"Da, do I look aw-right?"
Buck Wilmington looked down into the wide, hazel-brown eyes and smiled. 'Aw' was the perfect word for the cherubic little face that was turned up toward him. Resisting the urge to ruffle the just brushed hair, he smiled as reassuringly as possible. "You look just fine, Little Bit."
"Are you sure? I gots to look perf't!"
Lifting the five-year-old into his arms, he said, "Perfect, huh?"
"Yeah, we gots to look perfe't to go see the Judge."
"Well, I think you look just perfect to go see the Judge." The child did look impressive, he had to admit. He wore a light gray suit with dark gray loafers. His shirt was a pale, pearl gray with an understated blue pinstripe. His socks, tie and the handkerchief in his coat pocket were the same shade of blue. He even wore a tie tack that was silver and shaped like a four-leaf clover.
"Really?" If anything, JD looked even more nervous.
Tweaking the little button nose, Buck said, "Really, really."
The little brunet giggled and squirmed, making it known that he wanted down. As soon as his feet hit the floor he took off running, calling out, "Vin! It's time to go tell the Judge we wanna be 'dopted!"
Across the hall in the other bathroom, Vin groaned at the loud call. Looking at his soon to be officially adopted father imploringly, he said, "Dad?"
"He's just excited. You know how he is when he gets excited," Larabee replied gently. He finished brushing through the freshly trimmed, dark blond hair. Stepping back, he looked the slender boy over. Vin was dressed as JD was, with only a few differences. The stripes in his shirt, as well as his socks, tie and handkerchief were deep red instead of blue. His tie tack was silver, and in the shape of a horseshoe.
Ezra had asked to buy the boys new suits for court, stating that they would be from all three of the boys' uncles and their aunt Raine. Chris and Buck suspected that Standish had contributed the lion's share, but he insisted that it was a group endeavor. He had also been the one who orchestrated the trips to town to choose and tailor the suits. He had even bought each boy's father ties, handkerchiefs and tie tacks to match their son's.
"Do I look okay?" Vin asked shyly.
"Very sharp," Chris reassured him. Then when his son seemed confused at the term, he added, "You look great. Come on, let's go meet the others."
The two blonds emerged from the bathroom and walked hand in hand to the great room, where the others were waiting. Chris was surprised to see his mother sitting with his father and dressed for court.
Chris gave his mother a hard, questioning look. Although he had witnessed something of a miracle two days ago, he still wasn't certain of his mother's motives. If they got to court and she started trouble
"Son." The deep voice caught his attention and he realized that his dad was speaking to him. Matt had come to stand in front of his son, dark eyes knowing and compassionate. "Chris, she wants to come to court to support you all of you."
"Why?" The word came out sharper than he meant, and earned him a disapproving glare from the older man.
"Because you are her son," Matt replied in a stern tone.
Feeling very much like a small boy being scolded, Chris nodded and dropped his gaze.
"And, besides," the elder Larabee continued lightly, "No one can resist the Big Eyes. Vin and JD asked her last night if she'd come and she melted."
The tension quickly dissipated quickly and Chris chuckled. "Sorry I missed that."
"Well, are we ready?" Buck asked the others. There was very little in the way of an answer. The boys looked from one adult to the other, silently pleading for reassurance. It was something their fathers were quick to give.
Chris sat down on the couch and motioned to Vin. When the seven-year-old came over, he scooped him into his arms. Tucking a finger beneath the child's narrow chin, he looked into the big, blue eyes. "Everything's going to be fine, Son."
"But what if what if the Judge says says no?" Vin stammered.
"Not gonna happen," Larabee said confidently, although his own butterflies were engaging in aerial combat. "Judge La Fleur will see that we belong together. All of us."
Across the room, JD wrapped his little hands around one of Buck's wrists and was swaying from one foot to the other. His wide, clear eyes peered up at his father. "Da?"
Raising the child off the floor by lifting his arm, Buck grabbed him and swung him to one hip. "Yes?"
With a giggle, the five-year-old asked, "Is the Judge a nice lady?"
Frowning, Wilmington said, "Well, I don't really know her, but I hear that she's a good Judge."
Frowning now as well, JD questioned, "Is that the same as bein' a nice lady?"
Mustache twitching, the tall brunet tried to decide how to answer that. "Well, let's just put it this way. She always does her best to make certain that the boys and girls she sees are put in the very best home they can be."
Studying the long explanation for a moment, JD finally said, "Oh. Then that means she's gonna say yes, 'cause we are in the bestest home in the world."
With a broad grin, Buck said, "Yes, we are."
Standing with Vin in his arms, Chris said, "Well, shall we get going?" As the gathering responded affirmatively, he led the way outside to where their vehicles were waiting for them.
The ride into Denver was as silent as breakfast had been, and that had been downright painful. Buck turned to regard the older of the two boys, who in turn was looking out the back window, watching the car behind them. Matt and Claire were following in their rental car. "You okay, Junior?"
With a tight nod, the little blond turned back around and aimed fathomless blue eyes in his direction. "I just wanted t' make sure Gran'pa Matt and Chris' mama don't get lost."
Behind the wheel, Larabee forced himself not to flinch. It was clear that the child was fearful of losing any part of his family right now. Even a woman who, until two days ago, wouldn't give him the time of day, and whom he wasn't even certain how to address.
Things were still tentative as they tried to adjust to the changes. He and his mother still hadn't said much to one another, but at least she and Vin were warming up to one another. Right now, her acceptance of his son was much more important than the two of them reconciling.
"Cowboy, even if we get separated in traffic, Grandpa Matt knows where the Courthouse is, okay? Don't worry that they'll get lost, Buddy. It's all right."
Seeming relieved, the little blond settled back in the seat and said, "Okay."
Checking on the other child in the backseat, Buck found that JD's nervousness was evident as well. He had Scooby Doo wrapped in his arms and was wringing his little hands. "Little Bit, you're not sayin' much."
"Oh, wanna talk about what you're thinkin'?"
"What sort of stuff?" Buck pried gently.
"Do I gotta say?" The little boy sighed.
"No, I just thought maybe it would help you feel better."
"I feel okay. I'm just thinkin'," JD repeated.
"Okay," Wilmington backed off, realizing that the talkative little boy would share if he felt the need.
They pulled into the parking lot, finding two parking spaces relatively close. Chris and Buck climbed out of the truck and unstrapped the boys. Making certain their coats were buttoned, they lifted them out of the backseat and let them decide whether they wanted to walk or be carried. Neither man was too surprised when both boys clung to their necks, making it clear that they wanted to be carried. Matt and Claire joined them and the family group made their way toward the Courthouse entrance.
"Unca Ezra! Da, it's Unca Ezra!" JD squealed, directly into the big man's ear.
Flinching as the child's voice rang through his head, Wilmington said, "Yeah, I see 'im, Little Bit."
"There's Unca 'Siah, too!" Vin said, his voice only slightly softer than his brother.
Leaning away from his son, Chris nodded. "Yep, they're coming to be here for the hearing." He pointed at two more familiar figures and said, "There's your Uncle Nathan and Aunt Raine, too."
Vin's eyes widened and he broke into a smile. Nearby, JD was bouncing on his father's hip. Both boys were surprised at the fact that their entire extended family had come to be with them. As they all came together at the foot of the courthouse stairs, the boys beamed.
"We didn't know you was all gonna be here," JD announced.
"Where else would we be on this auspicious occasion?" Ezra asked. When the boys turned confused stares at him, he added, "That is to say, this is very important to us, too."
"But ain't you s'posed to be at work?" Vin questioned.
"Their boss gave them the day off," Chris replied in a stage whisper that gained him a giggle and a hug from his little boy.
The large group entered the Courthouse and made their way toward the courtroom where Judge Deanna La Fleur presided. Matt, Claire and Ezra, leaning on his cane, waited for the elevator while the rest of the group took the stairs. By the time they reached the third floor, the elevator arrived and the rest of their group exited the car.
"Hello, boys." A familiar voice greeted them from nearby. The children, along with their fathers, turned to see Nettie Wells coming toward them. As she reached them, she said, "My goodness, don't you boys look handsome."
"Why thank you ma'am," Buck replied with a broad grin.
"Daaaaaaa," JD protested.
"Whaaaaat?" The big man teased.
"She was talkin' to us, not you!"
Laughing, Mrs. Wells said, "Yes, I was, Son, but your Da looks pretty good, too for an old guy."
While Buck mimicked a wounded heart, the five-year-old said seriously, "Da ain't a old guy!"
Smiling broadly, the caseworker said, "You're right, I'm sorry. He's not an old guy."
Their hearing was set for 10:00 am, but one of the previous cases was taking longer than expected. Nettie took the opportunity to talk to the two boys, checking for any last minute concerns they or their fathers might have. As usual, JD was full of questions, while Vin sat staring up at her from beside his father.
"Is the Judge a nice lady, Miz Nettie?"
"Judge La Fleur is a good woman. She works hard to find the truth, and to put boys and girls into the best place possible, dear."
The little brunet let out a sigh. "That's what Da said when I axed him."
Smiling, the older woman said, "Well, your da's a pretty smart man."
Grinning, JD said, "Yeah, he is. Do we gots to go on the wit'ess stand?"
"Probably not, Dear, the Judge will most likely let you sit with your fathers and talk to her from there, if you need to. There will be a microphone so that you can be heard."
Buck chuckled. "I doubt that will be a problem with this one."
Digging into her old, battered briefcase, Nettie retrieved two booklets and handed them to each child. "Here, this is a special coloring book that might help. Now, the book is written for boys and girls whose mamas and daddies are still alive, so not all of it will mean much to you. But I think it will help you a little. You can take them home and color them, too. Now I have to go check on a few things, but I'll be close by if you need me."
The two boys looked at the books they held. Vin's lips moved as he deciphered the words on the cover. Beside him, the precocious JD read aloud, "What Happens to Me Now? A handbook for Colorado children who are not living at home."
Frowning, the five-year-old looked up at his father. "Da, this isn't the right book."
"Why's that, Little Bit?"
"It's for kids that ain't livin' at home, and me and Vin are livin' at home."
Grinning, Buck stroked a hand through the child's hair. "That's just one of the parts that Mrs. Wells was talking about. Let's see what the rest of the book says."
Still not convinced, the tiny brunet said, "Okay."
Together the four-member family read through the booklets, fathers helping sons in more than one way. Both boys became silent when they read parts about seeing their birth parents, but moved on toward talking to the Judge.
When Vin read about the fact that they could write a letter to the Judge, he looked up at his father, wide eyed. "Dad? Could we could we write a letter to th' Judge?"
"Well, I don't have any paper, but we can see if we can rustle some up," Chris replied.
Eyeing their caseworker, the boys called out together, "Miz Nettie!?"
A few minutes later the boys were hard at work, each with a piece of lined paper and a pencil courtesy of Mrs. Wells. Chris sat beside his son, watching as Vin meticulously printed each letter, coaching him with some of the spelling.
Nearby, JD sat beside Buck, the tip of his tongue sticking beyond pursed lips as he wrote his own letter. From time to time he hesitated, looking up at his father for a suggestion. After the big brunet supplied a word, he'd be off again, working on his message.
Just as the fathers finished reading the final products, Nettie returned to where they sat. "We should be going in, in just a little while. The Judge retired to her chambers for a few minutes after the last case it didn't go well."
"Will that affect our hearing?" Chris asked, unable to keep the concern from his voice.
Shaking her head, Mrs. Wells said, "No, I don't think so. Deanna is very good at keeping things in perspective."
"Miz Nettie?" JD called quietly.
Leaning down to look into the little face, the caseworker said, "Yes, Son?"
"We writed wrote letters for the Judge. Could you give 'em to her?"
Smiling, she nodded and accepted both boys' letters. "I'll take them to her right now. I'm sure she'll enjoy reading them."
"Will she read them?" Buck whispered.
"She reads everything that crosses her desk, Buck," Nettie reassured. Holding the two letters, she strode purposefully back across the tiled floor, heading toward Courtroom Five, where the Judge would hear their case soon.
Vin leaned against his father, absently toying with the man's watchband as he stared out across the wide waiting area. There were many other people there, most of them sitting in little groups of three or four. Some of them looked scared, some looked angry and many of them looked sad. He wondered why they were there, and why not many of them looked happy.
Then he looked around him at his family. Uncle Nathan and Aunt Raine were sitting together, holding hands and talking. Uncle Josiah was talking to Grandpa Matt and Chris' mama. They were all smiling, so he knew that his uncle must be telling one of his stories. Then he looked over and saw Uncle Ezra sitting by himself, and frowned. His uncle was looking a little sad, and he wondered what was causing that look. Glancing up at his father, he said, "Dad, can I go sit with Unca' Ezra?"
Seeing the undercover agent's expression and guessing that it might have something to do with his own childhood, Chris hesitated. Then, knowing his son's generous heart, he smiled and nodded.
Standish was pulled out of his reverie when he realized that Vin was climbing onto the bench beside him. Pasting on a smile, he said, "Hello."
"Hi, Unca' Ezra. Can I sit with you for a little bit?"
"Certainly." The Southerner laid his arm across the back of the seat, silently offering the young boy a closer place to sit. He couldn't help but sigh as the slender body leaned against him. "Are you all right?"
Vin shrugged, looking thoughtful for a moment. Then he said, "I'm a little nervous I think. I kind'a have a funny feeling." He rubbed his tummy.
His hand dropping to the narrow shoulder, the green-eyed man said, "That's very normal. Things like this court hearings make everyone a little nervous I think."
"Even you?" Vin turned wide blue eyes toward the man beside him.
With a smile, Standish said, "Yes, even me."
"Oh." The little blond hesitated then asked, "Is that why you look so sad?"
Ezra sighed. Leave it to his perceptive nephew to notice his mood. "Yes, I suppose it is."
Vin wrapped his narrow little hands around one of his uncle's and said, "Well, it's gonna be okay. Dad said it would be."
With a chuckle, Standish said, "Then we may all rest assured that it is, indeed, 'okay'." He suddenly realized just how true that was. Memories of being forced into court at his mother's side all those years ago were quickly fading.
"All rise. Family Court, Division Five, the Honorable Judge Deanna La Fleur "
JD frowned as his father coaxed him to stand up. They had only sat down a minute ago. He wondered if this was a game, like musical chairs. He didn't think you were supposed to play games when you were in a serious place like court. Standing next to his Da, he tried to see around him, but he was surrounded. Vin was standing on the other side of him and Chris was standing next to him. Miz Nettie was beside Chris, and then there was another lady beside her that had been introduced as their lawyer. The rest of their family was sitting behind them, on the other side of a little fence. He couldn't understand why there was a fence in a courtroom. There weren't any animals around as far as he could see.
" You may be seated."
The little brunet huffed and rolled his eyes as the big man beside him lifted him back into the chair. He and Vin were sitting together in the same seat, and Chris lifted his brother back up beside him before sitting down himself.
"This is case "
Vin watched the woman that was talking now. She sat behind a great big desk that was higher than anything else in the whole room. Her hair was the same color as Uncle Josiah's and it was curly, too. It was longer than his though, touching the collar of the black dress she wore. She had glasses on, but she was reading over the top of them and holding a folder and some papers in her hands. Then she looked over the desk toward them and smiled.
"I see that the two young men in question are present in the courtroom," Deanna La Fleur said, studying both Vin and JD.
"Yes, your Honor," Nettie responded. "We felt they needed to be present at this hearing.
Nodding, the Judge said, "You boys look very nice today."
"Thank you, Judge, ma'am," JD piped up. "We gots new clothes on. Unca' Ezra buyed - bought - them for us. We almost matches."
Grinning broadly now, the older woman said, "You most certainly do. I take it that you're John Daniel Dunne?"
"Yes, Ma'am. Only I likes to be called JD."
"JD? May I call you JD, then?"
"Yes, Ma'am, you may."
"Thank you." Deanna turned to the child beside the little chatterbox. Her smile faltered as she saw the wide, frightened eyes staring back at her, unblinking. "Then, that would mean that you're Vincent Michael Tanner."
His adam's apple working furiously for a few seconds, Vin managed to say softly, "Vin, Judge, Ma'am."
"Vin you seem a little worried about being here."
Taking a deep breath, the child managed a nod. Then, summoning his courage, he said, "My Dad said it's gonna be okay, though, 'cause you're a good Judge."
Her smile returning, La Fleur winked over her glasses as she said, "Well, thank you, Vin. I always try to be."
Smiling as well the slender blond settled back, managing to relax a little. He heard the Judge speaking to the grown ups now, and tried to pay attention. She used a lot of big words, though, and he didn't understand many of them. He knew that grown ups used big words when they didn't want little kids to understand what they were talking about. Finally he turned and watched his father's face, searching for clues as to whether things were going well or not. Chris looked serious, but his jaw didn't have those little knots along it that he got when he was upset, and that was a good sign. He looked on the other side of JD and saw that Buck had a little smile on his face, and that was a good sign as well.
"Mrs. Wells," Judge La Fleur instructed, "could you fill us in on your latest home visit?"
"Yes your Honor," Nettie replied. "My most recent visit "
JD was getting bored. He couldn't understand most of what was being said and there wasn't much to look at from where he sat. He could barely see over the table that sat in front of him, and there were people on either side of him. He looked out the window near the big desk where the Judge sat, watching the clouds go by. Then there were some birds that flew past, and he tried counting them, but they flew too fast. He was getting more and more tired, and started feeling fidgety.
"JD," Vin growled through clenched teeth. "Sit still!"
"Shhh," Buck cautioned quietly.
Judge La Fleur witnessed the near-silent exchange and stifled a smile. She knew only too well how the boys felt; she hated sitting still for long periods as well. As Nettie Wells finished her statement, she nodded. "Thank you, Mrs. Wells. I wonder if perhaps we might recess for a few moments. JD, Vin, would you like to come to my chambers with me?" Seeing the worried expressions, she added, "Perhaps Mrs. Wells could join us for a moment as well?"
Looking at their fathers and receiving both permission and reassurance, the boys climbed out of their chair and moved toward their caseworker. She smiled down at them and took one of their hands in each of hers as she led them from the room.
Behind the departing boys, their fathers exchanged somber looks, wondering just what was going on.
The two boys walked as close to Nettie Wells as they could, little hands gripping hers tightly. She looked down; seeing the 'deer in the headlight' looks that each child wore. Tugging at their hands to catch their attention, she said gently, "It's okay, boys, the Judge just wants to visit with you."
"We in trouble?" Vin asked worriedly.
"No," Nettie reassured. "Not at all."
"At school, when someone gets in trouble, they has to go to the princ'pals office," JD added.
"True, but do you think you're in trouble?" Mrs. Wells questioned.
"Well, I was gettin' wiggly."
The older woman chuckled. "True, but if you weren't wiggly, you wouldn't be JD. I promise she just wants to visit with you."
Chris stared at the door the two boys just went through, as if he could see through it if he tried hard enough. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see his father looking at him with concern.
"What's happening?" Matt asked.
Shaking his head slowly, Larabee replied, "Not certain. I don't think there's a problem but you never know."
"It'll be okay," Buck added softly, though more to himself than anyone else. "She probably just wanted to speak to them privately."
They entered the Judge's chambers which they were surprised to find looked a lot like the den at home. There were a lot more books though, most of them looking really, really old. There was a lady standing in the middle of the room, and it took the boys a moment to realize that it was Judge La Fleur. She had removed her long, black dress and had on a pair of slacks and a sleeveless shirt. And tennis shoes. They stared at her open mouthed, realizing that she was just a regular person now.
"I looked at the clock and realized that it's snack time," the Judge said. "I thought maybe you boys would like to join me? I've got chocolate milk and some fresh, homemade peanut butter cookies made 'em myself. Would you like to try a couple?"
"Sure!" JD chirped in a relieved tone. Beside him, Vin nodded, a little smile gracing his elfin features.
"Well, I need to watch my figure," Nettie responded, "I think I'll pass. Would it be all right with you boys if I went back into the courtroom? I'd imagine your dads might want to know that everything's okay."
Chewing his lower lip, Vin looked from Nettie to the Judge. He was still a little nervous, but he liked the Judge. Looking back to Nettie, he nodded and said softly, "Okay. Tell my Dad I'll be back out in a few minutes, please?"
"I certainly will." Mrs. Wells replied. She nodded to the other woman and left the room.
"Have a seat, guys." Deanna motioned toward a big, comfortable looking couch. While they climbed up onto the thick cushions, she went to a little refrigerator and retrieved three little boxes filled with chocolate milk. Atop the refrigerator was a covered tin and she grabbed it as well. Coming back to the couch, she sat on the coffee table in front of it. She pulled the straws from the plastic wrap on the side of each box, pushed them into the box, and handed one to each boy. Then she popped the top off the tin and sat it on the cushion between them. With a smile, she said, "Dig in."
The boys each took a cookie, politely saying "thank you" before biting into the rich, peanut butter confection.
Popping the straw into the third container, the Judge took a sip and then took a cookie for herself. "I wanted to say thank you for writing me those letters. It helps me a lot to know what the boys and girls I see are thinking about and where they want to live."
"You're welcome," Vin said around a mouth full of cookie.
"We really, really, really want to live with Da and Chris. We got a real good home now. Would you like to come see it? We gots horses!"
"You do? That's really neat. I always wanted a horse when I was a girl."
"You didn't have a horse?" JD asked. When the woman shook her head, he said, "I'm sorry. You can 'tend Milagro is your horse if you want. He's scared 'a growed ups, but if you're nice to him, he's nice to you."
"Well, thank you, Dear. Is that the horse you bought from the rescue service?" Deanna LaFleur had, indeed, read every word written about the boys.
"Yeah, the people that had him first was real mean to him and he was real bad hurt and sick. We seen him on An'mal Planet and we said we wanted to use the swear jar monies to buy him. We had a whole lot of monies in the jar, 'cause every time Da or Chris says a bad word they have to put a dollar in it. Me an' Vin only gots to put a quarter in, 'cause we don't gots much monies. So we counted up all the monies and we buyed Milagro. That means miracle, 'cause he was a miracle."
Nearby, Vin flinched when JD talked about all of the money in the Swear Jar. What if the Judge decided that if their dads used bad words they wouldn't be good dads, and say no to the adoption?
Observing the older boy's reaction, Deanna had a good idea what suddenly drained the blood from his little face. Casually she remarked, "You have a Swear Jar at home?"
"Yep," the little brunet responded. "Da says that him and Chris got used to not not watchin' their words, 'cause they was only around other growed ups. So when me and Vin moved in, they had to had to "
"Clean up their act," Vin supplied, turning wide, blue eyes toward the Judge.
With a smile, La Fleur said, "Well that was very conscientious of them. A lot of adults forget that children learn those words when they're around them." She heard the barely audible sigh that the slender and serious little blond let loose and watched him relax.
"We also gots a swear jar in Chris' office, but they only has to put monies in it if me and Vin's there. Da says that when we ain't there that our uncles say things we ain't supposed to hear 'cause they're blowin' steam."
"Blowin' off steam," Vin corrected.
"Yeah, blowin' off steam."
"Your uncles?" Deanna asked, although she had read about the other three men involved in the boys' lives.
"Yeah, there's Unca' 'Siah, Unca' Ezra an' Unca' Nathan. Unca' Nathan's got a wife named Aunt Raine. She's a doctor. Unca' 'Siah and Unca' Ezra don't got no wives though. They helps out sometimes when Da an' Chris needs someone to watch me an' Vin."
"Ah, it sounds like they're very important to you, too," the Judge observed.
"Yeah, real 'portant," Vin responded when he saw that JD's mouth was full of cookie. "They're real good to us, too, and make sure we're okay. Unca' Nathan even makes us eat broc'li."
Only partially stifling the laugh when she saw the child's face, Deanna said, "Really? Is he being mean to you when he does that?"
"No Ma'am!" Vin yelped indignantly. "He does it 'cause he loves us an' wants us to be healthy. It ain't his fault broc'li tastes yucky!"
"Yeah," JD chimed in now, "but if you put it in cheese, it ain't too bad."
"True," the older woman agreed. "What about your other uncles?"
"Unca' 'Siah's real smart and he's real old, too. I think he's 'bout as old as you, 'cause you and him both gots old color hair," JD said with a child's logic. "He helps me an' Vin figure stuff out sometimes when we gots a problem. An' Unca' Ezra, he's well, he's just real good to us. He has to go under covers sometimes and last time he gotted shot in the leg but it wasn't his fault, it's a a has-urd of the job. And then he was gonna go live with his mama an' his new daddy, but he was real sad there an' moved back home. He just buyed a new house, too, an' it's really neat - "
"JD!" Vin scolded, "Sheesh, you talk too much!"
Holding up a hand, Deanna said, "that's all right, Dear. I need to know these things. So, how do you feel about your uncle being injured on the job?"
Vin ducked his head, but not before the woman saw the fear and pain in his eyes. Beside him, JD looked ready to cry. The room was silent for a full minute before a burst of words issued forth. To the woman's surprise, it was the nearly silent seven-year-old who spoke them in a rush.
"We was scared at first 'cause we was 'fraid Unca' Ezra was gonna go sleep with the angels but Dad said he was gonna be all right and he was. We was real sad when he 'cided to go to live with his Mama, 'cause we was 'fraid we wouldn't never see him no more. And I had bad dreams a lot, but Dad made sure I was okay and sometimes I sleeped with him in his bed 'cause I was too scared to sleep in my bed. He even let me sleep with him when he was real tired 'cause he was workin' so hard and worried 'bout Unca' Ezra 'cause he said it was 'portant to him to make sure I wasn't scared. But Unca' Ezra's back home now, and everything's okay."
Marveling at the lengthy speech from the child, Deanna smiled. "I'm glad that it's okay now, Dear. But do you still get worried about something happening to someone you love?"
"'Course we do!" Vin looked at her as if he couldn't quite understand how she could ask something so obvious. "But bad things happen to ever'one, not just A. T. F. agents. My Born Daddy went to sleep with the angels after he helped rescue his men from a building. He was a soldier. My Mama went to sleep with the angels after she got real sick. She didn't even have no job."
"True," Deanna's heart went out to the little boy who had suffered so much loss in so few years. Suddenly she saw that her decision had been made for her. Standing, she retrieved her robe and put it back on. Smiling once more, she said, "Well, I'll bet your family is getting pretty bored waiting for us. Shall we go back in?"
"Okay, Da prob'ly wants to know what we been doin'," JD said as he took one of her hands.
"Yeah, Dad don't like it too much when he don't know what I'm doin'," Vin added as he took her other hand. The trio headed back toward the courtroom.
Chris and Buck had all but leapt on Nettie Wells when she came back into the courtroom. She had done her best to reassure them that things were all right, and that they didn't have anything to worry about. Finally, their concerns quieted for the moment, they settled back in to wait.
Directly behind the men in the gallery, Claire reached out and took her husband's hand, squeezing it briefly. He turned to look at her and she smiled as reassuringly as possible. She still had her reservations about everything, but they were dissipating more every hour. There was one thing she knew without a doubt, though. Vin Tanner had rekindled a spark of the man she had once known as her son and, in turn, Chris was giving the little boy the home he so badly needed.
Ezra, Josiah, Nathan and Raine all sat in the gallery, anxiously wondering what was happening, but not wanting to disturb their friends. Instead, they watched the door that Judge La Fleur and the boys had disappeared through.
As the door opened the entire room went silent, every eye trained on the trio coming across the threshold. There was a collective sigh as they saw Judge Deanna La Fleur enter, each hand holding onto one of the little boys'. She let go and shooed them to the table where Chris and Buck waited before taking her seat at the bench.
Seeing that she had everyone's attention, Deanna said, "I apologize for the delay, however I believe that I have come to a decision. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington "
The two men straightened in their seats, silently waiting for her to continue.
"I have reviewed this case quite closely. I must say that I have had my reservations about making this arrangement permanent. Your chosen profession, background, and lifestyles all pointed to your making inadequate role models for two impressionable young boys.
"However," she said quickly, seeing the emotions ready to erupt from both men, "You have very efficiently proven me wrong. The report that Mrs. Wells has provided, as well as the other information gathered over the course of the last several months on the boys is quite impressive. The fact that you even showed the foresight to legally provide for each of the boys should something happen to one of you is something that I have rarely seen parents initiate in the twenty years I have presided in this court. That speaks quite highly of your dedication to these children.
"The most important information I have gathered, though, occurred just a few minutes ago in my chamber. Both JD and Vin very aptly persuaded me that they are, indeed, in the best place they could be. Therefore, it is my considered opinion that John Daniel Dunne, a.k.a. JD, will become the legally adopted son of Buck Wilmington. And Vincent Michael Tanner, a.k.a. Vin, will become the legally adopted son of Christopher Larabee. Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Larabee will also be the second parents of JD and Vin.
"My congratulations to you all and you are dismissed."
There was a moment's pause and then the boys jumped as the courtroom erupted in cheers and laughter. They each looked at their father, and saw the joy in each man's face. That was enough for them, and the two children began to celebrate as well. They jumped off the chair and hugged one another, jumping up and down and giggling. Then they let go of one another and turned to their fathers.
Buck grabbed up JD and hugged him close as he cried openly at the news. Rocking the little boy, he kept repeating over and over, "My Son, my Son, my Son."
Chris swept Vin up, squeezing him tight and kissing one little cheek. He, too, was crying unabashedly, the tears of joy rolling down his face as he croaked emotionally, "We're a family, Cowboy, it's real. Sweet boy, you're my Son, now."
Overcome, the two boys squeezed their fathers' necks, laughing and crying at the same time. They looked up to see that their uncles and aunt were surrounding them, tears spilling from each eye and laughter in each face.
Chris looked to see that his parents were still in their seats, arms wrapped around one another. He wasn't surprised to see the tears streaming down his father's face, but those rolling down his mother's, along with the happy grin, took him off-guard. They both turned to him at the same time, and he smiled broadly as, together, they mouthed 'I love you' to him.
"I love you, too," he called out, his voice cracking as he did.
The family celebrated by going to The Golden Kettle, a rather upscale family style restaurant that Josiah had called for a lunchtime reservation. The ten of them settled around a large, round, cloth covered table, the two boys not even upset to find themselves sitting in booster seats.
"Hi, I'm Kathy, I'll be your waitress," the petite, young blond said as way of introduction. She noted the suits and happy expressions and said, "Wow, did you all just come from a wedding or something?"
The boys giggled, shaking their heads simultaneously. JD added, "No! We just got 'dopted!"
Kathy grinned. "Adopted? You did?"
Pointing to the blushing little blond beside him, the boisterous five-year-old elaborated, "Me an' Vin."
"Well that's great." She looked around the table before saying, "So who did you get adopted by?"
Frowning as if the answer should be obvious, the little brunet pointed to the to the men in question and said, "We gots 'dopted by Da an' Chris."
The young woman's eyes widened slightly as she looked at the two men and then the two boys. As Buck caught her questioning gaze the blood drained from his face and Larabee decided to put him out of his misery and clear up the obvious misunderstanding.
"Single parent adoptions," he said softly.
Relief flooded through Buck and the waitress blushed, while the rest of the adults at the table stifled laughter behind coughs and napkins. Her smile firmly in place once more, Kathy said, "Well, that's fantastic. Congratulations to you all!"
"Thanks!" JD chirped, while Vin managed a shy smile.
They ordered the "Family Feast" which was served family style and included grilled chicken, baked ham, salad and a variety of vegetable dishes, crescent rolls with honey butter, raspberry iced tea and lemonade. Kathy enlisted two other members of the restaurant's wait staff to help her carry the large number of dishes to the table. After everything had been laid out for them the cheerful group filled their plates and began to eat.
Talk was light and time and again focused on the adoption. Suddenly Vin turned a worried face toward his father. "Dad?"
"Don't we get sirtif-cats?"
Chris frowned. "Certificates?"
"Yeah, sirtif-cats. Don't we get one that says we're 'ficially 'dopted?"
"Oh! Yeah, we'll get official papers, why?"
"But not today?"
"No, not today. It takes a few days to get all the documents drawn up, I'm sure."
Seeing the crestfallen expression, Larabee asked, "What's wrong, Cowboy?"
Shrugging, the seven-year-old said, "Nothin'."
"Doesn't look like 'nothin'," Chris said gently, taking the little face in his hand. "What is it, Buddy?"
Vin sighed and shrugged once again, making it clear that he wasn't certain what was wrong.
Larabee guessed at what was going on, though. It always gave things a sense of completion to have the paperwork in front of you. He was pretty certain that, in his son's eyes, there could still be a chance for things to change. Reaching over and ruffling the thick, blond hair, he said, "I'm sure Nettie will get them to us as soon as possible. But papers or no papers, the Judge has already said that we're a family and that makes it so. Okay?"
Slowly regaining his happiness, the child smiled and replied, "Okay."
As they finished the meal, they were all surprised to see a group of the restaurant's employees coming toward them, Kathy in the lead, carrying a large, chocolate cake. There were four candles grouped together in the middle, cheerfully blazing away. As the group came to a stop beside the big table, they began to sing:
For they are sons and fathers,
For they are sons and fathers,
For they are sons and fathers,
Which nobody can deny!
Which nobody can deny,
Which nobody can deny,
For they are sons and fathers...
Which nobody can deny!
As the others congratulated them on the adoption, Kathy sat the big cake down in front of the four member family. "Okay now, you all have to blow out the candles together, all right? On the count of three... one... two... three!" Together the fathers and sons blew the candles out, laughing as they did.
The wait staff cleared the table and served the cake. Coffee was served to the adults and the boys were brought glasses of milk. The family leisurely enjoyed the dessert, relaxing after the emotional roller coaster they had ridden all morning. The boys, tummies full, dropped off to sleep, while the adults talked around them. JD had climbed into Buck's lap and lay sprawled in his arms. Vin was still in his seat, but lay in a boneless slump against Chris.
Larabee had one arm wrapped protectively around the sleeping child while he drank his coffee and enjoyed the conversation. It was nice to just talk about sports and the weather for a while. After the long weeks of stress and worry about not only the adoption, but everything that had happened with Ezra, he was ready for a break.
Claire listened to the men teasing one another, enjoying the conversation even if it was mostly about sports. It was also wonderful to see her son so relaxed. She watched the tall, handsome man across from her looking so at peace in his world and rejoiced. At the same time she couldn't help but remember the times she had watched him sitting with Adam sleeping beside him. The pain was still there, but she found it buffered by the reality of what she saw before her.
Suddenly feeling somewhat overwhelmed, Claire quietly excused herself and headed quickly toward the ladies room. Both Chris and Matt registered her departure and exchanged a worried look.
They weren't the only ones to notice that Claire was gone for several long minutes. Raine saw their concerned expressions and, with a look toward her husband's boss and their friend, she excused herself as well.
Claire looked up at the sound of someone coming into the powder room. Recognizing Raine Jackson, she turned away quickly, embarrassed to be seen crying.
"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to disturb you. I just thought I wanted to make sure you were all right."
Dabbing at her eyes with a tissue, the older woman managed a smile. "I appreciate it. I I didn't want to disturb the celebration."
"Would it help to talk about it?" Raine placed her hand on Claire's shoulder, gently rubbing it.
Shrugging, Claire said, "I'm not even sure what I'm crying about. I'm happy happier than I've felt for years. The man I was watching out there just now is the son I thought I'd lost when when he lost his family."
Raine put her arm around the older woman, offering her comfort while she cried. After a few moments, Claire calmed down and gently pulled away, patting Raine's hand and offering up a smile.
"He used to be like that with Adam, you know? Seeing him out there, watching how easily he's stepped back into the father role - " She stopped as she saw Raine's expression change.
"Claire, believe me, it wasn't easy for Chris none of it has been. He fought his heart for weeks, denying what the rest of us knew. He needed to be Vin's dad as badly as Vin needed him to be his dad."
The older woman smiled. "He always was a bit stubborn."
With a snort, Raine said, "a bit?"
Laughing now, Claire said, "Yeah, okay a lot."
When the two women sobered, Raine said, "Well, stubborn or not, your son did come around. He and Vin have both come a long way since those first days."
"About Vin," Claire said hesitantly, "I understand he's had a pretty rough life."
"Rough doesn't begin to cover it," The younger woman said. "To make a sad story short, he and JD were living alone in a cardboard and crate shelter, eating out of dumpsters. Vin was accidentally shot and was very near death when Chris and the others found him. Claire, I don't mean to belittle your grief and I would never deny it. But the truth is, those babies have lost more than any of us can ever conceive of losing."
With a deep, shuddering sigh, the older woman nodded. "I think I'm finally beginning to understand a lot of things."
Raine smiled and nodded. "I'm glad, because I really think your son would like to know his mother approves of what he's doing with his life."
Nodding once again, Claire said, "Yes I think you're right."