special. While JD watched the man gyrate and tease the Saturday night crowd of women, he figured dying was too good for the cocky bastard. His anger grew as the performance went on. Once concluded, JD slipped away and headed toward the back. He caught sight of the stripper going into his dressing room, followed him inside, and locked the door behind him.

Antonio scrutinized the smaller man, dismissing him as a threat instantly. "Can I help you?"

"Is that what you said to her? Or was it 'can I help myself, lady?'"

"What the hell? Get out."

"Oh, classic line…that's what you said to her after you screwed her, you asshole."

Antonio tilted his head. "Who? Your girl?"

"No…my wife."

Antonio had no idea who JD was talking about since he had a different woman almost every night, but this guy was no threat, so he figured he'd have a little fun.

"Oh yeah…I remember her…my God…she was begging for it. 

"Stop it."

"What's wrong little man? Couldn't get it up for her…too small, maybe, so she had to come and find a real man?"

"Stop!” JD lunged at him, getting in a few punches before the man was on the floor grunting in pain, the young agent on top of him. "I'm gonna rip your balls off, you bastard, and cram ‘em down your throat.”


 Chris, Vin and Josiah raced into the nightclub and headed straight for the man tending bar.

 Chris growled out, "Is Antonio here?"

"Jeeze he's popular tonight." The suspicious look was back as he eyed the three men. "Is he gay?"

"What do you mean, popular?" Josiah asked.

"Some kid was asking…said he was a friend of his…"

"…which way?"


Vin grabbed the front of the man’s shirt. "Which Goddamn way did he go?" The man pointed toward the back, Tanner released his hold, and the three Agents rushed through the audience of women, toward the dressing rooms.

 A small crowd had gathered outside Antonio's door, listening to the crashes and the shouts coming from within.

"Federal agents, move out of the way.” Vin flashed his badge and the small crowd scattered.

Chris kicked the door in, leaving it in pieces as they rushed into the room.

 Josiah saw what was happening and yelled, "John Daniel!" He pulled JD off the man while Chris and Vin helped Antonio up.

"Let go of me, Josiah…Let go!" Josiah could barely contain him while he pinned him against a wall.

Antonio pointed to the young agent. "I'm gonna sue his ass…I want him arrested!"

Chris glared at him. "I don't think so. You walk away now, and we'll call this quits. Trust me…you really don't want to get on our bad side."

The stripper took in the feral expressions on Chris and Vin's faces, then toward Josiah, who was holding back a battling JD. "Sure…okay…it was nothing man…just blowing off a little steam, you know?"

"Good decision."

"No! This isn't over…you got no right…let me go!" JD was still raging, but he was tiring. With a nod from Chris, Josiah hauled JD up straight and they frog-marched the struggling younger man out of the building and into an alley, finally letting him go. JD pushed Josiah hard in the chest, but the larger man barely moved.

"You bastards…you had no right!" JD clenched his fists. "He…he took my wife…my Case…do you understand me? He…he took away something special…something pure…I wanted to whip his ass…You had no right!"

“Son, you’re angry and understandably so, but the man inside that club is not the problem. He’s just an easy target, and you going to jail for assaulting him will not change anything.” Josiah attempted to put his hand on JD’s shoulder, but he pulled away.

"He took away my Casey." Pain from his healing wounds surged through his body. Exhausted from his struggles, JD fell back against the wall, and slid to the ground. 

The three men choked back their emotions. They had expected everything to catch up to JD eventually, and feared he would crash when it did. Vin figured reading that damn journal had finally pushed JD to his limit.  He was just sorry he had missed the signs earlier.

Dropping to his knees in the debris-strewn alley, Chris pulled the younger man toward him, ignoring the little bit of fight he exhibited, until the younger man finally succumbed to the supportive clinch. JD pounded his fist on Chris’s back as he cried softly, while Vin trotted off to get the truck. With his strength spent, JD could barely stand, and Josiah helped the pair to their feet. The two men half-walked, half-carried him to the truck, loaded his bike into the back, and headed home.

Chris glanced in his rearview mirror as JD leaned into Josiah, muttering how sorry he was. He looked at Vin and said, "Call Nettie, tell her JD's staying with me tonight and I'll bring him home in the morning.”

"I don't think he wants her to know what Casey…"

"She won't," Chris assured him. “Just tell her he over indulged in the spirits and I’ll take care of sobering him up.” He shook his head. “This is far from over for him, but for tonight we’ll take care of the kid. Even if he doesn't realize it yet…we've still got his back."

Vin arched his eyebrow, “And tomorrow?”

“We take this one day at a time, for as long as it takes.”

Sunday June 22~ Chris’s Journal

It has been a helluva six weeks on the Larabee 7. For a while, I was afraid we might not recover from all that has happened. Yet, after last night, I feel much better about the prospects of us coming through this dark period intact. JD is having a rough go at the moment, but he taking the right steps to work through the hand fate has dealt him.

We talked most of the night and I realized that his journey is not much different from the one I took after Sarah died. The big difference…Casey is still alive and JD knows he can count on his six brothers to help him with whatever he wants…and we will be there for him when that time comes. He still has a few things to come to terms with first, but I have faith that he is going to find the answers he needs.

In the meantime, I am concerned about Buck. I believe deep down he understands what JD is doing, but it does not make it any easier for him to stand aside and let him do it. The one thing I am certain of…the seven will survive whatever fate throws at us.

As for me personally, I’m still facing a fight to keep my kids, and as hard as it is to patiently wait for legal recourses, I am going to do this the right way. Caitlyn is helping me stay balanced, and becoming an important part of my life at the same time. When all this is over, she and I need to sit down and talk seriously about what we both expect from our relationship.

Gotta go…Grace is calling for her Daddy.

Chapter 19

Trials, temptations, disappointments -- all these are helps instead of hindrances, if one uses them rightly. They not only test the fiber of character but also strengthen it. Every conquering temptation represents a new fund of moral energy. Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.

*James Buckham

Saturday Morning, July 5

Larabee 7

Buck wadded another sheet of paper and threw the crumpled ball into the overflowing trashcan, which sat next to his desk. He was worried about JD and could not concentrate on his plans for the rodeo or anything else. Glancing at the clock for the umpteenth time over the past hour, he decided now was the right time to change things. He pushed his chair back, grabbed his keys, and hollered at Inez on his way out the door. “I’m going over to Josiah’s, be back in a while.”

It took him only a few minutes to reach the Sanchez home and now, here he stood, uncertain about his reasons for coming. After a moment’s hesitation, he knocked on the door.

Josiah opened the door and grinned. “Hey stranger, it’s good to see you.”

Stepping inside, Buck gathered his courage and blurted out his request. “Can we talk…in private?”

“Certainly, how about we go to my study?” 

Josiah led the way, sat down at his desk, and remained silent, while Buck wandered around the room a few minutes commenting on certain books or figurines. The counselor part of him observed his friend fidget and struggle as he gained the nerve to say what was on his mind.

At last, Buck plopped down in the chair opposite him and found his courage. “JD won’t let me help him. Why?”

“What makes you believe you’re not helping him?”

“Hell, he barely talks to me at all. He won’t let me close enough to do a damn thing.”

Josiah nodded his head and took a deep breath, measuring his words. “You’re giving him the space he needs to find his way. I’d say that’s a lot.”

“Giving him space is not helping.”

“Isn’t it?” Josiah leaned back in his chair, taking several moments to respond. ”We’ve all watched out for JD since he first came to us. He was young, inexperienced, and not jaded about the inequitable ways of the world.  We chose to mentor and attempted to protect him for good reasons. That was ten years ago and you must realize we do it now more from habit than necessity…don’t you? "

Buck sighed deeply. “Yeah, and I know I can be a bit over the top with my emotions at times, but damnit…this is JD....” He failed to complete the sentence, fighting back a new wave of emotion, which swept over him.

“JD understands more than you realize. He knows we’re here, that you… hell, all of us care, and we will never abandon him.” Josiah caught the ‘I’m not so sure about that’ look Buck threw him and chose to ignore it. “That knowledge gives him confidence and strength. Right now, he is experiencing grief, which comes from losing a time of his life where he felt comfortable and secure. A part of his past, you and I know he will never get back, no matter what happens in the future. Denial, isolation, anger, and depression are all necessary stages for him to go though until he can accept what has happened. We cannot go through the process for him or rush him past it. The only thing we can do is allow him the space to finish what he needs to, while offering our silent, unconditional support.”

“It’s not easy to sit and wait, but then…,” Buck glanced out the window. “I reckon this has been hard on all of us.”

Josiah sighed, stood, and moved around the desk to place his hand on Buck’s shoulder. “Don’t dwell on what was; we need to focus on what we can do from here. There’s been nothing said or done among the seven of us, we can’t overcome.”

“Yeah, but….” Buck sucked in his breath, and then nodded, “I do need to mend a couple of fences, while JD does his thing.”

“I have a feeling those fences aren’t near as damaged as you might think.”

Buck stood and gripped Josiah’s hand. “I do hope you’re right.” He started to leave and then stopped “Thanks Josiah.”  

“Anytime, my door is always open.” Josiah walked him to the front porch and watched as Buck got in his truck and drove away. He never doubted that the strength of the seven would prevail over anything, but it felt good to see Buck ready to help it along.


Chris leaned against the corral fence, surveying the results of the morning’s work. The stock he and Vin had just added to the temporary holding pen filled with horses slated for the rodeo, were good choices. “Tomorrow, we should check on the herd in the high pasture.”

“Probably be a least half a dozen up there we could use.” Vin pulled off his gloves after he closed the gate, and slapped Chris on the shoulder. “Let’s head to the house, I’m ready for more coffee.”

“Reckon Kel’s doing okay with the kids?” Chris pushed away from the fence and fell in step with Vin.

Vin opened the driver’s side door of his truck, while Chris headed to the other side. “Hell, counting yours, she only has six to keep up with; she’s doing fine, trust me.”

Tanner Home

The second Vin opened the backdoor, Tracker shot past him moving somewhere around the speed of light.

Chris moved out of the dog’s path. “What the hell?” 

The two men hurried inside to find three giggling toddlers racing across the kitchen as fast as their little legs could move. Bren, Trey, and Cody came to a screeching halt when their fathers suddenly appeared before them.

Chris recognized the impish look in the boys’ eyes, he had seen that same look in Vin, JD, and Ezra’s eyes too many time to mention. He lifted Cody into his arms, while Vin corralled Bren and Trey.

Kelli stood on the other side of the room with her hands on her hips. “I only left the playroom for a minute, to sign for a letter, and they managed to terrorize the dog, leave a trail of toys from here to yonder, open the safety gate, and make an escape.”

Vin now held the twins and gave them a stern look, which only served to make them laugh louder.  He sighed. “So where are the other kids?”

Jason peeked around his mother. “I’m right here; Andi and Grace are watching Dora the Explorer.”  He stepped up to stand beside Kelli. “I was supposed to watch them while Mom answered the door. I tried, but…they’re really fast.”

“It’s not your fault Jason.”  Kelli slipped her arm across his shoulders. “They may be little, but they know better than to terrorize the dog and run in the house.”

Her words were soothing, but the tenseness he saw in his wife’s body contradicted her tone. Vin sensed there was more going on than just the boys playful antics. “Tracker appears to be okay, and …,” he directed his words to the twins. “I think a short timeout is called for.”

Chris noticed the unexplained tension radiating from his daughter and said, “I agree.” While still holding Cody, he reached over and took Bren from his father. “Jason, you take Trey and let’s get these imps settled in their playpen so they can start their timeout.”

Once Chris left the kitchen with the boys Kelli started to explain. “I’m sorry Vin, I should’ve gone straight back to the playroom, but I was upset and took an extra couple of minutes to compose myself. I thought I latched the gate before I left, but…hell, Jason’s right, they are fast.”

“No harm done and I’ll check the latch.” Vin pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her. “Now, tell me why you’re upset.” 

“Walter escorted the mailman up here because I had to personally sign for the damn letter,” she freed one hand and reached into her jeans pocket,” this letter.” She waved it in the air, “It‘s a subpoena sent by Linda’s lawyers. They want to depose me as a witness for her side. I know Linda told them to do it.”

Vin drew her back to him and rested his chin on her head. “Don’t let her get to you, baby. This will all be over soon, and Chris will win, no matter what kind of tricks Linda tries to pull.”

Kelli sighed. “I hope so, because if he loses, I’m afraid he’ll take Grace and Cody and leave with them before he hands them over to her. I want you to tell him about this subpoena, and give him the packet of letters Linda left with me. If I do it, we’ll both end up rantin.’”

“Safety gate first, then I tackle Chris.” He kissed the top of her head. “Let’s go rescue him from the kids.”


An hour later, the babies were down for their naps, the latch on the gate was back in working order, and Kelli was calm enough to watch a movie with Jason, Andi and Grace. Chris was also over his initial anger about the latest move Linda had made and Vin was ready for a long vacation.

“I hope the date of the deposition doesn’t interfere with your trip to Texas.”

“Nope,” Vin said as he shook his head. “We’re not goin’. With all that’s happenin’ here, it just not a good time to take a three week trip.”

Chris exhaled noisily. “It’s not right that you and Kel have to change your plans, certainly not on my account, and I’m sure JD would feel the same way.”

“Dammit Chris, do you think we could pick up and leave for three weeks knowin’ what you’re facin’ with Linda and JD could be lookin’ at with Casey?”

Chris absently spun his coffee cup on the table “Life goes on…”

“Bullshit!’ Vin took a deep breath before he continued. “Look, Texas is not goin’ anywhere and none of the Texas Tanners have seen me in thirty years. Waitin’ a few more months won’t make a hill of beans worth of difference. Besides, my cousin, Wyatt and I talk on the phone often. He sent me pictures of my father when he was young and of my grandfather. He also mailed me a passel of legal papers concerning my supposed inheritance from my grandfather to look over.” He leaned forward. “Most of all he, as well as the rest of the family down there, understands my family roots are here on the Larabee 7.”

“We’re already keeping all the children’s birthday parties low-keyed and private. We agreed the adults would take a pass this year on celebrating theirs, and we cancelled our traditional Fourth of July barbeque. Now, you want to take away the vacation you, Kel and the kids have been looking forward to.”

“Not take away…change.” Vin rubbed his neck to relieve some tension. “Jason and Andi are fine with a shorter trip to the Cowboy Museum and camping overnight by the lake at our cabin. They’re both anxious to be involved in the Reins Rodeo, and don’t mind not going to Texas until Christmas vacation.”

Chris shoved aside the packet of Linda’s letter Vin gave him earlier. They were only one more reminder of the consequences of ‘what if’. “Damn, I wish I could just erase the past six weeks and we could all start over.”

Vin shrugged his shoulders. “We can deal with the things we know. If we started over, who’s to say it wouldn’t have turned out worse?”

“I don’t know. It’s just difficult to believe that one or two seemingly immaterial actions could set so many life affecting issues into motion.  If I hadn’t allowed Linda’s beauty to blind me to her faults… If we saw the problem with Casey sooner,“   Chris shook his head, ”… and if I had handled Ice differently years ago, maybe I might have prevented the spawn of misery she inflicted on all of us and saved so many lives. There’s no end to the damage she caused….hell, is still causing.”

“Yeah and if you were so all knowin’ you could have seen your relationship with Linda as lust instead of love and not had two beautiful kids to worry over. You could have stopped Sarah from leavin’ the house the day she died. You would’ve known Jack was twisted about all the wrongs he thought you did, found Kel when she was a baby, called JD and warned him about Casey ….Hell, you could be Saint Christopher.”

“I get your point.” Chris shot Vin a glowering scowl. “One thing I have decided after all this…I’m ending the quest to decipher Ice’s code. The time to lay the past to rest is way overdue. I can and will live with the answers I have because the future of my family is more important. I won’t chance digging up anything that could put them in jeopardy.”

Vin nodded and then grinned. “Then, I reckon you could be a mini Saint Christopher in the makin’.”

“That’s Saint Christopher, Sir, to you.” His eyes twinkled with humor. “Tell me again why my daughter puts up with your ornery ass and smart mouth.”

Standing at the open back door, Buck said, “I’d take the fifth on that one Vin. It’s been my experience that fathers don’t really want to know those answers.”

“Come on in Buck,” Vin said. “The coffee’s fresh, you know where the cups are.”

Buck walked over and placed his hands on the back of an empty chair. “Think I’ll pass on the coffee, but I’m glad you’re both here. I have a few things need saying.” He took a deep breath. “I’ve had a burr under my saddle since JD…since he was hurt and Vin, I…

Vin shook his head, refusing to let Buck finish. “Reckon we’ve all been ridin’ rough.” He stood, looked Buck in the eye, and offered his hand as he asked, “We’re good?”

 Buck reached out, gripped Vin’s hand, pulled, and wrapped him in a bear hug, slapping him on the back with enthusiasm.

“Gentlemen, I do believe we are witnessing a Hallmark moment,” Ezra drawled from the entrance. Josiah and Nathan stood beside him, both grinning from ear to ear. 

“Looks like I won’t need my bag Josiah, I don’t see any bloodshed.” Nathan walked in behind Ezra.

Josiah followed the others inside. “It appears our broken fences have been mended, and the walls are still standing.”

Vin drew away from Buck and said, “Hell, Josiah, you should know by now, we might bend, but we’ll never break.” He pointed to the cabinet. “Coffee’s still hot; grab y’all some while I get a couple more chairs.”

It pleased Buck to be on solid ground with five of his brothers again, but he kept glancing toward the door, hoping their seventh would appear.

Noting the expression on Buck’s face, Josiah explained. “As soon as you left my house, I made a few calls. Ezra and Nathan agreed with me that we should all be together…. I called JD too, but Nettie said he was at the hospital talking to Casey’s doctors.”

Nathan frowned. “Is she having more problems?”

“No, at least I don’t think so. “Chris answered. “The doctors say she can’t or won’t respond to him yet, but I know JD goes to the hospital every day…says she’d do the same for him if the situation was reversed.”

“Have you been talking to JD on a regular basis?” Nathan asked.

“Not really. I only hear from him off and on.” Chris watched Buck for his reaction. All he saw was a caring man sincerely interested in gaining more information about his brother’s welfare. “The only real conversation we’ve had was a couple of weeks ago.”

Chris thought back to the morning after the fiasco with Antonio. While he would never betray JD’s confidences, he could ease the others mind without going into unnecessary details.  “JD was having a rough few days trying to come to terms with a few things.” He shook his head. “No matter how strong a man thinks he is, he doesn’t realize how losing a woman he’s loved can bring him to his knees. Regardless of the circumstances... whether it’s permanent as in death; separated by choice with a divorce, temporarily lost or taken,” he looked at Vin, “or in JD’s case, due to serious illness, the process is the same…you grieve. JD had questions; he believed I could provide him with answers.” 

Buck nodded. “He knew you would understand better than most of us.”

“I won’t go into what we discussed, but I can tell all of you….” Chris glanced to each man seated around the table. ”JD is dealing with this mess a helluva lot better than I ever did when my life took a drastic change.  Don’t get me wrong…he’s taken a hard hit and still needs more time to heal, but I’m confident he’s gonna make it through okay.”

“Damn straight he’ll make it.” Vin’s expression challenged anyone to argue the point.

Nathan smiled and said, “No argument here.”

“JD appears to have his priorities in order. He’s smart enough to know he has to take time to heal, physically as well as mentally, and stubborn enough not to give up on Casey, in spite of an uncertain outcome. His main concerns center on his children’s welfare, and if he finds he needs help, he knows we’re here for him. That’s a damn good combination if you ask me,” Josiah’s confidence resonated in every word he spoke.

As he listened to the words his brothers offered, Buck realized he had missed being with them like this. When they were together, their unique bond strengthened one another in ways that defied explanation. Closing his eyes, he said a silent prayer that JD would be back in their circle of solidarity soon. “JD is one of us, how could he not make it?”

Ezra leaned forward. “While I found our esteemed spirits from the past to be a bit ostentatious, and their presence disconcerting at times, their knowledgeable words are to be remembered.  If I recall properly, they said our greatest challenges still lay ahead, and I firmly believe the events of the past few weeks are included in those trials. JD might need more time before he rejoins us, but time is something we all have on our side.”

“The Seven have always been and will always be… Their strength is yours to draw on. .” Chris began quoting Cowboy’s words without thinking. “Embrace the past, cherish the future, and fight like hell for today. Our destiny to be allied by the timeless bonds of friendships and brotherhood which ties to our past and gifts us with the promise of tomorrow.”

“Amen,” Josiah and Nathan said simultaneously as a peaceful silence filled the room.

Chapter 20

Time stands still for no man or woman, change happens in spite of our best efforts to halt it. We can either fight against it, or accept the inevitable and roll with the flow.

Tuesday, July 15

MCAT ~ Larabee’s Office

Captain Tanner attempted to give Commander Larabee an overview of Alpha Team’s current assignments. “Bravo Team has the bulk of the workload, but …,” it was obvious Chris’s mind was elsewhere. “I sent the gorilla over to the courthouse and the horses will take over surveillance on the Trainer case.”

Chris nodded. “It sounds fine to me.” He glanced at his watch…again. *Almost ten…Ezra should be back by now.*

Vin threw his pen at Chris and shouted, “Heads up Cowboy.”

“Why the hell did you do that?” Chris rubbed his arm where the pen rocket hit him. “I was listening.”

“Sure you were.” Vin set the remaining reports on the edge of Chris’s desk. “Maybe now is not the best time for me to leave.”

“No,” Chris shook his head, “I’m fine, and you will not disappoint Andi and Jason.”

Vin stared thoughtfully at Chris for a few moments. “Okay, but we’re not goin’ far.”  He rose to his feet and tapped the reports with his finger. “Read ‘em while you’re waitin’ for Ezra. You have a copy of our planned schedule; call me if you need help with the gorillas and horses.”

“With the what?  “Chris picked up the stack of papers and grinned when he recognized the mischievous look in Vin’s eyes. “All right, I’ll read…you get the hell out of here. Your family is waiting.”

Vin almost collided with Ezra on his way out the door.

“I thought you were leaving today?”  Ezra stepped inside the office.

“I’m on my way out now. Kel should be here any minute with the kids.  We’ll return Saturday, but if you need to reach us…”

“He won’t,” Chris said. “Tanner… you go. Standish, close the door behind him.”

Ezra shrugged his shoulder. “You heard the man, Vin. Y’all have a safe journey.”

Vin glanced at Chris, and then Ezra, shook his head, and exited without saying another word.  Standish closed the door.

“I was beginning to think you’d be in that damn lawyer’s office all day.” 

“Considering it is only ten o’clock in the morning, the absurdity of your statement does not merit discussion.”

“Ezra,” Chris growled out the southerner’s name similar to a curse. “What did you find out?”

Standish tried to mask his emotions, but when he saw the torment in Chris’s eyes, he failed. “Her lawyer plans to rip you, Larabee7, the Wild Bunch, and MCAT to shreds. He intends to win, by any means, fair or foul, even if it means destroying anyone and everything in his path.”

Chris stared out the window of his office, which gave him a view of the bullpen below. He said nothing, but his body language reminded Ezra of a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike.

“That is the bad news.” Ezra bravely continued. “Fortunately, you have two superior lawyers, who are not willing to concede one square inch of ground to that egotistical, condescending, self-righteous bastard, Linda claims as her attorney.”

Slowly turning his head, Chris rested steely gaze on Ezra. “You have a plan?”

“I do.” Ezra took a deep breath. “However, I require you to give me absolute power to speak for you at the depositions, and…you must remain silent, regardless of what you hear.”

“You’re asking me to keep my mouth shut after you’ve told me that bastard plans to rip my family to shreds? To sit by in silence, while Linda tries to steal my kids?” Chris ran his fingers through his hair and grimaced. “This is my life, my children’s lives and their future.”

“Yes, and I am requesting that you entrust it all…to me.”

Chris studied the man who sat across from him. Cait’s words echoed in his head…. *Trust and faith, Larabee, it’s an unbeatable combination.*… That is what it all boiled down to…trust and faith.

“All right, tell me what you want me to do. But…,” Chris leveled a searing glare at the Southerner, “If you fail, I reserve the right to shoot you.”

Ezra nodded. “Fair enough… and if I fail, I will even provide the gun.”

Southern Breeze Horse Ranch

Matt slammed his glass down on the bar. “Damnit Linda, you have pulled some unbelievable stunts in your life, but this time you have gone too far.”

“Excuse me for thinking my own brother would stand up for me.” Linda threw her bag onto the couch. “I cannot believe you would turn against your own flesh and blood.”

Turning to face his sister, Matt was furious. “Turn against? You have never taken care of yourself. When you were little, it was Dad, who cleaned up your messes. Then when our brothers moved away and dad got sick, that job ended up on my shoulders.”

“You never…”

“The hell I didn’t. It was always something with you Linda. The fixed tickets, the outrageous spending, and running with the wild crowd. Your bad taste in men, who use your money, and then leave when you cut them off. I had hoped when you married Chris all that would end, but you threw him over the same way you did your kids, Kel, and me. You have one talent, and that is to destroy everything good in your life.”

Linda paced in front of the fireplace. “You are so wrong. I have had to fight for what I want and this time I will win. Gregory is the man I want and he loves me. He has promised me that his attorneys will not fail to get custody of Grace and Cody. When we do, he and I will be married.”

“Gregory Renaldo is not any better than Marshall Vanderson.” Matt challenged her. “How long did you last with him when you left Chris? Was it three months or four?” 

“Marshall and I….it doesn’t matter.” Linda shook her head. “Gregory is rich, travels in the right circles, and he wants us to be a family.”

“He’s trouble with a capital T. Grace and Cody do not belong anywhere near him…and a mother who only wants to use them to get what she wants. They deserve better and I plan to testify to that.”

Linda laughed. “You do that Matt, but I know you won’t lie under oath…anymore than Kel or any or the others will. Chris was on drugs at least twice…you saw that, and heard his doctor. The ranch has been under attack several times, Chris was arrested for suspicion of murder last year…”

“You know he was set up for that charge.”

Ignoring the interruption, Linda continued. “I know the children on Larabee 7 were threatened because of a damn case MCAT worked on. It’s why they had escorts to school and finally were pulled out and kept prisoners on the ranch. Kel and her baby…kidnapped…she could not lie about what happened. It was all over the news about her presumed death and Trey’s. Casey attacked her husband while her children slept just down the hall….  Those are just a few things our lawyers can bring up and none of it is good for proving my children are safe on that place.”

“We’ll see.” Matt bit his lower lip to control his anger. “I won’t lie, Linda, but I will make certain the judge understand you are an unfit mother for those babies…one way or another.”

Linda shrugged her shoulders. “I should have known you’d side with Chris, but I don’t care. I will get my right restored and be granted custody; marry Gregory, and then have the life I want in spite of you deserting me.” She grabbed her bag off the couch. “As of this moment…I disown you and once I gain custody of my children, you will never see Grace or Cody again.”  She stormed out the door without waiting for a reply.

Matt knew Linda did not care about the kids; she only wanted to further her own selfish cause.  He walked over to his desk, opened a drawer, and withdrew a cassette he had held on to for insurance. It was a recorded conversation he had with Linda before she left the last time…and was proof she did not want to be tied down to any children, especially her own.  Between her damning words and his investigative report on her fiancée, he was certain the children’s chances for remaining with their father were good.  He loved his sister no matter how objectionable her actions were, but his niece and nephew deserved more than she could ever offer them.

Picking up the phone receiver, he made a call he had hoped to avoid and waited for an answer. “Ezra …this is Matt Dubois…I have some things I think you might need.”

Wells’ Ranch ~ Noon

Nettie poured JD another glass of tea and sat down across from him. “Hon, I see how difficult it is for you to go to the hospital each day and to see Casey. Couldn’t you …”

JD reached out and covered her hand with his. “Nettie, I appreciate you worrying over me and for going with me this morning, but …” He took a deep breath. “I need to do this for Casey, for me, and …for our kids. Until I hear different, I have to assume she is coming home soon. Maybe the questions you were able to answer for her doctor about her family medical history will help.”

Sighing, she squeezed his hand. “I hope so, but…I see the stress you are under and the girls don’t really understand about their mama. “ Nettie hesitated for a moment. “I would never expect you to give up on Casey, but you have three children who need their Daddy’s full attention…now more that ever. How long can you and the kids go on this way?”

JD nodded. “I’ve been giving that some serious thought. After Casey’s next evaluation, I know I need to make some decisions about what is best for our kids and their future.  Lilah and Daisy miss their routine, they miss the overnights with the other children, and they even miss our trips to McDonalds….I promise I will do what is right for them and JJ…I just need a little more time.”

Nettie jumped in with a proposal. “I understand you are not ready to rejoin family activities yet and I won’t push, but…Chris mentioned a get-together at his house Saturday, mainly for all the Larabee 7 kids. I can take the girls and keep an eye on JJ…if it’s all right with you.”

It seemed strange for him to be the ‘deciding parent’ since Casey usually organized these things for them. He did not think about how she managed, she just did what mothers do. Casey was not here though and if he had to be Mother and Father, he reckoned he needed to learn how to be a mom, too. “Thanks Nettie, I know they would enjoy it.” JD dropped his head, the fear and emotion of all of it flashed across his face. He felt as if he was failing before he even started. “Next time…I’ll try to be more involved.”

“Son, look at me.” She waited until he raised his head. “There will be a next time. This might be new territory for you now, but the young man I know is up for the challenge.”

JD had already accepted that he could not avoid reality in the hope that time would stand still for a while. He had taken for granted so many things that now called for his attention, it was a bit over whelming and he realized that he was heading into unknown territory. “I’m not sure how just yet, but you have my word, I will figure it all out.”

Nettie swallowed the lump in her throat. Life had hurled a large boulder in front of this boy on his path to the future… but she had faith he would indeed find a way to get past it.

Reins of Change

Chris parked in his usual spot by the childcare center and opened his truck door. He smiled when he saw Jesse coming across the yard to meet him. The angry young juvenile who came to Reins a year ago was gone, replaced by a well-mannered teenager who felt at home for the first time in his life. Chris credited Caitlyn for Jesse’s transformation.

“Hey Chris,” Jesse fell into step beside Larabee as he walked toward the day care. “What time do you need me to come over Saturday?”

“You can come about ten and help Josiah set up the barbeque. He’ll get things started, but the rest of the Wild Bunch won’t all be there before three. Cait and I have a few errands to run and should be back around two or so.”

“I’ll be there.”

Chris stopped and turned to face Jesse. “You sure you’re ready to help me and Cait take on a houseful of kids for the night?”

“Yes sir.” Jesse grinned. “I figure I’ve had enough practice with little ones around here over the past year to handle it.”

“I imagine you have.” Chris threw his arm across the young boy’s shoulders. “It’s been a while since I tackled a slumber party. I’m glad I can count on you to help me out.”

Cait met them at the door. “Jesse, will you help Grace put up her paints while I get Cody?”

“Yes ma’am, I will.” He hurried off to assist Grace.

Chris smiled and slipped his arm around Cait’s waist as they headed for the ‘toddler room’. “I think he is actually looking forward to Saturday.”

“I know he is, but what about you? Are you sure you want to do this?”

“It’s time for us to control our lives instead of allowing events to dictate what we do. Besides,” he grinned, “If Vin and Kelli can handle ten kids for an overnight… you and I should be able to manage seven.”

Now it was Cait’s turn to grin. It pleased her to see Chris looking forward to the upcoming event, in spite of the battle Linda had laid out for him. Hell, most everything about Chris Larabee pleased her these days. “I think…we can handle just about anything.”

At that moment, Cody spotted his Dad and ran to him. Chris picked him up for a hug and met Caitlyn’s eyes over his son’s little blond head. He knew that his life was no closer to being settled than it was a month ago, but he accepted that with Cait by his side, it did not have to be. Vin had been right, she was a good woman to ride the river with. She had become his anchor during rough seas and his sail when the waters were calm. Together they could handle just about anything and he did not intend to let her slip away.

Chapter 21

During the dark cycles fate throws our way, making time to celebrate the gift of love and living, is essential.

Larabee 7 ~ Saturday, July 19 ~ten o’clock

“Thanks,” Josiah said as he took the offered cup of coffee from Chris. “Did JD let you know if he was coming today?”

Chris sat down at the kitchen table, across from Josiah. “I talked to him, briefly. He said Nettie was coming with the kids for the afternoon, while he went to the hospital to see Casey’s doctor.” He shook his head and sighed. “JD wants them home with him after the barbeque though, he’s just not ready to have them gone overnight yet.”

“He will be soon, and before you know it, JD will be back in the middle of things again.”

Chris set his coffee cup on the table, after taking a sip, and said, “He did sound better when we talked; maybe he’s finding his way home.”

Buck overheard the last remark as he entered through the back door. “JD knows where home is, he just needs time to deal with his feelings. He’ll come back to us.”

Josiah nodded. “That he will, I have no doubt.”

“How’s Inez doing?” Chris directed the conversation toward a different direction, deciding it was best to wait until JD was ready to discuss his situation openly.

Buck poured himself a cup of java and joined them. “She is past ready for Isabella to arrive. We’ve only got two weeks to go, but time is passing too damn slow for my wife.”

“Good thing we planned a night for the kids then, it will give you a chance to give her some TLC.” Chris grinned, thinking about the next twenty-four hours.

“I still don’t know how you planned all this with everything else going on. “Buck shook his head.” I appreciate the opportunity, but it should be our turn to give a free night to one of our brothers. Vin and Kelli kept our kids last time, while Nathan and Rain took the rest.  It don’t seem fair.”

Josiah stood and took his empty cup to the sink. “Mallory and I are having Ronesha and Terrell stay at our house for the night. Joanne and Adam are looking forward to it.”

“Ezra and Barbara love having the girls. Sarah, Maria, and Tannis will be spoiled rotten when you get them home tomorrow.” Chris drained his cup and pushed back from the table. “JD wants his brood home with him. Cait and I will handle the rest of the little munchkins.”

“You are a brave man Chris. Did you tell Vin what you planned?” Buck stood and joined them.

“Not yet. Max and Walter have my kids this morning, and will bring them over about three o’clock. As soon as Cait and Jesse get here, we’re off to run a few errands before we tell him and Kelli about our little surprise.”

Josiah opened the door. “Buck and I will get things started here. Nathan and Ezra should be over before noon.”

“Don’t forget Jesse will be here to help, too.” Chris walked out on the patio, followed by Buck and Josiah. “In fact, here they come now.”  He met Cait at the steps, leaned in and kissed her.

Jesse grinned and continued on to see Josiah. “Chris said I could help you set-up. Where do you want me to start?”

Josiah placed his hand on the teen’s shoulder. “I have just the job for you. Follow me.”

“We got it covered here, Chris, you and Cait go run your errands,” Buck said as he headed over to the grill.”

Chris smiled at Caitlyn. “Guess it’s just you and me. You ready for this?”

“Lead on Larabee.”

Tanner Cabin ~one o’clock

Sitting near the lake with his back against a tree, Vin picked up his notebook and began writing:  Only four short years ago, I was single, footloose and happy with my life, or so I thought. Fate stepped in and proved me wrong. I found a missing piece of my destiny and since then I discovered the meaning of real happiness. Kel and I would have been content with just us, if that was God’s plan, but thankfully, he decided to bless us with Jason and Andi. Just when we thought life could not be better, he gifted us with Trey and Bren.

I watched my brothers marry and start their families, and I know how Chris felt about Sarah and Adam, but I figured that kind of love was not for me. I sit here now and wonder how I ever believed I was content thinking I did not need a family of my own or a woman, who is not just my wife, but my friend and lover. In spite of all the challenges Kel and I have faced, I would not have missed one second of our life together for anything.

This is our last day here and as far as I’m concerned, the past three days have passed too damn fast. The kids had a ball at the Cowboy museum, and Andi loved watching the woman who demonstrated sand painting. Then we explored some of the old Indian trails around Denver, but the best part was once we made it here to the cabin. Sharing our special place with our children has affected us more than we expected. For a few days, we have managed to shut out the rest of the world, and enjoy our slice of private paradise as a family.

Our twins are close by, asleep in the play yard I set up to keep them corralled. Jason and Andi are down by the water with Kel. I know she loves it here and I’ll have hell trying to drag her away, but damn, she’s happy again. After the difficult time she had after we lost the baby last year, I feared we might never find our way back to us. Thank God, we did. Our time alone has been short, but we are closer now than we have ever been.

His muse took over and Vin continued to write about his redhead. When he looked up, he grinned as the subject of his thoughts headed his way.

Kelli stopped by the play yard and adjusted the sunshade to protect her sleeping babies from the sun’s rays. She walked over and sat next to Vin, leaning into his side. “Do we have to go home today?”

Vin sighed. He had expected this, and truthfully, he hated to think about leaving, too. “Yeah, Baby, we do. We should be close to home for Chris, in case Linda pulls any more of her crazy stunts. Plus, until JD lets us back into his life, I want to be around…he might call.”

“Damn Tanner, you just gave me the only two reasons, I can’t argue about.”

“That was my plan,” he winked and drew her to him for a kiss, “but I promise we’ll come back soon.”

Kelli snuggled against him. “I’m gonna hold you to that promise.” She had noticed the notebook and was curious about what he had written, but she knew Vin would share when he was ready. Keeping an eye on Jason and Andi, they allowed themselves to relax and embrace the moments of just being.

Their peaceful interlude was broken, when Andi yelled, “Uncle Chris is here!” She and Jason ran toward the cabin to meet him.

Vin’s first thought was that something was wrong at home.*Chris?*

*Everything’s fine, give me a minute and I’ll explain.*

“Go, I’ll stay with the babies.” Kelli had seen the fear leave Vin’s face, and knew Chris had sent him a message. Still, she was sure he needed to see for himself.

By the time Vin reached the cabin, Andi was already talking a mile a minute to Chris and Caitlyn.

“We went to the ‘useum and a lady sand painted and we went where the Indians used to go and we came here and we went swimmin’ and camped and roasted marsh’ellows, rode in a canoe, and Jason helped Daddy make a tepee and….”

“Andi let me tell them.” Jason nudged his sister, clearly annoyed that she was doing all the talking.

Vin scooped his daughter up into his arms and gave Jason ‘the look’. “I’m sure we’ll have time for both of you to tell Uncle Chris and Cait about our trip.”

Jason shuffled his feet and sighed. “Sorry, Andi.”

Still holding on to Andi, Vin slipped his other arm across Jason’s shoulders. He nodded to Cait and then turned his attention to Chris. “Y’all are the last people I expected to see here this weekend.”

Chris grinned. “Yeah? Who else would trek all the way up here just to deliver a present to his oldest daughter?”

Andi squirmed. “You have a present for mama? What is it? Can we see it?”

“Right after you and Jason give us the grand tour. “He reached out to take Andi from Vin. “How about you two show us around and then we’ll visit with your mom and dad?”

Vin shook his head and smiled. “Okay, after they wear y’all out, Kel and I will be down by the lake with the twins.” He watched as Jason took Caitlyn’s hand and led her to where their tepee was located. Chris walked beside them, while he listened to Andi’s endless chatter, apparently enjoying every word of it.


Twenty minutes later, the kids were winding down, and finally Chris and Caitlyn had a chance to talk to the Tanners. They sat on the ground near the twin’s play yard, while Jason and Andi stayed close to their parents.

Chris spoke directly to Vin, “I am impressed. When you said you planned to set up a tepee, I figured you meant a small one, but…how did you get the materials up here for one that size without anyone knowing?”

“Last weekend, I picked up what we would need, brought it up here and did the basic groundwork. I knew Jason and Andi had all kinds of Indian related things on their ‘to do’ list, so this was our surprise for ‘em. It might not be authentic old Indian style, but it’ll do for us. The canvas fabric is guaranteed for five years, the artwork is hand painted, it sleeps six, we can have an inside campfire, and the kids love it.”

“You did all the work yourself?” Cait asked.

“Andi helped me with the twins, while our ‘men folk’ put it together,” Kelli answered. “Vin and Jason had it up within a few hours and we all slept in it Thursday night and last night,”

Vin could not help but notice the big smiles Jason and Andi sported. “Enough about tepees, y’all gonna tell us why you’re here?”

“We came to kidnap your children, steal your Navigator, and deliver Kel’s late birthday present.” Chris laughed at the expression on Vin’s face and figured he should explain. ”Josiah  and Mallory are keeping the Jackson kids tonight, while Ezra and Barbara take the Wilmington girls. Cait and I are having a slumber party at the ranch for your kids, mine, and  Caleb. We’ll take your SUV since it has room for all the car seats, leave my truck for you and Kel, and the two of you are getting an overnight of your own.”

“You and Cait and…,” Kelli counted mentally, “seven children…all night?”

Caitlyn took pity on the way Chris sprung the news. “Jesse will help us and I’m certain we can manage.”

Chris looked at Kelli. “We already talked it over with Jason and Andi; they agree it’s the best belated birthday present we could give you. You both need some special time here, and the kids will have fun with us.”

“All you need to do is gather up the children’s things, say your goodbye’s and then take the next twenty four hours for yourselves.” Cait watched the byplay of mixed emotions cross Kelli’s face as she looked at each of her children and then to her father.

Chris met her gaze. “I refuse to allow Linda to dictate how I live.” He slipped his arm around Caitlyn’s waist. “We want to do this.”

After glancing at Vin to gauge his reaction, Kelli nodded and instructed the children, “Well don’t just sit there kids…y’all are bein’ kidnapped, so hustle. Jason, will you help Andi gather her stuff, while I get the boys ready to go?”

Jason jumped up. “Yes ma’am.” He took Andi’s hand and they ran to the cabin to pack.

*Thanks Cowboy.*

*You two enjoy. You deserve some time together.*

Vin reached over and squeezed the back of Kelli’s neck. “Reckon we better hustle, too.”

The adults stood, and Kelli went over to pick up Trey, while Caitlyn did the same with Bren. Chris walked with Vin toward the trucks, while the women headed to the cabin with the babies.

“Cait did some shopping after I told her what I wanted.” Chris opened the back door of the Ram and began handing bags to Vin. “Your dinner is here, plus a few extra things I thought would make your evening more enjoyable.”

“We can stash it in the tepee, until I figure out what we’re goin’ to do with our free time.”

Chris nodded; retrieved another bag, along with two packages from the cab, and then began walking beside Vin. “The packages are gifts for you and Kel. She is going to think I’ve lost my mind, and she could be right.”  They reached the tepee and set the bags on the ground. “I should be worried about JD, furious with Linda about the kids and… I am concerned, but today I choose to have faith everything will work out for us all. I have a need to celebrate life.”

“Reckon you and the river ride are workin out.” Vin set the packages aside to take to the cabin. “You and Cait make a good team.”

“Best ride I’ve been on in a long time.” Chris smiled. “I think it may take a lifetime to finish, too.”

It pleased Vin to see Chris content again. Cait was good for him and it showed in his attitude. “Guess we should check on our ladies, see if they need any help.”

“Just make sure Kel doesn’t open her gift until after we leave.”

Together they went back to the cabin and helped Jason load his and Andi’s stuff. Within twenty minutes, all four Tanner children and their gear were in the Navigator with Cait, waiting for Chris to slide into the driver’s side.

Kelli made one last check on the twin’s car seats.

Chris opened the door and turned before he climbed inside.” I might be a few days late, but Happy Birthday, Missy.” He leaned over and kissed Kelli on the cheek.

Vin grinned as he placed his hands on Kelli’s waist and pulled her away from their truck. “Y’all have fun.”

The Tanners watched as Chris drove away. They were not sure how or why this change of plans happened, but were ready to take advantage of their gift. Vin grabbed the two packages from where he left them on the hood of Chris’s truck, and then he and Kelli headed inside. They would straighten up the cabin and then plan the rest of their day.

Larabee 7

The barbeque was a success. Once the cleanup was finished, Ezra and Barbara departed with the Wilmington girls. Josiah and Mallory took the Jackson children home with them, and Buck went home to spend time with Inez alone. Nathan and Rain went into Denver to catch a movie for their free evening, and Nettie was safely home with JD and the Dunne children. Chris gave Dottie the night off and she was spending her free time in town with an old friend.

Max stood at the door and surveyed the work she, Dottie, and Walter had accomplished earlier. Two port cribs were set-up for the twins, pallets were scattered around the den for the older kids to sleep on, and there were plenty of premade snacks in the kitchen. “Chris, are you sure you don’t want us to stay and help?”

“We have Jesse to help. Cait and I will manage fine, Max. You and Walter enjoy your evening.”

Max cast a doubtful eye toward the seven children now engaged in various activities around the room. “If you say so, but call if you need me.” She picked up her bag and let herself out to join her husband at home.

Cait looked up from where she was playing with Cody, Trey, and Bren as Chris made his way over to join her. “Another doubter to add to the list?”

“Yep, “Chris said as he sat down with them on the floor. “Jason and Caleb are doing great with Jesse. Andi and Grace are having a Disney marathon and have not moved from in front of the television in an hour. How are you doing?”

“We’re doing fine.” Cait smiled. “I have noticed one thing a bit…unusual though.”

Chris handed Trey the toy he had dropped and turned his attention to Cait. He took a deep breath, taking in her wonderful scent.  Brushing back a loose strand of hair from her face, he asked, “What’s unusual?”

“I am aware that twins have a unique way of communicating with one another, but…Cody appears to understand their codes, too. How could a child who is not a sibling do that?”

 Not surprised by her observation, Chris smiled. He and Vin discovered a long time ago that their sons had inherited the unique bond they shared and could communicate without using words. There was no explanation about how they did it, or why it seemed to be evident only with the male children. It just was. Shrugging his shoulders, he said. “Guess it’s just one of those things we might not ever have an answer for. You know any reason I should be concerned?”

“No, I just find it interesting. “ She glanced his way. “I think it’s cute.”

“I think…,” he leaned in to steal a quick kiss, “you’re cute. In fact, once all this is over, I want you and me to take some special time….”

“Uncle Chrissss!” Andi yelled when the DVD player stopped.

Chris sighed. “Duty calls, but I expect we’ll be revisiting this subject.”

Caitlyn smiled. “I’m counting on it, Larabee.”


Vin and Kelli spent the afternoon, canoeing, exploring various parts of the lake, and enjoying the quiet time they had together. Now that evening was approaching, they found themselves back at the cabin, with two unopened packages waiting for them.

“You first, Tanner, I don’t know what came over dad, but I think I’d like to have an idea of what to expect.”

Vin leaned back on the couch and smiled. “Reckon I’ll let you have the fun, while I watch.” He handed her the gifts to open.

“Okay…but be prepared for anythin’. Dad was actin’ very strange.” Both packages were marked with the name of the lingerie shop she had discovered a few months ago. Kelli felt a slight blush on her cheeks when she remembered the sheer green nightgown with the strategically placed roses she had surprised Vin with. Since then they had found several items at the shop, which had given them many hours of pleasure. She remembered telling Caitlyn about it, and evidently, she liked to shop there, too. Her hand wavered for a moment over the one with her name before taking the lid off Vin's box.

"Oh my," Kelli whispered as she lifted the contents from inside. She caressed the soft leather of a beautiful loincloth and knew the doeskin coloring would compliment the tan of Vin's body nicely. Strips of leather connected the front flap to the back. The back was also a ragged triangle shape. She knew from the small size of the flap, a considerable amount of those slight curves that were Vin's delightful cheeks would also show, teasing her with each step he took.

“Damn,” Vin said softly as he leaned forward. “I think that one is for you, Baby.” He grinned and nudged the other package forward. “Open this one and see what I get.”

Sighing Kelli put his loincloth back in the box and opened the other one.  Delightful laughter filled the room as she lifted out her own leather loincloth; this one had the addition of coverings for her breasts.  Made from the same soft tan leather as Vin's, she knew it would feel good against her bare skin.

 “I love ‘em, but I don’t think I’ll be able to look at Dad or Cait without blushin’, for a long time.’” She turned to face Vin and saw the amusement in his eyes. “You think…”

Vin drew her closer. “I think…Chris is comfortable with y’alls relationship, and is happy with Caitlyn. Neither of them are naive about what we’ll be doin’….the next time they’re alone I’d bet they’ll be playin’ their own games.” He dipped his head and captured Kelli’s mouth for a slow lingering kiss. “Missus Tanner, would you spend the evenin’ with me?”

Kelli gazed into his eyes and her heart melted. Lord knew she loved her scruffy, longhaired, Texan more than life. “It would be my pleasure, Mister Tanner.”

“It a date then. I have a few things to tend to first.” Vin reluctantly disentangled himself from his wife and stood. “You change and I’ll be back to pick you up in …say forty-five minutes?”

She watched as he picked up the box with his loincloth inside and felt a thrill of anticipation race through her body. “I’ll be ready.”


Kelli took one last look in the mirror. It was not hard for her to imagine the desire in Vin's eyes when he saw her.  Her outfit may cover everything vital, but the amount of bare skin showing would be significant.  Small straps of leather draped over her shoulders, attached to the thin back and rough edged triangles that cupped her breasts.  Kelli knew Vin would be delighted by the amount of gentle swells the leather didn't cover. One side had a strip of leather, which dropped down and attached to the cloth wrapped around her hips. It would ride low, with a generous portion of skin showing between the two leather triangles and there was nothing underneath. She felt herself getting warm at the thought of the look on Vin's face when he discovered that fact.

Her mind filled with the mental picture of Vin wearing the briefest loincloth she had ever seen. The leather would ride low on his hips leaving his upper body and those long lean legs bare to her gaze.   

A knock on the bedroom door, brought her back from her fantasy.  For the next few hours, the rest of the world would disappear, leaving only the two of them alone in their own private paradise. She walked over and opened the door.

For a few moments, neither of them spoke. Both mesmerized by the sight of the other.

Vin had trouble concentrating. The look of desire in his wife’s eyes held his gaze, her scent intoxicated him, and a rush of heat filled his loins as he took in the sight of sexy bare skin. *Hell, Tanner, get a grip or this night will be over before you ever get started.*

Kelli knew she was in trouble the moment she laid eyes on her husband wearing only a loincloth. Thoughts of love, friendship, trust, and intimacy flew out the window. All she could think about was this sexy specimen of primal male, who stood before her. She wanted to attack him right here and now. *Slow down Kel, or this night will end too damn soon.*

Vin shook his head and moved past her to the bedroom. Grabbing two shirts, he threw one to his wife. “Put this on. I have plans for us and we’ll never get to ‘em otherwise.” He slipped his shirt on and as soon as she was covered, he took her hand to lead her out of the cabin and down to the lake.


Somehow, they made it to the tepee and managed to get through the meal Vin had waiting for them. They fed one another cheese, crackers, and assorted fruits, while drinking several glasses of wine. Firelight cast a golden glow around the enclosed area, and the scent of rose oil filled the air. A romantic atmosphere and the knowledge of what each was wearing beneath their shirts kept the sexual tension between them running in high gear.

Vin poured another glass of wine. Lowering himself to the pile of soft comforters on the ground, he sat with Kelli facing him, her legs draped across his thighs. “Before we get too far gone, I wanted to give you a gift from me.”

Kelli took a sip from his glass and smiled. “Then I reckon I should try to behave.”  Her eyes danced with invitation and amusement.

“You asked me earlier what I was writin’…mainly it was about our family and how much y’all mean to me. About the feelin’s, I have about sharin’ our special place, with the kids…. and how much I love our life. Watchin’ you with our children, my thoughts turned to you though, and I wrote you a poem.” He shifted her closer to him and wrapped his arms around her waist.

Kelli relaxed in his arms and savored the moment as he gazed into her eyes and began to recite:

I am at one with nature when I'm with you,
To feel your satin skin against my own,
And smell your hair and run my fingers through it,
I seek a place where we can be alone.

To lay you down and drape myself around you,
While taking in your beauty as you smile,
To feel your body moving close against me,
And hold that precious moment for a while.

The taste of tender lips fire sparks inside me,
While gazing into smoldering eyes of blue,
You make me ache and fill my heart with passion,
And want to move and be as one with you.

The taste of you sends all my senses reeling,
Your whispered sighs are music made from love,
Your touch sends fiery needles through my body,
Perfection sent to me from Heaven above.

We move as one and fire builds within me,
Our bodies arch, touch, shudder, tense, and glide,
As lights explode and we are one and sated,
I have no words, my love I cannot hide.

That moment as we lie as one together,
Our heaving bodies glistening like the dew,
My words return and let me softly whisper,
My sweet woman, I am so in love with you.

With one hand he reached up to gently wipe away the tears on her cheeks and then tenderly stroked his fingers through her hair. Drawing her to him, he brushed his lips across her neck while his other hand unbuttoned her shirt, slipping if off her body to expose the swell of her breasts. Looking into her eyes, a rough edge was clear in his voice as he asked, “Glad we waited?”

Kelli’s voice was full of emotion and husky, “Vin, it was beautiful…a gift I will treasure forever…and yes, I’m glad, but…” she reached up and ripped his shirt open to reveal his muscular chest, “…no more waitin’. You made love to me with your words… now…I want the rest of you.”

A slow smile crossed his handsome face. “What’s mine is yours, Baby.”  Vin placed his hands on her hips and pulled her onto his lap and proceeded to obey her request.

Vin's mind was lost to swirls of lights and explosions of stars as his euphoria moved from his body to hers. The next thing he knew, he was on his side and Kelli's face was gazing up into his. Both touched the other's face to brush away the tears that rolled gently from love filled eyes, their hands moving to keep the connection as lips moved together in a deep and sensual kiss that seemed to last an eternity.

Breathless, they parted but still their tongues refused to give up the dance as tips touched and licked at swollen lips to spark the fire that smoldered within them.

The beauty of their mating was beyond description, but it was as if their merged souls had lifted them to another plateau and both were soon allowing their bodies to once more guide them into another dimension, slowly...gracefully...lovingly, making their marks on exposed flesh as their union remained intact, moving as one to another blessed release.

They could never explain the magic of this night...nor, would they ever forget their gift.

Chapter 22

I've seen fire and I've seen rain
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you again

*James Taylor

Monday July 28

One hundred and thirty miles round trip, two hours of drive time, eight traffic lights, and six stop signs…JD knew this route like the back of his hand. He had been making it almost every day for the past six weeks… since Casey’s admittance to Century Hospital. It was sixty feet to the entrance from the parking area. Once inside, there were three nurses’ stations to check in at before reaching the psychiatric ward, and then a twenty to thirty minute wait to see her doctor. Maybe today would be the day he could finally talk to Casey.

Doctor Woodley entered his office at eight, and was not surprised to see JD waiting on him. “Morning, JD.”

The young man looked at the physician hopefully. “Morning Doctor, is she better today?”

The doctor sighed. “No.”

JD's shoulders dropped. “You said yesterday she was responding to the Risperidone.” He pulled out a small notebook from his pocket and read his notations. “I’ve been doing research on Schizoaffective Disorder.  Every thing I found said there is no cure and the cause is debatable, but with proper treatment it can be controlled.”

“That’s all true, and after talking with Nettie Wells and reviewing the information she provided, I think heredity might play a big part in why Casey’s illness developed. In young women, the symptoms manifest after the age of twenty into the early thirties. According to her aunt, Casey’s mother exhibited early signs of the disorder, but she died before she was thirty, and we will never know if they would have progressed.”

JD took a moment to let the implication of the doctor’s words sink in. “Regardless of why or how Casey became ill, you told me the medications were to stabilize her mood and treat the psychotic symptoms, and that psychotherapy could improve her coping skills. She acts as if she doesn’t even know me when I’m here.”

“The meds are doing their job, JD, and we can stabilize her symptoms, but as we have discussed before, those procedures are only part of what is necessary. Casey needs to understand her illness, acknowledge what happened, and accept that with proper medication, it does not have to dictate how she lives. Right now, she has no desire to do so. Your visits and her therapy sessions are not productive.”

JD snapped his notebook shut. “If the medicines are working, how can she not be making progress?”

Doctor Woodley explained. “You already know from your attempts to talk with her that Casey is not responsive to your words. My goal is to help her reach a point where she is well enough to treat as an outpatient. With family support and therapy, a large number of our patients manage to reenter their lives and learn to balance their illness with a fulfilling life. Unfortunately, we are a long way from getting there with Casey. She has not even begun to deal with the trauma associated with her breakdown.  In fact, she is regressing. I wish I could give you more hope, but until Casey cooperates and is able to take an active part in her recovery, I do not expect any improvement.”

“What happens if she…,” JD swallowed hard. “…if she doesn’t…improve, I mean?”

The doctor recognized the fact that this was as hard on JD as it was for his patient. “I am not going to speculate on any ‘what if’ possibilities this early in her treatment, but I do have some advice.”

“I’m listening.”

 “I understand your need to be supportive, but I don’t think you should attempt to talk to her anymore, at least at this point. Her reaction to your last visit was….extreme. She has retreated to a place only she understands and we have not been able to reach her. I also suggest that you stop coming here every day. These daily trips are obviously hard on you and I can update you by phone as often as you want.” He watched JD’s emotional conflict play out with his expressions.

“Maybe if she saw me one more time….”

Doctor Woodley shook his head. “She’s not ready to face the present JD, and trying to push her now could hurt more than help her.”

JD pushed his fingers through his hair in frustration. “When will she be ready…a week…another month…what am I supposed to do…how do you know you're right?”

The doctor considered his answer and decided that showing was better than trying to explain more. He stood and walked around his desk. “My analysis is a professional one, but, perhaps if you come with me.”

JD followed Doctor Woodley out of the office, down the hall, where they waited for a door to be unlocked, and then to a small room. The doctor motioned for the seated attendant to leave, and then turned to the younger man.

“I’m sure that after your years in law enforcement you are familiar with an observation room.”

“Of course I am.” JD knew what was coming. He felt as if a swarm of bees had taken up residence in his stomach and his hands began to sweat. “What’s on the other side of the window?”

“Casey’s new room,” the doctor answered, and stepped aside so JD could see. “Her reaction to your last visit left her in this state.”

Taking a deep breath, JD moved closer and it only took a moment for him to locate her. He knew it was his wife, but it took a while for him to accept that the woman, who hunched on the floor, with her head leaning against the wall, was his Casey. There was no light in her eyes, only a vacant stare… her hair was dull and stringy, not shiny and full like before….this woman was only a shell of the vibrant, beautiful woman he knew and loved.

His mouth was dry and pain shot through his gut. For the first time since Ice’s evil turmoil started, he wondered...if he would ever see his Casey again. One thing he did know, it was breaking his heart to see her like this.

The woman he saw now was a long way from the woman he remembered…Images of the two of them filled his head…momentarily transporting him to a happier place…

* The day he proposed to her. …. "So…is that a yes?"….. Casey had leaned in and kissed him tenderly, tears flowing freely  "Whether we have two weeks, two months, two years or two lifetimes…I would love to spend them as your wife”

Dancing their first dance together as a married couple to a rendition of Captain and Tennille's 'Love Will Keep Us Together’…. When they made love there was no mistaking the joy in Casey’s voice as she said his name and the way her doe eyes lit up as they focused on his face. Both always caused his heart to do a little flip in response…

Casey propped up in the bed, tired but smiling while he sat next to her, his arm draped across her shoulders as he proudly looked down at the two tiny pink bundles in her arms.

Last year when she told him, “We’re pregnant again…It’s a Dunne deal…..”*

Doctor Woodley’s voice drew his attention. “I’m sorry to put you through this, but I wanted you to understand. I need time to work with Casey and I promise I will do everything possible to achieve a breakthrough that will pave the way for her release. In the meantime, you need to go on with your life. I don’t expect you to give up on your wife, but we could be talking in terms of months, possibly years, before you see the woman you remember. “

JD did not answer; his gaze frozen on the woman behind the glass, his palm rested against it as if, in some miraculous way, he could reach out to her, and will her to feel his presence…his undying support…his love.

The doctor put his arm across JD’s shoulders and urged him away from the window. “Go home, hug your children, and take care of them, and yourself. Let me do what I can for your wife.”

JD's throat was so dry he could not speak, so he nodded instead. The doctor walked with him to the front entrance and after giving JD his cell phone number, the two men parted.

Before he realized it, JD was at his truck. Climbing in, he sat rigidly, holding the wheel, his knuckles white, his throat working overtime...and then, it hit. All he had worked for since the stabbing…getting Casey into care instead of prison, visiting her every day in the hope of some good news…isolating himself from his family to follow his own path, had just been a preparation for the bigger picture. Casey was not coming home anytime soon, he understood that now. He was not even sure if his Casey would ever come back to him and he had a long wait ahead to find out. His poor babies…how was he ever going to explain to his children why their mother would not be with them? Emotion overtook him and he could not seem to stop the feeling of loss, which engulfed his heart. All that he had been through, his babies, the guys, Nettie, the family, Casey...Ice, each one of them filled his mind as his demons rose to the surface and emptied his soul.

He suddenly felt tired and alone. He had tried to be strong...hell, he was strong...but he could not go on like this any more. He was missing the very thing he needed most. Fumbling for his cell phone, he hit speed dial.


Buck's stomach churned as he pulled into the parking lot of the building where he and JD had shared an apartment, years ago. He was not surprised that JD wanted to meet him here, but he was curious as to why. Glancing around, he spotted the parked Explorer, and after locking his truck, he approached it. Seeing JD hunched over, Buck walked around to the driver's door and opened it.

"Aww kid..."

That split second erased all the hurt between them as Buck did what came naturally, and pulled the younger man toward him. JD clung to him and despite JD's exhausted appearance, for the first time in a long time; Buck believed things would be okay. JD had grown...he was not a kid anymore, but he was their kid and whatever it took, they would work through it to find a balance.

JD finally pulled back and wiped his face with the sleeves of his jacket. Buck leaned in and popped the glove box, handing him the box of tissues within, while trying to forget why they were there. Casey had always insisted they carry some. The truck was new, but JD had clearly kept up the tradition.


"Move over kid...let me get in."

JD slid across the seat and Buck climbed inside, shutting the door, to keep the world and its troubles at least for now.

"Buck...I'm sorry..."

"Okay, let's stop right there. When we talked before...after the bomb incident, we agreed on two things, that we'd moved on, but we still needed each other in our lives...just like it used to be…except, I guess, it's not."

JD looked alarmed, Buck held up his hand.

"What I mean is that I forget sometimes how old you are. I don't feel any different about you now, than I did when you were a green recruit, and...I guess I never will...but I also understand...only you can make the tough decisions, only you can plot the trail your life will take. I just hope sometimes, you'll ask me to get out the map and take a look with you."

JD shuddered from spent emotion, finally looking at the man who had taken him under his wing so long ago. "I never meant to cut you out, Buck, I just needed some space and time, you know? I needed to get this right, but I think, in some instances, I could have done it a little differently."

Buck smiled, his gentle eyes firmly fixed on JD as he continued.

"When Ice said why she'd picked on me...because she saw me as the was like a knife in my heart. I didn't know what to do next. I wondered if you all thought of me the same way. I spent months trying to prove her wrong, working crazy hours, spending every spare minute I had on her damned code. Then one day it hit me...I'm, I can't be anything more than who I am. After all that's happened I've come to realize that I am the only one who can put my life in order..."

Buck opened his mouth to comment.

"...but it doesn't mean I can't stop and ask for help along the way. I understand now, Buck, so...can I still turn to you...sometimes?"

Buck looked back at the man who had gone from a stranger to a brother in a matter of days when they first met. "Why didn't you tell me about how you felt about Ice? I can't believe you've held onto those doubts all this time."

JD dropped his head. “Probably for the same reason you never told me about your nightmares involving Danny.”

Those words hit home. Blinking back tears, Buck placed a hand on JD's neck and squeezed gently. "You're right. I should have shared my problem with you…I guess we all make wrong decisions, sometimes…or say the wrong things." He shifted in his seat to get a better view of JD's face. "You getting attacked …and learning Casey was the one who hurt you…I felt angry and helpless. Hell, we all did, but…something deep inside me took control and fuelled my internal anger. For a long time I felt as if Casey had betrayed you…betrayed me, all of us, and I had just stood there and let it happen. I started looking back over the months…convinced I had missed something vital because of my lack of attention to detail. I've known you two since you were kids…looked out for you both…I couldn't connect the two…the young couple I knew and cherished and the woman who put someone I love into a life and death situation. I wanted to scoop you up out of that hospital bed and take you somewhere safe…" he pointed to the building, "…just like I did when we lived here together.”

"You see…when you married Casey, it was as if I had passed the torch, so to speak…she had your back now…not in work, of course, but in most everything else. So when she hurt you…"

JD tried to ignore the lump in his throat and raised his hand to clasp the arm on his shoulder. His voice shook as he spoke, "I understand now how you must have felt.” He shook his head. “Then I cut you and the guys out….”

Buck smiled as he took JD's wrist and brought their hands down, holding onto the young man as he spoke. "As hard as it was …not to be able to comfort you and be there for you…in hindsight you probably made the right decision. It allowed me to get some perspective and… while I didn't think I could be any more proud of you…I am. You've come through it all and even though there's a long road to travel…we're still standing."

JD nodded. "Yeah, but, I always knew you were there, it just took me a while to figure out how to change the course I was on."

Buck looked through the windshield for a moment, sighing softly as he started to feel their old relationship shift into place. "Fate's been kind to us son. God's given us a chance to start again…he kept you alive, and helped us while we waited for you to come back into the fold. I reckon it's time for you and me to start healing…and we can do that, because we have each others' backs." Buck smiled as he turned to look at JD. "You can reach out to me anytime; I'll always be here for you, JD. Just like I know you'll always be here for me. I want this to work kid…just like we talked about before. I'll try and give you the space you need, because I know now I'm not being pushed away…I guess it means some thought on both sides. Will you help me?"

JD smiled a real smile. "Sounds like a plan."

 "But we do this on one condition."


"I still get to call you's a habit...and one I like...but if you really do hate it..."

Now JD was laughing softly. "No...I like it fine. Hell, you call me kid more than my real name, anyway." He sighed. "So...are we good?"

Still smiling, Buck pulled his little brother in close, relieved when JD happily leaned in. "We're more than good, Kid."

After a minute or so, they separated. Buck again looked out of the windshield and up at the building in front of them. "Happier times, huh?"

"Different times," JD said. "I've always been happy since I met you and the guys, then Casey. I don't know why I came here, I guess for a minute there, I was thinking, how great it would be if we could turn back time," he swallowed, "but we can't, and… with your help...maybe I can start putting mine and the kids' lives in order...without Casey, at least...for now."

Buck finally dropped his hand from JD's neck. "You wanna go talk about it?"

JD rubbed his eyes, nodding.

“I’ll leave my truck here. Why don’t we go for a drink, we can grab a beer and some fries...and make sure this fence we just fixed...stays fixed?"

"Yeah, I'd like that. Do you think...?” JD hesitated. "...Do you think the guys would join us?  I'd kind of like to explain things to them, too."

Buck turned over the engine, smiling. "I reckon that can be arranged."

" should know...Casey...may not be home anytime soon."

Buck touched his hand to JD's head. "It sounds like we got a whole lot to catch up on. How about you talk while I drive?"

Standish Tavern

"You gonna eat those?" Being with Buck brought back the feeling of belonging he had missed…and his appetite.

Buck chuckled as he pushed his unfinished chili fries across to JD. A few months ago, something like that would have been normal for them, but he knew JD had not been eating right or taking care of himself lately. He figured this was a good sign.

Familiar voices drew their attention to the door and the group of men walking toward them. Buck had called the guys earlier and while JD was happy to see them, he was nervous about facing his brothers after the way he had drawn away from them over the past few weeks.

Five men surrounded their table. Chris squeezed JD’s shoulder and sat next to Buck. Vin playfully slapped JD on the back as he moved to grab the empty chair next to him. Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra all made a point to touch their wayward lamb as they rounded the table.  They were grinning like Cheshire cats when the waitress took their orders.

Vin nudged the younger man's arm, pointing to the chili fries on the table. "You done with those?"

JD's grin was infectious as they saw him visibly relax into a familiar banter. "Are you kidding me? They're cold."

Vin shrugged. "So…" and stuffed a few in his mouth, "Mmmm…"

JD chuckled and was about to speak when, wrinkling up his nose, Nathan cut in. "Cold chili fries? Lord, Vin I swear your stomach is made of cast iron.”

Snatching at the fries, JD said, "Well…if they're that good, maybe I was too hasty."

Vin made an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve them. "Hey…no fair…you can't do that to a man…give him your fries then take 'em back!" He watched JD stuff some in his mouth.

"Mmmm, you're right, they're good…"

While the two battled it out, the rest of the men relaxed and gazed around in relief at each other, Chris and Buck locked eyes, conveying a message, which needed no words. They knew JD had things to talk about, they all did, that was why they were there, but they also sensed JD had turned a corner, which was more than they hoped for when Buck called.

Chris decided to keep the conversation on safe ground until JD was ready to tell them more. "We miss you at work."

Pausing before he took another fry and popped it in his mouth, JD nodded. "I miss being there, too." He glanced around the table and saw the encouragement on his brothers’ faces.  During the recent weeks of emotional upheaval, there were moments when he thought he’d never be with these men like this again….The Sherriff’s words echoed in his head. * You still have a tough road ahead, but you have six good men waiting on you. Don't fight your fate, and when you're ready, let your brothers help you.*

"I’ll be back soon, I promise. I just need to make a few permanent arrangements for my family." His eyes misted, and he pushed the plate away as he sat back in his seat. "I thought Casey would come home and we'd eventually get our lives back on track, but…”

JD looked up and saw Buck give him a nod of support. "She won't be coming home…not anytime soon, anyhow…" his voice dropped to a whisper, "…maybe never."

"Aww kid…forever's a long time…"

Gathering his strength, he fought back the emotion, which threatened to well up, and shook his head. "She can’t face the present right now, and the woman I’ve been seeing is a long way from being my Casey. The thing is…I feel terrible about leaving her there, as if I'm letting her down.  If she could come home with some meds, I’d try like hell to reach her…”

Buck squeezed JD's arm. "Come on, son…don’t beat yourself up like this. If the doc says this is the right thing to do, then it is."

JD stared at him. "If it was me, would you leave me there?"

In his head Buck screamed no…the thought of JD being incarcerated and alone was more than he could bear, but he also knew that was not what the kid needed to hear right now. "I honestly don't know…but I'd like to think I would always act in your best interests."

JD nodded. “I don't doubt that for a moment." He sighed. "I guess I'll have to trust Doctor Woodley, for now, and take this one day at a time." He cleared his throat. “I’m entering unknown territory with the kids.” He glanced at Chris. "I‘ve found I have a lot to learn about being both mother and father….  I want to be supportive to Casey too, and do my job at MCAT…  I reckon I’m going to make more than a few mistakes while I try to work this out, but I know for certain that I am ready to move forward.”

Buck smiled. "Lean on us kid… we'll help you, I promise."

Chris stretched out his arm and held his hand palm up over the center of the table.  Buck laid his hand on top of Chris’s, followed by Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and Vin. Placing his hand on top of Vin’s, JD felt the inexplicable strength of their brotherhood radiate through him. He had passed through the darkest period of his life, and was now back where he belonged; ready to take on whatever challenges fate had waiting for him.

Chris used his free hand to raise his bottle of beer for a toast, “To the timeless bond of faith, family, and friends that destiny has bestowed to us.”

They all nodded, clinked glasses, and took a drink. Sitting back, they prepared to talk…for however long it took.

Chris’s Journal ~ Late Monday, July 28

Damn, has it really been a month since I took time to update? Guess so. A lot has transpired in the past four weeks though. JD has walked through his trial by fire, come out a stronger man for it, and found his way home to us. The coming months will not be easy for him. He has to make adjustments in his personal life, without Casey, at least for now, but he has accepted the challenge. I am confident that whatever the future holds for him, he can handle it. 

This summer has been a revelation to me in other ways, too. When I met Vin, he brought light and balance back into my life and completed the reconnection of our seven. Cowboy came and opened doors to a spiritual side of my being I never believed in before, but now accept as truth. Even my time with Linda showed me how I needed to be more open to life, and gave me living proof, with Grace and Cody, that all things, good and bad, connect in a way we should never question. I have discovered through Kelli that we do not lose missed opportunities forever; we simply have to wait until Fate deems it is time to unveil them. Cait and I have moved closer, and she has the ability to calm my temperament in a way I thought no woman but Sarah, could do.

 I continue to fight Linda over custody of our children and we go to court in two days. Though I worry about the outcome, I have been able to lean more on trust and faith, instead of anger and guilt, to guide my actions.  Thanks to the life lessons, I have received over the past few years; I was ready to accept ‘The Legends of the Quest’. I see the future through different eyes, and know for fact that when the strength of seven is involved, anything is possible.

Chapter 23

The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed. It is just these intense conflicts and their conflagration which are needed to produce valuable and lasting results."

*Carl Jung

Larabee/ Dubois Custody hearing ~Denver Courthouse ~ 8:00 A.M., July 30,

Chris yanked on the collar of the monkey suit Ezra had specially designed for him to wear for this occasion. He was never someone who minded suits, but this one was damned uncomfortable. When Ezra stopped by his house this morning to inform him that Linda’s attorney, Bennett Anderson, wanted to meet with him for an impromptu conference before  their scheduled court time, Chris felt his heart drop into his stomach. The initial meeting with the lawyers had ended with him and Linda having a screaming match, before he finally stormed out of the conference room.

After that, Ezra and Robert ran interference at subsequent meetings, sparing him from having to face Linda again. Finally, it came down to him stepping out and allowing Ezra to handle the entire situation. He did not want to do anything to aid Linda in restoring her parental rights and getting permanent custody of his children, but he never realized how difficult to stick to it would be.

In the past couple of weeks, he had spent every possible moment he could with Cody and Grace. Even though he trusted in Ezra’s abilities as a lawyer to secure him permanent custody of his children, Chris nevertheless felt the need to gather his two youngest close to him. Ezra kept him informed about all telephone conversations or meetings he had during that time with Bennett Anderson. He knew the opposing counsel intended to bring up his drug usage. They planned to question his inability to keep himself and his children safe, as well as use Sarah and Adam’s deaths’ against him. Linda’s attorneys would also bring up the attacks by the RMR, which occurred on the ranch.

Ezra assured him he expected all that, and he planned to counter with airing Linda’s own dirty laundry. While he did not particularly like the idea of his own personal business made public in court documents, Chris was not ashamed either. If it meant keeping Cody and Grace with him, he was willing to sacrifice anything.

Chris was not at all surprised to find all his brothers, Kelli, and Cait waiting for him at the courthouse. He needed their support to get through the next agonizing couple of hours. Even though Matt Dubois had told him he would support him, it strengthened his spirit to see Matt there. He understood how difficult it was for the other man to stand with him and go against his own flesh and blood.

Now, Chris paced along the corridor, which housed several consulting chambers and two courtrooms. He cast continuous glances at each conference room in turn, wondering which one they were using to decide his children’s future. He had the strongest desire to eavesdrop at each door until he heard Ezra’s distinctive voice, and intrude upon the meeting. He refrained from doing so, but it was killing him not to know what was going on, and each moment that passed brought them closer to the time court was going to convene.

Caitlyn was unwilling to watch Chris continue with his erratic behavior and rose from her seat to go to him. She caught sight of Vin rising from his own place on a bench beside his wife, out of the corner of her eye, and hesitated. Vin nodded his head toward her and sat back down, silently assuring her he was fine with her being the one to talk to Chris.

Chris started to turn around and retrace his route down the aisle, but found his path blocked by Caitlyn.

“Everything’s going to work out fine, Chris.” Cait reached up to adjust his collar and straighten his tie.

Chris smiled down at her. “I’m acting like a crazy man, I know, but the suspense is killing me.”

“That’s understandable.” Cait looked up at him. “You have to have faith and believe that Fate intends for you to watch your children grow into fine young adults.”

Recently, he had come to trust Fate in a way he never had before. He supposed there was no reason to stop doubting her now. With Ezra and Fate on his side, how could he lose?

Conference Room 6

“We asked for this meeting on the belief that you are truly interested in securing the future of young Grace and Cody Larabee.” Bennett Anderson stated, once everyone had seated themselves around the oblong table.

“That is an accurate statement.” Ezra acknowledged.

“We are prepared to settle the petition of custody outside the courtroom to spare your client public embarrassment. If you and your client agree to have Miss Dubois’ parental rights restored and additionally give over full physical custody of the children, we will not have to disclose details of his personal life publicly.”

Bennett opened a leather briefcase, and pulled out a stack of official documents. He set a packet of them down in front of Ezra, while sifting through the others, which remained in his pudgy hands. “We have documented Mister Larabee’s drug usage, including dates of hospital admissions due to narcotic abuse. His suspension and the following six-month probation as commander of MCAT is public record. We can prove that on more than one occasion, the children’s lives were at risk in direct connection to his hazardous line of work. On February 2, eighteen months ago, a dangerous racist group, armed with grenades and assault rifles, attacked Larabee 7. The situation was so extreme parents had removed all of the school age children living on the Larabee 7 from public classes, and practically held them prisoner on the ranch, for the duration of the case. Then, last October, a personal vendetta, stemming from the deaths of his first wife, son and unborn daughter, was the catalyst for his oldest daughter and infant grandson’s kidnapping. During the course of his work, Larabee has been shot, stabbed, otherwise injured on several occasions, tortured by a serial killer, and later kidnapped by his deranged brother. He was arrested and charged with murder last December, when again, his addiction to drugs came into question.

In spite of his supposed security updates for protection of the children, two months ago, one of the children’s ‘aunts’ violently attacked her husband, and almost succeeded in killing him, while their three young children were asleep down the hall. We also have a sworn statement from Miss Dubois that her ex-husband neither intended to have or wanted, any more children. ”

Anderson reseated himself and smugly looked across the table at Ezra. “As you can see we’ve done a thorough investigation. We have every confidence that the judge will agree, restore my client’s rights and grant her custody of the children.”

Ezra schooled his features, and straightened out a wrinkle in his suit jacket, before addressing the egotistical bastard sitting across from him. “Since we are both being candid, there are a few things I think you should be privy to.”

He glanced at Robert Eaves for permission to continue. The lead attorney nodded his approval, and Ezra continued. Opening his brief case, he withdrew several items. A stack of papers, a cassette tape, a couple of folders, and a packet of envelopes, “Miss Lindsey, as the children’ advocate, has provided several impact statements signed by child psychologists, doctors, and care providers who have observed the Larabee children on a regular basis. These statements indicate that in their professional opinions the children should remain with their father. We also have Mister Larabee’s exemplary military service record, his spotless record from his years with the Denver Police Department, followed by his position as a Commander for ATF and MCAT Units. Several character references are also included, to name a few, you’ll find one from the governor of the state of Colorado, two U.S. Senators, four congressmen, and numerous other reputable citizens. Also, we have a list of his service commendations from his stint with the Navy SEALS subsequently followed by an assortment of law enforcement awards and citations.”

Anderson scoffed, “That’s all well and good, but I can provide professionals who will state just the opposite. As for Mister Larabee’s records….anyone can be an addict, even law enforcement officers.”

Ezra nodded. “I realized that these reports alone would not be sufficient ammunition to halt your petition. That is why we took the liberty of investigating the backgrounds of Miss Dubois and Mister Renaldo, who we understand intends to be the children’s stepfather should your client prevail today. Let’s start with Miss Dubois.”

Linda’s scathing glare locked on Ezra, even as she shifted a bit uncomfortably in her chair.

Ignoring Linda, Ezra focused on her attorney. “We’ll begin with her less than stellar past, as you have chosen to do with my client. Our report commences during her high school years.  From the age of fifteen to when she graduated, Miss Dubois either received a ticket or on several occasions was jailed, for underage drinking, speeding, and numerous traffic violations. Her juvenile records were expunged of course, but serious nonetheless. During this period, we have also acquired information proving she had the first of two abortions, the other following her freshman year of college. It was then that she also became a perpetual student, changing her career path four times over the following eight years. Eventually she quit school without obtaining a degree, and joined the New Orleans Police Department, where she lasted less than a year. She tried her hand at skydiving, made the rounds at horse shows as an exhibitor, and several other unfinished endeavors over the next few years. She also became engaged to four different men, and for one reason or another, was the one who broke off the relationship. I believe we can adequately prove that commitment to anything is difficult for Miss Dubois. Her problem has always been that she became bored quickly and was off to find another adventure, just as she became bored with motherhood”.

Ezra changed files. “Moving forward to her police record, she was arrested and charged on three separate occasions with DUI, although the charges were dropped due to legal finagling, one of the accidents she caused left a sixteen-year-old girl paralyzed for life, and cost the Dubois family five million dollars to settle out of court.”

“You have done your homework Mister Standish; however, that is all in my client’s past, and does not hold any bearing on her desire to reinstate her parental rights.”

“I agree the pasts of either your client or mine, has little relevance to today’s proceedings. I do believe however, we have information that does directly relate to her current whimsy.” Ezra cast a quick glance at Linda, and was pleased to see her composure slip. “We can provide a taped conversation between Miss Dubois and her brother, Matthew, where she adamantly states her displeasure about being pregnant with her son, and her aversion to be tied down with the responsibility of children.”

Ezra set down the cassette tape, and reached for the packet of letters. “She entrusted these letters to be held for her children, and in her own hand explained in detail her reasons for giving up her parental rights, freely without coercion. This effectively negates your position that she involuntarily gave up her rights. Since deserting her children, she reestablished her relationship with Marshall Vanderson, a known member of the KKK. After three months, she dropped him, and joined the jet set earning herself quite a reputation as a party girl. Consequently, she met and became enamored with her current paramour, Gregory Renaldo.

Mister Renaldo is an interesting character. It appears that he and his family have amassed a great fortune; the majority of which we can prove was gained through illegal activity.” Ezra picked up one of the files and handed it to Mister Anderson. “He has been under investigation by several law enforcement agencies over the past ten years for ties to the Italian Mafia, suspicion of drug trafficking, and he apparently has a gambling addiction, and is currently in debt to the wrong people for over thirty million dollars. Should I go on?”

Ezra looked pointedly at Linda’s lawyer, and waited for a response.

Linda started to jump up, visibly upset, but Gregory grabbed her arm, and forced her to remain seated. Bennett threw the papers toward Ezra in a dismissive manner, glaring at him with eyes brimming with hate and said, “You have nothing and you have no idea who you are dealing with. I do not lose cases, and have every intention of winning this one.”

“Bring on your best, because you, sir, have no idea who you are dealing with.” 

Bennett threw his files back into his briefcase, stood up, and said, “We’re through here. We’ll see you in the courtroom.”

Anderson, Linda, and Renaldo exited the conference room. Ezra leaned back in his chair, looked at Barbara and Robert, and said, “That went well.”

Once out in the corridor, Linda pulled away from Gregory and marched over to Chris. “You may think you are smart, but I will have my children, and you can go straight to hell.”

She turned on her heel before Larabee could respond and entered the courtroom.

Chris glanced at his gathered family members and stated the obvious. “What did Ezra do now?”

The Standish’s and lead attorney, Robert Eaves, joined them. Chris cast Ezra a doubtful look. Ezra took him by the arm and told him to be patient. Chris closed his eyes and mentally counted to ten, reminding himself he had promised to trust Ezra, and he was going to do that, even if it killed him. He opened his eyes and looked at his family, “Let’s go get this circus over with.”

As a group, they entered the courtroom. Even though the decision was out of their hands at this point, they were prepared to stand together as a family, for better or worse.

Courtroom ~ 10:30 A.M.

Chris sat between Robert Eaves and Ezra Standish on one side of the room, while Linda sat between Bennett Anderson and Gregory Renaldo on the other side. The judge had been in deliberations for forty-five minutes. Tension was high, and patience was thin, as they waited for the judge to render his decision. Just when Chris believed he could not handle waiting another moment, the bailiff stood.

 “All rise.”

The judge reentered the courtroom and took his seat on the bench. Chris took a deep breath to quell the flight of flittering butterflies in his stomach. He could feel the support of his family around him, and repeatedly, been assured he was on solid ground, but fear threatened to overtake his good sense. Whatever happened in the next few minutes, would affect the rest of his and his children’s futures. He presented a stoic front to the judge as he waited for an answer.

The judge banged his gavel on his desk and announced, “This court is now in session. In reference to the case # 248656, Larabee vs. Dubois, I am ready to hand down my decision.”

Ezra reached over to grip Chris’s arm in show of support, and silence descended on the courtroom.

“After careful consideration of the documents provided to me by opposing sides, the children’s attorney, and my own investigative report, I have concluded there is not sufficient evidence shown to prove that Miss Dubois was coerced in giving up her parental rights. In my opinion, she has provided no new grounds to change to prove otherwise. Christopher Larabee is to therefore remain the sole, permanent, custodial parent of Grace Addison and Cody Christopher Larabee.”

He banged his gavel again. “Case dismissed.”

Linda gasped and began yelling at her attorney, who quickly escorted her from the room.

Chris turned to Ezra and said, “I don’t know what you did, but thank you for doing it.”

“My pleasure, I assure you,” Ezra responded as Caitlyn and Kelli rushed forward to congratulate Chris, tears of joy for him shimmering down their cheeks. The rest of the family followed suit. They swarmed around the desk, congratulating and cheering.

 “This calls for a celebration!” Chris said, rising to his feet, and taking Caitlyn in his arms. “I’ll meet everyone at the ranch at noon. Right now, I need to see my children.”

9:00 P.M.

After sharing a wonderful afternoon with the children and celebrating Chris’s victory with the rest of the family. Chris and Caitlyn decided they needed to have their own private celebration.

Arms entwined around each other's waists, they approached the door of their hotel room. It had taken some planning, but their 'special night' had finally come to fruition. The battle with Linda was finished, the Larabee children were safe at home in their beds, under Dottie’s watchful eye, and nothing needed their immediate attention. The pair enjoyed a delicious meal and decided dessert was best served on a queen-sized bed. A bottle of champagne on ice was waiting for them in their room.

Closing the door, Chris swept Cait up and kissed her passionately, the redhead immediately feeling Chris's need as he pressed his body against hers. Eagerly he raked his teeth down her neck, then kissed and licked his way back up; to once more capture her mouth. She pulled away slightly, their panting evident as her warm breath tickled his chin.

Their coupling was fierce, exciting and satisfying. Drenched in sweat, the pair clung to each other, Chris eventually rolling onto his back and bringing Cait with him. In less than ten minutes, they were making love again, proving to themselves once more that trust, faith, and love, forever trumps adversity, anger, and bitterness.

Chapter 24

There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven.

Dunne Home, ~ August 7, 5:00A.M

Nettie’s heart ached as she watched JD clutching the countertop in the kitchen. He had been standing in the same position since he received the call from Buck, ten minutes earlier. Moving behind him, she put her arms around his waist.

"I know where your mind is, son…, but Buck needs you. You'll never forgive yourself if you miss this moment."

His voice thick with emotion, JD nodded, but didn't turn to look at her. "I know…it's just…oh God. I don't know if I can go through this just yet. To see them all there…together as couples…"

Nettie felt his body shudder.

"Casey always…"

The older woman turned him toward her, saddened by the tears in his eyes. "I know, darlin' and this is so unfair to you…but you've done well up to now…and I know your love for Buck will help you with this decision. But only you can make it." With a kiss to his cheek, she released him, and went to check on the children.

JD needed to think…and fast.

Denver Memorial Hospital

Buck turned toward the door, when a nurse entered his and Inez's room.

"Mister and Mrs. Wilmington…your family is arriving."

Despite her discomfort, Inez looked at him and smiled. "Go to them…Isabella and I, are not quite done, yet."

Smiling back, he bent to kiss her lips and nodded. "I won’t be but a few minutes.”

The early morning call from Buck, though it was not unexpected, was a surprise. Being the wee hours of the morning, and likely, as this was Inez's fourth childbirth, she wouldn't be too long in delivering the newest Wilmington daughter; most of the Wild Bunch made it into the maternity wing in record time.

The group stood when Buck stepped in to the room. He smiled as they surrounded him.

"I can't stay…won't be long now. Thanks for coming." His eyes searched the room as he spoke causing his heart to ache a little.

Chris squeezed his arm. “We wouldn't miss this for the world. Go…we're not going anywhere." He leaned in and whispered. "JD’ll be here, Buck."

With a nod and a final grin to his family, Buck left to go back to Inez. Chris looked at Vin, who was holding his cell to his ear and shaking his head. Chris sighed, inwardly. 'Come on, Kid…’


Reluctantly releasing Inez's hand, Buck shifted his position to watch Isabella make her entrance into the world. With a deep growl, Inez gave a final push and the little one slipped out into the waiting hands of the doctor.  The nurse handed over the scissors…and Buck cut the umbilical cord for his fifth child.

As thrilled as Buck was to have experienced such a moment, he watched anxiously while the medical team worked on his girl, smiling seconds later when her first little cry filled the hushed room. He took Inez's hand and leaned in, unable to prevent the sensual kiss to her lips as his love for this amazing woman took control of his emotions. "I love you so much."

Inez touched his face; her love for him evident. "I know."

They both looked up as the nurse walked over to present Isabella Danielle Wilmington to her parents. Inez nodded to Buck and he took the precious bundle in his arms, kissing her lightly on the head before he passed her over to mama. "Welcome, little darlin'."

Maternity Ward Waiting Room

The waiting room was silent. Family members lost themselves deep in thought, while they waited for news.

Vin squeezed Kelli's hand, hoping this wasn't stirring up too many painful memories. The reassuring squeeze he received, in return, eased his concerns.

Ezra and Barbara gazed at each other, hoping their own ‘baby moment’, would be in their near future.

Nathan grinned at his wife’s comforting smile, which convinced him all was going well with Inez.

Josiah and Mallory reflected on their own joy when their children sanctified their marriage. They had been overwhelmed when God had blessed their union.

Cait briefly felt a wave of regret, realizing she could never give the man she loved such a moment. Chris was grateful she was here to share this family event with him, while praying JD would make it on time.

Parking his bike, JD put his thumbs under the sides of his helmet and levered it off, scrubbing his fingers through his hair to neaten it a little. He hurried to the Maternity waiting room, and paused for a moment before entering to compose his emotions. This was his family…he may be alone…but he could do this…for Buck.  The group stood when the door opened and JD entered, bike helmet in hand.

 He smiled at the faces looking at him. "Didn't miss anything, did I?"

Chris squeezed JD's arm. "No you're just in time…" He wanted to say he was proud of JD; to have walked in that door without Casey at his side for the first time, took courage.

A few minutes later, Buck entered the room with his baby daughter in his arms. They surged forward, and JD stepped back to lean on a wall for support, just for a moment.

"Family, meet Isabella Danielle Wilmington… Isabella, meet The Wild Bunch. You’ll love them as much as they already love you.” He looked up and grinned. “Mama’s asleep, but Bella wanted to visit.”.

They all cooed over the baby, and congratulated Buck as he beamed with pride. Slowly, he raised his eyes to see JD, leaning against a wall, grinning through watery eyes, and the pair nodded to each other.

Sensing the mood, the group parted, and Buck and JD moved toward each other.

Despite the ache in JD’s heart, it soared when Buck held out his new daughter. It was only a few short months ago that he and Casey had shared the same joyful moment. He looked at the tiny pink bundle. “Little lady…you have two wonderful parents… and you are so lucky.”  His eyes locked with Buck's, moving toward the man without even realizing it.

"She's beautiful, Buck." He reached out to stroke her tiny head, sighing at the touch of the downy black hair. "Isabella Danielle?"

Buck nodded, and smiling, handed the baby to JD, who cuddled her, and kissed her head softly. The big man pulled the pair toward him and sighed. They had come full circle…and survived.

Chris’s Journal, Monday, August 25

The first annual ‘Reins of Change Rodeo’ was a success. The cowboys put on a great show and the children went home with smiles on their faces. The donations were generous and the fun was contagious. Buck is already planning bigger and better for next year.

It was good to see JD attend with his children. It seemed odd not to see Casey with him though. Even after all that has happened, I hope for his sake, the children’s and Nettie’s that she is able to make some kind of recovery. I suppose only time will tell. I know the past couple of months have been traumatic for JD, but he is working things out, and he told me he would be back at work today.

I, for one, am glad to see this summer end.  This has been a difficult few months for The Wild Bunch. We have had more downs than ups; however, the ups are good ones. Linda’s challenge for the children is over. I received a letter from her saying she was leaving Denver, and would be going to Spain with her new husband, Gregory. Her words sounded bitter, but evidently, she has accepted the judge’s ruling and said she would not be coming back to Colorado…ever. I wish them the best.

The only thing that mattered to me was securing sole custody of Grace and Cody. I will make sure they know the good things about their mother and Kelli can tell them about the Linda she knew. I think Kel saw a side of her I never did and I am certain she will have good stories to tell her younger brother and sister.  As for me, I am looking forward.  Whatever comes my way, Caitlyn will be a big part of my life. She has been good for me, the same way Sarah was. She accepts me for me and does not try to change who I am. Yet, she’s feisty, and will not hesitate to stand up to me if she believes I am out of line. We have found a good balance with one another and I enjoy the time we spend together.

Gotta run…early meeting with Travis…more later.

MCAT Office

JD stood in front of the entrance to MCAT, reluctant to open the door, which would lead him back to work. Only three months had passed since he had walked out this same door…yet, it seemed more like a lifetime for John Daniel Dunne. He was returning to a job he loved, with the same people he had known for years, Chris had already given him his re-entry interview, and he was ready to return. Still, he was a far different man today than he was when he left. Taking a deep breath, he straightened his shoulders, reached for the doorknob, and took the next step into his future.

 “Morning guys, “JD said as he walked into the break area and reached for a cup.” Before I pour this…who made this pot?”

“Welcome back, Kid.” Buck leaned over and squeezed his shoulder. “I made the coffee for the team and Gunny made the Captain’s.” He winked at JD. “Good thing, too or I’m sure he’d make us all suffer with that stuff he calls coffee.”

“Y’all just don’t know what good is,” Vin took a sip from his cup, then looked at JD, “Glad you’re back. You need anythin’, just let me know.”

“You get everything settled at home?”  Buck watched JD for any signs of anxiety.

JD leaned against the cabinet and drank from his cup before answering.”We’re taking it one day at a time.” His voice dropped as he sighed. “I tried to see Casey again, but…she’s still not ready. I don’t know when or…if she ever will be, so Lisa…uh, Missus Hastings agreed to stay on as long as Nettie and I need her.” He cleared his throat. “Chris is running late this morning isn’t he?”

Buck dropped his head to avoid letting JD see his emotional reaction and Vin answered. “He’s in with Travis for an early meetin’.”

“He told me he wanted to drop the attempts to break Ice’s code.” JD looked at Vin. “Is he really okay with it or just saying it to spare me…? ‘Cause I can….”

Vin shook his head. “Hold on, Kid. Chris decided to drop work on the code, before he knew when you’d be comin’ back. He reckons it’s time to concentrate on his life, now, and let go of the past.”

JD nodded.” Maybe he’s right. Dealing with the here and now is a full time job.” He set his empty cup in the sink. “I’m going to go over and reacquaint myself with CASSIE. See you guys later.”

“Damn,” Buck said after JD walked out. “I hate seeing him go through this. Casey should at least talk to him. Hasn’t she caused enough…”

Vin cut in quickly, knowing where thoughts like that could lead. “He caught a tough break, but give him time…he’ll find a way to handle everything.” Vin saw his wife enter the office with a few other agents, and for a moment, he was transported back in time. Ice had tried her damndest to destroy them, and failed, but it could have easily gone the other way. He and Kelli were the lucky ones; they had made it all the way back. The impact of Ice’s insane plans still had JD, Casey, and their children’s lives firmly in its grasp with no signs of turning loose anytime soon.

Tanner shook his head to clear the unwanted images his memories had stirred.  “I wanna finish some paperwork, before Chris comes out of Travis’s office and starts crackin’ the whip.”

“You do that; I need to make a few calls anyway.” Buck walked out with Vin.

Travis’s Office

Orrin handed the last file to Chris. “While I still have reservations about committing MCAT to assignments out of the country, I understand why our assistance was requested. These jobs demand top security clearance, will be high risk, damn problematical, and the odds of a success is less than thirty percent.  Nevertheless, I am confident that if anyone can pull it off, it will be Alpha team.”

Chris leaned back in his chair and ran a list of the possible complications through his mind. “My opinion of Shadow Ops hasn’t changed since the last time we discussed them.”

“So noted, but this request comes from a source who cannot be connected in any way to missions such as this.” Orrin removed his glasses and rubbed his temples. “Chris, we cannot refuse to take this on, and it is imperative that we run them as Shadow operations. Any resources you require will be at your disposal, and I will allow you free reign to run these missions your way, with two exceptions. One, you must launch no later than the last week in September, and two, a total blackout on communications is essential.”

Chris nodded. “In other words, once we deploy, we’re on our own, and can’t look for assistance if we run into trouble.” He laid the file down and stared out the window.  As a former SEAL, he understood the reasons for secrecy, and the risks involved with this type of covert mission.  Back then, though, he was not a single parent with young children who depended on him being there. Now…his life was different. Hell, they all had issues now that were not a consideration a few years ago. Their resolve about their roles in making the world a safer place though, was still as strong as it had always been, only now it was more personal …their children’s futures depended on the outcome.

“I have my own exceptions, Orrin. One, I will not force any member of my team to come on board with these assignments.  Participation is strictly voluntary. Two, if I call an abort, we are out of there, no questions asked.”

“Done,” Orrin agreed. ”Pull Alpha team out of MCAT rotation; use Camp Larabee to meet, plan and train.” He stood and walked around the desk. “No matter what happens, your priority is to make sure our team returns home intact.”

Chris stood, shook the Director’s hand, and smiled. “That, Sir, is something we can agree on.” As he walked out, Chris was already making plans. Now all he had to do was make it happen.

The End

Next in the Series: # 5 ~ Code of Honor

# 6 ~ Purgatory