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Mrs. Potter burst into tears when they told her what was going to happen. She agreed to be at the condo for JD until the situation was resolved. Chris and Buck went into the bedroom and began to pack for the boys.
Shirts, pants, underclothes and pajamas went into the large duffle bag. Chris did okay for a couple of minutes. He bent down to look under the bed for Vins house slippers when he lost control. Pushing up from the floor, he rested his head and chest on the bed and gathered the blankets to his face. It was like losing Adam all over again. He clenched his fists in the blanket and pushed it all down, deep into his gut. A scream of anguish ripped from his throat, similar to the one hed made as he watched his wife and son die. Buck dropped to his knees beside Chris and rested a hand on the shuddering back.
Chris, you have to pull yourself together. He cant see you like this. You have to be strong for Vin. Youll destroy him if you cant help him get through this. Please, do it for Vin?
It took several moments but Chris finally managed to pull himself together. He finished packing and carried the bag out to the living room. Nettie Wells had arrived and was standing in the corner of the room, whispering to Josiah. She avoided making eye contact with Chris as he placed the duffle bag on the floor next to the couch. Buck walked in a couple of minutes later with an identical bag for JD. He nodded at Mrs. Wells before heading for his room to pack a bag.
The bus arrived a few minutes later and the boys raced up the driveway, laughing delightedly at seeing the trucks in their customary parking places. The front door flew open and the boys ran in. JD flung his book bag toward the hanger on the wall before launching himself into Bucks arms. He immediately began to spout the information about his day. Vin raced in and came to a halt. His eyes swept the room, resting for a long time on the duffle bags. His blue eyes filled with tears and he bolted from the house.
Vin! Chris called as he ran after the child. Vin, come back! I need to talk to you.
The child stopped at the edge of the corral, sobbing. Chris dropped to his knees and slipped an arm around the tiny, shaking form.
Youre sending me away! The voice was tinged with childish indignation.
No, Vin. I would never send you away. There was some trouble at work the other day. Mrs. Wells is taking you for a few days until we straighten out the problem. Im sorry, Vin. Im so sorry.
Where is she taking us? Will we be able to stay at our same school? When will we be able to see you again? Can we take the dogs? Wholl help you with the horses and do our chores?
Unable to hold back any longer, Chris buried his face in Vins shoulder and cried. His hands ghosted over Vins back as the soul shredding sobs ripped from his throat. He felt the boys hands fist up in the shirt at his shoulders. Vin pressed himself as tightly against Chris as he could get, wrapping his legs around the lean waist and burying his face.
From the deck, Josiah and Nettie watched. Tipping his face skyward, Josiah hurled a few choice insults at the Man Upstairs. When Mrs. Wells started down from the deck, he pulled her back. With slow, deliberate steps, the profiler walked down the yard toward the pair. He placed his palm firmly on Vins back and felt the child jump. Vin pressed even more tightly against Chris and began to whimper.
Chris, Mrs. Wells needs to go. She has his bag in the car and I moved the booster. I hope its all right. I know youd want him to ride safely.
As Josiah spoke, he eased Chris to his feet and drew him toward the house. With each step, Vins cries became louder and more violent. By the time they crossed the threshold into the house; the child was screaming and clawing at his foster father. The blond didnt even stop in the house; he went right through and out the front door. Like a tidal wave, the others followed him out to the caseworkers car. Buck followed with JD affixed to his chest, screaming hysterically. When they reached the car, Chris leaned against the rear quarter panel and tossed a pleading look at Josiah.
Pulling the door open, Josiah then took hold of the child. Vins screams escalated. His little hands were clawing desperately at Chriss clothes. Josiah held the child firmly while Chris pried his shirt from the tiny hands. The blond man was sucking air like there was no tomorrow. As soon as his last contact with Vin was severed, he fled, running for the house. Ezra edged forward and helped force the hysterical child into the booster seat and strapped him in.
JD! I WANT JD! PLEASE DONT TAKE ME AWAY! ILL BE GOOD!
Josiah gathered the childs hands into his own and held them until he was too hoarse to continue screaming. Vin began to thrash, trying to see his friend. Ezra climbed into the back seat from the other side and tried to help calm Vin. He reached out and stroked the damp blond hair until the boy was exhausted. When he had settled down, the two of them began to explain to him what was going to happen.
Vin, you know I would never lie to you, right? Seeing the blond head nod, Josiah continued. There was a problem at work on Saturday and theyre doing an investigation. As soon as its over, youll be back here. Chris doesnt want you to go and Buck doesnt want you to go and Nettie doesnt want to have to take you but she has to follow the rules. Its just for a few days, son.
The blue eyes flashed in rage at the gentle appellation. Ezra felt the boy tense and added his voice to Josiahs.
Buck and JD are going to stay at the condo. Mrs. Wells will arrange for JD to visit.
As soon as the southerners words sank in, Vin began to struggle again. Screaming incoherently, he clawed at Josiah and kicked against the seat. Ezra reached across the booster and pressed his arm against Vins chest as he rested his own cheek against the side of the seat. When the childs voice was too hoarse and raw to scream anymore, he began to cry. Josiah released Vins hands and eased out of the door. Buck stood behind him with tears streaming down his face. JD was wrapped so tightly around him that it was hard to breathe.
It took over an hour for everyone to say goodbye to Vin. By the time Nettie pulled onto the highway, the child was asleep, worn out by the emotional turbulence of the afternoon. Looking in the rear view mirror at the sweat soaked, exhausted child with the tear streaked face; she cursed her supervisor and wiped tears from her own face.
Marty Shaster had seen the news report about the shooting at the dry cleaners. His brother in law had been turned down for a position with Larabees team. He saw an opportunity to strike back at the man who had slighted his sisters husband. As soon as Nettie arrived in the office that morning, he had demanded that she remove the children. The law stated that children in custody of the state could not be left in a home that was the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation, Nettie pointed out that only Chris was being investigated, the rest of the team was on desk duty as part of the routine until the investigation was completed. The caseworker had pleaded with the man to no avail. He finally agreed to allow her to remove only Larabees foster son.
Vin was still asleep when the car pulled into the driveway at the Jackson home. Nathan and Rain rushed out to the car and pulled the door open. Vin was so emotionally and physically drained that he didnt even respond to being lifted from the booster seat.
Ill take him, Nate, you get his things, Rain said as she gathered the child into her arms. Her heart ached when she took in the red, swollen eyes and the sweat soaked hair. She realized that the boy must have put up quite a fight when they took him. Making her way into the house, she decided to settle Vin on the couch until the caseworker left.
As she was easing Vin onto the couch, his body tensed. She stroked his back gently as his eyes opened and he gazed around the room. Terror was the only word for what she saw in his little face. Vins eyes finally lit on her and he gasped. A moment later, she was nearly knocked from the couch as he hurled himself into her arms, sobbing.
Nathan put the duffle bag and the booster seat on the floor next to the console television and hurried across the room. He waited for his wife to acknowledge him before raising his eyebrows in question. Rain shook her head and continued to rock and soothe Vin. A soft sigh took Nathan back to the door.
I didnt tell Mr. Larabee that you were taking him. Im afraid that I must insist that you not allow him to see Vin until the investigation is completed. Is that clear, Mr. Jackson?
Yes Maam, I understand. Ill let the school know tomorrow. Thank you for letting us have him, I know it will be better than if hed gone to a stranger.
I just hope this doesnt complicate things for you at work, Mr. Jackson. Good night.
Nathan closed the door and crossed to sit on the couch next to Rain. He could still hear the faint, hoarse pleas being whispered into his wifes blouse. Vin was pleading to be returned to Chris and to be with JD. He was promising to be the best little boy in the world. It was heart breaking to listen to him.
Vin, can you listen to me for a minute? When the blond head turned, two tear filled eyes gazed at him. This is only temporary. Were going to get things straightened out right away so you can go home again. You just have to trust us, okay?
When can I see Chris?
I dont know about that but youll see JD at school tomorrow and we can call him on the phone if youd like.
Can I call Chris? The blue eyes lit with hope.
Im sorry, son, Mrs. Wells said no.
Vin only heard part of the statement. As soon as Nathan uttered the word son Vin pushed away from Rain and ran across the room toward the front door. The team medic was right behind him, holding the door closed while Vin twisted the knob and jerked on the door with all of his strength. When the door wouldnt open, Vin began to kick at it screaming at the top of his lungs.
I want to go home! I want to go home! I want to go home! The phrase grew more and more distorted as the voice became more and more hoarse.
When the little Texan collapsed in the corner, crying, Rain gently tried to coax him off of the floor. Vin flinched under her hand and lashed out with one, sneaker clad foot.
Vincent Michael Tanner! That is not acceptable! You apologize to Rain for hurting her! Nathans voice was harsh when Vins foot cracked Rains shin.
The effect was immediate, Vin looked at Rain and his eyes widened in horror. He jumped up from the floor and wrapped his arms around her neck. It took him several swallows to work up enough moisture to manage the words.
Im sorry, Aunt Rain. I didnt mean to hurt you.
At the ranch, Chris was an emotional train wreck. Everything he saw and touched reminded him of Vin. Buck had handed JD to him to say goodbye and another emotional, physical battle ensued. The little brunet objected to leaving his home and was overwrought over being separated from Vin. JDs high-pitched screams had split Chriss broken heart wide open. Josiah and Ezra peeled JD off of Chris and fastened him into his booster seat while the two friends said their goodbyes.
I hate leaving you like this, Chris, Buck whispered.
No, you have to do this, you cant let her take JD from you because I screwed up, Chris spat bitterly.
Im going to see an attorney tomorrow. Ezra said it might be possible for me to get Vin, at least temporarily. Im going to have to take the foster parent training classes but he thinks he can pull some strings to get me approved.
They need something more permanent than foster parents, Buck, they need a permanent home.
Then lets adopt them when all this mess blows over! Buck suggested.
And leave them orphans again? Buck, you saw what happened Saturday, we could have been killed! Neither one of us can guarantee them a forever home! Tears of frustration were building up in the hazel eyes and Chris fisted them away.
There are no guarantees in life, Stud. Would you have given up Adam if he had survived when Sarah died? Having two parents doesnt guarantee anything either. I grew up with just my mom and I didnt turn out so bad.
You do what you have to do, Buck. I got some thinking to do for myself. Chris slapped Buck on the shoulder and turned back to the house.
Turning to the other two men, Buck sighed.
Here are the keys to the condo. Make yourselves at home. Ill stay here and keep watch over him for the night, Ezra announced.
You sure thats wise? Hes offered to shoot you more than once, Buck questioned lightly in an effort to break the mood.
I believe Judge Travis confiscated his sidearm, did he not? Unless his pugilistic talents are exceptional, I believe that I should be able to survive the night.
Just be sure you watch out for that fast flying right, Buck warned as he slid behind the wheel of the truck.
Wilmington eased the pick-up onto the highway and glanced over at JD in his booster seat. The child had worn himself out, crying and fighting against being put into the truck. He reached across and smoothed the dark hair out of the childs face.
The Larabee glare was in rare form when Ezra seated himself on the couch and screwed the cap off of a bottle of beer. The southerner ignored the stare and did his best to look like he was interested in the ESPN broadcast on the wide screen television. Chris climbed out of the recliner and headed for the liquor cabinet. Pulling out a new bottle of Black Label Jack Daniels, he twisted off the top and tipped the bottle up against his lips.
I guess its good that young master Tanner isnt here to witness your descent into darkness, Ezra goaded.
Feel free to leave any time now, Agent Standish. Save me the trouble of shooting you.
As I informed Mr. Wilmington, I am well aware that Judge Travis has clipped your wings so to speak. I am in little danger of being perforated at the moment.
Oh yeah? Chris challenged.
Ezra watched as the team leader threw back the carpet in the corner of the living room. There, set in the concrete of the buildings foundation, was a safe. Inside the safe, in addition to the deeds to the house and truck and his will and medical power of attorney, was a Smith and Wesson 38 caliber revolver. Chris hefted the weapon and thumbed back the hammer so he could spin the cylinder. Flipping his wrist, he closed the cylinder and tucked the weapon into his waistband.
Okay, Im armed, he said in a deadly tone of voice. Now, get out.
If you wish me to leave, you will have to physically remove me from your residence, Ezra challenged. The hazel glare narrowed and rage rolled off of the team leader in waves.
This is my house and I want you out, right now! If you dont leave, Ill call the sheriff and have you arrested for trespassing.
And I will tell him that you are a danger to yourself and others as you have been drinking and flourishing a weapon, perhaps we can get adjoining cells.
Jumping to his feet, Chris crossed the room in a blink. He grabbed Ezra by the lapels of his jacket and jerked him to his feet. Drawing back his right fist, he waited for the man to flinch or show even a hint of fear. There was none. The southerners face remained impassive as he waited for the blow to fall. Chris let go of the jacket and turned his back quickly so that Ezra would not see the despair that raced across his face.
I cannot begin to fathom the depth of your anguish, Chris. Im only here to make sure that you dont do anything that you will regret later. We will help you get Vin back, I promise. First thing in the morning, I will begin making calls. It isnt for naught that I have kept in contact with Maudes ex-husbands, you know. One of them is a Circuit court judge and one of my stepbrothers is a family law attorney. Ill see to it that you regain custody of the boy.
Chris turned to face Ezra. As he studied the face of the undercover agent, he saw that Ezra truly meant every word he said. In a rare moment of weakness brought on by the emotions running rampant thru his mind, Chris draped one arm over Ezras shoulder and hugged him.
Thank you, Ezra. Im grateful for any help you can give.
It was dark and quiet in the condo when Buck struggled thru the door with JD on one hip and both bags in his other hand. He dropped the bags on the tiled floor of the foyer and stepped into the living room. Gently placing the sleeping child on the couch, he scrubbed at his face for a few minutes before getting up to explore the place.
Buck didnt feel right about sleeping in Ezras bed so he decided that both he and JD would use the guest room. The full bed was big enough for the both of them to sleep on. After pushing the bed up against the wall, he rushed back down the stairs so that JD would not find himself alone when he awakened. It was funny, but the child had spent more time here in the short time he had been with them than Buck had in all the three years the team had been together. Ezra was a very private person and didnt invite people to his home. It had taken the team months to get into the condo and the first time was because Ezra was in the hospital and needed things from home. But since the boys had come into their lives, Uncle Ezra had entertained them with movies and overnight stays several times.
The condo was in an upscale area of Denver. The first floor housed the living room, dining room, kitchen and a bathroom. The second floor held the master bedroom and master bath as well as two smaller bedrooms that shared a bath. The smaller of the two bedrooms had been converted into an office so that Ezra could work from home as needed.
Extra blankets and pillows were stacked in the closet and Buck made up the bed with clean sheets after carrying JD upstairs and settling him in the big overstuffed chair in the corner of the room. Even though he was starving, he didnt want to wake JD and risk upsetting the child all over again so he would just go to bed and eat in the morning. Slipping the sneakers off of the sleeping child, he settled JD on the bed near the wall and changed into his own pajama bottoms. With a weariness that he had not felt in three years, the kind of weariness that comes from being emotionally exhausted, Buck slept.
You can put your things away in this dresser tomorrow, Vin. For now, lets just find you some pajamas and get you into bed, Rain coaxed.
The diminutive blond had not spoken since his apology earlier. He stood in the doorway of the bedroom and stared. Swallowing the knot that just kept returning in his throat, Vin watched as Aunt Rain stacked his clothes neatly on the spare bed. She set his house slippers on the floor and pulled a pair of pajamas out of the bag. The duffle bag was empty and she rolled it up as she placed it on the bed. Suddenly, there was a startled gasp from behind her and Rain turned to see what was wrong.
Wheres Cat? Vin asked, his voice the merest whisper. I cant sleep without Cat!
Cat was the stuffed animal Chris had given him in the hospital. It went everywhere the boy was expected to sleep; he would not sleep without it. Rain looked at the boy as he went into a panic. She reached for him and he backed away.
I have to have Cat! Chris gave him to me! I never sleep without Cat!
Hearing the disturbance as it started, Nathan hurried up the hall. He grasped Vin by the shoulder and turned him around. The pale blue eyes were swimming in tears and his shoulders were rising and falling with each breath. He was about to begin screaming again.
Vin, Ill drive out to the ranch and get Cat for you, okay? Will you be all right until I get back?
Can I go with you? Please, Uncle Nathan, please? Ill stay in the car and I wont scream and holler like before. I just want to see if Chris is all right. Please?
This was what Nettie Wells warned him about. This was going to be the hardest part of having the child in their home, keeping him from Chris. The pleading look in the little boys face was heart rending. Closing his eyes so as not to see the cerulean plea, Nathan shook his head.
Im sorry, s-s Vin. Mrs. Wells said no unsupervised visits. You stay here and take a bath and Ill run out to the ranch and be back when youre finished, okay?
It was painful to watch as the little blond head nodded and the tears rolled down his cheeks. Rain had come to her feet and mouthed a silent thank you to her husband as she steered the child toward the bathroom. Vin allowed himself to be pushed into the small room but he began to protest when she tried to help him off with his clothes.
No, Aunt Rain, you cant do that! Im a boy! sides, I can bathe myself, okay?
A smile played across her ebony features as she nodded. She had been through this with other foster children; she was first and foremost a stranger to them. Ruffling his long, sun kissed locks; she left the bathroom and closed the door.
The phone at the ranch rang three times before Ezra voiced his concern.
Are you going to get that? He asked.
I dont want to talk to anybody right now, Ezra, okay? The rage had left the hazel eyes and only the hurt and fear remained.
As you wish, Ezra whispered. A minute later, his cell phone vibrated softly and he stepped onto the deck to take the call.
Ezra, its Nathan. Listen, are you still at the ranch?
Yes, I intend to stay the night, why do you ask? Is there a problem with Mr. Tanner?
Yeah, Chris forgot to pack his Cat and Vin says he cant sleep without it. Is there any chance you could meet me half way. Rains got the boy in the bathtub but thatll only buy me a half hour or so. I dont want him up all night, he has school tomorrow.
Of course, Ill meet you at the rest stop in twenty minutes?
Thanks Ezra, see you.
Nettie had explained to Josiah and he had explained to Ezra that it might be best if Chris didnt know Nathan had Vin for a couple of days. It would give the boy a chance to settle in at the Jacksons and prevent a confrontation between the two men. She had initially been opposed to allowing them to have the boy but there was a serious shortage of homes that would take older male children and Vin would need a firm but gentle touch. The southerner slipped back into the house and caught Chriss eye.
Im sorry, Chris, but I have to run out for a few minutes and meet someone. Is there anything I can bring back for you?
Vin? Larabee asked in a pitiful whisper.
Not tonight, but soon, I promise. Anything else? Ice cream? Beer? Chocolate?
The gentle southern accent and the offer of all the common comfort foods brought a smile to the weary blond mans face. No, thanks anyway. Im going to turn in. See you in the morning. There are clean sheets on the beds in the boys room, he managed, his voice cracking only once.
I think I shall heed the call of the sandman out here in case you need something in the night. I wont be gone long.
Ezra watched as his friend replaced the bottle of Jack Daniels in the liquor cabinet before heading for his room and closing the door. He raced into the boys room and gathered up the treasured stuffed animal and hurried out to the car. Twenty minutes later, he pulled into the rest area where Nathan was waiting for him.
Did you have to tell Chris that Ive got Vin?
No, he didnt ask where I was going. How is young master Tanner?
I never saw a child take on like he has. Hes worn out and still he screams and begs for Chris. I dont know how much of this he can take before he makes himself sick. I better get back. Thanks for staying with him, Ezra.
All part of the service, the southerner replied as he touched the imaginary hat brim.
By the time he got back home, Rain had Vin bathed and was combing through his long, silky hair. The boy was staying awake by sheer determination. As soon as Nathan came through the door with Cat, Vin jumped to his feet and ran across the room. He enveloped the stuffed animal in his arms and buried his face in it. The muffled sobs were still heart breaking to hear. Rain slipped her hand around his shoulder and steered him toward the bedroom.
Uncle Nathan? Did you see Chris?
No, your uncle Ezra is staying with him and he brought me Cat. Go on to bed now, you have school tomorrow.
A couple of soft sniffles sounded before the boy allowed himself to be tucked into bed.
The insistent whimpering woke Buck and he reached across the bed and pulled the tiny form into his arms. JD clung to him like a second skin and his tears dampened a large section of the tee shirt Buck was wearing. His hands soothed the tiny trembling form as his tears mingled with JDs.
The blond man rolled to his side and drew the brightly colored pillow more tightly against his body. He couldnt control the tears. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the final moment of the shooting. His mind slowed the images until it was like a movie scene, he could almost count the droplets of blood that sprayed from the path of the bullet.
As will happen whether you want it to or not, the sun will rise in the East. A new day will dawn, whether youre ready for it or not. In Denver, the agonized members of Team 7 and their families awoke and started their day. Few words were spoken in any of the affected households. Even little JD was quiet and subdued. Buck pressed his lips to the childs face repeatedly to see if he was running a fever. The brunet forced the bowl of cereal down because he knew Buck would worry if he didnt eat.
Rain Jackson peered into the bedroom at the forlorn figure curled up around the stuffed animal. She had been up several times during the night to check on Vin. She suspected that the boy had cried himself to sleep several times and she was tempted to let him stay home from school. But she knew he would be able to see JD at school and that was more important at the moment.
Vin, its time to wake up, sweetheart, she said softly. The blond head nodded but the child did not turn over. She approached the bed and sat on the side. Her hand rested lightly on the thin shoulder and she felt the tremors that shook the boy. Can you get your own clothes? Another nod and she patted him gently before leaving the room.
Nathan was just pouring a cup of coffee when his wife entered the kitchen. He slid his palm across her backside and nuzzled against her stomach. Her hand stroked the back of his head as she closed her eyes and leaned into his touch.
You get any sleep? he asked.
Some, he didnt sleep for long in between the bouts of tears. I would keep him here today but I think hed prefer to see JD and I dont have the heart to keep him home. Ill see how he feels after breakfast.
Dont forget to take the papers in to the school with you.
A mocking salute caused him to smile for the first time in 24 hours. He pressed a light kiss on her lips as he stood. A slight sound caused him to look toward the door as Vin stepped into the kitchen. He smiled at the boy and passed his hand over his head lightly.
Anything you want me to tell Chris when I see him? Anything you need from home?
Tell him I miss him and I I , just tell him I miss him.
Ill tell him, Vin. You do good at school today, okay?
The little Texan nodded as he blinked back tears. Rain placed a plate of pancakes on the table and Vin slipped past Nathan and climbed into the chair. Nathan pressed another kiss on Rains neck before he left the house for work. Vin choked down about half of the pancakes before he cast soulful eyes on his Aunt.
Thats enough, sweetheart. Are you sure you feel up to going to school today?
Will JD be there?
I think so.
I need to be there for him. Hell be scared, Vin stated with absolute certainty.
The alarm went off and Chris shut it off. He had been awake for over an hour. The nightmares kept him awake for a good part of the night. He padded across the room and into the bathroom. He turned on the hot water and stared at the bleary eyed specter in the mirror.
A long, hot shower went a long way toward making him feel a little more human. Chris dressed slowly, adjusted his belt and ran his fingers through his short hair before leaving his bedroom. To his surprise, Ezra was just coming out of the kitchen with a coffee cup in each hand. A raised eyebrow was the only expression of the question on his mind.
It isnt that it is not possible for me to wake at an early hour of the morning, I simply choose not to most of the time. Were you able to rest at all?
Rest, not sleep. You ready to head for the office? Do we need to stop by your place?
No, thank you. I keep a change of clothes in the trunk and I took a shower while you were completing your morning toilette.
Rain was still standing in the office when Buck brought JD into the building. He was planning to brief the teacher so she would know what to expect from the boys. When JD began to tug on his wrist, he was a million miles away as he tried to figure out how to explain what he really didnt understand himself.
Da, Da, look, its Vin! Vin! The little boy yelled as he ran up the hall. Vin staggered and nearly fell as the brunet slammed into him. The two boys clung to each other as the adults eyes met and held.
After dropping the boys in the classroom and briefing the teacher, Buck walked Rain out of the building. They stopped beside the truck to talk.
How was he last night?
He cried himself to sleep, several times. Chris forgot to pack his cat and Nathan had to go get it before he would even go to bed. I made him pancakes this morning and he barely touched them. How is JD taking this?
He fell asleep on the way to the condo and woke up crying some time in the night. He forced himself to eat, poor little thing, I thought he was going to throw up two or three times. Oh God, Rain, how are we going to do this?
Its only temporary, Buck. Well get them through this.
Team 7 arrived at the office. Chris left Ezra at the elevator and went directly into the office. The southerner went to his desk and powered up his computer. Josiah came in a few minutes later. He tossed his head toward the supervisors office. Ezra nodded. Nathan strode in a minute later and went directly to the kitchen. Both of the other men followed him.
He cried himself to sleep. Rain took him in to school this morning, Nathan answered without waiting to be asked. Hows Chris?
The same. Theyre like two halves of the same soul. Cut one and they both bleed, Ezra whispered. He had witnessed first hand the anguish when Chriss soft whimpers woke him the first time. He stood in the doorway and listened as the blond man whispered the name of the little boy over and over.
Buck walked in ten minutes later. He nodded at the others as he poured a cup of coffee. As he looked around at them, they could see the dark circles under his eyes.
Wheres Chris? He asked in a deflated tone.
He entered his office upon our arrival and has not looked out since, Ezra replied as he handed Buck a cup of coffee for the team leader. The southerner watched as Buck walked into the lions den.
The teachers did their best to work around the boys. Vin and JD had curled up in the beanbag chair in the reading corner and would not be separated. The little brunet clung to the blond like vines to a fence. When both boys dozed off, the teacher draped a light blanket over them. The morning recess bell woke them and they got up to go outside with the rest of the kids.
On the playground, the two boys took turns pushing each other on a swing and riding on a teeter-totter. They ignored the invitations of the other children to play. The playground staff noticed the change in the boys and wondered. After recess, Vin had his resource time. The resource teacher came to the classroom to get him. The boys had just sat down on opposite sides of the table where their art projects were laid out when the other teacher rested her hand on Vins shoulder. The reaction was not at all what she expected. Vin looked at the hand and bolted from the chair, screaming bloody murder. JD was on his feet immediately, adding his terror filled voice to Vins. The blond bolted out of the classroom with JD hot on his heels.
They found the boys a few minutes later, holed up in the janitors closet. Both boys had squeezed into a tiny, cramped space. Vin had his back wedged against the wall and JD was pressed so tightly against him that he could hardly breathe. They would not have found them at all if it had not been for JDs sneaker that had slipped off. The teacher tried for half an hour to coax them out before she called for help.
Buck put the coffee cup on the desk and sat in the leather chair across from Chris. He could tell from the dark circles under his eyes that his friend had not gotten much sleep either. They sat in silence for several moments. The white wisp of steam coming up from the coffee cup seemed to dance in the small spots of sunlight that shone through the mini blinds on the window. Finally, Chris raised his eyes and looked at his friend.
He cried himself to sleep a couple of times during the night. He was better when I left him at the school this morning. He saw Vin in the office and they went to class together.
Howd he look?
Like you do now. Tired and scared.
I miss him. Hes only been gone for twelve hours and I feel like somethings freezing up inside of me. Like when Sarah and Adam
I know. Im sorry, Chris.
Not your fault. I just hope hes all right. Theyll let you see him, wont they?
I dont know. Mrs. Wells said I had no legal standing.
Oh God, Buck, they cant do that to him. JDs all he has left.
Well get through this. Its only temporary. Lets go see if they have uncovered anything new at the dry cleaners.
The team was on their way to the scene when Bucks cell phone rang. He pulled it from his pocket and looked at the number. Ezra looked over from the drivers seat with a questioning look.
Wilmington. How long ago? Are they all right? Ill be right there.
The school? Ezra asked. Buck nodded and Ezra slowed the Jag and turned into an empty parking lot to turn around.
Chris pulled the Dodge into a parking space next to the bright yellow Do Not Cross Crime Scene tape. He, Nathan and Josiah approached the building. What they saw was like something from the TV news, like something from the streets of Iraq or the West Bank, not Denver, Colorado. The yellow markings on the ground that showed the shell casings and the grisly outline of the two bodies inside the small store front only served to remind them of what was fast becoming the worst case of their lives.
Josiah looked around when the Jag didnt roll in beside them. Nathan noticed the conspicuous absence of their team mates and looked toward Chris.
Werent Buck and Ezra coming?
Maybe they stopped to get coffee or something, Chris replied.
Buck jumped from the car and ran into the school. The principal was waiting for him when he ran into the building. He followed her down the hall and down the stairs to the lower level. At the end of the hall, a cluster of teachers stood in a tight circle around the open door to the janitors closet. Buck pushed his way into the doorway to find the boys teacher sitting on the floor pleading with them to come out. He tapped her shoulder and she stood and backed away. Buck lowered himself to his knees and peered under the shelf and behind the five-gallon bucket the boys were hiding behind.
JD, Vin, come on out now, please?
There was a scuffle as JD struggled out of the cramped, confining space. The jars and buckets on the shelf jiggled and danced as the boy hit the shelf from below. He hurled himself into Bucks arms, sobbing. Vin crawled out a moment later and slid into the outstretched arm. Struggling to lift both boys in the enclosed space, Buck came to his feet and walked out into the hall. Over the heads of the teachers, he saw Rain and Mrs. Wells coming in his direction. Burying his face in the boys shoulders, he prepared for the coming battle.
On impulse, Josiah pulled his cell phone and rang Ezra. The undercover agent relayed what little he knew of the situation, which wasnt much. He promised to get back to Josiah as soon as he knew what had happened. The profiler agreed and replaced the phone in his pocket before joining the others in the dry cleaners shop.
The CSI team was already on the prowl. It seemed that additional bullets had been found in the back of the store and they were trying to determine which guns had fired them. An electrical cord had been strung from the conveyor to power the additional lights that had been brought into the building.
Nettie didnt say a word as she motioned for Buck to bring the boys. They were led by the principal into an empty classroom. When Buck walked past the women and turned, Vin saw them, he began to tremble and tightened his grip on Buck and JD. Rain stepped closer and ran her hand down Vins back. The blond pulled in tighter and the volume of his protests escalated.
No! No! Dont let her take me away again! Ill be good! Please Buck, take me to Chris!
The blue eyes were filled with tears as they bore into Nettie Wells. She looked away from the cold, hard stare. Ezra slipped into the room and crossed the room to Buck and the boys. He rested his hand on the back of the boys heads and leaned in close. His words were too quiet for the women to hear. Vin nodded his head to whatever his uncle said to him.
Mrs. Wells moved across the room and sat in the chair at the teachers desk. She cleared her throat to get the attention of the two men and the two boys. Ezra peeled JD off of Buck and wrapped both arms around him. Both men turned to face the caseworker.
You know Vin has to go back to the Jacksons. If he cant function in the classroom, Ill have to consider moving him to another home and another school. This is exactly the kind of situation I had hoped to avoid. I cant have them disrupting their class, it isnt good for Vin or JD or their classmates.
Just let me take him with me. Im staying at Ezras condo in the city. He doesnt have to see Chris. Just let him go home with me and JD, Nettie, please?
Im sorry, Buck. Ill let you talk to the boys and explain the situation to them. Convince Vin to go along with this, for his own good.
Nettie and Rain left the room. Buck slid down the wall and sat on the floor. He peeled Vin off of his chest and cradled him in his arms. Ezra eased into one of the small chairs and turned JD so that the childs back was pressed into his chest. Settling his chin on JDs shoulder, Ezra stared down at Vin.
Okay, boys, we have to talk about this. Vin, I know youre scared and upset about everything. You have every right to feel that way. Chris told you and Josiah told you that as soon as the investigation is over, you will come home, right? You heard Mrs. Wells. If you cant hold it together in school, she will have to move you. Your Uncle Nathan and Aunt Rain want you to stay with them and Chris and I want you to stay with them. Do you think you can do what you need to do for a few days until we get the situation straightened out?
But she wont even let me talk to Chris on the phone, Buck. Im worried about him.
I know, son. Chris is worried about you too. Your Uncle Ezra and I are going to talk to some people to see if we can arrange it so you can stay with me and JD, would you like that? Our other alternative is to allow JD to come and stay with you at the Jacksons.
No! Dont do that! JD needs you, Buck! Vin cried out vehemently as he caught the panicked look on JDs face. It was bad enough for Vin to be taken away from the man he loved, he couldnt bear the thought of JD being taken away too.
Thats very brave of you Vin. Your father will be proud of you, Ezra complimented.
Okay, Ezra and I have to get back to work so we can fix this mess. Can the two of you hold it together? That means doing your class work and sitting at your desks and everything you would normally do, okay? Buck directed his comment mostly toward Vin because he knew that JD would do whatever the older child told him to do.
Well be okay, Buck. I wont cause no more trouble. Ill be good, Vin whispered.
Oh, Vin, its not that we think youre being bad. Youre a good, good boy and youre just going through a hard time right now. No one thinks youre being bad. You got that? Buck held the boys chin in his hand as he stared into the sky blue eyes. He didnt want the child to think that anyone was holding this against him.
Okay, Buck. I guess we better get back to class. I have to apologize to the teacher and the resource lady. I kinda scared them when I started screaming, Vin said.
Buck smiled as he drew the boy into his arms. JD slid out of Ezras lap and piled into the hug. After a minute, they separated and the boys helped Buck to his feet. Ezra opened the door and nodded to Rain and Nettie as they stood up the hall a ways. Vin took JD by the hand and led him out into the hall and to the restroom to wash up before going back to his classroom.
The adults watched from the doorway as Vin went to the teachers and apologized. All of them blinked back tears as the teachers embraced the boys briefly before steering them to the art projects. Vin pulled out a chair and looked at JD until he sat down. The little blond then left the classroom with the aide and headed for the resource room.
I gather you worked things out? Nettie asked.
For now. Hell do whats expected of him, hes a Tanner, Buck replied.
Chris stood behind the big stainless steel machine and stared out toward the front of the store. He ran his fingertips over the smooth, cold surface of the metal as he replayed the events in his mind. He could see the bullet he fired as it struck Lawson. The man was holding Roth, his left arm around the hostage and the 9 mm in his right hand was pressed into Roths ribs. When the shooting erupted, Chris had been forced to take cover behind the machine.
The wall behind where he had been standing was pocked with bullet holes. He ran a finger around one of the holes. The bullet probably only missed him by inches. As he turned, he saw Buck and Ezra arrive. Neither of them had coffee cups and they immediately went into a huddle with Josiah and Nathan. He waited until they separated before striding over to his undercover agent.
Ezra pulled his cell phone and prepared to make the call to his one-time stepbrother. He was so engrossed in remembering the number that he completely missed the charging bull that was Chris Larabee barreling up behind him.
Next time you decide to go joy riding on company time, Ill put both your sorry asses on suspension, Chris hissed. Ezra carefully veiled his emotions as he nodded, accepting the angry threat without provoking the team leader. He knew the reaction was based solely on the anguish the man was going through. Buck cast an apologetic gaze at the undercover agent and stared after the blond man as he paced up the sidewalk.
Chris immediately regretted the angry outburst. His nerves were absolutely fried and he was running mostly on adrenaline. He made a note to himself to apologize to Ezra when he had calmed himself down.
The phone was ringing and when the secretary picked up, Ezra walked away from Larabee.
Judy, Ezra Standish. Is Roy available? No, no problem, I can hold. How are the kids? Really! It hardly seems possible. No, no Mrs. Standish yet, Maude is still the one and only. Thanks, Judy.
Standing beside the parking meter where the surveillance van had been parked, Buck watched Ezra as he talked on the phone. His stomach was churning and his head was beginning to ache from all the tension. It was impossible to get the look on Vins face out of his mind. The child was carrying the weight of the world on his small shoulders and had been ever since he began to look after JD when his mother died. Buck hoped that the boy wouldnt crack under the pressure.