DEADLY OBSESSION    

by Winnie

 

Chapter 13

 

‘God help me, Vin!’ The words were like a stab to his heart as Tanner gasped and tried to sit up. Chris Larabee was reaching out to him from across the miles and he needed to find a way to help him. Something was wrong, something more than physical pain was responsible for the agony stabbing through him as he tried to catch his breath. He heard Jackie and a couple of other voices talking to him, but nothing broke through his thoughts as the words were repeated once more.
 
‘God help me, Vin!’
 
“I’m coming, Cowboy!” Tanner vowed as his eyes opened wide and he looked into the worried faces staring at him. His gaze finally locked on the physician who was caring for him as he spoke. “I don’t give a damn what you have ta do, but I need ta go home!”
 
“Vin, be reasonable...” Reardon tried, but Tanner’s hand came up to stop him.
 
“I need ta get home...friend needs me.” the sharpshooter warned and the look in his eyes brooked no argument. “Do whatcha gotta do ta make it happen...else I leave on my own!”
 
“Vin, I’ll try your friend’s number again. Maybe if you can talk to him you’ll be able to find some answers,” Maynard explained.
 
“Call him...won’t matter...gotta get home,” Tanner insisted as he closed his eyes and the words echoed through his mind.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris suffered through the feel of her hands on his body as she tended his injuries. He felt her cold fingers massaging some kind of cream into the healing burns and winced as the fire ignited in them once more. She none too gently probed the area around the scar left by the chest tube and he knew the broken ribs there were going to cause him problems once more. He felt her hands move down his body, coming to rest on his buttocks for several seconds before moving down his thighs and stopping at his right knee.
 
“You shouldn’t make Guy and Robert angry, Chris. Your knee is so swollen I don’t think it will support your weight when I let you up. Does it hurt?” she asked as she pressed the swollen area and heard his sharply indrawn breath. “Oh, I forgot, you can’t talk right now. Are you ready to apologize?”
 
Chris turned his head away and heard the angry hiss that escaped her lips as he refused to acknowledge her presence. He knew he’d probably regret his actions, but there was no way he’d ever apologize to this woman. He heard someone enter the room and hated the vulnerable position he was in. He strained to hear what was being said, but only managed to grasp a few words. He let his mind drift over the events of the day and knew he was the cause of another good man’s death. Jackson had taken him to his ruined home because of his threats and now he lay dead, his blood drying in the hot sun and staining the ground around him.
 
‘God, Nathan, I’m so sorry,’ he thought and cried out as a hand landed solidly on his chest, the sound muffled by the tape covering his mouth.
 
“It seems your friends have followed Jack to Guy’s place, Chris, but they won’t find us...I’ll kill anyone who tries to come between us! DO YOU HEAR ME?” she raged as she struck him again and again.
 
Chris heard every word and felt every blow that punctuated them. Her fist connected with his head, and he felt consciousness leave him. His final thought was that he was not going to hurt anymore and that his family was waiting for him.
 
Ella stood up as her anger dissipated and starred down at the bruises and discoloration rapidly forming on her lover’s chest. She knew her temper was going to be a problem. It was one of the reasons he’d left her the first time, but at least her training as a nurse would come in handy. Not even Jack knew she’d taken a course in the medical field and now she could truly practice what she’d learned. Reaching for the basin she walked into the warehouse and over to the bathroom where she filled the bowl with water and hurried back to the room. She knew Spikes and Royal were still there and making plans on how to deal with Larabee’s men, but that didn’t concern her. She had what she wanted and would be too busy caring for him to worry about anything else.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 
 
Powderman checked the device on his table as soon as he heard the sound of voices and knew the time for action was rapidly approaching. Ella Gaines had her plaything, but how long she kept Larabee was entirely up to him. He held the little black box that could very well destroy the woman, or just take away the thing she coveted. He listened to the one sided conversation, heard the sounds of several blows landing as Gaines lost her temper and now he could hear her talking in soothing tone to her unwilling captive.
 
“Ella Gaines gonna pay real soon, doo-da, doo da.” He fingered the device and touched the button, smiling as he thought of his final retribution. Reaching for the glass of red wine on the table he actually felt sorry for Chris Larabee as he heard Ella crooning to him as she tended whatever injuries he had.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Hank knew Robert Spikes was living somewhere in Billings and wondered if the younger man would be interested in seeking revenge on Chris Larabee. They hadn’t spoken in years, but he’d kept an eye on Spikes’ whereabouts in hopes of some day convincing him that Larabee deserved to pay for what he’d done to disrupt their lives. He knew there had to be something they could do to make sure his son in law paid the price for taking Sarah away from her family. Reaching for the scrapbook he looked at the pictures of his daughter and Robert Spikes.
 
“You should have married him, Sarah, not that other bastard. At least Robert would have protected you from the outside world and kept you safe! You’d be alive today if you’d listened to your father!” he whispered, running his fingers over the picture from Sarah’s graduation.
 
“He’ll pay for ruining our lives, Sarah!” Connolly vowed as he returned the scrapbook to its place of honor on the coffee table.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
JD looked up as Josiah entered the waiting room. He knew how close the older man was to Nathan Jackson and looked towards Wilmington who was also standing and watching Sanchez’ approach.
 
“Any word?” Sanchez asked immediately.
 
“Not since they took him into the examination room,” Wilmington answered. “They want you to sign some documents at the ER desk.”
 
“How bad was he, Buck?”
 
“He was stabbed in the back, Josiah. There was a lot of blood around him, but he woke up and talked to me...told me Spikes took Chris. We tried to stop the bleeding and JD looked around. There were at least four maybe five men and it looks like they dragged Chris with them. Robert called earlier to tell us they’d found tire track at the back of the property by the old access roads. There were at least two cars and they drove north towards the quarry. He said they turned off on one of the side roads, but they couldn’t track them any further.”
 
“Damn!” Sanchez spat as he paced the waiting room.
 
“What happened with Averil?” Dunne asked.
 
“He’s at Royal’s place and Ezra is watching him. JD, would you mind going out there. I know you’re worried about Nathan, but I don’t like the idea of Ezra being out there alone.”
 
“Sure, Josiah,” Dunne agreed, reaching for his jacket. “You’ll call me when you find out about Nathan?”
 
“I will, Son,” Sanchez agreed as he turned his attention to the pale mustahced man. “Buck, sit down before you fall down!”
 
“I’m fine, Josiah,” the rogue said even as he sank onto the chair once more. “Jesus, that bitch is going to pay for everything she’s done!”
 
“I agree, Buck, and we’re going to make sure it’s done properly. Ezra’s watching Averil and hopefully he’ll be able to follow the sonofabitch everywhere he goes. I have a feeling he’s going to lead us to Chris.”
 
“I hope so...I don’t think I can take much more of this shit!”
 
“I don’t think any of us can, Buck,” Sanchez said, standing up as Rain Goines entered the waiting room. He hugged her close and saw the moisture in her eyes.
 
“Has there been any word?”
 
“Nothing yet, Rain,” the ex-preacher explained as he released her and she sat down beside Wilmington.
 
“Buck, are you okay?”
 
“I’m fine, Rain. It’s not me you have to worry about.”
 
“Buck, you’ve been through a lot over the last few weeks and it’s beginning to show...you need to start taking care of yourself or you’ll end up back in here,” the woman said as footsteps sounded behind them and she turned to see Stacey Midland enter the room.
 
“Doc, how is he?” Wilmington asked hopefully.
 
“He’s going to be fine, Buck, but he’s going to be a guest here for a few days, possibly longer if there are any complications. He’s lost a lot of blood and will be uncomfortable for a while, but there was no major damage.”
 
“Thank God!” Sanchez said as relief washed over him. “Is he awake?”
 
“On and off, Josiah. We’ve given him something for pain and he’ll be going up to the ICU for the night. Hopefully he’ll be in a regular room come morning. Has there been any news on Chris?”
 
“No, he’s still missing,” Sanchez answered. “Can I see Nathan?”
 
“Certainly, but not for long. He really does need to rest,” Midland explained.
 
“Buck, when I come back I’ll see if we can find a way home,” the ex-preacher said and saw the dark head bob once.
 
“I’m finished for the day, Josiah. I can drive you both home after you’ve seen Nathan. Tell him I...tell him I’m thinking about him,” Goines told him.
 
“I will,” Sanchez assured her before following Midland out of the room.
 
“Buck, I know you’re worried about Chris and Nathan, but you’re not doing either of them any good if you don’t take care of yourself,” Rain warned.
 
“I know, Rain, it just seems like so much is going on and I can’t seem to stop any of the bad stuff from happening. Since Ella showed up at the State Fair that day hell has reigned over our lives and especially over Chris. Now that bitch has him and no one knows where the fuck he is!” Wilmington cursed as he slammed his fist onto the arm of the waiting room chair. He winced as the movement jarred his injured arm and the sympathetic eyes of the pediatrician.
 
“Beating up on the furniture isn’t going to help, Buck,” the woman warned as she took his hands in her own.
 
“I know, but it felt good for a second,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “You should’ve gone with Josiah to see Nathan.”
 
“I’ll be able to see him when he’s moved to a regular room, Buck. Right now I think you need company and I’m sure Nathan will understand.”
 
“Thanks, Rain...ah hell!”
 
“What’s wrong?”
 
“With everything that’s happened I forgot to phone Nettie...she’s probably worried to death about Chris. Nate was supposed to take him to her place when they left the hospital.”
 
“All right,” Goines said softly. “Let’s go outside and you can use my cell phone to call her.”
 
“Okay,” Wilmington said, his voice soft and filled with pain as he stood up to follow her out.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Nettie glanced at the clock over the stove once more and again tried Jackson’s cell phone, only to find it busy once more. She looked at her niece and could tell that Casey was also worried about the missing men. The salad and sandwiches were wrapped and placed back in the fridge as time passed with still no sign of the two men.
 
“Aunt Nettie, are you okay?”
 
“I’m fine, Child. I just wish they’d get here.”
 
“Maybe they stopped off for lunch,” Casey explained hopefully.
 
“Nathan knew I was...” the sound of the phone ringing made them both jump and the older woman reached for the receiver. “Hello.”
 
“Nettie, it’s Buck.”
 
“Buck, have you heard from Nathan? He was supposed to be bringing Chris home.”
 
“I know, Nettie, that’s why I’m calling. Listen, is Casey there with you?”
 
“Yes...yes she is...what’s happened, Buck?”
 
“Nathan took Chris to his house...Chris wanted to see what was left...”
 
“Oh, dear Lord. How did he take it?” Nettie asked, sinking onto the chair once more.
 
“I don’t really know, Nettie...something happened while Chris and Nathan were there.”
 
“What? Was Chris hurt? Did he do something stupid?”
 
“No, Nettie, he didn’t do anything stupid, but someone was waiting for him there. Nathan was stabbed in the back and Chris was taken...”
 
“Is Nathan okay? What do you mean taken?”
 
“Nathan’s in the hospital. It’s gonna keep him down for a while. We think we know who has Chris...I heard them over the phone. Nathan or Chris managed to call me before all hell broke loose. I’m sorry, Nettie, I should’ve called you long ago, but I forgot.”
 
“Buck, you had other things on your mind. How long ago did this happen?”
 
“A couple of hours. I’m still at the hospital, but Josiah and I are going home when he gets back from seeing Nathan. We’re going to coordinate with Robert Miller and find out where Chris was taken.”
 
“Buck, does this have anything to do with that woman?”
 
Wilmington knew whom she was talking about and he took a deep breath before answering. “We think so, Nettie. It looks like Averil is still in town and that means Ella Gaines is too. We’re going to find her and make damn sure she pays for what she’s done.”
 
“She’ll never pay enough, Buck...never enough for what she’s taken from us and what she continues to take.”
 
“I know, Nettie, but we’re doing everything we can.”
 
“You call me as soon as you know anything at all.”
 
“I will, Nettie, and I know this doesn’t help, but try not to worry.”
 
“Worry, Buck, I’ve gone far beyond worry.” Nettie said and hung up. She felt Casey’s arms wrap around her shoulders and let her fears and grief manifest itself in an emotional display that rocked her shoulders and left her feeling weak and drained.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
JD grabbed for his cell phone and frowned at the number displayed there. It was one he didn’t recognize and he was about to put the instrument back on the seat, but something stopped him. Hitting the talk button he placed it on his shoulder and put the keys in the ignition.
 
“Hello,” he said and was shocked by the weak raspy whisper that crackled over the line.
 
“JD...t...that y...you?”
 
“Who is this?” Dunne asked, frowning as silence stretched out for several seconds.
 
“V...Vin...”
 
“Vin! Holy shit! Where are you? Are you okay? You sound like crap!”
 
“Easy, Kid, yer makin’ my h...head spin.”
 
“Sorry, Vin, we’ve just been so worried about you. Are you okay?”
 
“I’m better, Kid...where’s Chris?”
 
“Chris...he’s well...he’s...”
 
“JD, what h...happened and don’t tell me nothin’! I know somethin’s w...wrong.”
 
“Vin, Chris was hurt...”
 
“I know that and h...he was s...stayin’ with Nettie...why?”
 
“Why? Why what?” the Bostonian asked, hoping to change the subject.
 
“JD, why is Chris s...stayin’ with Nettie? W...where are Sarah and Adam?”
 
“Vin, I...I...well they...”
 
“JD, ya’d b...best tell me o...or I...I...shit!”
 
“Vin, what’s wrong?”
 
“Nothin’, damn it! JD, what the hell is happenin’ there?”
 
“Vin,” Dunne closed his eyes as a picture formed in his mind. He knew whatever he said the tracker was going to have a hard time dealing with everything that was happening and he hated the idea of adding to the man’s pain. But, right now, Tanner was like a dog with a bone and there was no way he could keep anything from him. Taking a deep breath he spoke softly into the phone as tears formed in his eyes.
 
“Vin, you know about Chris being hurt, but I won’t go into details about it. All we know right now is that the explosion at his house was...”
 
“Explosion? At Chris’ place? When?”
 
“A couple of weeks ago, Vin, that’s how he was hurt...how Sarah and Adam...” He broke off as he realized what he was about to reveal to the Texan. Tanner had a way of getting people to open up without thinking about what they were saying and now that bone was getting bigger and bigger.
 
“How Sarah and Adam what, JD?”
 
Dunne knew there was no way he could get away with not telling the tracker what was happening, yet he knew what would happen if the Texan thought he was needed in Billings. He closed his eyes and wished the phone line would go dead, but it was not to be as Vin repeated the question.
 
“How Sarah and Adam what, JD?”
 
“Vin...”
 
“Look, Kid, I’m goin’ ta find out one way or the other so ya might as well tell me now!”
 
“Vin, Sarah and Adam were...they were...”
 
“What?”
 
“Shit, Vin, they were killed!” Dunne spat the last out as tears ran down his cheeks. Wishing he’d thrown the cell phone on the seat after all as he heard Tanner’s sharply indrawn breath. “Vin...Vin, are you okay?”
 
“D...dead...n...no c...can’t be d...dead.”
 
Dunne heard the heavy wheeze and several worried voices as he held the phone in a deathlike grip. He knew how devastated Vin was with the news and the fact that he was so far away.
 
“Vin, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have told you...not like this!”
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Maynard took the phone from the limp fingers as Reardon fixed the oxygen mask over Tanner’s mouth and nose. She saw the emotive blue eyes fill with moisture and saw the shattered look on his face. The fact that he was trying hard to get his breathing under control told her the news he’d just received was not good. She reached down and touched his left shoulder before remembering the phone in her hand. Placing it against her ear she heard the worried voice on the other end of the line.
 
“Vin...Vin, damn it answer me!”
 
“JD?”
 
“Yeah...who’s this?”
 
“My name is Jackie Maynard...I’m a friend of Vin’s.”
 
“Is he okay?”
 
“No, what did you tell him?” Maynard asked, hearing the pain in the man’s voice.
 
“I...I told him some bad news. I shouldn’t have...should’ve waited...”
 
“Yes, you should have, but Vin can be a formidable man when he wants answers. It’s not your fault, JD. He’s going to be okay. Dr. Reardon is putting him back on oxygen for now.”
 
“He’s okay?”
 
“He’ll be fine...hold on, I think he wants you again,” Maynard said as Tanner lifted his arm and reached for the phone.
 
Vin felt as if the bottom had dropped out of his world. In the short time he’d known the Larabee family he’d come to think of Sarah and Adam as a sister and nephew. The days of fishing and having the boy tag along with him were over and the constant questions would never bring a smile to his face again. They were gone...dead...and it hurt worse than any physical pain he’d ever felt. Taking the phone in his hand once more he placed it near his mouth as the physician lifted the oxygen mask.
 
“JD, tell Chris I’m c...comin’ h...home,” the tracker said, holding his hand up as the two people in the room tried to interrupt him.
 
“Vin, are they gonna let you travel yet?”
 
“Don’t matter none, Kid. I’ll walk if’n I have ta!”
 
“You won’t have to, Vin. If they say you can travel Orrin will probably send the jet to pick you up,” Dunne assured him.
 
“I’ll give him a call...” Tanner glared at Reardon as he noticed the man injecting something into his IV line. “What the hell’s that?”
 
“Easy, Vin, it’s just something to make you relax,” Reardon explained and knew his patient was about to show his anger.
 
“No more of that shit! I need ta stay awake...m...make plans...”
 
Jackie took the phone once more as Tanner slipped into the drug-induced sleep. She knew Reardon would be on the receiving end of a Tanner blow out when the younger man woke up, but for now she was grateful as he adjusted the mask and oxygen flow. Placing the phone at her ear once more she spoke to the man on the other end.
 
“JD, it’s Jackie...”
 
“What happened?”
 
“Dr. Reardon just gave Vin something to help him sleep. He’ll be fine...”
 
“Better make sure the doctor is out of arm’s reach when Vin wakes up,” Dunne said softly.
 
“Yes, I believe that’s a smart idea.”
 
“Vin’s not one for having someone take his choices away. He’ll be angry. I’m going to talk to Orrin about having the jet fueled and ready for takeoff. That way it can come down there for Vin when they say he can travel...or...”
 
“Or?”
 
“Or he wakes up. You won’t be able to keep him there...not with him knowing about Sarah and Adam. I wish one of us could come down there, but there’s so much going on here right now that there’s no way we can leave. Tell...tell Vin to call me when he wakes up, maybe I’ll have some good news for him.”
 
“I will, JD, try not to worry too much about Vin. He’s being cared for here.”
 
“Thanks, Jackie, I’ll let the others know. We’ve all been worried about him. I’ll call later, okay?”
 
“Okay, JD. I hope things get better for all of you soon,” Maynard said before hanging up the phone. “How is he, Doc?”
 
“His breathing is better and his oxygen sats are back within normal range. He should sleep for several hours.”
 
“What are you going to do once he wakes up?” Maynard asked.
 
“Knock him out again if I have to! There’s no way he’ll be able to travel for two maybe three days and I’ll resort to sedation if I have to,” Reardon told her.
 
“According to his friend you probably will,” the DEA agent said as she sat in the chair next to the bed.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Josiah pushed the door open and entered the room housing his long time friend. Jackson was turned slightly on his left side with an IV running into his hand and an NG tube leading into his nostril. The monitoring equipment beeped and clicked as it took vital readings and registered the injured man’s stats. He watched as the handsome face showed signs of waking up and he moved to the left side of the bed. The big man waited until Jackson’s eyes opened and focused on him before speaking.
 
“Hello, Brother, would it be appropriate for me to say you look like hell?”
 
“Feel like it too, Josiah,” the injured man whispered as he tried to get comfortable.
 
“Happens when you try and tackle a man with a knife,” Sanchez explained as he looked into the soulful brown eyes.
 
“Didn’t try to tackle anyone, Josiah. Was stupid and let down my guard and let them bastards get to Chris!”
 
“Easy, Nathan, no one blames you for what happened...”
 
“My fault, Josiah. I should never have agreed to stop by Chris’ place...should have taken him to Nettie’s house straight from the hospital.”
 
“Probably, but let me guess what happened here. Chris insisted it was time for him to see the house and when you told him no he said he would get there on his own if it meant stealing a car or walking if he had to. Right?”
 
“Yeah...yeah, he did, but...”
 
“No buts, Nathan. We both know Chris is a stubborn mule when he sets his mind to something. If he really wanted to go to his house he would’ve found a way, even if it meant making good on his threat. He’d be the first person to tell you the shroud of guilt is not yours to wear,” Sanchez explained.
 
“Sure feels like it is,” Jackson said wearily.
 
“I’m sure it does, Nathan, but right now you need to let it go and give yourself a chance to heal. I’m going to take Buck home and see what we can do about finding Chris. Ezra and JD are watching Averil...”
 
“Averil as in Jack Averil...Ella’s...”
 
“Yes...it seems he’s been staying at Royal’s place and frequents Dumont’s Fine Tailoring. Ezra spotted him there earlier and called me. We put a tracking device in his car and followed him to Royals, but I don’t think Ella is there. I think she’s...”
 
“With Chris...God, Josiah, we have to find him.”
 
“Not we, Nathan. I’m afraid you won’t be going anywhere but upstairs to a room and I hope you’re not going to prove to be as stubborn as the rest of us are. I believe this is the first time you’re on that side of the bed and I hope it’s also the last time, my friend. Sleep well and try not to worry. We’ll find Chris and bring him home.”
 
“Thanks, Josiah...f...find him...” Jackson said, as his eyes drifted closed once more.
 
Sanchez made the sign of the cross and whispered a soft prayer for his friend before leaving the hospital room. Striding across the busy ER he entered the waiting room to find Buck and Rain sitting together. The duo stood up as he entered and they walked out of the hospital together.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
JD drove through Billings, stopping automatically at lights and signs without really seeing them. How could he have been so stupid in telling Tanner about Sarah and Adam? Why did he always find it so damn hard to keep things inside instead of blabbing it out?
 
“Jesus, Vin, I’m sorry,” he whispered as he pulled in behind the club van. He spotted Ezra Standish immediately and exited the car.
 
“JD, is everything all right?” Standish asked, worried about the injured man at the hospital.
 
“No, Ez. No it fucking well...”
 
“Is it Nathan?” the gambler asked as Dunne continued his tirade.
 
“N...no, Nate’s okay...well if you call being stabbed in the back okay.”
 
“Then perhaps you could tell me what has you so filled with fire?”
 
“I fucked up, Ezra!”
 
“That may very well be, but would you care to elaborate on just how you managed that?”
 
“Vin called...”
 
“Vin called you! Is he okay?”
 
“Said he was better...sounded like shit,” Dunne said, turning away and glancing at the house. “I told him, Ezra.”
 
“Told him what, JD?”
 
“I told him about...about Sarah and Adam. Didn’t mean to, but Vin...see he knows how to ask and I let it slip. I fucked up good, Ezra.”
 
“How did our illustrious sharpshooter take the news?”
 
“How do you think? He said he was coming home...doesn’t give a damn what the doctors have to say.”
 
“That sounds like Mr. Tanner. Look, JD, I have found myself telling Mr. Tanner things I would never have disclosed to anyone else. There’s something about the man that makes it easy to confide or disclose things to him. Don’t be angry at yourself, JD, Vin would have found out eventually.”
 
“Yes, but he’s alone down there...at least we have each other to lean on,” Dunne said.
 
“If I know Mr. Tanner as well as I think I do he’ll be home before Mr. Travis finishes giving orders for the Jet’s deployment.”
 
“That’s what I’m afraid of. What if he really isn’t in any shape to travel?”
 
“Since when has that ever stopped him...or any of the rest of us?”
 
“It hasn’t,” Dunne answered simply. “Is Averil still in the house?”
 
“I believe he is. I’ve seen him come out several times, but he looks over here and goes back inside. Strange how he doesn’t seem to want to travel anywhere.”
 
“Think maybe he’s a little afraid of us being out here. Is there any other way off the property?”
 
“Only if he wants to scale the fence and somehow I don’t see him doing that,” Standish answered and the two men settled in to watch the house.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris knew someone was in the room with him, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember who or why. He knew he was hurt, but again the circumstances behind his injuries left him confused. He tried to lift his hands to rub at the thumping pain behind his eyes, but something held him fast. Licking at dry lips he tried to force his eyes open, but the lids seem glued together. He heard a woman’s voice, speaking to him in soothing tones and frowned as something strong was placed under his nose and he tried to turn away from it.
 
“Oh no you don’t, Chris. You need to wake up and listen to me. We have to start planning our future together.”
 
“S...Sarah,” Larabee whispered, crying out when fingers clamped onto his chin and forced his head up.
 
“Don’t you dare call me that! I got rid of that bitch and her whelp so that we could be together! I won’t have you call me that name again!”
 
Chris felt the fingers tighten and cried out as pain erupted from the bruises covering his jaw and cheek. The memories that were foggy before slammed into his skull, leaving him weak and sick. He tried to pull out of the hated grasp, but the fingers held tight and the mouth continued to shout at him. 
 
“I will not allow you to speak of them again! Do you understand me, Chris, because if not I will teach you a lesson in pain you won’t soon forget!”
 
“No...nothing pain a...as m...much. Y...you t...took a...away my l...life.”
 
“No, I’m giving you back your life! The one you were meant to have with me! We’ll be so happy together...”
 
“F...fuck you!” She slapped him openhandedly and then quickly kissed him and apologized for what she’d done.
 
“See, Chris, see what you do to me! You bring out the passion in me and I am going to do the same for you. I will not allow anyone to interfere in what we have!”
 
Chris lifted his head and glared at the hated woman seated on the bed beside him. In spite of the bonds his hands tightened into fists at his side as he struggled to keep his anger under control. He knew he should be careful what he said to Ella Gaines, but the very fact that she had taken his life away was more than he could stand.
 
“We h...have nothing, Ella! I hate you for what you’ve done!”
 
“Sh, Lover...”
 
“I’m not your fucking lover!”
 
“You were and you will be again. It’s only a matter of time and that’s something we will have plenty of once Royal makes the arrangements for us to leave here.”
 
“You bitch! I won’t go with you!”
 
“You don’t have a say in the matter, Chris. From the minute I saw you again and saw that woman’s hands on you I knew what I had to do! I saw the obstacles that were placed between us and took care of them!”
 
“You fucking killed them, Ella! You killed my son and our baby! You killed the only woman I ever loved!”
 
“NO! Don’t you dare say that, Chris! You love me...”
 
“In your fucking dreams! I hate you for what you did and curse the day that you walked into my life!”
 
“No! You don’t mean that, Chris Larabee. We’re destined to be...”
 
“Not in this or any other lifetime. Don’t you get it, Ella, or is that stupid head of yours so filled with shit that you can’t see or hear the truth...” Chris tried to turn away from the volatile eyes glaring down at him. He saw the tape in her hands and knew he’d pushed to far as she placed it over his mouth and nose. He tried to breathe, but the air was closed off and he relished the possibility of his own death. Closing his eyes he wondered why his body sought the oxygen it was denied. Darkness began to descend bringing with it images of a hell he’d only imagined, but it was real and Ella Gaines was Satan himself.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“No...no...Chris...d...don’t go!”
 
Jackie stood up and stared at the sleeping Texan. He’d been quiet for several hours, but seemed to be on the verge of waking up. The barely audible words were spoken with a fear she never expected to hear from this man and she fought the urge to wake him.
 
“S...stay w...with me...Cow...cowboy.” Vin knew it wasn’t just dreams invading his sleep. Something was wrong...something very real and not his imagination. He couldn’t quite place where the trouble was coming from, but he knew it had to do with Chris Larabee. Fighting the lethargy brought on by the drugs, Vin surfaced enough to open his eyes and look into the eyes of Jackie Maynard.
 
“Vin, are you okay?”
 
“N...no, Jackie, I’m not.”
 
“What’s wrong...Doc!” she called worried about the pale faced man in the bed.
 
“Not me...Chris...somethin’s wrong...somethin’ bad...”
 
“How do you know?”
 
“I can f...feel it...c...can’t explain...it jest is...” Tanner mumbled as Reardon and Murdoch came into the room.
 
“What’s wrong?” Murdoch asked as he looked at the vitals and frowned at the increased heart rate.
 
“Need. Ta go h...home!”
 
“You will...just not yet!” Reardon told him.
 
“D...don’t under...understand. He needs h...help...lost so m...much.”
 
“Who?” Murdoch asked.
 
“Chris...needs h...help b’fore i...it’s t...too late,” the Texan said, fighting to stay awake.
 
“Vin, you won’t be of any use to Chris if you fall over before you even get to him. You’re hurt and you can’t expect to be able to get up and be a hero just because your friend might need help!” Maynard explained.
 
“H...have ta...Chris and m...me h...help...” He turned to see Reardon checking his IV and shifted upwards in the bed. “Don’tcha go givin’ me nothin’. Ain’t stayin’...”
 
“All right, Vin,” Murdoch said and held up his hands to stop the other’s protests. “Vin’s a grown man and he’s awake...there’s nothing we can do to stop him, but on the same note there’s nothing we have to do to help him either. When he can get out of that bed and make the call to his friends in Billings then he’ll be able to leave. Until then we’ll just watch him and make sure he’s taking his meds and letting us change his bandages. If he does manage to get up on his own he might make it as far as the door before he falls over on his face and, well, that will only add more time on his recovery here. So, Vin, do we get to watch you take a nose dive to the floor or will you lay still for another couple of days until we’re sure you’re ready to travel?”
 
“Doc!” Tanner said as he tried to sit up, only to slump back against the pillows.
 
“Yes?”
 
“All right...I’ll give ya twenty four hours!”
 
“That’s very generous of you, but I believe it’ll take at least forty eight hours before Gary agrees to let you travel.” Murdoch countered.
 
“Thirty six! End of  negotiations!” Tanner spat, his hands clenching angrily in the blankets. 
 
“Very well, thirty six hours,” Murdoch agreed, but could see the anger in Reardon’s face. “In those thirty six hours I expect you to do everything you’re told. You will eat and drink everything you’re given! Understood?”
 
“Yeah!” the tracker said, cursing the weakness that confined him to the bed. He closed his eyes and felt the loss once more. How could someone be so cruel as to kill a child? That thought brought back memories of his own childhood and the ice cold feeling in his heart that should never have been there. His father had been a cruel man, one who beat his wife into submission and threatened his own son with physical punishment. Vin knew his body still carried the scars, both physical and mental of his early years, but at least the man could no longer hurt him. Resigned to staying another thirty six hours, the reluctant sharpshooter slept.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The wall of darkness was shrinking as his oxygen starved body continued to fight for air. Helpless and alone he knew death was fast approaching. Just before the life faded completely from his green eyes the tape was removed in one agonizing rip that barely registered as he sucked in lungful after lungful of the life giving air. He gasped, his throat dry, his mind clinging helplessly to life as struggled to get his breathing under control. He felt the blanket torn from his body and found the strength to lift his head. The room blurred and solidified as he watched the hated woman touch his body once more. There was something in her right hand, but he could not grasp what it was. Fear overpowered as he recognized the pair of surgical scissors and his resolve to show no emotion as she reached for his penis and held it in her left hand.
 
“Ella...no!”
 
“Sh, Chris, I have to do this and I do know how. I must say I do not like that shade of blue around your lips, but that color is fading fast. I hope you have learned your lesson and that further classes in proper bedroom behavior will not be required.”
 
Chris watched through hooded eyes as she sat next to him on the bed and released his penis. He breathed a sigh of relief as her cold hands were removed, but gasped as he recognized the item in her hands.
 
“Ella...don’t...”
 
“I’m sorry, Chris, but there’s really no choice. You see with your injuries I cannot as a fully credited nurse let you out of that bed...”
 
“N...nurse...”
 
“That’s right, Lover. I took a course in Paris after we broke up and I have everything I need to care for you until we leave here. Now, relax while I insert this.”
 
Chris sucked in a breath as she moved to stand over him once more. He shook his head and tried to close himself off from the terror racing through his traumatized body as she lifted his penis and began inserting the catheter. He’d had one before, but didn’t remember it hurting so much as he clenched his fingers in the blankets and held his breath. Praying she would finished, Chris was unable to stay conscious any longer and let the blanket of darkness wrap him in its protective fold.
 
Ella smiled as she completed her task and studied the face of the man she now owned. She moved her hands over his chest and finally up to his neck. She felt the strong pulse there and smiled as she realized she controlled everything about him. His life was in her hands and she could decide whether he took a breath or let him die. She leaned closer and placed her lips against his mouth, kissing him, running her tongue along his lips and pushing past the barrier as her body craved some reaction from him. Sighing heavily she pulled back as she realized there would not be a reaction from him. Reaching for the blanket she pulled it up over him and sat back to watch over him.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Ezra, JD,” Miller said as three squad cars pulled up in front of Royal’s home.
 
“Hello, Robert, what’s going on?”
 
“We were finally able to get a search warrant and I’m about to serve it.”
 
“It’s about time!” Dunne said. “What made him change his mind?”
 
“Judge Watkins may be hardnosed, but he’s not stupid. I simply convinced him there was enough evidence to get the warrant. Graham’s positive identification of Ella Gaines and your own visual of Jack Averil were enough to force his hand. You two want to come along?”
 
“Hell, yeah!” the young Bostonian said excitedly.
 
Miller led them up to he gate and waited for his call to the house to be answered. He paced in front of the barrier, watching the groundskeeper cutting the grass.
 
“Can I help you?”
 
“This is Robert Miller with the Billings police department. I have a warrant to search the premises. Open the door and let us in.” It took a while, but the voice returned and the gate was unlocked. Miller, Dunne, Standish and five other men hurried towards the house. The door was opened before they reached it and Miller thrust the paper towards the elderly man standing there.
 
“Mr. Royal is not at home.”
 
“That’s okay. You can show us around. Is Jack Averil here?” Miller asked.
 
“Mr. Averil is out back by the pool. Would you like me to get him?”
 
“No, that’s okay. We’ll talk to him once we’ve finished searching the house. Melecki, you and Johnson take the second floor.”
 
“Yes, Sir,” Melecki answered and the two officers hurried up the stairs.
 
“Thomas, you and Blake have the back rooms. Lawrence, you’re with me. Ezra, you and JD wait here!” Miller ordered.
 
Ezra nodded and looked around the spacious living room. To say that Royal had expensive taste was an understatement. The furniture was antique, but in good repair and would probably sell at an auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even the paintings adorning the walls were worth a great deal of money and Standish wondered how some one with such profoundly good taste could befriend someone like Robert Spikes or Ella Gaines.
 
“Some place,” Dunne said, his voice filled with awe as he looked at the marble topped coffee and end tables.
 
“Yes, and it behoves me to think of a man with such exquisite taste could stoop so low as to take up with a degenerate like Spikes.”
 
“And Ella Gaines.”
 
“Exactly...”
 
“What the hell are you doing in here?” Averil asked, angered by the sight of the two men standing in the living room.
 
“Hello, Jack, I won’t say it’s good to see you again, but I was tired of waiting out front,” Standish said, smiling at the other man’s angry red face.
 
“You have no right to come in here...”
 
“Yes we do!” Dunne said, smiling as he stood ion front of the conman. “The police are searching the house now, Jack. Are you ready to tell us where Ella Gaines is?”
 
“Who?”
 
“Ella Gaines, Jack. Don’t tell me your paramour has deserted you?”
 
“I don’t know what the hell your talking about. I’m here to visit my friend and that’s it. I don’t know where Ella Gaines is!”
 
“A minute ago you didn’t know who she was,” Dunne said, picking up on the slip of the tongue by Averil.
 
Averil looked up as Miller returned to the living room. He looked at the man standing between Standish and Dunne and frowned.
 
“Are you Jack Averil?”
 
“Yes, and these gentlemen are trespassing.”
 
“Actually, they’re not. They are here on official police business. It seems one of the men they work with is missing and according to the witnesses Robert Spikes was involved....”
 
“Who? I don’t know any Robert Spikes.”
 
“A minute ago he didn’t know Ella Gaines either,” Standish said, smiling as he watched the other man squirm.
 
“Look, I’m just a guest here. I don’t know who these people you’re asking about are...”
 
“Captain!” Lawrence called from the main floor bedroom.
 
“What?”
 
“I think you should see this!”
 
“I’m on my way.”
 
“Hey, that’s my bedroom. What are you doing in there?”
 
“We have a warrant to search the house, Mr. Averil. It doesn’t preclude your room,” Miller explained as he hurried towards Lawrence. “What did you find?”
 
“I found evidence that the Gaines woman is staying here and I also found this.” Lawrence produced a small walnut treasure box. The top held a framed picture Miller recognized immediately. He turned to see Standish and Dunne looking over his shoulder. Before they could say anything he looked at the nervous man in the doorway.
 
“Is this your room, Mr. Averil?”
 
“Yes, it is...b...but that’s not mine.”
 
“Do you know who it belongs to?” Miller asked.
 
“I have no i...idea,” the man stammered.
 
“So you were staying in this room alone.” Miller stated as he looked around the immaculately kept room.
 
“Yes,” Averil affirmed.
 
“Then you wouldn’t mind us asking the household staff if that statement is true. Ezra, would you ask the butler to come in here?”
 
“Certainly, Robert,” Standish agreed, turning and walking out of the bedroom. 
 
“I...I look I’ve been staying here, but I don’t really know the woman...”
 
“You wanted to speak with me, Officer?”
 
“Yes, what’s your name?”
 
“Michael Foxworth, Sir.”
 
“Well, Mr. Foxworth, could you tell me if a woman has been staying in this room with Mr. Averil?”
 
Foxworth looked from the policeman to Royal’s guest and knew he couldn’t lie. Nodding his head he answered softly. “Yes, Sir, there was.”
 
“Can you tell me her name and when she arrived?”
 
“Yes, Sir. Miss Gaines arrived with Mr. Averil...”
 
“I can explain!” Averil said, nervously shuffling his feet.
 
“Please do,” Standish said.
 
“I...she...I met her on the plane...”
 
“Then what were you doing with her at the State Fair?” Dunne asked, remembering Chris telling them about seeing Ella Gaines and a man there. He knew there was no way he could confirm this, but Averil’s reaction told him he was right.
 
“I...I want to talk to my lawyer,” Averil said, squirming under the scrutiny of the other men.
 
“Why? Do you have something to hide?” Standish asked.
 
“I know my rights. If you’re charging me with anything I have a right to have my lawyer present at the time of questioning,” the older man said and turned to the police officer.
 
“Who said anything about pressing charges?” Miller asked.
 
“You said...well, you...”
 
“Mr. Averil, I would like you to come down to the station and answer some questions and yes you can call your lawyer before we leave,” the police officer said as he went through the box. What he saw there sent shivers through his spine and he wondered what else Ella Gaines was hiding. He watched as Averil went to make his call and shook his head.
 
“What is it, Robert?” Standish asked.
 
“It seems Miss Gaines has been keeping track of Chris over the years,” he said as he handed the gambler a few photos. Some showed Chris in his SEAL days, some during his early days in the academy, but what chilled him were the recent ones, added over the last few weeks. The woman must have visited the Larabee home after the explosion and taken pictures of the crime scene. There were also photos of the two graves with Ella holding a bottle of champagne and smiling at the camera.
 
“Jesus, that’s one cold hearted bitch!” Standish said as he shuffled through the pictures.
 
“And Chris loved her at some point?” Miller asked.
 
“Chris never loved her, but she seems to be obsessed with him. He told us he thought it was love, but the longer they were together the more he became aware of something strange about her,” Dunne explained as they finished going through the papers in the box. They waited while the police finished searching the rest of the house, before following Miller outside.
 
“Are you boys coming down to the station?” Miller asked.
 
“Yes, if that’s okay with you,” Standish said.
 
“That’s fine,” Miller told them, walking beside Averil as they made their way towards the cars.
 
Averil thought about the conversation he just had with Guy Royal. Larabee was safely ensconced in the warehouse and Ella was staying with him. Royal told him they would be making plans to leave shortly and that he just had to keep his head until Royal’s lawyer showed up. If the police pressed charges he would make sure bail was paid and Averil could join them as soon as he was released. For now he was going along with the police, but if Royal crossed him he’d make damn sure the man paid the price. Sighing heavily he sat in the back of the police cruiser.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Ella, we need to talk,” Royal said from the doorway. He almost felt sorry for Larabee, but knew he would do anything to stay in this woman’s good graces.
 
“What is it, Guy?” Ella asked, using a cloth to wash the blood from the wound at the back of Larabee’s head.
 
“Jack just called.”
 
“Is he on his way? Tell him I need a few things from the house.”
 
“Ella, the police showed up at the house with a search warrant. They found the box of photos and papers in your room.”
 
“Damnit! How can this be happening? Where’s Jack now? Tell him to make arrangements to get us out of here! Tell him I don’t give a damn what it costs!”
 
“Jack’s been taken in for questioning. I called Richard and he’s going over to the station now.”
 
“Has he been charged with anything?”
 
“Not yet, but it could happen. If it does Richard will see to bail and make sure it’s paid, but that still leaves us with a problem.”
 
“What?” Ella asked as she ran a finger lightly along Larabee’s cheek.
 
“We can’t go back to the house.”
 
“We don’t need to. I have everything I want right here. You and Robert could come with us when we leave.”
 
“Ella, this is my home, my business, my friends are here. I can’t just up and leave all of it.”
 
“Guy, don’t tell me you’ve been keeping all your money legit. I’m sure you’ve kept those overseas accounts available for just such an occasion.”
 
Royal knew he’d do anything she asked of him and was grateful for the investment advice she’d given him. Some of it had to do with inside trading and illegal activities and all of it was sequestered away in bank accounts under dummy corporations. He knew if it was ever found he’d owe more in back taxes than he ever hoped to make.
 
“Of course, but I’d hate to leave all of this behind.”
 
“Guy, what you have here are material objects, what you have with me is excitement, sex, and just about anything you desire. I’m going to need the three of you to help me with Chris. It could be a long time before he realizes how much he loves me and until then I’m going to need you to keep him in line. We’re going to need a place to stay, perhaps a villa in the French Riviera. I’ve always wanted to live there.”
 
“How long before you’d want us to leave?”
 
“Well, it can’t be for at least a week. Chris is in bad shape and I don’t think he should travel in his condition.”
 
“We may not have a week, Ella.”
 
“Maybe not, but we’ll stay here until I say it’s safe for Chris to travel. Have Robert secure the outer areas and make sure no one enters or leaves the premises without us knowing.”
 
“All right, Ella. Is he sleeping?”
 
“Yes, he is.”
 
“Would you share a glass or two of wine with us?”
 
“Chablis?” Ella smiled as she turned a lustful look in his direction.
 
“I think that could be arranged,” Royal added hopefully.
 
“Give me a few more minutes to make sure Chris is okay and I’ll be right out,” Ella said. She heard the other man leave and bent over the prone body. She placed her lips against his and sighed as she ran her hand under the blanket and touched the hair around his cock.
 
“Oh, Chris, one day soon you and I will be together and I won’t need to keep those three around,” she whispered, kissing him once more before leaving the room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 
 
Nettie walked slowly along the tree-lined path towards the two new graves set under the wide branches of an oak tree. In her hands she held two small bouquets of flowers picked from her own garden. Tears filled her eyes as she made it to the graves and sat between them. She knew Casey was watching her, but she wanted to be alone in her grief. She set a bunch of flowers on each grave as tears pooled in her eyes and dropped onto her cheeks.
 
“Oh, Sarah, so much has happened since you and Adam went to heaven. I know you’re both watching over Chris, but she’s got him now and we don’t know where she’s taken him. Buck called to tell me what happened and that Nathan was hurt at the same time, but he’s going to be okay.” She looked overhead at the wondrous blue sky and the puffy white clouds drifting lazily by. She loved this time of the year and often spent time outside, but there was none of the usual joy in the air today.
 
“The police have a man in custody, but I’m not sure what they are charging him with. JD is pretty sure he’s the same man who was with that Gaines woman that day at the Fair, but we don’t know for sure. Josiah took Buck to his place, but they aren’t resting. They won’t...none of them until they find out where Chris is. He...he was supposed to be coming back to my place, but he convinced Nathan to stop at your h...house. Chris wanted t...to see for himself. You know how he is?” she said, reaching for the kerchief and wiping the tears from her eyes.
 
“God, I miss you both so much! I wish...I wish none of this had happened...that I could turn back the clock and make it all better. You didn’t deserve any of this and neither does Chris. Did I tell you he nearly drank himself to death, a...and it was my fault. I should have known better than to leave alcohol where a grieving man could find it. I should’ve remembered how I reacted when William died, but I wasn’t thinking. Must be getting old,” Nettie looked around her at the other mourners who were paying respect to their own lost loved ones and felt a shudder run down her spine. Taking a deep breath she turned back to her own grief and continued to talk to her niece.
 
“Anyway, Nathan stopped at the house and someone attacked them there. They hurt Nathan pretty bad, and took Chris with them. I know I promised to look after him, Sarah, and I will. We’re going to get him away from that bit...that woman and we’ll make sure she doesn’t get anywhere near him again. That’s a promise I make to you, Adam, and the baby. For the life of me, Child, I will not let you down again. Not like that miserable wretch of a father of yours. He’s tried to get to Chris through me, but Josiah showed up and we had Hank arrested. I don’t think that’s the last we’ll hear from him though, but at least now I’ll be ready.” She grew silent once more, her hands touching both graves as if she could draw life back into their bodies. She felt the tears start again and let them fall, washing away some of the pain in her heart.
 
“Aunt Nettie, it’s time to go,” Casey said, placing a hand on the older woman’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
 
“I’m fine, Child, just a little tired,” Nettie answered as she accepted her nieces hand and stood up. They supported each other as they looked at the graves and said a prayer together before turning away.
 
“I miss them so much, Casey.”
 
“I know, Aunt Nettie. I do too. I still expect to see Adam on the swing when I get home...or hear Sarah singing while she helps you with dinner.”
 
“Sarah did have the most wonderful voice, Child. Sounded like Angels all singing together,” the older woman said as they neared the car.
 
“Yes, she did. I remember once when I was little and Mom and Dad were still alive and Sarah was babysitting me. She sang so many songs for me that night that she had laryngitis for three days after. Aunt Sheila made her drink lemon tea with honey and Sarah hated that stuff.”
 
“If I recall correctly so did you...and you still do.”
 
“Never did understand how you could drink it.”
 
“It’s not so bad, Casey, you just have to get past that first taste.” Nettie opened the passenger door and sat inside as her niece did the same from the driver’s side. The two became silent as they drove away from the cemetery, preferring to grieve on their own for a while.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“I can’t believe they couldn’t charge him with anything!” Dunne fumed as he drove towards Dumont’s to pick up Ezra’s car.
 
“JD, the police have to follow certain procedures...”
 
“I don’t give a shit about procedures, Ezra. Buck’s hurt, Nathan’s in the hospital and Chris is missing. I say fuck the procedures and we force him to tell us where the bitch is and what she’s done to Chris!”
 
“Easy, JD, why don’t you pull into the cafe over there and we’ll have a coffee or there’s a little Irish pub over on...”
 
“I don’t want a drink, Ezra. Not right now anyway. There’s just too much to do. We have to find Chris before Vin does anything stupid.”
 
“You know, JD, I believe your sense of guilt is overwhelming you. Vin would have found out before long and you feeling this way is not doing anyone any good. We need to keep our heads clear and work together if we are to be of any use to Chris.”
 
“I know, Ezra, it just ticks me off that people like Ella Gaines and Jack Averil think they can do whatever the hell they wish and get away with it! I think we should say fuck the restraining order and go after the bastard!”
 
“JD, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so angry before,” Standish said, worried about the younger man.
 
“Angry, Ezra! I went beyond angry when Sarah and A...Adam were murdered! Now I’m pissed and if we don’t get some new information on Chris I’m...I’m...” he stammered and pulled over to the side of the road, his hands shaking as the anger dissipated. He rolled down the window and took deep breaths of air as he fought to calm his jangled nerves.
 
“Are you okay, now, JD?”
 
“Yeah...yeah, I’m fine. I’m sorry, Ezra, I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
 
“You didn’t take anything out on me, JD. I feel the same damn way!”
 
“Yeah, I guess you do...we all do.” Dunne said, pulling out into the traffic once more.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Powderman listened as Ella Gaines talked with the trio of men in the warehouse with her. They were making plans to leave, but they also needed to be careful of the police. Averil had eluded the man tailing him and was safe in the warehouse, but the Powderman had plans to infiltrate their safe haven. The woman needed to be reminded that she should not have crossed him. An idea hit him and he smiled as he listened to the news. She would pay all right, and so would the men with her.
 
“Powderman has got a plan, doo da, doo da,” he whispered as the phone beside him began to ring. He knew who it was and quickly dropped the Powderman persona as he spoke to his wife.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Twenty-four hours had passed since Chris Larabee woke up in hell for the first time. Since then he’d feigned sleep as best he could, but somehow Ella always knew when he was awake. The incident with the tape hadn’t been repeated, but he felt miserable as he licked at dry lips.
 
“Hello, Darling, I’m so glad you’re awake.”
 
“Fuck you!” he answered as he did every time she greeted him. The first few times angered her, but now she chuckled and kissed him each time and he hated the feel of her lips on his face.
 
“Oh, Chris, why do you insist on using such vulgarity with me. Your friends are not around so you don’t need to pretend anymore. You can tell me how you really feel,” she cooed.
 
“I can?” Larabee asked sweetly as she hovered above him.
 
“Of course. You can tell me anything that’s in your heart.”
 
“Really?” a small smile curled the corners of his mouth.
 
“Really,” she said hopefully, returning his smile.
 
“Come closer...”
 
“How’s this?” she asked, leaning closer to his face.
 
“Closer,” he whispered softly until she was close enough for him to feel her breath on his face.
 
“How is this?” Ella asked, smiling contentedly as she brushed her lips against his cheek.
 
“Perfect...you wanted me to tell you how I feel about you...”
 
“That’s right,” she answered in the same whisper soft voice.
 
“I really HATE YOU, BITCH!” he watched as her face screwed up with rage. He would probably pay the price for what he’d just done, but the look on her face was well worth any retaliation she heaped on him.
 
“Why you ungrateful Bastard. After everything I did so we could be together you think you can call me that! I’ll show you, Chris! So help me God I’ll show you what happens if you say that one more time! Oh, I won’t hurt you anymore, but perhaps I will have Powderman pay a visit on Nettie Wells and her niece.”
 
“Don’t you fucking touch them, Ella! Don’t you go near any of my family or I’ll show you what pain is all about!”
 
“I don’t think so, Chris! You’ll soon realize where you belong and you’ll gladly give me anything I want! Otherwise I’ll see that your friends join Sarah, Adam, and Nathan Jackson!” She saw the horror in his eyes and knew her lie hit home. During the first few hours he’d tossed in restless sleep and she knew he felt guilty about making Jackson go to the house. She also knew Larabee thought his friend was dead and she would use that against him as well. She watched as his eyes drifted closed and a pained look crossed his face.
 
“It’s your fault, you know? You’re the one who wanted to stop by the house and opened yourself up for Robert to catch you. It’s not his fault Jackson got in the way of that knife, but you could have stopped all that! I think you knew what you were doing, Chris. I think you wanted Robert to get to you so we could be together.”
 
“Never...”
 
“Oh, yes, maybe not consciously, but subconsciously I think you want me as much as I want you. Remember the...”
 
Chris drowned out her voice as he thought of the lives lost because of his infatuation with this woman. Sarah, Adam, the baby, and now Nathan Jackson. How many more would die because he was not willing to love this bitch? A sickening wave of despair washed over him, threatening to drown him with its intensity. He opened his eyes as he felt something sharp enter his arm and glared at the woman above him.
 
“I’m afraid I’m going to be busy for a few hours and wouldn’t want you to miss me, so this is a little something to help you sleep. Good night, Darling, sweet dreams of me!”
 
Chris felt the drug enter his body and fought to keep his eyes open. His mouth was dry and he licked at his lips as the lids dropped over glazed green orbs and he fell into a deep sleep.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Reardon was amazed at the change in his patient. Although still weak and in considerable pain, Vin Tanner was showing a strength and determination he’d seldom seen before. He was able to hold down soft foods and liquids and was slowly gaining some color in his face. He was improving with each hour that passed, but was far from well. The stubborn Texan insisted he was not in as much pain as before, but Reardon could see the truth in the blue eyes. He finished checking the wound to the young man’s shoulder and was pleased to see the stark red signs of infection were now a dull pink and the swelling was considerably less than the day before. He adjusted the flow of the IV antibiotics and finally stood back with his hands on his hips as Tanner sat forward in the bed.
 
“How’s it look, Doc?”
 
“Your wounds look much better, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to get up and move around. If you’re hell bent on leaving here tomorrow then you damn well better take it easy and rest as much as you can.”
 
“I’m going.”
 
“I wish you’d reconsider.”
 
“We’ve been all through this, Doc. My friend is in trouble and I need ta be there for him.”
 
“Just how are you going to help him if you pass out before you even arrive in Billings.”
 
“Won’t pass out. I’m sorry, Doc, but this is something I gotta do. Chris’d do it for me,” Tanner explained as Maynard entered the room.
 
“How is he, Doc?” the blond woman asked.
 
“He’s fine, Jackie,” Tanner said, smiling at the woman he’d grown to care for.
 
“Glad to hear it, Tex. You do look a little better.”
 
“I’ll leave you two alone. Vin, you need to get some rest before Faraday arrives,” Reardon explained before leaving the room.
 
“Damn, almost forgot about the debrief.”
 
“Are you sure you’re up to it,” Maynard asked, sitting beside him on the bed.
 
“If it means getting out of here, hell yeah! What about yer plans? Have ya decided what ya want ta do?”
 
“I’m not sure what I want to do, Vin. I don’t think I want to stay with the DEA anymore. I only did this to make sure that bastard didn’t get away with what he did. Now it just doesn’t hold the same meaning for me.”
 
“Yer good at whatcha do, Jackie, but sometimes its just time ta move on.”
 
“That’s what I was thinking. I called home...”
 
“And?”
 
“I talked to Mom and Dad. They want me to come home and stay with them until I decide what I want to do with my life now that I’ve decided to leave the DEA.”
 
“Are you going ta do it?”
 
“I’m seriously thinking about it.”
 
“Orrin will probably send the company’s jet for me. Its pretty big and well there’s plenty of room for you. We could drop you in...”
 
“Chicago,” Maynard offered.
 
“Yeah...jest let me know.”
 
“I want to go back, Vin, but I don’t know if I can face them.”
 
“Jackie, I’ve listened to ya talk ‘bout yer mom and dad and they sound like good people. Ya owe it ta yerself and them ta give them a chance.”
 
“I know, and I’ll probably go back with you. Now, do you still want to make that call?”
 
“Yes, is Orrin’s number still keyed in?”
 
“Yes, it is,” she said and hit speed dial.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck paced the office like a caged tiger that had caught the scent of bloody prey. His arm throbbed, but at least his head was no longer shrieking at him for lack of sleep. It had been over thirty-six hours since Chris had disappeared and still there was nothing to tell them where he was. They’d researched Royal, Spikes, and Averil’s holdings, but found nothing that could be used to hold a man prisoner. There was absolutely nothing on Ella Gaines, no property within the US and only a villa in the south of France. There seemed to be nothing about where the woman got her wealth, or how much money and assets she actually had. With each passing minute he knew the chances of finding Chris alive were growing slim. Larabee was stubborn and would fight his captors in every way possible. Add to that the fact that the woman had killed his wife and son and you had a man hell bent on revenge, fueled by the anger in his heart.
 
“Buck sit down,” Travis warned as the phone on the desk beside him rang once. “Travis.”
 
“Orrin, it’s Vin.”
 
“Thank God. How are you feeling, Son?”
 
“I’m okay...is JD there?”
 
“Yes, he is.”
 
“Can ya put me on speaker phone?”
 
“Certainly. Done. Go ahead, Vin,” Travis told him.
 
“JD.”
 
“I’m here, Vin.”
 
“Jest wanted ta say thanks fer lettin’ me know what happened.”
 
“Don’t thank me, Vin. Because of me you’re not listening to the doctors...”
 
“JD, I woulda told the docs I was goin’ home anyway. Tired of bein’ here anyway. Think about it, JD, ya know me...ain’t one ta stay in the hospital or safe house. None of us are. We’re all stubborn and sometimes that’s what keeps us goin’. Is Chris there now?”
 
“No, Son, he’s not,” Sanchez answered.
 
“Is he okay?” Tanner asked worriedly. The silence seemed to stretch on too long and Vin knew something was wrong. Something more than he’d already been told. “Where’s Chris?”
 
“Vin,” Wilmington’s voice was loaded with pain as he spoke and he knew the others were leaving it up to him to explain what was going on.
 
Tanner knew something was wrong as he listened to the sounds of shuffling papers and feet. “Tell me Buck.”
 
“We don’t know where Chris is, Vin...”
 
“What the hell do ya mean ya don’t know where he is? Thought he’s staying with Nettie Wells!”
 
“He was...but a lot has happened since then,” the rogue said softly.
 
“Tell me!” the tracker ordered in a whisper soft voice that belied the turmoil racing through his mind.
 
“Chris was staying with Nettie after he got out of the hospital,” Sanchez cut in. “I was staying with him and making sure he was okay. Chris woke up in the night and found a bottle of whiskey. He drank the whole damn thing, Vin, and ended up back in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.”
 
“Sonofabitch! Is he okay now?”
 
“He was released day before yesterday. Nathan was driving him to Nettie’s home,” Standish picked up the story.
 
“So what happened?” the sharpshooter asked, confusion evident in his voice.
 
“Nathan and Chris were attacked at Chris’ place...”
 
“Wait a minute. Thought you said they were going to Nettie’s place. How the hell did they end up at Chris’ place?”
 
“Chris convinced Nathan to take him there,” Travis answered.
 
“Why would Nathan do something stupid like that?” Tanner snapped.
 
“Vin, remember what you said about being stubborn and doing what you wanted?” Dunne asked.
 
“Hell, Kid, don’t throw my words back at me!”
 
“It fits, Vin. You know how Chris can be when he desires something,” Standish asked.
 
“Yeah, but Nate’s usually the one person who keeps us from doin’ stupid stuff like that. Where is Nathan?” the sharpshooter asked, finally noting the man hadn’t spoken once.
 
“Nathan was stabbed in the back, but he’s going to be okay. He’s in Saint Vincents,” Sanchez explained.
 
“What about Chris?” Again the question was met with silence until Wilmington answered softly.
 
“Chris wasn’t there when JD and I got to his place. Near as we have it figured Ella Gaines hired several men to help her get to Chris. We’re pretty certain she’s also behind hiring an assassin known only as Powderman...”
 
“Powderman!” Tanner spat the name, his voice dripping hatred.
 
“I take it you’ve heard of him?”
 
“A time or two. Ran into some of his dirty work when I was bounty hunting in Texas. Sonofabitch doesn’t care who gets hurt as long as he gets his target. Sang some kid’s song.”
 
“That’s him,” Wilmington answered.
 
“So how do you know he’s part of this?” the tracker asked, his voice edged with weariness.
 
“Chris was talking to S...Sarah just before...before the house blew up. She said she heard someone singing,” the ladies’ man knew his voice was shaky, but he knew Tanner would want to know all of it.
 
“Did they...were they...”
 
Travis spoke up as he heard the Texan’s choking voice. “They died before the fire got to them, Vin. The initial explosion collapsed the part of the house they were in. I won’t tell you they didn’t suffer, because that’s something we’ll never really know, but if they did it wasn’t for long.”
 
“I’m coming home, Orrin.”
 
“I know, Vin. The jet is ready for takeoff and should be leaving as soon as Ezra gets there.”
 
“Ezra?”
 
“That’s correct, Vin. I volunteered to come down to Rio and escort you home.”
 
“Ezra...”
 
“ There’s no point in arguing, Vin. From what your attending physicians have explained to us you are in no shape to travel, let alone travel on your own.”
 
“Wasn’t goin’ ta argue, Ez...was gonna say thanks.”
 
“You’re welcome, My Friend. Perhaps you should take advantage of my travelling time and get some rest,” Standish suggested.
 
“Don’t seem t...ta h...have much c...choice. Orrin?”
 
“Yes, Vin.”
 
“Make sure ya call if’n anythin’ happens.”
 
“We will, Vin. I won’t tell you not to worry, but I will tell you to take it easy.”
 
“See you soon, Vin,” Dunne said.
 
“Sure, Kid, and wipe that guilt off your face,” Tanner said before hanging up the phone.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
There was something warm snuggled against his right side, but for Chris Larabee that warmth sent a chill through his body and soul. He knew by the scent who it was and the returning memories threatened to drown him in sorrow. He felt her breath on his cheek and tried to move away, but the restraints held him fast and he heard a soft sigh escape her lips as she snuggled closer. He hated the feel of her naked body pressed so tightly against his and renewed his efforts to get as far from her as possible.
 
“Going somewhere, Lover?”
 
“Don’t call me that!” Larabee spat, grimacing as she pulled him close once more.
 
“Oh, Chris, why do you insist on being so hostile towards me? Can’t you see I’m doing this for us?”
 
“Not doing me a...any favors, Ella. I can’t stand being in t...the s...same room w...with you.”
 
“That’s only because your so-called friends have blinded you to the truth, Chris. They’ve worked to keep us apart. Why that bitch...”
 
“DON’T YOU FUCKING CALL HER THAT! DON’T YOU SPEAK HER NAME!”
 
“Sh, Lover,” she whispered, placing her fingers over his lips as she leaned up on one elbow. “I know you think you loved her...”
 
“W...WHEN THE HELL ARE YOU GOING TO REALIZE SARAH IS THE ONLY WOMAN I’LL EVER LOVE!”
 
“Chris, I want you to stop and think about what you’re saying, because it will mean the difference in whether...”
 
“I d...don’t need to think...”
 
“Or not you leave here as my lover or my captive. Either way is fine with me, but I’d much prefer to have you walk by my side than carried out of here in a box with just a few holes cut into it so you can breathe!” Her hand clamped tightly over his mouth as Robert Spikes entered the room. “No, don’t say anything you will regret.”
 
“Only regret I have is m...meeting you,” he whispered against her hand and saw the anger flare in her face once more.
 
“Ella, is everything okay in here?”
 
“Everything’s fine, Robert. I was just about to remind Chris of how much I’ve gone through for him! How much I’ve sacrificed to have him with me. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have had to hire someone to get rid of that bitch!”
 
Chris tried to come off the bed, fighting with all his strength to rid himself of the restraints as he heard her words. Her hand was still clamped over his mouth and he growled as his lips parted and he sank his teeth into the palm of her hand. He felt a jolt of pleasure race through him as she yelped in pain, but understood the ramifications of his actions. He glared at her as she stood over him and knew the old saying ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ must have been written by someone who knew Ella Gaines.
 
“Why you miserable bastard! How can you keep doing this to me? How can you hurt me like this?”
 
“I h...hate you...”
 
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Robert, make him shut up!” Ella screamed as Larabee continued to tell her what he thought of her.
 
“With pleasure, Love,” Spikes said, standing over the bed where Larabee lay helpless.
 
“Fucking bitch isn’t f...fit to speak her n...name!” the injured man spat, crying out as Spikes struck him open handed across the face. He glared angrily at the hated man who had made Sarah’s life a living hell before Chris took her away from all that. “You stupid b...bastard! S...she’s using you!”
 
“Shut your fucking mouth, Larabee, or I’ll shut it permanently!” Spikes raged.
 
“T...truth h...hurts!” Chris muttered and received another blow to the face from Spikes’ beefy fist. He felt blood trickle to the back of his throat and turned his head, spitting a mixture of saliva and blood on the man’s feet.
 
“You’ll pay for that! I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget,” Spikes said as he hit his nemesis twice more. The vicious blows bringing blood to the corners of Larabee’s mouth.
 
“E...easy for you to d...do t...that w...when I c...can’t f...fucking m...move! No wonder S...Sarah c...couldn’t s...stand b...being in the s...same room w...with you!”
 
“I’ll kill you, Larabee!” Spikes said, wrapping his fingers around the blond’s exposed throat and pressing his thumbs into the corded muscles he felt there. Oblivious to everything but the bruised face below him, Robert Spikes did not hear Ella Gaines screaming at him to stop, nor did he feel Averil and Royal pry his fingers from Larabee’s throat and throw him across the floor.
 
Chris tried to breath past the pain raging through his body as the raging bull was pulled off him. He knew he’d come close to dying and realized he was not ready to let go yet. There was at least one thing he had to do before he died and the need to see Ella Gaines take her last breath renewed his strength. He fought past the cloying nausea and shooting agony to watch the three men comfort the woman he hated with every pore of his body.
 
‘I’ll see you in hell, Bitch,’ he thought before giving in to the pain and exhaustion once more.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Selena Faraday smiled at the determined young man sitting in the chair. The IV’s had been removed and the Texan actually had a little more color, but he still looked like a strong wind could blow him over. Jackie Maynard was outside, giving them a chance to debrief Tanner without her influence. She knew he was anxious to get home and couldn’t blame him after the hell he’d been put through. The fact that his own agency was sending a private jet was a bonus because it meant he would soon be out of Rio and no longer in danger from Mendoza’s associates.
 
“All right, Vin, would you like to tell us what happened when you found Mendoza’s compound?” Faraday asked as her husband entered the room.
 
“Me and Jackie went in there hopin’ ta get Mendoza out, but I made a mistake and was caught by some of Mendoza’s men. Jackie escaped back inta the jungle and well Mendoza wasn’t happy ta see me. Bastard had his men work me over and threw me inta a hole. Don’t know how long I’s there, but it started ta rain and I knew it was prob’ly my only chance ta escape. Started climbing the side usin’ anythin’ as a handhold...musta slipped a dozen times, but I finally made it to the top. Thought I’d lost it when I saw someone there, but it was Jackie.” Vin smiled as he remembered how glad he was to see his partner and reached for the glass of juice on the table. “She helped get me outta there.”
 
“What happened after she got you out?” Murray asked.
 
“We knew we’d never have a better chance ta get Mendoza than that moment. The rain was really comin’ down and we set several explosives around the area. Took them from his own stock too,” Tanner said with a grin.
 
“Very resourceful,” Faraday told him and signaled for him to continue.
 
“We found Mendoza and Jackie took some supplies and we got the fuck outta there. Jackie had a jeep...took it from one of those bastards...hell of an agent,” the tracker explained, admiration easily readable in his words.
 
“Yes, she is and we’re sorry we’re losing her,” the older woman observed.
 
“Yeah, well, guess she’s had enough. I can’t remember much after we reached the jeep. Kept passin’ out, but I remember having ta leave the jeep and we had ta walk most of the way. I know we made it ta the river and we heard someone...saw them across the river and Jackie couldn’t make the shot.”
 
“She told us what you did, Vin. That’s one hell of a shot for anyone to make, let alone someone in the shape you were in. That’s a gift not often seen,” Murray said.
 
“Thanks...anyway, Jackie went ta check on the two men I shot and I’d lost my knife. Mendoza found it and cut himself loose while I’s watchin’ Jackie. Sonofabitch attacked me and that’s how I got cut up, but that bastard ain’t gonna hurt anyone else. He’s dead and won’t be sellin’ drugs ta innocent kids anymore. Seen too much of that shit on the streets and it’s good ta know sometimes the good guys win one. Just wish we could have more victories.”
 
“We all do, Vin. You and Jackie have gone a long way to erasing one of the biggest cartels in Brazil and I know it doesn’t seem like it, but both our country and the government of this country are grateful. Now I think we’d better let you get some rest or Dr. Reardon will have our heads. We’ll send a car for you when your friend arrive at the airport.”
 
“Thank ya, Ma’am,” Tanner said, finishing the last of his juice before shaking hands with the two agents. He heard them leave and looked up as soft footsteps sounded behind him.
 
“So it’s finally over?”
 
“Looks that way, Jackie. You ready ta go home?”
 
“Hell yeah,” Maynard said, smiling at the tired looking man. “Come on, I’ll help you back to bed.”
 
“O...okay...wanna join me?”
 
“Now, Tex,” the agent laughed. “This is one time I really don’t think you’re up for it.”
 
“Wish I had the energy ta prove ya wrong, Jackie, but right now I’m dead on my feet,” Tanner said as they walked slowly towards the room he was using. It wasn’t long before he was lying on his side and she pulled the covers over him.
 
Brushing back the soft hair, Jackie brushed her mouth across his and sighed wistfully. “Sleep well, Vin. I’ll see you later.”
 
“T...thanks, Jackie,” he said, closing his eyes and surrendering to oblivion.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Three days...the longest ones of his life had come and gone since Chris disappeared. The police had checked Royal and Spikes’ holdings in Billings, but the search of the properties came up empty each time. Buck was beginning to despair of ever finding his long time friend and he could see the desperation in Sanchez and Dunne as well. The trio were on their way to Jackson’s room to check on the man’s progress and keep him abreast of their newest failures. They entered the room to find Jackson turned slightly no his left side and facing the door. He seemed to be sleeping, but his eyes shot open as soon as the door closed behind them.
 
“You boys look like you should be taking advantage of a bed somewhere,” Jackson said, wincing as he shifted on the bed and pressed the button to raise his head.
 
“Feels like it too,” Dunne said, sinking dejectedly into the chair next to the hospital bed.
 
“I bet.” The medic in training said, watching the young man closely and seeing how much pain he was in...how much they were all in. “I take it there’s nothing new on Chris.”
 
“No. It’s like he just disappeared off the face of the earth, but I know he’s here. Somewhere close and it’s just a matter of having a little bit of luck for a change!” Wilmington told him.
 
“Luck! We’ve had plenty, but it’s all been bad!” Dunne spat, exhaustion and worry evident in his outraged voice.
 
“There’s got to be something we’re missing,” Sanchez said.
 
“Josiah, we’ve been through every damn piece of paper, checked every known hangout, and building belonging to Spikes and Royal! What else can we do?” the Bostonian asked irritably.
 
“JD, I think maybe it’s time we all took a break. A real break and got some sleep,” the ex-preacher said as he noted the dark smudges under the young man’s eyes.
 
“I’m okay...”
 
“No, Kid, you’re not. None of us are,” Wilmington told him.
 
“You boys should go home and get some sleep. That’s what I’m going to do in a few minutes,” Jackson said, pressing the button that would send a dose of morphine into his body thereby easing the pain in his shoulder and back.
 
“Tired of our company already, Brother?” Sanchez asked, trying to lighten the mood.
 
“No, Josiah, just plain tired,” the injured man answered. “Did Ezra get off okay?”
 
“The jet took off a little over an hour ago,” the rogue told him.
 
“Buck.”
 
“Yes, Nate?”
 
“Where’s your sling?”
 
“Ah, hell, Nathan, gimme a break!”
 
“Buck, that arm’s not gonna heal properly if you keep using it,” Jackson said, shifting on the bed until he found a comfortable position.
 
“I’ll put it on when I get home,” Wilmington said with a grin. This man understood them and even when he was hurting he made sure they took care of themselves.
 
“Good! Josiah, get them out of here and make sure you all get some rest!”
 
“I will,” the ex-preacher assured him as he patted the man’s uninjured shoulder. “Sleep well, Nathan.”
 
“Night, Nate,” Dunne said, standing and waiting for the others to say their goodbyes.
 
“Rest easy, Nathan,” the ladies’ man said as the trio left the injured man to rest.
 
Nathan eased onto his right side a little more and closed his eyes. How many times had he seen one of his friends in a hospital bed, but seldom had he ever been in this position himself. It frustrated the hell out of him that he couldn’t help in the investigation to find Larabee. He began to get a better understanding of how the others felt when they were stuck in this position. He opened his eyes when the nurse entered to take his vitals and asked her to turn out the lights as she was leaving. Alone in the dark he wondered what Chris Larabee was doing at that moment.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris wasn’t sure how long he was out this time, but he was slowly working on a plan that would see either him or Ella Gaines dead. To make his plan work he had to convince her that he was beginning to see that she’d done everything for him. Somehow he would have to forget his hatred and let her think he really was coming round to her way of thinking. The problem was every time she was near him his stomach churned and his hatred for her was easily readable on his face. How could he let her touch him when just her presence in the room was enough to make his skin crawl? How could he convince her that his feelings for her were changing when all he wanted to do was drive his fist into her face? He felt her move on the bed and bit back a groan as she placed her arm across his chest. Taking a deep breath and ignoring the pain from aching ribs he turned to face her with newfound determination.
 
“Ella?” he whispered softly and watched as her eyes opened and she smiled at him.
 
“Hello, Lover, how are you feeling?”
 
“T...thirsty,” he answered, amazed that his words were not spoken with the same cutting edge they usually held.
 
“You are?” Gaines asked, shock evident on her face as her captive spoke civilly for the first time in his three days of captivity.
 
“Hmm...could I...would you get me some w...water?”
 
“Sure, Lover, I’ll be right back,” Ella said, smiling at him as she sat forward and dropped her legs over the edge of the bed.
 
Chris watched her leave, his stomach in turmoil as he fought to keep the hatred out of his voice. This was the first step, and he knew things would only get harder as he continued to entice her into trusting him. Something told him she could be easily duped because of her obsession with him, yet he also understood what would happen if he slipped up and let his guard down around her. He heard her talking to someone and recognized Spikes’ voice. The man was angry and Chris understood this man was an immediate danger and would need to be watched. He almost laughed as he realized watching was the only thing he could do and if Spikes decided to kill him, there was nothing he could do to stop him. Again his anger rose as he realized he needed Ella Gaines to protect him, at least until the restraints were removed. He forced a small smile to his face as the woman came back into the room.
 
“Here you are, Lover,” She said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
 
Chris bit back a scalding retort as he suffered through her hand lifting his head forward. He accepted the water and drank greedily. He choked and turned his head and felt her hands making small circles on his shoulder before she helped him drink more. Finally, his thirst sated he smiled at her once more.
 
“Thank you,” he whispered softly and wanted so badly to wipe the smile off her face.
 
“You’re welcome, Lover. Now, Chris, I have to change the bandage on these burns. I know it hurts, but it has to be done and I’ll try to be gentle. Okay.”
 
“T...trust you,” Larabee lied and closed his eyes as an icy chill raced through him. He felt her ease the bandages off and winced as she cleaned the area and applied a cool salve. He knew the salve was probably not a good idea, but right now he didn’t want to appear hostile and make her angry. He’d made a little headway with her, but he could lose that ground just as quickly. He felt her bath his face and arms and opened his eyes as she eased the cloth towards his groin.
 
“I’ve dreamed of this for so long, Chris. I’ve dreamed of feeling you and loving you and showing you we’re meant to be together. I know you still don’t love me as I do you, but eventually you will and when that happens we’ll make love over and over until we can’t do it anymore. I’m the only woman for you and this was always meant to be. You see that, don’t you, Lover?”
 
“Yes, Ella, but I need some time,” Larabee told her.
 
“Time?” Ella asked, eyes narrowing as she washed his penis and balls.
 
“Y...yes. It wouldn’t look right if...if I showed my real feelings so soon after they d...died.”
 
“You don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks, Chris. It’s only me and you and that’s all that counts.”
 
“I know, that, Ella, but I’m asking y...you t...to give me a l...little time.”
 
“I’ll grant you a week, Chris. By then most of your wounds will be healed and then I’ll expect you to make love to me,” Ella whispered, eyes narrowing to slits as she finished bathing his groin area.
 
“What about the others?”
 
“What others?”
 
“You know...Spikes, Royal, and Averil.”
 
“I trust them, Chris, and they’ve already proven they love me. You’ve fought me for so long and they’ve been my shoulders to cry on. Jack and I have been together a lot of years and sometimes I need what he offers.”
 
“If you love me as you say you’ll make them leave.”
 
“Sorry, Chris, but for now you’ll have to share me with them. It’s time for you to sleep, but first I want you to eat something. I’ll be right back.”
 
Again Chris watched her leave and felt tears form in his eyes as he thought about the words he’d spoken to Ella Gaines. Words that felt like a betrayal of Sarah’s memory, yet he knew it would only get more difficult as time went by. He would have to prove to her that he could be trusted and his feelings for her were real, which meant ignoring everything he believed in.
 
“I made this myself, Chris. It’s chicken soup and I put big chunks of potatoes in it just like you like it,” Sarah explained when she entered the room carrying a covered tray. She set it down on the table and removed the napkin, placing it over his chest and helping him sit up more.
 
“Ella, how can I eat with my hands tied?”
 
“I’ll feed you...just like that time when you were sick with the flu and the fever left you so weak. Do you remember that, Chris? How much tender, loving care I gave you?”
 
“I remember,” Larabee answered as she lifted the bowl and began to feed him. The soup was overly salty and was also loaded with too much pepper, yet he forced himself to swallow every time she placed the spoon in his mouth. His mouth burned by the time he’d finished half the bowl and again he asked her for water. He drank half a glass and closed his eyes as his head began to throb. He felt something sharp enter his arm and frowned as he opened his eyes and looked at her.
 
“It’s the same thing I’ve been giving you, Lover. It will help you sleep,” she whispered kissing both eyes as the lids dropped over the glazed green orbs.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~`
 
Powderman smiled as he heard the woman talking to Larabee. The man was definitely putting on a major show for the woman and he could almost hear Ella Gaines purring like a cat as she began to fall for Larabee’s duplicity. The woman was so obsessed with her captive that she could not see past her own hopes that he would love her in return. There was no doubt in his mind that Larabee was an excellent actor, for his own research into the man’s life had proven how much he loved and cared for his family. The fact that he was now trying to make Gaines believe he was changing was not lost to him. He wondered what kind of plan Chris Larabee had come up with and how it could possibly interfere with his own plans. Taking a sip of the strong coffee he sat back and planned his revenge as a smile formed at the corners of his mouth. In two days Ella Gaines and her friends would pay for thinking about reneging on their deal.
 
He reached for the small box on the table and smiled as he fingered the buttons. It looked like an ordinary remote for a television, but it was encoded with numbers and letters in a combination known only to him. Once he pressed that sequence, the timer on the detonators attached to the explosives in the warehouse would begin a one-hour countdown before ripping the building apart.
 
“Oh, Yes, Powderman has got a plan, doo da, doo da,” he whispered as he settled in to enjoy breakfast.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The Firm’s office was deserted except for the two men seated at Dunne’s desk. The only sound was the pounding of the keys as JD searched the internet for anything on the holdings of Robert Spikes, Guy Royal, Jack Averil, and finally Ella Gaines. So far they’d hit several roadblocks that ended with the connections being blocked and terminated before they could get the information they sought.
 
“Come on, Kid, there’s got to be some way past the blocks we’re hitting!” Wilmington said rubbing his arm in frustration.
 
“I’m trying everything I know, Buck, but some of these were put in place so long ago that it’s gonna take days to backtrack through the dummy corporations and industrial espionage. Between the police and us, we’ve checked out the ones registered to Spikes and Royal and found nothing. I keep thinking there’s got to be some way to trace the money Royal took from his company, but he’s covered his theft so well it would take a hell of a lot to find where he stashed everything.”
 
“He’s probably got one of those damn Swiss bank accounts,” the rogue said, standing and walking to the coffee pot on the counter. His gaze fell on the door to Larabee’s office and a feeling of helpless rage raced through him. Chris should’ve been in there now, working on some file or another and shouting at all of them to get their asses in gear, instead he was out there somewhere and in the clutches of a madwoman.
 
“Damn it!” the ladies’ man cursed slamming his left hand onto the counter and leaning heavily against it.
 
“Buck, are you okay?” Dunne asked, walking to his friend and easing the trembling body onto one of the chairs. He reached for the box of tissues on the counter as he noted the streak of tears running down the older man’s cheek.
 
“No, no, JD, I’m not. I keep thinking I’m going to wake up from this fucking nightmare and S...Sarah and Adam are fine and Chris and the rest of you are laughing at me for worrying over a stupid fucking dream! I’ve tried everything I know to wake up from it, but it’s always the same. Sarah and Adam are d...dead and it’s all because of that bitch!”
 
“I know, Buck, I think we all wish it was a dream,” Dunne said, pouring the distraught man a glass of water and placing it in his trembling hands.
 
“Thanks, Kid,” Wilmington said, wiping the tears from his eyes as he saw the worry in the younger man’s eyes.
 
“You’re welcome, Buck. I wish I could make it all go away,” the young Bostonian said.
 
“So do I, JD, so do I, they didn’t deserve to die like that and Chris certainly doesn’t deserve all this shit! That bitch is gonna rue the day she ever laid eyes on me! I wish the hell I had my hands around her fucking throat right now!”
 
“You and me both, Buck. Now, how do you feel about getting some breakfast before we start back on those files?”
 
“Sounds like a plan...your treat?”
 
“Oh, I think I could scrounge up enough money for McDonalds.”
 
“I want breakfast, JD, not that sh...”
 
“Hey, what’s wrong with an Egg McMuffin?”
 
“Nothing, but if someone’s buying I want bacon and eggs, maybe some pancakes and hash browns and toast and coffee. The kind of breakfast that sticks to a man’s ribs!” Wilmington said, clapping the younger man on the back as he grabbed his jacket and led the younger man out the door.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The drive to the airport left him totally exhausted and he had to force his eyes open once the car pulled to a stop. He shifted in the seat, feeling every bit of misery from the wounds to his body. He sat still as the door was opened and gave his body time to adjust to the upright position once more before exiting the car. He leaned wearily against it and couldn’t help smiling as a familiar figure hurried towards him. 
 
“I can’t tell you how good it is to see you, My Friend,” Standish said as he reached the small entourage.
 
“Good ta see ya too, Ezra. Any word on Chris?”
 
“Nothing new I’m afraid. He’s still missing, but we’re working on the few leads we have.”
 
“Shit, was kinda hopin’ he’d been found by the time ya got here,” Tanner said and watched as Maynard came around the side of the car. “Ez, this is Jackie Maynard. She’s the lady we’re escorting ta Chicago.”
 
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Maynard.”
 
“Thank you, but please call me Jackie, Mr. Standish,” the woman said.
 
“Then I must insist you reciprocate and call me Ezra,” Standish said as a trio of men joined them.
 
“Vin, make damn sure you see your doctor as soon as you land in Billings. I’ve called ahead and let them know what to expect and what we’ve been using to treat you.”
 
“Thanks, Gary,” Tanner said, shaking the man’s hand once more.
 
“Take care, Vin, you too, Jackie. Good luck with whatever you plan on doing now,” Reardon said, moving back towards the cars once more.
 
“All right, gentlemen and lady, the jet is fueled and ready for takeoff. Vin, are you sure you can walk? I mean we can get a...”
 
“Ez, are ya lookin’ ta be shot?”
 
“Oh, I apologize for my slip up,” Standish said, smiling as Jackie moved to walk on Tanner’s right side while he took the left. The two agents walked directly behind them, escorting them to the private entrance and through the turnstiles leading out to the runways. They bypassed the throng of travellers lined up for seats on the waiting planes and were soon climbing the stairs into The Firm’s private jet.
 
Vin thanked the two agents sent by Selena Faraday before climbing what felt like an insurmountable object and was gratefully led towards one of the comfortable seats. Sinking down into the luxurious comfort he fumbled one handed with the belt. He looked up as Jackie Maynard reached for the belt and quickly snapped it in place.
 
“Thanks,” he said with a weak smile.
 
“You’re welcome, Tex. How are you feeling?”
 
“Tired.”
 
“I bet. Here?”
 
“What’s that?” Tanner asked as she dropped two white pills into his left hand.
 
“Tylenol number 3. Gary didn’t want you to be uncomfortable during the trip.”
 
The Texan nodded gratefully and swallowed the medication with a glass of water. He looked to the left as Standish came towards them carrying a blanket and a pillow.
 
“I figured you might be cold and would be in need of a blanket.”
 
“Thanks, Ezra,” Tanner said as the gambler placed the pillow behind his head and draped the blanket around him.
 
“Anytime, My Friend, Now why don’t you try and sleep.”
 
“Sounds like a plan,” Tanner said as Maynard took the seat opposite him and the pilot announced that they were ready for takeoff. ‘I’m comin’, Chris. I’ll find ya and make damn sure that bitch pays for what she’s done!’ he silently vowed.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Nettie, Casey, and Rain watched as Jackson proved he could be just as stubborn and mule headed as his friends. The man was not going to be held down much longer and right now he was slowly making his way towards the small bathroom. He held tightly to the IV pole and forced himself to put one foot in front of the other. They’d been with him most of the morning and knew he was anxious to help in the search for Chris Larabee. His breakfast went untouched and Nettie could see the worry in Rain’s eyes as she watched the injured man disappear into the bathroom and close the door.
 
“It seems to me Nathan needs to practice what he preaches,” the older woman said with a grin.
 
“I think JD and Buck would have loved to have seen this,” Casey agreed. “They are always talking about how Nathan tends to make sure they don’t go against doctor’s orders.”
 
“He’ll soon find out just how hard this is on him if he doesn’t slow down and start eating properly. He knows how important it is to keep up his strength and get plenty of rest,” Goines explained.
 
“Yes, he does, and normally he wouldn’t be like this, but I think he’s feeling a lot of guilt over what happened at the house and the fact that he can’t do much to help search for Chris,” the older woman told them, and grew quiet as they heard the door open and Jackson came back into the room.
 
“Feel better?” Rain asked as she moved to help him back to the chair by the window.
 
“Honestly, feel like hell, but at least I’m out of that damn bed,” Jackson answered irritably.
 
“Seems you’re as stubborn and mule headed as the rest of the team, Nathan,” Nettie commented, smiling as Nathan looked slightly chagrined.
 
“Guess they’ve been rubbing off on me.”
 
“I’d say you’re all built from the same cloth,” the older woman agreed.
 
“Has there been any word on Chris?” Jackson asked, hoping to change the subject.
 
“Nothing since the others came to see you last night,” Casey answered as she sat on the edge of the bed. “Buck and JD are checking the computer files to see if they’ve missed anything. Josiah is working with Robert Miller to check a couple of places Spikes is known to frequent. Ezra should be on his way back with Vin by now, but they were stopping in Chicago to drop Jackie Maynard off first.”
 
“Vin shouldn’t even be traveling in the shape he’s in,” Jackson observed of the stubborn Texan.
 
“Seems to me I’ve heard that before,” Nettie said, smiling at the injured man as she handed him the juice from his breakfast tray.
 
“Thanks, Nettie.”
 
“You’re welcome. Lunch should be here shortly and please don’t tell me you’re not hungry,” the older woman told him.
 
“She’s right, Nathan, worrying yourself sick and not eating is not going to help Chris, Vin, or yourself. All it will do is add to the time you have to spend in here,” Goines told him.
 
“I know, Rain, but Chris has been through so much hell in the last few weeks...he’s lost so much...and fought so hard to stay sane...and now this happens. It’s just not right. How much can one man take?”
 
“Chris is stronger than most men I know, Nathan. I’ve seen him and Sarah go through a lot and they always came out on top...”
 
“I know, Nettie, but they had each other during those times. Now Chris doesn’t have his rock to lean on.”
 
“Maybe not, Nathan, but in the short time I’ve known all of you I’ve seen how much you care for each other and I know Chris will have several fair sized rocks to lean on,” Goines assured him.
 
“Yes...he does,” Jackson said, relaxing against the chair as he pressed the button and felt the medication enter his bloodstream.
 
“Would you like to get back into bed, Nathan?” Rain asked.
 
“Not yet. I just want to sit here a little longer,” the injured man answered.
 
“All right, but don’t overdo it. I’ve got to get back to work, but I’ll check back with you later. Nettie, Casey, don’t let him stay in that chair too long.”
 
“We won’t, Rain,” Casey assured her before the pediatrician left the room.
 
“How are you two doing?” Jackson asked, knowing how traumatic the last few weeks had been for them.
 
“We’re doing okay, Nathan,” Nettie answered, watching the younger man closely.
 
“I know how much you’ve lost, Nettie. You and Casey were close to Sarah and Adam and she once told me you two were the only family outside of Chris and Adam she had left. She loved you both.”
 
“Thank you, Nathan, I needed to hear that,” the older woman said as Jackson stood and made his way to the bed. By the time he settled under the blankets the morphine had deadened the pain in his shoulder and he knew he would soon be asleep. “You two might as well go home...think I’ll sleep until lunch gets here.”
 
“Only if you promise to eat lunch when it gets here,” Nettie warned and smiled as Jackson opened his eyes and gazed up at her.
 
“I will, Nettie, as long as you and Casey grab some lunch too.”
 
“We will, Nathan, rest and feel better,” the younger woman said before closing the drapes and leaving the room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris opened his eyes and forced a smile to his face as the woman he loathed kissed a trail of kisses along his throat and chest. Her touch felt like ice to his heated flesh, and he fought not to cringe away from her touch.
 
“Hello, Lover, sleep well?”
 
“Hmm,” Larabee answered, afraid if he spoke she’d hear the hatred in his voice.
 
“I brought you some dinner...hope you still like beef stew and potatoes,” she said as she helped him sit forward and loosened the restraints on his wrists. She kissed the raw flesh and cooed softly to him. “I’m so sorry we have to keep you restrained, but you have to earn my trust, Chris.”
 
“I’m trying, Ella.”
 
“I know you are, Lover, and I’m so pleased you’re finally starting to see how much I love you. How much I’ve done and sacrificed so we can be together.”
 
Chris seethed inside as he heard her words and was finding it more and more difficult to keep a civil tongue in her presence. His hands were free, but until she released his legs there was no way he could be sure of choking the life from the bitch’s body. ‘You’re nothing but a murdering bitch, Ella, and I’ll make fucking sure you never hurt anyone I care about again!’
 
Chris loathed what he was about to do, but he knew time was running short, although he had no idea how much time had passed since the fatal day at his house, a day that ended with another death that tainted his soul.
 
“Yes, Ella, I know how much you’ve sacrificed for us...for me,” Larabee lied as he pulled his hands from her and drew her close. He hardened his heart to what felt like a betrayal of everything he and Sarah shared, knowing that he had to make her believe he was falling under her spell. He kissed her, hating the feel of her lips against his and stared up at her.
 
“Jack thinks you’re putting on an act to get me to trust you, Chris. For your sake he’d better be wrong,” she warned, a deadly softness to her voice.
 
“Ella, I know I haven’t done anything to prove how I feel, but believe me when I say I’m grateful for what you’ve done,” he said, amazed at how even his voice sounded.
 
“I hope so, Chris, because otherwise our life together is going to be very hard on you,” she said, adjusting the small tray on his lap as she sat back to watch him eat.
 
Chris felt her watching him as he lifted the spoon to his mouth. The stew was bland and the beef tough, yet he forced himself to eat as much as he could. He knew he’d need his strength back if he was going to get away from Ella Gaines and her men. A cup of warm, bitter black coffee accompanied the meal and he forced himself to smile as she asked him how it was.
 
“Tastes great, Ella, did you make this yourself?”
 
“Of course. I’ve learned a lot since you and I were last together. I took a course in basic cooking as well as nursing and a few other things. That’s why I was able to insert the Foley. I didn’t hurt you did I?”
 
“No, you were very gentle, but I’ve always hated those things. Is there any chance of you taking it out?”
 
“Maybe tomorrow, but for now it stays. I don’t think you’re strong enough to get out of bed on your own and the bathroom is on the other side of the warehouse. I’m afraid it’s too long of a walk for you right now and I don’t think you want Robert or the others helping you.”
 
“No, not them, but you could help me,” Larabee said hopefully.
 
“I could, but just not tonight. If you prove you can be trusted tonight then I will remove it tomorrow, but Chris...”
 
“Yes.”
 
“You’d better not be fucking around, because I can guarantee you won’t like the punishment I would mete out,” Gaines warned, punctuating her words by placing her hand on his chest and pressing down with enough force to cause him pain.
 
“Ella, p...please...stop.”
 
“Oh, did I hurt you? I’m sorry, but you need to realize I am in charge here and I expect you to do as I say. I love you, Chris, but I will not allow you to belittle me by making a mockery of that love. Do I make myself clear?”
 
“Y...yes,” the blond mumbled as she finally eased off his chest. He watched as she removed the tray and cursed her under his breath as she walked out of the room. He looked down at his feet and fought the temptation of reaching for the restraints and removing them. He had to bide his time until she trusted him enough to leave him alone for longer periods of time. He was glad he hadn’t been impulsive when she returned less than a minute later and smiled at him.
 
“Very well, Chris. Jack and Robert were taking bets on whether you were trying to remove the restraints from your ankles. I’m very pleased that I can tell them they were wrong.”
 
“Will you leave the restraints off my wrists?” he asked, rubbing the abused skin.
 
“No, not tonight, but if you behave tomorrow I will seriously think about it. For now they go back on, Lover,” she said as she reattached the cuffs to both wrists.
 
Chris knew it would have been a mistake to try to fight her and he lay back against the pillows as she secured his arms once more. He closed his eyes and wished she would leave him alone, but soon felt her fingers in his hair. He loved when Sarah did that to him, but the mere touch of this woman’s hands made his kin crawl. He shuddered and knew from her reaction that she thought he was acting and quickly covered the involuntary move.
 
“Ella, could I have an extra blanket.”
 
“Are you cold, Chris?”
 
“Yes,” he answered softly.
 
“I’ll see if there’s another blanket. Would it help if I laid down beside you?”
 
“Y...yes it would,” he lied, biting his lip in an effort to keep from gagging at her nearness. He felt her release her hold on him and leave the room once more and he relaxed as he fought the churning of his stomach. What he was doing went against everything he believed in, everything he loved and stood for, but to give in to his hatred would make it impossible to have vengeance on this woman. He felt his mind drifting towards sleep as a thick blanket was draped over him and a warm body stretched out beside him.
 
“Sleep well, Lover,” Ella whispered against his ear.
 
Chris smiled inwardly as he realized she hadn’t given him the usual injection and knew he was winning her over, but he could not let down his guard. She would see right through his tricks if he did, and he could not afford to lose the little ground he’d gained. His mind wandered to the Texan so far away and he realized he had no idea whether he was dead or alive. The connection he had with the sharpshooter transcended the normal bounds of existence and sometimes they could feel each other and know whether the other man needed help or not.
 
‘Are you there, Vin,’ he thought and felt something deep in his soul. The Texan was out there, somewhere, and Chris was grateful for the quicksilver touch against his subconscious.




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