by SueN.

Disclaimer: I ain't sayin' it, and y'all can't make me!

Notes: Thanks to Becky and Lynn for the beta. This was written for my dear friend Ruby J., who's ridin' a real hard trail right now. I wish I could do more for you, but you know I love you, and I reckon love has a power all its own.

Vin Tanner was a patient man.

It was the first requirement for the hunt, and he was nothing if not a hunter. It was all he knew, it was his very nature. From buffalo to bounties, he'd tracked and hunted nearly everything a man could imagine, and he'd done it with the intense single-mindedness of one who'd been born and bred for it. Blessed with sight as clear as any hawk's and hearing as keen as any owl's, he had the tenacity of a wolf and, when the moment was right, was as quick to strike as a rattler. He'd spent his whole life honing his skills and sharpening his instincts, had mastered every lesson and shaped himself into a predator rivaled only in nature.

And now he was on the hunt again.

Raptor-sharp eyes were focused tightly on his prey, and a subtle tension radiated from every line of the lean body slouched with deceptive indolence into the chair in front of the saloon. As was his way, once he'd marked his prey he'd taken his time to stalk and study it, to learn its habits and nature until he knew them as well as he did his own. He did not relax his vigilance now, though he had already committed every aspect of this target to his memory. Now and then, as the wind changed direction, he'd lift his head slightly and sniff the air, one corner of his mouth lifting as he caught his quarry's scent. And, now and then, as he studied the movements of his prey, he'd lick his lips hungrily.

It was almost time.

This was something he never rushed, this deliberate watching and waiting, but he knew he had to be more careful now than ever. So much depended on this -- hell, his whole life was at stake -- that he knew he couldn't afford to make the tiniest misstep. His prey was every bit as canny as he was, had survived for years on instincts as sharp as his own. If he struck too soon or waited too long, he'd lose it all. His timing had to be just right.

And it was almost time.

He smiled again to himself and stretched his long legs out before him, never looking away from the man and woman at the end of the boardwalk. Chris Larabee and Mary Travis. Both surely two of the most beautiful people he'd ever seen in his life, both he was privileged to call "friend" when, by all rights, he should never have been permitted to enter their worlds. Both of whom had taken pains he would never have expected to lift him out of his isolation and ignorance. Both of whom he cherished.

But only one of whom he loved.

Again the wind shifted, again he sniffed, again he licked his lips. Tobacco. Just a hint of the sharp, acrid tang reached him, but it was enough. The familiar hunger awakened within him, and the familiar desire ignited. His glittering gaze traveled slowly, longingly over hair the color of sun-ripened wheat, over beautiful features he already knew by heart, over the slim, perfectly-proportioned body that fired his imagination as well as his blood.

There were countless things he wanted to do to that body, and he was determined to do them all, or die in the trying.

He watched Mary reach out to Chris, lay a small, shapely hand upon his arm and curve her fingers almost possessively about him, and he shook his head slowly, smiling slightly as like recognized like. She was on the hunt, too, he knew that, saw the hunger and the predatory gleam in her eyes. And, ordinarily, he might wish her well.

But not this time.

He liked Mary, considered her a true friend. And he'd be forever grateful for all she'd done for him. She'd treated him decently back when other "Christian" folks were still crossing the street to avoid coming near him, had shown him kindness when he'd almost forgotten what such was. She'd been among the first to look beneath his rough exterior and see the poet's soul inside, and she'd been the one to give him the gift of letters. He liked her.

But he loved Chris.

Almost from the first moment they'd met, he'd known he loved Larabee and, since then, had merely been biding his time, waiting for the right moment to make that love known. He'd been patient, watching silently as Chris and Mary danced around each other and tried to figure out exactly what they felt for each other, tried to fan a spark of interest into the fire of love. And he'd been watching Larabee watch him, saying nothing while the gunman tried to get a handle on what exactly it was he felt for the scruffy tracker who'd planted himself without a word at his side. In his life.

And who intended to plant himself even deeper.

So he watched now, and saw Chris smile at Mary, a smile that sent his own heart soaring, then turn and walk away. He vaguely heard the man mention "my cabin," and every hunter's instinct in him awakened. He straightened in his chair -- well, as much as he ever straightened -- and tracked Larabee's slender, blade-straight figure to the livery with clear, sharply-focused eyes. The predator's sense of recognition stirred in him then, and a slow, wolfish smile spread slowly across his face.

It was time to strike.

+ + + + + + +

Chris untacked Pony and rubbed him down, then put the black in the corral and started slowly toward the small, rough cabin, his handsome face twisting into a mask of deep thought. And deep confusion.

He couldn't understand it. He'd tried and he'd tried, and it didn't make any more sense now than it ever had. He liked Mary. He did. He respected her, admired her, considered her a good friend. She spoke her mind, stood up for what she believed and had the courage to back her convictions. Those were qualities he respected in anyone, man or woman. He liked Mary.


He went into the cabin, deposited his saddlebags on the table and retrieved a bottle of whiskey and a cup from the cupboard. Still frowning, he went back out onto the porch and folded his long frame into the caneback chair he'd put out here so he could watch the sunset. He poured himself a drink, took out and lit a cheroot, hung his hat over the back of the chair, then slouched down comfortably, stretched out his legs before him, and told himself to stop thinking.


He blew out a sharp stream of smoke, impatient with himself. There it was again. That damn "but" had been nagging at him for days, intruding on his every thought. He knew it was high time he decided what to do about Mary, decided what to do about them...

Hell, decided if there even was a "them."

Everyone else thought there was, that was plain. Even Mary seemed to think so, the way she smiled at him, went out of her way to be with him, made little gestures like today, when she'd laid her hand on his arm with a strangely proprietary ease. As if she were naturally laying claim to what belonged to her.

Except that he didn't belong to her, and wasn't at all certain he wanted to.

He took a sip of whiskey and narrowed his eyes, staring out at the horizon. Any man would be lucky to find such a woman, he knew that. Women with her mind, her heart, her spirit didn't come along every day, and any man she set her sights on should consider himself fortunate. And she'd clearly set her sights on him.

So why didn't he feel more fortunate, and less like an animal caught in a trap?

He wasn't blind or naive; he knew what being with her would mean. She had an instinctive need to tame wildness, to bring civilization to savagery, and that need would extend to him. She wanted him not as he was, but as she would make him. She wanted to smooth his rough edges, to tame him, gentle him.

She wanted to make the bad element respectable.

He drew deeply on his cheroot and exhaled slowly, his eyes still fixed on the distance. Well, hell, he'd been respectable once before, hadn't he? With Sarah? And it hadn't been so bad. In fact, it had been damned good.

Except that Mary wasn't Sarah, and there was nothing in the lovely widow that made him feel about her the way he had about his wife.

Sarah Connolly had swept him away from the first, had stripped away every layer of reserve he'd built around himself and laid bare his soul. She'd known every part of him at once, had seen him in his entirety, good and bad, light and dark, and taken him as he was, for who he was. And in never once demanding that it happen, she'd gradually changed him for the good, making him a far better man simply for having loved and been loved by her.

Did a man have any right to expect to find that twice in his life? Shouldn't he just be happy with whatever he could find and build a life out of whatever he was granted?

Of course, the hitch in that particular line of thought was that he had found it again. Just not with Mary. Hell, not even with a woman.

He dropped his head onto the back of the chair with a groan, not liking at all the direction his thoughts were taking, but unable to control their wandering. Damn Vin Tanner, anyway. Every time he tried to figure out his future with Mary, the long-haired Texan sauntered across his mind like he belonged there, fixing his direct, amused and faintly mocking stare on him and giving that slight, crooked grin that could bring Larabee's temper to boiling faster than almost anything else.

Or steal the heat from it and bring him to his senses faster than anything else...

No. It was Mary he'd come out here to think about, not Vin. Didn't matter that Tanner saw clear through him with those goddamn blue eyes, that the tracker knew him better than he knew himself, knew every strength, every flaw, and accepted them all without question. Didn't matter that he didn't have to make any excuses or apologies for who or what he was to Vin, that he didn't have to pretend to be anything other than he was, or that pretense wouldn't have done a damn bit of good anyway. Didn't matter that he felt more at peace, more whole with Vin than he had with anyone since Sarah. What mattered was what he felt for Mary. And he did feel something for her.

Didn't he?

He lifted his head from his chair, exhaled another stream of smoke, then took a drink of whiskey and stared again into the distance. Yeah, he felt something. But he wasn't at all sure it was enough. No matter how hard Mary tried, and no matter how hard he tried to let her, there was a place in him she couldn't reach. A place no one but Sarah had ever reached. A place he'd thought no one would ever reach again, until...

No. He shook his head to clear it, and took another drink. It wasn't the same thing, couldn't be the same thing. His friendship with Vin had no bearing whatsoever on what he felt -- or didn't feel -- for Mary. The two were completely different. They had to be. If he felt a little easier in Vin's presence than he did in anyone else's, if he looked forward to times of quiet companionship with the tracker more than he did to time spent with anyone else, if he looked to Vin for anything he needed before he did to anyone else, was that so strange? After all, the man was his friend.

And being Tanner's friend was about the easiest thing he'd ever done. Hell, he'd never really had to do anything at all; it had just happened. From the first moment they'd locked gazes across the street, that friendship had come as naturally as breathing. He didn't know why, couldn't explain or understand it, and didn't bother to try. Might as well try to explain how the earth knew to keep turning. What he did know was that something in the eyes that had met his had poured over and through him like cool water over a desert, bringing new life to the dry and withered husk of his soul.

But that had nothing to do with Mary.

He finished his whiskey, then poured himself another cup and drank deeply, telling himself to forget about the tracker and concentrate on the widow. He'd come out here to get his thoughts, his feelings, about her straight, after all. He had no business thinking about Vin. Hell, he knew how he felt about him.

Didn't he?

Oh, no. No, no. He shook his head forcefully, and took another drink. That didn't bear thinking on at all. He was just trying to confuse himself, trying to keep from making a decision about Mary. Vin Tanner was his friend. And Tanner would be the first to tell him to stop wool-gathering and get on with the business at hand.

Which was what?


He drained the remainder of the whiskey from his cup, then finished his cheroot and rose from his chair, still staring into the distance. He told himself he didn't know what he was looking for, that he wasn't looking for anything at all, and told himself he believed that. And once he told himself he believed that he believed that, he turned and went into the cabin, satisfied that he had it all straight.

He still needed to think about Mary.

And he definitely needed to stop thinking about Vin.

+ + + + + + +

Tanner smiled as he studied Larabee through his spyglass, as he noted the man's uneasy posture and watched every expression that flickered across his unguarded face. Chris was puzzlin' on somethin' almighty hard, and he figured he knew what it was.

Mary's snare hadn't closed completely about Larabee yet, and, as much as he liked the woman, he was about to swoop down and snatch the gunman from her.

He waited for Chris to go inside, waited a few minutes more just to be sure, then snapped shut his glass and rose to his feet from the ground where he had lain. As he walked back to where he'd tethered Peso, he realized he'd have to warn Chris about the slight, brush- covered rise that gave a man such a good, and well hidden, view of the cabin. It needed to be cleared, and soon.

'Cause a man just never knew when somebody might be after him.

+ + + + + + +

Chris wandered idly about the small cabin, straightening its sparse furnishings half-heartedly, trying to decide if he had appetite enough to fix a meal. Not that he had much -- beans, a loaf of bread and the bacon he'd picked up on the way out of town -- but, then again, he wasn't hungry for much. Cooking would be more a way of distracting himself than actually satisfying any bodily need.

Though there were some bodily needs no amount of food could satisfy...

No, goddamn it, no. He would not let his thoughts wander there. He'd learned to control his needs, and now mastered his body with the same iron will he exercised over his emotions. Now and then, when need coincided with opportunity, he might relax that will and indulge his desires, but those occasions were few and far between. He had yet to find anyone who could make him feel even a measure of what Sarah had, and, while such couplings might satisfy his body, there was nothing in them that came near touching his soul. And it hardly seemed worth the effort when he left some woman's bed feeling emptier than he had when he'd gone into it.

So he'd learned to go without, and had grown accustomed to the feel of his own hand when the ache became unbearable. As it was doing now.

Well, hell, that's what he got for thinking about Mary...

He frowned sharply and froze in the act of lighting the stove. He narrowed his eyes, conjured a mental picture of the lovely newspaper editor...

And felt nothing. No stab of heat to his deprived flesh, no sharpening of his hunger, no deepening of his craving. Nothing. He tried to imagine how it might feel to touch her, to hold her, to kiss her, to take her to him and show her how he felt about her...

Except that he felt nothing. Frowning now in confusion, he looked down at his crotch, his blond brows drawing low over his eyes as he watched the swelling there subsiding. What the hell?

He stared at himself, thought hard about Mary. And his thoughts were all that got hard. He tried to remember the smell of her perfume -- she wore perfume, didn't she? -- and the color of her eyes. Light... light what? Blue? Gray. No, wait, blue. Maybe. Yes, goddamn it, they were blue.

Though certainly not a memorable shade. Not a blue as deep and as dark as the twilight sky, a blue that drew your eyes to it and snared your soul in it, that shimmered and shone with light and life, a blue that was clear and sharp and bright and that put every other shade of blue to shame. No, Mary's eyes weren't blue like that. Hell, nobody's eyes were blue like that.


"Shit!" He jumped up with a curse as the lucifer he'd forgotten he held burned all the way down to his fingers and seared his flesh. Another curse tore from him and he shoved his thumb, forefinger and middle finger into his mouth, licking their burned tips, then stomped furiously on the match he'd dropped before the floor caught fire.

Shit sonuvabitch goddamn it, what the hell was he doing thinking about Tanner's eyes?! So they were blue, so what? Lots of folks had blue eyes; hell, Buck and Josiah had 'em! Oh, maybe they weren't as blue as Vin's, weren't as wide as Vin's, or as deep, and maybe their eyes didn't show a soul as old as the mountains one minute, then breathtakingly childlike the next, a soul that was as wise as it was wounded...

Oh, shit. Shitshitshitshitshit...

He scooped a cup of water from the pot in which he'd intended to cook the beans, then made his way on shaky legs to the table and dropped into a chair, thrusting his burned fingers into the water and staring unblinkingly at the tabletop. No. No, no, goddamn it, no! Jesus, was he so desperate not to think about Mary that he'd conjure up these thoughts of Vin instead? Tanner was one of the hardest, toughest, most capable, most dangerous, deadliest men he'd had ever known; hell, besides that, he was his friend! And one friend didn't think about another friend that way!

Not and expect to live long, anyway.

Jesus, Larabee, could you possibly be any more pathetic?

He dropped his head onto the table with a groan. He needed a woman. That's all it was. Maybe he'd take off for Purgatorio, spend a couple of days with Maria. Let her take his mind off... well, off things.

But Maria didn't have blue eyes, either...

About the time he considered pulling his gun and putting himself out of his misery, he heard a rider approaching the cabin, and prayed it was someone with a grudge against him. Maybe a whole gang of men with a whole gang of grudges, and lots and lots of guns...

No. Only one rider. And someone familiar. He heard Pony's call of greeting, heard the other horse answer, and felt his stomach drop to his feet. Jesus, he even knew the sound of the man's horse.

He forced himself to his feet and went in search of another cup. He poured two rather generous portions of whiskey, drank half of his and refilled it, then, telling himself Tanner need never know how far across the line his thoughts had strayed, he went outside to greet his guest. His friend.

Hell, his best friend.

Vin watched the door open, and smiled slightly as Chris came out carrying two coffee cups and looking as skittish as a rabbit caught in a hawk's shadow. He kneed Peso over to the corral, then swung down from the saddle and went about untacking the big blaze-faced gelding with easy, unhurried movements. He had no intention of rushing things, of spooking Chris. If he did this right, they'd have all the time in the world from now on.

Chris forced himself to relax as he watched his friend tend his horse. Tanner had the instincts of a wild animal, and would pick up on any sign of unease. And Larabee valued his friendship with the younger man far too much to let his own errant thoughts destroy it.

Vin finished with Peso, then slipped the gelding a piece of molasses candy and turned him into the corral with Pony. When he was certain his horse would behave himself -- or as certain as anyone could ever be with Peso -- he picked up his saddlebags and rifle and headed for the porch, allowing himself a slight, satisfied smile. He'd come to the end of the trail. The man he'd marked so long ago and tracked so carefully was within reach.

Chris watched him approaching and shifted unconsciously on his feet. Despite his spurs, the Texan walked with a near silent tread, and he moved with the fluid, flowing grace of a cat on the prowl. Or a hawk on the hunt. His gut tightened with unease at the images stirring within him, at his sudden and disquieting feeling of kinship with a rabbit pinned by a raptor's gaze. And when those eyes -- God, so blue! -- snared him, he had the strangest thought that if he so much as twitched, Tanner would strike.

Vin saw the wariness in Larabee's eyes, but said nothing. Instead, he simply set his saddlebags and rifle on the porch, then hooked a thumb into his gunbelt and hitched a shoulder against the support post. His gaze fell on the second cup Larabee held, and, when he arched an inquisitive brow upward, Chris handed it to him. He took it with a smile and a nod of thanks, raised it in a faintly mocking salute, then carried it to his mouth and sipped from it. His eyes never left Larabee.

Chris held that gaze for a few moments, then, increasingly unnerved by it, had to look away, his own eyes flicking nervously about the landscape. All the while, he could feel that stare boring into him, never wavering, as piercing as any blade, cutting through his thin pretense of calm and laying bare his deep unease. He could swear Vin could see the very thoughts flitting through his brain, and wished the man would look anywhere but at him.

Goddamn it, hadn't anybody ever told Tanner it was rude to stare?

In silence, his lean body as relaxed as Larabee's was tight, Vin sipped from his whiskey and studied the other man. He watched the nervous clenching of that strong jaw, the narrowing and constant shifting of his eyes, the anxious fidgeting of a man who was rarely nervous and certainly never showed it when he was, and permitted himself a small smile. He knew Chris had come out here to think about Mary, but he could plainly see from the man's uncharacteristic agitation that his thoughts hadn't gone the way he'd intended at all. Larabee was a man with a definite problem.

Good thing Vin Tanner was a man with a definite solution.

And he saw no reason to delay that solution any longer. Never one to waste time on small talk, he lifted his chin a fraction, tilted his head slightly, and, blunt as ever, asked, "Got it figgered out yet?"

The strange question took Chris by surprise, and he dragged his gaze back to Vin, frowning at him in bewilderment. "Got what figured out?"

Tanner sighed and shook his head, grimacing at Larabee's thickness. Just how many things had the man come out here to ponder, anyhow? "Why ya don't want Mary."

Chris choked on the drink he'd just taken and spewed out a mouthful of whiskey, then erupted into a violent spasm of coughs as the liquor burned his throat and nose.

Vin arched a brow at the older man's reaction. "Reckon that'd be a no,'" he said laconically.

Larabee ran a trembling hand over his mouth and nose and glared at the tracker through watering eyes. "What the hell are you talkin' about?" he demanded harshly.

Vin finished his whiskey, then tossed the cup carelessly aside, his placid gaze never leaving Chris. "I'm talkin' about you pretendin' ta ever'body, includin' yerself, that yer a whole lot more inter'sted in her than y' are. You been dancin' around her fer some time now, makin' it look real good, but ever' time she tries ta get a-hold of ya, you manage ta skitter outta her reach." He tilted his head to one side and arched a brow, his lips curling into the slightest of smiles. "'N it dawned on me that you ain't nearly as inter'sted as you let on."

Chris's breath left him in a hard gust, and he stared at his friend in stunned disbelief. Tanner couldn't possibly have known that! Hell, he hadn't figured it out himself until this afternoon!

All at once, a cold, sick dread began creeping through him. If the tracker, who could read sign that was damn near invisible to anyone else, had gathered that much, then what else had those hawk-sharp eyes seen?

Vin could see every thought tumbling through those wide and stricken eyes, could almost feel the breeze kicked up by the whirring of Larabee's brain. He'd disarmed his prey; now it was time to go in for the kill.

"When I done figgered that out," he continued, his voice soft, his wide, twilight eyes still fixed on Larabee's face, "I started thinkin' on why. Why'd a man like you not want a woman like her? Yer both smart, 'n Lord knows yer both easy on the eyes... Jist didn't make no sense. Unless," his smile widened knowingly, "you wanted somebody else, instead."

Alarm slammed through Chris and he jerked from its impact, feeling as if he'd been shot. He began shaking his head slowly, refusing even to consider what he knew Vin was implying. No. No. It just wasn't possible.

But Tanner saw what Larabee would deny, knew he'd read all the signs right. Now, he just had to open Chris's eyes to those same signs.

"Yer thinkin' it's wrong," he said softly, pushing away from the post and starting slowly, slowly toward his friend. He made no sudden moves, didn't want to startle the man before him into fleeing. He knew that if Chris started running now, he'd never stop, and he just didn't feel like chasing him all over God's back yard. "Mebbe even thinkin' it's sinful, unnatural. Men jist don't want other men. Ain't that it? Not an' still be men."

Chris swallowed hard and shuddered, staring helplessly at Vin. He knew he should run, but didn't; knew he should speak, but couldn't. He was helpless, paralyzed by those brilliant blue eyes. He'd read that some snakes hypnotized their prey before striking, and now his own serpent was slithering toward him, and there wasn't a single damn thing he could do to escape.

Vin crossed the short distance to Chris in just a few flowing steps, his whole being intent on the man before him. Then, before Larabee could protest or get away, he was in front of the gunman, so close he could breathe in his scent, could feel his warmth. With an ease born of his certainty that this was right, he reached up to brush a lock of sun-kissed hair off the man's high forehead, then slid his fingers lightly down that chiseled face.

"But I'm a man, ain't I?" he breathed, running callused fingertips along Larabee's jaw and gazing raptly into the deep green eyes that had become permanent fixtures in his dreams. "'N there ain't nothin' more natural ta me than wantin' you."

Chris swallowed again and shuddered, knowing he shouldn't let Vin touch him the way he was, knowing he should run as fast and as far from the tracker as he could. He knew this; his mind was screaming at him to go. Only problem was, his body refused to obey.

"Vin," he whispered, closing his eyes helplessly and trembling uncontrollably, "you shouldn't... We can't... It's wrong..."

"Ssh," the tracker breathed, still stroking Larabee's face, tracing his level brows, the straight slant of his nose, the full curve of his mouth. He caressed a whisker-roughened cheek, swept his thumb along the strong jaw, dragged it down the slightly cleft chin. "Cain't be nothin' wrong with this," he said softly, tilting his head to one side as he studied every bold line of the beautiful face before him. "Not when it feels so fine. Cain't be nothin' wrong with havin' all my empty places filled up, all my dark places made light, all my hurts healed. 'N you done that, Chris. Ain't nothin' wrong with me wantin' you. Lord God, there's never been nothin' more right!"

"Jesus!" Chris groaned harshly, finally tearing himself away from Vin and retreating to the far end of the porch. His heart hammered in his chest, his blood pounded through his veins, and his breath tore from him in great, heaving gasps. He was shaking all over and his knees felt like water, but he knew he had to get away.

Even as everything in him screamed to go back.

God, what was happening here? Vin Tanner, his best friend, was declaring that he wanted him! It was... It was...

What? What he'd known Vin would say? What he'd hoped he would? No, that couldn't be right! Men didn't say these things to other men! It wasn't right, it wasn't natural...

Then why the hell wasn't he running away? And why the hell had that hand moving over his face felt so... right?

Vin gave Chris a few moments, watching him intently, studying his expression, his posture, his every movement. And everything he saw gave him hope. The older man hadn't accepted his overtures, but he hadn't shot him for them, either. And he hadn't told him to stop, or to leave. More importantly, he hadn't left.

And Vin knew he wouldn't.

He went slowly forward, his steps almost noiseless, approaching Chris as he would a wild and skittish horse. Yet, as he would never do with anyone except this man, he let down every defense he had, left himself completely open, tore down every wall he'd ever built within himself and allowed everything he felt to show plainly on his face, in his eyes, to pour from him in waves.

If Larabee rejected him, he'd at least know exactly what he was throwing away.

Stopping close by Chris' side, so close their bodies were nearly touching, he said in his low and gravelly voice, "Mary ain't the one fer you. She's a fine woman, but she ain't what you want. She cain't give ya what ya need."

Chris clenched his jaw; hell, his whole body clenched! Never looking at the tracker, not trusting his own reaction, he rasped, "And you can?"

Vin smiled slightly. "Yeah. I c'n give ya what ya need, what ya want." He reached out and ran a hand slowly down Larabee's arm, feeling the tension of the muscles beneath the dark red shirt, but feeling also the tremor than ran through the long, lean body so near his own. "What ya been wantin' fer some time."

Chris closed his eyes tightly and tried not to react to that hand, but couldn't help it. As the long, slender fingers slid slowly downward, he felt a treacherous warmth spreading through his flesh, felt his pulse quickening, and prayed Vin would stop before he lost what little control he had.

But Vin had no intention of stopping. Instead, he moved closer still, his body brushing against Larabee's, and lifted his hand to run his fingers once more through the gunman's blond hair. "Cain't tell ya how many times I've dreamed of doin' this," he breathed, delighting in the feel of the silken strands against his skin. "Dreamed of doin' other things, too." He slid his hand from Larabee's hair and pressed it once more to that proud, strong face, lightly stroking one whiskered cheek with his thumb. "Mostly, though," he whispered, stepping closer still, "I've dreamed of doin' this."

Before Larabee could react, he slipped his hand around to the back of his neck and pulled down the golden head, covering the gunman's lips with his own in a slow and searching kiss. It was a kiss of intimate tenderness and infinite hunger, one in which his love and longing were laid bare. He shivered uncontrollably as the taste and scent and feel of the older man ran through his blood like wildfire, as his whole soul rose sharply in joy at the unbearable ecstasy of this moment.

Chris groaned and shuddered as the tracker's mouth moved gently against his, never forcing but never faltering, feather-light yet wondrously sure, softer and sweeter than a man's mouth had any right to be. Then Tanner's tongue was sweeping lightly over his lips, stroking, lapping, dancing, sending shards of pleasure and pain through his whole body. He trembled uncontrollably, then opened his mouth beneath Vin's gentle insistence--

"No!" he groaned harshly, thrusting the younger man violently away from him. Spinning on his heel, he all but ran to the other end of the porch and collapsed heavily against the cabin wall, needing its solidness as his own legs threatened to buckle beneath him. His reaction shocked him, appalled him, and he bowed his head with another wrenching groan, his mind in chaos, his body in turmoil. Yet, against his will, he licked his lips, unable to forget the taste and feel of Vin's mouth against his.

Oh, Jesus, Jesus, this couldn't be happening to him!

Vin staggered back and nearly fell, but righted himself at the last moment. Any other man, he knew, would quit now, while he could still walk away, but he wasn't any other man. He'd come for more than just one kiss, and, this time at least, Vin Tanner was going to get what he wanted.

With the patience and persistence that ran so deep in his nature, he walked slowly across the porch toward Larabee, never taking his gaze from him. He'd felt the man's response to his kiss -- God, how he'd felt it! -- and knew he hadn't been imagining any of it. The pleasure of finally taking and tasting those full, firm lips had been beyond anything he could ever imagine.

And he could imagine a lot.

"Cain't run from this, Chris," he said softly. "You're a marked man. I've had you in my sights from that very first day, an' you know I don't hardly ever miss what I aim at."

Larabee raised his head slowly and opened his eyes, staring at the tracker. His face was deathly pale, yet his eyes burned like green fires. Confusion shone in their depths, but so did more. Much more.

"Why're you doin' this?" he whispered brokenly.

Vin stopped just before him and met that burning gaze easily, as calm as Chris was torn. He reached out and laid a hand against Chris's chest, and kept it there even when the older man flinched and tried to pull away. "Because dreamin' about you ain't enough no more, 'n ain't been enough fer a long time now," he rasped. "Because I don't wanta die wonderin' what mighta been if'n we'd jist let ourselves try. 'N because I don't wanta see you settle fer somebody you don't really want 'n don't really love jist 'cause she's a woman. You deserve better. Hell, we both deserve better."

Chris bowed his head again and closed his eyes, trying not to feel the hand at his chest, and failing. He was acutely aware of it, could feel every finger and the flat palm searing through his shirt and into his flesh, could feel his own heart beating fiercely against it in response. He licked his lips, let his tongue linger where Vin's had, and groaned aloud in despair.

Jesus, this couldn't be right!

"Look at me, Chris," Vin ordered softly, yet with a force that could not be denied. "Open yer eyes 'n look at me. You tell me you don't want me, you look me in the eye 'n tell me that, an' I'll leave 'n won't never bother you again. But I ain't leavin' here 'til you look me in the eye an' say it."

Determined to end his torment, Chris raised his head and forced open his eyes. Words of refusal, of rejection, rose in his mind, and, determined to speak them, he dragged his gaze to Vin's...

And forgot every one as he fell again into those eyes. Blue, God, so blue! Deeper and more vast than the sky, childlike in their wideness, so naked and unguarded they were almost painful to behold. Those eyes looked at him with such trust, such longing, such love, and were filled by the fragile hope of a man who'd long ago forgotten how to hope. Vin's whole soul was in his eyes -- vulnerable, wounded, scarred, yet somehow stronger than Larabee figured it had any right to be. And, as it always did, his own soul rose in recognition of its partner.

No, of its mate.

"Oh, God," he whispered faintly, more afraid than he'd ever been in his life, yet seeing none of that fear in Tanner. "I don't know--"

Vin smiled slightly, softly, his hand still resting over Larabee's heart and feeling its hard, fierce beating. "Yeah, ya do," he said quietly. "You jist don't wanta admit it. Too scared to, I reckon," he breathed. "But you ain't gotta be scared no more, cowboy. You know this is right. More right than anything you could ever pretend ta feel fer Mary. All's ya gotta do is let go. There ain't no shame in this, no sin. 'N you know that, same as me."

"But... what is this?'" Chris whispered, knowing the answer and terrified of it.

But Vin smiled gently, and without any fear whatsoever. "`This' is this." He moved closer until his body was pressing against Chris's, then reached up to cradle the blond head in his hands and slowly pull it forward. "I love you, cowboy," he whispered as he sought Chris's mouth with his own. "'N I'm gonna show ya it's all right fer you ta love me, too."

Chris moaned and shuddered as those lips reclaimed his, as Vin's soft, light kiss swept through him like a summer storm. Lightning seared his every nerve, charged his blood and danced over his skin until he thought his every hair would stand on end. Another groan escaped him and he twined his arms around Tanner, pulling the tracker to him and seeking to drown himself in the man. He breathed the man's scent ever more deeply into himself, immersed himself in the essence of wind, sage, earth and leather, and wondered how he'd ever be able to breathe again without it.

Set free by Chris's response, Vin intensified the kiss, allowed all the passion that burned in his soul to rise and drive him. He knotted his fingers in Larabee's hair and nuzzled ever more hungrily at the lush lips that for so long had teased and tormented him. He laved their fullness with his tongue, nibbled at them with his teeth, bit sharply at the lower one and then drew it into his mouth, sucking slowly at it.

Chris gasped as a shudder and a spear of heat went through him. Unable to help himself, unable to resist, he opened his mouth and sent his tongue in search of Vin's, desperately needing to taste still more, always more, of this man.

Jesus, where had this need come from?

Vin shivered and moaned as Chris's tongue found his, as the two met and twined in a slow dance of intimate introduction, as they teased, tasted and explored. He groaned harshly and buried his mouth in Larabee's, sweeping his tongue through the gunman's mouth in a thorough, ravenous search of the warm, wet cavern, learning the feel of tongue, teeth and hard palate, committing every taste, every sensation to memory.

Meanwhile, his hands strayed from Chris's hair to his neck and over his broad, tight shoulders, his fingers kneading the hard muscles beneath the red shirt, his whole body aching for the feel of this man against him, beneath him. He raked his fingers down the long, strong back and thrust himself ever closer to him, knowing he dared not go too fast lest he frighten Larabee, yet only barely able to restrain the hunger, the raw and raging need, that this man inspired in him.

That need swept over Chris in a fierce, hot wave and unlocked his own, bringing his body to sharp and searing awareness of Vin's, igniting an inferno of hunger in his soul. He'd never imagined he could want a man at all, much less with this desperate ferocity, yet now, with everything that was in him, he wanted Vin, and knew he always had.

At long last the kiss ended, and, drained by it of all strength, he shuddered violently and dropped his head onto Vin's shoulder, holding tightly to the younger, slightly smaller man and trying desperately not to fall. He couldn't see, couldn't think, could barely breathe, felt as if his every nerve had been scoured by fire, as if his very flesh had been charred from his bones. Trembling uncontrollably, he clung with what strength he had to Vin, shaken to his soul by the force of the passion the tracker had unleashed in him.

"Cain't tell ya how long I've wanted this," Vin whispered roughly, closing his eyes and burying his face in Chris's hair, his love and longing for the man surging so strongly through him that he feared they'd tear him apart. "Ain't ever felt like this fer nobody before. Didn't even know I could feel it, 'til you came along."

Chris slowly raised his head from Vin's shoulder and gazed again into those blue eyes, seeing in them all the tracker felt for him, and wondering why he'd never seen it before.

Or had he?

He frowned slightly, thoughtfully, and lifted a trembling hand to Tanner's face, gently stroking it, learning the feel of it as he already knew the shape of it. And he did know it, though he felt now as if he were seeing it for the first time, seeing anew the strength of it, the beauty of it, the toughness and tenderness written in it, the age that had nothing to do with years and the astonishing youth...

Oh, God, he had seen, hadn't he? All the times Vin had shown him the trust he reserved for him alone; the times he'd shown that rare, boyish, unguarded smile; each time he not only tolerated but welcomed the touch of Chris's hand when he'd flinch from any other; the times, God, the countless times, he'd battled through Larabee's demons with him, refusing to let him go into that darkness, and the times when, trapped in his own darkness, he'd reached blindly for the one hand he knew would be waiting to pull him out...

It had been there. All those times, it had been right there, right before him, and he'd missed it. No, mistaken it. Taken it for friendship when it was so much more, so much deeper. Why? Why had he overlooked it in Vin, when he'd been so willing to overlook the absence of it in Mary? Because he was a man? And men didn't feel that way about other men?

But he was a man, and he did feel this way about another man. No, about Vin. Not just any man, but the man who'd become his other half. His other self.

The man who made him whole.

"Oh, God," he breathed, still stroking that beautifully square jaw, still staring into those incredibly blue eyes, "and I nearly missed it. Hell, I did miss it. Jesus, what a fool--"

"Hush," Vin soothed, laying his hand over Chris's mouth to silence him. "Y'ain't no fool, 'n ya didn't miss it. 'Cause it's right here, right now. All's ya gotta do is reach out 'n take it."

"How?" He tilted his head to one side and frowned more deeply still, his own eyes dark with needs and wants he couldn't begin to express. "I don't know... how..."

A slow, sweet smile curved about Vin's mouth and lit his eyes, bringing youth and joy to the face where they so rarely resided. "Don't worry," he said softly, his eyes shining brilliantly. "I c'n show ya all ya need ta know."

Larabee smiled slowly, his face softening and losing years. "Sure of yourself, aren'tcha, pard?"

"No," Vin breathed with his customary honesty. "Jist sure of you, 'n what I feel fer ya." He shrugged. "I reckon ever'thing else'll take care of itself."

Chris gazed at the young man before him, saw the complete trust, the absolute faith, in his eyes, and wondered what on earth he'd done to earn them. And made a silent vow never to disappoint them.

Without a word, he bowed his head and pressed his lips to Vin's in a slow and tender kiss, drinking deeply of the sweet wine of that mouth. "Think I got this part down," he whispered, his lips brushing over Vin's.

Tanner laughed softly, his breath fanning warmly over Larabee's lips. "Hell, cowboy," he breathed, closing his arms about the gunman and pulling him closer, "I always knew you were a smart sonuvabitch!"


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