Vin blew out a breath that ruffled his thick, dark blond bangs. Setting his little hands on his narrow hips, he looked around the bedroom. It all looked okay to him, but he tried to look at it with a critical eye. His father's eye.
Chris had been acting strange all day; pacing around the house and grumbling that they didn't have a lot of time to make everything look its best. He and JD had gotten a little nervous, but Buck had taken them out onto the porch and explained. Chris really wanted the house to look especially nice, because his parents were coming for a visit. They had gotten excited about the news; both of them liked the idea of Grandpa Matt coming to see them. But it didn't explain why his Dad was so nervous.
Buck explained that Grandpa Matt's wife was coming, too, and this was the first time Chris had seen his mother for three years. He wanted everything to look really good for her visit.
They understood wanting things to be special for ladies; especially mamas. Ladies liked things that looked nice and smelled nice. Mrs. Potter always fussed over things until they looked really nice, and she was always sniffing things and spraying them with that stuff in a bottle that smelled good.
Sniffing, the little boy wrinkled his nose. The room smelled like his backpack when he forgot to take his tennis shoes out of it.
"What's 'a matter, Vin?" JD frowned at his friend. He had just crawled out from under the bunk beds, where he'd been cleaning out the dust bunnies.
Frown deepening, the little brunet said, "I think it looks good."
"Not that kind 'a stinks, JD. It don't smell good."
"Oh." The five-year-old sniffed noisily then wrinkled his nose as well. "It smells like that time when my stinky socks got stuck-did 'hind the chess-a-doors."
With a nod of agreement, Vin said, "You sure you took all yer laundry to th' mud room?"
Glaring indignantly at the slender blond, little boy Dunne said, "I taked it all in there all ready. Maybe you leaved your stinky shoes in your pack-pack again."
Shaking his head adamantly, the seven-year-old said, "I ain't got no shoes in here, they're all in the mud room."
Folding his arms and staring slowly around their bedroom, JD said, "Well, what stinks?"
Shrugging, the older boy said, "I dunno. I reckon we need to spray that stuff Miz Potter uses and see if that helps."
"'Kay, I'll go get it!" The little brunet chirped as he hurried from the room.
Buck Wilmington watched his old friend with a mixture of amusement and concern. The tall blond had barely stopped moving since the phone call that morning. He knew Larabee was burning off nervous energy, but that concerned, more than comforted, him. Matt and Claire weren't due until Thursday. Four days away.
Leaning against the door frame, Buck watched as his old friend moved restlessly around the great room, cleaning and straightening stuff that had already been cleaned and straightened. "You know, I could go borrow Martha's vacuum seal again just seal everything off."
Rounding on the other man, Larabee started to respond. Then he stopped, drew a breath and shook his head. "I don't know what I'm expecting. It's just "
"It's just that you and Claire have done nothing more than wish one another Happy Birthday or Merry Christmas over the phone for three years now. And, considering how things were between you two the last time "
Frowning deeply, the blond held up a hand. "Let's don't go there, okay? I just don't think I can deal with going down that road right now."
Softly the big man said, "Chris, it's been three years, and she's your mother. Nobody's forcing her to come out here, you know."
"That's the thing that's driving me craziest. Why is she coming out here?" He stared at his friend, a look of worried confusion on his handsome face. In little more than a whisper, he said, "Why now?"
Buck left his friend pacing restlessly around the house, fretting over the smallest things. Heading down the hallway, he moved toward the boys' room. They had been far too quiet for far too long, and that was rarely a good thing. He paused at the closed door, curiously taking a sniff and then wrinkling his nose at the almost overpowering smell. Knocking first, he opened the door. Coughing, he waved his hand in the air to dissipate the misty cloud that wafted from the room. "Woo-wee! What are you two doin' in here?"
Between coughs, JD explained, "We's tryin' to make it smell real good in here."
Hurrying across the room, the big brunet opened the windows, giving the heavy cloud a place to escape. Grabbing up a book from the nearby bookcase, he fanned it to aid the evacuation.
"Buck!" Vin protested, "You're lettin' out all the good smell!"
"I promise, Junior, the good smells will still be here. So, how much of the air freshener did you use?"
Holding up the can, JD said, "Just one can."
Rolling his eyes, the big man said, "Just one, huh?"
Nodding his head, Vin asked, "We got anymore?"
"No, I don't think so. I think you've got enough good smell stuff in here to last a while." Closing the window against the crisp afternoon air, he turned back to the boys. "You two have been workin' really hard in here."
With a hopeful look, the diminutive blond questioned, "Do ya think it looks okay? Does it look nice enough for for Dad's mama?"
Kneeling before the two worried children, Wilmington said, "It looks just fine, guys - "
"It looks perfect."
The three members of the family turned to find the fourth leaning against the doorframe. Chris shook his head and came to join them, sitting on one of the child-size chairs at the boys' table. Taking a deep breath, he said, "I'm sorry, guys. I got so worked up about my Mom coming to visit that I've been acting pretty silly all day."
"Nu-uh," Vin disagreed, coming to stand in front of his father. Placing his tiny hand on the man's denim-clad knee, he looked into his worried face. "It ain't silly t' want things nice for your mama, Dad, an' me an' JD wanna make a good 'pression, too."
With a broad grin that countered tear-filled eyes, Larabee gathered the little boy up and hugged him tight. Placing a gentle kiss on the child's forehead, he said softly, "I am so very lucky to have such a wonderful son."
Frowning, JD said, "I helped, too."
Chuckling, Chris held out a hand, motioning the smaller boy into his embrace as well. Hugging the five-year-old, he said, "and I'm really lucky to have such a wonderful JD, too."
The two boys giggled, enjoying the warm embrace. Larabee held them both, relishing the feel of the little bodies snuggled against him.
"Ahem," Wilmington cleared his throat dramatically, "I'm feelin' a bit left out over here."
"What do you say, boys?" Chris waggled his eyebrows comically. "Should I give Buck a hug, too?"
The children giggled and then cheered, "Yeah!"
Backing away, hands in the air, the big brunet protested loudly. "No, that's okay, I'm not that lonely."
Leaning down, Larabee whispered something to the littlest members of the family. They both giggled even louder, nodding vigorously in response to what he was saying. As he released his hold, he hollered, "get 'im, boys!"
Buck yelped as two little whirlwinds launched themselves toward him. He tried to catch himself, but ended up on his backside, the boys landing on top of him. Laughter filled the room as they began tickling him. Chris watched from where he sat, enjoying the sight and joining in the laughter.
Chris padded softly through the quiet house, traversing the familiar hallway easily, even in the darkness. It was far too late to be up; the alarm would be going off in about four hours. His body ached with fatigue, but his mind refused to shut down. He'd retreated to the den shortly after he and Buck had put the boys to bed, deciding to let the other man have some peace and quiet for the rest of the evening. He knew his worrying and fretting was getting on everyone's nerves, but he was at a loss as to how to stop. Stop his thoughts, stop his feelings, and stop the memories.
Peeking into the boys' room, he couldn't help but smile at the two little bodies that lay sprawled out across the beds. He thought back over the months, remembering a time when more often than not they'd have found them both huddled together in the bottom bed, little arms wrapped around one another.
How far they had all come.
Moving past their room, he forced himself down the hall to his own room. Standing beside the bed he stripped to his boxers and t-shirt before dropping tiredly onto the mattress. He stretched out on his back, staring toward the dark ceiling. A couple of minutes later he punched his suddenly concrete pillow and rolled to his left side. A minute after that he flipped the pillow, punched it again, and rolled to his right side. It was at least five minutes before he tossed the pillow aside, rolled to his back, and rested his now aching head on folded arms. Then he grumbled, retrieved the pillow, and shoved it beneath his head once more.
Jumping slightly, the blond raised his head and studied the little figure in the doorway. "What's up, Cowboy?"
"Um can I sleep with you?"
Inwardly groaning, Chris wondered what it was that had triggered another nightmare. Things had been going well for the last few weeks. Preparing to spend the end of an already miserable night dodging knees and elbows, he said, "sure."
Vin scurried across the room and crawled onto the bed, dragging Cat along with him. The little blond wiggled beneath the covers, cuddling against the strong body. With a sigh he settled in, his head on his father's chest.
Stroking a hand through the tangled locks, Chris said, "Have a bad dream?"
Shaking his head, the seven-year-old yawned. "Nope."
"Do you feel bad?"
Chris frowned. "Is something bothering you are you having feel bad thoughts?"
Vin paused, not certain how to answer that. "I'm not."
"Is something up with JD? Did he wake you up?" The little brunet had been sleeping soundly just a few minutes ago.
"Nope he's sleepin'." Another yawn as the child responded in a sleepy voice, and one little hand gently patted his father's stomach.
"Then what's up?" Larabee worried that they had been indulging the boys in letting them sleep with them too often lately.
"Well I heard the TV in yer den earlier, an' I saw you when you was in our doorway. I know you been worried 'bout what's gonna happen when yer mama comes "
When the child hesitated, Chris prompted him. "And?"
"And well, when I'm havin' feel bad thoughts, you take care 'a me " the little boy patted his father's arm as he trailed off, uncertain of how to continue.
Letting a few hot tears roll down his cheeks, the overwhelmed father wrapped his arms tighter around the thoughtful child. In a shaky voice, he said, "Thank you, son."
With a contented sigh, the seven-year-old murmured, "yer welcome," as he drifted off to sleep.
Chris Larabee slammed the door to his office so hard that the walls of the main room of the ATF suite shook. The members of his team stared at one another in shock. They had just endured a ten minute lecture on the need to conserve office supplies. It was the third lecture they had been given that week. The senior agent in charge seemed to have developed the notion that his agents were no longer able to make decisions on anything from how to approach a suspect to how many paperclips to use in a day.
And it was only Tuesday morning.
Josiah, Nathan and Ezra turned to Buck; three pairs of eyes searching for answers in the big brunet's face. Returning their gaze for a full minute Wilmington finally said, "His dad called Sunday morning," as if that answered everything.
"So, is there something wrong with Matt?" Nathan asked.
"No, no," the blue eyed man said hurriedly. "Matt's fine and so is Claire."
"Claire? Is that his mother?" Ezra joined the conversation. They had all met Matthew Larabee that spring when he came to visit. The older man had immediately been welcomed into their family circle. Vin and JD had begun calling him "Grandpa Matt" and the elder Larabee had even made Buck his unofficial son. Chris' mother hadn't been able to make the trip, so they knew very little about her.
"Yeah, Claire," Buck said, uncharacteristically close-mouthed on the subject.
"Can we deduce that, since his father's earlier visit was quite successful, especially in introducing Mr. Larabee, senior, to masters Dunn and Tanner, and his stay ended with promises of more visits, that our illustrious leader's ill temper has something to do with his mother?" Standish asked.
Avoiding the temptation to say 'breathe, Ezra, breathe', Wilmington said, "Yeah, he ain't real happy about his mom comin' for a visit."
"Matt and Claire are coming out here?" Nathan asked.
"Yeah, Matt wants to be here when the adoption's finalized, and it's close enough to Thanksgiving that they're going to stay for the holiday, too."
"I notice that you didn't mention Mrs. Larabee's wishes," Ezra observed.
Before Wilmington could answer, the inner office door crashed open and a blond hurricane blew into the room. "If you ladies have finished your little gossip session, might I suggest getting back to work?!" The angry man disappeared once again before the shocked men could respond.
Heaving a sigh, Buck said quietly, "at lunch," before they dispersed to their desks.
The four members of ATF Team Seven dropped wearily into chairs at the restaurant. They looked more like refugees from a war zone than seasoned government agents. The tirades had continued through the morning and, at one time or another, one of them would come close to storming off to request a transfer to another team. Each time the others would manage to calm the angry man down. Only their overriding admiration for their team leader kept the men from walking out en masse.
Josiah turned to Buck after accepting a menu from the waitress. "So, you want to fill us in? Frankly I hope there's a very good reason for Chris' behavior, because I've got my resignation about half written."
Blowing out a hard breath, the brunet nodded. He knew that - if he found out - his old friend would be furious. The private man hated to have his life made the subject of 'water cooler gossip'. Especially the more painful aspects. With a tight, ironic smile, he began.
"To make sense of it all, I've got to start back when Chris and Sarah were first together. They met right after he and I started with DPD. Chris took Sarah home to introduce her to his folks a few months after they met. He always joked that it took him at least ten dates to convince Sarah that she loved him, but it was love at first sight between Sarah and Claire. By the time they got back out here, Sarah was referring to them as mom and dad, and wearing Claire's grandmother's engagement ring on her finger. I teased Chris for months about it; asking him if he'd even proposed or if Claire had.
"But even though Claire and Matt were all for the wedding, it wasn't that way on the Connolly side."
"Connolly? Sarah's family?" Josiah asked.
"Yeah. Well, specifically Sarah's father, Hank. See, her mother died when Sarah was six or seven. She was an only child and ol' Hank well he was a little on the far side of overprotective father. He was also a very successful businessman, and Sarah grew up with almost everything she could possibly want. The big exception was the love of her father."
"But you said Hank was very overprotective of Sarah," Josiah questioned.
With a nod, the tall brunet said, "He was. But it was more like she was a prize pet - those are her words, not mine - than his daughter. He made sure she was well-versed in all the social graces, got the best education, and knew all the 'best' people."
"Somehow I have the feeling that our esteemed leader didn't fall into that category," Ezra commented.
With a chuckle, Wilmington said, "Yeah, you could say that. Chris had a good upbringing, you know. I mean he knew what all the forks were used for and where to put his napkin and such. But he had some pretty rough edges. And Hank Connolly did not like rough edges.
"That ol' man did everything he could think of to get Chris out of Sarah's life. He even tried buyin' Chris off with an eight figure check. The only thing he 'bought' was a trip to the dentist after he got busted in the chops.
"After that he just walked away from Sarah wouldn't even go to the wedding."
"That's reprehensible," Standish blurted out without thinking.
"Yeah, well, Matt walked Sarah down the aisle instead. If she was upset over her ol' man not being there, she never let on. I don't know who was smiling wider, her, Matt, Chris or Claire.
"At any rate, the two of them moved into the ranch; the deed was one of their wedding gifts. It needed some fixing up, but that never deterred either of them. They were always working on one project or another.
"When they found out Sarah was pregnant, they couldn't wait to share the news with the folks. Chris said you could hear both his parents laughing and crying they were so happy and excited.
"Then Sarah started having some trouble, and had to stay in bed for the last several weeks she was pregnant. Claire was on a plane out here the day after she found out, and stayed with them until after Adam was born. You'd have thought that would have caused problems between them all, considering the stress of the situation, but it didn't. If anything it brought them closer.
"Sarah had some health problems after she had Adam, and Claire never batted an eye. She just stayed for as long as she was needed. All together I reckon she was with 'em for almost eight months.
"After things settled down and Claire finally went home it was almost like - no it wasn't 'like' anything. Sarah felt like she'd lost both her mother and her best friend when Claire left. And Claire?" Buck chuckled. "She was on the phone calling to check on them while Matt was still carrying in her bags.
"They were back out here, visiting, every two or three months. Chris, Sarah and Adam went back east to visit with them pretty often, too. Shoot, Sarah and Adam went by themselves if Chris couldn't make it.
"Then well," the big man's voice wavered, "there was that last time. Claire had to back out at the last moment when she developed an ear infection, I think it was, and she couldn't fly. I kid you not, she and Sarah were on the phone from the moment Matt walked out the door back there until he and Chris got to the ranch.
"After well things changed. Bad. I I had to call and break the news after they died. Chris wasn't in any shape to do it." He scrubbed a hand over his face. "I can still hear them especially Claire. I'd never really understood what 'wail' meant until that moment, and I know I'll never forget that sound.
"They were out here the next day; come to help Chris get through things. By the time they got here though, he was drunk, and none to pleasant. You boys know how he could be, before the boys. Well, multiply it by ten, and you still wouldn't know what he was like then. He managed to keep it together through the funeral, but just barely.
"I don't wanna go into detail, but it was a pretty dark time. Chris was drinkin' more and more, while Claire and Matt were trying to get him to stop. Well, more Matt than Claire. She was devastated; hardly functioning, herself. She kept going on about missing that last visit and never having the chance to say good-bye - "
"But, she wouldn't have been saying good-bye," Nathan broke in. "She wouldn't have known."
Nodding, Wilmington said, "She understood that on some level, but it wasn't a real rational time. She and Chris were self-destructing, and poor Matt was trying to keep them from falling apart completely."
The other men watched they friend closely. None of them doubted for a second that Buck had been right there, too, trying to keep a devastated Larabee from killing himself with whiskey and guilt.
"The worst thing was that they were taking everything out on one another. Claire would start going on about his drinking; how it was disrespecting Sarah and Adam's memory. Chris would lose it then, saying anything he could think of to hurt her. He seemed to take joy in reminding her that she had missed her last chance to see Sarah and Adam alive."
"That was awfully low," Nathan commented.
"Oh, that wasn't the worst, believe me. Matt kept trying to be the peacekeeper between Chris and Claire. Too many times it ended up almost coming to blows between Chris and his dad. Then, one night, it did. Chris blacked Matt's eye and busted his nose."
None of the men knew what to say. The thought of their friend sinking so low was a hard pill to swallow. After the silence had stretched across several minutes, their storyteller continued.
"Claire and Matt were on a plane home the next day. They came back out a few times after that, but it was never the same. After a couple of trips the visits started spreading out, farther and farther then finally stopped. Their relationship ended up being reduced to Christmas cards and the occasional phone call. Somewhere along the line Chris and Matt made their peace, but Chris and Claire never have. He's barely had any contact with her; and what he has, has been polite and sort of distant."
"So, this is the first time they've been together for a while?" Josiah pondered aloud.
"Yeah, about three years."
The silver-haired man whistled softly, "No wonder he's stressed out."
Heaving a heavy sigh, Buck said, "Yeah, and it's not bound to get better any time soon."
The ride home Tuesday evening began in a very uncomfortable silence. Buck knew he should address his friend's behavior, but he would be walking a fine line to do it. He and Chris might be co-owners of the recently dubbed LWTD Ranch, and they might have been friends for almost half their lives. But Chris Larabee was also his boss, and it was his boss' behavior that he needed to address.
The anxious blond had managed to maintain his temper at home so far. The same couldn't be said for his temper at work. None of them had been able to do anything to suit him all day. He had jumped on them for every little thing. After finding out the reason behind the senior agent's mood, the others had been more tolerant. That didn't mean that there weren't still grumbles about quitting. The team had only been whole again for a few weeks, since Ezra had come to his senses and come home from Louisiana. Now they seemed in danger of becoming fractured again. He only hoped that Chris didn't make it a permanent break with his lousy attitude.
Taking a steadying breath, the mustached agent said quietly, "They we didn't deserve the kind of treatment we got from you today, you know."
The responding glare flared and died before the blond spoke. "I do the job I need to do, to make this team the best it can be," he responded sharply.
"Jumping down the throats of men who are already the best at what they do isn't going to accomplish that." He spoke evenly, despite the other man's palpable anger.
"I do my job. I suggest you concentrate on doing yours."
Feeling his own anger beginning to rise, the brunet began, "Look, Chris, just because - "
"The discussion is over. You don't like the way I'm running the team. So noted. You've logged your complaint. If you're not satisfied, you know the procedure for bringing a complaint against a supervisor."
Heaving a frustrated sigh, Wilmington raked a hand through his hair. "You know I don't have any desire to do that. All I'm saying - "
"Is that you don't like the way I'm running the team. Got it."
"Chris, it's not real hard to figure out that what's going on is because you're worried about Claire coming to town. It don't make it right, but I can understand it. Yelling at the guys isn't gonna solve anything though, and you know it. It might give you a chance to blow off steam but "
"Buck, back off."
Larabee glared across the cab at his friend and co-worker. "Excuse me?"
"I said no. Look, if you wanna chew on me for a while, fine. It's not like it's the first time. All I'm sayin' is, you need to think about what you're doin'. Climbin' on Ezra, Nathan and Josiah because you're worried about what's gonna happen when Claire comes in a few days well, that's just wrong."
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"The hell I don't," Wilmington growled. "You think I haven't seen this before? You think I don't know you well enough to know what's happening? Look, you're right, I can't tell you how to run the team. But I can give you my opinion as to when you're workin' on runnin' it into the ground."
Chris opened his mouth then closed it again. He stared out the windshield for several moments, the events of the day playing through his mind. Finally, in a pain-filled voice, he said, "any suggestions on how I make it right?"
Grinning, the bigger man said, "Well, some of those expensive doughnuts from Riley's might be a good start."
"Yeah, nothing like sugar to sweeten the day, huh?"
"Something like that." Then sobering, the brunet said, "no one is gonna blame you for being stressed out right now. Everything that's been happening at work; all that with Ezra; the adoptions set to be finalized next week. And now, seeing your mother for the first time in years. That's a heavy load for anyone. It's just, don't take it out on the people in your corner. Okay?"
Nodding, Larabee said softly, "Okay."