Winds of Change

Written on the Winds Trilogy #1

MCAT Series # 2: Strength & Solidarity Series concludes. # 7

Written by - Tannertexaslady

With additional scenes for #1,'Winds of Change' contributed, by Wendymypooh.

Characters: Vin, Chris, Ezra, Buck, Josiah, JD, Nathan, additional original characters, the Wild Bunch, and MCAT team members. Special appearance: Old West Seven

Rating: Gen~ het, ~ violence ~ profanity

Disclaimer: This story is entirely a work of fiction, for entertainment purposes only, based on the characters from "The Magnificent Seven." I don't own 'em, but if I did I would run away with 'em and never be seen again. CBS and Co., Trilogy Entertainment, and MGM had 'em first and do not want to give 'em away. I play at this for fun and do not make any money doing it. No infringement of any copyrights intended. Any references to locations or people are only for story use, and do not intend to depict any real place or person.

Series #2 Strength & Solidarity concludes with # 7 ~ Written on the Winds Trilogy

#1 Winds of Change: Chris moves from one season of his life to the next. From the ashes of the attack on the ranch, new endeavors abound. Changes flourish on Larabee 7, and within the Wild Bunch. We say goodbye to some familiar faces, and welcome others, while a new threat prowls on the horizon.

The MCAT AU, MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism), are stories are full of mystery, action, humor, and anguish, sprinkled with a touch of fantasy. Also het; all seven are or will be involved in committed relationships. Series #1, Turbulent Transitions, forms the foundation for this AU. Series # 2, Strength & Solidarity, are stories, which center on the Seven's intrinsic bonds of friendship, and brotherhood, forces that have no boundaries. Further background and information about the characters of MCAT, and the Larabee 7 families, is available @ Magnificent Seven Heaven

Acknowledgments: To my betas, thank y'all, ~ Jo; I appreciate the catches and critique. Thanks for the MCAT beta, Wendy. Sarai, thanks for catching all those rogue typos and commas. Sue, I appreciate you, and your muse for the assist off the mountain. Ladies of Muse 7, y'all are great, and I'm grateful for your feedback. Bountyhunter'slady, the collages you create are awesome. All of your collages amaze me, and I love the art you have contributed to the MCAT Series. To my granddaughter, Kari, for your encouragement and critique, I love you

Tannertexaslady Notes: Any mistakes are mine. I'm a Texan, born and raised, speak Texan, understand it, and write it, as I know it. The original characters created for this series belong to the authors who created them. The character of Matt first appeared in Series 1- # 5 Illusions. 'Raven' aka Brodie Tanner, first appeared in Series 1 - # 7 Reconciliations. 'Cowboy' and 'Tracker' first appeared in Series 2 - # 1 Shades of Gray.

Chapter 1

Dark skies promised more of the gloomy drizzle that started falling early this morning. A thousand miles from home, surrounded by a crowd of unfamiliar faces, he leaned toward the woman standing next to him. Shifting his hold on the umbrella to offer her more cover, he placed his free hand on her back. This funeral was one he never expected to attend, but his internal code of honor demanded that he be here. In spite of his personal mixed feelings about the deceased, and the obvious fact that most of the family, who stayed dry under a canopy encircled by an endless array of flowers and wreaths, did not desire his presence, it was the right thing to do. The minister's words of solace, and his plea for deliverance of the soul, faded into the background. Shamelessly, he tuned out the preaching about salvation, and his thoughts drifted through the years of his own life.

'Its path twisted and turned so often, sometimes it was all I could do just to hang on for the ride. I loved intensely, lost tragically, found both pleasure and pain in lust, and freely admit to a few regrets. At times, I believed the turbulent storms of my journey would pull me under, but I always managed to find firm footing after torrents of misery dumped me on my ass. Painful as they were though, those ordeals prepared me for what was waiting around the next bend. Fair winds always followed, steering my life in a new direction, which eventually led me to unforeseen blessings.

Life still throws me a curve occasionally. Linda's unexpected and untimely death is one of those times. I fully understand that our destiny was not to be together forever. Our fate was to cross paths for a season in our lives, and give us both an opportunity to let go of our pasts. Despite the failure of our marriage, I will be eternally grateful that our brief union produced Grace and Cody. While Linda and I vehemently disagreed about the responsibilities of parenthood, it saddens me to know that she never found the happiness she believed was waiting for her somewhere out there.'

"…ashes to ashes, dust to dust…" The preacher's words brought him back to the present as the service concluded.

The crowd began to disperse, and snippets of conversations carried across the lawn, most speculating on the circumstances of the fatal car accident, which claimed three lives. Matt told him that Linda, and her new husband, Gregory Renaldo, were on their way home after a late-night party; Renaldo was driving, crossed the centerline, and crashed head-on into an oncoming car. According to the investigators, it was likely that he dozed off at the wheel. Linda, her husband, and the driver of the other vehicle died on the scene.

"Our plane leaves at five. We should probably go back to the hotel, change, and have somethin' to eat, before we head towards Baton Rouge." His daughter's voice interrupted his thoughts, but Chris was glad for the reprieve. He had come here to represent his and Linda's children, who were too young to attend. Kelli, after wrestling with her emotions, came to say good-bye to an old friend. There was no need for either of them to stay, since Matt had assured him that he would represent Grace and Cody's interests when he and his brothers met with the family attorneys, which would entail days of boring meetings.

With a final glance at the casket, a bittersweet interval of Chris Larabee's life closed under the gray skies of Louisiana. He nodded, placed his hand at the small of Kelli's back, and began walking toward the car. His family and his future were waiting for him at home.


Unsuccessful with his attempts to bring Kelli into a conversation, Chris concentrated on his driving as their destination drew closer. Light drizzle had turned into a torrential rainstorm as they approached Baton Rouge. Traffic was sparse, the road was slick, and small rivers of water ran across the roadway, while pellets of rain beat against the windshield. It was four o'clock in the afternoon, and looked more like midnight.

Chris glanced over to the passenger seat where Kelli had silently sat, for the last hour. "Your mind is miles away from here. Is there something you want to talk about?"

Kelli shifted her position, and took a deep breath, before answering. "I know you didn't see the best side of Linda, but she wasn't always that way. We were friends for ten years, and the woman I knew was a different person before her father died. I could tell you stories…." She smiled, not willing to relate some of them to her father. "Well, she did have better moments than the ones she exhibited over the past three years. I'm only sorry that Grace and Cody will never have the opportunity to know about that side of her."

"Then I suppose it's a good thing they have an older sister, who can tell them about her."

"You wouldn't mind?"

"Hell no, I don't mind. Your friendship with Linda brought you to Colorado, and to Vin, which in turn brought you to me. I'll never have a problem with you sharing that part of your life with Grace and Cody." Chris reached over and gave his daughter's hand a quick squeeze. "Whatever went wrong between Linda and me has nothing to do with the fact that she was your friend. I think your brother and sister are fortunate to have someone close to them, who can tell them good stories about their mother."

"Thanks Dad, I needed to hear that." Kelli wiped a few tears away, and mumbled, "Damn hormones are runnin' on high today."

Chris grinned. "From what Vin tells me they stay that way, and you've been operating on full speed for the past month…" Before he finished speaking, lightning streaked across the sky, illuminating the highway before them. "Son of a fucking bitch," Chris yelled as he cut the wheel sharply, sending their vehicle into a spin, and…off the road.

Chapter 2

Reins of Change

Cait inspected every room, and was finally satisfied that her old house was in perfect order for her parents' visit. The rooms were clean, she had the pantry stocked with their favorite foods, and she had added a comfortable recliner in the den that she was sure her father would like. Mallory, Rain, Barbara, and Inez had been a godsend. They had volunteered to help her, and with only ten days until the wedding, she felt there were not enough hours in the day to complete all her projects. "Thank you, ladies. This is one task I can cross off my long list."

Mallory took down five glasses from the cupboard, while Rain grabbed a pitcher of tea from the refrigerator. Five women of the Wild Bunch sat down to plan their next project.

"What else is on your list Cait?" Barbara eased her awkward frame down into a comfortable chair. She was only six and a half months pregnant, but the way she was carrying the baby, getting up and down was a challenge, and she felt as big as a barn.

Opening her notebook, Cait sighed. "Next Sunday we'll barbeque, with all the family at our house. The construction of the new addition is finished, and the furniture delivery should arrive today. Thankfully, Chris and I already picked out what we wanted, before we got the news about Linda. I showed Vin how I wanted the rooms arranged, and he and Buck are there now taking care of that for me. I need to finalize our plans for the honeymoon, or rather our vacation, since the children are going with us. I still have to reschedule my appointments for that week. My parents arrive on Saturday, I need to plan the time we'll spend with them, and we're due in court on the nineteenth to finalize the adoptions. Next Monday I have appointments with several applicants to fill two positions at the daycare. I've scheduled the children's fittings for Friday, but the fitting for my wedding dress is tomorrow…" she glanced at Barbara, "you and Kel are supposed to go with me…."

"Whoa." Barbara cast a worried glance at her friend. "You're stretching yourself too thin, and probably will drop from exhaustion before the weekend. If you keep up this pace, we might have to carry you down the aisle. Planning the wedding is time consuming, add in the remodeling, your parents arriving, continuing your regular duties here at Reins, and you don't have enough hours to do more."

Mallory held out her hand. "Give me the applicants' résumés. I am perfectly capable of conducting the interviews, and have the time to do them. Besides, the daycare is primarily for L7 kids, we should all take a bigger part of that responsibility."

Hesitating for only a few moments, Cait pulled the forms, and passed them over to Mallory.

"Honey, the rest of us will take care of the details of the wedding, and I promise we'll do it just the way you want." Rain laid her hand on Cait's arm, and squeezed lightly. "You don't have to do everything by yourself. We're all family, and as your sisters we want to help."

"Thank you," Cait smiled at each one of her new 'sisters' in turn. "It's not easy for me to ask for help."

Barbara smiled. She understood how Cait felt; both of them came into this family used to being alone, taking on too much, and thriving on it, but their lives on the L7 were different. Becoming a member of the Wild Bunch family was an experience in itself. Being married to an MCAT Agent also took some getting used to. "It took me a while to adapt to the concept too, but you have a huge, loving, family now, Caitlyn…embrace them, and share the overload. We all understand the challenges of being married to men, who are 'exceptional'. Their work is demanding, their bond is unique, and at times, it's difficult to understand them because they can't talk about their cases. Our days of taking on the world alone are over, my friend."

Rain nodded. "Challenging indeed, but very rewarding. The commitment and passion they exert in their work, play, and loving times, enrich our lives." The knowing smiles from her sisters attested to that truth. Then she moved the discussion back to the present. "Now, you said earlier the woman from Child Protective Services was on her way out. As much as I like her, you do know Carmen isn't coming out here just to enjoy the view, don't you?"

Cait did know that Carmen wanted something, but after all the assistance the woman had given to Reins; it was difficult to refuse to meet with her. "I know, but I feel that the least I can do is hear what's on her mind."

"Whatever she wants, let us be a part of it. You need to free up your calendar because I'm sure when Chris returns you'll want to spend extra time with him." Barbara wanted her friend to find the same peace and contentment that she had since becoming one of the Wild Bunch.

Inez studied their soon-to-be newest sister. Her own recent concerns about Buck's mental well-being gave her an insight into Cait's emotions the others did not have. She sounded fine, but it was easy to recognize her anxiety about Chris's health that she was attempting to conceal. "You're worried that Linda's death coming so soon after his attack will add more stress to him, yes?"

"Yes," Cait conceded. "It's not so much about how he feels, but Chris is very concerned about how to explain her death to Grace and Cody. Right now, they are both too young to understand, and she hasn't exactly been a big part of their lives, but the day will come when they ask, and…well you all know how he is when it concerns his children."

Mallory smiled, and said, "His children, his brothers, the Wild Bunch, and his team. Chris Larabee worries about them all. You are going to have your hands full trying to get that man to de-stress."

The sound of a car door slamming shut drew Cait's attention. "That must be Carmen," glancing at the clock, she sighed again, "she's early."

Larabee 7

"To the left…no… left...your other left...ouch...that was my foot," Buck mumbled as he backed into the den. JD was on the other end of the couch they carried, and neither had a good view of where they were going. "Tanner, quit cackling like an old lady. Give us some direction here."

Grinning, Vin attempted to control his laughter. "Buck, turn to the right, and move about three feet…that should do it." Following Cait's instructions, they had moved selected pieces of furniture into the den. To her credit, the items she chose to keep were comfortable favorites that the seven of them had enjoyed for years. Added to the new big screen television Chris bought, it made a great place for the brothers to hang out together.

Once they had the couch situated, JD took a good look at the 'new' den. "Wow, Chris kept all the good stuff." He flopped into his favorite chair and grinned. "Great view of the screen, too."

Buck agreed. "With Cait around, I reckon things will be more like they used to be for us. I also noticed she kept some of Sarah's favorite pictures in the living room, too." He was glad that Cait sensed the need for them all to feel welcome in the Larabee home. She had not only brought her character into the décor, but also kept the parts that reflected Chris's life, old and new. Buck was convinced that Chris marrying Caitlyn was good for his old friend. In the meantime, they were far from finished. The new furniture would be here soon, and if he knew women, Cait would have them rearranging it before the delivery truck made it out the gate. "You know, with all the work going on around this place, we're gonna need a vacation from our vacation."

JD extended his hand, and Buck pulled him up from the chair. "At least the new barn is completed, and most of the hammering over here is done. How far along are Max and Walter on their place, Vin?"

"They expect to be moved in by the end of the month. Since me and Kel are home with our kids, Max is spendin' every free minute she has over there." The trio walked out to the deck together. Vin sat on the railing, and asked, "What about you, JD? You given any thought to what you want to do?"

Sitting in one of the deck chairs, JD answered, "Other than selling the Wells' land to L7, I don't know yet. The kids and I are comfortable where we are, and I'm in no hurry to make another move. Right now, I just want to take a deep breath, consider all my options, and then decide." He cast a worried look toward Vin. "You're not saying we have to move are you?"

"Hell no, you're welcome to stay there as long as you want. It is a comfortable place; I practically had to drag Kel out of it when we moved to our new house." He grinned. "I also heard that Max left the hot tub for you to enjoy. She and Walter are gettin' a bigger one."

JD smiled. "That hot tub is nice…really nice. Wherever I end up living, I plan to have one."

Buck shook his head. "Ever since Inez found out Chris and Cait ordered one, and after Kel telling her how wonderful they are, now she wants one."

"Trust me, Bucklin, you won't be sorry. Not only does a hot tub work out all the aches and pains we seem to attract with our job, it has other fringe benefits, which are extremely satisfyin'." The arrival of Josiah and Nathan saved Vin from elaborating on those benefits.

"Afternoon, Brothers," Josiah said with a grin as he lifted his arm. "Cast is off, and the doc said it healed nicely."

Nathan sighed. "Better acknowledge this accomplishment. It's all I've heard about all the way home from the doctor's office."

"Congratulations, Josiah. Now you can help when Cait has us moving more furniture." Buck slapped him on the back. "We wouldn't want you to miss out on all the fun."

"You ever notice how we all seem to end up in the same place?" JD nodded toward the driveway. "Ezra just pulled in. The only one missing now is Chris."

Vin cleared his throat and nodded. "Chris would probably rather be here than where he is. I imagine about right now he is chompin' at the bit to head home. Matt flew them in, but parked his plane at a small private airport. He's stayin' over, and they didn't have any luck finding a charter, so Chris decided to drive two hours to Baton Rouge. From there they'll take a commuter jet to New Orleans, and then catch a direct flight to Denver." He glanced at his watch. "In fact, he and Kel should already be on the road."

"That should be an interesting trip." Ezra said, as he walked onto the deck, went straight over to JD, and handed him a folder. "The papers are all filed, the money for the land is in the children's trust account, and here is your copy of all the paperwork." Turning to the others, he added, "Gentlemen, as of today, Larabee 7 has expanded its boundaries, and all of us now own shares in two hundred additional acres of property."

JD fingered the edges of the folder. "Thanks, Ezra, for taking care of this. Now I can really close that part of my life and move forward. Casey is flying in tomorrow morning. She wants to see the kids for part of the summer. I'm going to meet her for lunch and try to work out the details."

Buck squeezed the back of JD's neck. "The future is all yours, kid. You can do anything you want…," he grinned, "as long as you stay close enough for us to be a part of it."

"No worries there, brother. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be than with you guys."

Josiah rubbed his hands together. "Okay, so what's next on our agenda?"

"Well, the furniture is on its way, and Cait promised to be here before one, so…I reckon we wait." Vin looked out and saw Brodie's truck. "Right now I plan to see what my dad is up to." He jumped off his perch on the railing, and started down the steps. When he saw Brodie hauling several boxes out of his vehicle, he yelled. "We don't need anythin' else that has to be moved."

"If you want food, haul your butt down here and help." Brodie called back. The mention of food drew the other men's attention and they all headed out to meet him.

Vin reached him first and smiled when he heard his excited twins, hollering, 'Daddy'. He opened the back door; lifted Trey and Bren out of their car seats, and then looked at Brodie. "I see you're playin' grandpa today."

"After I finished working up at my cabin site, I went by your house. Max had food ready for ya'll. The babies were awake…so I volunteered to bring lunch over, and keep an eye on the boys, while she, Jason, Andi, and Walter went over to check on the progress of the new house." He handed the boxes of food, assorted utensils, paper plates, and jugs of tea to the others, and then scooped Bren up into his arms, while Vin did the same with Trey. "I figured the lumber wasn't going anywhere, and I enjoy spending time with the kids."

"I have no problem with that." Vin smiled at his boys, who obviously were happy to be out of the house. "They like spendin' time with you, too, which reminds me, I need to discuss somethin' with you that Jason asked."

"Fire away, I'm all ears." Brodie grinned when Bren pulled on his hat.

"Jason understands that Chris is his blood uncle, and Kelli's father, and is okay callin' him Uncle." Vin stopped walking and turned to face his father. "He also knows you are my dad, and said he has enough uncles, and what he wants is a grandfather. Jason asked if instead of Uncle Brodie, he could call you grandpa, or granddad, but he also wants to ask you himself. I thought I should feel you out about the idea first."

Brodie swallowed the lump in his throat. Fate had handed him a chance to get it right, and after all the years of being alone, having a family again brought out emotions, he believed were lost forever. At best, he had hoped that Vin would find a way to accept him as his father. His son not only accepted him, but also wanted him in his life, and that in itself was a big deal. The fact that his daughter-in-law and Vin's children also claimed him as part of their family was a windfall. "You tell him I'm fine with it, and he can talk to me anytime he's ready."

"I was hopin' you'd say that. Now let's go eat before all the food is gone." The four Tanners made their way to the deck, and soon everyone was busy eating. Max had packed enough food to feed a small army, and there was still plenty left when Cait and the other women arrived. The wait for the furniture delivery was a pleasant one. They all enjoyed sharing the beautiful afternoon, good food, lively conversations, and family. The only thing missing was Chris and Kelli being there.

Larabee Home, late afternoon

Cait was finally satisfied with the arrangement of the new furniture. Standing back, she ran her hand over the back of the western design of the sofa, and smiled. "Chris liked this one the moment he set eyes on it. In fact, we both did. After that, it was easy to select the other pieces." She looked up to the men and said, "Thanks, guys. I know Jesse will love his new bed, and when Chris comes home he won't have to worry about any of this."

Vin nodded. "It looks like somethin' Chris would be comfortable with." He moved with the other men back onto the deck, where Brodie was keeping the twins occupied. "Furniture detail is over."

"Then why don't you look happy about it?" Buck had a feeling their Texan's thoughts were preoccupied with something other than the Larabee décor. "I know that look Tanner…what's on your mind?"

Shaking his head to rid himself of the uneasy feeling he had about Chris and Kelli, Tanner sighed. He did not want to sound like an old mother hen anxious about her chicks. There was nothing specific he could tell them anyway, but when his two Larabees were together…he worried. Alone…either of them could find trouble without even trying…together trouble usually found them. "Just…a feelin'…it'll pass."

"Uh oh…we know about those feelings." JD shook his head, and looked at Brodie. "When Vin gets started it usually means trouble."

"It's probably nothin'." Vin glanced at his brothers, and then tried to change the subject. "I did see cat tracks up on the ridge this mornin', closer to us than I've seen in a while. We need to make sure the kids don't wander off too far until we see if she's movin' down. With the drought we're havin', she might be lookin' for water." He glanced at his watch for the third time.

Josiah noticed. "You're not concerned about Chris and Kel are you? They went to a funeral…what could go wrong?"

"Now you've done it, Josiah." Nathan scoffed. "We're talking about Larabees here…"

"If there is one little glitch anywhere in Louisiana…Chris could find it." Ezra teased. Smiling when Vin sent a glare his way, he backtracked. "I'm sure they are fine, brother. Relax, Chris and your lovely redhead will be home soon."

Brodie listened to the teasing, but also saw a deeper concern on his son's face. "Call if it'll make you feel better." He set Bren down, and blocked the steps, allowing the little one to chase his brother around the deck.

Moving out of the path of his two racing sons, Vin shook his head, "Naw, they should be on the plane to New Orleans already. Kel will call me before they board for Denver."

Cait walked out of the house, barely avoiding Trey as he darted past, and looked at Vin. "I just caught the tail end of a report on the Weather Channel. There's a major storm centered over Baton Rouge. So far its dumped six inches of rain, spawned several tornados, and some of the roadways are flooded."

The brothers glanced at one another, and then to Vin. Buck was the one, who finally asked, "Where did you say they had to catch that commuter flight?"
"Baton Rouge."

Chapter 3


Chris fought with the airbag that descended on him, as he shouted, "Kel, are you all right? You'd better be 'cause Vin will kill me if you're injured again."

"Damnit….yes…I think. I'm…"

"Good…stay put…I need to get up on the road." Whatever Larabee had seen, he was out the door of the wrecked vehicle, and had his gun drawn. "Find your cell, call 9-1-1-, and tell the operator an officer needs assistance." He then disappeared into the storm.

Recognizing that the tone in his voice had changed from concerned father to Commander, Kelli did not ask for an explanation, nor did she stay put. She scrambled to find her weapon and cell, punched in 9-1-1, identified herself as a Federal Agent, relayed their approximate location, requested assistance, and then squeezed out of the car. The pounding in her head made the climb up the slippery embankment difficult, but she managed to hit topside only a couple of minutes after her father. Several yards up the road, Chris was kneeling down beside a Louisiana State Trooper, who was evidently injured. A Mustang had apparently rammed the cruiser, and both vehicles were sitting in the middle of the road.

Running toward them, she yelled, "Help is on the way. What…Dear God." Once she was closer, she could see the gunshot wound, and the blood oozing from the officer's chest, in spite of Larabee holding his stripped off shirt over the wound. Detouring to the patrol car, she popped the truck to grab flares, a blanket, and first aid kit, but halted for a second when she saw an infant in the backseat. It was in a car seat, and did not appear to be in distress, which convinced Kelli that it was all right for the time being, so she continued on to set the flares on the road, and then moved to kneel beside her father. "Chris, there's a baby inside the cruiser."

"Is it hurt?"

"Not that I can see."

"Then this officer needs help first. Hold my shirt over the wound, do what you can… I'm going after the man who shot him….he took a woman hostage." Chris shifted his position for Kelli to take his place. As he stood, he told her, "Six foot, one-eighty, dark hair, mid- twenties, yellow rain slicker… he dragged her off that way." He pointed to a marshy area on the other side of the road, and then went after them.

"Larabee, don't you go in there without backup…damnit!" She continued to press on the wound to stem the blood loss, all the while muttering, "Damn, stubborn, cowboy…if that was one of us he'd raise holy hell about 'hot doggin'….who does he think he is? Rambo…" Kelli heard sirens approaching, and bent down closer to the unconscious trooper. "Hold on…" she read the nameplate on his torn uniform," help is coming… you're not gonna die out here on a rain soaked highway…you're gonna live…do you hear me, Trooper Matthews?"

The first police officer on the scene stopped a few feet away, and exited his vehicle with his gun drawn. "Move away from the trooper and show me your hands."

"Federal Agent Kelli Coulter, my identification is in my pocket, along with my weapon, but if I move my hands this man might bleed out before you can stop it again. He needs immediate medical assistance….gunshot wound to the chest…" The police officer hesitated for a second, but she knew the moment he decided to believe her, and held still while he reached for her ID and weapon.

Satisfied that she was who she said she was, he asked, "What have we got?"

"We came up on this situation; ran our vehicle in the ditch back there. My partner went after the assailant, who has a hostage… I didn't see the shooter, but Commander Larabee did…the suspect is in his mid-twenties, six foot, one-eighty, dark hair, and is wearin' a yellow rain slicker. He headed into that marshland over there about fifteen minutes ago. There's also a baby in the back seat of the cruiser… I haven't had an opportunity to check on it…but it probably belongs to the woman hostage. Where's the damn EMS?"

"Life flight is grounded because of the storm, but an ambulance is on the way." He radioed for a supervisor, and apprised him of the situation.


After traipsing over three miles of mud-laden bog, Chris boxed the young man in, and had been talking to him for the past thirty minutes. While attempting to convince him to give up, Chris discovered that his name was Billy. He was a wife beater, and the wounded trooper was taking Karen and her son to a shelter for abused women when Billy rammed his cruiser with his car. During the confrontation that ensued, the young man shot the officer, destroyed the police radio, and took his wife hostage, vowing to kill her if anyone tried to take her from him.

Larabee wiped his brow with the back of his hand, coming away with a mixture of rain and blood. "Damn," he muttered, realizing that the wreck probably caused his injury. His head hurt and his muscles ached, which was a good reason to end this standoff as soon as possible. "Look, I don't know about you, Billy, but I'm wet, chilled, and this damn mud is sticking in places I'd rather not have mud in. Why don't you throw out your gun, and release your wife? Then we can talk some place that's dry and warm."

"Screw you! I shot a cop…you think I'm stupid? I won't make it to the station alive!"

"If you don't let her go, you won't make it out of this hellhole alive." Chris saw Kelli and a couple of other officers moving in his peripheral vision, and she had her gun aimed at the suspect. All Larabee had to do was get her a clear shot, and this would be over. "Okay…at least tell me why you've dragged Karen out here?"

The nervous young man swore again. "Damnit, she's my wife….she was leaving me, and I couldn't let her go. She's mine! If I die…she's going with me….no other sonofabitch will ever touch her!"

"Let her tell me she's here voluntarily, and I'll go away," Chris yelled, "No one else needs to get hurt." He waited a few moments, while the suspect ordered his wife to tell him to leave. "The baby in the patrol car…he's your son. Do you really want that child to grow up without parents?" He sighed. Nothing seemed to work with this jackass…then a thought struck him. Trusting his partner, he rolled the dice. "All right…you win. I'm going to stand up, and as soon as I'm sure the lady is okay…I'll leave."

"She stays with me! Come any closer and I'll kill you!"

Chris knew the man would have to move from his position to shoot at him. He also knew Kelli was a good enough shot to take Billy down before he had a chance to fire. He stuck his gun in his waistband and raised his hands. His words were to the gunman, but his message was to his agent. "I only want to make certain the woman is okay. That's all that matters to me. Show me, and I'll walk away."

Slowly Larabee started to stand. The young man rose to fire at him, and a shot sounded from his left. Karen screamed when blood splattered over her, but Billy was dead before he hit the ground. Two officers quickly reached the hysterical young mother; one pulled her out of the undergrowth, while the other picked up the gun her husband dropped when he fell, and then he checked the suspect for any signs of life.

Kelli rushed over to Chris and shoved him in the chest with both hands. "You're insane Larabee! What were you thinkin'? Did it ever occur to you that I had a handgun, not a rifle? That my goddamn gun was wet, and could have misfired, or my shot could have been off because of this freakin' rain. If one of us pulled a stupid stunt like this one, you'd have our ass in a sling for it!"

Taking her by the shoulders, Chris sighed. "You didn't miss, your gun worked, and I'm fine. It's over…how is the trooper?"

Kelli was not ready to let go of her anger. "On his way to the hospital, but if you think you've heard the last of this, you're wrong Larabee! First, you play Rambo and tear off into this Godforsaken quagmire without backup, then you force me to shoot… either hittin' him, or watch you die, and…all you can say is I'm fine…it's over… bullshit! Look at you…" her voice took on a different tone, "look at you. You're bleedin', and the bruises on your chest aren't from me …you need to see a doctor."

"I hate to be the one to tell you, Missy, but you don't look so good yourself. You're covered in blood, and sporting a few cuts and bruises of your own." Chris kept a tight hold on her as they walked back toward the road. He would let the locals take care of the dead suspect, but he was certain he and Kelli would have a lot of paperwork to do, before they could leave Louisiana. His priority now was to take inventory of their injuries from the accident, take a hot shower, and change into clean clothes.

'Damn, but it feels good to do actual police work again, instead of pushing paper, or chasing rebels through the jungle.'

Once they were back on the road, the Trooper's Commander met them with umbrellas and dry blankets. He extended his hand to Chris. "Captain Todd Stevens. It appears you, and your agent, were in the right place at the right time today, Commander Larabee. My officer is in surgery, and thanks to you, it looks as if he'll live."

Chris nodded. "That's good to know, Captain, but right now, I think we need to assess our injuries, clean up, and make new arrangements to get home. I'm damn sure we missed our flight."

"I will need a statement from both of you of course, but that can wait until tomorrow. Your car is inoperable, so I had your luggage, and personal belongings transferred to my cruiser, and called the rental company for you. When you're ready, I'll drive you to the hospital, and then secure overnight lodging for you both. As for your flight…evidently, Matthews was not the only lucky one today. Agent Coulter told me you were supposed to be on the commuter to New Orleans…it crashed a few minutes after takeoff…no survivors."

Taken back for a moment; Chris silently thanked Fate for her hand in the unfolding events of their journey. He then turned to Kelli. "Did you think to call Vin, and tell him we missed our plane?"

"Gee…between this damn storm, crashin' into the ditch, helpin' Matthews, and chasin' your ass into the freakin' marsh…it completely slipped my mind. So I reckon the answer to your question would be…hell no!" Kelli reached into her pocket, and pulled out her waterlogged cell. "Damn…its dead…I must've forgotten to charge it at the hotel before we left."

Captain Stevens handed her his. "Why don't we sit inside my car where it's dry, and then you can make your call?" Kelli sat in the backseat and Chris in the front, while Captain Stevens drove them to the hospital. No one answered at her home, Vin's cell number was busy, and so was Chris's home phone.

Larabee 7

The concerned family had retired to Larabee's living room and turned on the television to find more information about the current weather situation in Louisiana, especially around Baton Rouge. It took them only a few moments to realize that aside from there being a severe thunderstorm warning in, and around that location, there were conflicting reports of exactly how widespread they were. Buck flipped from one channel to another, catching the tail end of a newsbreak about the situation in Louisiana. Vin grabbed the remote from Wilmington, settling on a news station just as a breaking story came through. Family members stood in shock, staring at the television, watching the report on the plane crash in Baton Rouge.

Cait blinked back tears, unwilling to accept that after everything they'd been through, a weather-related accident would take Chris from her. "It's not true. It can't be true." Barbara patted her soothingly on the back, as the other sisters closed in, offering their silent support.

"Damnit…this can't be happenin'!" Tanner paced, and kept pushing redial on his cell, each time hearing his call redirected to Kelli, or Chris's voicemail. Vin was certain they were alive, knowing he would feel it if they weren't, but not being able to reach either of them sent a seed of doubt racing through him.

Brodie handed Trey over to Mallory and placed his hand on his son's shoulder. "Don't go off the deep end until we have more information. They could be on a different plane, or already at the New Orleans airport."

Ezra was on Chris's home phone, attempting to get information from the airport. "What…yes operator, I understand, but my call is also urgent…who? Yes, put it through…" he snapped his fingers to draw Vin's attention. "The operator has an emergency call from Kelli…"

Standish punched the speaker on, and her voice came over the line," Vin?"

"Kel are ya'll okay?" Vin's relief rushed out in a growl.

"Pretty much, but we just found out about the plane crash…I couldn't call earlier to let you know we missed our flight…" The police radio crackled from the front of the cruiser, temporarily drowning out the rest of her words, "…sorry if you were worried."

Vin recognized the sound for what it was, and his inner radar went on overload. "Your words broke up. Where the hell are you, and although I'm thankful… why did you miss your flight?"

"There's a storm goin' on here…but I reckon you know that…I'll explain everythin'…later…right now is not the time, it's a long story."

"Indulge me…" Vin looked around at the tear-streaked, relieved faces of their family. "We'd all like to hear it….after scarin' the hell out of us, it's the least you can do."

Kelli sighed, and swatted at Chris's hand when he turned around to reach for the phone. "I'll tell 'em... I'm not over bein' mad at you yet…besides you'll leave out the parts about your Rambo escapade…" When Chris smiled, it just made her mad all over again, and then she remembered that Vin was waiting for an explanation. "Are you still there Tanner?"

"I am, but my patience is wearin' thin."

"Yeah …well. I lost mine a good while ago. Tell Cait, her Larabee is okay for now, except for a few cuts and bruises. That doesn't mean I won't strangle him before we get out of the state…instead of havin' stress attacks, he's into givin' 'em and doin' a damn good job at it…"


"Right…we were almost to Baton Rouge…the rain followed us all the way in…dark as night…lightnin'…and lots of water. Larabee cursed...slammed on the brakes and we skidded into the ditch. Damn air bags hit us, and …before I know it, he's out of the car, tells me to stay put, and to call 9-1-1. He draws his gun and takes off in the storm…of course I followed him…then I saw the trooper on the ground…shot and bleedin'. Rambo Larabee takes off into the marshland chasin' the man who shot him, leavin' me with the injured officer. By the time I convinced the arrivin' units I was a Federal Agent, whose insane partner chased their suspect into the swamp, which by the way has a bottom that's two feet of freakin' mud, snakes, and I'm sure a few gators…He was twenty minutes ahead of us. Anyway, we caught up with him…I shot the suspect…the woman hostage and the baby are fine. I'm pissed at Larabee, have a headache from hell, and we're on our way to the hospital to be checked out. We'll have to stay in Baton Rouge overnight, give our statements to the State Police tomorrow, and then find another flight home."

Vin's head was pounding as he tried to follow Kelli's story. Although she left out a few details, he did understand that basically, they were all right. "I love you, baby…now put Chris on the phone." He waited until he heard Larabee's voice. "I don't know what all happened, and right now, I don't want to know. I'll arrange for y'all to get home. As soon as the doc sees both of you, find a place to stay, and call me."

"That works for me...I'm tired, soaking wet, and sore as hell, but before you hang up…is Cait close by?"

Tanner turned off the speaker, handed the phone to Cait, and dialed Travis's number on his cell. After a brief conversation, he completed the call, and turned to the others. "Dad, we need to get the boys home, and inform Max there'll be extras tonight. I want to be in Louisiana by breakfast time tomorrow, and Orrin promised to have the MCAT Jet fueled and ready for takeoff by three am. The kids are out of school as of today, so if you'd help Max keep them occupied I'd appreciate it. I know y'all would all like to go, but there is really no need for all of us to be there. JD, you said you have to meet Casey tomorrow, so don't change your plans. Ezra, I know you're supposed to meet with the insurance people, and your wife needs you with her, more than we need you there. Josiah, I figure you can ride herd here, and keep everyone out of trouble. Nathan, I'm sure you want to check out Chris and Kelli's injuries yourself, and Buck…it's time you and I got back on that jet."

Buck nodded, wrapping his arm around Inez's waist. It was past time for him and Vin to fly MCAT again. Most of the bad memories from their experience with Wilder were gone, but if they planned to go back to work, they needed to get on that plane again. "I'll pick up Nathan and be at your house by two-thirty."

Nathan was already mentally planning the items he needed to pack in his bag. "I'll be ready, too."

Ezra was pleased that under the stressful circumstances, Vin recognized his need to be with Barbara. "If you run into any obstacles down there and need my assistance…."

"We'll call, but I think we can handle it." Vin looked at Buck and Nathan, and grinned. "If we have to, we'll march them to the plane at gunpoint."

"That I want pictures of," JD said with a smile.

Josiah put his arm around JD's shoulder. "We'll keep things straight on the home front, and before you lecture me Nathan, I will remember my arm is not one hundred percent yet."

Cait finished her conversation with Chris, replaced the receiver in the cradle, and turned to Vin. "What about me?"

"You're going with us, so pack your bag, we'll leave early. You and the kids can sleep at our house tonight, and they can stay over until we get back."

"Come on, Cait. Rain and I will help you gather clothes for the children." Mallory took her by the arm, and Rain flanked her on the other side. "Once we're done, we'll drive you over to Vin's house."

Brodie lifted Bren, while Vin took Trey, and they walked out to his truck. As they buckled the boys into their car seats, Brodie glanced over to his son. "You called me Dad in there."

"I thought we already established that's who you are." Vin understood the significance of that three-letter word. The thrill he felt the first time the twins said daddy was beyond description. He remembered the first time Jason had called him dad after he and Kelli adopted him and Andi. After waiting months for that day, it felt damn good to hear. He also remembered the pleased look on Chris's face the first time Kelli had called him dad since they found one another. It was past time for him to let his father know how he felt about their new relationship.

"We did, but…you've haven't called me dad, or daddy since you were almost three."

"Haven't I?" Vin looked up and grinned. "If Jason and Andi are gonna call you grandpa, it might seem a little strange for me to keep callin' you Brodie. Guess I'll have to practice, 'Dad'." The Texan looked his father in the eye. "Unless you have a problem with it…"

Brodie shook his head, and said, "No…no problem at all."

Baton Rogue

The hospital ordeal was long and tedious, but finally over. Chris and Kelli both appeared to weather their accident fairly well, with only a few injuries needing attention. Aside from each of them sporting a black eye, both had bumps on the head, several harsh bruises from the seatbelts and airbags, and a few cuts obtained in the marsh. Kelli had a questionable shoulder injury, but the doctors found no reason to admit either of them. With instructions to see their personal physicians on their return to Colorado, and to watch for any sign of concussions, they released both patients.

Due to it being vacation season, and inspectors coming in from out of town to investigate the plane crash, it was difficult to find a vacancy. Captain Stevens apologized, but when he said the arrangements were for two Federal Agents, his assistant assumed both were male and only reserved one room. There was just one double available on short notice at the Airport Inn. Given that it was late, and the day had already been too damn long, Chris took it. He pushed open the door, allowing Kelli to enter first. There were two double beds, a small table, two chairs, and one bathroom.

Kelli pointed to the bed by the window, dropping her bag beside it. "I'll take this one. The first thing I want to do is enjoy a long hot shower, and change into some clean clothes."

Chris sighed; those were the first words she had spoken in more than an hour. He understood that his daughter was still angry with him, but knew she would get over it. "I'll call and let Vin know where we are. You want to eat in the restaurant, or pick up some fast food from across the street?"

"As late as it is, I reckon fast food. Whatever you get will be fine. Tell Vin, I'll call him after I have my shower." Kelli grabbed her clothes and disappeared into the bathroom.

Chris shook his head, and sat down to make the call. He was not certain how to explain to her why today was important for him. Hell, he had just figured it out himself. Although he told Vin he was resigning as Assistant Director, he was worried that he had been behind the desk too damn long. After today he had no doubt that he was making the right decision. Not only did he still have the reflexes to be out in the field, more importantly…he had not lost his 'edge', and it felt damn good. Maybe in twenty years or so, Kelli might understand, but for now, she had earned the right to be angry, and he would let her simmer a bit. After all she was young….headstrong…and a Larabee by blood…he could relate to that.

Chapter 4

Louisiana, 0600 hours

Slamming his hand on the nightstand, Chris attempted to find the source of the racket, which was assaulting his half-awake brain. Once he had a stranglehold on his cell, he punched the on button, and yelled, "What!"

"Larabee, I know you're in there with my wife. Open the damn door before I break it down!"

Muttering to himself about a scrawny ass Texan with a depraved sense of humor, Chris tossed the phone down, and slid out of bed. Wearing only pajama bottoms, hair tousled, and bare-chested, he trudged to the door, took off the chain lock, and said as he opened it; "You're an asshole, Tanner…." he stopped short, reining in the rest of his rant, "Cait? How the hell did you get here?"

"She came with us, old dog." Buck grinned when Cait threw her arms around Chris's neck, while he, Vin, and Nathan pushed past them, carrying flight bags, breakfast food, and coffee. "We fly a thousand miles because we're worried about your sorry butt; bring your woman to you, and your favorite morning brew, and then you greet us with a bitchy attitude." He glanced at Cait. "What do you see in this grumpy old cowboy anyway?"

"You know what they say Buck, love is blind." Cait stepped back, allowing Chris to close the door. She saw the bruises and cuts on his chest, the scratches on his arms, and then tenderly reached up to touch the Band-Aid on his forehead. "Good Lord Chris, you look as if you tangled with a wildcat and lost."

Slipping his arm around her waist, Chris smiled. "I didn't lose, sweetheart, the wildcat is dead." Leaning in, he claimed a carnal kiss that lingered long enough for them to forget the others were in the room. When Nathan cleared his throat, Larabee sighed and reined in his desire. "As you can tell…I'm very much alive."

Chris sat on his bed, pulling Cait down beside him. He gratefully accepted the coffee Buck passed his way. "Thanks, I needed this." He took a sip, and then thought to ask, "Not that I'm objecting…but the last time I checked, the next commercial flight scheduled was for later today. How did you get here?"

"MCAT jet…." Buck nodded toward the Texan. "Tanner called Orrin, and Travis instructed our new pilot, Tom Moore, to get the plane ready for us. We flew out of Denver early this morning." He held up his hand. "Before you ask, Vin and I had a couple of anxious moments, but we did okay. Getting down here to find our Larabees was more important than a few unpleasant memories about the kidnapping."

"Then that's one more victory for you and Vin." He sighed. "Nathan, I suppose you're here to check on our injuries."

Nathan grinned, and nodded, "Just as soon as y'all have breakfast, that's next on the agenda."

Vin had set his bag on the floor, picked up two cups of coffee, and headed to the other side of the room, while Nathan and Buck sat at the table. His redhead had a pillow over her head, and appeared to be out to the world. He set the cups on the nightstand, sat on the edge of the bed, and began peeling back the covers, layer by layer. "Kel… are you in there somewhere?"

Kelli roused, opened her eyes, and smiled when she saw her husband. She rolled into Vin's open arms, laying her head on his chest, and snuggled. "God, I'm glad you're here."

Vin cringed inwardly when he noted her black eye, but as she made herself comfortable against him, he reminded her, "I'm not here alone, so behave." When she moved, the covers slipped to expose the dark purple bruises on her shoulder. He had an actual physical reaction to seeing her injuries. The muscles in his belly knotted, and his heart ached. Everything protective and male inside him rose up and flooded him with an overwhelming desire to ease her discomfort. He leaned closer, and whispered, "I can't let you out of my sight for a minute without you gettin' into trouble, can I?"

Sighing deeply, and without moving from the security and comfort the cloak of his embrace provided, she answered, "You can't blame me for this one. I was mindin' my own business, and then all hell broke loose."

"She's right about that." Chris said from across the room. He began to tell them, and all heard the excitement in his voice as he relayed their experience. "We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was pouring rain, lightning flashed, I saw the spark of a gun firing, slid to a stop, and then we helped the wounded officer. Not only did we save a State Trooper's life…we rescued a woman hostage. Damn good police work."

Kelli raised her head and frowned. "You left out a few details there, Rambo." She scooted up to a sitting position, took the cup of coffee Vin handed her, and continued. "We slid into a water-filled ditch, and had to crawl up to the road. Without waitin' for backup, or locals that would know the area, he left me with a baby in the cruiser, and the wounded man, before he took off in hot pursuit. No shirt, no idea of where the hell he was goin', or what he was gettin' into, he follows the suspect into a swamp. I had to wait until another unit arrived before I could follow him. Two other officers and I take off after them…into a marsh that had a mud bottom, probably more than a few snakes and I'm sure a gator or two…"

"They don't need all the details, Kel…"Chris interrupted her.

"I'd like to hear those details," Cait said, sitting up a little straighter and meeting Kelli's gaze from across the room.

"Anyway … we can't see three inches in front of us because of the rain, and then finally we catch up with them. Larabee is attemptin' to talk the man into releasin' his hostage …and I reckon things weren't bein' settled fast enough for him, so he decided to speed things up. Two minutes after I'm on the scene, he draws the man out. I had to either shoot the suspect, or watch him kill my partner."

"You hit him, the woman was safe…no problem," Chris said, "end of story."

Kelli snapped, "Yeah…pure dumb luck that I hit him. I only had a wet service weapon, couldn't see shit in that damn rain, and had no time to find a better position. Under those conditions, you're fortunate I didn't shoot you instead of him. If I'd have pulled a stupid, rookie, stunt like that, you'd have my damn badge."

Cait reacted to that bit of information by shoving Chris in the chest. "What are you trying to do? Make me a widow again before we even get married! I might not be an agent, but even I know you don't go into an unknown situation blind, and alone!"

"Honey, I knew what I was doing." Chris reached for her, but still angry, she stood and stepped away from the bed.

"I don't care about whether you knew what you were doing or not!" Cait huffed. "It was a stupid, selfish thing to do! You took a huge gamble that everything was going to turn out okay, and admittedly it did, but if it hadn't, I'd be planning your funeral, instead of our wedding."

"Baby, I've been in law enforcement long enough to evaluate a situation quickly. I was confident Kelli would cover me…and …she did, in spite of not so perfect conditions. That woman needed help, and her baby needed at least one parent alive." He saw the anger in her eyes dissipating, stood up, and pulled her closer. "I understand your fears, but I promise you, we are going to be married for a long…long time. At least until we're really, really, old and gray."

Cait realized that his promise was only to make her feel better…no one could promise the future. Too many things can go wrong, and both of them knew firsthand that life could take ugly turns, but he loved her enough to say it. She loved him enough to have faith in him. Sighing, she leaned into him. "Just try not to get hurt again, before you make an honest woman of me."

Chris lowered his head and gently kissed the woman he planned to have at his side for the rest of his life. "Ten more days…I can handle that."

Buck rubbed his hands together. "Now that we have that settled…how about breakfast?" He was pleased to see Cait sit down again, and hoped the storm had passed for now.

"I'm not hungry, but you go ahead, Buck." Chris reached over on the nightstand, picked up his discharge papers from the hospital, and passed them to Nathan. "Here's my report from the emergency room."

Nathan took it, and then looked over at Kelli. "You have yours?"

"Yeah, and it's about the same as Larabee's. Basically take some pains meds, and see your own doctor when you get home." She started to reach for it, but Vin beat her to it. "Relax Tanner; it's not as bad as they made it sound."

"Right…that's why you're takin' pain medicine." Vin read over the papers, and then glanced at his wife. "….your shoulder's screwed up again too, isn't it?"

"It hurts, but I didn't want the doctors here to fool with it. I knew when the airbag hit me, my shoulder took the brunt of it, but at the time I didn't know it was bad, and I had to follow Chris, and then…he counted on me makin' that damn shot." Kelli threw a glare in Chris's direction. "By that time my arm was almost numb, and I could easily have missed…that scared the hell out of me." Gazing into her Texan's eyes, she read his concern. "I promise, when I get home, I'll see the specialist that Gilford recommended last time I injured it. I'll take cortisone shots, or whatever I have to, until after the weddin', and then…we'll see what happens next."

Chris could not help overhearing their conversation." Damnit, Kel, you should have said something."

"Just when do you reckon I could have told you? Between tryin' to keep Trooper Matthews from bleedin' to death, and followin' you into the swamp from hell, I never had the opportunity to say anythin'. After that I was too angry to talk about it."

"I asked if you were okay when we wrecked…."

"You asked, and since I answered with one word, you assumed I was fine. By the time I realized my shoulder was screwed up again, you were already off and runnin', so don't start on me."

"Enough," Vin yelled at both of them. "Yesterday, we thought we'd lost you two in that plane crash, and as far as I'm concerned the fact y'all are alive is all that matters. I'm sure we'll have the chance to review all this later. Right now, I'm more concerned about gettin' y'all home in one piece." He handed the papers to Nathan. "Gilford told her the next time she hurt her shoulder that it could possibly mean surgery, so you'd better take a look at it." He lifted the covers to make certain she wore decent attire, and then let Nathan come over to examine her.

After assessing her injuries, Nathan stepped back. "The bruising is to be expected from the seatbelts, but I can't tell if there's ligament damage. Don't do any lifting with that arm until you see the doctor. I don't think it's as bad as the last time, but no sense in taking chances." Jackson moved over to Chris. "You're next."

Chris started to protest, but one glare from Cait and he decided to cooperate. "Do you thing Nate. I'll behave."

While Nathan reviewed Chris's injuries, Vin helped his wife to her feet, picked up his bag, and steered her to the bathroom.


After taking care of her personal needs, Kelli stripped out of her pajamas, and the pattern of her bruises clearly showed where the seat belts had tightened. "Damn, baby, you're gonna be black and blue." He also understood that the stressful events of the past couple of months were dragging her down. Her recent injuries, added to Linda's death, and now this, had only piled more on to what he had already recognized was an emotional overload in the making. The only thing he knew to do was help her de-stress as much as possible, and be there to help her when it all came crashing down around her. Vin wrapped his arms around her, leaned down close to her ear, and whispered, "I'm keepin' you within arm's reach of me for the duration."

Intending to take his mind off yesterday, she turned in his embrace, smiled and said, "Only at arm's reach, Tanner? I was hopin' for somethin' closer, since we haven't more than a few minutes alone, without one of us being exhausted, for a couple of weeks now." Kelli presented him with a great view of her naked body, and slipped her hand between them to unbuckle his belt.

He battled his own body's reactions, and reached down to still her hand. "Rein in those ragin' hormones, woman. As much as I'd love to ravish your body, this is not the time, or the place, besides; you're in no condition to play."

His words did not deter her. "I know you'll protect me… and to quote my favorite Texan…'I might be a little banged up, but I'm not dead'." In spite of his objection, she stubbornly continued. Standing here naked, with him fully clothed, the denim of his jeans rubbing against her skin made her feel sinfully decadent. She loved the feeling….she loved her Texan, and as far as she was concerned, she was right where she belonged. "Your words say no, but your body is sayin' yes."

Trying not to grin as she laughed, Vin shook his head. The serious-minded, disciplined, reserved, play it safe, redhead he married was long gone, replaced by the free spirited, impulsive, undisciplined, sassy woman before him. She had learned well, the lessons he taught her about the spontaneity that keeps life exciting, and the fun of sometimes letting go and doing something just for the hell of it.

From deep in his throat, he growled," Behave yourself, you sassy wench, at least until we get home. Then we'll make up for the past two weeks of lost playtime." He teasingly swatted her backside, and took control of his body's pleasurable, but ill-timed reactions.

Kelli sighed. "If you insist, but it won't be as much fun as misbehavin'."

"I insist, but all bets are off when we get home." He kissed her, and then reluctantly backed off. After braiding her hair, he reached into his bag, pulled out a wraparound skirt and peasant blouse, passing them to her. "I brought you some more clothes. These should feel better against those bruises than the jeans and shirt you brought. Leave off the bra and panties, too. We'll be on a private plane, so you might as well go for comfort." Handing them to her, he saw the skeptical glint in her eyes. "You have a great body, Kel, and no one can tell unless they get too damn close, and that, love, is not gonna happen." The Texan grinned, leaned in, and kissed her again. "Told you…I plan to keep you beside me for the duration."


Wilmington poured another cup of coffee, while Nathan was busy reading over the hospital reports. Fully clothed, and both in control of themselves, Vin and Kelli rejoined the group. Tanner looked at Chris and said, "Your turn." He pointed his wife toward the food, "Sit down, and eat somethin', so you can take your meds, and I'll pack the rest of your stuff."

Buck handed her a breakfast sandwich from the McDonald's bag. "Don't be too hard on your old man. I saw the look in his eyes when he was telling us about what happened. It's the same excited look, he used to get when we were street cops. For him, it was a big deal to jump back into 'real' police action after working the administrative side for so long." He patted her good shoulder. "We'll work on his Rambo attitude."

"Good luck with that." Kelli grinned, took her breakfast, and then went over to talk to Cait, who was gathering Chris's personal items to pack in his bag. "I'm sorry for upsettin' you. I just needed to vent."

Cait slipped her arm around her, and sighed. "I think Barbara called it right. She said I'm trying to do too much, and to tell you the truth, my nerves are a bit shot. I suppose I overreacted, but with the wedding plans, my parents coming, the kids, and then thinking you two were in that plane…I'm a mess."

Kellie chuckled. "Then I reckon you're in the same boat with the rest of us. It has been a difficult couple of months for the Wild Bunch. Still, I should have thought before I spouted off. Vin keeps tellin' me to think first, but…"

"You're no different than your dad, hon. Don't worry about it …I'm over it, and we're all okay. That's what's important."

Chris had reemerged from the bathroom, and heard Cait and Kelli's conversation. He put his arm around both of them, and asked, "Does this mean I'm back in good graces again with you two?"

The women exchanged glances, and both grinned. Cait answered, "For the moment."

Larabee shook his head. "I'm not sure it's such a good idea for the two of you to compare notes about me."

Vin set his wife's packed bag by the door and laughed. "Get used to it, Chris. I have a feelin' the women in your life plan to keep you on your toes."

"Hell, mine do." Buck tossed the empty food bags into the trashcan. "Caleb and I are so outnumbered in our house; one of us is always in trouble."

Nathan nodded. "Terrell and I aren't outnumbered, but I guarantee Rain and Ronesha rule the roost at home."

"I don't see you running over Kel and Andi either, Tanner." Chris stuffed his rolled up pajamas in his bag, closed it, and then grabbed a folder from the nightstand. Taking Cait's hand, he said, "We can drop these statements with Captain Stevens on the way to the airport. Let's get the hell out of here and go home."

Buck pulled out the keys for their rental. "I'm driving." He headed out ahead of the others.

The protective Texan placed his hand on Kelli's waist. "Sounds like a plan to me."

"I'm riding shotgun," Nathan declared, as he hustled everyone out, and closed the door. "Colorado is calling, and I for one am ready for home. Our family is waiting for us."

Chapter 5

Larabee 7

The activity on the ranch increased drastically after Buck called, and said they were all on their way home. The Wild Bunch hurriedly planned an impromptu barbeque at Vin's house. By the time the weary travelers reached L7, all the family had gathered, kids had taken over the playground, and the food was ready to serve. Jesse had been watching the driveway, anxious to see that Chris and Cait were safe. When he saw the truck pull in, he alerted the other children. They all ran towards the Tanners' truck the moment that Buck parked the vehicle.

Terrell met his father, and together they headed to the area where Rain waited with Ronesha. Nathan kissed both his girls. "With a homecoming like this, maybe I should leave more often."

"Daddy's home," Sarah yelled. She, Caleb, Maria, and Tannis ran to their father. Buck scooped Tannis into his arms, and smiled as his kids bombarded him with questions.

Andi and Jason weren't far behind, and Brodie had his hands full trying to hold onto the twins when they saw their parents exit the truck. The two eldest Tanner children stopped abruptly when they saw their mother's black eye. Andi looked at her and Chris. "Wow. You both got purple eyes!"

Vin muttered. "Wait 'till she sees the other purple surprises." He caught their daughter before she threw herself at Kelli.

Jason looked at his mother with concern in his eyes. "Are you okay, Mom?"

After elbowing her husband for his muttering, Kelli placed her arm around Jason's small shoulders and smiled. "I'll be fine. Your dad is takin' good care of me." They walked slowly over to join Brodie and the twins.

Jesse carried Cody, and with him holding onto Grace's hand, the Larabee kids met their parents. Cait took Cody, and Chris lifted Grace to his shoulders, before placing his free arm around Jesse. "Thanks, son, for waiting for the little ones."

It pleased Jesse to know that his new father noticed. "I figured that's what you do for family." He glanced up at Chris. "We're all family now, right?"

"Absolutely right," Chris said, pulling Jesse closer to his side. "Now lead me to the food, I'm starved.


After the excitement of the initial welcome, and round of questions subsided, Max and Walter began serving the food. One by one, as they finished, the children returned to playing, while the parents relaxed, and caught up with what was going on with their family.

Barbara sat in a chair, closest to Cait. "Rain and I took the kids in today, and rescheduled your dress fitting for tomorrow at two, so you wouldn't have to double up with them."

Cait reached over and squeezed her hand. "Thanks, with everything else going on, I hadn't even considered what to do about the kids' appointment or mine."

Ezra, sitting on the other side of his wife, grinned. "She could have gone in for her final fitting, but I think she wanted to wait until you and Kel could go too. She also thinks she's too big to be in the wedding party." He avoided the half-hearted swat that Barbara aimed in his direction.

"I guess she forgot how gigantic I was with the twins when y'all got married. I felt like a green float at the Saint Patrick's Day parade." Kelli laughed. "If it hadn't been for Vin's encouragement I would have told you to find someone else to be your Matron of Honor."

"Nonsense Kel, you looked beautiful in that dress. I…" As she listened to her own words, Barbara stopped for a moment, "I guess I should take a lesson here huh?"

Lifting her hand to kiss her palm, Ezra smiled. "You, my dear are beautiful, too. Don't forget that."

"I'm happy with both my Matrons of Honor, and I know Chris is pleased to have Vin and Jesse stand with him as best men. Our wedding is all about family…we make our own rules." She glanced at the playground, and smiled. Chris, Vin, and Brodie were right in the middle of a passel of children, and appeared to be having the time of their life. "It seems as if all of the kids are having fun."


Nathan finally had his brood settled and went over to talk to Mallory and Josiah. "How's your arm, Josiah?"

"Good as new, no problems with it at all."

Keeping her eye on Joanne and Adam, Mallory leaned forward. "Nathan, I heard Chris mention what happened. Did you find out anything about the woman and her baby?"

"Only that she made it to the shelter, and they were going to try and help her." Nathan shook his head. "I don't understand how a man can do that to his wife, or why a woman would put up with it. Apparently, he beat her pretty bad before the Trooper took her and the baby into protective custody."

Mallory sighed. "You'd be surprised at how often it happens though, even to people you'd never suspect. Many women put up with it because they keep thinking it will change, they're embarrassed to speak of it, or they simply don't know what to do about it. Others stay out of fear, either for themselves or for their children. For some it's an on-going cycle from their own childhood that never ends."

Josiah noted the look in his wife's eyes. He understood this was a subject near and dear to her heart, and one that brought back bad memories about her first marriage. Taking her hand, he said, "Many women are reluctant to admit that their husband beats them. Most of society still believes she can leave anytime she wants to, but that kind of abuse creates a vicious cycle that's hard to break. Whether it for emotional or monetary reasons, it's difficult for a lot of them to seek outside help."

Nathan started to leave. "Thank God, it's not something we have to worry about in our family."

As he walked away, he missed seeing the play of emotions that crossed Mallory's face. Her husband however, did not. "What's swirling around in that brain of yours Mal?"

Laying her head on his shoulder, she sighed. "I suppose I'm restless. My mind is more on our children, and their future. I'm not even certain I want to go back to work." She raised her head to gaze into his eyes. "Am I in the right place to do the most good at MCAT, or do you think there's something else out there waiting for my attention?"

Reaching up to cup her cheek, Josiah smiled. "I think you already know the answer to that question, or you wouldn't have asked. Do what makes you happy. Whatever you decide, honey, I'll back you one hundred percent."

"Love you big guy." Mallory turned her head to kiss the palm of his hand. "You are one of the best husbands in the world, and finding you was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Josiah teased, "Only one of the best?"

"My best," she qualified, and looked over to the rest of the family. "I think my Wild Bunch sisters struck gold, too."


Buck gestured to JD, and the two men moved away from the family so they could talk in private. Knowing that JD had met with Casey to discuss her seeing their children, while he was away in Louisiana, he asked, "How did your lunch with Casey go?"

"I'm not sure…" JD struggled to find the best words to express how it had felt to see his ex-wife again. "It was sort of surreal, you know?"

"How so?"

"Seeing Casey again after so much time apart made me feel like an awkward teenager again. Her hair was shorter than the last time I'd seen it, and she was wearing a pretty dress that accentuated her curves I remember so well. She smiled at me and I swear my heart gave a happy little lurch, and my libido did a jig. For a few moments, I let myself think about 'what could have been', but then reality set in. I remembered what she had done to me, and knew I couldn't allow myself the luxury of believing that we could be anything more than ex's to each other again. Even knowing that, a part of me will always love her, Buck."

"That's an understandable reaction JD," Buck said softly. "Casey was a huge part of your life for a long time, and feelings like that don't fade away easily. On top of that, you have three beautiful children who are daily reminders of the love and life you once shared."

JD ran a hand through his hair. "I guess you're right, I just wasn't expecting to have that sort of a reaction to seeing her again. Anyway, after those first awkward moments, we sat down and talked. She seems more like her old self, but different, somehow. More mature, calmer than I remembered her being. Maybe it's a result of the medication she's taking, but I don't think so. I think she's really working at getting her life back together. She wants to see the kids, I told her I would have to think about it."

Buck nodded again, his own mind remembering the young woman who'd been like a little sister to him, until she'd done the unthinkable. His reaction to Casey almost killing JD was highly emotional. From the moment he'd seen JD lying in a pool of his own blood, she'd become one of 'them'. An enemy; someone not to be trusted with anyone he loved. "Are you gonna let her see the kids?"

"Yes, I am."

Buck wanted to tell JD not to let her anywhere near their children, but refrained. What he felt did not matter. JD had to do what he thought was best, and his place was to support his brother.

"I'm going to give Casey another chance to be a mother to our children. They need a mama, and that's something that I can't give them. I don't know if it is the right decision or not, but it is the one I've made." JD locked eyes with Buck.

"You're right, JD, it is your decision to make," Buck told him.

JD was relieved. The last thing he wanted to do was argue with Buck. "Even though I've agreed to let her see them, I don't feel comfortable with her taking off with them by herself. Tomorrow, I'm meeting Casey at the zoo, with the kids. I'll see how the day goes, and then take it from there."

"If there is anything I can do to help…"

"I'll let you know, Buck. As Father Rafferty would say, 'one step at a time puts me another step forward'."

Buck grinned. "Hell, by now, you've taken about a hundred steps. Let's go rejoin the family before all the goodies are gone."

With a big smile on his face, JD nodded." You're on."

Larabee Home

"Lights out, Jesse," Chris rapped his knuckles against the teenager's partly open door, and then waited for an acknowledgement. When he didn't receive a reply, he pushed the door open. Jesse was sprawled on his stomach, on top of his bed, with his face buried into his pillow.

"Something wrong, Son?"

"No," was the teen's muffled reply.

Chris strolled into the bedroom and took a seat on the edge of the bed. "It doesn't sound like nothing's wrong. Why don't you turn over and tell me what's troubling you?"

After a moment's hesitation, Jesse turned over as Chris suggested, and gazed up at his new father with a vulnerable expression on his young face. Chris's heart turned over at seeing it. "Jesse, you know you can talk to me about anything, right?" he said softly.

"I know." Tears welled up in Jesse's eyes, but he fought hard to keep them concealed.

Chris waited patiently for him to get his emotions under control and to find the words he needed to explain what was bothering him.


"Do you think?" He glanced away. "Will Cait's…I mean mom's parents…like me?"


As adjusted as Jesse had become to him and Cait wanting to adopt him, and the whole of the Wild Bunch accepting him as another member of their extended family, he was still fearful of denunciation by people he didn't know. Considering how many times the boy had experienced rejection in his young life, Chris understood Jesse's concern.


"I think that they will love you as soon as they get to know you." Chris told him honestly.


"Really?" the one word held so much hope in it that it made Chris's heart turn over again.


"Really." Chris ran a hand over Jesse's head. "I want you to remember something, Son. No matter what happens, you belong to Cait and me now; we love you and want you. Now, get some sleep."


"Okay," Jesse wiped away the tears from his eyes and hugged Chris.


Chris held him tight for a couple of moments, before he kissed him on the head, and then released him. He stood up and walked toward the door.


"I love you Dad."


"I love you too, Son."


Chris stayed until Jesse turned off his bedside lamp, and listened as he settled in for the night, before heading to his youngest son's room. He found Cait already there, lowering a sleepy Cody into his bed. He joined her beside the crib, and leaned down to give their youngest a kiss on top of his forehead. They waited until he fell asleep before moving to Grace's room and putting their little girl down for the night.

"Three down," Chris whispered as he and Cait backed quietly out of Grace's room. He closed the door, and wrapped his arm around her waist. "It's our turn. Our kids are asleep, I love what you did with our home, and now I want to make love to you." Pushing open their bedroom door, he led her inside.

Cait grinned. "You know, since we're taking the kids on our honeymoon…we need to stock up now, while we have the chance."

"Then buckle up and hang on for the ride, sweetheart."

Much later, with pulses racing, short of breath, and reluctant to move from the comfort of the other, neither stirred for a long while. Content with his future wife snuggled comfortably against him; Chris heaved a sigh of satisfaction. He was home…where he belonged.

Chapter 6

Vin rode point, followed by Chris, and then Brodie. The sun was making its way over the mountain, and it was a gorgeous morning, but they directed all their attention to the ground. Sometime during the night, a big cat had taken down one of the foals, and now the hungry feline was on their most wanted list. The objective was to tranquilize the cougar, and then move it to higher ground, away from the mares and their foals. Brodie carried the tranquilizer gun, and as a precaution, Chris kept his .308 Winchester within easy reach.

Raising his fisted hand to signal halt, Tanner dismounted and studied the tracks on the trail. "She crossed here…probably not more than an hour ago." He looked up to the rocks above them. "If I had to guess, I'd say she has a den up there. She's either close to her time, or just given birth, and trying to lay in enough food to get her through a couple of weeks with her kittens. With the drought we're havin', her normal food supply is dwindlin'; and I reckon she figures our horses are the next best thing."

"Too bad we couldn't bring back some rain from Louisiana; they sure as hell have enough of it." Chris leaned forward in his saddle. "Why don't we give the horses a rest, and break out the coffee?"

The Texan shook his head. "Not here. I can feel her up there watchin' us." He remounted. "Let's ride down a ways and then stop."

They rode another quarter of a mile, and then stopped beside one of the many creeks that ran through the L7 property. While the horses drank their fill, Brodie pulled out the cups; Chris filled them from his thermos, and then passed one to Vin.

Unable to read his friend, Chris glanced to Vin. "You're extra quiet this morning. Something on your mind you want to share?"

Brodie laughed. "I think frustrated is a better word to describe what he's feeling. He volunteered to get the kids down, so Kelli could rest, and things didn't go exactly as planned."

Shaking his head, Vin muttered, "All I wanted was to spend time alone with my wife. I got Jason and Andi down with no problem, and then Bren woke up. When he started fussin', of course Trey decided to join him. Once I got both boys back to sleep, the dog jumped on Andi's bed, scared her awake, and I stayed with her until she went back to sleep. By that time, Kel was out from takin' the pain meds, and I didn't have the heart to wake her…so yeah, it was a frustratin' night added on to a couple of weeks of more frustration."

Chris grinned. "I suppose being woke up at four in the morning about a cat on the prowl, didn't help."

"No, it didn't. Hell with all that's been goin' on around here lately, I'm beginnin' to think I'll have to kidnap my wife to make love to her." Vin drained his coffee. "Two weeks of missed opportunities might not seem long for an old man like you, but for me and Kel…it's too damn long."

"I wouldn't know about that, our kids went to sleep early….Cait and I didn't." Chris laughed at the daggered glare Vin shot his direction, and took another dig at the Texan. "Wasn't it you that said…them that can, do…them that can't, bitch about it?"

"I ain't bitchin', but I 'am' plannin' to do somethin' about it." Vin snapped.

Chris smiled. "Yeah…with Kel injured, the wedding coming up, all the family plans next week, the kids home from school, and now a damn cougar after our stock, all I can say is good luck." He repacked the thermos, while Brodie put the cups in his saddlebag, and then remounted Pony. "You think we have a chance at finding that damn cat today?"

Vin frowned. "I doubt it. I hoped to find her before she made it back to her hideout. Right now, she's sated, and laid up somewhere. If we want her, we're gonna have to get into those rocks and find her den. We don't have the right equipment with us to do that."

Looking at the steep trail up the mountainside, Brodie suggested, "Then I propose we go home, lay out a plan, and try again in the morning." He mounted Midnight, and rode up beside his son.

"That's probably best; she won't be out huntin' for a few days, anyway." Vin agreed, mounted Peso, and took point again. Retracing their route, he felt a chill crawl up his spine when they reached the place the big cat crossed earlier. Just as he turned in the saddle to say something to the others, the sound of a loud growl erupted from above them. Peso reared. Catching the Texan off guard, he fell from the saddle, and the next thing he knew, his body was connecting with hard ground.

With rifle in hand, Chris scoured the rocks for any sign of the cat, while Brodie quickly dismounted, and rush to aid his son.

"There she is," Chris yelled. The cat showed herself, she was big, seven feet long, and looked to be about a hundred thirty pounds. Her fur was light cinnamon in color, and the end of her long black-tipped tail twitched as she observed the intruders into what she considered 'her territory,' from her position above them. Larabee raised his rifle to cover Brodie and Vin, prepared to shoot if she attacked. A few more twitches of her tail, and she lazily turned, disappearing into the rocks.

Brodie reached Vin, who was now sitting on the ground, shaking his head, and trying to push Peso away. The cantankerous horse was nosing him in the side. Kneeling down, he placed his hand on his son's back, and asked, "Are you all right?"

Vin attempted a nod as he pushed Peso's nose away again. "Move you damn ornery mule!" With a groan, he told Brodie, "Don't think anythin's broke, just knocked the wind out of me, I reckon." Allowing his father to assist him to his feet, he felt a sharp pain shoot down his leg. "Sonofabitch…that fuckin' hurts."

"Lean on me until we see if you can stand." Brodie wrapped his arm around Vin's waist, while the younger Texan attempted to take a step.

It hurt, but he took a deep breath, and managed to rise to his full height. "I'm good, just sore as hell." Nodding to his father, he slowly made his way over to Peso. Picking up the reins, he fisted them in his hand, took another deep breath to prepare for the pain he anticipated when he put his boot in the stirrup, and climbed onto Peso's back. Exhaling, once he was in the saddle, he said, "Let's go home."

Tanner Home

Vin gingerly moved toward the house, making it clear that he did not want help. Chris and Brodie stayed close by, but fought their urge to assist him. Although, he had apparently not broken any bones, and refused to let them check him over, they both knew he was hurting.

Kelli sat at the kitchen table with Max, discussing meal plans for the next week. Jason and Andi were outside playing, and the twins were in the playpen next to them. When the door opened and she saw her husband's face, she knew something was wrong. She stood and walked over to meet him, while Chris and Brodie entered. "What's wrong, Tanner?"

Chris glanced at his daughter and answered. "He fell off his horse."

"I didn't fall off, the sonofabitch threw me off." Vin snapped. Turning to Kelli, he said, "I'm all right, just sore."

Not commenting about the fall, she reached for his belt buckle. "Let me see."

"Kel," he protested. "What are you gonna do…strip me here in the kitchen?"

"If I have to, now let me loosen your shirt, so I can look." She continued with his belt, pulled his shirt up, and swore, "Damnit, you're not okay. Your ribs are bruised," she made him turn around, "and so is your back. How far down?"

"More than 'm gonna show you standin' here with them around."

Brodie grinned. "Hell son, I used to change your diapers, and I'm sure Chris has seen your backside a time or two."

Max hid her amusement, and said, "I'll take the boys in the other room."

Kelli waited until Max left and then told Vin, "Either shuck them jeans and show me, or hit the bedroom."

"Hell, a man can't even have privacy in his own damn home anymore." Reluctantly he pulled his jeans down far enough to show the bruising that was staring to show on his rump and thigh. "Are y'all satisfied now?"

Chris whistled. "You hit harder than I thought."

Kelli touched his butt cheek and was certain he blushed. Hiding her smile, she nodded, and patted his bare ass. "You can cover up now, while I make an appointment for you to see the doctor when I go in today."

"I don't need…"

"Yes you do, and yes you will." Kelli said as she headed for the phone.

Vin sighed and shook his head. Tucking in his shirt, he glared at Chris, and muttered, "Not a word Larabee…not one single word."

Chris chuckled, and raised his hands. "Not me…I'm not the one, who fell on his ass…you are." He grinned at Brodie. "Make sure both of them see the doctor. While you're gone, I'll alert the others about that cat." He was still chuckling as he headed out the door.

Brodie poured a cup of coffee, trying not to laugh. He knew who would win this disagreement, and he was certain Vin did too. "If you want, I'll drive you both in to the doctor's office."

Vin looked at his dad. "You can drive, but Kel is supposed to meet Cait at Satin 'n Spurs after she sees the doc, so plan on half a day gone. We'll be ready to leave in thirty minutes." Without waiting for an answer, or a smartass comment, Tanner went to change clothes, leaving his father standing in the kitchen with a smile on his face.

Denver Zoo

Casey was waiting at the main gate of the zoo when JD arrived with the twins and JJ. She smiled as they approached; waving tickets in the air, to indicate to him that she had already paid their admission. He steered JJ's stroller toward her, Lilah, and Daisy silent shadows on either side of it.

JD frowned. They had been excited when he told them that morning that they were going to the zoo and their Mommy would be there. They had chattered through breakfast, getting ready, and on the drive over, but now that they were finally at the zoo, neither twin had uttered a word.

"Look how big you two little monkeys have gotten! What's your daddy been feeding you, super bananas?" Casey crouched down and held her arms out to them.

JD held his breath. If the twins did not respond well to seeing Casey again, he would know that her visiting them at all would not be an option. Their mental and emotional well-being, rested solely on his shoulders now, and had to come above anyone else's, his ex-wife included.

Hesitantly, Lilah took a step away from the stroller. Daisy followed suit, both girls gazing at Casey as if not quite believing she was real. It took a few moments, and Lilah waited for her father's nod of approval before she took off running with a glad cry, "Mommy." Daisy echoed her sister's shout, and was only a step behind her twin in reaching their mother.

Casey wrapped her arms around the girls, showering them with kisses, while tears ran unchecked down her face. Emotion welled up within JD at the heartwarming sight, but he kept it carefully in check. He could not allow his own feelings to get in the way of doing right by his children.

Several hugs and kisses later, Casey stood up. She asked JD, who had taken JJ out of the stroller, "Can I hold him?" Where there had been a few moments of hesitation on the girl's part about going to their mother, it was not the case with JJ. He had virtually no memory of his mother as young as he was when she had gone away, and therefore was not happy in the very least to have a stranger hold him.

"He isn't going to break, Casey," JD said softly, observing the tension in her shoulders and how stiff-armed she held their son.

"I know that!" Casey snapped, handing a fussing JJ back to JD, and taking a couple of steps away from him and the kids.

JD felt anger stir within him at her response, but didn't allow it to take form. Their daughters had instinctively moved closer to him hearing Casey's raised voice, and he didn't want to do anything else to upset them. Instead, he concentrated on soothing JJ, before placing his son back into his stroller.

"I'm sorry, JD." Casey apologized as she turned back around to face him. "It's just hard…he barely knows me…and I'm his mama."

'Whose fault is that?' That thought was on the tip of JD's tongue, but he didn't voice the reprimand. There wasn't any point in rehashing old, but still raw memories. He nodded his head in acceptance of her apology, and then turned his attention onto Lilah and Daisy. "What do you girls want to see first?"

"The monkeys," Lilah and Daisy exclaimed together making both JD and Casey laugh, and the tensions between them of only moments before disappeared.

The rest of the visit was an enjoyable one for all of them, except for Casey's inflexible resolve not to hold JJ. It was troublesome to JD, but he hoped that with time, mother and son would get to know each other. He enjoyed seeing Casey smiling and carefree with the twins, and took several pictures of them together throughout the day to add to the photo albums he had just purchased to replace the ones destroyed in the fire. Not that he could recreate all that was lost, but it was a place to begin storing new memories. Eventually, the day came to a close as the time for Casey to catch her plane back to Arizona drew near. JD offered to drive her to the airport, but she declined because she had to turn in her rental car.

Casey walked with JD and the kids to his truck, and said goodbye to the girls and JJ. She hugged and kissed the twins, but only placed a tentative kiss upon JJ's forehead, before JD placed him in his car seat.

"Well…" JD said when it was just the two of them.

"Are you going to let me see them again?" Casey asked quietly.

"Give me some time to think things over, and I'll call you." JD told her. He knew it wasn't the answer Casey wanted to hear, but to her credit, she didn't argue or plead with him to give her a more definite response.

"Take care of yourself, JD." She said as she turned and began walking toward where she'd parked her rental car.

"You, too, Casey," JD called after her, before getting into his vehicle and starting for home. He had many things to consider before he was willing to allow Casey visitation rights. Glancing in the rearview mirror, he saw his son asleep in his car seat, and smiled. 'They're a packaged deal Case; either build a relationship with all our children…or none.'

Tanner Home

The day had been a long one, but now it was time to relax. Vin and Kelli sat close, sharing the swing on the deck, while Brodie sat on the railing. The twins were sound asleep in their cribs, and their older kids had only twenty minutes until bedtime.

Brodie glanced at his favorite young couple. "Vin, you might want to sit out the hunt for the next couple of days. Give yourself time to heal."

"Doc said nothin' was broke, only bruised, but you and Chris go tomorrow. I'll be at the family meetin' in the mornin', and should be able to ride by the next day." He squeezed Kelli's hand, and nodded his head toward his wife. "This one should be doing better in a few days, too."

"The cortisone shot is already helpin'. I'm just thankful it wasn't any worse than inflamed tendons. Surgery was not somethin' I was lookin' forward to."

Vin reached up and stroked his fingers through her hair. "You wouldn't have to go it alone, even if it had been worse. As long as we're together, whatever we have to face…we'll be fine." Dropping his hand to her back, he drew her closer, pleased when she laid her head against his shoulder.

Kelli sighed. "You're good medicine for me."

"I think y'all are just good for each other," Brodie said. Observing Jason, and Andi quietly making their way to the deck, he smiled. "Ahh, here comes two more of my favorite people."

Jason held on to Andi's hand, and approached their father first. "Dad, can we ask now?"

Vin knew what they wanted, and would like to hear them ask, but he also wanted it to be their choice. "Sure you can. Do you want us to stay, or leave and let y'all have a private conversation?"

The two little Tanners exchanged glances, and then Jason answered, "Stay." He looked over to Brodie. "Sir, I…we…me and Andi….We want to know…" he stopped and blew out his breath." Me and Andi have lots and lots of uncles and aunts, but…we've never had a real grandpa. We know Chris is kinda our grandpa….but…he's our Uncle too. So can we…would you mind if we called you grandpa, instead of Uncle Brodie?"

Kneeling in front of them, Brodie grinned. "I would like that a whole lot. Reckon I can do all that grandpa stuff? Like this…" he hugged both children and then proceeded to tickle each one.

Andi giggled, and threw her arms around his neck. "You belong to us now."

"Us, and Bren, and Trey," Jason corrected her.

Fighting a huge battle with his emotions, he agreed, "You're very right, Jason." Brodie lifted Andi, while keeping his hand on Jason's shoulder. "How about y'all letting me read you a story before bed?"

Vin smiled at the scene he was witnessing. The kids had what they wanted, and Brodie was great with them. It might have taken thirty years, and many detours, but he and his father had managed to find a way to start making up for their lost time. "Y'all go on, Mom and I will come in to say goodnight in a few minutes."

Kelli snuggled closer. "You know, wherever Tracker is, I'd bet he's pleased about the way things turned out for you and your dad."

"I'm damn pleased about it myself." He kissed her brow. "Let's say goodnight to our kids, let Grandpa take over, and head to our own bed." He took her hand, helped her to her feet, and then led her inside.


Both Tanners had to ease into the bed, and avoid putting pressure on their tender bruises, but once settled they cuddled. They knew that with their injuries, physical activity was not on the program tonight. With her head on his chest, Vin wrapped his arms around his wife, enjoying just being close. "Reckon we practice a few more days of celibacy."

"I don't mind."

"Really? What about those delinquent hormones that keeps you runnin' in sexual overdrive?" Vin teased her, but he was well aware of the reason, and understood that constantly riding the roller coaster of uncontrollable hormones was not easy for her. "Not that I mind, in fact I kinda like the effect those fertility shots have on you."

"You can believe it or not, Tanner, but I'd give up all our lustful nights of hot steamy sex, in exchange for layin' here like this. The sound of your heart beatin' reaches into my soul and fills me with a burnin' desire that words can't describe. Every heartbeat pulses though my body, reachin' places within me that no one, but you, has ever, or will ever touch. Sex with you is fantastic, but it only adds to what you give me with just bein' you. I feel your love with every breath you take, and know without question that, with you, is where I belong."

Vin swallowed hard. When he first laid eyes on her, he knew what he felt was different from anything he had ever experienced. Back then, he foolishly assumed there was only one kind of love a man could feel for a woman. He thought he could not love her more than he did then. Loving Kelli had proven him wrong. Just when he believed he found the depth of their feelings, she did or said something that made him fall deeper in love with her. Sex between them was always great, whether it was a quick roll in the sack, a long sensual lovemaking session, or playing out one of their sexual fantasies, but it was only a benefit from what they found in one another. She was his destined mate, and the moments he cherished the most were at time such as this. The uninhibited intimacy they shared was the lifeblood of their relationship, and the one thing he would never turn away from, or take for granted.

Tenderly he smoothed his hand over her head, urging her to look up at him. She did, and the intense look of unconditional love, and unadulterated trust in her emotive eyes was his undoing. Only a few weeks ago, he had almost destroyed that trust, thankfully she did not give up on him. 'and I thought I was the only poet in this family.' His voice gruff with emotion, he said, "For a woman who claimed to have a hard time sayin' I love you when I met her, you do a damn good job at it."

"Fate was good to me, and led me to a great teacher." The warm glint in his eyes sent a rush of pure pleasure through her veins. "Before you, I only existed, you've taught me how to live, love, and enjoy what life has to offer. I love you, and the wonderful family you've given me."

Lowering his head, he gently brushed his lips across hers. Breathing softly he whispered, "I love you Kel, here, now, and always." They had managed together to weather the many storms life had thrown at them, and strengthened their relationship in the process. When their assorted injuries healed, they would physically make love, but it would only be an added blessing to the love they shared tonight. Wrapping her into the cocoon of his embrace, he knew they both were right where they needed to be, and he held her to him as they drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 7

Barbara stood by the window, watching the sunrise. Although her doctor had warned her that at this point in her pregnancy she might feel restless, the mix of emotions she was feeling surprised her. Long ago, she had reconciled herself to the fact that her mother and father were not the loving, nurturing, hands-on type parents she longed for as a child. Her Grandmother Delany was the one who made her feel loved and accepted, and even though she'd been gone more than ten years now, Barbara still missed her. Looking down at the ultrasound picture, which she held in her hand, she sighed. She knew it was far-fetched to wish that her mother would be a little interested in her first grandchild, but she could dream…couldn't she?

Ezra stood quietly in the doorway, watching his beautiful wife. He was beginning to get his head wrapped around the idea of his impending fatherhood, but there were moments that he needed to pinch himself to make certain he was not dreaming. For a man, who never had ties, even as a child, he certainly had them now. His brothers showed him how to let family into his life, and taught him how to trust fate to guide him. Mistress Fate had done exactly that, once he gave her a chance. Finding Barbara was his first miracle, she was carrying his second one.

Walking over to stand behind his wife, he encircled her with his arms, smoothing his hand over her belly. "Good morning, love."

She leaned back into his embrace, and sighed again. "Ezra, are you sure we're ready to be parents? I mean…look at us…What do we know about how to raise a child?"

Silently thanking Vin for warning him about the insecurities a pregnant woman could experience, he smiled. "Sweetheart, you will be a wonderful mother, and I will be a magnificent father. We both know that what a child needs is love. I'm confident we have enough between us to share with our baby."

"Thank you. I needed to hear that."

Ezra took the picture from her hand. "Do we share with the rest of the family, or keep the sex of our child a secret a while longer?"

Turning in his embrace, Barbara smiled at him. "Let's wait. I'd like just us to know for now. It makes me feel closer to you."

"As you wish, love," he said just before he kissed his lovely wife. "Boy or girl, I'm confident our Wild Bunch will welcome Baby Standish with open arms."


Chris removed his hat and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. "We've been at this since daybreak, and still no sign of that damn cat. It's as if she flat out disappeared."

Brodie rode up beside him. "We probably got too close to her den yesterday, and now she's found a new one." He scanned the area of rocks above them. "Vin said she was full, and would hold up somewhere. Reckon he was right."

Setting his hat back on his head he glanced at Brodie. "You think Vin will be up to riding tomorrow?"

"Said he would, and if I know anything about Tanner stubbornness, I'd bet the ranch on it."

Chris grinned. "I guess you'd know firsthand about Tanner stubbornness." Larabee ignored the look Brodie shot his way. "Let's head home. We have a family meeting in less than an hour, and Cait's parents are flying in later this afternoon. I want to leave for the airport early enough to get through the damn security."

"Better you than me. I'm too old to play meet the parents." Brodie shook his head and then smiled. "I have my hands full with a stubborn son, a daughter-in-law that takes after her old man, and four new grandkids."

"Hell, you love every minute of it." Chris set the pace at a slow trot.

"I do, but don't tell anyone. You'd ruin my badass reputation." He spurred Midnight on, and took off, leaving Chris to follow his lead.

Larabee Home

Chris had told everyone to be at his house by eleven. The women of the Wild Bunch, Vin, Josiah, Ezra, Brodie, and Walter were all there, but three family members were still AWOL. Buck, Nathan, and JD rushed through the door with a minute to spare, dressed in sweaty tees and shorts.

"Glad you three could make it." Chris aimed a steady gaze in their direction.

Buck leaned over to kiss Inez, and then said, "West End Recreation Center, basketball game…kids won by two points." He sat down next to his wife.

Larabee waited while Nathan and JD settled, and then started. "I called you all together for three reasons. One, with all we have coming up in the next few weeks, I wasn't sure we could do this for a while. We need to take care of some ranch business, and move on. Two, our ladies have a request, and I promised them some time to have their say. Lastly, and at the moment, most importantly, we have a dangerous cougar on the prowl. She's already killed one of our colts, and caused Peso to throw Tanner. The current drought has driven her closer to us than she should be, too damn close."

Vin took over. "She's probably a new mama, hungry, and apparently thinks L7 is her exclusive territory. I contacted the State Wildlife Department, and told 'em we'd try to take her alive, and then move her to higher ground. I also told 'em we'd kill her if she becomes a threat to the family. I hope it don't come to that, but as it is now, we can't let our kids outside unsupervised. We've been trailin' her, but it looks as if she's moved her den. Until we can find out where, we need a daily patrol. I can probably ride by tomorrow, but we need to work out a schedule for the rest of y'all."

Inez glanced at her husband, before she asked, "Do you think she'd come close to our homes?"

"Normally no," Vin replied, "but I wouldn't stake my kids' lives on it."

Walter stepped forward. "I have a security team keepin' an eye on y'all's homes, but they can't be everywhere. My advice, keep your children in sight, until the threat from that cat is neutralized."

"The cat issue is the main reason I wanted all of you here. It's a serious situation, and I wanted the women to know what we know. Before we move on to our business meeting, I'll let our ladies have their turn. Cait has an announcement, and then I believe Mallory wants to talk to everyone.

Cait stood. "I think most of you know Carmen Johnson. She's the CPS caseworker who has worked with me at Reins, and with the Tanners concerning foster care. She is also largely responsible for us having Jesse, Caleb, and Ronesha in our family. A few days ago, she came to me with a request. CPS has so many children needing homes, and more coming into the system every day, that they are finding it difficult to have enough qualified foster parents to place them all quickly. Carmen asked for my help. Now I know the timing is not the best, but I couldn't say no. Starting a week from Monday, one of the dormitories at Reins will become a temporary intake facility for children needing protection."

Buck nodded. "What can we do to help?"

"Just be patient with all that goes on while we get our bearings, and devise the best way to handle it. Carmen will assist with the set-up, and the State is paying for any extra expenses. I'm certain though that we'll probably hit a few bumps in the beginning."

"A week from Monday?" Josiah looked at Chris. "Aren't you two supposed to be on your honeymoon by then?"

"We are, but it's more like a vacation, since we're taking the kids with us. On Tanner's recommendation, we're renting a motor home and taking our kids to Frontier Town and Railway, near Royal Gorge. Jason and Andi loved it when they went, so we're hoping ours will, too. We'll only be gone a few days."

Cait explained. "Inez, Rain, Barbara, Mallory, and Kel will be helping Carmen until I return. Willard will be here, and so will my Rein's counselors, Shelly and Tony. They can get things started."

Nathan glanced at his brothers. "We'll do our part to help, too."

Chris nodded to Cait when she gave him a signal, indicating she was finished. "Okay….Mal, I think you wanted the floor."

Mallory took Cait's place when she sat down. "I guess I have an announcement too. I already talked to Chris, and of course, Josiah knows I've made a decision." She took a deep breath, glanced to JD and then said. "I'm sorry to spring it on everyone this way, but I've decided not to return to MCAT." Hurriedly she went on to explain. "I want to help with the foster care program, volunteer time at the women's shelter, counsel abused women, and be more involved with the childcare issues on L7. With Cait's approval, I'll be representing L7 interest in the selection process of two new childcare providers at Reins."

"I can't say I'm happy about losing you, but you should do what makes you happy. It sounds like you've given this a lot of thought." JD nodded to her, letting her know he understood that sometimes we have to follow where our heart takes us.

"Thanks JD, and I also have a proposal for everyone to consider. Looking long-term, as Reins' students keep increasing, we need to think about the future care for our children. When the new Standish baby arrives, we'll have twenty little ones in our family. We have Camp Larabee for the work part of our lives…" She smiled and looking at the other agents in the family, corrected herself, "Your lives…we cater to what our horses need, and we all designed our homes around our personal preferences. I propose we build our own childcare/ recreation center…for the L7 kids. They need a place that's theirs." Barbara passed out folders with their proposed ideas, and gave them all a few minutes to look it over. Once she had their consensus to hear more, Mallory continued, "We could start off with age appropriate activities, and as they grow let it grow with them."

JD thought about it and it sounded like an interesting idea. "Just where would we build this place?"

Mallory smiled. "I think L7 just bought some acreage, and I suggest …your old place JD. Would you be okay with that?"

Nodding JD answered, "I'd like to see something good come out of what happened. Yeah…that's a great idea."

Buck was more interested in JD's reaction, and it pleased him to see that he was okay with it. "Hell, I vote yes."

"Me, too," Nathan said next.

Josiah agreed, and then it was Vin's turn. "Sorry, but I'd have to vote no." He raised his hand to stay their protests. "I think a center would be great, but not on that end of the ranch. We've had too many challenges with security on that property, even when JD was there with Nettie. It's open to the road on one side, and isolated from the rest of our homes. In light of what's happened more than once over the past couple of years around here, I wouldn't feel comfortable havin' all our kids gathered in a vulnerable area."

Chris nodded thoughtfully, and looked to Walter. "What about it? Can we provide enough security there for it to be safe for our children?"

Walter answered. "Safe yes, but with the type of attacks the ranch has taken before….they'd still be easy targets for anyone who wanted to get to one of y'all through them, unless we keep armed security guards there at all times."

"Vin's right, and I should have thought about it, too. Even with the safeguards Nettie installed, we were still not in the best position. Our children are too important to take any risks we don't have to," JD stated. "I know we have to be careful, but having armed guards around while the kids play is not something I want my kids to remember."

Ezra rolled out the ranch map. "What if we choose a location closer to our homes?" He studied the map, and then pointed to a spot close to the houses, but far enough away that the kids would have 'their own space'. "What about here?"

Six men gathered round him. All started nodding as they recognized the possibilities Ezra's suggestion provided. Chris glanced up. "If you ladies agree, I think we found the perfect place for our new recreation center." He stepped back so they could see, and then waited for their approval.

Mallory conferred with her sisters, and then turned to the men. "We agree."

"Ezra, would you mind working with our better halves to plan the next step?" Chris asked him, already knowing the answer.

"I would be honored." Ezra grinned.

"Now that we have that settled, it's on to boring ranch business," Larabee announced.

Cait stood up. "I believe that's our cue to leave, sisters. Shall we move to the deck, and let our men handle the boring stuff?"

Chris was pleased to see Cait take the lead. She was more than the woman he loved; she was a true partner for him. One who took an interest in the things he was interested in, and acted in concert with him, making his life easier, which was something he had missed. "Okay, while Brodie works out a schedule for the cougar patrol, we'll let Ezra tell us what we need to do, or sign, and fill us in on where we stand with insurance companies." Chris grinned, and sat next to Vin, allowing Standish to give them a business report.

Denver Airport

Cait gazed out the plate glass window and watched as the plane carrying her parents, taxied up to the hangar. When she called them to share the exciting news about her engagement to Chris, and invite them to their upcoming wedding, she had been a little fearful that they wouldn't be able to make it. Her fears had been unfounded. Both her mom and dad were delighted to hear the news that she was getting married again, and had promised to come. Excitement bubbled up within her at the prospect of seeing them in person for the first time in nearly five years. Her father's horse breeding business, her mother's extensive social activities all over Virginia, their travels, and her own strenuous workload at Reins of Change, kept them all busy. Since her involvement with Chris and the Wild Bunch, it'd been impossible for the three of them to get together before now.

Now the day had finally arrived for them to be reunited, and Cait couldn't wait to hug them. As soon as the walkway was attached to the plane, Cait moved away from the window and over to a position in front of the gate where her parents would see her as soon as they exited it.

Chris, who'd been silently observing her from a short distance away, moved to stand behind her. He placed a supportive arm around her shoulders as they waited for her mom and dad to make an appearance. "Relax, sweetheart, before you pass out from excitement overload," Chris told her teasingly.

"It shows, huh?" Cait said. "I feel like a kid at Christmas waiting for Santa to make an appearance. It's been so long since I've seen them."

Chris chuckled. "I'm looking forward to meeting them. I bet your mom is as beautiful as you are."

"She's even more beautiful than I am."

"I don't think that's possible." Chris smiled when Cait didn't respond to his words, but continued to look for her parents.

Cait's eyes never left the gate as passengers onboard her parents' flight began to clear the gate. They quickly scanned over each person who emerged, but moved on to the next, when they didn't settle on the familiar, loving faces she was looking for.

Chris knew the moment Cait spotted her parents. She moved out from under the arm he'd thrown around her shoulders, and practically skipped across the space separating her from the older couple walking towards them. The resemblance between Cait and her mother was remarkable. Lillian Kerr was an older, carbon copy of the woman he loved. She had reddish brown hair, now sprinkled generously with gray, and there were a few more wrinkles gathered around her lively eyes, but other than that, she was an exquisite beauty. Seeing Lillian gave Chris a glimpse into the future of what Cait would look like when she was the same age, and he wasn't disappointed in the very least.

Donald Kerr was an imposing figure at six -foot-two, with graying temples, alert eyes, and an air about him, which commanded respect. Chris recognized an alpha male when he saw one and grinned. It was going to be an interesting week ahead indeed.

Chris held back and observed Cait's reunion with her parents. She and her mother threw their arms around each other and held on for several moments, before her father cleared his throat, signaling that he wanted in on the attention his wife was receiving from his daughter. Cait broke the embrace with her mother, and went gladly into the arms of her father, who hugged her tightly. Chris could see the effort it took Donald not to let his emotions overwhelm them as father and daughter hugged, and it deeply moved him

Finally, when their reunion was completed, Cait took hold of each of her parents' hands and closed the distance between them and where Chris stood. "Mother, Father, this is Chris Larabee, my fiancé. Chris, these are my parents, Lillian and Donald Kerr."

There was love and pride evident in Cait's voice as she introduced the trio and Chris smiled lovingly at her before he said, "It's good to finally meet the both of you."

He leaned forward and gave Lillian a kiss on her cheek, before he shook hands with Cait's father. Lillian smiled up at him, her brow narrowed briefly, when she saw his black eye, but she refrained from commenting about it. "I am very happy to meet you, too, Chris. A man, who could bring a happy lilt back into Caitlyn's voice and a shine in her eyes, is a very special man indeed."

"Thank you," Chris told her softly, "but I'm the lucky one. Having an amazing woman like your daughter to share my life with is a gift from God I wasn't expecting, but one I'll forever cherish."

Lillian glanced over at her daughter. "Not only is he easy on the eyes, but he's charming too. You've made a good catch."

The two women grinned at one another much to Chris's amusement. He felt eyes upon him, and met the even gaze of Donald. As of yet, Cait's father hadn't spoken, but quietly observed Larabee's interaction with the two most important women in his life, his wife and daughter.


"Caitlyn speaks very highly of you, Chris." Donald's voice held confidence and authority in it. "I intend to make certain that her praise is accurate before I'll give my blessing and allow her to marry you."


"Donald, really."

Chris's mouth twitched in amusement. His future father-in-law's statement was understandable considering Cait's parents had never met him before. It was clear to him that Donald considered his daughter a treasure, which deserved the very best out of life, including a man who was going to treat her with honor and respect. "Sir, I understand your apprehensions, but regardless of whether you approve of me or not, Cait and I are getting married." Chris stated calmly, without challenge.

The two men locked eyes again and something passed between them. Chris wasn't certain, but he had the feeling that Donald had been testing him, trying to see if he had the balls to stand up to him, or wilt beneath his gaze or words. A smile slowly spread over Donald's features, and Chris's lips curved up into one as well.

"Well done, Lad," Donald said heartily. "My Caitlyn needs a man who is willing to fight for her regardless of who it is, including me. I hope you don't hold my words or actions against me."

"Not at all, Sir."

"If you two bulls are finished testing each other's mettle, could we please collect our luggage and leave?" Lillian said with an exasperated sigh.

Cait, Chris, and Donald all burst out laughing.

"We certainly can sweetheart," Donald exclaimed, grabbing his wife and planting a quick kiss on her lips as Cait and Chris looked on.

"Donald, please control your actions, we're in public." Lillian chastised him softly.

"Yes, Dear."

"The baggage return area is over there." Chris pointed across the terminal.

He and Cait led the way over to it, and the two couples waited along with the other passengers for the airport workers to unload the baggage. Ten minutes went by before any luggage started making its way around the carousel, but fortunately Lillian and Donald's were among the first few pieces.

The men grabbed the larger suitcases, while Cait took her mother's makeup case, and together they made their way out to the parking lot and Cait's vehicle. Next stop dinner, and then on to the ranch to settle them in for the night.

Larabee 7

Cait showed her parents around her former home. "I think you both will be comfortable here. The kitchen is stocked with your favorite foods, and I added everything I could think of that you might possibly need during your stay."

Lillian squeezed her daughter's hand. "Honey, I'm sure it will be fine." She glanced at her husband. "Won't it, Donald?"

"That depends," he said quietly as he steadied his gaze toward his daughter. "Which one is your room?"

Chris placed his hand on his fiancée's back, and answered. "Cait and Jesse have already moved in with me and the kids." He smiled at Cait. "She's done a remarkable job of remodeling there, making it our home instead of mine. We're leaving her van here for you to use during your stay. There's a map of the ranch on the dash, with our home marked, and we expect you both at our house early. Tomorrow you'll meet our children, and the rest of our family."

Donald understood Chris's message. He had staked his claim, and now it was up to 'dear old dad' to direct the way their future relationship would progress. "I see." He paused for a moment, and then cast a steady gaze towards his daughter. "I hope you plan breakfast for us. I love Lillian, but if I have to eat her cooking, I might starve while I'm here."

Cait move toward her father and hugged him. "I'll have a big breakfast ready for you and a great barbeque in your honor is planned for later in the day. I love you Dad."

Patting her back, his voice was gruff when he said, "That's good. Now go home. It's been a long day, and your mother and I are tired." Looking at Chris, he said, "Go on, take this woman home. We'll see you both in the morning."

Chris took Cait by the hand, and led her out the door. As they climbed into his truck, he ginned at her and said, "That went well. I can't wait until you father meets the Wild Bunch. They'll keep him on his toes. In fact I kinda feel for him… collectively, they can be a mite intimidating."

Cait shook her head. "It's not him I'm worried about; it's the Wild Bunch…have you ever heard of Napoleon meeting his Waterloo?"

"Of course, but what has that got to do with your father?"

"My father can hold his own with the best of them, and he loves a challenge. He'll view the Wild Bunch as his next conquest."

Chris laughed aloud. "Not likely, sweetheart."

"We'll see," Cait said with a smile. "Just be prepared for anything."

Leaning over to kiss her neck, he said, "Oh I am. Our kids are with the Tanners tonight, your parents are settled, and now it's just you and me."

"Take us home, Cowboy."

"Yes ma'am." Chris grinned, started the engine, and headed for home.

Chapter 8

Cait rushed around, wanting everything to be just right. She had decided to serve breakfast on the deck, and had already rearranged the table five times. Chris watched as she flitted around, and smiled. His down to earth, usually calm, and controlled woman was acting like a newlywed, whose parents were coming to check up on her.

Chris snagged her arm as she hurried past him. "Relax, babe, it's only breakfast. I'm sure your parents will like it no matter what."

"I know I'm acting flighty, but it's been five years since I've had my mother and father around, and I want things to be perfect."

Lowering his head, he kissed her, long and slow, and then said, "You are perfect."

Donald Kerr cleared his throat to let them know they were not alone. "Aye, she is. Good morning, Kit."

Smiling, Cait went over and hugged her mother and then her father. "No one has called me Kit, in a long time."

"We'll it's been a long time since we saw you." Donald nodded to Chris, while Cait looped her arm with her mother's, and walked with her to the table. "Nice view. I imagine you spend a lot of time out here."

"Yes sir, we do." Chris moved to stand next to the older man. "Usually we take coffee out here, and we barbeque often. My… rather our, family all live close by and we like to gather at least a couple of times a month when we can." He turned to look at Donald. "Has Cait told you about our unique circle of family?"

Nodding, Donald said, "She did to a point. I know you work in Law Enforcement, and the men who live here, work with you. You all share ownership in this ranch, breed and raise horses, and consider yourselves adopted kin. I believe the term she used was 'brothers by choice', and collectively you call them the Wild Bunch."

Chris smiled; he should have expected that Cait would make sure her parents understood about their family ties. "That about covers it. Cait told me you also raise horses."

"Yes, and I'm interested in seeing your set-up here, as time allows, of course."

Cait drew their attention. "Chris, if you get him started talking about horses, we might never have breakfast. We should go ahead and eat while the food is still warm. I have plenty more inside for the kids, when they arrive."

"Sounds just like her mother." Donald chuckled, and looked at Larabee. "Chris, I believe we have been summoned."

"After you," Chris said with a grin, sweeping his hand in front of his future father-in-law.

Chris found it surprisingly easy to find common ground with Donald and Lillian Kerr. They loved horses, and their daughter. Those two things alone cemented the beginning of a pleasant relationship as far as Larabee was concerned. Talking about family had him glancing at his watch, wondering when his were coming home. On the verge of calling, he watched as Walter's truck pulled in the drive, then he and Max walked to the deck, carrying boxes.

"Morning, Chris," Max said as Walter moved on to the kitchen with the boxes. "I thought with Cait's family here, she needed time to visit, so I'll get the cooking going for today. Walter came over to start on the set-up."

"Max this is Lillian and Donald Kerr, Cait's parents. Max is our resident surrogate grandmother for the L7 kids, and works for the Tanners helping with their brood." Chris turned when Walter came back from the kitchen. "This is her husband Walter Andrews, head of security around here." After the introductions were finished, he looked to Walter for an explanation about where his kids were. "I figured the boys, at least, would come over to help you with the tables and chairs."

Walter nodded. "Normally they would, but they elected to stay and help Missy. Vin and Brodie aren't back yet, and the boys felt she needed their assistance with the little ones. Your daughter ran us off, sayin' we should go on without her. She'll be along in a little while with the kids." He patted Chris on the shoulder. "A couple of the men are comin' to help me, so you just concentrate on gettin' to know your in-laws." Nodding to the Kerrs, Andrews headed for the storage shed, and Max went to the kitchen.

Chris sat down, poured another cup of coffee, and began to worry about why Vin and Brodie were late returning from 'cougar patrol', while Cait and her parents continued to talk.

Forty-five minutes later, Buck and Nathan had arrived, and Josiah had the grill fired up, explaining to Donald about his 'secret' barbeque sauce. "I don't divulge the ingredients, but I make three different types. There's mild, for nursing moms, fussy kids, and delicate ladies. Hot is for those who like a little spice, and hotter is for those brave enough to indulge."

Nathan laughed. "Hotter is mainly for Vin, and JD. I swear those two can eat anything."

"We know Vin likes 'things' hot," Buck grinned," and not just his food."

Cait smiled, and took her mother by the arm. "Would you like to see the rest of the house before the conversation out here gets out of hand?"

"I've been married to your father long enough to know, boys will always be boys, Caitlyn." Lillian smiled at her husband's disgruntled expression. "And yes, I would love to see your home." The women went inside, leaving the men on their own.


Lillian observed her daughter as she proudly showed off the results of the remodeling. "Chris makes you happy, doesn't he?"

Cait stopped and turned to look at her mother." Yes…yes he does. After all these years, I never expected to remarry, much less have more children, but Chris… well; I guess one should never say never." She smiled. "Jesse needed me, and when I chose to adopt him, I assumed he and I would be all the family either of us wanted. Then when I realized I was falling in love with Chris, quite honestly, it scared the hell out of me, but he's right for me. Jesse, Kelli, Grace, and Cody were the added bonus life gave me."

"I always wished you would've found someone, and maybe had another baby of your own." Lillian sighed wistfully. "You know we'll love Jesse, and Chris's children will be our grandchildren…still…"

"Mother, I'm forty-six-years -old, and as much as I would've loved to have another baby, I believe my biological clock has run out of time. I'm happy with the children we do have, and one of them has made me an instant grandmother to her four." She hugged her mom. "I know life has its reasons. I don't claim to understand them all, but finding Chris is the best thing to happen to me since I lost Stephan and our babies. We've both loved and lost, and because of it, we won't take what we've found for granted. Once you meet Kelli, Jesse, Grace, and Cody, I know you'll come to love them as much as I do."

Lillian studied Cait's expression. "I know you told me about how Chris found his eldest. If I remember right, she's only a couple of years older than Billy and Mandy would have been. Doesn't it make you…?"

"No it doesn't. I will always miss my children, Mom, but I've had twenty-four years to come to terms with their deaths. Don't get me wrong. Even knowing what was ahead, I would have loved Stephan anyway, and would not trade one second of my life with him and the kids for anything, but… my life had to move on without them. It's here now, with a man I love, who loves me, and more family than I ever expected to have again surrounds me. I love every minute of it."

"Then we're happy for you." She laughed, content with Cait's answers. "We're a little out of practice, so bear with us while we learn to be grandparents again."

"I love you Mother. Now, let's go see what our men are up too."


When Chris saw Kelli and Vin get out of the truck, he went out to meet them, smiling when Grace and Andi ran toward him. Jesse was a few steps behind the girls, carrying Cody, while Jason walked beside him, holding onto Bren's hand. The Tanners brought up the rear with Trey.

Grace smiled when she saw her father coming closer, and yelled, "Hi Daddy."

"Hi yourself," he said with a grin as both girls ran toward him.

Morning Dad," Jesse said as he came nearer, with a very animated Cody challenging him to let him go.

"Hi Uncle Chris," Jason said. He almost lost his hold on an excited Bren, but recovered quickly. "Man, he's strong for such a little kid."

Chris chuckled. "You're right Jason. I don't know how they do it, but Cody, Bren, and Trey are more than a handful when they want something." Surrounded by children, he looked over their heads at Vin. "I thought we'd have to hunt you down. Where's Brodie?"

"That she-lion took us on a wild goose chase. Just when we figured we had her…she disappeared. Dad will be along in a little while; he wanted to make a couple of phone calls to Texas."

Lifting Cody from Jesse's arms, Chris settled him on his hip. "Thanks, son, for staying to help Kelli. Now, let's go meet your new grandparents." Falling into step between Jesse and Kelli, he allowed Grace to announce their presence.

"We here," Grace exclaimed as she reach the top step.

"Yes you are." Cait smiled, and opened her arms, which was all the invitation Grace needed to run to her. Within a couple of minutes, the Kerrs had not only met their new grandchildren, but all of the Tanner kids, as well.

Donald smiled at his daughter. "You have a fine looking brood, Kit," he grinned, "but it appears black eyes run in the family."

Kelli shook her head. "I guess our secret is out… we're a violent bunch." She pointed to Chris. "He's the worst…thinks he's Rambo II."

"You're not going to let that go are you?" Chris attempted to intimidate her with a fierce glare, but knew he failed when Kelli laughed. "Give me a break here."

"No way, Dad, I'm havin' too much fun with it. I kinda like that visual…maybe we'll make t-shirts for your birthday…."

Chris did not let her finish. "You have to go back to work sometime, brat…be careful not to tick off the boss."

"She intimidates about as well as our Kit. You are going to have your hands full, Chris." Donald ribbed him, in spite of the stern look from his wife.

"Tell me about it…" Chris put his arm around Cait's waist. "Good thing we have two sons to balance things out."

Donald smiled and placed his hands on Jesse's shoulder. "Now this one, I can already tell is the outdoor type. Son, you think while we're here, you could show an old man the best fishing holes?"

Jesse's expression was one of surprise and pleasure. "Yes…yes, sir. I could."

"Then it's settled. Cait, I'll be stealing your eldest son one day this week." Looking down at Jesse, Donald smiled and said, "He's going to take his grandfather fishing."

Chris was pleased to see the smile on Jesse's face, and the attention Lillian was giving Grace and Cody, showed their acceptance of the children. He looked up to see JD and his kids coming across the yard, and grinned. He was proud of the way JD had handled the unexpected twists life threw at him. From his personal experience, Larabee knew it was not easy to be mother and father, but Dunne was learning fast. "Mornin JD, coffee is hot, and we already have Bren and Trey corralled in one playpen. If you want, there's an empty one set-up for JJ."

"Hey Kid, you're out early." Buck took JJ from JD's arms, and took him to the playpen.

"Morning Chris, and thanks Buck. I figured you guys might need some help, and I was hoping to talk to Vin." JD watched as Lilah and Daisy headed for the playground with Andi. Pouring a cup of coffee, JD nodded. "What can I do?"

"Most of it was finished when I got here." Vin told him. "What did you want to talk to me about?"

JD tilted his head indicating that he wanted to talk to Vin away from the Kerrs, and the children. They moved over to a corner of the deck. "A couple of things…first, I want to give you this." JD pulled an envelope from his pocket, and gave it to Vin. "Douglas Banks sent me a check for the amount he didn't use from the retainer you gave him to represent Casey. By my count, I still owe you seven thousand dollars, plus interest. I included a personal payment from me, and I'll get another one to you as soon as I can."

Tanner nodded. "You don't owe any interest JD, and you have too much on your plate now to even consider payments." He handed him back his personal check. "Let's revisit this issue say…next year at this time…no arguments. What else did you want to talk about?"

JD recognized the look on Vin's face as one not to argue with, and reluctantly took the check. "All right, but when I get my life situated again, I 'am' paying you." He hesitated for a moment then continued, "I also wanted to know if you'd be willing to use your old contacts to check on someone for me."

"Is somebody causin' you a problem, Kid?"

"Not really…I …hell, Vin, it's Casey. She wants to have visitation rights with the kids. She says she's doing better, but I have to be certain before I agree. I know how you feel about her and Nettie, but these are my children, and I can't …."

Vin stopped him. "I understand…I'll see what I can find out, okay?"

"Thanks. The other thing…well, you know I lost everything in the fire, including Casey's journal you gave me." JD ran his finger over the rim of his coffee cup, and then sighed. "I wanted to keep it…not sure why, but…did you maybe make a copy of it in your case notes?"

"Originally, yes, but I made sure those particular notes 'got lost'. That was not somethin' I figured you'd want in any permanent record." Vin put his hand on JD's shoulder and looked him in the eye. "Let it go…you have too much goin' for you, and a great future ahead with your kids…don't carry the past with you."

JD nodded. A part of him was relieved that Vin destroyed his notes, while another part felt the loss of another piece of his past. "You'll let me know about Casey?'

"I love her and Nettie both, but you're right to be protective where the children are concerned. I'll check out everthin', JD, as if it were my own kids she'd be takin'." From where he was standing, Vin could see the rest of the family arriving. "You'll know as soon as I do, and I'll get on it when we get home. Now, let's enjoy some family time." They rejoined the group already gathered, and welcomed the new arrivals.


Cait and Chris stood a few feet behind the others. She leaned into him and sighed contently. "This has been a wonderful day. My folks are doing great with the kids. The weather is nice, the food was perfect, and everyone appears to be enjoying themselves."

"You expected a disaster?" Chris chuckled. "You know, our family can behave once in a while."

"I wasn't concerned about our family…I'm not sure what I expected, but now that I see my parents with our children, I suppose I was worried about nothing." She sighed. "I wasn't sure they could accept our kids… they were so close to Billy and Mandy. When they died, it was hard on them, especially since they never thought they would be grandparents again. Now they have Jesse and Grace already calling them Nana and Granddad."

Chris looked out and smiled seeing Ezra and Donald surrounded by children. Even Lillian had moved her chair close to the playground and had two or three of the L7 kids enthralled in a story. "I think they're doing more than okay." He noticed Buck and Brodie playing ball with Caleb and Jason. "It appears that Brodie is getting the hang of this grandparent business, too. I think Jason has called him grandpa at least fifty times today."

"You noticed, huh?" Cait turned to look at him. "No regrets about being Uncle Chris instead of Grandpa Chris?"

"Yeah, I noticed," Chris answered with a smile, "and no regrets. They know who I am, and if they need another grandpa…I'll be close by, but Andi, Jason, and the twins deserve to have a grandfather like Brodie. With all the time he lost with Vin, he'll give them extra attention, and enjoy through them, some of the things he missed doing with his son." He laughed when he saw Jason attempt to tackle Buck. "I'll say one thing, that boy is just as tenacious as Vin."

Josiah and Mallory walked up to the couple. "Chris, we need to take care of a situation that's come up, so we're leaving early. Nathan and Rain are taking Joanne and Adam to their house for the night."

"You need any help?"

Josiah shook his head and grinned. "Not this time. Mallory got a call from the crisis center; I'm going along to support her."

Looking at Mallory, Chris nodded. "Good luck, Mal. If you need anything, just yell."

"Thanks, we'll see you tomorrow."

Buck yelled at Josiah as he walked away. "Don't forget…my house…nine in the morning….rodeo planning session."

Sanchez waved his hand in the air to acknowledge Buck's message.

"That goes for the rest of you guys, too." Buck glanced from brother to brother. "I've got most everything lined up, but we still need a few detailed ironed out."

Chris reminded him. "I think you and I are on the schedule for cougar patrol in the morning."

"We'll take it," Vin looked over to Brodie. "She gave us the slip earlier; we have a personal interest in goin' after her now."

Larabee narrowed his brows. "You can barely walk now, and that's with only one day back in the saddle."

"Yeah…and tomorrow mornin' I'll be another day healed. We'll be back in time for your meetin', Buck."

Kelli stood and tapped her husband on the shoulder. "In that case, I'm takin' you home and puttin' you to bed."

Vin turned to her and grinned. "That's the best offer I've had all day."

Giving him an unsympathetic glance, she answered, while she gathered the twins stuff. "That wasn't an offer, Tanner. It was an order. You're a long way from healed, and you need your rest, so wipe that smile off your face. If you plan on ridin' in the mornin', you won't be ridin' tonight."

Buck chuckled, Chris smiled, and Nathan nodded in agreement, while Ezra, JD, and Brodie, wisely said nothing.

Not deterred by his wife's threat, Vin's smile only widened. He leaned close enough for only her to hear, and whispered, "Who said I'd be the one ridin' tonight?"

Kelli attempted to keep her composure, and not laugh. "You're a very bad boy."

Putting his arm around Kelli's waist, Vin drew her close to his side, knowing she could not resist his teasing remarks for long. "That, baby, is one of the reasons you love me. When we get home, I'll remind you of the other reasons." Without waiting for a response, he kissed her cheek, and went after Jason and Andi, while Brodie herded Bren and Trey towards his truck.

"See y'all tomorrow," Kelli hugged Cait and Chris, waved to the others, pulled out her keys, and started for her truck.

Buck laughed as they walked away, and asked Ezra, "Wanna take odds on who wins that battle?"

Ezra shook his head." Not a chance, with those two, it could go either way."

Chris watched the Tanners as they walked away, and as much as Vin tried to hide it, Larabee knew he was in pain, and was certain Kelli knew, too. "Whatever happens, it appears you and I are not riding in the morning, Buck. You need any help setting up?"

Inez answered instead. "Aunt Isabella and I have everything covered. We have a heavy brunch planned, so all you need to bring is your appetite."

"Never knew any one of us who had a problem with that." JD grinned. "I'll be there." He stood with JJ in his arms. "Right now I need to get mine home. See you guys in the morning."

JD corralled his girls and one by one, the others followed. Cait watched them leave; thankful the day passed with none of the Wild Bunch disasters, which seemed to plague them all lately, making an appearance.

Denver Memorial Hospital Emergency room

Josiah and Mallory entered through the emergency area to find Carmen Johnson waiting for their arrival. She stood when she saw them, but held on to the hand of the small child with her. After nodding to acknowledge Josiah, she turned to Mallory. "Thanks for coming. When I realized how this situation was playing out, I thought about you. The circumstances of this case call for special handling. I believe you are the right person to help this family, but I'll understand, if you decide you want to start with something less…complicated."

When Mallory had decided she wanted to be involved with domestic abuse cases, she hoped she would be able to start soon, but never imagined, Carmen would call on her so quickly. After taking one look at the scared little girl standing next to Missus Johnson, she knew she was making the right decision about changing careers. "After working eighteen years in law enforcement, I'm used to complicated cases. Let's get started."

Josiah stood back and observed. When Mallory found herself trapped in an abusive first marriage, there had been no help available for her. He was proud of his wife for having the courage to use her past bad experiences to help other women, who needed a helping hand. After years of dedicating her life to public service, it was the right time in her life for Mallory to take on a personal cause. It would not always be easy, but seeing the look of determination in her eyes, he also realized their lives were about to change, and vowed to support his wife anyway he could.

Chapter 9

Tanner Home, 5:00 am

Kelli slipped quietly out of bed, dressed, and headed for the kitchen to put the coffee on. She hoped Vin would sleep a while longer, but knew it was more likely that he would get up once he realized she was gone. Busying herself with packing a breakfast for him and Brodie to eat on the trail, she smiled when her husband entered the room about ten minutes after her.

Vin walked up behind her, slipped his arms around her waist, leaned down to kiss her neck, and said, "Sorry about last night." After working on his laptop for a while, making inquires for JD, he had every intention of waiting for her to join him in their bedroom. Evidently, he was more worn-out than he realized, and fell asleep before she finished with the kids.

"I'm not. You needed the rest." Kelli turned in his arms, kissing him soundly before asking, "Are you sure you're up to goin' out again this mornin'?"

Nodding, he smiled. "I admit I'm still sore, but it's not as bad as yesterday." He patted her rump. "What we need is a date night. I know this week is full, but how about we get grandpa to babysit Friday evenin'? I'll take you out for dinner and dancin', and then we'll spend the night at our cabin makin' love. We'll be back in time to set-up the weddin' rehearsal on Saturday."

"Sounds good…If you're…"

"I will be…" Vin rested his chin on the top of her head. "I miss us…and we need the time alone."

Brodie stood in the doorway, reluctant to interrupt, but he figured they should know they were not alone. "Grandpa would love to babysit. You two make your plans."

Without turning around, Vin said, "Thanks Dad." Releasing his wife, he grabbed two cups for coffee, and passed one to Brodie. "I reckon if we leave before sunrise, we should be back by eight or nine at the latest."

"You just be sure to call me if you're goin' to be later than that." Kelli finished packing their food into Vin's saddlebag. "Don't forget, y'all are supposed to be at Buck's house by nine."

"Got my phone right here." Vin patted the sat phone attached to his belt. "Thanks for the food, babe." He kissed her, picked up his saddlebag, and headed for the door. "Are you coming, old man?" He winked at his wife when Brodie grumbled about the 'old man' reference.

"I'm right behind you, 'Kid'."

Kelli shook her head and smiled as the Tanner men walked out the door.


They found a fresh kill site less than a mile from the ranch. Brodie took point this time, concerned that Vin was not ready to be back in the saddle again. The lion's trail was easy to pick up, and both men were anxious for a chance to get close to her. The path led them into the rockiest parts of the nearby mountains, where they had to dismount and follow on foot.

"Are you sure you're up to this?" Brodie glanced back at Vin, who was cussing with every step he took on the rocky slope.

"Hell no, but I'm here, and so is that damn cat. Keep movin'."

The trail became steeper, and their movements slowed. "I think that she-cat knows exactly what she's doing." Brodie glanced back to check on his son. "She's leading us away from her den, and into some hellish terrain."

Vin understood that his father was concerned about his previous injuries. Truthfully, he was hurting like hell, but he was not about to admit it. "You don't have to look for me old man. If you can make it, I damn sure can."

"Have it your way hardhead." He grinned, enjoying the banter with Vin. "Just don't…" Without warning, the cat appeared on top of a large bolder above them. Standing there in all her majestic beauty, with the sun's morning rays highlighting her cinnamon coat, she appeared docile, but both men knew otherwise. Given the opportunity, she would rip them to pieces.

Neither of them planned to give her an opening to demonstrate her abilities. Vin held his rifle on her, giving Brodie a chance to fire the tranquiller gun before she had an inclination to lunge. Moving to posture for the shot, the elder Tanner's boot slipped on the jagged rocks, and he slid backwards into his son, the momentum taking them both down the mountainside.

Wilmington Home, 9:00 am

Ezra dropped Barbara at the Larabee home on his way to Buck's house. When he arrived, Chris, JD, and Nathan were already there. "Sorry if I held y'all up. My wife," he looked at Chris, "and your wife-to-be, wanted to discuss wedding details, so I stopped at your home first. What have I missed?"

Buck answered, "Not a thing, Ez. We're still waiting on Josiah and Vin. Grab a plate and help yourself to the food."

"I believe I will by-pass your gracious offer of food, but I will have coffee." Ezra took a cup from the table, and then reached for the coffee carafe. "Do we know why our two brothers are late?"

"Josiah called, he's on his way." Nathan told him. "As for Vin…" he glanced in Chris's direction.

Chris shrugged. "I haven't heard from him," he felt everyone's eyes turned towards him, and pulled out his cell, "but I'm calling…okay?" After a brief discussion with his daughter, he found out that Vin and Brodie had not returned yet. "I understand, but you know as well as I do there could be a good reason….yes… not long…I'll call you back." Turning to four anxious brothers, he relayed part of the conversation. "Kel hasn't heard from them, and since Vin promised to call if they wouldn't be back in time for this meeting….she's a little concerned."

JD pulled out his cell, and tried Vin's sat phone. Shaking his head, he told Chris, "no answer."

"The satellite phones we use. They should work anywhere right?" Larabee looked to JD to explain.

"Most places, yeah. There may be a few spots blocked by mountains where the signal is weak, and can't get through, but not many."

"It might be nothing…." Chris sighed deeply. "Since he made a point of saying he'd call…."

"You want me to track the GPS coordinates?"

"Do it. If they're moving then they are probably hot on that lion's trail…if not…"

"I'm on it." JD pulled out his phone and started to work, while Chris called Kelli again.

Buck moved closer to Chris. "You think we should saddle up and go look for Vin and Brodie?"

Chris was concerned, but so far, he was not picking up any vibes that Tanner was in trouble. "No…not yet, there are at least a dozen reasons they've been delayed. If they're not back soon, then we start hunting."

Josiah walked in and started to apologize for being late. "Sorry…"

"No problem Josiah, we're waiting on Vin anyway." Nathan handed him a cup of coffee. "How did it go last night?"

Sanchez sat down, and sighed. "Mallory has taken on a domestic abuse victim to counsel. I think it went okay, but as of now, we have two new residents in our household. Tess McCall and her daughter Keira are living with us, at least temporarily."

"I believe the object is to counsel, not adopt," Ezra said with a smile.

Josiah nodded. "You are correct, but we have what you'd call…special circumstances. Tess has had to move eight times in two years to get away from her abusive ex. He keeps following her, and last night he caught up with her here in Denver, She'd only been in town two days. Anyway, he tried to take their daughter, who's barely three years old, to blackmail Tess into going with him. In the process, he broke the child's arm, and Tess attacked him…she got the hell beat out of her for it, he ran…little Keira called 9-1-1, and the rest as they say is history. When Mal found out this woman's history, I knew she and the child would be coming home with us."

"I hope they caught the bastard." Buck hissed. "If not maybe DPD could use an assist…I'd volunteer."

"No they didn't, but she's safe with us, and Mal will help her get her life back together. If DPD doesn't locate him soon though…" He glanced at Buck, "I'll let you know."

"Speaking of locating…" Chris turned to JD, "anything?"

"Not yet."


"Sonofabitch," Vin groaned when he attempted to move. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he then remembered where he was. A burning pain shot up his leg into his side when he shifted his position. 'Okay Tanner, don't do that…cat…rocks…' "Dad," he yelled. Vin turned his head to his right, and was relieved to see Brodie not more than ten feet from his position, but on closer look he appeared to be out cold. The thought that he might be severely injured sent a chill up Vin's spine. He had just found his father, and no way in hell was he ready to lose him.

Assessing his own injuries by pain level, he surmised that his formerly bruised ribs were now possibly broken, he had a major headache, his leg hurt, and although he could not see it, he was certain the rocks did a good job of marking his back. Both rifles were about eight feet below his position, and the cougar had apparently disappeared. Reaching for his belt to unclip his phone, he found only a torn piece of leather. 'Fuck', reckon you'll have to do this the hard way Tanner.'

As much as he wanted to get to his dad, Vin knew their feline could still be around close. Without weapons, they were sitting ducks. 'Guns first, then Dad,' Making his decision, he eased slowly toward their rifles, keeping watch for his missing phone at the same time. Each breath he took was an aching reminder about his ribs, but he persistently edged closer to the guns, trying to ignore the intense pain radiating across his midsection. Descending to them was easier than the assent back to his father's trapped position, but with dogged determination Tanner managed to crawl his way to Brodie's position.

"Brodie…Dad, wake your ass up." Slipping his arm beneath him, and shaking him gently, Vin finally heard a groan. "Come on you ornery cuss, talk to me."

Mumbling, Brodie answered, "What the hell do you want me to say?"

"You can start by tellin' me you're okay."

"I'm alive…does that qualify as okay? What about you?" He could not decide if the ache in his head outweighed his other assorted aches and pains.

Vin did not like the look of the ugly gash on the side of Brodie's head, and watched his father carefully, counting each rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. "You were out cold for at least fifteen minutes, and that is not okay in my book. As for me….A few cuts, scrapes, and bruises, which aren't too bad, but I reckon my ribs took another beatin'."

Moving gingerly, Brodie groaned again. "I think we might have a small problem. My foot is good and stuck under these rocks… could be broken."

"You're alive, that's what counts." Steeling himself to the pain he knew was coming, Vin attempted to free his father's leg. For each rock he moved, more slid down the loose shale to take its place. "This is gettin' us nowhere," Vin said, sitting back on his haunches to think.

Brodie saw the toll the effort to free him was taking on his injured son. "I'm sure as hell not going anywhere, and you're in no condition to keep at it. Leave me, and go get some help."

Looking down the mountainside, Vin mentally calculated the distance to the horses. If his ribs were broken, and they shifted, he could puncture his lung on his way down and be dead before help arrived. Brodie could die up here alone, before anyone found him. Shaking his head, he said, "No. If you pass out again, you could end up bein' that fuckin' cat's next meal. There has to be a better alternative." While he tried to figure one out, he sent a message to Larabee. 'Chris, we could use a little help here.'


As six anxious brothers waited for JD to do his thing with the sat phone, Kelli showed up, and had Chris cornered. "You know as well as I do Vin planned to be back early, and somethin' is not right. If you won't go look for him, I will."

"Honey, JD is getting a fix on their position as we speak. I promise…" Chris stopped, hearing Tanner's voice in his head. "JD!"

Approaching Larabee, JD nodded. "I just checked out the location. The signal is stationary, but the coordinates don't make much sense."

"I need to get up there…" He looked down at JD's hand on his arm.

"Let me. My bike will be faster than a horse, or a vehicle."

"Some of those dirt trails are pretty…" Chris smiled, thinly. Here was a man, who had taken dirt bikes up more trails than he could ever put a number to. "Do it…and keep in touch."

JD smiled made a mental list of the supplies he might need, and nodded. "Will do…trust me." He went to leave, turning back as Chris called him.

"Kid, I always do."


Normally, the ride out would have been fun, but the lack of communication from Vin and Brodie made it full of urgency. Pausing at the bottom of a run of steep, stone-filled dirt tracks, JD blew outwards then patted first, the first aid kit he had strapped to him, the flares in his pack, and then his bike. "Girl…don't fail me now."

Twisting the handle to pick up the revs, JD nodded to himself once, and with his right foot still on the ground, pushed off. Half way up the second of four tracks, he felt the bike slide, adjusting his weight to compensate, and at one point, standing to spread the load better. He frowned in concentration, knowing if he lost it even for a second, he would lose control. He thanked all that was holy that his bike was so flexible though, and reminded himself he would need to get his shocks checked after this little jaunt.

At the bottom of the fourth, JD took a breather, removing his helmet to shake up the sweat-dampened tendrils a little with his fingers. At the top of this rise was where the signal to the cell phones had led him. He suddenly felt very nervous, wondering if he should ease up, deciding instead, just to go for it. He actually grunted through this climb. This hill was the steepest, and his every muscle was feeling the strain. JD felt the bike again start to slide, desperately trying to compensate. The foot he put to the ground failed to steady him and he laid the over-revving bike down on the gravel, wincing at the impact to his knee, but grateful his leathers had done their job. Looking up, he decided to push the machine the last dozen yards and give it a break.

Finally, on flat ground, he rested the bike against a boulder while he scanned the area. He found the horses, still tethered, close by and they nickered on seeing him. Walking toward them, he could see the rifle sheaths were empty, and he suddenly remembered what Vin and Brodie had come up here to do. Nervously licking his lips, he concentrated on tracking down the cell phone, eventually finding it lying in some long grass. Looking up, he called out. "VIN…BRODIE!"

JD's voice was like music to his ears. Urging his father to hold on, Vin took as deep a breath as his ribs would allow and yelled. "Up…here!"

Loosening the horses' tethers in case the cat should return, JD scrambled up the steep slope, stopping dead in his tracks on seeing the injured men. "Aww, shit!"

"Sounds…about right," Tanner agreed.

"Hold on, bro…I'm gonna call Chris and tell him where you are…unless you need something first?"

"No, do…it. We're gonna need help to get Dad out of here."

Nodding, JD called Chris, relaying the situation in as much detail as possible. "Tell Nathan I can hear him…and I don't know, yet. I called you first. Okay…will do."

JD shrugged at a grinning Tanner. "You know Nathan…needs to know the ins and outs of a horse's ass like…yesterday." He lifted Vin's shirt and nodded at the bruising. "How bad?"

"Hurts like hell."

"Aww, come on…don't beat around the bush, give it to me straight."

Vin smiled and wrapped his hand around JD's wrist. He knew JD was scared for them, hiding his fear with humor. "Ain't goin' nowhere, Kid…just need some fixin' up, okay?" He winced as JD dabbed a moist wipe over some of his worst scrapes.

JD nodded, glancing across to find the rise and fall of Brodie's chest. "How long's Brodie been out?"

"Not long this time. JD…I'm okay, check him out, would you?"

"Damn…sorry." Cursing for forgetting the fundamental rule of checking out the quieter casualty first, JD moved across to make sure Brodie's airway was clear and he wasn't lying on anything sharp. 'Come on, Nate…I'm crap at this.'

"You're not crap…don't say that. You're doin' all you can, for the time bein'."

JD frowned. "Quit reading me when I'm scared shitless." He stared. "What am I thinking now?"

"That's…physically impossible, even if I wanted to." Vin grinned. "I hope…" He stilled and held up his hand to stop JD from saying anything. The timbre of his voice changed to a soft whisper, "She's here…" Tanner gripped his rifle just as they heard a loud spine-tingling growl coming from somewhere close by.

JD whispered, "Where is it?"

"Too damn close for comfort," Vin answered in a hushed voice. "Take my rifle." He passed it to JD, while he readied the tranquilizer gun. "We don't want to kill her unless we have to, but I don't want us to be her lunch either." He moved into a protective position over his father, who was now unconscious again. "Call Chris and warn him."

JD nodded, as he made the call.

Chris answered on the first ring. "We're on our way; give me an update….."

Interrupting Chris was not his favorite thing to do, but JD did it anyway. "That cat's here, keep watch coming in…" He stopped in mid-sentence when he got his first look at the majestic creature standing on a huge boulder, less than twenty feet from their position. "Jesus, she's big…"

Chapter 10

"Damnit, I lost the connection." Chris leaned forward, and shouted to the MCAT chopper pilot. "Stick with the original directions. We'll have to spot them from up here, and then find a place to land."

Josiah used binoculars to watch from the left side of the helicopter, while Buck did the same from the right.

Nathan asked, "Chris…did he say if either of them were mobile?"

"No. he said something about the cat, and the rest I couldn't understand, but I figure if either of them were mobile, Vin, or Brodie would have found a way to get the other home."

Nodding, Nathan sighed. "Then we'll have to plan on carrying them to the LZ."

The first pass the chopper made came up frustratingly empty. When the second one was just as fruitless, Chris began to lose it. "How damn difficult can it be?" he yelled out over the noise of the rotors. "I gave you the coordinates for Christ's sake!"

"Easy stud," Buck attempted to soothe him. "Lot of ground down there…"

Raphael turned his head slightly as he spoke into his radio. "The rise they're on could be anywhere within a square mile as we fly over. I've hit the coordinates, but they must be just to one side. The density of the trees is making a visual difficult. A signal would help."

Suddenly Josiah called out, pointing to a phosphorus beacon of a flare, "There!"

The chopper banked and made another pass. This time the two huddled forms, and the one on his feet waving excitedly, were clear as day. In his headset, Chris heard Raphael speak again. "There's a clearing about a quarter of a mile from here where I can put down. It's the best I can do."

Chris nodded. "Do it!"


Having set off the flare from his pack, JD quickly snatched up Vin's rifle again. He took a deep, shaky breath. JD had faced more men…and women…with guns during his career, than he would ever be able to recount, but, he couldn't recall ever feeling as nervous as he did at this moment. Vin's soothing encouraging, raspy voice kept him grounded, as he aimed his rifle at the big cat…the very, very big cat that was now gracefully leaping onto boulders to get closer. 'Aww shit…come on, guys. I really don't want to shoot the kitty.'

Taking aim with the tranquillizer gun, Vin was waiting for the cougar to turn, so he could hit the right spot. "I'll try to take her out with the sedative, but if it comes down to it bein' her or us, kid…"

"I know." 'God, his mouth was dry.' JD was fascinated by the way her muscles rippled with each fluid movement, and at just how huge her paws and teeth were, while wondering why she was so insistent in walking toward a man with a gun trained at her head. The distant rotor wash of a minute ago was now deafeningly closer and the cat halted her pace, twitched her tail, turned on her heels, and bounded away.

"Damnit!" Vin cursed, his disappointment evident. The frustrations about missing the cat again, and worry over his father's condition mixed with his injuries. Knowing that Chris and the others were coming, he gave in to it all, allowing the pain to overtake him.

JD punched the air, 'yes!' …looking up and waving at the welcome sight of the MCAT chopper skimming over them. He grinned down at Vin, alarmed to see the Texan almost doubled over in pain. He squatted down next to him and talked him through it. "Hold on, Vin, they're here!"

"Gonna…try," Vin gasped out, looking into JD's wide eyes to reassure him. He saw JD nod, and smiled to himself. Vin knew he wasn't fooling him, but he appreciated that the kid kept up a front.


With the helicopter on the ground, all five men were now racing through the underbrush toward the downed men's positions. Between them, they carried the necessary equipment, Raphael clutching a rifle should the cougar decide to stalk them, instead. Passing the horses on the way, Buck stopped and loosely tied them close to JD's bike.

'Hang on, Vin…we're here.'

'I know…good to hear your voice.'

As soon as JD saw them approaching, he ran to assist with the equipment. While Josiah and Buck cleared the rocks from Brodie's foot, Nathan began his administrations immediately. His practiced hands checking out every limb and body part, while JD talked him through the hand over. Chris went to Vin, offering gentle support, while careful not to jostle him in any way. He ran a finger under a fresh trickle of blood, and swiped it away.

"Kelli?" Vin asked.

"With Ezra, I called, and told 'em we found you, so they headed on to the hospital to meet us. The chopper's going to take you and Brodie straight there."

Sighing, Vin nodded as he closed his eyes, only to open them sharply at Chris's urgent words. "Now is not the time for a nap, Tanner."

"I'm still here…Cowboy." He glanced across at Brodie, both relieved, and impressed that his father was already strapped onto a backboard, in a C-collar, and they were now placing him into a padded Stokes basket. "No need to…put me in…one of those…" Vin said, turning his head toward Chris.

Nathan joined them. "You don't get a choice, Tanner," the EMT smiled. "You fall down a mountain…you get to ride in the basket." As he talked, Nathan was already moving his hands over Vin's body to assess his injuries.

Twenty minutes later, Vin was on a backboard and secured into a Stokes. Buck, Josiah, and Nathan took the heavier Brodie, while Chris, JD and Raphael picked up Vin. With a collection of nods to say they were ready, the men eased their way through the brush and back to the chopper. With the seats now folded, and the litters taking up precious space, Buck and Josiah offered to ride Peso and Midnight to the ranch, and JD already had his bike, which left Chris and Nathan in the chopper. Taking up the seat next to the pilot, Chris gave a 'thumbs up' to the three still on the ground as the big bird lifted off.

Buck turned to JD and, placing an arm around his shoulders, gave him a squeeze. "Good work, Kid." JD shook his head. "I didn't really do anything." He sighed, heavily, looking up at Josiah as he spoke, while they returned to the horses and JD's bike.

"You did enough. They're in excellent hands now, John…they'll be fine." JD gave a tight smile. "God, I hope so."

Denver Memorial Hospital, late afternoon

Chris and Nathan took turns pacing the waiting area. They had been at the hospital more than forty minutes, and so far, had not heard a word from either Doctor Gilford, or Landers. Larabee was hoping to have something to tell his daughter when she arrived. He was certain that Vin and Brodie were not critical, but as for anything past that, he had no idea. Looking up when the emergency room double doors opened, he knew he had run out of time. Kelli and Ezra were here, and he still did not have anything definite to tell them.

Meeting Kelli when she walked over, Chris took her arm, and steered her to one of the chairs. "Both of them are banged up, but as far as I can tell nothing life-threatening. We should hear something soon."

"Is Doctor G in with Vin?" Kelli asked, glancing at the closed treatment room door.

"Yep, and Vin insisted he supervise Brodie's care, too." Chris sat next to her.

Ezra set two bags on the floor. "We brought a change of clothes, and a few personal items, in case…"

Nathan nodded, "Good thinking. I suspect they'll both stay, at least overnight. Rain's shift is almost over, but she said the last time she checked Vin and Brodie were in x-ray."

Kelli sighed. "Then I reckon we wait, right?"

"I daresay we should be used to this process by now." Ezra sat in a chair by the door. "Perhaps we should apply for a Wild Bunch express pass."

Chris ducked his head, and glared at the Southerner. "We don't spend that much time here."

"Humph," Nathan uttered, "that's a matter of opinion." He ignored Chris's headshake, and Ezra's chuckle.

Coming to her feet when Kelli saw Doctor Gilford walking towards them, the men did the same. "Doc, how are they?" Chris asked.

Gilford motioned for them to sit, and choosing to take the seat next to Kelli, he began to explain. "Vin's ribs took a hard hit, fortunately they're not displaced, but one did incur a hairline fracture. They will be painful, but with rest, and provided he does not injure them again anytime soon, his ribs will heal completely within two to three weeks. He has several abrasions, and cuts, but nothing that appears to be too serious. I am most concern with his headaches, which will probably stay with him off and on for a while. He suffered a grade two concussion, and to the best of his recollection, he was out for more than a couple of minutes. I am giving him antibiotics for the puncture wounds, and pain meds for his ribs." The doctor grinned. "Normally, I would send him home and let you watch him, but believe it or not, he insisted on staying overnight when he found out his father was being admitted."

"Brodie's condition is serious?" Nathan figured the elder Tanner was the most injured, but hoped he had not missed anything critical.

"Mister Tanner's head injury was more severe. The head laceration took six sutures to close, and he was in and out of consciousness for a prolonged period. His concussion was a grade four, and I want to observe him over the next twenty-four hours. Along with assorted bruises, and cuts, his left foot wedged beneath the rocks, and he sustained what we call a Type One crush injury. Compartment syndrome and plantar soft tissue defects are common with this type of injury. Right now, I have his foot in an air cast cuff to reduce swelling, and before he leaves, we'll fit him with a walking cast boot. It will take about six weeks for it to heal completely, but he should not have any permanent damage."

Kelli nodded, not surprised that Vin would elect to stay with his father. "Can we see them now?"

Smiling, Gilford nodded. "They're being moved as we speak to room 505." He stood and patted her on the shoulder. "Unless we encounter complications, which I do not anticipate, plan on taking them both home tomorrow afternoon."

Chris reached out to shake Gilford's hand. "Thanks Doc."

"You're welcome. I'll add Mister Tanner to my patient list. I have a feeling I'll be seeing him as often as I see his son." The doctor was still smiling as he walked away.

Larabee placed his hand at the small of his daughter's back to guide her to the elevator. Ezra picked up the two bags, and Nathan followed.

Room 505

Chris pushed the door open allowing Kelli to enter first. The room was well lit, and a nurse was helping position Brodie's leg to a comfortable position. She smiled as they entered, and told them to keep their visit short. Kelli stepped aside to let the nurse exit, and then zeroed in on her husband.

Vin's bed was closest to the door and it had been easy for him to read her thoughts before she even entered the room. As she headed towards him, his focus was to ease her anxiety about his injuries. He appeared to be waiting for her, and reached out his hand to touch her as she came nearer. "It's not as bad as it looks, baby."

After visually checking out his injuries, Kelli laid her hand against his cheek, and sighed. "I do hope the damn cat looks worse."

"Not at the moment, but when I get out of here…"

"You'll be restin' those ribs, just like Doctor G ordered." Kelli lowered her head, meaning to lightly brush her lips on his. Instead, Vin slipped his hand to the back of her neck, and pulled her to him, capturing her lips for a long lingering kiss. His intent was to let her know that he was all right, and to quell her concern.

Ezra grinned; knowing that Vin was doing exactly what he would do had it been him and Barbara here. Distraction was always the best way to avoid discussing unpleasant subjects. Dropping Vin's bag at the foot of his bed, he walked over to Brodie's side of the room, and set the other bag on the chair next to his bed. "I believe you will find the items you need to make your stay here bearable inside."

"Thanks, reckon we'll be here a bit." Brodie's voice was softer than normal, and for the first time since he had known him, Ezra noticed the signs of age around his eyes.

Nathan stood in the middle of the room, looking at both men. "I expect you both to follow the doctor's orders. Once you're home I plan to keep a close eye on you two." He nodded to Brodie, and patted Vin on the leg, "Since I know y'all' are in good hands, I'm gonna catch a ride home with Rain." Glancing at Ezra, he asked, "You're welcome to ride with us, unless you want to wait."

Vin answered for him. "Go on, Ez, I appreciate you stayin' with Kel, but you should be with Barbara."

"Very well, but should either of you require anything, I welcome your call." Ezra winked at Vin. "Unless you seek an escape route and then I must decline. I'd rather face your disappointment than your redhead's ire."

Kelli dropped her husband's hand and walked over to Ezra, giving him a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks for comin' with me."

Chris saw the emotions, which crossed Kelli's face, and figured he should redirect them. "We won't be too far behind you. I'm giving Kel fifteen minutes and then I'm dragging her out." He ignored the flash of irritation on her face, and waited for Ezra and Nathan to depart. "Now, which one of you Cowboys wants to tell me what happened up there on that mountain?"

Brodie answered. "My boot slipped when I was taking aim at that cat. Vin broke my fall."

Shaking his head, Vin disagreed, "I should have been payin' closer attention. By the time I was focused, it was too late." He missed the eye roll his father performed, and continued, "The bottom line…the damn cat took down another kill less than a mile from our house, and stayed around once we fell, which normally a cougar would try to avoid. Everyone needs to be on high alert. She won't quit now that she's got a taste for the horses."

"Are you giving up on the idea of taking her alive?" Chris glanced from Brodie to Vin.

"As much as I'd like to, I'm not sure that'll be an option for us. She was leadin' us away from her den, which probably means we were close to her cubs… nothin' she'd done so far has been normal for a big cat, and she could become even more unpredictable." Vin explained further. "She's huge, and dangerous, if she puts her mind to it."

Brodie tried to nod, but it hurt to move his head. "Vin's right. She should have been long gone before that chopper passed over, but she stayed. It was like she was playing a game with us…not natural for a cougar."

"Okay, we'll beef up the patrols around the ranch." Chris glanced at Kelli. "Say what you need to, and then let's get out of here, so these two can get some rest."

Standing between the beds, Kelli first leaned down and kissed Brodie on the cheek. "I'm movin' you upstairs until your foot heals. You're gettin' the room next to Jason, so he can keep an eye on you. I promise you, he takes his responsibilities very seriously, and I expect you not to give him any reason to worry more than he is already."

"Don't do anything extra on my account, I'll manage."

"Forget it Dad. If Kel says you're changin' rooms, then it's a done deal." Vin knew when his wife moved into protective mode that it was useless to argue with her. "I expect she'll have us both under constant supervision for a couple of weeks. Anythin' she misses, Max is sure to catch."

Turning to her husband, Kelli said. "You bet your sweet ass I will. Y'all are damn lucky you're not in here for somethin' more serious, and I intend to make certain you both heal properly."

Upon hearing his dad chuckle, Vin grinned, grabbed her hand, and tugged. "Wait 'till I get home and we'll talk about my sweet ass, for now I'll have to settle for a kiss."

Shaking her head, she obliged him. "I'll be back tomorrow to take y'all home. If you need…"

"I'll call…tell the kids I'll talk to them tonight. Love you baby." Vin looked at Chris. "Take her home, and make sure she behaves 'till I get out of here." He waited until the door closed behind them before he gave in to the pain in his chest.

"You didn't fool her for a second, you know." Brodie knew Vin was hurtin', and doing his best not to show it in front of Kelli. "She's a lot like your mother. Rebecca always knew when I was in pain…sometimes before I even realized it myself."

"Kel doesn't miss much when it concerns me, or the kids, but if we don't talk about the pain, it's easier for her to leave." Vin followed up on the opening his father made, and hoped to hear more about his mother. "You don't talk about Mama often, do you?"

"No… in fact, when you were missin', Kelli was the first person in a long time who even heard me mention her name." Brodie thought for a moment, and then decided to continue. "…for me, your mother was the one love of my life. Rebecca was the strong one in our marriage, even though she always insisted I was. She was, beautiful, loving, and compassionate, but fiercely protective of you and me. I almost turned down that last assignment to stay home with y'all, but she said it was the right thing to do to make the world a better place for you, and I was the man to do it. Maybe, if …."

"Don't start on what if….that's somethin' we'll never know. I'm just glad we have now. For a while out there today, I thought I might have lost you before we had more time together." Vin reigned in his emotions. "I reckon I'm not ready to let you go just yet."

"Hell Son, it'll take more than a fucking cougar to take me out. I have you and Kel, and the kids now…it'll take TNT or an atom bomb to blast me out of your life." He groaned as shifted his position." I reckon we'll have to postpone our little excursion to Texas. Maybe I can get Wyatt to ship the things your mother left at the ranch to me, and see him in August at the Reins Rodeo instead."

Vin wanted to keep his Dad talking. "We have time for all that. I'd like to hear more about Mama…if you're up to it."

Brodie sighed. Not only had he cheated Vin out of having his father around, there had been no one to tell him how wonderful his mother was. Not sure how much his son remembered about the woman, who had stolen his heart, and loved her boy with all of hers, he decided to share some of his memories. "I have more than a few stories about your mother. I remember the first time I laid eyes on her at the county fair….she was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen. I fell in love with her at first sight…."

Vin laid back to listen, thinking that in so many ways he was like his father, especially where it concerned his wife. Kelli was his one love in this life, and if he lost her, could not imagine how he would go on with only his memories. He drifted off to sleep while Brodie was talking…thinking about his mother, his life with Kel, and for some unexplained reason, about Tracker, and his Anne, feeling their pain when they were separated in old Santa Fe.

Chapter 11

Larabee Home, 7:30 am

Jesse was excited. His grandfather had spent the previous day educating him about the Kerr family history. Between bites of breakfast, he began relaying the information to Chris. "Dad, did you know the Kerrs arrived in Britain after William I's conquest of England in 1066, and the Clan Kerr descend from two brothers, Ralph and John Ker, who settled in Jedburgh around 1330? And that Grandpa inherited the title of Baron?"

"No, I didn't." Chris smiled at his son. Too many times in his young life Jesse was in the position of not feeling as if he belonged, but he obviously felt included in the Kerr family. That fact alone elevated Donald Kerr to more than an okay person in Larabee's mind.

Cait knew her father well enough to know he would make certain Jesse was well educated about the family history before he returned to Virginia. "I think this morning he plans to teach you about kilts. By the end of the week you'll be sprouting a Scottish brogue."

Jesse grinned, finished his milk, used his napkin to wipe his mouth, and then asked. "May I be excused, and ride my bike over to see Granddad?"

"Yes, but stay near the houses, we still have a cougar running around out there. Tell him I'll be over in a while to give him a tour of the stables." Chris watched as his son jumped up, and headed out the door. Shaking his head, he looked at Cait. "Your father has certainly made a good impression with him."

"My father misses being around children. The stories that man can tell…" she sighed "I suppose I've heard them all starting from when I was Grace's age, but I loved rehearing them when I was Jesse's age." She stood, took Grace's empty plate, picked up Cody's spoon from the floor, and walked to the sink. "Grace is supposed to go to the Wilmington's for a slumber party, and my mother is expecting Cody, but I need to have a brief business meeting with Mallory at Reins. Would you…?"

Chris pretended to tweak Grace's nose, making her laugh. "Of course, I'll drop Grace off, and then I'll keep Lillian entertained until you're finished. Contrary to what they say about mother-in-laws, I like your Mom." He stood, lifted Cody from his high chair, and winked at his youngest daughter. He leaned over and kissed Cait, whispering," Just don't be too long."

"I won't." Cait hurried off to Reins, leaving Chris with Grace and Cody.

Reins of Change

Cait rushed in her office to find Mallory waiting for her. "Sorry, I'm late."

"No problem. You should be relaxing this week, not having to deal with business issues anyway." Mallory gave Caitlyn a few moments to organize the folders on her desk. Shaking her head, she smiled. "I don't know how you do it all. As if getting married in five days, visiting with your parents, the kids needing attention, the adoptions on Friday, and your work here isn't enough to keep you busy….now we have a cougar prowling the ranch, Vin and Brodie are hurt, and Lord only knows what else the upcoming week holds."

"The wedding details are complete, I love seeing my parents, the kids are a pleasure, and my work is important. I'll let Chris and the men deal with that cat, and Barbara assures us the adoptions are on schedule." Cait sighed. "I will admit that I'll be glad when this week is over though."

"Then let's get this over with. The top folders contain the results of my interviews with the applicants for the daycare position; only one came close to maybe filling the part-time position. I wrote in my comments for you." Mallory passed her a separate folder. "This is one I'd like you to consider for the full-time position."

Caitlyn perused the interview files, which were not encouraging, and then looked at the special one Mallory had compiled. Looking up, she smiled, "Tess McCall…happenstance or divine intervention?"

"Not sure, but I know she's here for a reason."

"She is definitely qualified, and with you and Josiah as a reference… I'd say we have our new daycare teacher. "I'll let you handle telling her, and work out the details." Cait stood up and stretched. "Let her start when she's physically ready, and tell her I'm looking forward to meeting her, and her daughter. Bring them to the wedding with you, if she's comfortable with it."

Mallory stood and smiled. "She'll be a great addition to the staff, and it will be good for her and Keira. I'll ask her about the wedding."

"I hate to run, but I'm supposed to meet Chris, who right about now should be with my parents. I hope to get there before my Mother spills all the embarrassing details of my childhood." Cait walked out with Mallory, and the two separated to head towards their respective destinations.

Wilmington Home, Noon

Jason jumped out of the truck as soon as his mother stopped, and ran ahead of them to the house. Kelli opened the truck door for Andi, and waited for her to grab her overnight bag, before taking her hand and walking towards the porch. The front door flew open, and Sarah ran out to meet them, with Maria hot on her heels.

"You should see what Aunt Isabella made for our slumber party." Sarah gushed, taking Andi by one arm, while Maria grabbed the other. Within moments, the girls had disappeared inside.

Inez stood at the door, shaking her head, and then smiled. "I think the girls are excited. Isabella created a dream cake for them, along with a few other special treats, and planned enough games to keep them busy until tomorrow. JD is already here with JJ, Lilah, and Daisy, Chris dropped Grace earlier, and Joanne and Ronesha should be along soon." She moved aside, allowing Kelli to enter. "Caleb has been ready to escape since early this morning. Are you sure you want an extra kid around with Vin and Brodie coming home?"

"Caleb is no trouble, and he and Jason have been lookin' forward to this overnight all week. Besides, I'll only have four boys; you're the one who'll be dealin' with ten little girls."

Inez corrected her, "Six little boys. You know how men are when they're sick or injured."

"I stand corrected." Kelli smiled as they walked into the living room, where Buck and JD were entertaining JJ, Tannis, and Bella. "Y'all' look busy."

Buck glanced up. "Don't know about busy, but we're having fun."

"How are Vin and Brodie doing?" JD asked.

"Better than they were yesterday, they're comin' home today. Vin told me you did good up there, JD. Thanks for goin' after them."

Nodding, JD said, "I wish I could have done more, but I'm glad they're all right."

"You tell Vin, he owes me." Buck leaned forward and raised his hand. "Peso bit my little finger, and Josiah had hell with Midnight. I don't understand how either of them gets along with such ornery horses."

Kellie chuckled. "Pure Tanner stubbornness I reckon."

Jason entered the room with Caleb, who was carrying his bag. "We're ready Mom."

Standing, Kelli glanced from her son to Caleb, both of them showing their eagerness in their expressions. "Max is expecting y'all to help get Grandpa's room ready." She turned to the others. "See y'all later. After I drop the boys with Max and the twins, I'm going by Dad's house, and then on to the hospital." She excused herself, found Andi, gave her a hug, wished Inez luck with her houseful, and left with the boys.


After dropping the boys at her home, Kelli headed to Chris's, but stopped when she saw a rider in the Larabee corral, and realized it was Chris on one of the three-year-olds. Donald, Lillian, with Cody in her arms, Cait, and Jess were watching. Kelli stopped, and got out of her truck to join them.

Cait smiled when she approached them. "Your father decided to give one of the younger horses a workout."

"Considerin' he's only green broke; I think Dad might be the one gettin' the workout." Kelli leaned on the fence railing, along side of Jesse, to watch.

Although he enjoyed it immensely, it had been a while since Chris had the opportunity to ride any on the other horses on the ranch. Showing Donald around the stables, and acquainting him with their set-up was just the excuse Larabee needed to take on this one. When he first mounted the gelding, all went well for a few moments, and then he became skittish. Chris was not sure if it was simply the fact that he was an unknown rider for the horse, or something else that was making the young bay nervous, but he spoke to him in a soft soothing voice as they rode around the corral.

"Easy boy," Chris whispered as he leaned forward to pet him on the neck. Cody squealed at his father, and without warning the horse shied, and then began to buck. Caught off-balance, Chris went flying, and hit the ground with a hard thud.

"Stay here," Kelli ordered Jesse, as she climbed over the fence to catch the bay, making certain he was not able to step on her father while he was on the ground.

Cait and Donald rushed over to Chris, while Lillian stayed with Jesse and Cody. Dropping to her knees, Cait anxiously scanned Chris's still form to make sure he was breathing. A wave of relief washed over her when his beautiful green eyes popped open, and he groaned. Within a few moments, and with help from Donald, he was able to manage a sitting position.

"I'm calling Nathan," Cait said as she pulled her cell phone from her pocket, and punched in the number.

Shaking his head, Chris rasped, "I'm all right, only had the wind knocked out of me." He reached out his hand. "Just help me up, and I'll be okay."

Donald helped him to his feet, while a worried Cait looked on. "Nathan is on his way over; you should let him check you out."

Chris nodded, "I will if it makes you feel better." Taking his hat that Donald had picked up from the ground, he muttered, "Thanks," and slowly limped toward the fence.

Kelli joined them. "I handed the bay over to George. Are you positive you're okay, Dad?"

Leaning on the railing to catch his breath, Chris nodded again, and said, "Just got my bell rung for a minute. I should've remembered that horse was only green broke, and paid closer attention."

She sighed and gazed at her father. "At least you can't say you fell off, you have witnesses that you were thrown."

Chris shook his head. "I supposed Vin will get even with me now about the ribbing I gave him when Peso threw him."

Kelli grinned. "I'd bet on it." She glanced over to Cait. "I'm goin' on to the hospital. Call me when Nathan is finished, so I'll have news for Vin. You know he'll ask."

"I will," Cait answered, and began issuing orders. "Dad, help me get Chris up to the house. Mother, take Cody, and Jesse, you watch for Nathan. Bring him inside as soon as he arrives." Escorted by Donald and Cait, Chris walked slowly to the house.

Kelli squeezed Jesse's shoulder. "Don't look so worried, he'll be okay. It's not the first time Chris has taken a spill, and I'm certain it won't be the last." The young teen only nodded, and followed the others to the house. Kelli waited until she saw Nathan drive up, before she started her truck, and then headed for the hospital.

Larabee Home

After examining Larabee, Nathan stood back, shaking his head. "I know you and Vin have an undisputed mental connection, but does it include matching injuries, too? You look almost as beat up as he is."

"Strictly coincidental, I assure you," Chris snapped as he reached for his shirt. "I'll be sore for a while, but I told you nothing was broken."

Cait looked at the darkening marks on Chris's back and thigh, and then sighed. "We have four days to go before the wedding. The Groom, his Best Man, and my Matron of Honor, have all been hurt within the past week. At this rate we might have to hold it in the ER instead of here on the ranch."

Nathan laughed. "It's a good thing you have Rain and me on the guest list. We could always set-up a triage area next to the wedding tent…just in case."

The phone began to ring, and Chris grabbed it, already knowing it was Vin calling. He barked into the receiver, "I'm fine, Kel is on her way to pick you and Brodie up, and I don't want to hear one word about my riding abilities."

While he talked with Tanner, Cait opened the door to the den and told her parents and Jesse that they could come back in, as Nathan was leaving.

Donald waited until Chris was off the phone, and with his arm around Jesse, he grinned. "I was explaining to our boy that when he's around horses enough he'll realize…there ain't a horse that can't be rode…."

Chris finished for him, "…or a rider who can't be throwed." He nodded to his son. "I'm all right, and before this week is over, I'll be back on that horse."

Cait rolled her eyes. "If it's all the same to you…wait until after the wedding before you tackle that bay again, please."

"Good advice, Son," Donald winked at his daughter. "You don't want to be incapacitated on your wedding night."

Lillian swatted at her husband. "Lands sake, Donald, you'll embarrass the child."

Leaning down close to her ear, he said in a conspiratorial whisper, "I think Kit knows about the birds and the bees."

"Not that child, you dolt," Lillian nodded to Jesse, "this one."

Jesse smiled at Chris. "Dad and I already had that talk, Nana."

Trying hard not to laugh, Chris cleared his throat. "Jess, would you check on Cody for us. He should be good and asleep, but you never know."

Donald at least waited until Jesse left the room before he burst into laughter, earning twin glares from his wife and daughter. Wiping away tears of laughter, he smiled at Cait. "I haven't had this much fun since…well, a long time. It's great being around family, which bring me to a subject Mother and I wanted to talk to you both about." He gestured for them to sit, and waited until Chris and Cait were comfortable before continuing, "You don't have to give us an answer today, but we'd like you to think over a proposal we have for you."

"Donald, get to the point," Lillian prodded.

"Yes, well, the truth is we're not near as busy as you think we are. In fact, you could say we're retired from the horse breeding business, and the reason we travel so much is …we don't have anything better to do. Being here has only brought home to us how much we miss living so far away. We're proposing, with your blessings of course, to stay on for the summer in your old house, while we look for a suitable place close by to relocate."

Cait was ashamed of herself. Thinking back to their conversations over the past few years, she realized the signs were there, and she had missed them. She should have known her parents were lonely, but they always seemed so positive and upbeat, she had never considered that possibility. Leaning forward, she grasped her father's hand, and looked at her mother. "I would love for you two to live closer. I should have suggested it years ago, but I thought…"

"You thought what we wanted you to think, Cait." Lillian smiled. "Your life has always been full, and you didn't need two old people milling around. We're not just sitting at home, moping, either. We travel, your father still dabbles in the horse business, and I have my friends, but now we have grandchildren to consider. We would like to be a part of their lives, and who knows, they might learn a few things from us, too."

Chris placed his hand on Cait's back. When she glanced at him, he read the emotion in her eyes, and nodded. "We don't have to think about it. Whatever we can do to assist, let us know. I can give you the names of some reputable realtors in the area, and I'm sure I'll be calling on your expertise about horses from time to time."

Donald nodded, holding back his emotions. "We already had several good offers on our place in Virginia. I've just been reluctant to say yes." He squeezed Cait's hand and looked at Chris. "I promise we won't be interfering in-laws, but we will be great grandparents."

"You already are in my book, and I'm certain Jesse, Grace, and Cody would agree." Chris felt Cait relax under his touch, and knew this would be a good change in their lives.

Lillian stood. "We can discuss this more next week, after the wedding. Right now I think Chris probably could use some rest and TLC from Cait, and we," she nudged her husband, "promised Jesse, he could show us around Reins." Before she shooed him out the door, she leaned down and kissed Chris on the cheek. "In case we didn't say it, it's nice to have a son to call our own, too."

As her parents hurried off, Cait caught a glimpse of the stunned expression on Chris's face, and smiled. "You didn't know I was a packaged deal, huh? You get me, a new son, and parents, too." She leaned into his uninjured side. "They'll love you as much as I do; in fact they're half-way there already."

Chris was speechless. Having Cait's parents around was all right, and having grandparents for the kids was great, but until this moment, he had not considered they would be his parents, too. That would definitely take some getting used to.

Tanner Home, 8:00 pm

It had taken longer than Kelli anticipated getting Vin and Brodie discharged from the hospital, picking up their prescriptions, and making it home. Jason, Caleb and the twins welcomed them, and Max had supper waiting. Walter helped Brodie settle in his new room, under Jason's watchful eye, while she tended to Vin's assorted cuts and abrasions. It did not take long for the exertion of the day to catch up with the elder Tanner, and by the time she got back to his room, he was ready to go to sleep.

Kelli waited for Jason to say goodnight to his grandpa, and then told Brodie, "I'm leavin' the intercom on, and Jason left you a bell. If you need anythin' just yell."

Smiling when she mentioned, Jason's bell, Brodie nodded. "I'll be fine. You go and take care of your other patient. I plan to sleep the night away. Goodnight, Kel."

"Goodnight," Kelli said as she turned off the light, and shut the door. She knew Vin was as worn out as his father was, and hoped that he would be as cooperative about getting his rest.

Next stop was to check on Jason and Caleb. "Y'all have another hour to play, and then lights out. I'll be back to see that you don't forget." Picking up the twins' toys on her way to the bedroom, she stopped at the nursery, and saw that both Bren and Trey were out for the night. She loved watching them; both were miniature versions of their father. Kissing them on the forehead, she pulled their blankets over them, and then used the connecting door to the master bedroom, to see what Vin was doing.

The sight that greeted her, made her smile. Although she was certain that Vin did not plan to, he had fallen asleep. Despite his assurances that he was not tired, the meds evidently overruled him. She picked up his clothes from the floor, removed the laptop from the bed, turned it off, and gazed down at her husband. Her heart flipped as she watched him breathe, the same way it did every time she watched one on their babies sleeping. Reaching out, she gently touched his cheek, kissed his forehead, and lovingly tucked the covers around him.

Another hour or so, and she would join him, but these were the moments she treasured…the ones she stored in her book of memories. Glancing at his sleeping form before she turned the light off, she felt his presence within her, and she knew without a doubt that anyone who believed making love was only a physical act, had never been loved by a man like Vin.

Chapter 12

Vin watched Kelli breathe as she restlessly slept. Awaking to find himself pressed against her soft curves did not surprise him. Even injured he had sought her out in his sleep. Laying here in the predawn, spooned with the woman he loved, was his favorite time of the day. Lightly tracing her fading bruises with his fingertips, he briefly considered waking her. Under normal circumstances, he would, with tender kisses to the back of her neck, and his hand lovingly caressing her naked body, which followed with them making love to start their morning…but not today. Taking inventory of his aches and pains, he wisely decided not to start something that he was in no condition to finish. The ache in his groin matched the pain in his ribs, but pushing himself now would only prolong the healing, and it was important for him to reach a hundred percent as soon as possible.

Not only did he have a cat to hunt down, but also instinct told him that the hectic pace their lives had taken was about to come to a screeching halt. So far, he had resisted the temptation to read his wife's most private thoughts, but if she did not talk to him soon about whatever was bothering her, he might have to rethink that decision. Careful not to wake her, Vin eased out of bed, padded to the bathroom, dressed, and then quietly exited their bedroom. His first stop was to check on the twins, who were still sleeping peacefully, and then to the kitchen to put on coffee. Next stop was Jason's room; where he found his son and Caleb sound asleep in the makeshift tent they had fashioned over the beds. Smiling at the sight, he shut the door and moved on to his father's room.

Knocking softly on the door, he was surprised when it opened so quickly.

Brodie stood there, already dressed for the day, and only leaning on one crutch. "Morning, Son. You look better than you did yesterday. It's amazing what one night of uninterrupted sleep can do for a body, isn't it?"

"Yeah it is, but it doesn't heal a crushed foot overnight, or do much for that cut on your head." Vin was glad to see Brodie up and around, but guessed it was going to be a full-time job to keep him slowed down for too long. "Coffee's on, and it's just you and me awake."

"Best offer I've had all day," Brodie grinned, "lead the way, hotshot."

Raising his brow at the word hotshot, Vin wondered if maybe the blow to his father's head had done more damage than he thought. "I understand exactly what you're doing, and you don't have to prove to me that you're okay. I fell down the same mountain you did, and I know better. Save the BS for Kel, Max and the kids."

For a moment, he thought about denying it, but he had promised himself to be completely honest with Vin, no matter what. "Damn, and I thought I was convincing. I'm not used to being around people who actually care if I'm all right. Mostly they expect me to just suck it up and do whatever needs doing."

"Those days are over for you. I care, and so does the rest of the family. You might get away with a few things with Kel, or Max, but Jason will be watchin' you like a hungry hawk, ready to swoop down the second he sees you overdoin'." Stepping aside to allow his father to go first, he grinned. "I'm not movin' much faster than you are, so you go ahead."

With a sigh, Brodie nodded, slowly eased out the door, and started down the hallway. It had been a long time since anyone hovered around him when he was injured, but he reckoned it was a small price to pay to have a family again.

Larabee Home, 8:00 am

Cait cringed as she watched Chris limp across the kitchen. She knew he would never admit in a million years how much he hurt, but it showed with every step he took. Setting her cup in the sink, she turned to ask, "Did Ezra say why he needed to see us this morning."

"All he told me was that he'd spent most of yesterday afternoon with Linda's attorneys, had a long conversation with Matt, and needed to see us." Glancing at the clock, he sighed. "For Ezra to set a meeting time this early, it must be important."

Moving to the table, she pulled out a chair and sat down. "The adoption hearing is Friday. You think we should be worried?"

Coming to stand behind her, Chris laid his hands on her shoulders, and began to massage them. "Let's wait and see what Ezra has to say before we borrow trouble." In spite of reassuring Cait, he had a feeling in his gut that whatever was going on was not something good. Both of them tensed when they heard a knock at the door. "Come on in, Ezra."

Ezra walked in with Barbara, who smiled at Cait, and lumbered toward the kitchen table, as her husband gently ushered her to a chair. "It takes me more time lately, but I do get where I'm going," she said when she was comfortable.

"You look beautiful this morning," Cait placed her hand on Barbara's, and smiled at her.

"I hate to start your day with legal issues, but I felt the sooner we got this over with, the better." Ezra said, as he laid several folders on the table.

Chris nodded. "Don't make this long and complicated. Get to the point."

Sighing deeply, Ezra was hesitant to begin, but knew there was no point in stalling. "I met with the Dubois family attorney yesterday. Bottom line, if you don't settle Linda's estate issues that concern the children to their liking…they plan to oppose Caitlyn adopting them, and possibly fight for custody themselves."

"Bullshit!" Chris shook his head. "Who the hell do they think they are? Those kids belong to us…and no one is going to…"

Chris stopped his tirade when Cait laid her hand on his arm and said softly, "Chris, let him explain."

Ezra waited until Chris sat down, before continuing. "I won't bore you with a lot of legal mumbo jumbo. Their only concern in protecting their family's interest and they are willing to do that by any means possible. Under the terms of Linda's will…the children stand to inherit a large portion of the family fortune, which including future revenues and royalties, is substantial. They have proposed a settlement agreement, or buy-out, if you prefer that term, and while it is considerably less than the children could have by you fighting it in court…it is generous, and will put an end to any legal challenge. In plain English… fight them for your children's rightful inheritances, in which case they will drag you through every court possible, or take their offer, and end any future battles." Sliding a sheet of paper across the table to Chris, he told him. "This is their proposal. You can think it over, but if you want the adoption to go as scheduled, I need to give them a signed agreement before Friday morning. You may of course choose to fight them, and probably win, eventually."

Chris read it and passed it to Cait as he said, "I don't need to think about this. Grace and Cody need two parents, who love them, and all the money in the world is not worth jeopardizing that."

"I agree." Cait concurred. "While it might sound nice to have all the money in trust for them, the proposed amount is still more money than they'd know what to do with."

Standish relaxed, and pulled out another agreement. "I was so certain you would feel this way, I took the liberty of drafting a counter proposal, which I'm sure they will accept." He handed it to Chris. "You'll note that all the college trusts that Linda set up for the L7 kids are still intact, Grace and Cody will have substantial trusts of their own, and Barbara has been approved by the court to represent their interests. Once this is accepted by both parties, it is over forever."

Chris did not hesitate. "Where do I sign?" Someday he would explain to Grace and Cody why they were not multi-millionaires. By that time, they would understand that there were more important things in life than money, and it would not matter to them. Scrawling his name at the place Ezra indicated, he threw down the pen and leaned back.

Barbara gathered the papers she needed, and glanced at Chris. "I'm taking this straight to the courthouse the moment Ezra obtains a signature, which should be later this morning." Laying her hand on Cait's she smiled. "I'll do everything in my power to make things run smoothly on Friday."

Relaxing for the first time since they walked in the room, Chris remembered that Ezra had talked to Matt, also. "Did Matt try to push this on you?"

"No. In fact, when he discovered what his family proposed, he hit the roof, forced them to buy out his interests in all the joint family business, and disowned the whole bunch. Matt is very supportive about the children, and he's the reason I'm positive our counter proposal will be accepted. He does, however have an interesting proposal of his own, he'd like us to consider."

"Really? If it concerns the kids…."

Ezra shook his head. "It doesn't, but it does involve the owners of L7. He would like to discuss it with all of us, and he has a couple of things he wanted to hand deliver to you, and to Kelli."

"When is this supposed to happen?" Chris asked, already fighting the pain in his back from sitting so long.

Standish started putting his papers in order. "He'd like to do it today, if possible. I told him you'd call and let him know. I'm leaving from here to take these papers straight to the Dubois's attorney's office, but should be back before noon."

Chris nodded. "Since Matt needs to see Kelli, too, we'll meet at Vin's house. I'll set it up; you come by when you finish at the courthouse."

Barbara and Ezra said their good-byes, and as soon as they were out the door, Chris took Cait in his arms, and hugged her. "I know this is the right thing for the kids, and for us."

Cait sighed. "I wish Sunday would hurry up and get here. So many things have happened this week, I'm afraid another disaster might hit before then. It's like waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Rubbing her back, Chris grinned. "Honey, we are getting married on Sunday, come hell, or high water. I promise you."

Nodding her head, she said, "I'm holding you to that promise, Larabee. You make your calls, while I go over and see how my parents are doing with Cody and Jesse." She kissed him. "Tell Vin, I'll pick up Andi when I collect Grace, and then bring her home."

"Will do, babe." He waited until she was out the door and then went into his office. First, he would call Matt, second, his brothers, and then Tanner. It was only polite to let him know his home would be running over with family by noon.

Tanner Home, 9:00 am

Kelli looked at the clock and could not believe it was so late. Jumping out of bed, she hurried to the bathroom, dressed, and went in search of her family. Max was in the kitchen, and offered her breakfast, which she refused, opting for just coffee. "Where is everyone?"

Max nodded toward the door. "Vin and Brodie are on the deck; both of them have eaten, and had their meds. Walter took the twins with him for a run to the gatehouse, and Jason and Caleb are outside playing. I'll hold some breakfast for you, you need to eat something."

Knowing better than to argue with Max, Kelli simply said," Thanks," as she headed for the deck. She found her husband and father-in-law, both seated comfortably on lounge chairs. Vin was on the phone, and Brodie was keeping a close eye on Jason and Caleb as they played in their clubhouse.

"Morning Kel, "Brodie greeted her.

Sitting down next to Vin she smiled at her father-in-law, and said, "Mornin' yourself. How are you feelin'?"

"Better," he grinned, "I'd tell you I'm fine, but Vin says that don't fly too well around here."

"He should know, he's tried it often enough."

Snapping his cell shut Vin nodded. "Yep, I have, and it never worked." He grabbed his wife's hand, tugged, kissed her when she leaned over, and then said, "Mornin', Baby."

Her irritations showing, she said, "You shouldn't have let me sleep in. I have a million things to do today and now half the mornin' is gone."

Not deterred, Vin smiled. "Then scratch the first half million, and slow your butt down for a while. Besides, plans change. JD is on his way over, and Chris just called. He wants a brothers' meeting at noon…here. Matt is comin over, he has somethin' to give you and Chris, and a proposal for the rest of us to hear. Oh, and Cait will pick up Andi when she gets Grace."

Kelli mumbled something about crowds, and then asked, "Horses been fed?"

Watching her closely, Vin nodded. "Walter and Jason took care of 'em earlier, but since you're up, I'll let you tend to the scrapes on my back." He eased himself from the chair, while holding on to her hand. "Dad, we'll be back in a bit. If JD comes, there's a folder on the table he needs to look over."

"Take your time, I'm not going anywhere."

Vin nodded, leading his wife into the house, and straight to their bedroom.


Closing the door, Vin stopped Kelli before she headed to the bathroom for the ointment. "My back is healin' fine, and can wait 'till tonight. I wanted to get you alone so we could talk." He steered her towards 'their' rocking chair, after assuring her he would not break with her leaning on him, and they were both comfortable, he said, "So far, I've resisted the temptation to try to read your thoughts, but I think we should discuss whatever is botherin' you."

Kelli sighed, and shrugged. "Nothin' specific I reckon. I just feel 'off'… chalk it up to PMS, I reckon."

"Uh uh, baby, that was last week. Try again."

Rolling her tongue against her jaw, Kelli tried to find the words she needed, and then it all came tumbling out. "Hell Vin, it just seems we've been runnin' in overdrive for months now. It's been one thing after another since you and Buck were kidnapped. Now you're hurt again, and I have to worry about reinjurin' my shoulder. Dad's weddin' is takin up a lot of time, we have a full summer planned with the kids, and work is loomin' on the horizon, and …." she sighed, "I love Max, Walter, and your Dad, but I won't be cryin' when they get their own places finished. I feel like I'm suffocatin' in my own home."

Vin was not sure where to start. He realized the enormous amount of stress the past few months had produced was more than the usual amount in their lives. She had held up through it all fairly well, in spite of the strain he had put on their marriage, and the roller coaster of emotions taking fertility treatments produced, but he had expected it all to catch up with her eventually. Running his fingers through her hair, he softly drawled, "I can't do anythin' about Max, Walter, and Dad at the moment, but their homes will be finished soon. Chris and Cait will be married come Sunday, one way, or another. I'll be fine before you know it, we'll deal with your shoulder if and when we have to do more, and the kids are havin' fun, even if we don't plan many extra activities for them." Certain that there was more, he prodded, "but those are all things that you already know…what's really troublin' you?"

She looked into his eyes, allowing him to see her real doubts and fears. "I've also been havin' some strange dreams…these damn shots are kickin' my ass, and my hormones are all over the map… I don't remember it bein' like this the first time I took 'em, and I hate losin' control." She took in a deep breath, and continued, Do you think I'm bein' selfish wantin' another baby, when we have four beautiful children? I know these treatments cost a lot, and I put you through hell with my mood swings, and I loved bein' pregnant with the boys, but what if we have more twins? What if I don't get pregnant or worse what if I do, and I miscarry again?"

He knew she had been holding back, and now that he understood why, he was determined to find a way to help her sort through it. "Kel, if wantin' another baby is selfish, then we both are because I'd love for us to have another one…or two, or however many we're blessed with. We'll keep tryin' as long as there's no risk to you, and the cost is not important. We're in this together, and instead of holdin' all your fears in, you should have talked to me sooner."

"I thought you could read what I was thinkin'."

"I can most of the time, but… not when you're blockin' me, and I've been workin' on ways to control the process. I don't want to invade your private thoughts without your permission. Sometimes it just happens, but if I concentrate I can be more selective about how I use this gift."

"How do I block you?"

"The same way Chris and I block one another when necessary. You're subconsciously doin' it now, but with practice you could do it at will."

Kelli nodded, trying to understand. "I have nothin' to hide from you. If you can make sense of all the stuff runnin' around in my head…be my guest because I sure as hell can't."

"We can start by talkin' to Doctor Weeks about those treatments. She warned us that tryin' to get pregnant would be stressful, but maybe she needs to make an adjustment on 'em. Make an appointment for tomorrow and we'll go together to see what she can do. Let's don't start jumpin' to conclusions about what will or won't happen. As for your dreams… considerin' how we keep havin' to postpone our alone time, I reckon erotic dreams are natural."

Shaking her head, Kelli smiled, "They're not erotic dreams...although I do miss 'us'. I keep dreamin' about Anne and Tracker in Santa Fe. Durin' the dream, I physically feel her pain, and the unbearable anguish she experienced, when she had to leave Tracker behind. I 'saw' her die and his grief-stricken reaction… but… why now? I already knew their story…." Kelli shuddered, "I wake up feeling sad and anxious." Maybe tryin' to get pregnant again triggered my memories of Anne." She shrugged her shoulders, "I don't know."

Rubbing the back of her neck, Vin stilled his movements. He had been having similar dreams lately, and the fact they were both having them disturbed him. Whatever it meant, until he understood it himself, he did not plan to add that concern to Kelli's already long list of worries. "First things first, call the doctor now, and make an appointment. Relax today, and after we see what she says, we'll go from there." He leaned over and kissed her before she stood up. Watching as she made the call, he decided his priority now should be his wife, and getting her back on an even keel. Everything else would just have to wait…including that damn cat.

Laying the phone down, Kelli turned, and said, "Done. Doctor Weeks had an openin' at ten in the mornin'."

Vin joined her, wrapping his arms around her. "I love you, Kel, and we'll work through this together." He kissed the top of her head. "Now, let's get today over with, while you try to relax as much as possible. There's nothin' so important it can't hold for another day or so."

Close enough to feel his heart beating, she whispered softly, "You know, sometimes I wish I could hear your voice in my head the way Dad does. I love the sound of it, and you never fail to cut straight to the heart of what's troublin' me."

Smiling as they walked out, Vin told her, "My job, baby, is takin' care of my woman, and I'm damn good at it." He got no argument from his wife.


Kelli stayed in the kitchen to help Max prepare lunch for the brothers. By the time Vin rejoined his father, JD was already pouring over the report Tanner had left for him. He looked up when the Texan approached. "I didn't expect results this fast. How did you manage it while you were in the hospital?"

"Told you, Kid, I have connections." Vin smiled as he eased down on the chair. "It's only a preliminary report, and I should have somethin' more detailed for you in the next day or so, but I figured you'd want to see this as quickly as possible."

"It says here Casey is holding down a job, and going to a counseling group twice a week. I guess that's good…still…leaving the kids with her….I'm not sure I'm ready to do that."

Glancing at JD, Vin nodded. "You're right not to make any hasty decisions. If Casey is really on the right track with her life, she'll still be there a few weeks, or even months down the line. Take your time, and trust your instincts. When it's right, you'll know it."

JD closed the folder when he saw Josiah and Nathan arrive. "Thanks Vin. Whatever else you get…."

"I'll bring straight to you." Vin turned his head as Josiah and Nathan walked onto the deck. "Howdy."

Nathan grinned, and said, "Howdy yourself. How are the ribs?"

"Healin', and yes I'm takin' my meds, and followin' the doctor's orders." Vin smiled when Nathan shifted his glance to Brodie, and knew what his next question would be.

Brodie did, too, and answered before Nathan asked. "Head hurts some, but the doc said it was expected." Staying off the foot as much as possible, and I'm following orders, too."

Nathan nodded, pleased that he did not have to reprimand either of them. "Josiah and I had cat patrol today…not a sign of her."

"Buck and I couldn't pick up her trail yesterday either." JD shrugged. "Maybe she moved on."

Josiah shook his head, " I think that would be wishful thinking, and judging by the rifle laying between Vin and Brodie, I don't believe they think she's gone either."

"It's not likely that she's moved her cubs so soon." Vin told them." Don't trust a big cat that's not afraid of people…she'll show. We just don't know when or where."

An hour later, they were still talking about the cougar, and Max had set up a lunch buffet in the sunroom that adjoined the deck.

Buck was on his way up the steps when Caleb came running over to give him a hug, and said "Hey Dad. Do I have to go home now?"

"Nope, you can stay 'till our meeting is over, and then you and I are going to the game room for a while. If it's okay with his parents, Jason can come with us." Buck glanced over to where Vin was, and saw him nod, and then told Caleb. "Guess that's a yes."

"Yeah! Wait 'till I tell Jason." Caleb ran off towards the tree house to tell his cousin the news.

Buck shook his head, grinned, and joined the others. He sat next to JD and snatched a chip from his plate. "You're eating already? Where's mine?"

Between bites, JD answered, "I was hungry, and yours is over there with the rest of the food."

"Help yourself Bucklin," Vin offered. "We're still waitin' on Chris and Ezra to arrive."

No sooner had he said it than Chris drove up, with Ezra right behind him.

Josiah commented. "Hail, hail the gangs all here. Anyone have an idea of why Chris called us together?"

Glancing from one to another they all shook their head. Buck said, "Guess we'll find out soon enough." Chris moved gingerly across the yard, and Ezra paced his steps, allowing Larabee to go first.

Vin chuckled. "Movin' kinda slow there Cowboy."

"No slower than you are." Chris muttered, as he sat down.

"There's plenty of food, and I figured if it's all right with you, we'd have our meetin' out here."

"Fine by me," Chris said as he shifted his chair, so Ezra could sit next to him. "We can start as soon as Matt gets here."

Brodie started to get up. "I'll leave y'all to it then."

Chris shook his head. "You don't have to leave. You can't vote, but we have no secret agenda, just a business proposal to consider."

Buck stood. "I'm gonna grab some food while we wait."

While they waited, they ate, talked about the cat, the upcoming Rein's rodeo, and kids.

Walter drove up and stopped on his way into the house to pass on some news. "In case y'all haven't heard, a wildfire broke out this morning about ninety miles north of here. If the weather reports are correct, they expect this heat to continue, and the winds to shift in our direction by the end of the week."

Chris sighed. "It figures. As if, we haven't had enough excitement this week already. I sure hope they contain it because I do not want to tell Cait we have another problem, three days before our wedding."

Buck grinned. "Hell, Chris, if everything went smoothly, then we'd think something was really wrong."

Larabee grimaced from the pain in his back when he moved. "Maybe, but for once, I'd sure as hell like to find out how it feels to go stress free for one damn day."

Vin held his sore ribs as he laughed. "Then you should change your name, 'cause when it involves a Larabee…stressful situations just naturally follow y'all around."

A course of 'amen's' followed Tanner's remark, earning the other five bothers an exasperated glare from Chris.

Chapter 13

Tanner Home, Noon

Chris glanced at his watch. "As anxious as Matt said he was to get us together, you'd think he'd be on time." He glanced at Vin. "He has something he wants to give Kelli."

"She's not goin' anywhere." Vin cut his eyes towards Larabee. "Any idea what it is?"

"No, said he had something for me, too." Chris grinned. "Knowing how possessive you are, I just thought you'd like to be forewarned."

"I might not trust Dubois completely where Kelli is concerned, but I do trust my wife." Vin dismissed any ill thoughts from his mind, and changed the subject. "I've been ponderin' on somethin' I wanted to share with you."

Chris sighed. "Why don't I like the sound of that?"

"Because you're a suspicious son of a bitch, that's why." Tanner laughed. "Trust me, Cowboy; this is a good thing, especially for you and Cait."

"Okay, so spill whatever it is, and let me hear it already." Chris told him.

"I discussed this with Jesse first, and he agrees. Kelli and I want you and Cait to use our cabin for your weddin' night. We know why you planned a 'vacation with the kids', instead of a 'honeymoon', and we support that, but we think y'all need to have at least one night to celebrate together." Vin explained. "We'll take care of your kids', too."

"Thanks for the offer. Let me talk to Cait, and see how she feels about us postponing our trip for one night, and then we'll let you know either way."

"Sounds good to me," he said as he watched Matt pull his truck in beside Chris's Ram, and exited, carrying two boxes. Vin was not deliberately trying to read the man's thoughts as he approached, but Dubois was broadcasting loud and clear. Business was second to his real concerns, most of which involved Kelli.

Chris stood and after Matt set the boxes on the deck, he greeted him with a handshake, "Good to see you again. You know everyone, except maybe this one." He pointed to the elder Tanner. "This is Brodie Tanner, Vin's father, Brodie, Matt Dubois."

Matt nodded, remembering the comments Kelli had made, when he had flown her and Chris to Louisiana, about her father-in-law. "I believe Kelli mentioned you a time or two last week, all good, I assure you."

"I just bet it was." Brodie noticed the scrutiny Vin was giving Matt, feeling that perhaps all was not as it seemed between the two.

Chris offered Matt his chair, next to Ezra, electing to lean against the railing. "We're all anxious to hear what you have to say. So, anytime you're ready fire away."

Matt nodded as he laid aside the folders he had brought with him. "I know you all have a say in what concerns Larabee 7, and if possible I'd like to reach some kind of consensus today. The past week has been enlightening for me, and I've forced myself to do a lot of soul searching. For a multitude of reasons, I've decided to relocate to Kentucky, and sell the Southern Breeze, which brings me to a very delicate point. While sorting through my sister's files, I ran across some old legal papers. Back when she purchased the property…I understand that L7 had a buy option on it. If she had not interfered, and paid the sales agent an additional two hundred thousand dollars, which he pocketed, that land would belong to all of you today."

Buck stood and glanced at the others. "Are you saying she bribed him?"

"Regretfully, yes," Matt answered, and held up his hand. "Due to the circumstances of the past week, I'm now in a position to right that wrong. I propose selling the Southern Breeze to L7, and I think you'll find that the price is too good to turn down. I will pay the salary of all the Southern Breeze ranch hands for additional three months, and also carry the cost of incorporating the two properties." He picked up the seven folders, handing them to Ezra, who kept one, and then gave the others to Buck to pass on to the others. Once everyone had his proposal, Dubois stood and said, "I'll give you some time to look over the figures." He turned to Vin. "I'd like to speak with Kelli, while you all discuss your options."

Vin did not like the thoughts he was picking up from Matt, but short of making a scene, he felt the only thing he could do was trust Kelli to handle Dubois. "She's in the house with the twins."

Reading his son's body language was easy, and Brodie decided to follow his instincts. He swung his legs off the lounger, and grabbed his crutches. "I'll show you inside, they don't need me out here anyway."

Sending his father an appreciative glance, Vin nodded. "Thanks, I think Kel is in the den."

Matt waited, picked up the boxes, and then followed Brodie inside the house, while the men began to discuss his proposal.

Nathan was the first to say aloud what everyone was thinking. "The terms he's offering are way below the value of the property. Why would he sell at a loss?"

Josiah looked at Ezra. "With all the extra expenses we've incurred lately, can we even afford to think about this?"

"We have certainly spent a lot of money making repairs, and expanding, however most of that has been covered either by insurance, or reimbursed by Director Travis. Our biggest outlay of cash was to buy JD's property." Ezra glanced at Chris. "The real question is…are we willing to give him Texas Lady in exchange for half the asking price?"

Chris nodded. "She's worth it, but do we need to keep her bloodline here on the L7?"

"We've build a good reputation for the L7 breedin' program. Bounty Hunter is from the same line, and without her, I think we'd still be okay." Vin told them.

"Even at a cut price, and using Lady for part of the payment, that's still a lot of money." Buck shook his head. "We might be stretching ourselves too thin."

JD did his own figuring. "When the appraisers valued my two hundred acres, I thought it was about right, but Matt's willing to sell us his three thousand acres, with a house, and stables, for a fraction of that per acre. How can we not afford it?"

Ezra sighed. "We could swing it with a side note, but it would cost each of us approximately a hundred dollars a month more than we are currently putting into the ranch coffers. All in all, I'd say a good investment, and if we wanted to we could keep the acreage, and resell the house at a later date."

Chris looked from one brother to another, and decided it was time to see where they stood. "I'm sure Matt has his reasons for making us this offer, and we could use the extra land. Shall we take a vote?"


Brodie led Dubois to the den, where Kelli was sitting on the floor with the twins. Instead of leaving them in private though, he settled into the recliner, making it plain that he was staying. Matt set the boxes on the floor close to her, and then knelt down, smiling at Bren when he climbed onto his mama's lap.

"You look natural sitting there surrounded by babies. It suits you, Kel."

Making room for Trey to join his brother, Kelli nodded. "Who would've figured, huh?"

Reflecting back to the first time he had seen her, Matt shook his head. "You've always nurtured those around you. Your children are lucky…I only wish…" he stopped, and smiled again. "I suppose Fate had plans for you that I just couldn't compete with. You're where you should be, and I'm truly happy for you."

Recognizing where his thoughts were going, Kelli tried to steer the conversation to him. "You have a good life, too, Matt. You've followed your own path, and the last time I saw you and Kat together it…"

"Kat and I broke up. I discovered a few things about myself this past week. I know Kat loves me, but I don't love her the way I should, she deserves more than I can offer. My heart belongs… somewhere else, and I've discovered a man can't simply change how he feels because the woman he loves is married to another man. Finally admitting that is the main reason that I've decided to move. I found a place in Kentucky…where I can concentrate of my racehorses, and I'm leaving Colorado. I've made L7 an offer that I hope won't be refused."


"Don't say it Kel." He reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope. "Linda left you a letter with her will. You also have a bequest enclosed she wanted you to have, and I brought a few things the two of you exchanged over the years that I thought you might want." He nodded towards the boxes, and passed her the envelope. "Additionally, she left instructions that you were to have five specific horses, which I believe all come from your mare's bloodlines. I've made arrangements for them to be delivered on Saturday." Standing, he waited for her to open the note.

Kelli untangled the boys from her lap, and stood to put them into their playpen, before opening the letter. Unable to stop her tears as she read, she simply nodded, and then looked at the check…the 'mad money' Linda left her, saying every woman should have some. Shaking her head at the amount, she said, "Matt, I can't accept this…."

"It's a done deal, hon. You can't argue with a will…do what you want with it, it's yours." Stepping forward to stand in front of her, he said, "When Vin confronted me about you three years ago, I promised him I would never interfere with your happiness, or your marriage. I keep my promises, but I want you to know …if you ever need me… I'll be there for you…anytime, anywhere, for any reason." His voice broke as he stared at her, before saying, "I'm leaving tomorrow, and except for an occasional visit with Grace and Cody, I'm out of your life, but…once in a while, when you remember me, perhaps you'll give a moment of thought to what could have been. If I'd been more persistent about how I felt about you, before you met Tanner, maybe….hell, just make sure he's good to you, Kel." Before she had a chance to respond, Matt took her in his arms and kissed her. Quickly releasing her, he touched her cheek as he said, "You're where you belong, I know that, but remember when you look back on your life that I've never regretted loving you."

Matt hurriedly turned and walked out without saying another word, leaving a stunned Kelli standing in the middle of the room.

Brodie had watched the interaction, but refrained from interfering because he understood more about what was happening than Kelli obviously did. He reached for his crutches, and made his way over to her. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I think so…Vin told me Matt felt that way, but…I thought he was over it." She sighed. "So, what do I do now?"

Nodding, he thought about his own feelings about his Rebecca. "You do nothing, and don't feel guilty, Kel, you didn't do anything wrong. For some men there's only one woman who reaches their soul, and it's not something he can control, but Matt realizes you love Vin. The fact he cares enough to leave you to your heart's desires, says a lot about him. Allow him the dignity to gracefully exit your life, and remember him fondly." He placed a finger under her chin, tilting her head up. "I don't think Vin would begrudge any man who sees the same things in you that he does. My son's not the type to share, but he's bound to understand why Matt loves you."

"Thanks for stayin', just knowin' you were in the room helped."

Brodie grinned. "I read my son pretty well. I think he had an idea of what Matt intended, and I figured my daughter could use some backup." Turning serious, he told her, "Recognize this for what it was…saying goodbye, and if I know you, you'll tell Vin what happened, and together, y'all will find closure for it."

"I'm positive Vin knew, and of course, I'll tell him."

Bren and Trey were making noises that said enough talk they still wanted to play. Brodie smiled. "You had me and two other Tanner men standing watch. How about we stay in here with the boys until Matt finishes his business with the others?"

"I think that would be best." Kelli stood on her toes, and kissed Brodie on the cheek. "I always knew you'd be a good dad."


"Then we agree," Chris stated. "Ezra, you'll draw up the sales agreement?"

"Most definitely," Ezra said, nodding when he saw Matt coming out the door. "Do you wish to inform him of our decision, or do you want me too?"

Buck chuckled. "You're our man of words, Ez. Go for it."

After gaining nods from his other brothers, Standish stood and reached out his hand to Matt as he approached. "It is my pleasure to inform you, we have a deal. I can have the papers prepared for your signature by Monday morning."

Matt smiled. "I'm pleased, but if you don't mind we need to finish this today. I wanted to see Cody and Grace this evening, with Chris's permission, and I plan on being gone by noon tomorrow."

"So soon?" Chris asked. "I thought you were coming to the wedding Sunday."

"I think it's best if I depart as soon as possible." He avoided meeting Vin's eyes, concentrating on Larabee. "Although I do have a wedding present for you and Cait, and I wish you both the best. I also have a couple of boxes in my truck I'd like you to hang on to for Grace and Cody. They're full of special things that belonged to their mother. I thought they might want them when they get older."

'Don't pressure him for a reason, Chris.'

Chris nodded. "I understand. I'll bring Grace and Cody over later this afternoon, so you can say goodbye to them." He looked at Ezra. "Can you draw up the papers by morning?"

"If necessary, of course I can." Glancing at Matt, he said, "We can meet at your attorney's office, at say eleven. That will give me time to obtain a cashier's check from the bank. When do you want to take possession of Texas Lady?"

"Eleven will be fine, and if it's convenient, I've arranged delivery of five horses, which now belong to Kelli, for Saturday morning. My hostler can pick up Lady at the same time." He reached past Standish to shake hands with Josiah, Nathan, JD, and Buck. "Gentlemen, it's good doing business with you."

Chris placed his hand on Matt's shoulder. "I'll walk out with you, and transfer those boxes to my truck."

Matt looked at Vin. "If Tanner's up to it, I was hoping to have a few words with him. I'll put the boxes in your truck, and talk to you later, when you bring the kids over."

'Vin, it's your call.'

'Reckon this is somethin' I need to do.'

Vin eased up from the chair and nodded to Matt. "I'm up for whatever needs doin'." He followed as Matt walked to the stairs.

"What do you think that's about?" Nathan asked as six brothers watched them cross the yard.

Josiah sighed. "Whatever it is, let's hope it ends peacefully."


Matt waited until he set the boxes into the bed of Chris's truck before he said anything. "Linda named Kelli in her will. I gave her the check, and I'd appreciate it if you try to convince her to keep it." He finally met Vin's gaze. "I think you have a good idea about why I've decided to leave, and you're right. I told you once; I'd never interfere in your marriage, and I won't, but I thought Kel should know why, too. Spending time with her and Chris last week made me realize that I've only been fooling myself into thinking I could change how I feel. I love her, and if you want to deck me because of it…go ahead."

Vin knew when Matt arrived what he had on his mind, and while he did not like it, the man was at least being honest. "You told her that?"

"Yes. I wanted her to know." Matt kept his gaze steady. "I should have tried harder with her before she met you, but I didn't and now I have to live with the consequences. I like you, Tanner, and I trust you have sense enough to treasure what you have because I know she loves you. I lost my chance with her, and I respect her wishes enough to step aside, but you should know…if you're ever out of the picture, or hurt her in any way…all bets are off."

Thinking about his words, Vin took his time responding. "I'd like to say I'd do the same in your position, and make a graceful exit, but it would be a lie. I'd lay down my life for that woman, and fight the devil himself to be with her. If the situation were reversed, I'd do whatever it took to make her mine, and you would've had to fight like hell to keep her."

Matt nodded. "That's why I know she's where she needs to be. If I'd fought for her years ago, we wouldn't be having this conversation, but I didn't, and fate directed her to a man who will fight for her. Kelli deserves a man who loves her that much." He offered his hand to Vin. "No hard feelings?"

"I can't blame any man for lovin' her, and since you have sense enough to leave…" he grasped his hand, "no hard feelin's."

Stepping back, Vin watched while Matt climbed into his truck, and waited until he drove away before turning around, and walking back to the house. Buck had talked JD into going with him and the boys to the game room. After collecting Jason and Caleb, they left, followed by Josiah, and Nathan. Ezra gathered his papers and went home to work on their contract.

Before Chris left, he stood with Vin on the porch. Sensing the unease in his brother, he asked, "Anything I should be concerned about?"

Vin shook his head. "No, but make sure Cody and Grace have a chance to say goodbye to their Uncle Matt. I have a feelin' it will be a while before they see him again."

Chris nodded. "I will, but someday, Tanner, I expect to hear the real story behind him leaving."

Knowing that Chris needed some kind of reassurance that all was well, he said, "Let's just say Matt is leavin' Colorado for the same reason he came, and let it stand at that." He placed his hand on Chris's shoulder. "Take it easy on your back, old man."

"Don't old man me, when you can barely walk straight. While you're gimping around here, I'm going fishing tomorrow with my son and his grandfather," Chris was grinning as he walked away, but could not resist one more dig. "Maybe we'll run into your cat…I'll say hello for you."

"Bullshit. Take your rifle, and if you see her…shoot the bitch." Vin waited until Chris was close to his truck before rushing inside to find his wife. He had a burning need to see her.


Standing in the doorway of the den, Vin relaxed. Kelli and Brodie were engaged in a game of peek-a -boo with Bren and Trey, she was smiling, and suddenly everything was right again in Vin's world. The family image of his father, his wife, and his baby sons together, chased away the remnants of unsettling thoughts that remained from his conversation with Matt.

Seeing their Daddy, the boys squealed, and ran towards him jabbering a mile a minute. It was difficult to resist picking them up, but understanding the limitations his injured ribs gave him; he did not give in to temptation. Tanner chose to sit down, and let them exert their energy instead, much to his wife's approval. "It's just us again, everyone went home."

Kelli moved closer to monitor the boys, making sure they did not accidentally stick a knee where they should not. "Did y'all decide to buy the Southern Breeze property?"

"Yep, Ezra is drawing up the papers as we speak, and Matt …is gone."

"I hope he finds somethin' good in his future because…whatever he's lookin' for, he wouldn't have found it here."

Vin understood what his wife was not saying. He reached out, and took Kelli's hand, raising it to his lips to kiss her fingers. "I love you, Kel."

"It's a good thing you do, Tanner, if you didn't I'd have to hurt you."

The sparkle of humor in her blue eyes warmed his heart. Later he would find out what Matt told her, but for now, he was satisfied knowing she was all right. "You could try, but I have to warn you, Lady, I don't fight fair."

"Never thought you did, darlin', that's what makes life with you so Interestin'."

Larabee Home, Late evening

The time spent with Matt and the kids was over, and Chris deemed it a success. Dubois gave each of the children a special gift to say goodbye, and promised to keep in touch with them. Once home, it did not take long to get Grace and Cody down for the night.

Chris watched as Jesse tied the flies just the way he had shown him. "Great, son, I think you've got it. Tomorrow night, we'll be enjoying trout for dinner."

"I'm gonna set it all by the back door tonight, so we don't have to take extra time in the morning." Jess smiled. "You really think we'll catch enough for dinner?"

"I'm counting on it, Son. Now, hit the bed, five o'clock comes early."

"Yes, sir," Jesse said with a grin, hugged Chris, and kissed his mother before heading to his room.

Cait smiled and shook her head. "I don't remember seeing him this excited about anything."

Chris sat on the couch beside her, laying his arm across her shoulders. "Hey, a fishing trip with Dad and Grandpa, how often has he had that opportunity?"

"You're right. I guess it is a big deal."

"Thanks for giving me time to take the kids over to see Matt. They enjoyed it, and I'm not sure when he'll see them again."

"No problem, sweetheart. I thought it would be less awkward without me there. I know Matt approves of our marriage, but Linda was his sister."

Leaning over to kiss her neck, he whispered, "Who, in their right mind would not approve of you? You are perfect, baby."

Cait laughed. "To you, maybe, but some of my Reins kids might not agree. I make them do things they don't think they can do, and they scowl at me a lot."

"Their loss," Chris said with a smile, inching his hand inside her blouse. "Kelli and Vin have offered us their cabin for Sunday night…said we need a wedding celebration of our own, and they'd keep the kids. What do you think?"

Enjoying the feel of his touch was making it difficult to concentrate. "I suppose one night would be…okay…we could leave Monday morning with the children."

"That's what I was thinking, too." He kissed his way across her collarbone. "Our kids are down, and I think…we should call it an early night."

"I think…," she said as she kissed him, "…that sounds like a plan to me, but I'm not sure we'll get much sleep." Chris's grin made her heart beat faster.

"I'm counting on it, baby…first one to the bedroom, gets to strip the other." Ignoring his aches and pains, he jumped up and took off, smiling at the sound of her gentle laughter behind him. It was going to be a long, loving, night at the Larabee home.

Chapter 14

"That's it, pull that line, and ease it out there," Donald stood in the thigh deep water coaching his grandson in the ways of fly-fishing. "Remember, you're casting the weight of the line, instead of a lure."

Chris stood on the bank, watching the two, grinning at the sight. He and Jesse had been fishing often, but he was willing to bet the teenager would never forget his introduction into fly-fishing. These were special memories they were making, and it pleased Chris to see the smile on his son's face. Shifting the rifle he carried to his other arm, he walked downstream, stopping when he saw fresh cougar tracks by the water. Immediately scanning the area, he was disappointment when he found no other sign of the big cat. She was getting too damn close for comfort, and was beginning to be a royal pain in the ass for L7.

Making his way back to Donald and Jesse, he fervently hoped they would catch their limit of fish soon…before that she-cat returned to the area.

Sanchez Home

Mallory smiled when the young brunet walked into the kitchen. "Good morning, Tess."

"Morning," Tess responded as she poured a cup of coffee, and joined Mallory at the kitchen table. "I hope you know how much I appreciate what you've done for me and Keira, and I promise I'll find a way to repay you and Josiah."

Placing her hand over Tess's, Mallory said, "You don't owe us a thing. I've been where you are, Hon, and I understand how difficult it is to accept help. I thought I could handle my life and my abusive husband until the day he came home, and put me in the hospital for three weeks. I was ashamed to tell my family, and the few friends I had left, that he had not scared off, disappeared. Recovering from injuries, admitting that my marriage was over, filing for divorce, and trying to hold down a job, all at the same time, was one of the hardest periods of my life. But you know what…I survived it, and so will you."

"What happened to him?"

"He was killed in Operation Desert Storm, two weeks before our divorce would have been final."

"Troy is not in the service, and he won't quit coming after me until one of us is dead. I'm not afraid for myself, but Keira is only three…if he…if she…I know that you think I'm safe here, but Troy will find a way…he always does."

"You are in the safest place possible for you and Keira. The men who live on the L7 are all in law enforcement with Josiah, and no one can reach you here. You have a full-time job waiting for you at the daycare, and when you're ready, we'll help you find a place of your own. All you have to do is say you'll try."

Tess sighed. "I appreciate the job, and I've thought about your invitation to go to the wedding with you and Josiah. I suppose it's time to meet the parents of the children I'll be teaching, but I'd rather do it in a work environment."

Mallory hated to hear the sound of defeat in her voice, but decided not to reprimand her. In time, Tess would get her spirit back, until then she would stay with them. "Tell you what…come to the rehearsal dinner with us and meet everyone in a less formal setting. Maybe you'll find you can rid yourself of some of your concerns."

Tess considered the invitation, and then shook her head. "I'm sorry; I'm just not ready to do any socializing. I start at the daycare on Monday…that's soon enough."

Standish Home

Barbara set a cup of coffee in front of her husband. "You worked half the night on that. Did you finish?"

Ezra stretched, and took a deep breath. "Yes, I did. All I have to do now is be at the bank when it opens." He reached out and pulled Barbara onto his lap as she protested that she was too heavy. "Nonsense, Love. If you can carry our child twenty-four hours a day, I am perfectly capable of holding you both on my lap." He felt the baby kick, and smiled. "See, our baby agrees."

Laying her head on his shoulder, Barbara sighed. "Have I told you today that I love you?"

Rubbing his hand across her stomach, Ezra shook his head. "You tell me all the time." Looking into her eyes, he told her, "You are the light of my life, and I can't wait to see your beautiful smile on the face of our child."

"You'll have to wait…at least for another eight weeks or so." She showered kisses along his neck. "As much as I'm enjoying this attention, if you plan to be at the bank when it opens, you need to head for the shower…now."

"Keep kissing me like that and the bank can wait."

"Uh uh…bank first and then…we'll spend the afternoon together."

"If you insist." Ezra assisted her to her feet, and grudgingly let her go, while he steer himself to a cold shower.

Tanner Home

Vin joined his father on the deck, while he was waiting for Kelli. Glancing at his watch, he sighed. "If she don't get a move on, we're gonna be late."

Brodie smiled. "You could always trade her off, if it bothers you so much."

"Not funny." Vin shot Brodie a sharp look. "I don't mind waitin'. It's just that I know she's stallin' 'cause she don't want to go." Vin sat down on the chair next to his father. "I think she's afraid to face what the doc might have to say today. Kel was already wound up tight yesterday, and then Matt had to go and wind her up even more."

"She told you everything he said?"

"Yeah, and I'm glad I didn't know all of it when I was talkin' to him, or I might've decked him when he gave me the opportunity." Vin looked over at his Dad. "I'm real glad you stayed with her. She told me what you said to her…about being there for your daughter. It made her feel good to hear you say it."

"Just told her the truth…and I'm proud of how she handled herself with Dubois. I think she would have been fine on her own, but he did throw her off balance when he kissed her. I thought…"

"He did what?" Vin leaned forward, and growled, "That was one little detail she failed to mention."

Brodie closed his eyes, wishing he had kept his mouth shut. "Relax, Son…he kissed her…she did not kiss him…there is a difference. If I thought for a second he was getting out of line, I'd have decked him myself. As it was, he was only saying goodbye, he didn't push, or take illicit liberties, it was over before she knew what happened, and then he was gone. Let it go…she didn't do a thing for you to get upset about."

Vin sat back in the chair and sighed. "It was never about bein' upset with her… I reckon I just don't like knowin' another man is in love with my wife."

"Kel is a beautiful woman, inside and out. I'm surprised you only have one man interested in her. Besides, it doesn't hurt for a woman to know other men find her attractive, as long as she's happy with the man she has, and from what I've seen…your wife is damn well pleased with you. She's a one-man woman, and you're it."

"Beautiful, and now rich, too, thanks to the 'mad' money Linda left her, but all the same, I just as soon not go through this again. I knew how Matt felt about her the first time I met him, and I don't feel any better about it today than I did then."

Laughing, Brodie said, "You 'are' a Tanner, and I reckon possessiveness is a trait you inherited. You should have seen your Grandfather Wyatt if a man even dared to look at 'his' Amanda. He was a decent man, but he turned into a mean sonofabitch when it came to someone messing with what was his." He chuckled. "Suppose I've bristled a time or two, myself, when your mother earned a second look from another man."

Hearing his wife's voice as she came closer to the door, Vin stood, looked at her as she stepped onto the deck, and said, "'Bout time."

Throwing him an exasperated glance, she stepped over the dog, which had apparently camped out by the stairs to guard the house, and sighed. "It's still early. I have the pictures, and the list of things Cait asked me to pick up, so I reckon I'm as ready as I'll ever be."

"Did you forget I wanted to drop this new report off with JD, and we have to stop at the bank first?"

"Right, I did forget," she said as she dug in her bag for keys.

Pulling his keys from his pocket, he dangled them in front of her. "We're takin' my truck, and I'm drivin'." Seeing the doubt in her eyes he added, "I'm up to it, ribs are sore, but nothin' I can't handle."

"Fine," Kelli said, and then looked at Brodie. "I told Jason and Andi you were in charge of 'em, and if they play in the yard to stay within your sight. Max will be watchin' the twins."

Patting the rifle laying next to him, Brodie nodded. "Already locked and loaded. We'll be fine, you two, skedaddle."

Vin took Kelli by the arm, steered her down the steps, and waved to his dad. "See you later."

Watching them leave, he heard Jason and Andi coming outside calling for their grandpa. Brodie smiled, 'grandpa's watch' had just started.

Dunne Home

After Vin and Kelli left, JD threw the new report on the table. Since the kids were at the daycare, he would have plenty of time to go over the information Tanner had collected for him about Casey, without any distractions. He wanted to be as informed as possible about her mental and emotional stability, before he allowed her further access and visitations with their three children.

After pouring a glass of sweet tea, and stashing a bag of Doritos nearby to munch on while he read, JD settled down at the kitchen table, and opened Casey's file. Just as he would have done if he was working on a case and needing to draw out pertinent details from within a mound of paperwork, JD jotted down notes on a tablet as he read through the extensive report.

It took him over an hour to finish reading all of the paperwork, and he was physically feeling a little worse for wear when he was done. His eyes ached from staring at the fine print, and his lower back throbbed, while his butt felt numb, from sitting in one position in the hard wooden chair. He pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to release some of the pressure he felt there, and when that didn't help to lessen the ache in his eyes, he rose from the chair and headed for the bathroom.

After using it and washing his hands, he reached for the aspirin bottle in the medicine cabinet, took two, and walked back into the kitchen, where he washed them down with the last of his tea. He refilled the glass, picked up the tablet he had written his notes on and moved into the living room.

Casey's psychiatrist had given a glowing report for his patient. JD was pleased to know that his ex-wife was using some of the homegrown determination she'd exhibited in their early relationship to help get her through each difficult step in her recovery. She was taking ownership of her life again, and making smart decisions where her health was concerned. He also learned that she had been working as a receptionist at a local doctor's office for the past three months.

While he was relieved to find out this information, along with other tidbits he'd gleamed from the file, JD still was uncertain that Casey had improved enough to be alone with all three of their children. In addition, the fact that she'd had little interaction with JJ when they were at the zoo worried him too. The report only had reinforced what his gut was telling him.


Their children were a packaged deal. Casey would have to come to terms with that, and work on fostering a loving relationship with JJ, before he could commit to her seeing the children for any period of time alone.

JD dialed the phone number Casey had given him, and waited for someone to answer on the other end. When he heard Nettie's familiar voice answer, JD felt moisture fill his eyes.


"Nettie, it's me, JD."

There was a pause before, "How are you doing, honey?"

"I'm okay," he told the older woman honestly. "Is Casey there?"

"Yes, she is."

He listened as he heard Nettie call for Casey in the background on the other end of the phone line. "Here she is, JD. You take care of yourself."

"You too, Nettie."


"I told you that I would call you when I had done some thinking about your request." He got right down to business. "I still don't feel comfortable with you taking the kids out of Colorado by yourself."

"JD…" Casey started to protest, but JD cut her off.

"I'm not saying that I won't allow you to see them, Casey. Just not on your own, out of state. Hear me out, please."

"All right."

"I will allow you to see the children a couple of times a month, as our schedules allow. I'll supervise the visitations until a time in which I feel comfortable with how you do with them, especially with JJ."

"That's the best offer I'm going to get right now, isn't it?" Casey's voice didn't sound angry, only resigned.

"Yes," JD told her honestly. "I am not trying to be a jerk here; just trying to do what's right for the twins and JJ."

"I know you aren't, and I'll take any time you're willing to give me with the girls." Casey told him.

"The girls and JJ, Casey," he corrected her. "Our kids are a packaged deal, and if you aren't interested in forming a bond with our son, then I'm not going to allow you to see any of them." JD said. "I won't have JJ growing up thinking that his own mother didn't love him as much as she loved his sisters."

"I realize that I need to work on a relationship with JJ. It's just…we had so little time together, and I…," she sighed,' "...I was not myself then, but I do want to try and fix that."

There was emotion in Casey's voice, and it pained JD to hear it, but he had not said what he did to be intentionally cruel. He was only being truthful. They talked for a few more moments, ironing out the details for her next visit, before saying their goodbyes. JD stared at the phone for a moment after hanging it up, hating that his decision had ultimately hurt her, nevertheless knowing that it was the right decision for their children.

Denver Memorial, Doctor Weeks Office

Doctor Weeks examined Kelli, drew blood, performed an ultrasound, and then sent her across the hall to x-ray. The Tanners now sat in her office awaiting the results. Vin had stayed at his wife's side, with the exception of a ten-minute interval, when he stepped outside to call Chris to get his answer about the cabin, and an update of the cat patrol.

Sitting side-by-side, Vin could not help but feel his wife's anxiety level rise as they waited. He reached over and squeezed Kelli's hand. "Relax, whatever she says, we'll handle it."

Kelli nodded, wishing the doctor would hurry. She hated not being in control of her emotions, and lately it seemed they had a mind of their own. "I know, I just wish…" she stopped when Helen Weeks walked into the room.

Laying Kelli's chart on her desk, Helen smiled at the young couple. "First off, thanks for the updated pictures of your beautiful twins. I'll have them added to our baby wall as soon as possible." She put on her glasses, sat down, and opened the chart. After a couple minutes of reviewing it, she looked up, took off her glasses, and smiled. "The good news is that I see no new potential problems with you carrying another baby, once you become pregnant. Of course, considering your history, I would rate any future pregnancy high risk. The bad news, your hormone levels are way off from where they should be, which I gather from what you've told me, should come as no surprise."

Shaking her head, Kelli answered, "No…no surprise at all."

Leaning back in her chair, the doctor studied both Tanners. "I realize that due to the work you are involved in, stress is part of the job." She looked at Kelli. "I also know you normally handle it fairly well, but…according to what you've related to me about the past couple of months, I take it that has not been the case recently. To get pregnant your body needs the extra levels of certain hormones, which you had after the birth of the twins, and sometimes we see side effects that are not always comfortable. It's a balancing act at best, and on occasion creates even more stress. Given the fact that you've had a miscarriage that threw those levels out of whack within the last eighteen months, and we're seeing different reactions this time around, I believe we should change the treatments we're using."

Vin glanced at Kelli, and then back to the doctor. "I hear a 'but' in there…just tell us whatever it is."

Doctor Weeks nodded. "The shots Kelli is currently taking are my first preference. They worked well before, and give us the best odds for positive results. Under ideal circumstances, I would tell you to suck it up, and just deal with the hormonal roller coaster those shots produce. The side effects you have described, though, added to the huge amount of stress you've encountered, creates potential problems that could interfere not only with getting pregnant, but staying that way once conception occurs. Therefore, we go to option B, using a different drug. The only drawback being, if we're successful…the possibility of another multiple pregnancy is higher." She looked at both Tanners. "Are you prepared for the likelihood of having more twins…or maybe triplets?"

"Triplets?" Kelli gasped, and looked at Vin.

Vin held tight to her hand, and said, "Havin' another set of twins…or triplets would not be a problem. We'd love, and manage with either, but it has to be safe for our babies, and for Kelli. What are the risks?"

Doctor Weeks nodded. "I won't deny that multiples do increase the risks, even with women, who have no existing problems, but we've been over the serious ones already with Bren and Trey. We'd still face the same possibilities we did with them, along with …. High blood pressure, the need for extended periods of bed rest, likely early delivery, and perhaps the need for a c-section, etcetera…. Of course, all of this is moot at this point. The first obstacle we face is Kelli getting pregnant." She passed a booklet to Vin. "Read up on this treatment, talk it over, and then decide. In the meantime, we'll suspend the shots until we're ready to proceed with a different fertility drug. It will take at least thirty days for the effects of the current shots to diminish so, take your time. If either of you have any questions, call me."

Standing, Vin and Kelli told Helen thank you, and exited the office. Vin waited until they were in the elevator before he said anything to his wife. "We'll do your shoppin' for Cait, pick up what we need to take to the cabin, have some lunch, and then stop at the bookstore on the way home. Once we know more about this other drug, then we'll decide what to do."

Kelli nodded. "We definitely need to think it over…I can handle twins, but triplets….I thought I ran out of room with the boys… havin' three would really be pushin' it."

"One, two, or three, we'd manage…I'm just not willin' to put you at risk doin' it." He leaned his head down and kissed her. "I'd kinda like havin' you around." Seeing her smile, Vin knew he had partially reduced her anxiety. He planned to find a few other ways to reduce her stress level even more in the next few days. Telling her that Chris had seen cat tracks closer to the ranch than before, and had called an emergency meeting for later in the afternoon to organize a hunt, was not something he was going to share….yet.

Larabee Home

Chris, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra were discussing their options about the cat when Vin walked in the front.

"Guess y'all started without me," Tanner said as he made himself comfortable on the couch. "It took longer to unload my truck than I expected. Kel wouldn't allow me to lift anythin'."

"Good for her," Nathan agreed. "You shouldn't even be out running all over town either."

Hearing Nathan reprimand the Texan made Chris smile. "We're just tossing out a few ideas, while we wait for Buck and JD. State Wildlife said they could send out a tracker with dogs, but not before Monday." He studied Vin's movement. "You're getting around better today."

Vin nodded. "I'm doin' okay, and yes, Nate, I'm bein' a good boy…takin' my meds, and no liftin', but ridin' around in a truck is not exertin', or painful." He flashed Jackson a smile. "Besides, do you really think Kel would stand by, and let me get away with overdoin'?"

Nathan shook his head. "I know you, Vin. Even Kelli couldn't stop you if you set your mind to disobeying the doctor's orders."

Glancing at his watch, Chris sighed. "Buck and JD are running late." He grinned when the phone rang. "Bet that's one of them now."

Wilmington Home, Late afternoon

"You can keep an eye on the girls through the kitchen window, and I already told them to stay close."

"Buck, there has to be another way." Inez shook her head as she watched her husband mount a rifle close to the back door. "I don't mind the guns when they're locked up, but keeping a loaded rifle within easy reach…what about the children?"

After securing the mounts, Buck turned around, taking his wife in his arms. "Honey, the kids can't reach that high, and until that cat is dead…we need to have a rifle handy."

A worried expression crossed her beautiful face. "You don't really believe a cougar would come close enough to our house for you to shoot her, do you?"

Shrugging his shoulder, Buck was non-committal. "Maybe…maybe not, but I don't want to take any chances." JD's shout from the front let him know he was here. "I'll be right back." He quickly kissed her, and headed to the door.

"Hey Kid, " Buck said with a grin as he opened the door. "I'll be ready in a minute; I want to make sure Inez knows I'm leaving, first." Before he took a step, Inez screamed. Both men took off running to the kitchen.

Grabbing his trembling wife by the arm, before she rushed out the door, he snapped, "What's wrong?"

Inez pointed toward the backyard. "Girls…cat…"

Buck didn't wait for more of an explanation, instead he ran out the door to find Maria and Sarah on the swings. Both girls were completely unaware of the cougar pacing behind them. Cursing himself for not grabbing the rifle, he heard JD come up behind him.

"Get the kids out of the way, and I'll shoot her." JD did think to grab the gun.

Buck nodded, and slowly walked towards the swings. "Maria, Sarah, I want you to do exactly as Daddy says. Don't make any sudden moves, but ease off the swings and come to me." He inched towards them, keeping an eye on the very large cat that, at the moment, was standing still, staring at him.

"Buck…" JD started.

Answering in a hushed voice, Buck told him, "Stay where you are…as soon as Maria and Sarah are clear, take that bitch down." Watching the girls, he kept encouraging them as he came closer. "That's it…move real slow, walk past me, and go straight to your mama…don't ask questions." He was relieved to see they were both following his directions.

Several things happened at once. Just as the girls passed their father, the cat decided to lunge… straight at Buck. Inez shouted a warning to her husband, while she pushed the children inside the house. JD fired as the cougar gracefully arced through the air, missing the cat, but spooking her enough only to knock Buck to the ground before running off into the woods.

"Call Chris," JD yelled, to Inez dropping to his knees beside his brother. Seeing the blood on Buck's arm, JD pulled off his shirt, using it to wrap the bloody limb as tightly as he could. "Buck… talk to me, Bro... Oh God…"

Groaning, Buck tried to move. He felt as if he'd been hit in the chest by a runaway locomotive. "Maria…Sarah…"

"They're safe." JD heaved a sigh of relief hearing Buck's voice. "Guess you looked like a better meal…maybe she likes shit on a shingle." 'Right, make dumb jokes, while your brother is hurting …smart JD.'

Inez ran back, and knelt down on the other side of her husband, trying to stay calm. "Chris and the others are on the way." She smoothed her hand over Buck's head. "Amo usted, el marido."

"Love you, too, wife." Buck whispered as he attempted to move, but JD stopped him. "I'm sure Nathan is with Chris. Just stay put 'till they get here."

Exhaling loudly, Buck nodded. "Sounds good to me…the cat?"

"Sorry, I missed her…she ran off." JD answered.

Inez reached across her husband and squeezed JD's arm. "You scared her away; before she did more damage…you did good."

Five men rushed around the corner of the house, and swarmed around them.

Nathan eased to the ground. "I've got him, JD. You tell Chris what happened."

While Nathan examined Buck, JD stood and related to his brothers the order of events as they had occurred.

"She headed that way." JD pointed towards the trees.

Placing his hand on JD's shoulder, he told him, "Don't feel bad about missin' her. Shootin' a wild animal in motion takes some practice. If she been a felon, you'd of nailed her."

JD nodded, already knowing he was going to learn everything he could about cougars and their capabilities. "I was surprise she could leap that far. Next time I'll know what to expect."

Vin moved over to the tress, and as he walked the area, looking at the tracks, he made a decision. They could not wait until Monday for another tracker to come out. That cat needed taking down, and he had the best skills of all of them to find her. Approaching Chris, he stated. "I'm ridin' out at first light in the mornin'."

Chris shook his head. "You're in no condition …"

Vin looked down at Buck, and said, "Not-negotiable, Chris. I'm not waitin' for her to hurt someone else, or go after another kid."

"I'll go with you, Vin," JD said.

Larabee sighed. "We can move out around six."

Josiah shook his head. "I'll go with them. You and Ezra have to be at the courthouse by eight for the adoption hearing."

"Damn, I forgot…" Chris looked at Ezra. "How long do you think it'll take?"

"There's no way of knowing. An hour, maybe…could be two or three. It depends on the Judge's docket." Ezra glanced at Buck. "I could try to reschedule."

"No." Vin met Chris's eyes. "You and Cait have waited too long to get this done. Y'all go on. We'll handle the cat."

Chris nodded. "You get hurt again, and I'll personally kick your ass." He glared at JD and Josiah. "That goes for all of you." Squatting down next to Nathan, he asked, "how bad?"

"Better than I expected. He'll have bruising on his chest. One of her claws got him on the arm, and it needs a few sutures, but there are no bites. Evidently, JD scared her, and she only wanted away from here. We're gonna go into the ER to be safe, but I don't think they'll keep him."

Buck grunted as Nathan and Chris helped him to his feet. "I'm going after that cat, too."

Nathan warned him. "I'll sit on you if I have to, but you are not getting on a horse tomorrow. It's bad enough Tanner is trying to get himself laid up again. I don't need any more patients." He glanced at Inez. "Judging by the fire in Inez's eyes, I think I might have help holding you down, too."

"Si," Inez said as she sent a glare toward her husband.

Chris put his arm around Buck. "Let's get you to that ER." he nodded to Nathan. "We'll take him in my truck. Inez, can Isabella handle the kids, so you can go with us?"

Isabella stood at the door. "Yes she can." She handed Inez her purse, and a lace shawl to cover her arms. "Go."

Vin looked at Josiah and JD. "We'll meet at my house at six. Bring your rifles, and plan on bein' out 'till we find that cat. JD, I'll ask Max to watch your kids, until the daycare opens. They can eat breakfast at our house."

"Six it is." JD nodded.

"I'll be there." Josiah agreed. "You need anything else?"

Vin laughed. "Not unless you want to convince Kel to go on to the courthouse with Chris and Cait without me."

Josiah shook his head. "You're on your own for that one."

JD said, "I think I'd rather face that cougar again, instead...unarmed."

"Cowards," Vin mumbled as he walked off, wondering how in the hell he expected to tell Kelli he was going after the cat without increasing her stress level.

Chapter 15

Tanner Home, 5:00 am

Vin had planned to get up, dress, and quietly exit their bedroom, without waking his wife. Their discussion last night was different than he had expected. Kelli definitely did not think he was well enough to ride today, but she did not argue with his decision. Instead, she simply told him that if he got hurt again, he would never hear the end of it, and proceeded to show him her love. Smiling at the memory, he quietly slipped out of bed.

The moment his feet hit the floor, Kelli rolled over and said, "Goin' somewhere without me, Cowboy?"

"You don't need to get up this early. Go back to sleep, baby."

"Not likely," she muttered as she slipped out of bed, and stood in front of him. "I don't like what you're doin', but I'll be damned if you're gettin' out of here without me makin' sure you've got what you need."

Smiling, Vin wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close. "I can manage, but I wouldn't mind havin' your company, while I get ready." Taking advantage of her state of undress, he ran his hands down her body, as he claimed a good morning kiss. Kelli poured every ounce of desire she had into that kiss, pressing her body against his. Sighing deeply, he reluctantly ended it, nipping her bottom lip with his teeth, and swatting her butt. "You don't play fair."

"No more than you do, Tanner." Reaching up, she ran her fingers through his hair. "A few more weeks of growth, and you'll look more like the man I married." Dropping her hand to his jaw, she rubbed the scruff of his beard. "Too bad you have to shave for the weddin', though." She sighed. "You hit the shower. I'll dress, go put the coffee on, and then come back to help you with your rib belt."


Max is already up, and has breakfast started. She said y'all' 'will' eat before you leave." Kelli set the pieces of Velcro together, and asked, "Tight enough?"

Vin flexed his arms, took a deep breath, and nodded. "It feels about right."

She picked up his shirt, held it for him to slip into, and then smoothed her hands down the front. "I'd rather keep you here, naked and in bed, but I understand why you need to go."

"One of the many reasons I love you." Vin cupped her cheek with his hand. "We still have a date tonight. It might not be what we planned, but I promise you, it will be a night you won't forget anytime soon."

Turning her head to kiss his palm, she said, "I'm gonna hold you to that, Tanner."

"Count on it, baby." He buttoned his shirt, tucked it in, and grabbed his hat. "JD and Josiah should be here soon. Reckon we should get a move on."

Larabee Home, 6:00 am

Chris sat at his desk, rubbed his hands over his face, and wished he could clone himself just for the day. He and Cait had waited too long for these adoptions to clear, and no way would he even consider rescheduling. On the other hand, he felt he should be going with Vin, JD, and Josiah to hunt that damn cat. JD and Josiah were great riders, but not experienced with hunting cats. Tanner was probably the best one to track her, but he had no business riding, much less taking on the grueling task of hunting down that cougar.

Cait stood at the door watching Chris wrestle with his thoughts. Silently entering the room, she stood behind him and gently massaged his neck. "Barbara says there are no problems with the adoptions since we made the agreement with the Dubois attorneys. I'd understand if you want to postpone the hearing, and hunt down that cat."

Reaching up, to take her hand, Chris kissed her fingers. "I know you would, and I love you for it, but we're going on as scheduled." He remembered the words Cowboy told him not long ago.

'I expect you to lead 'your' seven for many years to come. Don't cut that short…stop thinking you have to take on everything, and let your destiny come to you. You have six brothers, who love you. They're intelligent, and strong. Allow them to share the stress that comes with the responsibility of being one of seven… That's how it's supposed to be, and they can take it.'

"Are you certain?" Cait moved around to see his face.

Chris nodded. "Sometimes you just have to trust Fate." He squeezed her thigh. "You start the coffee, while I call Tanner's house. I want to wish him, JD, and Josiah, luck on their hunt."

Smiling as he watched her graceful exit, he reached for the phone.

Tanner Home, 6:00 am

The adults in the Tanner household were all awake. Brodie observed as Vin and his brothers finished breakfast.

JD set his empty plate in the sink. "Thanks, Max for the breakfast, and watching my kids."

"My pleasure, JD, and I'll make certain they arrive at the daycare on time." Max turned to Vin and Josiah. "I've packed enough food to hold you all through lunch."

"Thanks Max." Vin reached for the food, but Josiah beat him to it. Nodding, he told Kelli, "I'll keep in touch, but seriously doubt that we'll be back in time for the court proceedin's. You'll have to represent the Tanner part of the family." He leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Love you." Turning to his father he said, "Dad, keep your eyes open. That cat might double back on us."

"I've got things covered here. You just watch yourself out there, Son." Using his crutches, Brodie moved to stand beside Kelli.

JD kissed Lilah, Daisy, and JJ on the forehead. "Listen to Max, daddy will be home soon."

Vin turned his thoughts to the hunt, saying to Josiah and JD, "We're burning' daylight, let's move out." When he opened the door, Walter was on his way in. "I saddled Peso for you, and I double-checked y'all's gear. You're good to go."

"Appreciate it, Walter." Vin picked up his rifle, walked out the door smiling, and muttering something about mother hens. Before he made it down the steps, his cell was ringing. Snapping it open, he said, "It works, Chris, yes, we have what we need, yes, we'll be careful, and yes, I'm up for it. I'll call as soon as we find her." Not waiting for a response, he shut the phone.

Josiah grinned. "When do you figure Nathan or Buck will be calling?"

"Soon enough, I reckon." Fisting the reins, Vin took a deep breath, stepped into the stirrup, and eased into the saddle. Once the wave of pain in his chest passed, he nodded to Josiah and JD. "I'll take point."

JD went next. "After what happened yesterday, I did some research on cougars. Did you know they could jump from the ground to a tree more than eighteen feet higher?"

Josiah rode drag. "Good thing we don't plan on climbing any trees." He grinned as JD continued to recite facts about cougars, and wondered if his young brother's perception of big cats might change after today.

Court House, 7:45 am

Chris kept glancing towards the door. Cait, her parents, Ezra, Barbara, and the children were present and accounted for. Understandably, his other brothers would not be here, with three on a cat hunt, and Nathan staying with Buck, but he did expect his oldest daughter.

Cait laid her hand on his arm. "Relax, Chris, Kel said she would be here, and it's not eight yet." She smiled at her mother, who appeared captivated by Cody, and then to Jesse, who was standing beside his grandfather. Having her parents immerse themselves so completely into being grandparents again was a delightful surprise. Cait thought it would take them longer to come around to the idea. She looked down at Grace sitting quietly between her and Chris. "You are being such a little lady today, I'm proud of you."

Grace smiled back. "Daddy said I'm pretty as a pitcher."

"It's picture, honey, not pitcher." Chris leaned down and kissed Grace's cheek. "I think you are growing up way too fast." She rewarded him with a giggle when he tickled her.

Mallory, Inez, and Rain entered the courthouse together. Chris stood when they approached, and hugged all three. "I didn't expect to see you ladies today."

"You don't think just because our husbands can't be here that we'd stay away, do you?" Inez said as she hugged Cait, and then Barbara.

Mallory shook her head, "We're family too, aren't we?"

Chris nodded. "Of course, I just…"

"Stuck your foot in your mouth," Rain grinned, "but you're forgiven." She sat down between Mallory and Inez.

Ezra returned from checking on the schedule. "It appears we're second on the docket." He glanced at his watch. "We really should go on inside and be seated, before the judge enters the courtroom."

"All right." Chris stood, took Grace by the hand, and waited for Cait to take Cody from her mother. Jesse joined his father, and Chris led the family inside. The family stayed together, and held a place for Kelli.

The first case was short, and within fifteen minutes, the court clerk read the Larabee case number. Chris, Cait and the children moved forward to the counsel table. While they waited for the petition reading, Kelli hurried in, and sat directly behind her father.

She leaned forward and whispered. "Sorry, I was late. The twins had a bad mornin'."

Leaning back, he said, "You're here, and that's all that matters. You hear from Vin yet?"

"No…not a word."

Chris sighed. "Guess no news is good news." He turned around when the clerk began to read.

Larabee 7, 8:30 am

"Come over here, JD." Vin knelt down by the stream, and waited for JD to join him. "You see these tracks? There were several animals here durin' the night…we need to separate them from our cougar. Lions usually place the hind paw in the imprint made by the front paw. They have four toes with three distinct lobes present at the base of the pad. Generally, their claw marks are not visible 'cause they're retractable. Since they usually avoid 'groups' and are solitary animals, look for the age of the print. She would have come either before or after the others to drink."

JD studied the tracks, and could see the differences Vin was showing him. He picked up a stick, and pointed to the ones that he thought belonged to their cat. "These look like what you're talking about."

Vin nodded. "Yep. That's our girl. She hit this waterin' hole maybe four or five hours ago, and then went off that way." He gestured toward the east. "Probably back to her kittens. She'll check on 'em, and then go out again to find food." Placing his hand on JD's shoulder to steady himself, Vin gingerly stood. "No matter which direction she tries to lead us…we'll keep tryin' to bring her towards her den. Eventually she'll get the idea that we could be a threat to her kits."

"Then what?" JD stood and asked.

Josiah understood what Vin was doing. "Then…when she ambushes us…we'll have her in the open for a clean shot."

JD felt a chill run down his back. Hunting a big cat was one thing…setting them up for an attack, now that was a completely different scenario altogether. "You mean we want her to come after us?"

"No way can we take her alive now that she's stalkin' our kids. Especially after she attacked Buck fifteen feet from his own back door." Vin told him as he carefully remounted Peso.

"I know we have to do it, but…I really hate it." JD swung up into his saddle.

"Me, too, Kid," Vin kneed Peso to cross the stream, "let's keep movin'."

Courthouse, 9:15 am

After covering the questions about Caitlyn's adoption of Grace and Cody, the proceeding turned to Jesse.

"Jesse Wayne Hunter, please rise."

When the court clerk called his name, Jesse swallowed hard, and took a deep breath. Barbara had told him the judge would ask him some questions, but he was still nervous. He was afraid he might say the wrong thing, and end up alone again, without Chris and Cait. Receiving an encouraging squeeze to his arm from his father, the teenager stood.

The judge was a woman. Her voice was firm, but carried a note of compassion. "Jesse Hunter?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Jesse, do you understand why you are here?"

Glancing at Cait and Chris, he relaxed, smiled, and said, "Yes, ma'am. We're already a family, but we're here to make it all legal, so my dad, mom, brother, sister, and I can all be Larabees."

The judge nodded. "You may be seated young man." She signed the documents in front of her, passing them to the court clerk as she finished. Taking off her glasses, she addressed Cait and Chris. "I've approved your adoption petitions, pending the filing of your marriage license at the county clerk's office on Monday, when you will legally become the parents of Jesse Wayne Hunter, hereafter known as Jesse Wayne Larabee, Grace Addison Larabee, and Cody Christopher Larabee. Congratulations on your impending nuptials and your new family. Your legal representative can retrieve copies of the documents from my clerk."

Breathing a sigh of relief, Chris grasped Cait's hand, and pulled Jesse to him for a hug. Grace and Cody were not sure of what just happened, but they sensed their parent's good mood, and joined in with them. A smiling Wild Bunch exited the courtroom, meeting in the hallway. After congratulating the new family, Mallory, Rain, and Inez departed.

Chris shook Ezra's hand, and hugged Barbara. "Thank you for all you've done. You made this much easier than I expected."

Ezra nodded. "As soon as we retrieve the official court documents, we're going home, and shall see you there."

Donald hugged Cait. "Kit, your mother and I are very happy for you."

"Thanks, Dad," Cait said as she handed Cody to her Mother. "We're going to pick up the RV on the way home. Mother said you two would take Grace and Cody home with you until we get there."

"Most definitely," Donald agreed, smiling when Grace took his hand. Looking at Jesse, he said, "I understand you're going with your father."

"Yes sir," Jesse beamed.

Lillian hugged Cait, and then kissed Chris on the cheek. "We'll see all of you at the ranch."

Watching as Grace and Cody waved bye-bye, Chris waited until they were out the door with their grandparents before he turned to Kelli. "Are you going straight home?"

"I have a couple of stops to make, but I'm anxious to get back, and hope to hear from Vin soon." She looked at Cait. "I have everythin' on your list for Sunday checked off, except the dresses, and I'm pickin' them up on my way home, along with a short list Vin asked me to complete for him." She hugged Cait, kissed Chris, and then stopped in front of Jesse. "Congratulations, little brother."

Jess grinned. "Thanks, sis."

Chris told her, "When we're through with this RV business, we'll come over to your house and wait with you. If you hear from Vin…"

"…I'll let you know." Kelli walked out with them and they split up in the parking lot.

Chris climbed in behind the wheel, while Jesse opened the passenger door for his mother, slid into the backseat, and sighed. Finally…he belonged.

Tanner Home, 11:30 am

Kelli rushed in the backdoor carrying Cait's wedding dress, plus Barbara's, hers and the kid's outfits in one hand, and the garment bag holding the men's attire in the other. "Hey Max. Dad said they'd be comin' over soon. So, plan on a houseful for lunch. Where is everyone?"

Wiping her hands on a dishtowel, Max answered, "The twins are down for a nap, Jason and Andi are with Brodie in his room, and Walter is on his way here. You need any help?"

"No, I'm gonna hang these in our room, and then come back out for the rest." Without stopping, Kelli moved on to the bedroom. There she carefully hung the dresses for the wedding in her closet, doing the same with the garment bag. Satisfied that they made the trip from 'Satin and Spurs' undamaged, she closed the door, and then went back outside for her other packages.

Jason met her at the truck. As he took some of the packages, he told her about his and grandpa's plans. "We're making a tent in Grandpa's room. We'll be camping out tonight…without being outside, because of his foot, but as soon as its better he's gonna take us both camping for real. You gotta come see our tent Mom, it's awesome. Max is making us dinner we can eat in the tent, and then Grandpa's gonna read me and Andi Old West stories. And then…"

"Whoa, champ. I'll come see it as soon as we stash these packages, okay?" Kelli closed the truck door, and they headed into the house.

Larabee 7, Noon

Tanner shifted in the saddle. They had been at this for hours. He was aching, tired, and ready to get this over. His senses told him the cougar was close by, but so far, she had eluded them. "Don't let your guard down, boys. She's here….I can feel it."

JD looked up to the rocks. All he saw was more rocks. "You think her den is near here?"

Pointing toward an indention in the rocks about sixty feet up, Vin asked, "You see a dark area just above that overhang?"

Squinting against the sun, JD studied the area. "Yeah…I think so."

"I'd bet a year's pay that's her den." Motioning for JD and Josiah to follow, Vin reined Peso toward a brush area, and eased off his back. Taking his rifle from the scabbard, he waited for them to dismount. "I'm gonna move around to the side of those rocks, and find a position to watch from. Once I do, I'll signal. Josiah, when I'm in place, I want you to do the same on the other side. JD, I need you to move the horses about forty yards downwind of here."

JD gathered the reins. "Then what do we do?"

"We wait." Vin nodded to his brothers, and then slipped through the brush, out of sight.

"Go ahead and move the horses, JD. I'll watch for Vin's signal." Josiah placed his hand on JD's shoulder. "Keep your eyes open, and your gun handy." He watched JD lead the horses away, before turning back to watch for Tanner.

Even with the rib belt on, Vin labored to breathe as he climbed the boulders. Pushing himself on, he finally found the perfect spot to lay in wait for the cougar's return. He stood, waving to Josiah before he positioned his rifle, checked the scope, and got as comfortable as possible.

Josiah started the climb up the rocky slope, searching for a place to wait. He had moved about ten feet when he heard a low growl above him, and immediately froze. 'Vin, I hope your mind thing is working.'

Tanner saw Josiah stop, and slowly moved his scope toward the top of the rock, scanning for the reason. Within seconds, he found her…pacing on the ledge, her tail swishing back and forth, as she peered down the slope. 'Hold tight, Brother, I've got you covered.'

If he thought he could manage it, Josiah would not even take a breath, but when he had to, it was a very shallow one. He could almost feel Vin's rifle sighted on the cat though, and closed his eyes, trusting his brother's aim to be true.

Vin took a deep breath, zeroed in on his target, and squeezed the trigger as the cougar lunged. The impact from the bullet sent her somersaulting through the air, landing on the hard ground below Josiah's position. Knowing that he hit his target, Tanner stood, nodded to Josiah, and then made his way down the incline.

It took a few moments before Sanchez could move; his feet seemed to be rooted where he stood. Taking a deep breath, he finally turned, looking down the slope at the now motionless body of the big cat. 'Damn, she was big.'

JD came running from where the horses were, and was the first one to reach the dead cougar. She looked even bigger up close, and he sent up a prayer of thanks that she did not sink those huge teeth into Buck's neck. Glancing at Vin as he approached, Dunne shook his head. "If she'd hit one of the girls like she did Buck…no way would they have survived."

"That's why we're here, JD. Making sure she never got the chance to do that with any of our kids." Vin said as he used the toe of his boot to push on the cat's side. Satisfied that she was not breathing, he sighed when he felt Josiah's hand on his back, and said, "She had you marked, Brother."

"I know. Thank God you read her signs." Josiah patted his back again. "I imagine your ribs are having a full blown conversation with you about now."

Vin nodded. "They are at that, but we have to take her carcass back to the ranch. The State Wildlife Department will wanna look at it."

"You sit over on that boulder and rest, while JD and I wrap the body." Josiah turned to JD. "There's a plastic tarp in my saddlebag, and we'll need some rope."

JD started for the horses, stopped, and turned around. "What about the cubs?"

Vin had hoped JD would not ask, but since he did. "They're too young to survive on their own, and if we take 'em back with us, providin' we could even get up there to 'em, law says we'd have to turn them over to the wildlife department. Then, if they're not placed in a zoo within forty-eight hours….they'd be euthanized."

Looking up the rock face of the mountain, JD made a decision, and nodded. "I can get up there, and I'll take the responsibility of finding someplace that will take them."

"You'll have to try to bottle feed em," Vin warned him.

"I'll do what I have to." JD said, looking from Vin to Josiah. "All I ask is for you to wait until Monday before you call State Wildlife."

Both Vin and Josiah looked up towards where they believed the den was located before exchanging glances.

Tanner loudly exhaled. "You have thirty minutes to find em, and then with or without em, we're headed home."

Tanner Home, 1:30 pm

Chris sat on the Tanner's deck with Brodie and Walter, watching the kids playing in the yard with Cait and Kelli, while they waited for Vin, JD, and Josiah to return.

Glancing at his watch, Chris said, "They should be here any time now. Vin called about an hour ago."

"At least we don't have to worry about that cat showing up, or keeping a rifle out here anymore when the kids are playing." Brodie remarked.

"Walter, with all that's been going on today, I almost forgot to ask. What's the latest word on that wildfire?"

"The one north of us is eighty percent contained, but two more have started west of here. Right now neither is a threat to us, but with dry conditions, and this heat…," Walter shook his head, "it's gonna be a long summer. We need rain, and lots of it. Until then we just have to be prepared if one breaks out closer."

Chris sighed. "Yeah, we need rain, but I hope to God we don't get it before Sunday. Once Cait and I are married, it can downpour all it wants."

Brodie nodded towards the barn. "Here come our hunters."

Chris and Walter went to meet them, while Brodie cursed his lack of mobility. Vin had already dismounted, leading Peso towards the barn.

Walter stopped him. "You look beat, Son. I'll take care of your horse, you take care of you."

The fact that Tanner handed over the reins without protesting told Chris how tired Vin really was. Noting the tarped bulge slung over the back of Josiah's horse, he asked, "Where are you going to keep her until the state sends out a game warden?"

Josiah answered. "I'm going to put her on ice in my shed. We just wanted to make sure Vin here got home before we left him. He can fill you in on the details of our hunt."

Chris started to say something when he saw movement in JD's saddlebags. "What do you have in there, JD?"

Grinning, JD flipped open the bag, and two small heads popped up. "Before you say anything, Chris, I know I can't keep them. I have to find a zoo that'll take them, and they'll need round the clock attention, but we couldn't just leave them out there alone."

Vin smiled. "The kid climbed near sixty feet straight up to retrieve 'em; I figured we could give him a chance to find a place for 'em."

"Uh huh," Chris shook his head. "I suppose no one is calling the State Wildlife Department just yet."

"Not until Monday." Josiah watched as JD closed the bag. "Come on JD, we'll take care of our horses, and then get those kits settled at your place." He nodded to Vin. "We'll take care of everything, you get some rest."

Vin waved, "See y'all tomorrow." He fell in step with Chris as they walked to the house. "Need a favor, Cowboy…."

Later that evening

When Chris had insisted on taking the twins home with him and Cait, Kelli was surprised. His argument that since they would be gone next week, he wanted to spend some time with the boys sounded logical, but she was not certain about his timing. In the end, it was Bren, Trey, and Cody, who convinced her. They obviously wanted to stay together a while longer. After checking on Jason and Andi, and assured that all was well with their 'camping trip, she passed through the kitchen. Max had left a note saying she and Walter would be out for the evening, Brodie and the kids had their food in their tent, and her and Vin's dinner was in the warming oven.

Vin had been resting most of the afternoon, and while she was sure he needed it, she decided it was time to check on her tracker. Opening their bedroom door, she quietly entered, expecting him to be in bed, but he wasn't. She almost missed the note pinned to her pillow as she passed by, but the rose laying next to it caught her attention. Smiling as she read it, she understood why Chris had insisted on taking the twins, Brodie was camping with Jason and Andi, and Walter was taking Max out for the evening. Her husband had been a very busy man planning their date night.

Following the instructions Vin left for her, she undressed, and slipped on the silk robe that was hanging in their bathroom. Sliding open the patio door, she stepped onto their private deck, and into a very romantic setting. The scent of sandalwood filled the air, moonlight illuminated the scene, soft music was playing, and her husband was waiting for her in their hot tub.

"I thought you forgot we had a date." Vin leaned on the edge of the tub, grinning as she walked over to him. "Why don't you lose the robe and join me?" His eyes did not leave her as she slowly slipped out of the silk garment. Moonlight played on her body, as she eased into the heated water beside him. Drawing her close, he whispered, "I've been waitin' for you."

Kelli laughed. "If I'd known there was a naked, sexy hunk lurkin' in our hot tub, I'd have been here sooner."

Running his hands down her body, he cupped her ass, and lifted her against him. "I owe you proper dinner and dancin' date, but tonight I hoped you wouldn't mind just sharin' a hot tub with me. You'd be amazed at what you can do in water with sore ribs."

"I'll take you in a hot tub over dinner and dancin' any day of the week, Tanner." She kissed his collarbone, and sensually licked at his neck, asking in a low husky voice, "So, are you gonna amaze me?"

"I'm sure as hell gonna give it my best to do just that."

Chapter 16

Chris's Journal, 8:00 am

' I haven't had much time to write lately, but I decided I should make time. The past couple of weeks have been hectic to say the least. After last month's siege on the ranch, we'd all been trying to rebuild, and recoup, plan for a wedding, and take a little time to enjoy our 'vacation' from work'. So much for our plans. We did finish most of the rebuilding and remodeling though, before I received word that Linda was killed in a car accident. Kelli and I attended her funeral in Louisiana, had an accident ourselves on the way to the airport, and landed smack dab in the middle of a police action. We saved a Trooper's life, rescued a woman hostage, and killed the bad guy, but missed our plane, which turned out to be a good thing since it crashed on takeoff leaving no survivors.

Fate has been working overtime in all our lives lately, but finding out I could still jump into the middle of good, old- fashioned police work made me feel more confident about my decision to resign as ADD of MCAT. I admit to bending a few rules and procedures, but Kelli called me on it, which is no less than I would expect her to do; however, I can't say I'm remorseful about the way it all turned out.

A rogue cougar also caused a bit of a stir around here, Vin and Brodie being hurt in the process of tracking her down. She also came close to taking Bucklin out, after stalking Maria and Sarah, but JD scared her off just in time. Vin, Josiah, and JD hunted, found, and killed her yesterday. Sorry it had to end that way, but we couldn't take any chances with her coming after our children.

I'm pleased that Cait's parents have decided to move to Colorado. It will be nice for Cait, having them close, not to mention the grandparent bond they have developed with Jesse, Grace, and Cody. Now that our adoptions are complete, Cait and I can breathe easier. Jesse belongs to us, now, and Grace and Cody have a mother who loves them unconditionally. Cait will always be there when they need her. Although the Dubois family threatened to try to challenge it, Matt put them in their place. I'm not certain exactly why, but he decided to sell us the Southern Breeze and move on. I have my suspicions, yet I know some things are best left alone. The land now belongs to L7, which is what we wanted in the first place.

I took some time yesterday afternoon to call Travis, and tell him about my decision to resign as ADD. He was not thrilled to hear it, but he accepted my decision. I'll still be Unit Commander, and we set the date to discuss our return to MCAT for July 20. As our wedding day draws closer, we have most of the details completed. I did have one final thing I needed to do before starting my journey with Cait as my wife.

After talking with Travis, I disappeared for a while to visit with Sarah and Adam. For the first time since their deaths', I made the trip, had a nice talk, left Sarah her favorite flowers, and departed with a feeling of peace in my heart. I know if she had lived, we would still be together, but I'm also confident that she approves of Caitlyn.

Tomorrow I'll begin a new chapter in my life, with Cait, my children, and my brothers at my side. A man can't ask for more than that.'

Closing his journal reminded Chris of one more person from his past that he needed to call. Reaching for the phone, he dialed the number from memory.

"Tai residence."

Chris smiled when he heard the familiar voice of his NA sponsor come over the phone line. It had been some time since he'd last talked to the older, Asian man. Even longer since he'd felt the need to attend any meetings. Although his life was still as chaotic and dangerous as it ever had been as a MCAT agent, and he'd experienced many injuries that required pain management through therapy and pills, he'd never felt the need to overmedicate his body again.

It was an empowering thing to know that even though chaos still lived within his life, that he had managed to overcome the need to rely on something other than himself to help him through each day. He knew that his brothers and Kelli had played a large part in his recovery; but so had Mike Tai. If it hadn't been for his counsel through the twelve-step program, as well as his encouragement for Chris to keep up his journal, Larabee knew that he might not have been as far along in his recovery as he was.

"Hello Mike, it's Chris."

"Chris who?"

There was laughter in Colonel Tai's voice, and Chris's smile widened.

"I know it's been a long time." He started.

"Too long," Mike agreed. "So, what is on your mind?"

"I'm getting married again." Larabee told him. "Tomorrow in fact, her name is Cait, and she's a wonderful woman."

"She must be a blessed saint to put up with the likes of you."

Chris laughed. "Why is it that everyone seems to think I'm hard to live with?"

"You really don't want me to answer that honestly, do you?"


"Seriously, Chris, I wish you and your bride all the blessings you deserve. You've traveled a long road to get to where you are now, my friend."

"Thanks Mike. It means a lot to me to hear that." Chris admitted. "I am more in charge of my life now than I have ever been, and things are looking brighter by the moment. Not only am I getting a new wife, but also a teenage son as well. Jesse is a great kid who's already taught me a thing or two. Grace and Cody are growing like weeds, and asserting their personalities."

"Sounds like you've got things well under control, but don't forget life has a way of stripping it away from you at a moment's notice. Those are the times when you need to remember to swallow your pride and ask for help." Mike counseled him.

"I won't forget." Chris promised. "As soon as Cait and I get back from our honeymoon, why don't you come out to the ranch for supper?"

"Sounds like a wonderful idea to me. I'm looking forward to meeting your bride."

They talked for a few more moments, setting a definite date for dinner, before they ended the conversation.

Tanner Home, 9:00 am

Vin answered the call from the front gate, and after instructing the guard to allow the delivery, he headed for the kitchen to tell Kelli, "Your horse delivery is here."

"They're our horses, Vin." Kelli gave him an exasperated look. They had been over this issue already, and he was being stubborn about it. Anything that Matt was involved in, he wanted no part of. "I'm almost finished here. I wanted to set these chocolate covered strawberries in the fridge for a while before we take 'em to the cabin for Chris and Cait to enjoy tomorrow night."

Reaching over her shoulder, Vin snatched one, bit off half, and fed the other half to his wife. "They're good. Did you make extras?"

"Yes. I know how much you love 'em, and I thought maybe you and I could share some later tonight." Wiping her hands, she turned and smiled up at her husband. "If you're ribs agree…I'd like to amaze you in our hot tub."

Placing his hands on her hips, he drew her closer, and grinned. "Are you propositionin' me, woman?"

"Reckon I am. You interested?"

"Hell yes." Lowering his head he possessed her mouth with his, taking his time to tease and tantalize her senses with a warm sensual kiss. Drawing back, he inhaled as deeply as his ribs allowed, growling out his words, "Damn, what time is that rehearsal dinner over?"

"Cool your heels, Tanner. We have a long list of things to do today, and the dinner won't be until six-thirty."

"Guess both Best Men and the Matrons of Honor are expected to be there, huh?" He caressed her butt, sighed again, and then said, "Let's get started on that damn list. What's first?"

Kelli laughed. "See 'our' new horses, and then you and I have to make a trip to the cabin. I want to make sure everythin' is perfect for Dad and Cait."

Larabee 7, 11:45 am

Shortly before noon, the trucks carrying supplies, along with the caterers, and wedding planners began to arrive on the L7. Cait was on hand to greet them, along with Mallory and Rain. Together the three women guided the trucks to the location where the wedding was to take place. Each woman carried a copy of the outline of where the arbor, tables and chairs, and tents were supposed to be setup to Cait and Chris's specifications, and each took a group of workers under their wing to make certain there were no questions left unanswered.

Cait watched as two carpenters set to work building the arbor under which she and Chris would become man and wife, feeling emotion well up inside of her. It was really happening. Tomorrow, around this same time, she would finally become Missus Chris Larabee. Although she and Chris had already committed themselves to one another, they both looked forward to saying their vows aloud, in front of their family and close friends.

She stayed until the workers finished the arbor. They would not add the sprigs of blue and white flowers to the denim and lace bunting, which adorned it, until the next morning, so that they would be fresh for the ceremony. Reluctantly she allowed her mother to drag her away from the area, much to Mallory and Rain's relief. They continued to supervise as the work crew raised two canopies, and set up the wooden chairs with the denim and lace cushions alongside the blue denim aisle. The transformation of the meadow into a western wonderland unfolded as the hours passed.

Beneath one of the canopies was a small arrangement, which included one rectangular table, with other circular tables and chairs gathered around it was dressed with blue and white checked linens, and set with blue-ringed dinnerware. Crystal goblets set at each of the seats reserved for the adults, complimented the white crystal mugs set in front of each child's designated place. Cowboy boot votive holders were setting at the center of each table, along with large denim and lace baskets that would hold the flower centerpieces.

Workers erected a dance floor under the other canopy, encircling it with bales of hay, with blue and lace coverings. One section was set aside for the instruments of the local western band who were supplying the music. More of the blue and lace bunting, matching the decorations in the other tent, draped the poles and ceiling, and special holders for the cowboy boots sconces, and votives lined the dance floor to provide a romantic feel for wedding attendees to dance late into the night if they wanted to.

Mallory and Rain felt certain that both the bride and groom would definitely approve, and more than once, the workers had assured them that they would finish in time for the wedding rehearsal at five.

Tanner Cabin, 1:00 pm

On arriving, Vin unlocked the door, opened the windows to air out the cabin, and then helped Kelli unload the truck. Once they had all the boxes inside, he looked at them and shook his head. "There's enough stuff here for an army. Are you sure you got everythin', Kel?"

"All necessary items, I assure you." Kelli answered. "You can start by settin' those candles in the bathroom around the tub. I'll put the strawberries, champagne, and assorted cheeses in the fridge."

Vin dug out the candles, smiled when he saw the scented liquid potpourri oil, and headed to the master bath. He stopped in the bedroom long enough to do some measuring for a gift he had planned for Kelli's upcoming birthday, and then proceeded to romanticize the bath area, before rejoining his wife. He had to stand there a few moments, and enjoy the view of her backside, showcased by her tight blue jean, as she stretched upwards to dust the top of the cabinets.

Walking over to where she was cleaning, he stood behind her, placing his hands on her waist, and leaned his head down close to her ear. "Baby, I don't think Chris and Cait will spend their honeymoon night lookin' for dust bunnies."

"I know…I…hell, it's been a while since we were here, and I hate seein' this place neglected. I love it too much."

Vin sighed. It had been too long since they had taken time to get away. Encircling her body with his arms, he hugged his wife, while nuzzling the back of her neck. "I promise, baby, we'll start comin' up here more often. I miss bein' here with you, too."

Losing herself in his arms, Kelli almost forgot why they were there. "You're so damn good when you're bad. Keep that up, Tanner, and we'll not only miss the rehearsal, but maybe even the entire weddin'."

"Reckon that wouldn't be too popular with the family." Realizing that any hope of a little afternoon delight was out of the question; Vin dialed down his urges, released her, and sighed. "Okay, what else do we need to do around here?"

Kelli pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. "Prepare both fireplaces for use." She looked up and saw Vin scowl. "I know it's summer, and hot outside, but when we leave we'll turn the AC down to about sixty…snugglin' in front of a roarin' fire is romantic. I have fresh flowers, extra pillows…oh... I have a new comforter, too, and silk sheets for the bed. Monday I'll come up and wash them, then leave them at the house for Cait to pick up when they get back from vacation. Whenever they want…they'll have their honeymoon set."

Vin did not argue, simply smiled. Kelli made a big deal about keeping their honeymoon sheets, and they had used them more than a time or two for a loving evening. He had learned that his wife was a true romantic at heart, and enjoyed pleasing her, but her list was long, and their time was short. "Give me that list, and let's get movin', or we'll still be here when Chris and Cait arrive for their weddin' night." He winked at his wife. "'Course you know we're gonna spend most of tonight in our hot tub."

"Plannin' on doin' just that, Cowboy."

They worked together for the next hour, setting the right mood for Chris and Cait's memorable night of love.

Wilmington Home, 6:30 pm

"Everything looks wonderful," Cait told Inez and Isabella, as she, Chris, and the kids arrived at the Wilmington's home. The women had transformed the backyard into a festive place, with a western flair. Tables decked out in red and white checked linens, with matching cloth napkins, set in a horseshoe shape in the center of the yard. Red-rimmed china and two sizes of frosted mugs, large for the adults, and smaller ones for the children, sat ready to hold the delicious assortments of drinks and Mexican foods waiting for them. There were three kinds of enchiladas, beef and chicken fajitas, chips, and salsa, plenty of hot sauces, refried beans, and rice awaiting them. Dessert was a choice of flan, marzipan cookies, ice cream, and peach cobbler. Cowboy boot votives held flickering candles, and festive cowboy themed garland decorated the tops of the tables as well as the poles circling the gathering of tables.

"Gracias, Cait." Inez said as the two hugged each other. "We were hoping you and Chris would like it."

"We would like anything you and Isabella arranged," Chris, scolded her lightly, as he took his turn in first hugging her, and then her aunt.

"Inez and I enjoyed doing it." Isabella told him.

Making their way around family members, they stopped often to talk. JD caught up with them. "I got all of the rehearsal taped, and I'll add it after the actual ceremony for your remembrance DVD. Kinda like a blooper reel."

Cait squeezed his arm. "Thanks JD; it's hard to keep up with everything right now. I know Chris and I will enjoy seeing it all from start to finish when we get home from our vacation. I also met your photographer friend. I like him, and can't wait to see the wedding photos he takes."

JD smiled. "I'm gonna make sure you don't miss a thing."

Chris had to ask, "How's it coming with those cubs?"

"Sheesh…they were awake most of the night, but I did get them to eat. The good news is, I talked to management at the Denver Zoo, and they're going to take them."

Nodding, Chris grinned. "I knew you'd find something for them. I'm glad it worked out."

"Me too, they're more high maintenance than I figured." JD admitted. "At least now, they have a permanent home." He looked over and saw Lilah headed for the dessert table. "Uh oh, it looks as if someone doesn't remember dinner comes 'before' dessert."

Walking on, they found Buck. Chris placed his hand on the man's back. "How's the arm holding up?"

Inez had change the sling to a colored one that matched Buck's shirt. He answered with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. "It only hurts when Inez elbows me for saying something she don't approve of." Bucks dodged the elbow his wife threatened him with… that time.

Chris saw Donald and Ezra in deep discussion in the corner. He leaned down close to whisper to Cait. "What do you wanna bet that Ezra is playing real estate agent?"

Cait smiled, "No bet."

The sound of a spoon tapping glass drew their attention. Apparently, Vin was anxious to get started. As everyone sat down, Chris and Cait stopped at Lillian's chair, to check on Grace and Cody. After she assured them that they were doing fine, they moved on to take their seats, as guests of honor.

"Now that the future bride and groom have finally settled in," Vin said, standing up, and shooting a wide grin down the table in Chris's direction. "Maybe we can get down to doing a bit of celebratin'."

Chris sent a glare back his way, amid laughter from the rest of the family.

"Seriously," Vin waited until the laughter had died down again before speaking again. "We're all very happy to be here tonight to celebrate the love and commitment that you and Cait share for one another. Chris, May Mistress Fate be gentle in her plans for your destiny and provide you with an abundance of love and happiness."

He raised his mug of beer in a salute, and everyone followed suit, including the children who lifted their root beer filled mugs. Vin continued, "Now we all got the message about no weddin' presents, but you know us, we had to do somethin' special." He picked up a paper from the table. "Cait, Chris, in lieu of weddin' presents I hold a receipt for a donation made in the name of Grace, Cody, and," he winked at the teen sitting beside him, "Jesse Larabee, to the West End Recreational Center in the amount of ten thousand dollars. It's from all of the Wild Bunch."

Vin handed it to Jesse, who passed it down to Chris, as he sat back down.

"Thanks everyone." Chris said. "I'm certain our children are honored and I…" He smiled at Cait, "… we can't think of a group of kids who deserve it more."

"You bet ya." Buck grinned, as the others agreed.

Jesse was the next to stand up. He cleared his throat and began the short speech that Vin helped him prepare in honor of his new parents. "To my Mom and Dad, I wish you both many years of health and happiness. You are the best parents, and Cody, Grace, and I are all lucky to call you ours." He moved over to give them both a hug, before retaking his seat at the table.

Donald stood and raised his mug. "To my daughter and new son, may life treat you both kindly, and the wind always be at your backs." He waited until the toast was completed, and then said, "A few of you know, but just in case you missed it, Lillian and I have decided to move here to Colorado. We want to be closer to our children," she smiled at Chris and Cait, "and our new grandchildren."

"Welcome to Colorado," Josiah shouted, followed by more welcomes from the rest of the Wild Bunch.

Once Donald sat back down, Kelli and Barbara stood up together. "Cait, we thought that to better prepare you for a life with a grumpy old cowboy, we'd give you a Larabee Emergency Kit." Kelli said, grinning at the look her dad gave them, as she and Barbara presented his surprised bride with beautiful leather saddlebags. At their prodding, she opened the flap and began to pull items out.

"A set of spurs to motivate him into doing something that you want." Barbara told her amid laughter from the adults.

"A lasso to rope him in when he's about to go Rambo on someone," Kelli added, and exchanged grins with Cait, who was finding much amusement in their gift, even though her dad looked about ready to strangle her.

There were other items in the saddlebag as well; ointment for when his leathery skin got too tough for caressing, a whip to shape him up whenever he got out of line, a lead rope to keep him on the right path, and a holster to hold onto when mounting was difficult.

His brothers were roaring with laughter by the time Kelli and Barbara were finished with their presentation to Cait, and the women weren't far behind, including his bride to be. Chris took the ribbing in good stead. He remembered how much he enjoyed it when the women had given Barbara a similar kit before she married Ezra.

Cait stood, waiting for the laugher to subside. "I remember the first time I met the Wild Bunch. It was at Barbara and Ezra's wedding. Barbara told me then that you were all a bit crazy, and I foolishly told her that she had at least one sane friend left…me. Well, I soon discovered what she meant by crazy and found you all were the sane ones; I was the one living in a chaotic world where so many people have forgotten what is important as we journey through life. The love, caring, and respect I see among all of you is not always present in families related by blood. To see it in a group of 'chosen family' is rare, but a beautiful thing to witness. A bit crazy…maybe, but in a wonderful way. You have made me feel included, and I want you all to know I love each of you."

Applause, whistles, and hoots erupted from the family as Caitlyn sat down.

Chris was smiling when he stood. "You all have probably figured out that Cait is the gracious side of this partnership." He nodded when his brothers shouted out their agreement. "Seriously…what she said, I've always known. You are all special, and yeah, I love you, too." He turned to Cait. "I love you, Lady, and look forward to spending the rest of my journey through life with you." He raised his mug, and the Wild Bunch joined him in a toast to his chosen bride.

"Let's eat!" Buck yelled.

Chapter 17

Standing on his deck, sipping coffee, and taking in the solace that the approaching day afforded him, Chris took pleasure in the moment. Soaking in the tranquility of nature's artwork as the sun crested over the eastern horizon, he watched as the pastel orb slowly made its ascension toward its daytime resting place, lightening the sky with a kaleidoscope of colors, which would transform the inky darkness of night, into the brilliance of day.

In a few short hours, he and Cait would be man and wife. Cait was everything that he wanted in a woman. She was conservative by nature, but a hellcat in his arms. She was straightforward, down to earth, compassionate, and generous to a fault. She had breathed life back into his veins at a time when he had been certain that he would never love anyone ever again. He had no illusions about what his role as a husband entailed, or unreasonable expectations about the kind of wife Cait would be. Loving Sarah had taught him the pleasure of sharing his life, and his marriage to Linda had proven that without a true partner, whole-heartedly committed to making a marriage work, life could be hell. He and Cait both understood the fragility of life, and they would work to make their union special, for however long Fate allowed them.

'You weathered the rapids well, Son'

Chris grinned when he heard Cowboy's voice in his head. ' Thought I was going to get dumped on my ass a time or two'

Cowboy chuckled. 'Just a few lessons of life you needed to learn. At least you've been paying attention to the things I've tried to teach you. I'm proud of you for loosening the reins on your brothers, and letting them carry some of your worries'

'I might be hardheaded, but I'm not self-destructive. Your advice made sense, and I have too much to lose if I'd kept pushing, and had another attack'

'You have no idea how true those words are…yet, but you will….soon'

Sighing deeply, Chris smiled. "I'm not even going to ask what that means'

'Good, that means you're learning. You're marrying a good woman to ride the river of life with … Fate has given you a gift….take care of her'

'I plan on it. My journey to finding Cait has been one helluva ride. Whatever new waves Fate sends our way, we'll be riding them together'

' Exactly as it should be…By the way, me and the boys will be at your wedding, but don't worry, we'll one but you and your brothers will know we're there'

Chris nodded, and then hesitated for a moment, before saying, ' I know you and I have butted heads on more than a few occasions, but…all in all, I'm grateful for your stubbornness and persistence. It's taken me a while, but I think I understand now, I hope I can be as tenacious when it come my turn to pass the torch to the next seven'

' I have no doubt that you will…tell Vin that Tracker will be seeing him soon…it's not time yet. You better get a move on it…this is your big day…enjoy it…we'll see you there'

Chris knew Cowboy was gone. He figured some day he might get used to his sudden appearances and exits, after all he was already getting used to having a long gone ancestor talk to him on a regular basis…anything was possible.

Larabee Home, 9:00 am

Carrying the garment bag over his shoulder, Vin opened the door , allowing Kelli, Jason, and the twins to go first as they entered through the kitchen. "Mornin' Dad," Kelli said, kissing his cheek, while Bren and Trey pulled at his shirt to reach Cody, who was snuggled in his father's arms. Snagging Jesse before he sat down, she askd, "Would you go out to our truck and bring in the bag on the back seat, please?"

"Sure, be right back." Jesse tilted his head for Jason to go with him.

"It's time, Cowboy," Vin told him," Kel's gonna kidnap Cait and Grace, and you, me, Jesse, and Jason get to take on the boys."

Cait rushed into the room holding Grace's hand, and carrying two bags, an overnight for the kids and a travel bag with her personal items "We're ready…I think." Glancing his way, she said, "Morning Vin…Lord I forgot Grace's boots."

Setting Cody down to join Bren and Trey, Chris grinned. "Relax, baby. I'll get the boots, and if you forgot anything else, we're not that far away." Leaving to retrieve the boots, Chris had three little boys on his heels.

"We still have four hours 'till the ceremony, Cait. If you don't chill, it's gonna be a long mornin'." Kelli smiled at the bride. "Barbara is at our house helpin' Andi, the set-up outside looks beautiful, and its a gorgeous day. We can do this."

Taking a deep breath, Cait nodded. "Yes we can. I have clothes in this bag for the kids to change into after the wedding, and for tonight. I have my make-up and accessories in the other. I've packed what we need for our trip in the RV, so we can head out early tomorrow morning. You have Grace, and my dresses…I'm ready."

Vin grinned as he walked passed her to hang the garment bag in the other room. "I thought it was only us men who were supposed to be nervous."

"Don't mind him, Cait. They have the easy part. All they have to do is stand at the altar, look sexy, and wait." Kelli took the bags from Cait. "Of course, I don't mind the lookin' sexy part."

Cait laughed, feeling some of her stress evaporate. "Thanks, Kel, I guess I needed some levity to shape up."

Chris walked back in with Vin and their three shadows. Hearing her remark, he could not help but say, "I happen to like your shape."

Jesse and Jason returned with the bag from the Tanners' truck, setting it down on the table. Jesse looked at his dad. "We're gonna take the little ones, and keep them busy for a while."

"Thanks, Son. We'll be along shortly." Chris waited until they had the boys corralled, and out of the room, before he went over to Grace, smiled, kissed her, and said, "Daddy will see you real soon. You be a good girl."

With a laugh and a nod, she threw her arms around his neck, saying "Bye, Daddy." Grace took Cait's hand and tugged. "Come on, Mommy."

Cait barely had time to say goodbye to Chris as she grabbed her bags and went with Grace.

Kelli started. "The boys' clothes are sorted in this bag. Be sure…."

Vin kissed her into silence. "Go, baby. I can handle our boys." Urging her out the door, he turned to Chris with a smile on his face. "I hope you still have coffee."

Chris nodded towards the coffeemaker. "Help yourself." He waited while Tanner poured a cup and then joined him at the kitchen table. "Cowboy visited earlier, and I have a message for you. Among other things he passed along, he said he and 'the boys' would be around for the ceremony, and to tell you Tracker would be seeing you soon, but it wasn't time yet. I assume you know what that means."

Vin nodded. "Yeah, I need to talk to him. With all that's been goin' on though, I haven't had time to even think much about it."

Since Vin did not explain, Chris moved on to another subject. "I took a look at your new horses. Good stock, I'm impressed."

"They're Kelli's horses, and yeah they are impressive. That stud, Outlaw, is worth a small fortune by himself. His bloodline is top notch, and the mares come from good lines, all linked to Mackenzie stock." Vin shook his head. "I don't begrudge Kel the pleasure of havin' em, I just don't understand why Linda would do such a thing. Hell, Linda left her enough 'mad money' to stay angry the rest of her life, and then some. Add that to the value of those horses…"

"Is it the money that bothers you…or the fact that Matt was the messenger?" Chris grinned when Vin looked surprised, and he explained, "After I thought about it…it didn't take long for me to figure out why Matt sold the Breeze and pulled up stakes."

"It's not the money. Ten times that amount wouldn't change Kel, and the horses are a connection to her past with Jake, which I'm happy for her to have…I reckon it just annoys me that it gave Matt an excuse to see her." Vin set his jaw. "The only damn reason he wanted 'Texas Lady' was to own something that reminded him of my wife."

Twirling his empty cup on the table, Chris considered what Vin was telling him. "Linda knew what she was doing. The fact that it annoys you means she accomplished what she intended." Chris let that sink in for a moment, and then continued, "As for Matt, he's gone…Kel is here, and you two are together. Does the reason he's gone really matter anymore?"

The young Texan knew Chris was right, and sighed. "When the hell did you get so damn smart?"

Chris chuckled. "When I decided to ask Cait to marry me, my wisdom genes exploded."

"Somethin' exploded in your jeans," Vin said with a smile, "didn't know it was called wisdom though."

"Dad," Jason yelled from the other room.

Avoiding the huffy look Chris sent his way about his sense of humor, Vin stood. "Duty calls. Reckon we should get this show on the road."

Chris stood, too. "Reckon we should at that."

Tanner Home, 11:15 am

Thirty minutes before the ceremony and all was proceeding as scheduled in the Tanner house. Andi and Grace were almost ready, and Barbara had been giving Cait updates about the activities outside. JD had his camcorder going, recording everything, and the professional photographer was set-up across from the tent. The music was keeping the guests entertained, and Ezra, and Nathan were escorting the women to their chairs. Lillian knocked on the front door and waited for someone to answer. She didn't have long to wait. Kelli, clothed in blue denim and lace, answered the door with a smile.

"You look lovely in your wedding finery, Kelli." Lillian complimented her as she stepped into the house. "How's Cait doing?"

"Thank you," Kelli replied, "Cait's doing better than I did on my wedding day."

At Lillian's look, she continued, "I was certain that marryin' Vin was the best decision I had ever made, but I was still nervous."

"I think we all experience pre-wedding jitters on the big day." Lillian said in understanding. "I know I did."

"Cait's, in our room gettin' ready." Kelli pointed her to the right door. "Go on in, we're giving her a few minutes of solitude.

As Lillian headed for the room at the end of the long hallway, her sympathetic eyes landed on Barbara Standish, who looked positively miserable in her advanced pregnancy, and then grinned as her eyes lighted on Grace in her frills and curls. She was enjoying being a grandmother again.

She continued down the hall to the room at the end and knocked on the closed door.

"Chris, if that's you, don't even think about coming in here." Cait called out from behind it.

Lillian chuckled. "Caitlyn, darling, it's your mother. May I come in?"

A few moments went by before Cait opened it. She was dressed in a terry cloth robe, her hair was down, beautiful curls cascading over her shoulders, and her make-up was perfect. "I'm delighted you're here, Mother, you can help me into my dress."

"I'll gladly help you with whatever you need me to do, but first I want to give you something." Lillian sat down on the edge of the bed and patted the space next to it. Cait sat down beside her.

"Close your eyes." Lillian instructed, "and then give me your hand."

Cait did as she requested. Lillian pulled out the sapphire and diamond pendant necklace that had once belonged to her great grandmother, Ivy, and coiled the chain and pendant into her daughter's hand. "Now open them."

Cait opened her eyes and gazed down at the beautiful pear shaped, sapphire pendant with the tiny diamonds encrusted in the antique setting. "I can't take this."

"Yes, you can." Lillian said firmly. "Grandmother Ivy would want you to have it. You both chose to meet the hardships life threw at you head on, with an inexhaustible amount of strength, courage, grace, and determination. Caitlyn, darling, you are an amazing woman, and I am so very fortunate to call you my daughter."

"Oh Mother," Cait hugged her for several moments, before she broke off the embrace and Lillian helped her into her wedding dress, before leaving to join the rest of the family under the wedding canopy.

11:30 am

"You look beautiful Cait." Willard said as he entered the room, where Cait was preparing to move to the waiting tent.

Cait beamed at him. "Not exactly a traditional wedding gown, but I love it."

"It's not going to matter a lick to Chris about what you are wearing," Willard said. "As soon as he sets eyes on your smiling face, it's all he's going to see. When you smile Cait, your whole face lights up, and it makes everyone around you want to smile too."

"Will…don't you start me crying already." Cait warned him, blinking back tears.

"Too late, I think you've already had a spill or two." He teased her. "Cait, I have something I want to give you."

He pulled a small box out of his suit jacket and handed it to her. "Open it."

Cait opened the box and stared down at the beautiful gold pendant with the figure of a lovely woman in Renaissance clothing on it, attached to a gold chain. She ran a finger over the etched figure. "Willard, it's beautiful. Who is she?"

"Her name is Patron Adelaide." Willard told her. "She is the Patron Saint of second marriages. I want you to know that this marriage is going to be blessed in ways you don't even know yet, Cait. You and Chris, you've got something extra special that doesn't come along too often, and I know that if you remember to love and respect each other, you'll be able to overcome any obstacles that might come your way."

"Damn it, Willard, I told you not to make me cry." Cait said, before she threw her arms around his neck, and gave him a hug.

"Sorry about that," Willard replied hoarsely, as he hugged her back. "You've become a daughter to me after all these years, and I just wanted to give you something special. Forgive an old coot for making you cry on your wedding day?"

"Always Will. You mean the world to me. Your love and support through the years have meant so very much to me, and that's not going to stop any time soon." Cait drew back and moved over to the dresser to retrieve a tissue to dot the corner of her eyes. "Don't worry, there's still time enough for me to do a repair job. I'm sure when my father comes in here, there will be waterworks again."

Willard grinned. "I best go and let you finish."


Kelli and Barbara helped wrap a sheet around Cait to conceal her dress, and the wedding party moved to the small waiting area set-up beside the big canopy. A few small repairs to make-up and hair, and they were all ready for the ceremony to begin. The Matrons of Honor stepped out with the children, and Donald went inside to wait with his daughter.

"You are very beautiful, Kit." Donald told his daughter as they waited for the signal from JD that it was time for him to escort her down the aisle.

"Thank you, Father," Cait smiled at him.

"Chris had better make you happy, or so help me, he'll answer to me." Donald stated gruffly.

"'We' are going to make each other very happy." Cait assured him. "We already do. Chris and I have already committed ourselves to one another for as long as we each have breath in our bodies. This ceremony today is only a legal affirmation of that commitment."

"Are you happy, Kit?"

"I am very happy, Father." Cait said, and kissed his cheek, using a little spit polish to wipe away the lipstick she'd left on it.

"I love you daughter, very much."

"I love you too,"

The sounds of music reached their ears, and a moment later, JD's head popped in the doorway. "It's time. The band has started the processional music for the kids, Kelli, and Barbara to make their way down to the altar. They'll begin the 'Wedding Song' next, so you can head out now."

"Thanks, JD." Cait told him, before Chris's younger brother disappeared.

"Here we go." Donald said as Cait slipped her hand through the crook of his arm and the two of them left the tent, and headed down the denim-carpeted walkway.

Chapter 18

The family waited patiently for the procession to begin. Lillian sat next to Ezra, who was keeping her supplied with handkerchiefs. Max, Walter, and Brodie corralled the twins, sitting close to Buck, Inez, and Isabella, who were keeping JD's children occupied, while he videoed the ceremony, along with their own. Mallory, Rain, and Nathan were directly behind them. Their children squirmed, under the watchful eyes of their parents, as the others guest smiled at their antics, and the music was soft and soothing. Colorado wildflowers decorated the altar, and Josiah stood ready to see this couple wed.

The brothers also took note of their ancestors, who stood unseen by the other guests, in various positions under the canopy, to observe the ceremony.

Chris resisted the urge to reach up and unbutton the top button of his western dress shirt. He didn't know if it was actually constricting his airway, or he was just imagining it was. The collar was a bit higher than he usually wore, but it was much better than a monkey suit.

He had been relieved when Cait had laid out her vision for their wedding and welcomed his input for it. Together they'd planned a western themed ceremony that would be uniquely theirs, enjoyable, and comfortable, as well as memorable. Cait was already his emotionally, physically, and spiritually, but he was anxious for the ceremony to begin so she would be his legally as well.

Vin smiled from his position on the other side of Jesse. Chris's patience was wearing thin, and his eagerness for the wedding to be underway understandable. He'd felt the same way when he and Kelli were getting married.

'Relax, Cowboy.'

'I am relaxed.'

Chris heard Vin's laughter in his mind, and sent his best friend a glare over Jesse's head. He knew he was letting his impatience get the better of him, and he didn't care. Considering all that had happened the past week, he would feel better, once he set his eyes on Cait.

Gratefully he recognized the changing of the music to the western theme he and Cait chose to use for the bridal party to make their way down the makeshift aisle toward the altar where he was standing with his best men, Jesse, and Vin. He smiled proudly as he caught sight of their two flower girls, Grace and Andi, leading the procession down the walkway toward him. Both girls wore matching denim dresses, white cowgirl boots, and a halo of wildflowers adorned their heads. They each carried a white wicker basket filled with petals that they were dropping onto the ground as they made their way down the aisle.

Behind the two girls, Jason and Cody came into view. The older boy carried a satin pillow with the wedding rings tied to it in one hand, and held firmly onto Cody's pudgy hand in the other. Laughter erupted as Jason tried to continue down the aisle after Grace and Andi, but couldn't because Cody was too caught up in the attention of the wedding attendees. The youngest Larabee caught sight of Trey and Bren in Brodie and Max's arms, and tried to break free of Jason's hold on his hand to run toward them, but the older boy kept a firm grip on him.

Chris watched as Jason leaned over and whispered something into Cody's ear, and his grin deepened as his youngest son looked in his direction, and called out, "Daddy."

Jason started walking again, and this time, Cody didn't give him any trouble. The younger boy would have gleefully run down the aisle to his daddy if Jason hadn't kept his movements restrained.

"Good job, son." Chris heard Vin whisper to Jason as the two boys reached the end of the aisle at last, and Cody stood between his Uncle Vin and new brother, Jesse.

By the time Chris and Vin's attention returned to the aisle, Barbara had already started walking down the aisle. Both men smiled. They had heard from Ezra how she felt that she was as big as a house, but neither saw her size. They only saw a beautiful woman, heavy with child, a truly wondrous gift, which both men agreed suited her.

Vin smiled when Kelli came into view behind Barbara. The shiner she'd received from the accident in Louisiana had vanished, and so had most of the bruises on the rest of her body. He knew she'd been worried that they would show with the denim and lace halter dress Cait had chosen for her and Barbara to wear in the ceremony, but he didn't think anyone would notice anything except the radiant smile on her face.

The music changed, and the words of the song ' Second Chance' drifted over the gathering. Chris's eyes were all for Cait as she started towards him on her father's arm, her appearance took his breath. She looked gorgeous in the blue denim and lace form fitting dress that hugged her womanly curves. Her long, reddish brown hair cascaded over her bare shoulders in luxurious waves that he ached to comb his fingers through, and her hazel eyes sparkled with unshed tears of happiness.

Donald kissed her cheek, handing her over to her future husband. Their eyes locked and held as Cait joined him in front of the altar. "You're beautiful." Chris said softly, taking her hand in his.

Cait smiled through the tears standing in her eyes as they turned to face Josiah. Sanchez smiled at them both, his blue eyes filling with emotion as he looked upon the happy couple.

"Today I have the esteemed pleasure of uniting not only two wonderful people, who deserve a second chance to experience the blessings that come with eternal love, but a family as well. Chris and Caitlyn have prepared their own vows, and wish to recite them in the presence of those, who love them both." He stepped back to allow the couple their turn.

Chris gazed at the beautiful woman beside him and felt his throat constrict with emotion. He worked to clear it, and began to speak. "Caitlyn you entered my life as a gentle breeze, soft, warm, and welcome, at a time I was in need of your healing spirit. You offered me friendship, respect, and understanding, without expecting anything in return. Your unconditional love has led me to a life filled with pleasure, and you've given me another son to add to our family. Your grace, intelligence, and compassion are only three of the reasons why I love you. I vow here and now in front of our family and friends, to love, protect, and cherish you both. As the winds of life guide us into our future, I'm going to spend every moment we are given together making you and our children happy."

Vin stepped forward to pass over Cait's ring, which Chris slipped on her finger. "I accept you, Caitlyn Abigail Broderick, as my partner in life, and my wife."

Cait sniffled, trying to control her emotions so she could speak loudly and clearly, the words of love she wanted to say. "Chris, I never imagined I'd ever fall in love again. Years ago, I closed my heart to the possibility of a second chance at love. Your friendship, respect, and understanding picked the lock of my heart before I realized what was happening. You gave me the courage to bring Jesse into my life, and I've never felt more wanted, needed, or desired than when I am with you. You've also given me Kelli, Grace, and Cody to enrich Jesse's life, and mine, making us a family. Your confidence, protectiveness, and integrity are only three of the many reasons why I love you. With every fiber of my being I vow to honor our love, and to make you and our children happy for the rest of our lives."

Kelli handed Chris's ring to her, and with her hand trembling, Cait slipped it on his finger. "Christopher Adam Larabee, I accept you as my partner in life, and my husband."

Josiah grinned. "By the power invested in me by the State of Colorado, I pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss your bride." He waited a moment while the couple sealed their vows, and then they gathered Jesse, Grace, and Cody to their side. Kelli, Vin, Jason, Andi, Bren, and Trey stood behind them. "It is my pleasure to present to you, Mister and Missus Chris Larabee, and family."

The Wild Bunch cheered, when Donald and Lillian embraced each member of the new family. It was a battle for everyone to keep his or her tears at bay, when Cody looked up at Cait and said, "Mama," to her for the first time.

Jesse and Jason beamed when she scooped Cody into her arms, hugging him close. They had worked with Cody for hours teaching him to say mama at the appropriate time, and were ecstatic when he got the timing right.


Time seemed to fly by now that the wedding was over, and they were finally husband and wife. As Chris waltzed his wife around the dance floor to their last dance before they headed for the cabin, his heart was bursting with love, and his soul was content at last. It had been a long road getting to this point, but along the way, they had grown and strengthened as a couple. He lowered his head and found hers in a long, lingering kiss as they swayed to the last strains of the song.

"You ready to head up to the cabin?" he whispered softly in Cait's ear.


While they had been dancing, Jesse and Vin had loaded their overnight bags into the backseat of Chris's ram. The bride and groom made their farewells to the brothers and their wives, and then walked over to Chris's truck, which was decked out with ribbons, the windows were painted with festive hearts, and the words, "Just Married" adorned the tailgate. Vin, Kelli, Jesse, Grace, and Cody walked with them.

"We'll be back in the morning, bright and early, to pick you and your brother and sister up." Chris told Jesse, hugging him.

"I'll make sure we're all ready to go," Jesse promised.

After Cait had exchanged hugs and kisses with the younger Larabee children, she and Chris changed places so that he could say his goodbye to Cody and Grace, and Cait could give Jesse a hug goodbye.

"Don't worry about anythin' Cowboy; we've got everythin' covered here on the homefront." Vin told Chris.

"Thanks, Vin."

"Have a good time, Cait." Kelli said. "Enjoy yourselves."

"We will. Thanks for everything Kelli." Cait said as the two women exchanged hugs.

Chris ushered Cait into the truck, and then went around to the driver's side and climbed in.


Cait giggled as Chris carried her over the cabin's threshold, but appreciated the sentiment, nevertheless. Setting her down, the pair looked around. Cait viewed the cabin not as a visitor, as she had before, but as a bride ready to make love to her husband, seeing the beauty and love imbedded into this private heaven.

Moving in front of the bedroom fireplace, the pair snuggled, drank champagne, and fed one another chocolate dipped strawberries, eventually sinking down onto the large soft hearthrug to make slow, satisfying, emotional love until the first hint of dawn was on the horizon. The night…their wedding night…had been…magnificent.

Their wedding day had been more special than they had ever believed a day could be, too. It had filled them with love, joy, hope, expectation, and the knowledge that, in spite of the several unexpected turns their individual lives had taken in the past, they had found a new direction with one another. Wherever the winds of life steered their future, they would be making the journey together.


Next in the MCAT Strength in Solidarity Series # 7 ~ Written on the Winds Trilogy

#2 Devil Winds


* Chapter 18/Song Name: Second Chance, by Trisha Yearwood

Songwriter(s): Clay Mills, Irene Kelley, Tony Ramey