"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Main Characters: Buck, Chris, Vin, J.D., Ezra
Disclaimers: The characters aren't mine, and never will be. No money is being made. This is a work of fiction.
Acknowledgements: Thanks go to the wonderful writers who created this universe, and then kindly let the rest of us play in it.
Thanks also go to Melanie Riley for her continued support, and editing skills that add so much to my stories.
Buck Wilmington was absolutely terrified. Today would be one of the biggest challenges he had ever faced, and he wasn't sure he was ready for it. His mind kept coming up with all kinds of disastrous scenarios that could happen. What had made him think he could do this?
All it would take would be one phone call - just one - and the whole deal would be off. Maybe that would be the best thing. Still, he had to face this sooner or later. If he had to do it later, he'd have to go through all this worry again.
The sound of running feet interrupted his thoughts.
"I's weady!" JD Dunne yelled at the top of his lungs as he skidded to a stop on the kitchen linoleum in front of the tall, dark- haired man.
"You sure about that, L'il Bit?" Buck asked with a grin as he knelt down in front of the small boy. With deft hands, accustomed to this task after six months of caring for the young orphan, he finished tucking JD's red top into his blue jeans even though the five-year- old was almost quivering with excitement.
JD nodded vigorously. "Uhuh. Where we goin', Buck?"
"It's a surprise," he replied, grinning broadly. Only JD could get excited without even knowing what they were going to do.
He looked up as the other two members of the household entered the room more sedately. His boss and best friend, Chris Larabee was holding the hand of seven-year-old Vin Tanner.
"You ready to go, Vin?" Buck asked as he stood back up.
Vin looked up at Chris instead. "Ya sure ya can't come with us?"
Larabee ruffled the boy's hair. "Not this time, Cowboy. I have to go to work for a special meeting."
Vin scowled. "Maybe ya should make someone else the boss so ya don't have to work on Saturdays."
Chris grinned at the idea. "Who do you think I should make boss? Buck?"
Vin shook his head, after appearing to give it great thought. "Buck needs to be here on Saturdays, too. Uncle Nathan already worries too much about ya getting hurt, so he shouldn't be boss. Uncle Josiah is too nice. He'd let everyone do what they wanted to do."
"That just leaves Uncle Ezra!" JD burst out.
Vin's eyes squinted as he considered that. "Nope. Not Uncle Ezra, either. Guess you have ta stay the boss, Chris."
Buck exchanged questioning looks with Chris. "Why don't you think Ezra would be a good boss?" he asked, unable to fathom Vin's logic.
"'Cause no one would be able ta understand his orders 'cause he uses too many big words," Vin replied, sending an exasperated look at Buck.
Buck laughed. "Guess you're right there. Sorry, Chris, looks like you're stuck with the job."
"Figures." He glanced at his watch, then said, "I'd better get going or I'm going to be late. Have fun, guys."
"Bye, Chris," both boys replied simultaneously before turning unwavering stares back to Buck.
Buck still had trouble handling those two stares. There was something so unnerving about them. It was like the boys were judging him, or maybe just expecting great knowledge to be imparted. They'd wait a long time before that would happen!
"You guys all set to go?" he asked, figuring that would get some action.
"I already told you so," JD pointed out while Vin just nodded.
"All righty then, let's go. Everyone out to the truck." The words were barely out of his mouth before the boys had disappeared. Sounds of running feet echoed through the house. Buck just shook his head. Getting those two to walk anywhere was practically impossible.
Vin looked out the side window, watching the scenery go by while he tried to figure out where they were going. Buck had refused to tell them their destination, other than to promise that they would have fun. He didn't see anything that looked like fun. It just looked like a bunch of houses to him. He was even more confused when he felt the truck slow down, and heard the turn signal start clicking. A moment later Buck pulled into a driveway leading up to a small white house.
"This is where we're going?" Vin asked, unable to believe it. "What kind of fun can we have here?"
"This is just a brief stop to pick up someone," Buck replied. He shut the engine off, then looked over his shoulder at the two boys. "Wait here, I won't be long." He quickly left the truck and went up to the house.
Vin watched as Buck knocked on the door. A moment later, a young woman opened it, and Buck greeted her with a kiss. "Yuck!" he told J.D. making a face at the younger boy.
"Who's she?" J.D. asked.
"Don't know." Suddenly the day seemed less likely to be enjoyable. Buck would probably make goo-goo eyes at the lady all day long. Vin scowled at the thought. He watched as Buck came back to the truck along with the lady. At least she was wearing jeans and a sweater instead of a dress! Maybe they would still manage to have some fun. She climbed in the front passenger seat, then turned to face the two boys.
"Hi," she greeted them with a smile. "Let me guess." She pointed to the younger boy first, then the older. "You must be J.D, and you must be Vin."
Both boys nodded, not quite sure what to make of this woman. By this time, Buck had climbed into the driver's seat. "Boys, this is Miss Louisa Perkins. She's going to come with us today."
"Hi," J.D. greeted her without smiling.
"Pleased ta meet ya," Vin added, nudging J.D. to remind him of his manners. The younger boy then mimicked the older one's greeting, although in his case it came out as one very long word.
"Oh, such polite gentlemen!" she said with a smile. "Well, I'm pleased to meet you, too. Buck has told me all about both of you."
Vin scowled at that. He didn't want people to know all about him. It was none of her business if he had been living in a warehouse with J.D., or that he had trouble reading, or that he slept with a stuffed cat, his first gift from Chris.
"Ready to go?" Buck asked.
Louisa nodded, turning around to face the front again before fastening her seat belt. Vin and J.D. exchanged disappointed glances. The day had definitely gone downhill.
Things were not going well, and Buck didn't have a clue how to fix it. The boys had gone silent in the back seat - something really unusual for J.D., although Vin was never very outgoing. Every time Louisa tried to talk to the boys, she was lucky if she got anything more than a few words from them. He should have just followed his first instinct this morning and broke off the date. She would have understood though she might never have spoken to him again.
He took a quick glance over at her, liking what he saw. Her blue jeans and light pink sweater seemed to hug every curve of her body. Her long red hair was tied back in a ponytail high on her head, streaming down in curls to just below her shoulders. Even from here, he could smell her light perfume. It suited her.
She was a feisty lady - probably had to be in her line of work. He knew she was ambitious, and being the head of the public relations team for the governor of Colorado was quite an accomplishment for someone her age. Ezra had known her from his days in the FBI, when she'd been working for the mayor of Atlanta, and he'd introduced her to the rest of the team one day when he ran into her at the Federal building.
He'd have to remind himself to thank Ezra for that introduction.
"There's the entrance," she said, pointing to a spot a little way down the road.
Buck turned his attention back to his driving. He followed her directions, and soon pulled into a parking space. "We're here!" he announced.
"Where are we?" J.D. asked, leaning forward to look outside.
"The zoo." Buck reached back to unhook J.D. from his safety seat, then climbed out of the truck. Before he had a chance to get around to the other side, Louisa had already climbed down by herself. The two boys scrambled down behind her.
"What's a zoo?" J.D. asked.
"It's a place to see all kinds of animals," Louisa explained, kneeling down in front of him. "Do you have any favorites?"
She laughed. "Well, I don't think we'll see too many of those here. Zoos are for wild animals, which don't include horses."
"Will they have bears?" Vin asked.
"I think so, but we'll have to check the map out as soon as we get inside. I do know they have polar bears which is one of my favorites."
"Let's go!" J.D. yelled, grabbing Buck's hand and pulling him forward.
After paying for tickets, they went inside. Louisa took the map they'd received from the ticket booth and led the way to a nearby table. "Okay, let's make a plan." She spread the map out, and motioned to the boys. "Which way do we want to go first?"
Both boys leaned over the map, and started pointing out the different types of animals they wanted to see. Vin finally looked up at the adults. "If we go this way," his finger traced a path, "we can see everything we want ta see."
"Sounds like Vin is in charge of the map," Louisa said with a smile.
"What am I in charge of, Miss Phillips?" J.D. asked, tugging at her hand.
She kneeled down in front of him and whispered, "How about you keep Buck from wandering off?"
J.D. nodded enthusiastically. "I can do that!"
"Good. And you two can call me Lou."
Vin frowned. "That's a boy's name."
She wrinkled her nose at him. "Well, I was a bit of a tomboy when I was growing up. Instead of playing with dolls, I was climbing trees, and fishing, and playing baseball. My family figured that Lou was a better name for me than Louisa."
"I like Louisa just fine," Buck said. "I think it suits you." He leaned over and gave her a quick kiss.
"C'mon. Let's go," J.D. said impatiently. "I wanna see the monkeys!"
"That's because you are a monkey," Buck retorted, swinging the young boy up in the air, loving to hear the giggles that erupted from J.D. He set him back down on the ground. "Which way, Vin?"
"That way." Vin pointed out a direction after looking at the map again.
For a while, everything seemed to be going great. The boys would almost run from exhibit to exhibit while the two adults followed behind. They took turns reading out loud the information about each animal. No one made any comment when Vin read slower than J.D., and both adults helped with the harder words.
But as they progressed through the zoo, Vin seemed to get quieter and quieter. Finally, Buck placed a hand on one of his shoulders when he noticed Vin staring into a cage with a sad look on his face. "Somethin' wrong, Vin?"
"It's not fair!" he blurted out.
"What's not fair?" Buck was totally at a loss.
"They shouldn't put animals in cages. It's not right!"
"You're right, Vin," Louisa agreed. She looked around and spotted a bench. "Come over here and I'll tell you all about zoos." She sat down, and Vin climbed up next to her, with Buck on his other side. J.D. chose to sit on Buck's lap.
"Vin, you said it wasn't fair that animals are put in cages, and you are absolutely right. However, that's all these animals know. They have never lived in the wild, and wouldn't be able to survive. In many cases, zoo animals live much longer lives than they would in the wild. Plus, they are safe from people who would hunt them just so they could brag about it to their friends."
"Louisa is right, boys," Buck added. "In a perfect world, all of these animals would be free. Just as in a perfect world, we wouldn't need police or ATF agents 'cause there would be no bad men. But there are bad men out there, so we need to have places like zoos to keep the animals safe."
"The Denver Zoo has done a lot for animals. For instance, they raised some polar bear cubs from birth. The information they learned helped other zoos do the same thing. Just recently, the San Diego Zoo took in two wild polar bear cubs whose mother had died. If it hadn't been for the work done here, those cubs would have died. Zoos allow people to study animals, as well as to let everyone see them. And maybe some day when you're grown up, you'll do something to help animals, too."
"Like what?" Vin asked.
"Well, you could become a vet - an animal doctor. Or maybe you'll become a politician and be able to help animals by making laws to protect them. There's all kinds of ways," Louisa replied. "Do you understand?"
Both boys nodded.
"You ready to move on?" Buck asked.
"Yeah! Let's go!" J.D. slid off Buck's lap and trotted off.
Vin stood up more slowly, but was soon hurrying to catch up with the younger boy.
"You were great," Buck whispered to Louisa as he gave her a hand up. "I don't think I could have handled it that well."
"You would have managed, Buck. You're really great with those boys."
After spending a good part of the day at the zoo, they all piled back in the truck. Buck dropped Louisa off first, escorting her to her door and giving her a quick kiss before he returned to the truck. Both boys had dozed off, and he carefully shut his door to keep from waking them up. A nap would do them good, and they still had a long way to go before they got home.
When he pulled up to the ranch house, Buck cheerfully called out, "We're home, boys!" That was enough to wake Vin, but J.D. was out for the count. With a chuckle, Buck unfastened his seat belt and lifted the limp form out of the safety seat. Only then did he start to wake up. By the time they were inside, J.D. had come back to full alert, and wiggled out of Buck's arms.
Vin was already sitting in Chris's lap, telling him about their day.
"... all kinds of animals! We got ta see the polar bears playing in the water with a huge block of ice."
"Yeah, it was this big." J.D. interrupted, holding his hands as far apart as he could.
Chris chuckled. "That's pretty big."
"And we saw monkeys..." Vin continued.
J.D. promptly started to act like a monkey, climbing around on the furniture, while swinging his arms around.
"Hey, Pard, maybe you should take that monkey back to the zoo," Chris pointed out. "It must have escaped."
J.D. jumped down off the sofa and ran back over to the other man's chair. "It's just me, Chris!" he pointed out earnestly.
"I see. Reckon I was mistaken there for a minute."
"We got to see penguins, too," J.D. burst out. "They walked funny." Clapping his hands to his side, J.D. waddled around the room.
"And I got this." Vin opened his fist and displayed a small plastic animal in the shape of an elephant.
"I got one, too," J.D. interrupted again. "But mine's a 'rilla."
"He means gorilla," Vin said with a giggle when he noticed Chris's puzzled look. "We got to make these."
"Yeah, you put some money in the machine and turn some handles - though Buck had to help me - and the aminal pops out!" J.D. explained.
"Sounds like you had a pretty good time," Chris said as Buck left the room.
"Uh huh. Can we go ta the zoo again?" Vin asked softly.
"I'm sure we can manage that, but not for a while. If you go too often, it won't be as special."
"And you'll come with us next time?"
"We'll just have to pick a day when we can all go." Chris couldn't wait. It sounded like the boys had a great day, and he wished he could have been there with them.
"Good." Vin nestled down into Chris's arms, resting his head against his foster father's chest. Finally, he looked up, and confided, "Buck's got a girl friend. She came with us."
J.D. came over and leaned against the chair. "She was real purty."
"Did you like her?" Chris knew one of the reasons for the outing was to introduce Louisa to the boys and see how well they got along. Not that he thought much would come of it. If ever there was a confirmed bachelor, it was Buck Wilmington. And from what he had heard, Louisa was on the fast track to a political career.
After a little hesitation, both boys nodded.
"They kissed a lot," J.D. finally said, making a face. "And they held hands, too."
"Why'd they do that?" Vin asked. "It's yucky."
Chris tried to hide his smile. "You'll understand when you're older." Hopefully, much, much older. "Then you'll want to kiss girls, too."
"Not me!" J.D. stated firmly.
"Me neither," Vin added, making another face.
Buck came back into the room. "How about going out for pizza for dinner?" he suggested.
Both boys gave out an excited cheer.
"Then go get washed up," Chris said. He watched the boys run from the room, before rising from his chair. He turned to Buck. "What? You didn't stuff them with enough junk food at the zoo?"
Buck looked sheepish. "Louisa made sure I didn't do that."
"Good. Otherwise, you'd be the one cleaning up any messes tonight." With a grin, Chris headed for his own bathroom to clean up.
3 weeks later
Buck finished brushing his hair, before grinning at himself in the mirror. "Lookin' hot tonight, Stud," he told himself as he smoothed down his navy blue shirt. He left the bathroom and went back into his bedroom, coming to an abrupt stop when he saw J.D. sprawled across his bed on his stomach, legs slowly kicking the bed beneath him.
"Whatcha doin', L'il Bit?" Buck asked.
"Nuthin'." The little boy looked up at him. "Will you play with me?"
"Not, tonight. I have a date with Louisa."
J.D.'s lower lip stuck out in a pout. "You're never home no more. You're always with her." His feet started kicking the bed even harder as he looked away.
"That's not true!" Buck exclaimed. "Why we just..." He paused as he tried to remember when he'd last spent an evening at home with the boys. Guilt flooded through him as he realized that J.D. was right. While he hadn't been out with Louisa every night, errands and work had kept him busy, as well. "I'm sorry, L'il Bit. You're right, I haven't been home much, but I promise we'll do something special tomorrow night."
Buck could tell J.D. was upset because he was struggling with his 'r's again. It only happened when he was excited or really upset. His teacher at school had talked about speech therapy, but he didn't want J.D. to cope with that at this time. He scooped the boy up into his arms, and hugged him. "Yes, I promise."
"Cwoss your heart, hope to die, stick a needle in your eye pwomise?" J.D. studied his face intently.
"Yep," Buck said, solemnly.
J.D.'s face broke out into a huge smile, and he wrapped his arms around Buck's neck and hugged him tightly. "Good."
Buck carried the boy out to the living room, where he deposited him on the couch. "Now, you be good for Chris tonight, and start thinkin' about what you want to do tomorrow night, okay?"
J.D. nodded his head.
"I'll see you in the mornin' then," he promised, ruffling the boy's dark hair. You, too, Junior," he added to Vin, who was stretched out on the floor looking at a picture book about wild animals.
"Night, Buck," Vin responded before turning back to his book.
Buck refilled their wine glasses, then carried them in to the living room where Louisa was sitting on the couch. The firelight seemed to make her hair glow, as he settled down beside her. He handed her a glass, then picked up her left hand. "Darlin', I have never met a woman like you in my life before, and I'm pretty sure I'm not goin' to meet one like you again. I've never pictured myself parking my boots in one place for too long, and now I can't imagine my life without you." He paused, and swallowed hard. "What I'm trying to get at is... Will you marry me? I don't have much to offer, but I love you."
Tears made her eyes glisten in the candlelight. "Oh, Buck... I don't know what to say... I wasn't sure I was ready to settle down, either, but I just can't resist that twinkle in your eyes, and that sweet smile on your face. Yes, I'll marry you!"
He took the wineglass back, and set it on the floor along with his, then pulled her toward him. He brushed an errant teardrop that had escaped to run down her cheek, as he studied her face. "All I know is bein' with you feels like home," he said, before leaning in to kiss her.
Buck couldn't help but grin as he scrambled eggs for breakfast the next morning. Now that he'd taken the big step, he felt like he was on the top of the world. He finally understood what Chris must have felt when he'd proposed to Sarah. He had no idea why he'd fought against matrimony for so long.
"Hey, Chris," he called out as the other man came into the kitchen. "Guess what I did last night?"
Chris frowned as he poured himself a cup of coffee. "What you do at night when you're out on a date is your business, Buck. I don't need to know all the sordid details. Besides, I didn't think you kissed and told."
"No, I asked Louisa to marry me last night, and she said yes!" Buck felt like his face would split he was grinning so hard.
Chris stared at him like he'd lost his mind. "You did what?" he almost yelled. "Didn't you think we should have talked about this before you made that kind of decision?"
"Hey, Pard, I'm a big boy. I don't need your permission to get married," Buck almost snarled back.
It was obvious Chris was trying very hard to not lose his temper. "That's not what I mean. Did you think about where you and Louisa were going to live? And what that would mean to the boys? It's been six months, Buck. They're just starting to feel safe here. Splitting those boys up now could set Vin back to square one!"
With a sinking sensation, Buck realized that Chris was right. He hadn't really thought about the ramifications of getting married. He knew that Louisa liked the boys, and they had seemed to like her, but he hadn't really thought about the long-term plans. "We can work somethin' out."
"Later," Chris stated firmly. "The boys will be down soon. I don't want to say anything to them until we figure out what we're going to do."
Buck nodded slowly, turning back to the scrambled eggs, feeling totally deflated now.
Vin scowled at his backpack as he tried to get it to open. He wanted to put his homework in it, but the zipper wasn't cooperating. With a sigh, he decided he needed an adult to help him. Chris could do anything! He grabbed the backpack, and padded down the hallway in his stocking feet. He'd almost gotten to the kitchen when he heard the tone of Chris's voice. He sounded mad!
Vin paused, chewing on his lower lip as he tried to figure out if he'd done something bad. He slowly crept forward, trying to hear what was going on. He knew he'd missed part of the conversation between Chris and Buck, but he definitely heard the statement about splitting the boys up. That meant him and J.D.! And he was going to be sent back to someplace called Square One. He didn't know where that was, but it didn't sound good! He must have done something really wrong if Chris wanted to get rid of him!
On silent feet, he headed back to his bedroom. Leaving the backpack on the floor, he climbed up into the top bunk. He hugged his stuffed cat close to his chest as he tried to figure out what he'd done wrong, and what he was going to do now.
He didn't know how long he sat there before Chris opened the bedroom door. "You boys ready for breakfast?" he asked.
J.D. stuck out his feet from his lower bunk. Both shoes were untied, and Chris quickly dealt with them. As he stood up, he peered up at Vin. "What about you?"
"I'm ready," Vin quickly answered. He could tell that Chris was still mad, although he was trying to hide it. There was no way he was going to say anything about his backpack now.
J.D. had other ideas. "Vin, here's your homework," he said, waving the papers he'd picked up from Vin's desk. "You forgot it!"
Vin climbed down from his bed, and quickly took the papers. "I didn't forget it!"
"Better put it in your backpack," Chris suggested, pointing at the bag.
Vin looked down at the floor. "I can't. It's broke."
Chris frowned and picked up the bag. "What's wrong with it?" he asked as he sat down on the lower bunk.
"It won't open." Vin was sure that Chris would explode, but he didn't. Instead, he patiently started working on the zipper.
"Looks like you got something caught in the zipper teeth," Chris said. He worked at it for several moments while both boys watched. Finally, with a grin, he managed to work the zipper free. He opened the backpack, and pulled out the sweatshirt that was stuffed inside. "Here's the guilty culprit. Next time, be sure it's not too close to the zipper before you close it."
Vin took the backpack. "Thanks, Chris," he said. "I'll be more careful next time." Assuming there was a next time.
"Let's go get breakfast, boys. Don't want you to miss the school bus."
Ezra Standish shot another surreptitious look at Chris while ostensibly reading a report on their next case. He considered himself an expert at reading body language, and the leader of the ATF team was uptight - more so than usual - about something. He doubted it was their new case. They weren't far enough into it yet to have problems. Their last case had been closed quite successfully a few days ago.
He glanced around the conference room table at the rest of the team. Josiah and Nathan had their full attention concentrated on the report. Buck, on the other hand, appeared to be distracted. He seemed to be more intent on bouncing his pencil against the table instead of the paperwork in front of him.
Normally, he wouldn't have gotten involved in any disagreement between Buck and Chris. The two men were old friends, and could usually work out any problems on their own. However, he couldn't help but worry whether there was some problem with the two orphans the men had taken in.
He'd always prided himself on remaining detached from any emotional bonds, but from the start, those two small boys had wormed their way into his heart. He loved those boys almost as much as Buck and Chris did, and he would walk through the fires of hell for them.
Just the thought that something was wrong with Vin or J.D. made his stomach churn, and he couldn't stop the words from blurting out. "Is there a problem, Mr. Larabee? Has there been some mishap involving the boys?"
Chris glared at him for a moment before turning to his oldest friend. "Go ahead and tell them, Buck," he practically ordered.
"Louisa and I are getting married," Buck announced, almost defiantly.
Ezra could only stare at the dark haired man in disbelief, as did the rest of the team. The undercover agent would have given odds that Buck Wilmington would never marry. The same would have been true for Louisa Perkins. That was why he had introduced them, figuring neither would take a relationship seriously.
Nathan recovered first, and reached out to shake Buck's hand.
"Congratulations, Buck! Never thought you'd ever do that!"
"God works in mysterious ways," Josiah added with a large grin, reaching out to slap Buck on the back.
Ezra glanced back at Chris, trying to figure out why their leader didn't seem to think this was good news. Then it struck him. "What will happen to the boys? Their adoption hasn't gone through yet! Surely, adding another person into the equation could delay that from being finalized."
Chris and Buck looked shocked, like they hadn't even given that a thought. "Surely, givin' J.D. a mother won't stop the adoption!" Buck protested.
Josiah shrugged. "You never know. They will want to take into account whether Louisa is a fit mother - although that shouldn't be a problem. And adding a woman to your household shouldn't cause any concerns either."
"I'm not adding a woman to my household!" Chris blurted out.
"Surely, you aren't suggesting that you separate the boys, are you?" Ezra asked, looking at Chris, totally appalled at the idea. Even though they weren't related, Vin and J.D. had a closer relationship than most brothers did.
"Well she's not moving into my house!" Chris growled. "It was bad enough when Buck moved in."
"Seemed to be workin' out pretty good, Pard," Buck pointed out sarcastically.
Chris sighed, scrubbing at his face with his hands. "That's not what I mean, Buck. It has worked out good - for both us and the boys. Even with Mrs. Potter it would have been difficult to take care of Vin on my own. But that doesn't mean I want someone else moving in!"
Ezra couldn't blame him. While the house was big enough, it would be difficult having another woman move into the house that Chris had shared with his wife and son before they had been killed three years earlier. Plus Louisa was a strong woman who didn't hesitate to voice her opinions. She would want a place that she could change to her heart's content. And Chris wouldn't put up with that!
"Still, wouldn't it be best to think of the boys' best interests first? At least postpone the engagement until after the adoptions have been finalized?"
Neither Chris nor Buck seemed too happy with those suggestions.
"We'll figure out what we're going to do later," Chris finally stated. "Let's get back to work."
Vin scowled as J.D. raced ahead of him toward the house. He supposed it wasn't the younger boy's fault. He wasn't the one being sent away. He didn't have any reason to be upset. He scuffled his feet in the dirt as he slowly followed along, kicking at any rocks in his way.
It wasn't fair! Why was he the one being sent away? What had he done wrong? Sure, he wasn't the smartest boy, but Chris had seemed to understand. And since Uncle Ezra had been helping him his grades had improved.
That gave him an idea. He raced into the house, quickly threw off his backpack, then ran into the kitchen. Mrs. Potter had already poured two glasses of milk, and J.D. was drinking his while munching on some cookies. Vin took one of the cookies from the plate near the center of the table for himself, quickly eating it, and drinking his own milk.
"Can I make a phone call? I have ta ask Uncle Ezra somethin' real important!"
"May I, and you really shouldn't bother him at work," Mrs. Potter scolded lightly. "Can't it wait?"
"No, Ma'am, it can't."
"Very well, but if he's busy, you can't keep him on the phone. Do you know the number?"
Vin nodded. "It's on the speed dial. Number 3."
"I wanna talk to him, too!" J.D. announced.
Having J.D. listen in would ruin everything! "You can't! It's a secret!"
"I don't care!" J.D. pouted. "I wanna talk to Uncle Ezra, too!"
"Why don't you have another cookie while Vin talks first," Mrs. Potter suggested. "You can talk after he's done."
"Okay," J.D. agreed with a sigh, even as his hand reached out for another cookie.
Vin hurried into the living room, and punched the number that would ring Uncle Ezra's work phone. He waited impatiently for the man to answer. Just when he thought he'd have to hang up, the phone was picked up.
"Uncle Ezra, this is Vin. You busy?"
"Why, Mr. Tanner, I am never too busy to talk to you. To what great honor do I owe this conversation?"
"Huh?" Sometimes Uncle Ezra was hard to understand.
"Why did you call me?" Ezra asked more simply.
"Oh. Can I come live with you?" Vin blurted out.
There was a long pause, and Vin's hopes plummeted. Uncle Ezra didn't want him either! "Never mind," he whispered into the phone before hanging up. With tears blurring his vision, he headed for his bedroom. He climbed up into his bunk, and huddled on the bed, clutching his precious cat to his chest while tears rolled down his face.
"Mr. Tanner! Vin!" Ezra practically shouted into the phone before realizing the boy had hung up. He replaced the phone receiver, and headed for Chris's office, hearing Nathan and Josiah following close behind. He knocked, but didn't wait for permission to enter. "Mr. Larabee, there may be a problem at your home!"
"What?" Chris jumped to his feet, already reaching for his jacket. Buck, who had been in the office, also jumped up.
"Mr. Tanner just called and asked if he could come live with me. Before I had a chance to formulate a reply to that astounding question, he had hung up."
"He asked what?" Chris almost shouted.
"Shall I call back and try to ascertain what the problem is? Although, I feel that a personal approach may be better in this situation."
"I'll go home and talk to him."
"I'm going with you," Buck added.
"Perhaps it would be beneficial if I came along," Ezra suggested. "He might be more willing to talk to me."
"Thanks, Ezra." Chris led the way out of the office.
"Keep us posted," Josiah called after them.
J.D. launched himself at Buck as soon as they entered the house. "Vin's crying."
Buck hugged him tightly. "It's goin' to be all right, L'il bit," he said while exchanging glances with the other men.
"Oh, Mr. Larabee, Mr. Wilmington, you're here! Thank goodness!" Mrs. Potter said with a relieved smile as she entered the room. "I called your office, but they said you'd already left. Vin is in his room, crying, but I don't know why! He wanted to call Mr. Standish, and the next thing I know, J.D. is telling me he's crying."
"Maybe I should talk to him first," Ezra suggested. "After all, he contacted me for assistance."
Chris sighed, running a hand through his hair. "All right, Ezra. I'll let you give it a try."
Vin heard the bedroom door open, and scrubbed the tears from his face. He knew he'd upset both J.D. and Mrs. Potter. They were probably coming back to check up on him.
Vin sat up. "Uncle Ezra? Whatcha doin' here?"
Ezra climbed up the ladder and joined Vin on his bunk. "You hung up on me rather precipitously... uh... quickly. You didn't give me a chance to answer your question."
Vin clutched his cat closer. "That's all right. Reckon I know what your answer was gonna be anyway."
"I doubt that. Mr. Tanner... Vin..., rest assured that if you needed a home, I would be more than willing to offer you mine. What I cannot understand is why you are looking for a new one. Aren't you happy here?"
Vin nodded slowly. "Chris don't want me no more." He sniffled, and brushed away the tear that rolled down his cheek.
"Nonsense! Whatever gave you that idea? The man loves you!"
"I heard him and Buck talkin'. They said they were gonna separate us and send me someplace called Square One! I don't wanna go, Uncle Ezra!"
"Of course you don't." Ezra placed an arm around Vin's shoulders and the boy nestled closer. "I'm sure you misunderstood their conversation. Mr. Larabee would not send you away. Ever."
"Everyone else has," Vin whispered.
"Well, everyone else is not Chris Larabee. He will not send you away!"
"Are you sure?" Vin looked up into Ezra's eyes, searching for the truth.
"Absolutely positive. In fact, he's right outside. You can ask him yourself. Are you ready to talk to him?"
Vin wasn't too sure, but he finally nodded. He watched Ezra jump down off the bunk and go over to open the bedroom door. Chris must have been waiting in the hall because he came in immediately and headed for the bunk beds.
"Vin?" Chris looked up at the boy. "Are you okay?"
"Are you gonna send me away?" Vin decided to just get it over with.
"Of course not! I promise I will never send you away!" He held out his arms, and Vin slid off the bed into the embrace.
Vin wrapped his arms and legs tightly around Chris, and felt his foster father's arms holding him securely. He rested his head on Chris's shoulder, taking comfort in the embrace.
"What brought this on?" Chris finally asked. "Did you do something wrong and were afraid of how I would react?"
Vin shook his head. "I heard you and Buck talkin' this morning. You said you were sendin' me to Square One, wherever that is."
"Square one is just an expression, Vin. It means starting over. I wasn't going to send you anywhere. Do you believe me?"
Vin nodded, feeling relief flood through him. "What about the part where you said me and J.D. would be separated?"
"That's a longer story. Why don't we go out to the living room, and Buck and I will tell you and J.D. all about it?"
"Okay." Vin decided he wasn't ready to let go of Chris yet, so he let him carry him out to the living room.
"I'll be taking my leave, now, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said as they reached the living room. "I don't think you will be needing my assistance any further. I will contact Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Jackson to reassure them." He rested one hand on Vin's shoulder. "Remember what I told you, Mr. Tanner. I meant what I said." With those words, he turned and left.
Chris sat down on the couch, and finally convinced Vin to relax his hold. He motioned to Buck to join them. "We have something to tell you."
Buck hugged J.D. for a moment before starting. "You boys know I've been seein' Miss Louisa, don't you?"
Both boys nodded.
"Well, we love each other, and last night I asked her to marry me. She said yes."
"Yea! You're getting married!" J.D. yelled. He paused for a moment. "What's getting married mean?"
Buck grinned. "It means we want to spend our life together."
"Is she gonna move in here?" Vin asked.
"Well, no. We'll want to have our own home," Buck said slowly.
"What about me?" J.D. demanded.
"You'll come with us, J.D. We'll both adopt you."
"Will she 'dopt Vin, too?"
Chris answered this one. "No, I'll adopt Vin. Buck and Louisa will adopt you. But it does mean that we won't all live together any more. J.D. and Buck and Louisa will live together, and Vin and I will live together. Just like we had first planned before Buck moved in here."
Vin didn't like that plan at all, but at least he'd be with Chris. Still, he didn't want J.D. to leave, either. "Do we have ta? J.D. needs me ta look after him."
"I don't wanna leave Vin!" J.D. protested.
"You'll still see each other," Buck pointed out. "We'll try to find someplace to live close by, so you can go to school together. In fact, if possible you can still come here after school and let Mrs. Potter watch you."
"And we'll let you two have sleep-overs, too," Chris added. "It will be like having two homes. You'll see, it will be fun."
Vin didn't think Chris sounded too convincing, but it didn't look like there was any choice.
"Should I go pack?" J.D. asked.
"Of course not, L'il Bit. This is all still months away. Getting married takes a lot of time. Plus we have to find a place to live. You'll have plenty of time to get used to the idea."
"Do you guys have any other questions?" Chris asked.
Both boys shook their heads no.
Chris glanced at his watch. "Well, guess there's not much sense in going back to work now. How about Buck and I go change our clothes and we go for a ride?"
Both boys jumped up with smiles on their faces. They practically pushed Buck and Chris down the hall to their respective bedrooms.
When Buck went in to wake the boys up the next morning, his stomach plummeted at the sight that greeted him. Both boys were huddled together in J.D.'s bed, arms wrapped tightly around each other. Obviously, the thought of being separated had been more traumatic that he or Chris had realized.
He felt like an ogre.
Was there something he could have done to make this less traumatic? Other than not getting married? Surely, he had a right to some happiness with a woman in his life? While he loved J.D. with all of his heart, he had always dreamed of having children of his own eventually. It wouldn't make him love J.D. any less - he knew he had enough love for more than one child.
Maybe he should have let J.D. spend more time with him and Louisa before springing the news that they were getting married. Of course, he had kind of planned on doing that until Vin had overheard their conversation yesterday and totally misunderstood it.
He could only hope that, with time, the boys would come to accept the forthcoming change in their lifestyles. For that matter, it would be a major change to his life. He would really miss Vin. Just a much as Chris would miss J.D.
"Time to rise and shine, boys," he called out. He reached out and pulled the covers down, then lightly shook each boy's shoulder.
"Mornin', Buck," Vin greeted him sleepily, rubbing at his eyes.
"Mornin', Vin. C'mon, L'il Bit, time to wake up." He shook the younger boy's shoulder again. Sometimes, he couldn't believe how hard it was to wake J.D. up.
"Mornin'," J.D. mumbled with his eyes closed.
By this time, Vin had crawled out of bed and headed for the bathroom. Buck had too much experience at waking up the boys to leave the room just yet. Until J.D. was on his feet, he could easily fall back asleep. He reached down and pulled the younger boy out of bed, placing him on his feet.
"You awake?" he asked.
J.D.'s eyes opened and he nodded. "Mornin', Buck!" he said with a big smile. His small arms hugged the tall man's legs. "Are you married yet?"
"Not yet," Buck said with a chuckle. He ruffled the boy's dark hair. "Get dressed, and ready for school."
Buck smelled her perfume first. So, he wasn't too surprised when hands came from behind and covered his eyes.
"Guess who?" she whispered seductively.
"Now, J.Lo, Darlin', I told you - not at the office!" Buck teased.
The hands were removed quickly, only to return to pummel his shoulders. Buck spun around in his chair and grabbed hold of Louisa. He pulled her down on his lap and kissed her, knowing he was the only one in the office at the time. "What are you doin' here, Darlin'?"
"I have the most wonderful news! You aren't going to believe it!" The words almost seemed to bubble out. "Governor Hopewell - you remember I told you about him? He's the governor of Georgia, and I met him when I worked for the mayor of Atlanta. Anyway, he called me up this morning - he's going to run for president, and he wants me to work on his election team! Isn't that wonderful? I can't wait to start!"
"Start? What do you mean start?"
"Well, I accepted his job offer, of course. I would be stupid not to. He's also willing to hire you for security. Isn't this too perfect? We'll be working together every day! I also think we should get married right away. We have so much to do before we head to Georgia! I've already called a realtor to list my house. We can go get the marriage license this afternoon-"
"Hold on a minute," Buck protested, almost pushing her off his lap to stand up to face her. "Don't you think we should have discussed this before you started arrangin' our lives? My life?"
"But Buck, you can't expect me to turn down this opportunity! If Hopewell is elected, he's promised me a key position on his staff. This is just the opportunity I've been looking for."
"That may be fine for you, but I don't want to quit my job," Buck pointed out, trying to be reasonable. "I love it, and the rest of the guys depend on me."
"But you'd be making three times as much as you are now working for Hopewell! And it would be much safer then chasing down crooks. Of course, my salary will be fantastic! Plus this job will involve a lot of travel. If you don't go with me, we'll never get a chance to see each other. I don't want a part-time husband!" Louisa glared at Buck, arms crossed firmly over her chest.
"Well, I don't want a part-time wife! And what about J.D.? Are we goin' to drag him around the country just so you can have this high- falutin' job?"
"Of course not. If Chris doesn't want to keep him, we can put him in a boarding school - or maybe even a military academy."
Buck couldn't believe what he was hearing. "That's not goin' to happen! Besides, I can't take him out of Colorado as long as he's only my foster son. And I really doubt that they'll let me adopt him if I can't even offer him a permanent home."
"Fine, then let Chris take care of him! I can't believe you're going to let that boy ruin our lives."
Buck realized their voices had started getting louder. He stepped back and took a deep breath, trying to calm down. "He isn't ruining our lives," he finally said. "Because I really think we made a mistake. I obviously didn't know you as well as I thought I did. Given a choice between you and J.D., I would choose him every time. But that's not the only reason I think we should call it quits. You made all these decisions without even discussin' them with me. That's not the kind of relationship I'm looking for - I want a partner, not a boss."
"But, Buck, we love each other!"
He could see tears forming in her eyes, and had to fight the urge to take her into his arms. "Not enough. You're a beautiful, intelligent woman, Louisa. You deserve a man who's willin' to put you first, but that's not me. I wish you the best of luck in your new job."
Louisa took a step back, then a determined look crossed her face. "Very well, Buck, but if you should come to your senses, I should be in town for the next two weeks. You can call me." With that, she spun around and almost ran from the office.
Buck collapsed in his chair and tried to decide what he was feeling.
When the rest of the team returned to the office, Buck stood up and faced them. "I just wanted to let you know - the engagement is off. I'm not goin' into any details, so don't bother askin'." With that he started back to his desk.
"Buck!" Chris's voice stopped him mid-stride. "My office, now!"
With a sigh, he followed the blond into the office, and slumped into a seat. Chris walked over and sat on the corner of the desk.
"Tell me you didn't break your engagement because of the boys!" he demanded. "We'll work it out somehow. I know you love J.D., but you deserve a chance to have a wife and more kids."
Buck sighed. He really didn't want to go into it, but he figured Chris deserved an answer. "Technically, it was because of J.D., but not in the way you think. She just took a job - without consultin' me - that would mean movin' to Georgia, plus travelin' around the countryside. As far as she was concerned, either you could keep J.D., or I could send him to another foster home. That ain't gonna happen!"
"I'm sorry, Buck." Chris didn't know what else to say. "If you want to take the rest of the day off, it's okay."
"Nah. I'd rather keep busy." He stood up, and headed for the door. He paused, then turned to face the other man. "Chris, remind me to vote against Hopewell."
"You got it, Buck. But you might want to think about how lucky you are that this happened now, and not after you got married."
Buck thought about it for a moment, then asked, "How do you know, Chris? How do you know when a woman is the one?"
Chris sighed. "There's no easy answer for that. I wish there was. It just seemed right with Sarah, but I still had doubts."
"It seemed right with Louisa, too. How could I have misjudged her so badly? I mean I knew she was ambitious, but to be willin' to just throw away J.D. because he didn't fit into her plans..." Buck shuck his head slowly, then left the room.
Buck had stopped off to get some groceries, and Chris decided to take advantage of being the first one home to break the news to the boys. He sat down on the couch, a boy on either side of him.
"I have something to tell you," he started off, wrapping an arm around each boy.
"Is Buck okay?" J.D. asked, his eyes tearing up at the thought of his foster father being hurt.
"He's fine - he's just buying groceries. He'll be home soon. I promise." He paused and ran a hand through his hair. "But he might be a little sad when he gets home. You see, he and Louisa aren't going to get married after all."
"Why?" Vin asked. His blue eyes stared up at his foster father.
Chris decided to keep it as simple as possible. "She was offered a great job, but it meant moving to Georgia. So, they decided not to get married. And that might make Buck a little sad at times."
"I thought she loved him," Vin said. "How could she go away?"
"Didn't she want a little boy?" J.D. asked, his lower lip trembling.
Chris's arms tightened around the boys, and he had to force himself to ease up. "Of course she wanted you." He knew it wasn't really true, but there was no way he would ever tell them that. "And yes, she did love Buck, but she didn't love him enough. Sometimes that happens with adults. You think you find someone you love, but then it just doesn't work out. It's no one's fault."
"Does this mean Buck and J.D. won't be movin' out?" Vin asked.
"That's right. They'll be staying here with us. That doesn't mean that Buck might not find another woman someday, and want to move out. But it won't be happening any time soon. So, you guys can stop worrying about that, okay?"
Both boys nodded vigorously. "Okay."
The sound of a car door slamming drew their attention outside. Both boys jumped up and ran over to the door.
"Buck's home!" J.D. yelled out.
Before Chris could stop them, both boys raced out the door, across the porch, and down the stairs. They didn't stop until they had slammed into Buck, full force. How the tall man remained standing was a question that couldn't be answered.
"We love you, Buck!" both boys said loudly, hugging Buck's legs.
Chris went to Buck's aid, removing the sacks of groceries from the tall man's arms so he could stoop down and hug the boys.
"I'll never move away from you!" J.D. promised. "Not for any dumb job!"
"I won't either," Vin added.
"Well, that's good to know, boys," Buck replied with a grin and a wink at Chris. "It's a good thing I don't have to worry about that anymore." He hugged the boys again, then stood back up. "Now, let's go inside and put away the groceries."
Vin and J.D. were playing catch in the yard after dinner, when a Jag pulled into the driveway. Their game was quickly forgotten as they ran over to greet the newcomer.
"Hi, Uncle Ezra!" they both yelled. J.D. jumped up and down, while Vin just seemed to quiver in anticipation - his version of jumping up and down - until the Southerner climbed out of his car. They each grabbed one of his hands and started to pull him toward the house.
"Did ya hear about Buck?" J.D. asked.
"Is there something wrong with Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked.
Vin nodded, wanting to make sure Ezra didn't say anything to upset Buck. "He's been tilted."
Ezra came to a stop and stared down at the boy. "He has been what?"
"Tilted. Ya know - at the altar!" Vin explained earnestly. J.D. just nodded. "So, he's a little sad."
Vin couldn't figure out why Ezra's lips were twitching. It was almost like he was trying not to smile. "We're not supposed to mention Miz Louisa anymore. So, you'd better not either."
"I will take that under advisement," Ezra promised. "Should I ask where you heard the phrase 'tilted at the altar'? And the proper word is jilted, not tilted."
"On a TV show Mrs. Potter watches," J.D. said. "Some guy called Jerry."
"And she lets you watch this show?" Ezra looked upset at the idea.
Vin looked down at the ground, and shuffled his feet.
"Mr. Tanner? Mr. Dunne?" His tone made it quite clear he expected a truthful answer.
"Sometimes we sneak out in the hall and watch, too," Vin finally answered, fairly certain they were going to get into trouble.
"But only when our homework is all done," J.D. added in.
"Still, I think I will have to inform Mr. Larabee, and Mr. Wilmington about this. That show is hardly suitable for boys to be watching." Ezra paused for a moment. "For that matter, it's hardly suitable for adults to be watching."
"Ah, do ya have ta?" Vin protested. "They have some neat fights on the show sometimes."
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Why don't you two boys go back to your game of catch. I would like to talk to Mr. Wilmington in private for a few minutes, then I will join you."
"Okay!" Vin and J.D. ran back to pick up their ball.
Ezra watched them for a few moments before climbing the stairs to the house. Chris was waiting for him and opened the door to let him in.
"Evening, Ezra. What brings you out here?" he asked.
"Am I intruding?" Ezra asked, already starting to turn to leave.
Chris sighed, and grabbed his arm. "Of course not. C'mon in. Can I get you a beer?"
"No, thank you. I've actually come to talk to Mr. Wilmington, if he's available."
"He'll be out in a minute. He's putting a load of laundry in the washer."
Ezra smiled at the thought. "Do you really trust him to do that chore?"
Chris grinned. "Now I do. He learned really quickly that black and white doesn't belong in the same load when all our underwear came out grey. He's pretty well house-broken by now."
"I heard that!" Buck said as he entered the room. "Seems to me that I remember a certain cowboy that had pink underwear the first time he washed Sarah's red nightgowns in with his whites. I'd rather wear gray boxers than pink ones!"
"Shut up, Buck," Chris growled.
"You want a beer, Ezra?" Buck asked.
"No, thank you. I've actually come out to apologize."
"This whole mess with Miss Perkins. I feel that it was all my fault that it all happened."
"How did you figure that?" Chris demanded.
"Well, I introduced her to Buck."
"Well, hell, Ezra!" Buck exclaimed. "If I got mad at everyone who introduced me to a woman that I broke up with, I'd be mad at half of Denver."
"Plus, it was my suggestion that you and Mr. Dunne move in here. The boys were already becoming used to living in separate accommodations, and this would have been less traumatic on then."
"It was a good suggestion, and, even knowing what I know now, I wouldn't change that for anything," Buck replied. "You have nothing to apologize for, Ezra."
"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington, for your understanding. Now, I should return outside and fulfill my promise to the boys to play catch."
"Sounds like fun," Buck said. "You two go ahead, I'll be out in a minute."
Chris and Ezra walked out to the porch where the blond stopped and turned to face the gambler.
"You know why they broke up?"
"Yes. I still have a lot of contacts that keep me abreast of happenings back in Georgia. Miss Perkins should be quite happy with her new job."
"Ezra, tell me you didn't have anything to do with Louisa's job offer," Chris asked in a low voice, looking over his shoulder to make sure Buck wasn't coming yet.
"Why, Mr. Larabee, how could you suggest such a thing?"
"Let's see... she's going to work for the governor of Georgia. You lived in Georgia. Maude still lives there. And I know your devious mind."
"Do you really think I would try to play God with a friend's life? I'm hurt, Mr. Larabee."
Chris stared at the best undercover agent in the business, and tried to read his face. Finally he gave in. "Okay. I'm sorry, Ezra. I shouldn't have suggested you would do such a thing."
"Your apology is accepted. Now, shall we go play ball?"
As they walked down the stairs, Chris realized that Ezra had never actually denied the accusation. And if it was true, he really didn't want to know.
He was happy with how things had turned out. As the old saying went, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'
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