DEADLY OBSESSION    

by Winnie

 

Chapter 11


Ezra stood on the terrace overlooking the city he’d grown to love. People he cared about lived within a short distance of his upscale penthouse apartment and that was something he craved. The events of the last week would change them all, but it would not defeat them. Somehow they would find a way to help Chris deal with the grief of his loss and they would deal with it themselves at the same time. Taking a sip of the freshly brewed coffee, his mind wandered to the missing agent. Vin Tanner was a strange man at times, hard to get close to, yet like the rest of Larabee’s team, he’d given his trust willingly to the others. What was it about Chris that made people around him trust not only him, but the people he cared about as well? How could things change so quickly and how could so many things happen to one man? He knew there was only one person who could get through the pain and anguish Larabee felt, but that man was somewhere in Brazil, injured and sequestered away in a safe house.
 
‘Where are you, Vin?’ he thought as he watched the city come to life below him.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Evie Travis watched her husband as he sifted through the files on his desk. She knew he was worried about Vin Tanner and wished there was something she could do to ease that worry. The call he was expecting still hadn’t come through and she knew this troubled him. She moved behind him and began kneading his shoulders and neck, smiling as his head rotated on his shoulders.
 
“Feel good?”
 
“Hmm, hmm.”
 
“You’re so tense, Orrin, and you know the doctor said you need to ease up or your blood pressure will skyrocket again.”
 
“I know, Evie, but there’s so much going on. I’ve got three men injured and out of action. One is facing the loss of the two most important people in his life, one is in some Godforsaken country...”
 
“Brazil is not Godforsaken, Orrin.”
 
“You know what I mean, Evie. He’s hurt and we don’t know how badly! Faraday hasn’t answered any of my calls and I’m going to have five men breathing down my neck any minute for word on Vin!”
 
“She’ll call, Orrin, you just have to have patience,” his wife explained as she moved to pour him a glass of juice from the breakfast tray the butler delivered an hour before. Nothing had been disturbed and she knew her husband hadn’t touched it.
 
“Thanks,” Travis said, accepting the glass of fresh squeezed orange juice.
 
“You’re welcome...now put down those papers and eat before you get an ulcer!” She waited for him to stand up and led him to the small table set under the window of his office. The oat bran carrot muffins were fresh and he reached for one as his wife did the same. After thirty-five years of marriage he still loved her and knew he always would.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Chris, we need to find out what’s causing the fever before we can think about letting you out of here!” Bledsoe warned as he finished examining the stubborn blond.
 
“Look, Doc, I’ve been here long enough. I need to find her and make sure she doesn’t hurt anyone else!”
 
“Find who, Chris?” Midland asked.
 
“The bitch who t...took Sarah and Adam from me.”
 
“Chris, look, you can’t go anywhere for at least a couple of days!” Midland warned, hoping she could deflect the man’s determination. “Not only because of the burns and fever, but you’ve also got a tube in your chest. That won’t be coming out until the day after tomorrow and then we’ll need to make sure the health care nurses can take over caring for those burns at home...”
 
“Home!” Larabee spat as anger overwhelmed him. “What home, Doc? Did you forget that I don’t have a home any fucking more. I don’t have a house! I don’t have...have...I don’t have S...Sarah! I don’t have Adam and the baby! All because of that bitch!” Larabee spat as he tried to slide his legs over the edge of the bed.
 
“Chris! No!” Midland warned as Bledsoe reached for the angered man.
 
“I want out of here, Doc! I’m going after that bitch and I’ll damn well make sure she pays for what she....what she did!” Larabee stood on shaky legs as wave after wave of nauseating pain coursed through his body. He tried to breathe past the agony of burning fire in his chest as several pairs of hands caught him and placed him back on the bed. He felt the familiar sensation of pain medication and sedatives entering his body and snapped his eyes open, glaring at the two physicians even as the anger left him drained and empty inside. “N...no...God, Doc...I need...I need to...to get o...out of...h...here.”
 
“You will, Chris, just not today,” Midland said as she watched the trembling body relax on the bed. She adjusted the flow of the IV and breathed a sigh of relief as the injured man gave in to his body’s need for rest.
 
“Well, I believe we’ve just witnessed his first real display of anger. Is the psyche department sending someone to see him?”
 
“Yes, Jacob. As a matter of fact I have a meeting with a woman named Susan James at eleven this morning. She hasn’t been with the department long and I don’t know her personally, but I have heard good things about her.”
 
“Good. I think it’s important that he be given the opportunity to speak with someone as quickly as possible.”
 
“I agree, Jacob. I’m going to tell Josiah he can come back in and then I’m going to grab some lunch,” Midland explained.
 
Josiah had heard Larabee’s tirade and felt the churnings of his own anger fueled by the murders of two innocent people. He nodded as Midland beckoned him inside and moved quickly to the bed.
 
“Is he okay, Doc?” Sanchez asked.
 
“I wish I could say he was, Josiah, but he’s not. He’s going to have a lot to deal with when he leaves here, and the outburst you just witnessed was only a mild one.”
 
“That’s understandable...considering what was taken from him.”
 
“Yes, it is, and that makes this all the harder. He wants to go after her, but right now that’s just not possible. He has to let his body heal before he tries to go after whoever did this to him,” Midland answered.
 
“Stacey, I have a meeting with the board in ten minutes, let me know what Susan James says,” Bledsoe said.
 
“I will, Jacob, thank you,” Midland said as the burn specialist left the room.
 
“Doc, who is Susan James?”
 
“She’s with the psyche department, Josiah, and I’ve asked her for a consult with Chris. Hopefully she’ll be able to get him to open up about what he’s feeling.”
 
“Chris has never been a man who opens up to strangers...hell, we’re lucky if he opens up to us,” the ex-preacher told her.
 
“I know that, Josiah, but I’m hoping you guys will be able to help me with him. If he keeps this bottled up inside him it’s going to eat him alive. I have to go, but I’ll be back to check on him after my meeting with Susan James,” Midland explained.
 
Sanchez nodded and say in the chair beside the bed. Larabee’s face was still paler than it should be, and the bandages still covered the burns. Closing his eyes he thought back to his own loss and the person who’d helped him through it. A young woman named Emma Dubonnet. She was new in the field of psychiatry, but she’d been a willing ear, and he found himself opening up about his loss and how it was affecting him. A year after they met he decided it was time to find himself and wanted to study the ministry, but she’d been angered by this and felt it was a betrayal of her feelings for him. He did have feelings for her and he tried to explain that he needed to find out where his life was headed. Emma was not pleased by his decision, and had stormed out of his life. He knew she was still in the field of psychiatry, but he heard rumors that she did other things as well. Shaking his head he reached for the dog-eared bible in his pocket. It was a gift from his father, one he cherished and read frequently. He opened the cover to the first page and ran his fingers over his father’s strong handwriting. Taking a deep breath he settled in to watch over the injured man.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Rory Murdoch looked across the table at the exhausted man seated there and wondered if he looked as haggard. Six hours they’d worked on the injured Texan, and there was still no guarantee the man would live. They’d stabilized him and had him on oxygen and given him a transfusion, but his blood pressure remained alarmingly low. He looked up as his wife entered and smiled as she placed a fresh pot of coffee in the center of the table.
 
“Thanks, Jane,” Murdoch said. “More coffee, Gary?”
 
“Please...where did Selena and Joe disappear to?”
 
“Joe and Melanie went back to Rio. Selena is outside making sure her agents know what’s expected of them,” the woman explained.
 
“How is Maynard doing?” Reardon asked.
 
“I looked in on her a few minutes ago. Her BP has stabilized and she seems to be resting comfortably,” Rory explained.
 
“Rest is the best thing for her. Melanie confirmed that there were no injuries...at least nothing that won’t heal on its own. Jane, make sure she gets something to eat when she wakes up.”
 
“I will, Gary. Now why don’t you two go get some rest? I‘ll watch Mr. Tanner and wake you if there’s any change.”
 
“I will, as soon as Selena makes that call...”
 
“I was just about to, Rory. I’d like you and Gary to be there. Tanner’s friends are very worried about him and I wanted to wait until we had something concrete to tell them,” Faraday explained as she entered the kitchen and placed the phone beside her. She reached for the pot of coffee and poured herself a cup, before reaching for the phone and placing the call. “Do you guys have any good news to tell them or should I warn them they won’t like what you have to say?”
 
“The only good news right now is that he’s alive,” Reardon said tiredly.
 
“Damn, okay, I guess there’s no sense putting it off any longer,” the DEA agent said as she hit the numbers to call Orrin Travis’ office.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Mr. Travis, I think the call you’re waiting for is on line two,” his secretary’s voice sounded strained as if she too was worried about the members of the team.
 
“Put it through, Peggy!”
 
“Yes, sir.”
 
The Firm’s owner reached for the receiver and pressed the button for line two. “Travis!”
 
“Mr. Travis, it’s Selena Faraday...”
 
“Please tell me you have good news?”
 
“I’ll let you talk to Gary Reardon. He’s the doctor who took care of Tanner and Maynard at the scene. Hang on.”
 
Orrin heard the phone change hands and a tired male voice spoke softly into it.
 
“Mr. Travis...”
 
“That’s right. How are they Dr. Reardon?”
 
“Maynard is doing well. She was suffering from shock, but we’ve been able to treat that and she’s improving rapidly.”
 
“That’s good news. What about Vin Tanner?”
 
“Mr. Tanner would be considered in critical condition if he was in the hospital. I know that’s not possible right now, but I want to assure you we’re doing everything we can to make sure he gets the best treatment available.”
 
“What exactly is wrong with him? Hold on while I put you on speaker,” Travis said as three men entered the office. He waited for Jackson, Dunne, and Standish to sit down before speaking again. “Go ahead, Dr. Reardon.”
 
“Please, call me Gary, it’ll make things easier. Rory Murdoch is here as well. He’s the owner of the safe house and one hell of a physician. Now, as to Mr. Tanner his injuries are serious, but it’s the fever, infection, and pneumonia that has us worried. When we arrived Tanner was unconscious and hasn’t shown any sign of coming to yet. We hooked him to an IV and oxygen right away. His BP was low and he’s dehydrated. There are several lacerations, one to his right arm, another on his left side and still another on his leg. His upper body is covered in bruises and he has several broken ribs, and this is a contributing factor to the pneumonia. We’ve set up an antibiotic cocktail and have him on oxygen for now.”
 
“Is there any good news?” Jackson asked after hearing the list of injuries and problems.
 
“That depends on how you look at it,” Reardon answered. “Right now he’s alive and that’s the best possible news at this point. I can assure you we’re doing everything we can to make sure he has everything he needs. Selena is leaving this phone with us and I’ll give you the number before you go.”
 
“How long before Vin can come home?” Dunne asked, realizing how selfish it sounded, yet knowing he wanted his friend back where he belonged.
 
“I can’t answer that question right now, but don’t expect anything for at least a couple of weeks, and I’d say it will probably be longer than that. There’s not much else I can tell you guys, except we’re doing everything we can.”
 
“We know that, Gary, and we appreciate everything you’re doing,” Travis assured the other man.
 
“If there’s nothing else I’ll pass you back to Selena.”
 
“Thank you, doctor, that’ll be fine,” Travis said and watched the worried faces in the room with him as Faraday’s voice came back on the line.
 
“Mr. Travis, I just wanted to let you know that security measures have been implemented and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure Mendoza’s associates don’t find out where Tanner and Maynard are. We have several men patrolling the perimeter and there will be two men in the house at all times. No one will get near them,” the woman vowed.
 
“Gerald trusts you, Miss Faraday, and for now it looks like his trust was well placed. Thank you for getting my agent out of there...”
 
“Not necessary, Mr. Travis. I was just doing my job,” the DEA agent assured him.
 
“Yes, well, you did it well. Because of you Vin has a chance now. Will you make sure that I get a call every day?”
 
“I’ll let Reardon and Murdoch know...I have a few things to finish up here. You can contact these people by calling this number. It’s a secure line and should be untraceable.”
 
“Will do, Miss...”
 
“Please, call me Selena...I hate titles...”
 
“Thank you, Selena. Tell Reardon and Murdoch to call anytime day or night if Vin needs anything.”
 
“Done, keep the faith, Mr. Travis...Tanner looks like a strong man.”
 
“Stronger than you know,” Jackson said softly as the line went dead.
 
“What a mess,” Standish said softly.
 
“Yes, it is, but at least we know he’s being taken care of,” Travis said.
 
“Are you sure of that?” Jackson asked, wishing he’d been able to see how Vin was doing for himself.
 
“As sure as I can be right now,  Nathan. I know it’s hard being so far away, but there’s nothing we can do about it right now. Hopefully things are not as bleak as they appear to be right now. How was Chris when you left?” the older man asked.
 
“Josiah is with him, but Chris had a rough night. I’m heading over there now, but I’m stopping at home to pick up Buck,” Jackson said, knowing the ladies’ man would be chomping at the bit to get to the hospital by now.
 
“JD and I are going to do a little more investigation into the whereabouts of Ella Gaines and Jack Averil,” Standish explained.
 
“Have you been able to confirm or deny whether she’s in Monte Carlo or not?” Travis asked.
 
“Nothing so far, but I contacted mother last night. If anyone can find out if the Gaines woman is there its mothah. She promised to phone me as soon as she checks the five star hotels in the area.”
 
“Why only the five star hotels?” Jackson asked.
 
“Because Ella Gaines does not strike me as the type of woman who’d settle for anything less than the best. She thrives on elegance and sophistication...it’s just too bad that she has none herself,” the conman said.
 
“All right, you guys seem to have everything under control. I’m heading over to the hospital for an hour or so, but I’ll be back here after lunch. If you boys find anything let me know,” Travis told them.
 
“We will, Orrin,” Dunne assured him.
 
“Orrin, you’ll let us know if there’s any word on Vin?” Jackson asked as they stood to leave.
 
“Of course, but we probably won’t hear anything for a while.”
 
“What are we going to tell Chris?” Standish asked.
 
“Nothing, unless he asks,” Travis answered, wondering if they could keep Vin’s troubles from Chris and knowing it wasn’t likely to happen.
 
~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris folded his bandaged arms across his chest and glared at the man seated next to the bed. Since waking up the blond knew he was being a miserable sonofabitch, but right now he didn’t give a damn. He wanted out of the bed and no one was going to stop him. He knew from experience that moving would be hell, but it was also the best way to get back on his feet. That was his main goal right now...getting on his feet and starting his little war. He wasn’t going to talk about Ella Gaines with his friends...this was personal and something he needed to take care of himself,
 
“Chris, all I’m saying is wait until Dr. Midland or Dr. Bledsoe gets here before you try to get out of bed. You’ve been flat on your back for several days now and it’s natural that you’re going to feel week...”
 
“I’m fine, Josiah...” He was interrupted as Stacey Midland and another woman entered  the room.
 
“Chris, I believe you’re suffering from Egyptian River Syndrome?” Midland said, smiling at her patient.
 
“What?” Larabee asked, confusion written on his face.
 
“Egyptian River Syndrome...you know...denial,” Midland deadpanned, smiling as the injured man broke loose with a small laugh, while Sanchez chuckled loudly.
 
“Not funny, Doc.”
 
“That was great, Dr. Midland,” the ex-preacher assured her.
 
“Thank you, Josiah,” the physician said, turning to look at the blond once more. “So, are you ready to tell me how you really feel?”
 
“I’m okay, Doc, I’m just tired of lying in this damn bed!” Larabee told her.
 
“Well, I’m sure we can arrange to get you up and into a chair...”
 
“And outside?”
 
“Chris...”
 
“Please, Doc, I just need to look at something other than these walls.”
 
“All right, I’ll see if there’s an orderly who can escort you out to the gardens for half an hour. Now hold on, Chris!” she warned as the blond made to protest. “You’ll probably find half an hour a little much and if that happens I want your word that you’ll tell Josiah so that he can bring you back in here. You overdo it and I promise you won’t be getting out of bed for at least another two days. Understood?”
 
“Yeah...guess so,” Larabee assured her, frowning as he saw the woman behind Midland. “Who...”
 
“Chris,” Midland interrupted. ‘This is Susan James, she’s with the psychiatric...”
 
“I don’t need to talk to a psychiatrist!” the blond spat angrily shifting on the bed.
 
“Chris, give her a chance,” Sanchez said, knowing the man was probably going to feel the same way he did when someone suggested he might need to speak to someone about his grief.
 
“What the hell for, Josiah, I have nothing to say to her. I don’t want to talk about what happened. I don’t need anyone telling me that none of this was my fault and I certainly don’t need anyone telling me I hated my mother and father as a child!”
 
“Chris, that’s not what Dr. James is here for and you know it!” the older man warned as Larabee’s eyes filled with glacial coldness.
 
“I don’t give a damn why she’s here,” Larabee winced as pain erupted in his left side. The tube had been removed earlier, but there was still the tenderness and feeling that something invaded his body.
 
“Easy, Chris,” Sanchez said as the younger man tried to curl into a ball.
 
“Shit!” the injured man cried out as he tried to ease the white-hot fire burning through his upper body. He heard the doctor talking to him, but could not find the energy to acknowledge her concern. Chris lost track of time as he tried to ride out the pain and soon felt his body begin to relax as Midland injected something into his IV. “No...no...doc. I don’t want to sleep?”
 
“It’s only a mild pain reliever, Chris. It shouldn’t put you to sleep. What I want you to do is relax and let it help you manage the pain,” Midland explained.
 
“O...okay,” Larabee said and heard James talking to his doctor. He knew he was being unreasonable, but was glad when James said she’d check back later. He lay on his right side for several minutes before opening his eyes and straightening his legs.
 
“Better?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Yeah...thanks. So, Doc,” he said turning to Midland. “Can I get out of here for a while?”
 
“Half an hour!”
 
“I’ll take anything I can get, Doc,” Larabee assured her.
 
“Very well, I’ll send an orderly and a nurse right in to help you into a wheelchair. Josiah, I’m counting on you to make sure he doesn’t try any Superman imitations. Chris, I want your word that you’ll tell them if it gets to be too much.”
 
“I will,” Larabee told her as he sat up more, wincing as the healing burns reminded him they were still there.
 
“Just lie still until the nurse and orderly get here, Son,” Sanchez told him once Midland left.
 
“I’ve been lying here long enough, Josiah, I need to stretch my legs.”
 
“Well, you won’t be stretching your legs, Chris. You’ll be in a wheelchair.”
 
“At least I’ll be out of this damn bed!” the blond told him as Orrin Travis entered the room.
 
“Good afternoon, Chris.”
 
“Afternoon, Orrin,” Larabee said.
 
“I just spoke with Stacey...she told me she’s going to let you go outside for a while,” the older man said.
 
“Yeah, I need to get out of here, Orrin,” Larabee told him and frowned as he watched the older man’s face. “Has there been any word from Vin?”
 
“Chris...you know Vin’s strong...”
 
“Orrin, what the hell’s wrong?” Larabee asked, his body tense as he heard the tension in the other man’s words.
 
“Vin was hurt during the operation...”
 
“What? Why the hell didn’t you guys tell me?” the irate blond spat.
 
“Easy, Chris, we only had confirmation on this last night and I asked them not to tell you until I found out something concrete.”
 
“Shit! How bad?”
 
Travis listed the injuries Reardon had told him about and watched Larabee’s face as it filled with concern when he said they were at a safe house and not in a hospital. He went on to explain about Mendoza’s unconfirmed death at Tanner’s hands and the possibility of a threat from the drug lord’s associates.
 
“Shit, I knew he shouldn’t have gone down there on his own. I should’ve told him we needed him here,” Larabee said, dropping back on the pillows.
 
“Chris, we both know this was something Vin had to do for himself. Mendoza’s managed to kill everyone who could identify him after the plastic surgery except Vin,” Sanchez explained as Travis watched the blond closely.
 
“Yeah, I know, but I wonder where we’d all be right now if Vin hadn’t gone down to Rio. He’s the best damn tracker around and I’m sure he would’ve been able to figure out where Ella was,” Larabee said, knowing in his heart nothing could have stopped Ella Gaines. He realized what he’d said and knew it belittled how hard the others were working and his shoulders slumped. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean you guys weren’t doing your job...”
 
“No need to apologize, Son, we all know Vin’s the best at what he does,” Sanchez assured him. He looked towards the door as an orderly and a nurse entered the room.
 
“Mr. Larabee, Dr. Midland said you wanted to get out of bed for a while,” Janina Malone said, moving to check the IV and other leads.
 
“Yeah, thanks,” the blond answered.
 
“All right,” the woman said and waited for Sanchez to move out of the way. “Now lets get you sitting up. Go slow and let me know if you get dizzy.”
 
“I will.” Chris shifted on the bed and was soon sitting with his legs dangling over the edge. He clenched his eyes tightly as he waited for the dizziness and headache to pass before looking at the nurse and nodding that he was ready.
 
“Mark, help me get him into the chair. Chris, just take it slow and let me know if it’s too much for you,” the concerned nurse ordered.
 
“I’m okay...let’s just do it,” the injured man said and eased off the bed. Truth-be-told he’d love to give in and just lie back on the bed, but he needed this. Needed to start moving around and come up with a plan. Ella Gaines was going to be sorry she’d ever declared her ‘love’ for him, because hers was not love, hers was far beyond that and bordered on psychotic obsession.
 
“You okay, Chris?” Travis asked of the pale, sweat soaked blond.
 
“Think so. I just need a minute.”
 
“Take as long as you need, Mr. Larabee,” the nurse advised as she took his vital signs.
 
Chris tolerated the nurse’s ministrations, but only because it gave his body a chance to get used to the upright position and the pain coursing through his body. Finally getting his breathing under control he lifted his head and met Sanchez’ worried gaze.
 
“All right, get me out of here,” the blond said as the orderly took control of the wheelchair.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Reardon helped place the cooling blanket over the patient’s body. Tanner’s temperature was still too high and they hoped this would help. The blanket was a donation from several townspeople who were grateful for the help they received from the Murdoch’s and had come in handy several times in the past two years. The transfusion and fluids had helped raise the young man’s blood pressure, but there were still so many things wrong with the patient.
 
“I hope this helps,” Jane said as she adjusted the blanket over the unconscious man.
 
“It should, Jane. You and Rory are lucky the people here trust you,” Reardon said.
 
“Yes, we are, but the trust goes two ways and we had to earn it. The first few years here were hell for us, but it’s home now and the people we treat are our family. Now I’m going to make something for lunch and maybe a broth for your other patient.”
 
“Good idea. She’s showing signs of coming round,” Reardon said, adjusting the flow of oxygen as he checked the portable monitoring equipment.
 
“I’ll call you as soon as it’s ready.”
 
“Okay, I think I’ll go outside for a while. Call me if anything happens.”
 
“I will, just leave the door open so I can hear the monitors,” Jane said, leaving the room as the physician continued to care for the injured man.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The trip down in the elevator was a quiet one as Travis and Sanchez watched the injured blond closely. When the doors opened on the first floor they were all surprised to see Wilmington and Jackson standing in front of the doors.
 
“Chris!” Wilmington said, surprised at seeing his friend sitting in the wheelchair.
 
“Boys,” Larabee said, managing a small smile that did little to hide the pain in his eyes.
 
“Buck, Nathan, Dr. Midland decided Chris needed a little reprieve from his room. We’re heading for the gardens. Care to join us?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Sounds good to me,” the rogue said, his gaze never wavering from Larabee’s face. He saw the sorrow there and knew the emotion was mirrored on his own.
 
“Well, Boys, I have to get back to the office,” Travis explained as they moved out of the elevator. He stood facing the injured blond and placed his hands on his hips as he spoke. “Chris, you remember what Stacey said and don’t overdo things. You can always come back outside later, but they won’t let you if you stay too long and end up making things worse. Josiah...”
 
“I’ll make sure we don’t stay too long, Orrin,” Sanchez said.
 
“Bye, Orrin.”
 
“See you later, Chris,” Travis said, reluctantly turning and leaving the men alone.
 
“Well, Chris, are you ready?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” the blond said wistfully as the orderly pushed the chair towards the exit.
 
‘Buck, you have an appointment with Dr. Midland in ten minutes to have those stitches out,” Jackson reminded the ladies’ man.
 
“Damn, almost forgot. Chris I’ll see you in a couple of minutes.”
 
“Chris, we’ll see you in your room in an hour,” Jackson corrected, knowing they’d be in with Midland at least that long.
 
“Okay,” the blond said, feeling the discomfort from the burns more than ever, but he was not going to let it stop him from getting outside.
 
“Mr. Larabee, did you want the gardens or the outer cafeteria tables?”  the orderly asked.
 
“The gardens will be fine,” Larabee said, closing his eyes in an effort to relieve the throbbing coursing through his skull.
 
Once outside they stopped beneath a tall oak tree and Sanchez took a seat on the park bench. He studied the pale face and knew Larabee was using his usual stubborn facade to pull him through this. The man often showed his true worth when things were rough, and right now Chris was dealing with what was probably going to be the worst time in his life.
 
“I’m okay, Josiah,” Larabee said, trying unsuccessfully to ease the man’s worry.
 
‘Sure you are, Son,’ Sanchez thought as he watched the blond soak up the rays of the sun and the scent of flowers in the air. The silence stretched between them as the two men fought with their own demons. It was Chris who finally broke the deathly quiet.
 
“Sarah loved roses,” Larabee whispered as he opened his eyes and looked at the breathtaking array of red, yellow, pink and white flowers. “That bush beside o...our house grew from a small piece from the bush her mother owned. She cultivated it in the house and kept it growing even after it nearly died. I...I can’t believe its all gone, Josiah.”
 
“Chris, I’m not going to tell you it’ll get better because I know you’ve heard that from everyone. You’re going to have a lot of feelings come over you when you least expect it and when you do, you need to meet them head on. You need to hold on to the memories you have and never let them fade away. If you find yourself feeling lost, just remember she’ll always be a part of you.”
 
“I’ll never forget her, Josiah...never forget the warmth of her touch,” Larabee said, fighting to control the emotions warring for dominance. Once more the duo grew quiet as the soft breeze caressed the rose brushes and a ghostly whisper of a child’s laughter met their ears. Chris turned to see where the sound came from and caught sight of a small boy and a woman sitting in the hospital playground. Chris swallowed the painful lump forming in his throat as tears filled his eyes. His body began to tremble with grief and pain as he watched and finally tore his eyes away from the warm, yet painful scene playing out a short distance away from him.
 
“Take me back, Josiah,” he said, fighting to keep his body under control.
 
Sanchez looked at his watch, surprised at Larabee’s request after only ten minutes sitting outside. He heard the laughter and turned to see the woman and child and understood why the blond did not want to stay. He nodded to the orderly who reached for the handles of the chair and turned the blond away from the gardens.
 
Chris kept his eyes closed during the trip back to his room. He could feel the tears forming under closed lids and refused to let them fall. The laughter remained with him, reminding him once more of how much he lost and he felt the world around him losing solidity in the wake of his heartache.
 
“Chris, we’re going to get you back in the bed,” Janina told him, and waited for him to look at her. The pain etched across the handsome face was not the physical variety, yet was no less real. She helped him stand and eased him back on his bed, draping the blankets over his body once more.
 
“Thanks,” the blond whispered, afraid if he said anything more the tears would fall and he’d drown in his own sorrow. Closing his eyes, he tried to ignore the pain, but was grateful when he felt the medication entering his body as it usually led to him falling asleep. That was something he wanted and craved, since it meant escaping real life for a while.
 
Half an hour later Buck and Nathan entered the room, frowning at the look on Sanchez’ face.
 
“Josiah, did something happen?” Wilmington asked.
 
“Nothing physical, Buck, but there was a woman with a child around Adam’s age in the play area. Chris saw them and...”
 
“Damn,” the rogue interrupted, knowing full well how he would’ve reacted in the same position.
 
“Yes, well he asked to come back inside and the nurse gave him something for pain. He fell asleep right away,” Sanchez explained.
 
“That’s gonna happen a lot,” Jackson said, knowing there was no way to keep Larabee from seeing other families and bringing up memories of Sarah and Adam.
 
“Yes, it will.” The older man agreed as he watched Wilmington rub at his arm. “What did Dr. Midland have to say about you, Buck?”
 
“She was pleased...”
 
“About the way his arm is healing,” Jackson interrupted and saw the chagrined look on Wilmington’s face. “But not about the way he’s neglecting his own health.”
 
“Damn, Nathan, you’re as bad as she is. Like I said I’m fine. I’m eating...”
 
“Not as much as you should be,” Jackson chided, folding his arms across his chest. “Dr. Midland threatened to have him admitted if he doesn’t start taking care of himself.”
 
“She’s just being over cautious...”
 
“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t be testing her if I were you,” Sanchez told him, standing and stretching, as he looked at the injured blond once more.
 
“Josiah, you need to go home and get some rest. We’ll stay with Chris until Ezra or JD get here,” Jackson offered.
 
“Sounds like a plan, brother. I’ll see you all later,” Sanchez told them, leaving the two men to watch over the sleeping blond. As he made his way out of the hospital a plan began to form in his mind. Chris Larabee may not have a home right now, but there was something he could do about giving him a piece of Sarah back. When he’d been to the house and collected his own small reminder, he’d seen something poking up through the blackened planks of the steps at the front of the house. A single pink rose, in full bloom, stretching through the devastation and searching for the sunlight it needed to survive. If the flower had survived he would dig the plant up and re-root it in a planter until Chris had a new place to call his own.
 
Driving along the road, Josiah felt empty inside, and he knew the feeling would be tenfold in Chris Larabee. His grief had long since been dulled by time, but it was still with him. Perhaps this would help the other man heal. At least he hoped so. Turning into the driveway, Sanchez smiled as the sun shone on the single flower, a sign that life would and could go on amidst the terrifying destruction surrounding it.
 
“Thank you, Lord,” he said, casting a prayer heavenward as he slid from the car.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Opening her eyes was a bigger chore than any she’d undertaken in a long time, but the effort was worth it as she finally succeeded. She licked dry lips, wondering where she was, enjoying the sensation of warmth that surrounded her body. Questions raced through her mind as she looked around the small bedroom. Where was she? How had she gotten here? Why was there an IV running from the pole above the bed and into her arm? Was this a hospital, if so where was the equipment and the normal antiseptic smell that went with it. She heard movement at the door and shifted on the bed as a woman entered the room and moved closer to the bed.
 
“It’s nice to see you awake, Miss Maynard,” Jane Murdoch said, smiling at the pale young woman.
 
“W...what happened?” the DEA agent rasped as she lifted her left arm and rubbed at her throbbing temples.
 
“What do you remember?”
 
Maynard frowned as she tried to remember the events leading to her being in this bed. Flashes of disconnected scenes assaulted her mind and suddenly everything cleared as the handsome Texan’s face solidified under closed lids.
 
“Vin!” she cried as she sat up in the bed, moaning as the throbbing intensified.
 
“Easy, lie still,” Murdoch warned.
 
“W....where is he?”
 
“Sh, he’s in the room next to this one,” the older woman answered.
 
“I need to s...see him.”
 
“I know you do and if you eat a light lunch I’ll take you there myself.”
 
“Not hungry...”
 
“That’s okay, you’re not eating...light lunch means broth and juice,” Murdoch told her. “Now you stay where you are while I bring you a tray. Try getting out of the bed on your own and I can assure you it’ll be another full day before you’ll be taken to him. Do I make myself clear?”
 
“Damn...hard bargain.”
 
“Yes, it is, but it’s the only one you’re going to get.”
 
Maynard watched her leave and closed her eyes once more. She felt exhausted and briefly wondered how long she’d been sleeping. Her body ached and her mouth was dry as again she tried to moisten them with her tongue. She remembered the last time she’d seen Vin Tanner and worried about his condition. Some things were clear, but others were not and she tried to remember why they were in a house and not in a hospital. The Texan needed a hospital and proper medical treatment. Was he getting that here? She looked towards the door as a man entered.
 
“Hello, Miss Maynard, my name is Gary Reardon. I’m a doctor working with the DEA in Rio.”
 
“Is Vin okay?” the agent asked tersely.
 
“He’s not doing very well at the moment, but rest assured we are doing everything we can to see that he has the best treatment possible.”
 
“His arm?”
 
“It was infected, but we think we’ve been able to clean it and there should be no complications from that. It’ll be very sore for a while and he’ll need physiotherapy once he goes home, but that won’t be for some time yet. His side took a good deal of damage and several dozen stitches to close, but again it should heal fine. His leg was nothing more than a scratch really. He has several broken ribs and is bordering on pneumonia.”
 
“Damn it...he needs a hospital.”
 
“I agree, but right now that’s out of the question. Faraday and the rest of her team have found out there’s a contract out on both of you and there are too many ways for a hit man to get at you in a hospital. No one knows where you are and that’s the way she wants it kept. Jane Murdoch will take care of anything you need and her husband is one hell of a physician. He’s in with Vin right now,” the doctor explained, reaching for her hand and taking her pulse. “Now how do you feel?”
 
“I’m okay...just feel tired.”
 
“That’s to be expected. You’ve been through quite an ordeal,” Reardon said, reaching for the BP cuff and wrapping it around her arm.
 
Jackie waited for him to finish what he was doing and watched as Jane Murdoch returned with a tray in her hands. The woman would not be considered beautiful, but there was a quality about her that bordered on exotic as she placed the tray on the table.
 
“Look, Miss...”
 
“Jackie,” the agent interrupted.
 
“Jackie, I want you to eat everything on your tray. Selena Faraday will be returning this evening and will probably want to take your statement,” Reardon explained.
 
“Yeah...I know the drill. So I eat...drink that stuff and I can see Vin?”
 
“Yes, but only for a few minutes. You still need to rest.”
 
“How long have we been here?” Maynard asked.
 
“Nearly sixteen hours.”
 
“Shit...I’ve been sleeping that long?”
 
“Actually you passed out at the hotel...that means it’s probably closer to eighteen hours,” Murdoch said standing to leave. “You needed it, Jackie, and you’ll probably need a lot more before you’re on your feet again. Jane will help you into Vin’s room when you’ve finished your meal. Ten minutes, Jane.”
 
“Sure, Gary,” Murdoch agreed, settling the tray on Maynard’s lap and adjusting the pillows behind her back.
 
“Thank you.”
 
“You’re welcome. I’ll come back in fifteen minutes and after you visit with Vin I’ll help you take a shower if you’re up to it,” Murdoch said and smiled at the pale agent before leaving.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 
 
Jackie could not believe how quickly she grew tired as they made it the short distance to the room where Tanner was staying. Taking a deep breath she tried to calm her jangled nerves as Jane Murdoch held the IV pole. Reardon refused to remove it until he was sure she was out of danger and eating properly. A soft chair had been placed beside the bed and she sank onto it gratefully as her strength gave out.
 
“Jackie, I’ll be in the kitchen. If you need anything at all just call, okay?”
 
“I will...thanks,” Maynard assured her as she glanced at the man in the bed. She reached under the blanket for the injured man’s left hand wincing at how cool it felt. She lifted it to her lips and kissed the fingers gently as she looked at the equipment surrounding the injured tracker. Her worry eased a little as she realized the stuff was top of the line and knew the doctors were doing everything to make sure Tanner made it. Fighting back tears and exhaustion she spoke softly to her partner.
 
“Well, Tex, you look like shit, but you’re still the best looking Texan I’ve ever seen. We made it this far together and I don’t intend on losing you now...not like this, okay?” I’ve seen too many good men die because of bastards like Mendoza and I damn well don’t want to add your name to that list! I’m going to be here, Vin, and if there’s anything you need I’ll make sure you get it. You’re probably worried about your friend, and I’ll find out what I can about him too, but right now it’s you I’m worried about. Shit, when did I let myself care?”
 
“Jackie, are you okay?”
 
“I’m fine, Jane,” Maynard answered, swallowing the lump in her throat. She released Tanner’s hand and placed it back under the blanket.
 
“I brought you a cup of tea with a little honey,” the older woman said, placing the cup on the table beside the bed.
 
“Thank you...he feels so cold.”
 
“That’s the cooling blanket Gary and Rory placed over him. His fever keeps spiking and they want to get it down. He’s making small improvements...his BP is up a bit.”
 
“I guess that’s better than no improvement at all,” Maynard said, picking up the cup and sipping the hot tea. “This is good, thank you.”
 
“You’re welcome. Are you cold?”
 
“No, not really,” the agent told her, smiling as the other woman’s motherly instincts kicked in. A blanket was soon draped over her and again she said thanks before Murdoch left the room. Jackie turned her attention back to the Texan and felt a shiver of fear wash over her at the still, pale form.
 
“Don’t you go quitting on me, Tex. I’ve lost enough to that bastard already,” she thought as she leaned back in the chair and sipped at the sweet tea.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Three days had come and gone since the incident in the garden and Bledsoe was reluctantly releasing him, but there were restrictions. He was to continue receiving IV antibiotics that would be administered by a home health care nurse and he was not allowed to go back to work. He was still refusing to speak with Susan James. He didn’t feel like talking to anyone and wanted to deal with his grief in his own way, and that wouldn’t happen until he dealt with Ella Gaines. Right now he was dealing with an irate, formidable woman who had her hands on her hips and glared at him as he sat in the chair.
 
Chris shook his head as he looked at the woman standing beside the bed and knew this was what true grit was. Nettie Wells was not going to take no for an answer, and right now she was a lot stronger than he was. She insisted that he stay at her home, under her care, yet he could not face being a burden to her.
 
“Nettie...”
 
“Chris, unless the next words out of your mouth are ‘thank you, Nettie, I’d be glad to stay at your place’ I don’t want to hear it! I’m not taking no for an answer and that’s final!”
 
“Nettie...” Larabee couldn’t help smiling as she stood before him, her stance reminding him of Sarah when she was upset with him.
 
“That’s not what I want to hear!”
 
“Thank you, Nettie, I’d be glad to stay at your place,” the blond acquiesced and smiled as she hugged him close.
 
“Can we come in now?” Dunne asked from the door.
 
“Yes, JD, you boys can come in. Chris and I have come to an understanding!”
 
“So, you’ll be staying with Nettie?” Jackson asked.
 
“Yeah...looks like I have no choice. Is Dr. Midland out there?”
 
“She said to tell you she’ll be right in with your discharge papers. Did Dr. Bledsoe go over everything you need to do?” Jackson asked.
 
“He came by earlier and gave me verbal instructions...Midland is supposed to have everything written out for me. Where are my clothes?” he asked and frowned as he realized he had nothing except the clothing he’d worn to the funeral, and after the run in with Hank Connolly even that wasn’t of much use. The medical staff had cut it from his body when he was brought back in.
 
“Right here, Chris,” Wilmington said, stepping up to the bed and smiling thinly at his long time friend. In his hand was a wrapped package and Chris met the sorrowful blue eyes.
 
“Thanks, Buck,” Larabee said, knowing this man felt the grief right to his very core. Taking a deep breath, he ignored the pain of his injured ribs and embraced his friend, fighting the tears as Wilmington returned the gesture. They broke apart quickly and Chris tried to regain control of his own emotions.
 
“Anytime, Chris. You need anything...I’m there...don’t ever forget that.”
 
“I won’t, Buck,” Larabee said as Midland entered the room.
 
“All right, Chris, I see you’re ready to go. Who are you staying with?” the physician asked.
 
“He’ll be staying at my place,” Wells declared and knew she’d have all the help she needed to make sure her nephew in law did everything he was supposed to do.
 
“Very good. Okay, Chris I know Dr. Bledsoe went over everything with you, but I’ve written everything out and I also have a prescription you need to get filled...”
 
“I’ll take care of that, Doc,” Jackson said, reaching for the prescription paper.
 
“Get it filled right away, Nathan. Chris, it’s a pain reliever and I want you to take them according to Dr. Bledsoe’s orders. Now, we’ve made arrangements with the home care to have a nurse visit you at Mrs. Wells’ place three times a day. She’ll give you the antibiotics and also check the dressing on the burns.”
 
“Thanks, Doc,” Larabee told her.
 
“Chris, it’s important that you keep those burns clean and do everything the nurse tells you. Dr. Bledsoe is very pleased with how well they’re healing and we don’t want to see you have any setbacks. Understood?”
 
“Yes,” the blond answered.
 
“Good. Nathan, here are his discharge papers and follow up instructions. Chris I want to see you in my office in one week. Your appointment is already booked for next Friday at ten AM.”
 
“I’ll make sure he’s there, Dr. Midland,” Nettie said and smiled at the chagrined look on the injured man’s face.
 
“Very well, Chris rest, eat, and take it easy. When you’re ready to talk Susan James has an open appointment for you.”
 
“She can cancel it!” Larabee spat.
 
“Easy, Chris, she only wants to help,” Sanchez soothed.
 
“I don’t need her help! I don’t need to talk to anyone! I can deal with this on my own!”
 
“Chris, we both know that’s not true,” Nettie told him as he stood up. “We all need people to help us especially at a time like this. Susan James is just giving you the option if and when you feel like talking to her. Now why don’t I take everyone out of the room and let you get dressed?”
 
Larabee nodded and took a deep breath as he sat on the edge of the bed. He watched as the others left, leaving only Sanchez and Jackson standing in the room with him.
 
“Are you ready to get dressed?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Hell yeah,” the blond answered and accepted the help of the two men. The clothes Wilmington supplied were soft and comfortable, a dark green tracksuit with short sleeves and a v-neck. It was a size too big and easily accommodated the bulking dressings covering the burns. A soft pair of moccasins completed the outfit and Larabee slid off the edge of the bed.
 
“You look better,” Sanchez said.
 
“Anyone looks better once they get rid of those hospital gowns,” Larabee told him, smiling as the two men watched him.
 
“I’ll let the orderly know you’re ready for your ride,” Jackson said.
 
“I can...”
 
“Hospital policy, remember?” the medic asked as he hurried out the door. It wasn’t long before Chris found himself seated next to Nettie Wells in The Firm’s club van. He knew Sarah’s aunt would work overtime to make him comfortable, but the little house held so many memories of Sarah that he wasn’t sure he could handle being there. When she spoke he wondered if she’d been reading his mind.
 
“We’ll deal with the memories together, Chris, and if there’s anything we can’t deal with we’ll put it away until that time comes. You’re not alone and never will be.”
 
“Thanks, Nettie,” he said, reaching out and covering her hand with his own as Sanchez pulled out of the driveway.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie sat next to the bed housing the still unconscious body of Vin Tanner. His temperature was down and the cooling blanket had been removed, but there was still no sign of the Texan waking up. She reached for the strong hot coffee on the table, ignoring the untouched plate of food beside it as she sipped the drink. Her appetite was never good, and was even worse when she was upset or anxious. Right now she was both as she replaced the coffee and reached her hand out to touch Tanner’s right cheek. He still felt warm, but not the burning heat she remembered from the clearing at the hotel.
 
“Tex, we’re going to have a talk when you wake up. I’m not one for talking about how I feel, but right now I feel like I’m going to fall apart. I’m not gonna say I love you, but I do know I feel something a whole lot stronger than friendship right now. I hate waiting and have never been a patient woman...but this has gone on long enough. It’s about damn time you opened those blue eyes and showed me you’re okay. Come on, Vin, we’ve been through too much together to see you lose it all now. Selena Faraday...she’s the new DEA director down here, came out to see me yesterday...no the day before. Hell I don’t know...don’t even know what day it is or if I’m coming or going anymore. All I know is that if you give up then Mendoza wins again and that’s something I’m not ready to see. It looks like the doctors are coming back in and that means I’ll be kicked out again while they check you out. But I won’t go far, Tex, because I’m going to keep talking to you until you open those eyes and tell me to shut up,” Maynard vowed and stood up as the two men entered the room. She leaned over the bed and placed a chaste kiss on his forehead before hurrying from the room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Did you find out anything?” Ella asked as Royal joined her beside the pool.
 
“He’s out of the hospital...”
 
“Yes!” Gaines said excitedly as she wrapped her arms around the older man. “Where is he staying and when can we pick him up?”
 
“We don’t know where he’s staying, but I had Sanchez followed. My men will contact me as soon as he reaches his destination.”
 
“I can’t wait until I’m with him again, Guy. How much longer?”
 
“Robert is putting the final touches on the cell...”
 
“I don’t want it called a cell. I want it called our bedroom,” Ella pouted.
 
“Bedroom. He needs a couple of more days before everything is prepared. You do realize that until Larabee accepts your love we’ll have to keep him manacled?”
 
“I know...but it won’t be for long. As soon as Chris admits he loves me as much as I love him then we’ll be leaving Billings and starting our new life together.”
 
“You’ll still have room in your life for your old friends though, won’t you Ella?”
 
“Of course, Guy. How could I forget about you, and Robert, and Jack. You’re giving me everything I’ve ever dreamed of and I’ll be forever indebted to all of you. Would you like a drink?”
 
“There’s something I’d rather have more than a drink, Ella,” Royal told her and smiled as she reached for his hand and led him towards the house.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
He knew where they were now and it was only a matter of time before he taught Ella Gaines a lesson she would not soon forget. The warehouse would be the perfect place and he watched as Averil and Spikes continued to supervise the remodelling of the single room. He’d watched the men, searching for anything suspicious and had easily found out who owned the building he was hiding in. It wouldn’t take much to bring it down around the woman and her friends, but first he wanted to observe Ella Gaines and her lovers. He wanted to make her sorry she’d ever crossed him, but he would not kill her, after all, she did pay him.
 
“Powderman has got a plan, doo-da. Ella Gaines receives a reprimand,  oh-de-doo-da-day.” The words were whispered and unheard by the men moving about below him. Revenge would be his...it was only a matter of time.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~ 
 
Chris watched the street as Sanchez drove towards the Wells’ home and was glad when they finally turned into the yard. He’d asked where Ezra was, and had been told the gambler was meeting with his tailor. The blond thought nothing of it, but frowned when he saw the conman’s car parked in the front yard. Unconsciously he rubbed at his chest unaware of the concerned glances turned his way.
 
“Chris, are you okay?”
 
Larabee turned and smiled weakly at the woman sitting beside him. He knew she was not just asking about his physical injuries, but the emotional scars as well. The last time he’d been to the Wells’ house, Sarah and Adam had been with him. He nodded reassuringly, hoping to ease the worry on his friend’s faces as the car pulled to a stop in front of the house. Jackson opened the front door and moved to open the side panel, before Larabee had a chance to move.
 
“Alright, Chris, lets get you inside,” the medic in training said and stood back to let his friend climb out. He stood close in case he was needed, but Larabee tentatively exited the van and leaned wearily against the passenger side as the others joined them on the ground.
 
Chris pushed away from the vehicle and smiled inwardly as his friends seemed to form a protective circle around him as they headed towards the house. He walked slowly inside and trembled as the familiar furnishings brought home the fact that his own home was gone, destroyed along with his heart and soul. Weakened by pain and loss he let his anger take hold and cried out as he spotted the picture hanging just inside the living room.
 
“God! WHY? Why did you take them!” he screamed, painfully aware of the others watching him.
 
“Chris...”
 
“No, Buck! Don’t say it! I’m fucking tired of hearing how God had his reasons! How could he let an innocent child and his mother burn to death?” How could he take my baby...my baby! God I’ll never see her! Never hear her laughter or see what she looked like! Never hold any of them in my fucking arms again!”
 
“Chris,” Nettie said, moving towards her nephew in law and taking his hands in her own. “Listen to me, Son. I know you miss them...”
 
“I do, Nettie,” the blond cried, tears evident in his pain glazed green eyes. “I...I miss them so much...it’s not fair...we...we were gonna have a ba...baby. Adam’s birthday wish...we promised him a br...brother or sister and now it’s all gone! God, Buck...you were there w...when I promised to take care of her...keep them safe...love them...but I failed...I didn’t do what I told her I would!” Larabee said, his body trembling with the force of his sobs as the older woman clung to him.
 
Nettie looked up to see Wilmington reach for his friend and she moved away as he took her place. He held his long time friend, ignoring the throbbing pain in his shoulder as he supported the grief stricken man towards the spare bedroom. He nodded to Ezra Standish and Casey Wells as he passed them and entered the moderately furnished bedroom. Buck knew Larabee was just about out on his feet, but he could also tell the man was in serious physical and mental pain.
 
“Come on, Pard, let’s get you into bed...”
 
“I l...lost them, Buck...I lost them...”
 
“I know, Chris, but Sarah wouldn’t want you beating yourself up over this. What happened was not your fault and she knows that!” He eased Larabee down on the bed and sat beside him, waiting for his friend to speak again.
 
“I can’t believe they’re gone, Buck...can’t face waking up e...every day knowing they’re not there...can’t face the years of lo...loneliness.”
 
“Chris, don’t talk like that...you’re scaring me, Pard,” Wilmington said, truly afraid of his friend’s words. Pulling his friends head down on his shoulder as more sobs left the trembling body, Buck Wilmington was scared of what Larabee might do. He looked up as Jackson entered, a glass of water in one hand and several pills in the other. Their eyes met and the gentle rogue knew the medic in training overheard the tail end of the conversation. A silent vow passed between them and they knew they’d do whatever was necessary to help Larabee face his loss and hopefully overcome it.
 
“Chris...”
 
“Hmm,” the blond mumbled tired, his mind and body drained of strength.
 
“Nathan’s got your meds and then we’ll get you in bed, okay?”
 
“Okay...thanks, Buck. Always here for me,” Larabee whispered as his friend supported him.
 
“Here, Chris,” Jackson said, placing the small paper cup in Larabee’s hand.
 
Chris looked at the pills in the cup and recognized the pain meds. He shifted his body, painfully aware of Jackson and Wilmington watching him. He tipped the cup to his lips and accepted the glass of water and chased the pills down with it. He sat there, his body and mind numbed with grief as he tried to understand why his life had been turned upside down and twisted inside out.
 
“Chris, lets get you out of those clothes and make you comfortable,” Jackson suggested and watched as trembling fingers reached up to take off the shirt. The soft moan warned him that Larabee needed help and without a word he watched as Wilmington stood up and eased the shirt from the lean body. He knew Larabee had lost weight, and hoped they could get him eating properly before things grew worse.
 
Buck reached for the soft, mint green, pajama top lying across the bed and made a mental note to thank the conman. He knew there was more clothing in the closet and dresser drawers, and every article was paid for by Ezra Standish.
 
“W...where did this c...come from?” Larabee asked tiredly, his fingers clutching at the material.
 
“Never mind that for now, Chris,” Wilmington told him. “Think you can stand up for a minute?”
 
“Think so,” Larabee answered and stood on shaky legs as the ladies’ man eased the pants down over his hips. It didn’t take long for the two men to get him into the pajama bottoms and pull back the blankets. Chris felt the exhaustion and pain meds pulling him towards sleep as Wilmington pulled the blankets up over him. His eyes closed, snapping open again as he looked frantically around the room.
 
“What’s wrong, Chris?” Jackson asked worriedly.
 
“W...where are they?”
 
“What...”
 
“Adam’s things! Did she...did she take them?” Larabee asked, eyes wide and searching as he tried to get up.
 
“Easy, Pard, nobody took them. They’re probably in the van. Just lie still and I’ll get them, okay?”
 
Larabee nodded and lay back against the pillows as Wilmington left the room. He knew he was being ridiculous, but he needed Adam’s belongings with him, needed to hold onto something tangible to get through the pain strangling his heart. He closed his eyes picturing the last time he’d seen his wife and son. They’d waved goodbye, Sarah’s hand resting on her stomach as if she could feel the new life growing inside her. He had no idea how much time passed, but opened his eyes when he heard footsteps hurrying into the room.
 
“Here they are, Chris,” Wilmington said, placing the horse on the pillow beside Larabee’s sweat soaked head, and tucking the small blanket around him as the green eyes met his. He saw the gratitude in the sad green eyes and instinctively brushed at the blond hair. “You go ahead and sleep, Chris, I’ll be here when you wake up.”
 
“O...okay...thanks, Buck. C...call Travis and ask if h...he’s h...heard any...thing new on V...Vin. Need...need him home.”
 
“I know, ol’ son, we all do,” the ladies man said, regret and sorrow evident in his words. At some point in time Vin Tanner had taken his place as Larabee’s right hand man. As long as the Texan did nothing to hurt the blond, Wilmington would take a back seat for now. Should the Tracker hurt Larabee, physically or mentally, he would find one angry foe in Buck Wilmington. He pulled the comfortable armchair closer to the bed and sank down into the unfamiliar softness. Sitting there, he took a deep breath and watched as Larabee’s eyes closed and his breathing evened out. So engrossed in watching over the injured man, Buck didn’t notice Nathan leave, or hear him return with a tray.
 
“Buck, JD and Casey made lunch...”
 
“I’m not hungry right now, Nathan,” Wilmington said, his gut churning as he thought of the suffering caused by Ella Gaines.
 
“Try and eat something...he’ll need you strong.”
 
“Did you hear what he said Nathan?”
 
“I heard him, Buck.”
 
“Do you think he meant what it sounded like?” the ladies man asked worriedly.
 
“There may be some truth in what he said, Buck. Grief has a way of eating at a man and I think it’s important we convince him to talk to Susan James. We’re going to have to watch him and make sure it was only sorrow talking...he’s a strong man, but I‘ve seen strong men brought to their knees over less than this.”
 
“I don’t think we have to worry about him doing anything like that yet.”
 
“What makes you so sure?”
 
“I’ve seen that look in Chris’ eyes before. I know how to read it and right now Chris is a man with a mission. He’s not gonna stop until he finds and deals with the murderer. We need to make damn sure he’s not alone when he starts the hunt.”
 
“You think he’ll go after Ella Gaines alone?” Jackson asked as he passed the mustahced man a plate with a roast beef sandwich.
 
“Wouldn’t you if you this happened to you? I know I would be out there as soon as I could and I’d make damn sure she paid the ultimate price.”
 
“Yeah,” the medic in training whispered as he looked at the sleeping blond. “Yeah, I guess I would.”
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ella languished in the water, her arms stretching out as she swam the length of the pool. She’d made love with Guy Royal, but it did nothing to satisfy her, leaving her empty and frustrated when the man stood up and left the room. She knew the problem was not her lovers, but her own body’s need for the one man who could bring her complete and wild abandonment. A lover who, with just a touch...or a look could send shivers of desire down her spine. None of these men could ever do that for her, oh they could bring her to climax, but again it was nothing like the wild rides she had with Bareback Larabee. She smiled as again she remembered the time on horseback...just the two of them...rain...an umbrella...naked...and in love.
 
‘Oh, Chris, I never should have let you go. I should have hung on to you and proved how much I love you. So many years wasted, but soon we’ll be in each others’ arms once more and I’ll be able to show you we were meant to be together,’ she thought as she continued to swim the lengths of the pool. She heard someone calling and lifted her head to look at the older man.
 
“Ella, my men just called in. I know where Larabee is staying?” Royal told her.
 
“Where?” she asked, swimming to the side of the pool and leaning on the ledge. 
 
“The sign on the mailbox says Wells. I checked the net file we have on Sarah Larabee and the woman is her aunt.”
 
“Now we just need to wait until they let down on their guard a little more and then we get Chris to come to us,” Ella said, smiling as an idea began to form. 
 
“What do you have in mind, Ella?”
 
“I think I’ll call Chris and invite him to a private party. Tell him I know who killed Sarah and Adam.”
 
“You wouldn’t?”
 
“Why not. I mean if Chris thinks I’m trying to help him he’ll love me even more. This way he gets Powderman and makes it look like he really cared about that bitch and her whelp. His friends will know how much we really love each other and leave us alone!”
 
“Ella, honey, listen to me. Powderman is not someone you want to cross. Hell, we don’t even know who he is and somehow I don’t think he’s a forgiving man. I think he’s going to make us all pay for delaying his payment.”
 
“Don’t remind me of that,” Ella spat as she climbed out of the pool, water dripping from her nude body. “I’m still angry that you, Jack, and Robert were so insistent on me paying him when he fucked up the job he was hired for.”
 
“Be glad we did, Ella, I’ve heard stories about other clients who refused to pay. Oh, he never killed any of them, but I know one man who’s missing several fingers on his right hand, as a result of a precision explosive in a gift from Powderman. Another man will never see out of his right eye. I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Don’t do anything to antagonize this man any further or we all could end up on the losing end of a bomb.”
 
“I’ll do as you ask for now, Guy, but if he fucks with me he’ll find an explosive he’s never heard of,” Ella said as the older man reached for her. She pushed his hands away and walked towards the door to the house. “Don’t touch me right now...I’m not in the mood.”
 
Royal watched the raven-haired beauty as she headed towards the house. What was it about her that set his loins on fire and kept him enthralled with her body? He’d never married, not after meeting Ella Gaines. Something about the bewitching seductress made the other lovers he’d taken pale in comparison and left him with a stale taste in his mouth. He knew, no matter what she asked of him, he would do it, willingly and accept whatever she threw his way. Sighing heavily he reached for the whiskey decanter and pour himself a hefty shot. Downing the fiery liquid, he gasped and smacked his lips before placing the glass back on the table in frustration.
 
“You’re a fucking fool, Larabee!” he spat as he thought of the blond haired man.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin could hear unfamiliar voices and wondered why they sounded so worried and tired. His mind was trapped in a thick layer of fog that refused to lift. A heavy weight bore down on his chest, making every breath a struggle. Cool mist entered his mouth and nose through something that covered the lower half of his face, yet he couldn’t remember what it was. He tried hard to reach the surface, stumbling through thick layers of fog, but each time the greyness began to brighten he slipped back into the deeper reaches of unconsciousness, where pain didn’t reach.
 
“Jesus, Vin, you’re scaring me,” Maynard said, running her fingers through her still damp hair. Jane Murdoch had finally convinced her to leave the injured man’s side and take a shower. She knew she smelled ripe, but was terrified of what she’d find if she left the Texan. Now she was sitting beside his bed once more, angry and frustrated by the lack of response from the patient. Several times she was sure he was coming round, only to watch as he drifted away once more. She knew Reardon and Murdoch were getting worried about the head injury and fever, but she also knew her lover would not, could not die. She needed him to pull through so that their frantic flight through the jungle would not be for nothing. Sighing heavily, Jackie did something she hadn’t done since before her brother was murdered, Jackie Maynard wept and prayed.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Nettie finished peeling the apples for the pies and opened the oven door. She pulled the golden brown shells out and placed them on the counter. The pies were a favorite of her nephew and she wanted to make sure there was something that might entice him to eat. His appetite was almost nil and she could tell he’d lost more weight than was healthy for a man his height. She completed the pies, adding a touch of brown sugar, cinnamon, and a pinch of cloves. She topped the pie with strips of pastry before placing them back in the oven.
 
“Aunt Nettie, are you okay?” Casey asked, knowing her aunt always baked when she was troubled.
 
“I’m fine, Child. I just wanted to get these pies in the oven. Where is everyone?”
 
“Josiah and JD left half an hour ago. Ezra and Nathan are out back and Buck is still in with Chris,” the younger woman explained as she began to clean up the kitchen.
 
“I can do it, Casey.”

”I know you can, but you made the pies, so I’ll clean up. Why don’t you try and get some rest?”
 
“I need to get dinner started.”
 
“No, Josiah and JD are picking something up at Delvechio’s. I told them to make it something light.”
 
“They didn’t have...have to...”
 
Casey moved to her aunt as the woman began to cry, soft sobs that left her trembling and pale. She steered her towards one of the kitchen chairs beside the drop leaf table and made her sit down. She watched as Nettie lifted her apron and wiped at her eyes, leaving thin trials of flower on both cheeks. She pulled her close, her own tears falling as he aunt released the grief she’d kept bottled up since Sarah and Adam died.
 
“It’s not fair, Casey... they did...didn’t deserve this...Sarah and Adam...and the baby all gone...” she sniffed, the words coming in hiccuping groups as she cried against her niece’s shoulder.
 
“I know, Aunt Nettie,” Casey soothed, fighting to be strong for them both.
 
“That sweet little boy...so innocent...so fu...full of life...I hear his laughter e...everytime I go into the back yard. I see his smiling face...it isn’t right that he’s gone...that he’ll never know the joys of a full life.” She continued to cry, letting her niece hold her as some of the pain was washed away with the tears, but nothing would ever take it all away. She pulled back from the younger woman and smiled thinly as she wiped the evidence of moisture from her face.
 
“Are you okay now?”
 
“No, Honey, I don’t think I’ll ever be okay again, but we all need to be strong.” She placed her hand against Casey’s cheek and turned towards the living room and the hallway beyond. “That man sleeping back there needs us all to be strong for him. He’s going through hell right now and it’s only going to get worse before it gets better. I remember when Bill died...I thought my whole world would fall apart, but it didn’t...I got through it with Sheila’s help. It took a long time before I could even walk into our room and look at his things, but I did it and being able to pack them away was like putting a lid on our lives. It didn’t mean I’d forget everything we had together, but at least I knew I had some of his things to hang on to. Everything Chris had was destroyed in that explosion and I don’t know if anything will help him live with that.”
 
Casey continued to kneel before her and looked up into the face, aged beyond her years with grief. She knew how hard this was on the older woman and wanted to ease some of the pain and lighten the woman’s load. “Aunt Nettie, we have a lot of things here that Chris could have. I mean we have that album of their wedding and Adam’s birth. We have home videos and scrap books...we have some of Adam’s toys lying around. We could gather it all together and put them in storage until Chris is ready to see them.”
 
“Oh, Honey, that’s a wonderful idea,” Nettie said, standing and walking to the oven to make sure the temperature was right. She’d been thinking about the same idea, but having her niece voice her thoughts made her realize it was something she needed to do. Not only for her peace of mind, but for the sake of the man in her spare bedroom.
 
“I’ll watch them for you, Aunt Nettie,” Casey said.
 
“Thank you, Casey. They should be fine for another half hour. I’m going to check on Chris and then I’m going to lie down for a while. You wake me when the others get back,” Nettie said as she left the kitchen and made her way towards the spare bedroom. She opened the door and smiled at the sight before her. Chris was lying on his right side facing her, his eyes were closed and the blanket was clutched in his fingers. Buck sat in the chair, his boots beside him, feet on the bed, arms folded across his chest, head back and eyes closed. She knew he was asleep and reached for the green and white checked afghan lying at the foot of the bed. Without a word she covered the gentle rogue and smiled as he muttered something before settling back to sleep. She moved to the bed and sat on the edge, careful not to disturb Chris as she studied the pale face. Adam was a handsome boy, and he’d looked so much like his father. The same soft blond hair, green eyes and she knew he would always remind her of her great nephew. Without a word she leaned down and kissed his forehead before standing and hurrying from the room as a steady flow of tears ran from her eyes.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~ 
 
Rory Murdoch stood in the doorway and watched as the younger physician tended the wounds to Tanner’s body. With each passing day his admiration for Gary Reardon increased and he knew the Texan was in good hands. Several times he had to leave the house to tend to his other patients, but at least he didn’t have to worry about not being here if something happened.
 
“How is he doing?” the older man asked, moving towards the opposite side of the bed.
 
“His readings are better and his temperature is down. I just wish he’d wake up.”
 
“He will, Gary, it’s just a matter of time.”
 
“Yes, I know, but when he does wake up what are we going to find?”
 
“You mean brain damage wise?”
 
“Exactly. He’s been through the ringer and when he does wake up he’s going to have a hard time moving around. Between the injuries, dehydration, and fever he’s weaker than a day old calf.”
 
“I haven’t heard that expression since I left Houston.”
 
“You’re from Texas?” Reardon asked in disbelief.
 
“No, just lived there for a year or so,” Murdoch answered, as he helped Reardon with the bandage covering the wound to Tanner’s shoulder.
 
“Well, this looks a little better,” the younger man observed.
 
“It certainly does...you done a damn good job of cleaning it.”
 
“Don’t give me all the credit, Rory. If it wasn’t for you I’d probably still be working on him. Have you ever seen so damn many cuts and bruises?”
 
“Yes, but they were on a dead man and Tanner’s far from dead. What else have you got to do?” Murdoch asked as they covered the wound with a sterile dressing.
 
“This is the last one. How was your patient?”
 
“She’ll be fine, but she won’t be carrying anything heavy for a while.”
 
“Good. Okay, that’s it,” Reardon said, stretching and smiling as his back cracked.
 
“What say I buy you a cup of Jane’s coffee?”
 
“Sounds like a plan, Rory. Is Jackie still with Selena?”
 
“Yes, they are on the back patio, Maynard doesn’t seem too pleased.”
 
“Can you blame her? I hate being grilled at the best of times and I warned Selena that if I think Jackie’s had enough I’ll put a stop to it.”
 
“Has she slept any?”
 
“No, but she will,” Reardon assured him, smiling innocently at the other man.
 
“Gary, I do believe you’re a man after my own heart. So, when are you going to slip her the sleeping pill?”
 
“As soon as she’s finished with Selena.”
 
“She’ll be pissed.”
 
“Probably, but it’s for her own good...and ours as well. She’s wiped and we don’t need another patient on our hands again.”
 
“Very, true, come on, let’s go get that coffee and see if Jane’s made any of her special macadamia nut cookies.”
 
“Sounds good to me,” Reardon said, checking his patient once more before leaving the room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie did not want to be doing this now. Her body ached and she found it hard to focus on the questions Faraday was sending her way. She wanted nothing more than to go back into Tanner’s room and sit with him until he opened his eyes, but that was not to be. Again and again the questions were thrown out until she answered in an angry tone that left no doubt about her state of mind.
 
“Look, Jackie, I know you’re tired, but we need to know exactly what happened. Mendoza’s associates are up in arms about his death and we need to be able to piece together how you and Vin came across the compound and what facilitated you guys moving in without backup,” Faraday explained for what felt like the thousandth time.
 
“I’ve told you over and over what happened, Selena! I didn’t trust that sonofabitch Barker and I wasn’t about to ask him for anything once Vin verified it was Mendoza at the compound. Then Vin contacted his friend in Billings...”
 
“What friend?” Murray asked again.
 
“Chris Larabee! Jesus, I’ve answered these fucking questions over and over! Larabee confirmed my suspicions about Barker and we knew we had to keep him out of it. There was no one here we could trust and neither Vin nor I were ready to let Mendoza escape. Larabee was going to get in contact with the DEA in Billings and see what he could do from that end.”
 
“So why didn’t you wait until he got back to you?” Selena asked.
 
“Because we lost the phones. Jesus, look, we’ve been through all this. We found the compound, lost the phones and when we went in to check the place out and see if we could get Mendoza, Vin was captured. I escaped into the jungle and managed to evade capture until I came across one of Mendoza’s men driving a jeep. I managed to knock him out and tie him up...for all I know he’s still out there...”
 
“Actually, no, I believe we found him...but you didn’t mention anything about slitting his throat,” Murray told her.
 
Maynard’s head came up and she glared angrily at the man leaning against the table. “I didn’t slit his throat!”
 
“Then how do you explain it?”
 
“Maybe Mendoza was angry at him for being caught or maybe one of the other drug lords decided to make an example of him. I don’t know and I don’t give a fuck! I did what needed to be done, but that bastard was alive when I left him!”
 
“I believe you, Jackie,” Faraday told her, turning an irate gaze on her husband before returning her attention to the matter at hand. “What happened after you took the jeep?”
 
“I drove back towards the compound and hid until I thought I could get to the compound without being spotted. I made it there and the rain seemed to make Mendoza’s soldiers careless because even the guards had taken cover from the storm. I searched the area and found Tanner in the ground...a hole...and it was filling with water. I got the gate opened and Vin managed to climb out, but he’d been beaten pretty badly and his arm was nearly useless.” She rubbed her arms, feeling a chill in spite of the warmth of the day. She looked at Faraday as the woman handed her a cup of coffee. “Thanks.”
 
“You’re welcome,” the older woman told her.
 
Taking a deep breath, Jackie continued with her story once more. “I wanted to leave, but Vin was insistent about getting Mendoza and taking him with us. We used the storm as cover and went into his house and found him sleeping. It didn’t take much to tie him up, take a few supplies and leave.”
 
“But how was the compound destroyed?” Murray asked, arms folded across his chest as he watched the young woman carefully. He could see the lines of strain and exhaustion on her face, but knew this needed to be done before they could move on.
 
“We planted explosives.” She smiled at the two people. “From Mendoza’s own weapons’ cache and frankly that’s how we escaped. We made it to the jeep and got the hell out of there, but there wasn’t much gas and we didn’t get that far. By the time we stopped Vin was really hurting, but that man doesn’t know when to quit. We were able to find a place to hold up for the night... stayed there a couple of days because we were both exhausted. Once Vin was ready we started walking...don’t know for how long...don’t remember half the shit we ran into, but we made it to the river and were stopped for the night when he heard something. Someone shot at us and Vin lived up to his sharpshooter reputation. He made two shots I didn’t think anyone could make. I told him to stay with Mendoza while I checked out the area across the river in case there were others. While I was gone Mendoza escaped and by the time I got there him and Vin were fighting with a knife.”
 
“How do you know Tanner didn’t cut him loose and then try to kill him to make it look good? Maybe Tanner was part of Mendoza’s cartel?”
 
Jackie rounded on the big man, eyes flashing daggers of ice as her anger grew. “Don’t you fucking say that about him! You weren’t there and you didn’t see how hard he fought to get Mendoza away from the compound! If he was part of the cartel then he damn well did a hell of an acting job, but believe me no one and I mean no one is that good of an actor. Vin Tanner did what he had to do to complete our mission and you damn well better shut up before you regret every word you...”
 
“Easy, Jackie, Joe was just trying to go over every possibility. He’s doing his job.”
 
“Well he’s doing a piss poor job of it! I thought we were all on the same side!”
 
“We are,” Murray said, letting the tension ease from his body as he moved towards the exhausted woman. “I’m sorry, we just needed to make sure that everything was on the up and up. This is a foreign country and we’re here at the request of their government to help get rid of the drug cartels. They’ve got just as much stake in this as we do, and I’d hate to see you and Tanner stuck here because of red tape. The faster it’s cleared up, the faster we can get you two back home where you belong.”
 
“Hell of a...”
 
“Jackie,” Faraday interrupted, smiling as she looked into the woman’s red-rimmed eyes. “That’s all for now and I’m hopeful we won’t have to go over it again. I’ve taped our conversation and will make sure it gets to the right people. Why don’t you go back in with Tanner and if we need anything else we’ll come get you.”
 
“Okay...he’s...he’s going to be alright you know...Vin’s a fighter.”
 
“I know...you both are,” Faraday said, watching as the woman stood and walked shakily towards the door.
 
“That’s one brave lady!”
 
“Yes, Joe, she is and she’s been through hell the last few months. I’d hate to see what would happen if Tanner doesn’t make it.”
 
“Well, according to her he’s a fighter and you know I don’t think she’ll let him go without a fight.”
 
“I hope so. Come on, it’s time we cleared the air with the government and came up with a plan to get them stateside.” With that the duo walked through the house, telling Murdoch and Reardon to call if they needed anything.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Maynard moved quickly inside and spotted the cell phone on the oak coffee table. She knew Travis’ phone number was keyed in and quickly hit the proper button, waiting for the call to go through as she listened to it ring on the other end, surprised when it was picked up by Travis himself.
 
“Travis!”
 
“It’s Maynard.”
 
“Hello, Jackie, how are you?”
 
“I’m okay. Just got through talking to Faraday. She’s working on getting us home once Vin is able to travel.”
 
“Good, we’re also working on it from this end. Once we know what’s happening we’ll send the agency’s private jet to pick you up.”
 
“Private jet,” she smiled at the thought. “Going home in style.”
 
“Yes, well, I certainly hope so. How is Vin? Any change?”
 
“The docs keep saying his numbers are better, but he still hasn’t regained consciousness. They’re doing all they can for him.”
 
“I know...both Reardon and Murdoch have excellent reputations and credentials.”
 
“I sure as hell hope so. How’s Larabee?”
 
“He’s out of the hospital and staying at a friend’s place.”
 
“So he’s okay? I want to be able to tell Vin when he does wake up.”
 
“Just tell Vin he’s doing okay.”
 
“That doesn’t sound good. He’ll want to know more.”
 
“Yes, I know, but for right now tell him Chris is doing better. Okay?”
 
“All right, but if he wants more answers I’ll be calling you,” she warned.
 
“I understand, and thank you for calling me with the update, Jackie.”
 
“You’re welcome, I just wish I had better news for you.”
 
“So do I, but at least it wasn’t worse.”
 
“True, look I have to go. I’m going to sit with him for a while.”
 
“You sound like you should get some rest.”
 
“That’s what they keep telling me, but I’m okay right now. I’ll call you later if anything changes.”
 
“Thank you, Jackie.”
 
Jackie took a deep breath, turned off the phone and entered Tanner’s room once more. Nothing had changed, the monitors still clicked and beeped, the IV’s flowed into his arms, the heavily bruised chest rose and fell, a welcome sign that the man was still with them. She moved forward once more and sat in the chair, leaning her head back and closing her eyes as a wave of exhaustion washed over her. Without a word she reached for the tracker’s hand and placed a kiss on top, before running her fingers along the strong jaw, a ritual she performed every time she entered the room.
 
“You’re doing this on purpose aren’t you Tex? This whole sleeping thing needs to be revisited because I’m not facing those two piranhas on my own again. I know they were just doing their job, but grilling a person until they’re char broiled is a little much. I feel like I’ve been scorched... but that’s okay, because at least it over now. I called that guy Travis and updated him on your condition. He told me your friends are chomping at the bit to come down here, but right now with everything going on they can’t because of the uproar over Mendoza’s death.” She rubbed at her eyes and blinked rapidly in an effort to ease the burning sensation.
 
“He told me about your friend Larabee. He got out of the hospital today, or is it yesterday. Hell I’m still screwed up in my timing. I asked Travis what happened and he said he couldn’t go into details right now, but that you were needed home as soon as possible. Hell it doesn’t look like you’ll be ready to travel anytime soon.” She continued to talk, but closed her eyes, resting them for a few minutes.
 
Vin languished in a sea of calm, listening to the soft tired voice, but not understanding the words until one name cut through. ‘Larabee,’ he thought, and knew something was wrong, something he couldn’t quite place. He struggled past the calm and struggled through the ocean of pain until his body trembled and his eyes finally opened. The unfamiliar surroundings made him frown and he looked to the right, smiling as he caught site of the pretty blond sitting in the chair. He tried to speak, but the words would not form as he searched for enough moisture to voice his thoughts.
 
“J...Jackie...” he rasped and watched as her eyes shot open and a smile formed on her pale face.
 
“Vin! Shit, you’re awake...you okay?” she knew she was asking too many questions at once, but she was excited at hearing the Texan’s voice, raspy or otherwise.
 
“No, n...need to k...know about Lar’bee,” the injured man said.
 
“There’ll be time enough for that later. Right now the doctors need to check you out.” She stood up and moved to the door shouting for the others as she did so. “Hey, Doc, he’s awake! Vin’s awake!”
 
“J...Jackie...C...Chris, what’s wrong w...with him?” Tanner asked when she turned back to him.
 
“I don’t know exactly, Vin, but he must be okay. Travis said he was out of the hospital.”
 
“Jackie, could you excuse us for a few minutes?” Reardon asked, moving to the opposite side of the bed as Murdoch replaced Maynard on Tanner’s right. “Hello, Vin, how do you feel?”
 
“D...don’t know,” the tracker answered, moaning softly as he moved his right arm.
 
“Easy now, Son, just lie still. My name is Rory Murdoch and that’s Gary Reardon. We’ve been looking after you since you were brought in.”
 
“T...thirsty,” Tanner rasped.
 
“I’ll have Jane bring some ice chips. I’d rather you didn’t have anything more until we see how your stomach reacts to that okay?” Murdoch called out to his wife and told her what he wanted and knew she’d bring it right away. He smiled at the young woman standing beside the door and knew she’d remain there until they finished checking her friend.
 
“N...never c...changes.”
 
“What never changes, Vin?”
 
“Hospital...ice c...chips,” the tracker mumbled and closed his eyes. 
 
“Vin, don’t go to sleep yet...we need to check a few things.”
 
“C...can’t sleep any...anyway?”
 
“Why not? Are you in pain?” Reardon asked.
 
“Y...yes...but n...not b...bad...need to know ‘bout Chris.”
 
“Chris?” Murdoch asked, frowning as he watched the patient closely.
 
“Muh, friend...he’s hurt.”
 
“The one back in the States?” Reardon asked.
 
“Yeah...Jackie s...said he w...was out o...of the hos...pital. N...need ta talk ta h...him.”
 
“No, Vin, you need to rest and let yourself heal. There’ll be time enough to call your friend when you’re stronger,” Reardon warned, listening to his patient’s lungs.
 
“No...now,” the tracker forced through clenched teeth as the physicians examined him.
 
“Vin, do you want the ice chips?” Murdoch asked as his wife entered the room. He smiled as the injured man nodded and opened his mouth to accept the offering.
 
Vin took several mouthfuls and watched as Reardon prepared a syringe and carefully injected something into his IV. “W...what was t...that?”
 
“Just a little something to help with the pain,” Reardon answered and watched the lids slowly close over the blue eyes. His worries for the young man’s health continued as he listened to the raspy quality of his breathing.
 
“Is he going to be okay?” Maynard asked tiredly.
 
“He should be, but he’s going to have to go slow and there’s probably going to be setbacks,’ Murdoch explained. “Now, I think it’s time you had some rest yourself.”
 
“I’m okay. I’ll just...”
 
“You’ll go get some rest, Jackie. Look, Vin woke up and that’s a major hurdle overcome, but he’s not out of the woods by any means. The medication I just gave him will probably keep him out for several hours and during that time you can catch up on your own sleep. Otherwise I’m sure I can find something that’ll help put you to sleep, and if I have to I’ll add it to your food or drink and sooner or later you’ll just pass out. Of course that means we won’t be able to wake you when Vin wakes up...”
 
“Shit!” Maynard interrupted, angered that the doctor was right. She felt terrible and with the relief came exhaustion beyond her wildest dreams. She felt her legs trembling and grabbed for the wall for support, smiling thinly as Reardon moved towards her and supported her weight as he led her towards her own room. He eased her down on the bed and covered her with the blankets as a heavy sigh left her throat. He knew she would be asleep before long and pulled down the blinds on the window before walking towards the door.
 
“Thank you,” Maynard mumbled as she snuggled into the comfort of the blankets.
 
“You’re welcome and try not to worry. We’ll call you when he wakes up,” the physician assured her as he closed the door and went back to his patient.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling overhead. He’d been awake for some time, but didn’t feel like talking and kept his eyes closed and his head turned away from the man in the chair. Buck Wilmington was a good man and an even better friend, but right now the gentle rogue was too much of a reminder of how much he’d lost. His dreams had been filled with happy times shared with his wife and his long time friend before Adam was born and the others came into their lives. His nightmares were filled with the horror of the explosion and the stolen lives. In those nightmares Ella Gaines’ face was interspersed with the real beauty of his wife’s and he killed the woman over and over in his dreams, only to wake up to the real nightmare. Ella was alive, his wife and son dead, and he swore vengeance even as the tears fell from his eyes.
 
Chris heard footsteps come into the room and knew there was no more hiding as a woman’s voice spoke to him.
 
“Mr. Larabee, I’m Dianna Muldare from Home Health Care and I’m going to hook up your antibiotics. Can I take a look at your heplock?”
 
“Guess so,” Larabee whispered as he shifted on the bed. He felt her take his left hand and check the site.
 
“I’m going to flush it to make sure it’s still working properly. This might pinch,” she warned.
 
“Chris, dinner is ready and Nettie wanted to know if she should bring yours in here or would you rather come out here?” Jackson asked upon entering the room.
 
Larabee wanted to be alone, but he knew that would only worry his friends and create more work for the older woman. Licking at dry lips he met the worried brown eyes.
 
“I’ll come out there.”
 
“Are you sure you’re up to it?”
 
“Yes, I am. How long until that’s finished?” Larabee asked the nurse as she finished hooking up the small bag.
 
“Not long, Mr. Larabee,” the woman said. “Why don’t I check the burns and listen to your chest while it’s running through?”
 
“Okay?” the blond said, reaching for the button on the pajama top.
 
“Let me do that for you,” Muldare suggested, smiling at her pale patient.
 
Chris closed his eyes and waited for her to finish her examination and heard her talking to Jackson. He felt every touch on his chest as she soothed the burns and gently changed the dressings. She listened to his chest and took his blood pressure and heard her tell Jackson that things looked good. Sighing heavily he waited for the antibiotics to finish up and for her to unhook him and recap the heplock.
 
“I’ll be back first thing in the morning, Mr. Larabee, but if you have any problems go to the ER.”
 
“I will...thank you,” he said and waited for her to leave.
 
“Are you sure you want to get up, Chris? I don’t mind bringing it in here,” Jackson said, eyeing the trembling body carefully. He could see the beads of sweat on the man’s forehead and knew Larabee was still hurting. Shaking his head at his stubborn friend, the medic in training moved to help him. Once the blond was on his feet, Jackson stood back, but still close enough to catch him if he fell.
 
“I’m okay, Nathan,” Larabee said as the man handed him a soft, pristine white, terry cloth bathrobe. “Where’d this stuff come from?”
 
“What stuff?”
 
“Don’t play games with me Nathan. Where did the pajamas and the robe come from?” the blond asked as he eased his arms into the sleeves and tied the belt.
 
“Sit down,” Jackson said and eased a pair of slipper onto the injured man’s feet.
 
“Nathan, you didn’t answer my question.”
 
“Well, Chris, let’s just say they are from an anonymous source.”
 
“Let’s not. Where did they come from?”
 
“All I can tell you is it wasn’t me. Now come on...everyone’s waiting,” the medic in training told him.
 
Chris knew he wouldn’t get an answer from Jackson as they walked slowly out of the bedroom. To say he was stiff and sore would be an understatement, but he was determined to show the others that he was okay and did not need them hovering. He stood in the homey kitchen, watching as his friends helped themselves to sandwiches and salads. He recognized the containers from Delvechio’s and realized he was actually hungry as he moved to the table and gingerly sat down.
 
“What can I get you, Chris,” Nettie asked as Sanchez placed a cup of steaming black coffee in front of the blond.
 
“Thanks, Josiah,” Larabee said and smiled weakly at the older woman. “Just a bowl of soup, thanks, Nettie.”
 
“Are you sure? Josiah and JD brought back some wonderful oven roasted turkey and I have fresh tomatoes and lettuce from the garden.”
 
“I’m not...”
 
“I also made home made bread,” Wells tried hopefully.
 
“Okay,” Larabee said, unable to disappoint the woman. “Just one slice with turkey and tomato.”
 
“Mayonnaise?”
 
“Miracle Whip?”
 
“Sure. Just relax and I’ll bring it right over.”
 
“Thanks, Nettie,” Larabee said and settled back to watch the others. Wilmington sat beside him, a half eaten sandwich in front of him. Dunne was beside him, munching away at a hearty hero sandwich made with two thick slices of homemade bread. Sanchez was talking with Jackson as they were making up a plate for themselves. The only man who seemed the least bit out of place was Ezra Standish. The man wouldn’t meet his eyes and Chris knew instinctively where the pajamas and robe came from. He knew better than to protest the man’s gift, but some day he would make it up to him.
 
“Ezra?”
 
“Yes, Chris.”
 
“Thanks.”
 
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Standish said, nodding slightly in acknowledgement that he understood what Larabee meant. “You’re welcome my friend.”
 
“Here you are son,” Nettie said, placing a Chinet plate in front of the blond and a bowl of hearty chicken and vegetable soup next to it.
 
“Nettie, I can’t...”
 
“Eat what you can, Chris, but save room for dessert,” the woman said with a smile.
 
“Dessert?”
 
“She made apple pie, Chris,” Dunne chimed in around a mouthful of food.
 
Chris smiled at JD’s exuberance and looked at the food before him. He took a small bite, listening as the others talked around him, but did not feel like joining in the conversation. His stomach churned as he looked at the food and felt a wall of hopelessness drop over him. He heard the others laugh, but could not join in, distancing himself from the warmth and family that surrounded him. The familiar room suddenly felt too hot as blood rushed to his head and the walls seemed to close in on him. He wiped at the beads of sweat on his forehead and tried to quell the oncoming nausea. He knew he was going to be sick and stood on shaky legs.
 
“Excuse me,” he said and turned towards the door leading out of the kitchen. The room had suddenly gone quiet, and he knew they were watching him as he made it over the threshold and moved towards the bathroom. Once there he closed the door, locking it behind him and made a dash for the toilet. There was no stopping the nauseous fluid that left his stomach over and over again as it rebelled against the small amount of food he’d eaten until all that was left were dry heaves. He heard someone knocking at the door, but there was no strength left to answer as he sank to the floor leaning heavily on the wall. He let his eyes close and flushed the toilette, hoping the bout of sickness was over.
 
“Chris, are you okay?”
 
Jackson’s voice sounded worried and Chris knew the man was not alone. With everything he had left, Chris managed to climb to his feet and turn on the taps as he answered. “I’m okay, Nathan. I’ll be out in a minute.”
 
“I’ll wait here,” the medic in training said.
 
Chris knew he’d sent the others away, splashed water on his face, and rinsed the foul taste from his mouth before opening the door. “Sorry.”
 
“You look like crap, Chris. How long has this been going on?”
 
“First time, Nate. I think I’m just tired...ate too much,” Larabee explained.
 
“You hardly ate anything.”
 
“I know, like I said, I‘m just tired.”
 
“Come on and I’ll tuck you in. Do you need anything for pain?”
 
“No thanks...I just want to lie down for a while. Will you tell Nettie I’m sorry?”
 
“He doesn’t have to, Chris, because you have nothing to be sorry for,” Wells assured him as they moved out of the well-lit bathroom.
 
“Thanks, Nettie,” Larabee said softly as the trio made it to the spare bedroom. Chris undid the belt of his robe, sat down wearily and reached for his slippers. It wasn’t long before he was lying back against the pillows and felt the blankets lifted over him again. Without even realizing he was doing so, Chris pulled Adam’s blanket close and looked at the horse nestled on the pillow next to him before closing his eyes.
 
“Chris.”
 
“Hmm,” Larabee mumbled.
 
“There’s a bell on the night table, just ring it if you need anything,” Jackson told him.
 
“O...kay,” the injured man told them. He heard Jackson and Wells leave and opened his eyes to let the tears escape once more. Alone in the room he was free to let the grief out, and it did as the sorrow cut him to the core. The loss he felt went far beyond anything he’d ever thought possible and he knew it would be a long time before he was able to face life with the same excitement he had when Sarah was with him. Not sure if he could face the years ahead, Chris turned onto his side, away from the door and cried softly, not only for his wife, son and unborn baby, but for himself and the bleak world he now faced.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“How is he, Nate?” Wilmington asked when Jackson and Wells returned to the kitchen.
 
“He’s weak, Buck, and he’s trying hard not to show the effects this is having on him,” the medic in training explained as he retook his seat at the table.
 
“What’s making him sick to his stomach, Nathan?” Dunne inquired.
 
“Chris has always had problems with his stomach when something upsets him. The doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong and basically it should ease off when he grows stronger. The pain medications could also be affecting him, but without them he’d be in worse shape than he is,” Jackson told them.
 
“Wish there was more we could do for him,” the Bostonian said, staring at the half eaten sandwich on his plate.
 
“JD, Chris has a lot to deal with and just the fact that you’re willing to help him is half the battle. Some things he’s going to have to deal with on his own, but I’m sure I speak for everyone in this room when I say there’ll always be someone watching over him. Making sure he doesn’t sink so far into the depths of depression that he can’t find his way out,” Sanchez explained.
 
“We also need to get him to open up about how he’s feeling. We all know he’s hurting, both physically and mentally, but what we need to find out is how he’s dealing with the emotional pain. I don’t know if any of us has ever had to deal with something like this...and if we did, how would talking about it help Chris?” Jackson told them.
 
Josiah listened to his friends talking, but was not really hearing the words. He knew the emotional pain Larabee was going through, and how hard it would be to deal with, but could he open up about his own past? Could he speak about his own loss and the devastating effects it had on his life? Did he want to open himself up to that kind of pain once more?
 
“Josiah, are you okay?” Jackson asked.
 
“I’m fine, Nathan, just need a little air. You boys go ahead and eat.” The older man picked up his coffee cup and hurried out of the kitchen.
 
“What’s wrong with Josiah?” Casey asked.
 
“I don’t know, Casey. I’ve known him a lot of years, but to be honest he’s not one to open up about his past,” Jackson explained, shaking his head as he remembered several drinking binges the ex-preacher had gone on. Sometimes they’d last for days, and it was usually close to Christmas or just after when the older man gave into whatever memory was causing him pain.
 
‘What are you carrying around inside, Josiah, and how can we help you deal with it?’ he thought as the kitchen grew quiet. He looked around the room and again was taken aback by the solemn faces of those he considered his family.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ella knew the warehouse would soon be ready and she knew Royal, Averil, and Spike would take her to see the completed honeymoon suite they’d prepared for her. She knew they’d installed manacles and handcuffs because they thought Chris would try to escape, and she could live with that. The idea of having her lover secured to the bed made her tremble in expectation. How many times had she played that game with Jack Averil. Living on the cutting edge of excitement and waiting for her lover to beg for release, but never giving in until she was ready. She licked her lips, staring at the darkened window and wondering what Chris was doing at that moment. Was he sleeping...dreaming about her...remembering the way their bodies melded together during their often frenzied sexual encounters? How often had he lain awake in the darkness thinking of her since they parted ways?
 
Turning over in the bed she looked at the man laying next to her. Averil was an adequate lover, but he was not the man she wanted. Knowing she would not be able to sleep, Ella eased out of the bed and made her way towards the door leading into the living room. She walked to the liquor cabinet and searched for the bottle of Scotch. Pouring a stiff belt she added ice cubes from the small freezer and lifted the glass towards her mouth.
 
“Oh, Chris, it’s going to be like old times,” she whispered before downing the liquid and refilling the glass once more.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris opened his eyes and blinked rapidly as he tried to see into the darkness. It took a while for him to remember where he was and why his chest hurt. He flicked back the blankets and edged his way up in the bed until he sat with his legs over the side. He wanted some air, but he didn’t want company and he sat listening to the sounds of the house. He looked at the clock on the night table and sighed as he reached for his robe...no not his robe...Ezra’s robe, at least until he paid the man back. Taking a deep breath, Chris stood up and eased his feet into the slippers, before slowly making his way towards the door. He opened it and listened as he looked around the darkened house. At three in the morning, everyone else was sleeping and he didn’t want to wake them. It took a lot of time and energy to make the short trip to the patio doors, but once there he felt good and opened the glass barrier. The night air was cool, but he pulled the robe tighter around his body and made his way to the table at the edge of the deck. He sank down in the chair, letting the soft breeze caress his cheeks and ease some of the tension from his body.
 
Chris looked towards the midnight black sky overhead, his eyes drawn towards the brightest star in the thick blanket of twinkling lights overhead. How many times during their marriage did Sarah tell him that star would always be special for them. That on nights when they were parted they could look up and know somewhere in the world one other person was doing the same thing. That if they listened closely they would be able to hear the loved ones voices and be reminded of the love they shared.
 
“Sarah, are you out there? Can you hear me? Are Adam and the baby with you?” he whispered against the breeze as he closed his eyes and listened to the crickets and other night creatures. He sat that way for a long time, not feeling anything except the empty pang in his gut and the shattered dreams that put it there.
 
“I love you,” he whispered, pulling the robe around his body once more as a chill ran down his spine. He felt the tears rising once more as he realized just how alone he was. 
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 
 
Jane watched as the injured man seemed to be struggling with something only he could see. The Texan was in and out of consciousness, fighting a fever that wouldn’t quit, and fighting demons only he could see. Several times since Jackie Maynard retired to bed the patient would cry out and call out a name and she wondered what it was about this ‘Chris’ that evoked such pain and emotions in Vin Tanner. She reached for the cloth and washed the sweat soaked face.
 
“No, no...Chris...not...not a...alone...never a...lone,” the raspy voice called weakly.
 
“Easy, Vin, you’re not alone. We’re here to help you,” Murdoch whispered, hoping her soothing tones would get through to the injured man and ease some of the lines of pain on his face. She watched as the eyelids flickered and slowly opened, but she didn’t think he was fully awake, as his eyes seemed to be searching for something.
 
“Ch...Chris, n...need ta know...h...here. I’m here,” the tracker said, losing the fight against sleep as his eyes closed once more.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
‘I’m here!’
 
Chris staggered under the weight of the words, not sure if he’d really heard them or if it was part of a dream. His eyes flickered left and right, seeking the man whose words he’d just heard. He knew the tracker was in South America and that he was hurt, but his subconscious called out for him anyway. The connection he often felt since meeting the younger man seemed stronger than ever and he knew Tanner was like the brother he’d always hoped for. His own brother died when Chris was a teenager and the circumstances behind his passing were painful to remember. He shifted in the chair and wondered what time it was as the first telltale streaks of dawn brightened the sky. Again he let his mind drift over the friendship with the Texan and he knew how hard Tanner would take the news of Sarah, the unborn baby, and Adam’s death. The tracker hadn’t known them long, but he quickly became a member of the family, an uncle, much the same as Buck Wilmington.
 
Buck was another man Chris often thought of as a brother, but he seldom told him that. How long had he known the ladies’ man? How often had they backed each other up? How many times had he taken Buck for granted and the man asked nothing in return?
 
“Chris?”
 
Larabee turned towards the door at the familiar voice and a weak smile formed on his face as Wilmington stepped onto the deck.
 
“Your ears burning, Buck?”
 
“Just a little...you okay? How long have you been out here?”
 
“I’m fine...what time is it?”
 
“Nearly five...aren’t you cold?”
 
“Been out here a couple of hours...not cold...not really,” Larabee explained as Wilmington sat in the chair next to him.
 
“Why don’t we go inside and I’ll make some coffee?”
 
“Rather stay here a little longer, Buck. See that star up there?”
 
“Which one?” the gentle rogue asked softly, aware of the unshed tears shining in his friend’s eyes.
 
“The brightest one...Sarah called it the wishing star...she used to have Adam make a wish when we were out here...said if you wished often enough it would have to come true. Maybe not right away, but someday.”
 
“Are you wishing on it right now, Chris?”
 
“Y...yes,” the blond’s voice trembled with the need to express his grief, yet he would not let it go.
 
“What are...are you wishing for?”
 
“Wishing I could be with them, Buck. I miss them...can’t even think about the future without ever hearing Sarah’s voice, her laughter, her love when she sang to Adam at night.”
 
“It’ll get ea...”
 
“Don’t say it, Buck! Don’t you dare tell me it’ll get easier! You don’t understand what it’s like to lose someone you love more than life itself!”
 
“Chris...”
 
“No, Buck, I can’t...” Larabee grew quiet when he looked up at the bright lights overhead, his anger dissipating as quickly as it had come over him. “Shit, Buck, I’m sorry...it’s just...”
 
“No, Chris, don’t apologize. I know you’re tired of everyone trying to tell you things will get better and you’re right about me not knowing how you feel. I loved Sarah and Adam...loved them more than I’ve ever loved anyone in my life and that hurts. Hurts more than I ever imagined, but it still doesn’t compare to what was taken from you. I won’t say what you lost because that would mean you just had to find it again. Sarah, Adam and the baby were taken from you, but they are not gone forever. Someday the four of you will be together again...not on earth but God will make sure they are safe until you join them again,” Wilmington said softly.
 
“Sarah and Adam loved you, Buck...you were special to them...to us...to me.”
 
“Same here, Chris, and I’ll always be here for you.”
 
“Thanks...I’ll remember that...anything new on Vin?”
 
“Orrin called while you were sleeping. Vin woke up, but he’s not out of danger.”
 
“How bad, Buck?”
 
“He’s not doing well, Chris, but from what Orrin said he’s got the best medical care available...”
 
“In other words he’s in a safe house and not a hospital.”
 
“How did you know that?”
 
“It’s normal with this type of situation. Vin’s been undercover in a foreign country...he’s hurt...probably pissed more than one person off. Usually that means a safe house until the heat wears off and they can safely take him to a hospital.”
 
“Yeah, I remember those days too well, Chris...look, why don’t we get you back inside before you catch your death...shit, s...sorry,” the ladies’ man stumbled over his words as he realized what he’d said and he watched his friend closely.
 
“It’s okay, Buck,” Larabee said, rubbing at tired eyes. He heard the other man stand up and forced his eyes open.
 
“All right, Chris, come on...I’ll get you in bed and bring you your pain meds,” Wilmington said as he helped the injured man stand.
 
“Thanks, Buck,” Larabee said, stumbling along beside his long time friend. By the time they reached the bedroom, Chris was dead on his feet and grateful when Wilmington helped him off with the robe. He sat on the edge of the bed and watched as the ladies’ man left the room, returning moments later with two pills and a glass of water. The blond took them gratefully and laid back against the pillows as exhaustion threatened to drag him under. He shook, as much from weariness as the cold of early dawn and felt the warm blankets dragged over his aching body. Again he thanked his long time friend before drifting into a deep sleep, filled with dreams and nightmares, pain and sorrow, hatred and revenge.
 
Buck stood and watched Larabee for several long minutes before leaving the bedroom. His own arm ached, but it wasn’t the same debilitating agony it had been earlier in the week. He slowly made his way to the kitchen and sank onto one of the chairs. Resting his head against his hands, Buck Wilmington cried for the loss of the only family he’d known since his mother’s death when he was seventeen.




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