AUTHOR: Sue Necessary

DISCLAIMER: No, they don't belong to me. They belong to each other! And all those other people who clearly don't know how to treat them...

PAIRING: Let's see, who could it be? (Checks author's name) Could it be... C/V? (Y'all could at least look surprised)

RATING: NC-17 for explicit m/m sex. Quite a bit of explicit m/m sex, as a matter of fact. If it's not your thing, man, are you in the wrong story!

NOTES: This was written for DebM's birthday. It's got everything she begged... er, asked... for. It's ATF, it's C/V, it's h/c, it's got Nettie, it's got Peso, it's got Vin-hurt... hell, it literally has the kitchen sink! (Okay, she didn't ask for the sink, but I couldn't help myself.) Deepest gratitude, as always, to Ruby, my beta and pard, without whom I'd be more off-track than I am already, to KET for her invaluable medical assistance, and to the birthday gal herself for requesting this story. I've had a ball writing it! Which could explain its length...

 


 

Vin Tanner leaned over the piece of lumber laid across two sawhorses and carefully measured and marked the plank where he'd need to saw it. His face was a mask of concentration, blue eyes narrowed and intensely focused, the tip of his tongue just visible between his lips. He reached up absently to brush sweat-damp bangs off his forehead, but the rest of his long hair was caught up in a neat ponytail to keep it out of his way. The set of marks made, he shoved the pencil behind one ear and measured again to be sure.

Measure twice, cut once.

He smiled slightly at the old axiom that echoed in his memory. He'd learned it, as he'd learned the skills he was using today, years ago, in one of the better foster homes he'd known. His foster father had been a contract carpenter, and a warm, jovial bear of a man. Seeking some way to bond with the quiet boy the State of Texas had placed into his and his wife's care, he'd offered to teach him what he could of his trade. And Vin, amazed that a man with two boys of his own would pay such attention to one who wasn't, responded with a surprising interest and discovered a true aptitude for the work.

He still treasured the memories of his six months with Joe and Sadie Walker and their two sons; the love and stability they'd given him had gotten him through rockier times later. And Joe, through his tutelage, had given Vin a means of earning enough money to keep food in his belly long after he'd made his escape from the whole foster system. He sometimes wondered if Joe, blessed with a keen insight into human nature, hadn't somehow anticipated that someday he'd run, and had done what he could to stack the odds in his favor.

Maybe it was time he got in touch with Joe, and thanked him for that.

He continued to measure and to mark lengths of lumber, relying more on his memory to tell him what he needed rather than the piece of paper he'd stuffed in his jacket pocket. His memory, he knew, could be trusted. The dimensions he'd scribbled down couldn't. Never knew when he'd reversed some of the numbers.

When he was ready, he put on work gloves and safety glasses, then picked up the circular saw, set it in place and started cutting. The shrill buzz shattered the midmorning quiet, and soon the sweet fragrance of fresh-cut lumber filled the air around him. After about twenty minutes, when he had all he'd need, he turned off the saw and locked the blade, and for the first time heard the truck pulling up the gravel drive. He pushed the safety glasses to the top of his head and nodded once, satisfied that he'd timed it just about right. He'd take the planks and go inside, and by the time he got the floor laid, lunch should be ready.

And lunch on Saturday was almost always chicken and dumplings.

A contented light shone in his eyes, and he began to whistle softly as he piled the planks into the battered old wheelbarrow. This feeling of happiness, of a deep and quiet peace, was still so new to him that he had to marvel at it when it stole over him. He supposed there were a hundred names he could give it, but only one had any true meaning for him.

Chris Larabee.

The mere thought of the man caused his soul to lift and every knot that had ever been tied inside him to unclench. The warmth of desire quickened the blood in his veins, but there was more, so much more. Every hurt done him had been healed, every riddle in his past had been solved, and the last piece of himself, missing for so long, had finally clicked into place. He was whole, he was complete, and if he never got another goddamned thing in his life, it would be all right, because he had this.

This was Chris. And this was love.

The truck pulled up and stopped just as he started pushing the wheelbarrow toward the house. He was only a few feet from the porch when he heard the rattle and squeak of the opening door, so he set the wheelbarrow down and turned to watch the figure emerging from the cab, pulling off his gloves and shoving them into his jacket pockets. The door was slammed shut, and a soft smile curved about his mouth.

"Land's sakes, son, are you still at it? Thought I told you ta take a break!"

He chuckled softly and shook his head as the small, white-haired woman made her way across the yard to him with a firm, determined stride. God alone knew how old Nettie Wells was - she might be anywhere from sixty to eighty - but age had taken nothing from her in strength or spirit. Her keen eyes were as clear and undimmed as a girl's, and could still shoot fire when they lit upon something displeasing.

And, right now, that seemed to be him.

"Aw, hell, Nettie," he drawled, his smile never faltering, "I told ya I wanted ta get this finished today. Cain't havin' you or Casey fallin' through the bathroom floor." He tilted his head to one side as she drew close and stared up at him. "I done took a break earlier. Had me some coffee 'n some 'a them molasses cookies."

She exhaled sharply and shook her head, setting her hands on her hips. "You and your molasses cookies," she scolded, though there was no heat in her voice. "I swear, you'd make a meal out of 'em if ya could. With your eatin' habits, boy, I don't understand why you don't weigh two hundred pounds. Instead, you're naught but gristle and bone!"

He winked and grinned slyly at her. "Could maybe use some chicken and dumplin's ta fatten me up."

She snorted and slapped him lightly on one arm. "If they were gonna do the trick, they'd've done it long ago. Face it, Vin, you're just not the fattenin' kind." She gave a wry chuckle. "And, Lord, do I envy you that!" She cast her gaze over the wheelbarrow. "How much longer you think you'll be?"

He shifted on his feet to stand hipshot - a move not missed by the sharp-eyed old woman beside him - and scratched one whiskered jaw in thought. "Well, the sub-floorin's done, support studs are all in place..." He fell silent, his eyes narrowing slightly, then nodded once. "Reckon all's I gotta do is lay the floor planks, then put down that coverin'-"

"Nonsense," she interrupted, waving a hand dismissingly. "I can do that. It's just vinyl floor coverin', all you do is peel it and stick. No sense you doin' all the work."

He arched a brow at her. "You know I don't mind-"

"I know you don't, son," she said softly, laying a gnarled hand on his arm and smiling up at him. "I know if you could, you'd rebuild this whole house for me with never a word of complaint. But I don't need that, Vin, and you don't need ta be doin' it. You think I can't tell from the way you're standin' that your back's already hurtin' you some? Besides," she winked saucily, "I reckon I'm still spry enough ta lay vinyl flooring, and the day I can't do that much is the day you can wheel me into the home."

He laughed at that thought and absently reached out to brush dirty fingers over her weathered cheek. "Hell, Nettie," he rasped lovingly, "ain't no home in Denver ready fer you, and you know it. And you sure ain't ready fer no home."

"Reckon you're right, son," she said, lifting her chin and fixing that keen gaze on his. "I'm just not ready ta start keepin' company with all those old folks. Now, you think you'll be ready ta eat by the time I get a pot of chicken and dumplin's cooked?"

A broad smile spread over his face and lit his eyes brilliantly. "I'm sure I c'n work up some kinda appetite."

"See that you do," she ordered, though her eyes gleamed warmly, "or there'll be no more molasses cookies for you. If, that is," she added as he ducked his head guiltily, "there are any left."

He cleared his throat and reached into his jacket pockets, pulling out his heavy gloves and slipping them on. "Well, reckon I'd best get back ta work-"

"You ate 'em all?" she asked in sharp disbelief.

He turned wide and wounded blue eyes upon her. "But ya made 'em with that frostin'," he protested softly, "'n you know I cain't resist your frosted molasses cookies. There's nobody in the world makes 'em like you."

Those eyes and that soft, raspy drawl undid her, as they did every time. Likely as he'd intended them to. He had a way she'd never learned to guard against. And, frankly, hadn't spent much time trying.

"You get on back inside and get back ta work," she sighed, fighting the smile trying to break through, and failing. "I'll get the groceries put away, then get your lunch on."

"Need any help?"

"I do not," she informed him, drawing up to her full height. "The last thing I need is a man in my kitchen, breakin' or spillin' what he doesn't just misplace. And you've got enough ta do without takin' on any more. I swear, Vin Tanner, you're a sheer glutton for work!"

He shrugged. "Jist like ta help," he said quietly. "Pay ya back some fer all ya done fer me."

She sighed and reached up, laying a hand against his tanned, unshaven cheek, her eyes soft and full. "You don't owe me a thing, son," she assured him gently. "Everything I've ever done for you, I've done because I wanted to. My one regret is that I couldn't do more when you really needed it."

He smiled and took her hand in his gloved one, then raised it to his lips and kissed her fingers. "Couldn't do more than ya have," he breathed, loving the fierce old woman with everything that was in him. "Not if I'd been yours from the start."

Tears stung her eyes and she blinked them back, appalled by their presence. "You get on inside," she ordered hoarsely, wishing he had been hers from the start. "There's nothin' worse in this life than a man who lolly-gags when there's honest work ta be done."

7~7~7~7

A mere two hours later, Nettie Wells's bathroom had a brand new floor to replace the one damaged by a leak in the hot water heater. Vin had worked with his usual efficiency, skill and speed, figuring out well ahead of time just how many boards he'd need and exactly to what size he'd need to cut them. No wasted effort, no wasted time, no wasted materials.

Another of Joe Walker's lessons.

He tested the floor thoroughly, even jumped and down on it. Was still jumping when Nettie came up on him from behind.

"You practicin' for the next Olympics?" she asked suddenly, startling him so that he landed off balance and went crashing into the nearest wall. "Lord, son, I'm sorry," she apologized in a rush, hurrying over to him and helping him stand. "I guess I forgot how you hate folks comin' up on ya."

"'S'all right," he gasped, straightening shakily, his face gone white, his heart racing in his chest like the hooves of a runaway horse. "Shouldn't have t' announce yourself in your own home."

She reached up and laid a hand against his cheek, turning his face to her. She could see shame in his eyes at his reaction, and wished she could take it from him. "It's your home, too, Vin," she reminded him. "Always has been, always will be. Thought you knew that by now."

He managed a strained smile at the unabashed affection in her voice and touch. As she stroked his cheek, his heart began to slow to a more normal rate, and the instinctive terror that had momentarily gripped him vanished beneath her warmth. He reached up to curl his fingers around hers, relieved to see their shaking subsiding.

"Ain't somethin' I'm ever likely ta forget," he breathed, his smile growing stronger. "Ya done hammered it inta me long enough."

She arched an iron-gray brow. "Head as hard as yours requires a powerful lot of hammerin'," she quipped. "Now, you ready ta eat?"

"Ain't I always?"

She laughed and shook her head. "Yes, you are. And, for the life of me, I can't see where you put it! Now, you wash up, then come on in and sit down. I've got fresh coffee on, as well."

She left him and went into the kitchen, setting out dishes, flatware and food on the small table there. For the weather report more than anything, she turned on the radio on the counter, and heard instead another update on the war in Afghanistan. Vin came in a few moments later and sat down, listening to the news of the latest fighting with her. When it was over, no longer in the mood for the forecast, she turned off the radio, shaking her head sadly as she poured two cups of coffee.

"God forgive me if it's wrong," she sighed, carrying the cups to the table and seating herself in the chair to his left, "but I can't help bein' glad you're out of the Army, out of Special Forces, and out of all that mess." She passed a cup to him and glanced into his eyes, frowning when he dropped his gaze. "I guess you have a better idea than most of what they're doin' over there."

He winced and dosed his coffee with a heaping teaspoon of sugar. "Reckon so," he breathed, remembering his own experiences far more vividly than he'd like. "Ain't somethin' that makes fer proper table conversation."

She nodded. He'd never told her all he'd done as an Army sniper, and she never expected him to, doubted he'd ever share all of it with anyone. She simply hoped it was a burden he could carry alone without it doing any harm to him. "Still, I reckon some jobs need doin', even the ugly ones, and we should give thanks for the ones with the strength to do 'em. And pray that they find peace afterward."

He lifted his gaze and turned it back to her, grateful for her understanding. But, then, he supposed he'd come to depend on her for that more than anything. It wasn't just the food that kept him coming to her table.

"And speakin' of jobs that need doin'," she said more brightly, ladling out a generous helping of chicken and dumplings for him, "you never did tell me how that seminar of yours went." She threw a teasing smile at him. "I see you survived it."

He laughed quietly and shook his head. At a recent conference for various law enforcement agencies, he'd been asked to give a talk on the role of the sharpshooter in tactical operations, as well as to provide information on the latest developments in weapons and training. And, to put it mildly, he'd panicked. He, who hated just being in a crowd, had been asked to address one, and the prospect had plunged him into alternating bouts of nightmares and insomnia. He'd tried his best to talk his way out of it, had done all he could to court every virus and germ floating about Denver, had hoped fervently for some debilitating but temporary injury.

He'd remained disgustingly healthy, and had decided then that God did truly hate him.

But he'd done it, though he was now fairly certain a man could drown in his own sweat. And... "I survived," he admitted. When her brow again rose, he chuckled ruefully. "Hell, I reckon it weren't so bad, after all. In fact, Chris said I done real good."

Nettie said nothing, merely let him talk, overlooking his fractured grammar. She knew he could do better when he tried, when he felt he had to, and the part of her that had been a teacher supposed she ought to prompt him to do so always. But the part of her that had claimed him as the son of her heart if not her body overrode the teacher, recognizing that, with her, he felt comfortable enough, relaxed enough, simply to be himself. And, for that gift, she could ignore any maiming of the language.

"'S the strangest thing," Vin went on, frowning slightly, "Chris said all along I could do it. Said I's the best man to do it. Said it's about time the brass realized what he and the boys'd known all along, that I'm the best at what I do." Soft color flooded his cheeks, and an embarrassed chuckle escaped him. "'Course, Chris is always sayin' things like that, 'bout me bein' the best. I ain't so sure it's true, but he sure sounds convinced."

Nettie smiled and sipped from her coffee, inclined to agree with Chris Larabee. She also recognized that hers was not a completely unbiased opinion.

"But he done all he could ta help me," Vin said quietly. He stared out the kitchen window, his meal forgotten, and a slight smile ghosted about his mouth as his thoughts again drifted to the man who held the better half of his soul. "I tell ya, I ain't ever had anybody like him standin' by me before. Even when I cain't see him, I know he's there, givin' me the strength I need ta do what's gotta be done. Like that damn seminar. I jist knew I couldn't do it, that I's gonna make a mess outta the whole shebang, but Chris wouldn't hear that. He didn't ever try ta take over, didn't ever tell me what ta do or how ta do it, but all the same he was there. And when it came time fer me ta talk, he was still there, in the front row, noddin' and smilin' at me the whole time." He sighed softly. "Jist ain't got the words ta say what that meant."

Nettie ate in silence and listened to him, then was startled by the fact that she was actually listening to him. Vin Tanner, possibly the quietest man she'd ever known in her life, wasn't just talking, but was doing all the talking. And didn't show any sign of stopping soon.

"But he's always like that," he said, completely oblivious to her shock. "I mean, he's jist always right there when I need him, even if I ain't so sure I really do need him." He snorted sharply. "He calls me stubborn, but, I'll tell ya, there ain't anybody on this earth any more stubborn than Larabee! When he sets his mind ta somethin', God himself might as well move over, 'cause ain't nothin' gonna move him! But, Lord," he sighed, "there's somethin' almighty comfortin' about knowin' ya got that kinda strength, that kinda power, in your life."

She set down her fork and stared at him, studied him, seeing every expression that chased so freely across that normally impassive, guarded face. The softness and light in his deep blue eyes startled her, as did the peace and contentment that radiated from him. All at once, she was looking directly into his heart, his soul, and nothing could have prepared her for what she now saw in them.

Vin was in love with Chris Larabee.

She swallowed hard and sat back, taking this new revelation like she did everything else in her life - stoically, unflinchingly, offering neither denial nor blame. She'd known Vin too long and too well to be shocked or disgusted by his preference for men, had known that about him almost from the first. And while there were a great many things in people that Nettie Wells could judge and damn, the capacity to love, no matter how that love was oriented, was not among them. She just couldn't

see how being attracted to men negated all the good she knew was in Vin Tanner.

But... still. This was Vin, her Vin, the young man she loved as if she'd borne him herself. And she knew - merciful Jesus, how she knew! - how badly he'd been hurt in the past by what others had so carelessly and so cruelly misnamed as "love." What bothered her now, what frightened her now, was that while Vin so clearly loved Chris as he'd never loved anyone else, she had absolutely no idea if that love was returned.

Chris Larabee was a good man, and a good friend, she knew that. But he was also a man who'd been married, who'd had a child. And there was absolutely nothing in him that she'd ever seen that even hinted at his ability or willingness to love another man.

No, not just "another man." Vin. Her Vin.

Nettie Wells sat up, resumed eating, resumed listening. And commenced thinking.

"...never thought I'd be a part of somethin' like that," Vin was saying, still having no idea that Nettie's mind had wandered. "I got me a place now, and I never had that before. Well," he smiled softly and turned loving eyes to her, "'cept here with you. Never thought I'd have anything that made me feel as good as what I got here."

She leaned forward and reached out, taking his hand and gripping it tightly. "And you'll always have that," she said firmly, almost fiercely, holding his gaze with hers. "You know that, don't you? No matter what happens, you know my door is always open ta you, and when you've got nowhere else ta turn, you've always got a place right here!"

The raw feeling in her voice startled him, confused him, and he stared at her in bewilderment, feeling as if he'd missed something important. "'Course I know that," he said slowly, trying to figure out what had sparked the change in her. "Ain't likely ta forget it when it's been my only shelter so many times before."

She squeezed his hand, then forced herself to let it go and sat back, willing a smile for his benefit. "Good. And maybe," her decision made, she was finally able to relax, "you'd like ta show off your handiwork. Why don't you come ta supper tomorrow evenin'. And ask Chris ta come, too."

"Chris?" he asked in surprise. As far as he could recall, she had never made a point of inviting Larabee in particular. Oh, he knew the man was always welcome, all his teammates were. But she'd never specifically mentioned him by name without including the others. "Why?"

Once more, that mobile, imperious gray brow shot up, and she directed a commanding stare at him. "You're not the only man in this world needs fattenin' up, Vin Tanner," she informed him. "Besides, I've got a brisket in the freezer, and it's just too much for me and Casey alone. So you come to supper tomorrow, and invite Chris. You two can help me get rid of that thing. And, just maybe," a smile teased the corners of her mouth, "I can find all I need ta make another batch of frosted molasses cookies."

His smile was immediate and brilliant. "Hell, Nettie, when ya put it like that, I cain't hardly refuse! All right," his blue eyes shone so brightly it hurt her heart to see it, "we'll be here. I reckon even Chris cain't turn down brisket and frosted molasses cookies!"

Nettie smiled and nodded, then resumed eating, and was glad to see him do the same. She prayed he'd forgive her if he ever found out what she was doing, but hoped he never suspected. After all, she'd never meddled in his affairs before.

But that was about to change.

7~7~7~7

She watched him carefully as he prepared to leave, her sharp eyes filled with knowing, faint lines of worry creasing her brow. He was hurting, she could tell by his movements, his usual loose-limbed, fluid grace replaced now by a strained tightness that clearly bespoke his pain. And what his body did not give away, his face did, at least to her, his eyes missing their familiar sparkle, his mouth pulling into a thin, white line as he eased himself into his coat.

Damn fool boy had over-done, she thought, lifting her chin as a spark of anger ignited within her.

Replacing her bathroom floor hadn't been enough. No, not for him. He'd also had to reinforce her rickety porch railing and hang the shutters the last windstorm had blown down. She had tried to tell him he didn't have to get it all done today, that there was no sense hurting himself over repairs that could wait, but the stubborn cuss wouldn't listen. She snorted softly and shook her head, her eyes flashing. In all the years she'd known him, that much hadn't changed a bit! Let the boy get an

idea set in his mind, and dynamite wouldn't shake it loose.

Still, he should know better by now. His problems with his back were nothing new, and, just as she'd expected - just as he should've expected - he was paying the price for his mule-headedness. She could've told him this would happen; come to think of it, she had told him. And he'd just given her that little-boy smile of his, told her not to fret, and gone on right ahead with his foolishness.

If the good Lord insisted on making men, why, why couldn't He at least make 'em with some sense?

"You're frettin' again," he said softly, plainly reading the anger and frustration glinting in her eyes. "Told ya I'll be all right. Ain't like I've never had a backache before."

"Wouldn't have one now if you'd listened to me," she reminded him primly. "I swear, son-"

"I'm all right," he assured her, lying through his teeth. "'S jist a twinge. I'll take a long, hot shower when I get to the ranch, maybe even lay on a heatin' pad-"

"The ranch?" she repeated sharply. "Chris's ranch? Aren't you goin' home?"

He froze momentarily, only now realizing what he'd said and silently cursing his own stupidity. For an instant, he thought of lying again, but reconsidered; he wouldn't put it past her to call and check up on him. "No, ma'am," he answered at last. "I'm goin' over ta Chris's." When he saw her brows lift, he sought quickly some explanation that she'd believe. "Boiler's out in my buildin' again. My apartment's like a freezer, and Chris said I could stay at the ranch 'til it's fixed."

She instinctively knew he was lying to her, knew lack of heat had nothing to do with his desire to be with Chris, and felt another sharp twist of fear for him in her gut. She prayed he knew what he was doing, but was terrified that he didn't. Vin never gave his heart easily, but, when he did, he gave it completely. And if it were given back to him in pieces, she feared the pain of it would send him running so far that even she wouldn't be able to reach him.

She'd be damned if she'd let that happen.

She squared her shoulders, lifted her head, and went to him, wishing she could shield him from all future hurts as she hadn't been able to do from past ones. Gripping the edges of his coat, she pulled them close and began fastening the buttons, lifting her gaze to his and smiling tenderly.

"You just take care of yourself, you hear me, son?" she instructed softly, her words including far more than just his aching back. "I don't like seein' you in pain."

He smiled down at her and brushed gloved fingers over her weathered cheek. "I'm sure Chris'll make sure I take it easy. He's almost as good as you at frettin' over a body. You try not ta worry, all right?"

She sighed softly, knowing he hadn't understood her at all. "Honey, I'll stop worryin' about you the day they lay me in my grave. Now," she tightened her grip on his coat and pulled him down, careful not to jar his back, and pressed a kiss to his cheek, "you go on, and drive carefully. Like as not, there's still some ice on these back roads, and Lord knows you Texans never have learned to drive on the stuff." She pushed him back upright. "And don't forget about supper tomorrow."

He chuckled at that and winked. "Ain't ever forgot it before, ain't likely I'll start forgettin' it now." He bobbed his head in farewell. "I'll see ya t'morrow."

She followed him out of the house and stood on the porch, crossing her arms against her chest and watching as he climbed stiffly into his Jeep. She knew it was foolish to worry over a man fully grown and bent on living his life his way, but that knowledge did nothing to ease the hard ache of concern for him that had taken up residence in her heart. She waited there until he drove away, until the battered blue vehicle disappeared from her sight, then exhaled heavily and turned, going back into the house. Once inside, she sank into the heavy wooden rocker before the hearth and stared into the fire, her resolve deepening.

Vin was in love with Chris Larabee. And she, by God, was going to find out exactly how Chris felt about him.

7~7~7~7

Vin pulled around to the back of the ranch house and stopped beside the big black Ram truck, killing the engine but staying in his seat, making no move as yet to exit the Jeep. And not at all looking forward to the inevitable moment when he must exit.

Lord God, his back ached.

No, that wasn't quite true. He sighed heavily and let his head fall back against the padded rest, closing his eyes and grimacing tightly. His back had ached a few hours ago, before he'd left Nettie's. Now, it flat-out hurt like a sonuvabitch, the pain pressing hard against his lower spine with all the sharpness of a knife's edge. Even worse, it was spreading, as he'd known from long experience it would, sinking deep into his right hip and sending spasms shooting down his leg courtesy of his sciatic nerve. Hell, the only thing he really knew about a sciatic nerve was how goddamn much it could hurt.

And now he was gonna have to get out of the Jeep.

Damn.

A dry, wry chuckle escaped him. He had only himself to blame. She'd said that working on the floor had put enough of a strain on his back already, and there was no sense in making it any worse. But he'd ignored her, and done what he'd intended all along. And thrown out his back in the process.

Mule-headed, she'd called him, mule-headed and foolish. He sighed again. Seemed she could at least try to come up with some different names to call him.

And he still had to get out of the Jeep.

Shit.

"All right, Tanner," he sighed, opening his eyes and lifting his head, "ain't nothin' to it but ta do it." Ri-i-ight...

He unbuckled his seatbelt, then had to help it retract, and unlocked and opened his door. So far, so good. Of course, as yet he'd only moved an arm. At least the sciatic nerve didn't run up his arm... He straightened in his seat, grimacing deeply at the pull on his back, then, moving as little of his back as possible, turned slowly in his seat, careful to move both legs together.

Oh, wouldn't the team just love to see their agile, leaping, crouching, flying sharpshooter now? Maybe Nettie was right about that mule-headed thing...

Keeping firmly in mind on which side of his body the pain was concentrated - not that there was much chance of him forgetting that - he extended his left leg and, bracing himself against the seat with one hand and the steering wheel with the other, eased himself out of the Jeep and onto the ground, taking all his weight on his left foot. And smiled in triumph.

He was out, and he was up. Now, all he had to do was stand like this for a few minutes, let his body adjust, give his hip and leg time to stop screaming, then he could walk into the house, and, with any luck, Chris need never know how hard it had been just to get here. He'd say he had to use the bathroom, down a couple of ibuprofin, and let Larabee spend the rest of the night taking his mind off his back.

Oh, yeah, it was a plan. A good plan. It could work. It should work. Hell, he was pretty sure it would work.

Until he looked up and saw the man standing on the porch, the glowing end of his cheroot a beacon in the gathering dusk, green eyes he could almost feel fixed on him like twin lasers. Or like the red dot of light from a sniper's rifle. Chris was there. Chris had seen him get out of the Jeep.

Chris knew.

Fuck.

Or most likely not.

Mule-headed. Oh, yeah. Did Nettie have him pegged, or what?

And now he had to walk to the porch, with goddamn knives slicing into his back and down his leg, and Larabee standing there, watching him like he was trying to figure out which end to start chewing on first. Sometimes life just sucked.

Chris stood and watched Vin in silence, puffing on the cheroot clamped between his teeth, hands thrust into the front pockets of his jeans. He could see the pain in every line of the Texan's body, could almost feel it even from here, and wondered just what in the hell Tanner had managed to do to himself under Nettie Wells' fiercely protective care. The answer came to him at the mere thought of the woman's name. Vin, goddamn his sorry, scrawny, ornery ass, had taken on at least one job - though more likely two or three - too many, and had managed to throw out his back.

Mule-headed. Oh, yeah. Did Nettie have him pegged, or what?

He stood there a few moments longer, finishing his cheroot and trying to decide whether to go help Vin or go kill him. Tanner hadn't moved, was staring at him like a deer would a hunter, and even from here Chris could just make out the startled and guilty wideness of his eyes. The stubborn, stoic sonuvabitch had been planning to try and sneak this past him.

"Busted," he breathed, taking the cheroot from his mouth and tossing the burning stub into the snow-covered yard. "Idiot."

Vin groaned and bowed his head as Chris stepped off the porch. Stupid, stupid, stupid! How could he be so stupid? He closed his eyes tightly in frustration. What in the hell had made him think Chris wouldn't see, wouldn't know? When was the last time Larabee had missed something? Missed anything? Especially if had anything to do with him? Hell, Chris could damn near read his mind, and he'd thought the man was gonna miss a backache so bad it was all he could do to walk?

"Shit, Tanner, you're an idiot!"

"Yeah, that's pretty much what I said."

He looked up sharply at the low, irritated voice, startled to find Chris standing so near him. God, couldn't the man even crunch in the snow like normal people?

"Shouldn't sneak up on me like that," he accused, straightening as much as he could. Time to find out if a good offense really was the best defense, or if it was just the shortest route to the grave. "You know I don't like it. Hell, what if I'd shot ya? Y' ever stop ta think about that?"

Chris returned the offended blue glare coolly, slightly arching one blond brow. "First of all," he said evenly, refusing to let Vin have this victory, "since I came straight at you from the porch about ten feet away in passable light, I don't think what I did could by any definition, even one of yours, be considered 'sneaking.' I can't help it if you just weren't payin' attention. Second of all," he crossed his arms against his chest, "since you're comin' from Nettie's, I'm pretty sure you're not packin'. I know she makes you leave your gun in the Jeep, and I know you usually keep it on the passenger's seat when you're drivin'. And, third," he sighed deeply and shook his head slowly, his mouth twisting into a frown, "how the hell could you possibly reach for your gun, draw it and shoot me when it's all you can do to stand up?"

Vin narrowed his eyes and lifted his chin, scowling darkly and seething with annoyance that Chris should know him so well. "Think yer so goddamn smart, don'tcha?" he growled.

Chris's other brow lifted. "Smart enough to know what I can and can't do." He sighed again and slid his hands to his hips. "All right," he breathed, "how bad is it?"

Vin's chin rose a fraction higher. "How bad's what?" he asked defiantly.

Chris dropped his head forward and closed his eyes, counting slowly to ten. He pursed his lips, raised his face to the sky and opened his eyes, and tried not to think about how good it would feel to once, just once, haul off and deck the maddening Texan.

But then he'd just have to drag him into the house...

He exhaled slowly and returned his gaze to Vin. "Your back," he said quietly, calmly, deliberately. "How bad is your back hurting you right now?"

Tanner scowled more deeply still and crossed his arms, turning over the question in his mind and trying to find some answer that wasn't a lie, but wasn't quite the truth, either. He'd noticed that Chris hadn't asked him if his back was hurting, had skipped completely that part of the argument, and he wasn't sure he liked it.

Goddamn glaring, arrogant bastard never did fight fair.

"Okay." Chris had all the answer he needed in Tanner's non-answer. "Here's the deal. I'm gonna help you into the house, you're gonna take a muscle relaxer, and then you're gonna take the longest, hottest shower you can endure." It wasn't a question. He'd learned long ago that, if given a choice, Vin would make it as difficult on as many people as was humanly possible. He didn't really take orders any better, but, right now, Larabee figured he could take him in a fight.

Vin shifted his weight instinctively onto his right hip, and immediately shifted it right back off as the muscles in his back grabbed sharply in protest. "And if I don't?" he rasped tightly, refusing to make any cry of pain.

Chris's anger fled at the sight of the hurt Vin wouldn't acknowledge but couldn't hide, and his whole demeanor softened. He stepped close to Tanner and lifted a hand to cup his cheek, his green eyes soft with sympathy and concern. "Do it, please?" he murmured. "There's a time to be stubborn, but this isn't it. You're in pain. Why don't you just let me help?"

Vin let go and sagged against the older man, dropping his head onto Chris' shoulder. "Back hurts like hell," he breathed tiredly. "I did too much at Nettie's. 'N right now, a hot shower sounds awful nice."

Chris turned his head and pressed a kiss into Vin's hair. "Come on, then, and let's get you settled. I'll get you the muscle relaxers while you get undressed-"

"I don't want any pills."

"I'll get you the muscle relaxers while you get undressed-"

Vin chuckled ruefully, his head still on Larabee's shoulder. "Reckon you'll get me the muscle relaxers while I get undressed," he surrendered.

"Then you'll get a shower. And if you're good and do as you're told, I'll give you a back-rub after the shower."

Vin lifted his head and slanted a mischievous look at his partner. "And if I'm not good and don't do as I'm told?"

Chris gave a slight, warning smile. "Then I'll kick your ass, put you to bed, call Nettie and tell her you're misbehavin' and call Nathan and tell him you're hurt."

Vin's eyes widened and a small sound of alarm escaped him. "You wouldn't!"

Chris' smile grew. "Try me."

Vin sighed heavily and his shoulders slumped. "Hell, what'm I sayin'? Of course, you would. And enjoy ever' damn minute of it!"

"Yeah," Chris agreed. "But I'd enjoy givin' you a back-rub even more."

Vin licked his lips slowly at the thought of those wondrous hands moving over his body and working out his pain. "Yeah," he whispered, smiling as his defiance crumbled, "reckon I would, too."

"See?" Chris asked, brushing the back of one hand lightly over Vin's cheek, "you're not so big an idiot, after all."

7~7~7~7

Vin shuddered and groaned thickly in almost unbearable pleasure as long, strong fingers dug deeply into his shoulders and worked out every kink in the tight muscles, finding each knot of pain and releasing it. From his shoulders, the miraculous hands moved up the column of his neck, thumbs pressing to the base of his skull and rubbing slowly, eliciting another low, contented moan from him.

"Like that?" breathed the low, throaty voice into his ear, sending a warm tendril of air over his neck.

"Mm-hmm," he sighed, smiling as Chris's firm lips nibbled lightly at his ear. "Like that even more."

"Greedy bastard, aren'tcha, Tanner?" Larabee pushed the still-damp mass of hair away from his lover's neck, and pressed a series of slow, moist kisses to the flesh warm there.

"Reckon I jist been spoiled," Vin whispered shakily as his skin began to tingle beneath the hungry mouth. "Goddamn, Larabee, you give a helluva back-rub!"

Chris chuckled softly, his breath again fanning over Vin's skin, then pressed another kiss there and sat up. "I've just started, pard," he promised. "Haven't even touched your back yet."

Vin groaned again and shifted slightly, not at all sure it was his back that now needed the most attention. He was lying on his stomach in Larabee's wide bed, wearing only a towel after his shower, and Chris, clad only in jeans, was sitting astride his thighs, Larabee's long, hard legs clamped firmly against him. The combined sensations of Chris's hands, breath, mouth and legs were stirring the familiar reaction within him, and he shifted again, trying to relieve the painful pressure of his own body against his hardening cock.

"Think maybe... there's somethin' else needs touchin'," he rasped, rolling his hips and licking his lips, trying to slip a hand beneath his body to help himself.

"No, you don't," Chris objected, reaching down to capture the straying hand by the wrist and sliding it back up the bed to rest beside Vin's shoulder. "You just lie there and behave. Let me take care of your back, then," he grinned and trailed his fingers slowly over the firm, towel-covered ass before him, "I'll take care of the rest of you."

"You got a mean streak in you, Larabee," Vin ground out through gritted teeth as the hand stroking his butt did nothing to lessen the growing ache of his still-trapped cock. "You'd put a horse outta its mis'ry. Don't I deserve as much?"

A wicked glint appeared in Chris's green eyes. "Want me ta shoot ya?"

Vin lifted his head from the pillow and winked over his shoulder. "Somethin' like that."

Chris laughed and reached out, pushing Vin's head back down. "Sorry, Tanner, when I shoot you it's gonna be to end my misery, not yours. Now, relax."

Vin sighed sharply in frustration and buried his face in the pillow. "Easy fer you ta say," he growled.

Chris exhaled slowly, letting his gaze roam over Tanner's supple shoulders, sinewy back, narrow waist and tight ass, feeling the steel-hard muscles of the long, slim legs between his, and marveling at the lean and finely-sculpted beauty of the man beneath him. As his eyes feasted, his cock stiffened and surged with the need to do the same, and he swallowed hard.

"Oh," he breathed shakily, his eyes darkening with desire, "not as easy as you think."

Vin heard the hunger in that husky voice and allowed himself a smug smile. "Gettin' a mite heated, are ya, cowboy?"

"I thought I told you ta behave."

"Ain't doin' nothin' but layin' here," Vin said with that same smirk. "Cain't blame me fer your little 'problem' there."

"You're to blame for most of my problems, and you know it," Chris growled. "Hell, you delight in it!"

"I'm jist bad news," Vin sighed mournfully. "Reckon I need some tough lawman ta bring me to my knees."

Chris nearly choked at the thought of Vin on his knees, doing what he did best. Or maybe second best. It was always a toss-up whether Tanner was best on his knees or his...

"Hey? You still with me?" Vin called, easily able to feel the tension building in Larabee's body and recognizing it for what it was. "Could always skip the back-rub-"

"You still hurtin'?" Chris asked hoarsely, clamping an iron lid down upon his unruly passions.

Vin licked his lips, wondering if he could get away with a lie. If he could convince Chris the pain was gone, then they could just get on with-

He sighed in defeat, remembering the scene in the yard. Hell, no, he couldn't get away with a lie. Not with this man, and not with those eyes able to see right through him.

"Yeah," he finally admitted, turning his face back into the pillow. "Reckon I am, some."

"Then let me take care of you," Chris urged softly, gently, setting his hands at the top of Vin's back and beginning a slow, deep massage. "Let me take away your pain."

"Lord, Chris," he sighed, the words coming of their own accord, "you do that ever' day, anyway. Have from the first."

"And I'm gonna keep on doin' it to the last," Chris promised, his voice roughened and deepened by emotion.

"Well, hell," Vin breathed unsteadily as those hands rubbed, pressed and kneaded the tightness and pain out of every muscle they found, "I b'lieve that's the best offer I've had all day!"

7~7~7~7

"So," Chris breathed, nibbling hungrily at the warm, smooth skin along the firm ridge of Vin's shoulder, his fingers brushing through the sparse thatch of hair between Tanner's pecs, "your back any better?"

"Back?" Vin all but purred, eyes half-closed, face flushed with pleasure and desire as Larabee's hand and mouth worked their familiar magic upon him. "I got a back?"

Chris chuckled soft and low. "Sure do, pard." He pulled slightly away from the body he cradled to his chest and blew a light, warm trail of air down the naked, narrow back, smiling wickedly as Vin shivered and moaned. "See? Right there."

"Oh... yeah," Vin gasped, fisting one hand into the thick comforter beneath him and thrusting his hips back against Chris as sparks jumped along his every nerve. "Reckon I do... Oh, Lord!" he groaned in ecstasy, arching his back as a wet tongue danced lightly down his spine. "Jesus God, Larabee, you tryin' ta kill me?"

Chris worked back up Tanner's spine, then set his chin on the younger man's shoulder, his cheek pressed to Vin's. "Just wanta make sure you're all right," he said in the low, silken voice that sent another palpable thrill through his lover's body. "You know me - I like to be thorough."

"Always said," Vin rasped, his voice trembling in time with his body, "yer a regular devil fer details."

"That's why they pay me the big bucks," Chris pointed out. "And here's one I seem to have missed." He bowed his head and trailed lips across Vin's shoulder, finding an old scar and sucking on it.

"Oh, G... God!"

They were lying together on a pile of comforters spread before Larabee's wide fireplace, bathed in the glow of dancing flames and in the heat of mounting passion. They were on their sides, Vin's back pressed to Chris's chest, their legs entwined, arms looped around each other and hands stroking whatever flesh they encountered. Both were naked, their bodies glistening with a sheen of sweat, flesh suffused with the dark flush of hunger. As Chris licked, sucked, bit and kissed his way over and down Vin's shoulders, arm and back, Vin thrust his hips back against him, grinding his ass slowly, rhythmically into Larabee's crotch.

"Seems like... ya got somethin' fer me," he whispered tightly as a wondrously promising heat and hardness rubbed against his ass cheeks.

"Like I said," Chris hissed, clenching his jaws as the feel of Tanner's tight ass ignited a slow boil of liquid fire in his belly, at the base of his spine, in his throbbing cock, "you're a greedy bastard!"

Vin laughed softly, knowing that about himself and completely at ease with it. As far as he could see, having a man like Chris Larabee in his life justified all the greed he could muster. Why skimp on heaven?

Larabee arched a brow at that laugh and skimmed fingers over Vin's lean flank, purposely inducing a shiver. "Pretty pleased with yourself, aren'tcha, Tanner?" he whispered, sliding his hand over Vin's hip and down to his groin, stroking around the base of the Texan's shaft but never actually touching it. "Guess it's time I taught you some manners."

Vin exhaled unsteadily and dropped his head back against Chris's chest, closing his eyes and panting harshly as those fingers drove shards of agony into him. His thick, erect cock twitched and wept in anticipation, but Larabee's hand did nothing to ease his torment. Instead, goddamn him, the man seemed determined to heighten it.

"Yeah," Chris murmured, his own breathing quickening as he felt the readiness, the need, in his lover, "think it's high time I took you... in hand." With that, he closed his fingers about Vin's cock and slid them slowly, slowly upward, tightening them and pulling as he did.

"God... God!" Vin gasped, digging the fingers of one hand into Chris's hip and thrusting helplessly into the man's hand as hard torrents of heat swept through him. His every nerve screamed, his whole body ached for release, yet Larabee never intensified that agonizing rhythm, merely brought him to the brink without ever pushing him over.

"Not quite so smug now, are ya, Tanner?" Chris gritted, teeth clenched, his own cock leaking and throbbing as Vin's ass rocked back and forth against it. His need for the man was constant, insatiable, immeasurable. He could feast upon Vin all day, and never get his fill.

"Please, Chris!" Vin begged in a cracked whisper. "I n... need ya... Hurts!"

Chris swirled his thumb through the thick fluid seeping from the slit in Vin's cock, tearing another moan from Tanner, then relented. Releasing the hard shaft, and smiling at his partner's whimper of abandonment, he eased Vin down onto the comforters and rolled him onto his back, then leaned over and tenderly kissed the wet, trembling lips.

"It's all right," he soothed, brushing his lips once more against Vin's. "I'm gonna take care of us both. You just hang in there."

"Hurry!"

Chris chuckled. "And most folks consider you a patient man."

"I ain't waitin' on most folks ta fuck me!" Vin snarled.

"Ever the romantic," Chris sighed, getting to his knees and reaching across Vin for the lube nearby.

Tanner stared through glittering eyes at the long, powerful body stretching above him, his hunger only sharpened by the sight. Larabee had to be the most beautiful man he'd ever known, rippling muscles wrapped in smooth, pale skin gilded by tawny hair. Lithe and graceful as a cat, as hard and sleek as a stallion, Chris had taken away his breath the moment he'd set eyes on the man, and he hadn't gotten it back since.

Larabee snagged the tube and sat back on his haunches, gazing down at his partner with mingled love and lust. Tanner's eyes had gone almost black with desire, and his long hair framed his darkly flushed face in a wild tangle of thick brown curls. The raw intensity of his want gave his features a feral cast - his nostrils flared as he panted, and his wide, full mouth was twisting into something between a grimace and a snarl - and a sound very like a growl broke from him. Once again, Chris marveled at the untamed creature that had so completely claimed his heart.

Then, realizing that Vin was on the verge of pouncing on him, Chris banished his musings and got back to the business at hand. As Tanner lifted himself with strong legs, Larabee slid beneath him and settled Vin's legs over him, inhaling his partner's rich, earthy scent. That scent washed over him, swept through him, filled and intoxicated him, fueled the fire raging within him. Closing his eyes and breathing Vin ever more deeply into himself, he unscrewed the lid from the lube and squeezed a generous amount into one shaking hand, shuddering violently as his need almost overrode his control.

God, what Tanner did to him!

Tossing the tube to one side, he reached out and closed an oiled hand about Tanner's cock, stroking and pumping the thick, rigid flesh in a slow, deliberate motion. Vin cried out aloud and arched his back, thrusting into that hand, desperate for release. Tears of hunger and frustration seeped from the corners of his closed eyes and glistened like jewels in the dark fringe of his lashes. He dug his fingers into the comforter and loosed another harsh, throaty cry, incapable of words.

Chris worked his hand up Vin's cock from root to slick, glistening head, then dragged a finger back down the thick, prominent vein. From there, he sought Vin's heavy balls, cupping them, caressing them, feeling them grow fuller as he rolled them between agile fingers. His own body was straining, his own cock demanding attention, and his breathing was as hard and ragged as Vin's. Yet still he held himself in check, refusing to rush this, refusing to risk hurting Vin through his own impatience.

"Easy, easy," he crooned, not at all certain whether he was trying to soothe Tanner or himself. "Just a little longer now..." He dragged a finger over the crease in Vin's ball sac to the dark, puckered opening behind, exhaling unsteadily as the hole clenched tightly and then loosened at his touch. He slowly rimmed the hole with his finger, licking his lips at the thought of what awaited him. Yet still he proceeded cautiously, testing his control to its limits. "Don't wanta rush it."

But Vin wanted just that, and, snarling out a curse, thrust down, trying to impale himself on that finger. A firm hand clamped down upon his hip, holding him in place, and a sobbing moan tore from him.

"Chris..."

"Soon, I promise," Chris said harshly, barely recognizing the voice as his. He slid his finger into Vin, pressing against the tight muscle ring and playing inside his lover.

"JESUS!" Vin yelped sharply as that finger brushed against his gland. "God... Chris... please..."

Larabee laughed hoarsely, unsteadily, and slipped in a second finger, massaging, stretching, then closed his eyes and rocked back and forth as Vin's frantic movements against him brought his own heat to a fever pitch. Clenching his teeth, he inserted a third finger, stroking, scissoring, and finally feeling Vin's muscles giving enough to satisfy him. A thick cry escaped him and he withdrew his fingers, then positioned his cock at the dark, beckoning hole and slid carefully inside.

Vin arched again and loosed another cry as Chris penetrated him. Even as the familiar pain of it came, he tried to thrust down, wanting to take Larabee all at once, but strong hands at his hips held him prisoner. Then the pain faded, leaving only the sense of fullness, of pressure, of the exquisite heat and hardness that was Chris.

"Goddamnit... move!" he rasped.

And Chris did. Slowly, slowly, he pushed further into Vin, reveling in the sweet agony of it. Wet warmth, deep and heavy and close, surrounded him, engulfed him, consumed him, and he almost sobbed at the incredible feel of his lover closing so tightly about him. He slid all the way in, imbedding himself fully and holding there for several heartbeats, content for a moment simply to lose himself in Vin. But the moment could not last, and he pulled out just to his head, then pushed in again, exhaling unsteadily as Tanner's heat again enveloped him.

"God... Vin... so tight!" he moaned.

Vin didn't answer, was beyond speech, beyond understanding. All that existed for him now was the need pounding through him in waves, and the hardness that was Chris at the center of it. Each time Chris pushed through him, he rose to meet him, his body seeking its mate with instinctive sureness, his flesh craving oneness with Larabee's. Chris filled him completely, made him whole as no other ever had, and he needed this completion more than the air that he breathed.

At once they found their familiar rhythm, two bodies moving as one, two hearts beating in time. Ever faster, ever harder they came together, each awash in fire of the other's making, each seeking to make the other's heat his own. They loved with an unfettered wildness, a primitive ferocity, bodies joining furiously, passion knowing no bounds. Harsh, wordless cries of pain and pleasure tore from them and filled the room as they abandoned all restraint.

As he plunged yet again into Vin, Chris grasped his partner's hard, thick cock and pumped it with that same ferocity. Hips driving, hand pulling, he worked Vin inside and out, loosing the full urgency of his need upon the Texan. Tanner responded with a matching intensity, thrusting against Chris's shaft and into his hand in a mounting frenzy, driven by the growing force of his heat. He could feel it building within him, could feel it slamming through him, sweeping him helplessly along on its rising, raging tide. Chris's hand jerking at him and Chris's flesh driving through him combined to send him over the edge, his every sense on overload. Then Larabee hit his pleasure spot, thrust harder still and hit it again, and he cried out sharply and jerked violently as release exploded upon him with a shattering force. He cried out again and arched frantically against Chris, his tortured cock erupting and shooting forth its seed in a boiling stream.

The ferocity of his partner's climax triggered Chris's own. Vin's body clenched tight about him, Vin's slick seed covered his hand, the pungent scent of it overwhelmed his senses, and he threw back his head, every muscle straining as he drove harder, deeper still into his lover. The heat engulfing him fed his own, and all at once he could feel it coming, the hard, boiling tide that nothing could stop. He loosed a harsh, wordless cry and thrust furiously into Vin, emptying himself into the deep cavern of the Texan's body.

"Jesus!" he gasped, collapsing onto Tanner, shaking and drained of strength.

For long, long moments the two lay together in exhausted immobility, their rapid, ragged breathing the only sounds coming from them. They always treasured this time of closeness, when the union of their bodies had broken the only barrier that still separated them. Still joined together, their arms and legs entwined, sweat and seed mixed and mingled, Chris's flesh yet cradled in Vin, they were as much one as they could possibly be, and neither was in any hurry for it to end.

Yet, even for them, end it must. Deprived now of the heat of passion, their bodies quickly cooled, and Vin, ever more susceptible to cold than Chris, began to shiver, goosebumps rising on his chilled flesh. Keenly aware of his lover's discomfort, Chris eased his softened flesh from Vin's body and slid to his side, gathering the younger man into his arms and flipping one side of the thick comforter over them both. He had to smile as Tanner sighed contentedly and scooted deeper into his embrace, a bird of summer seeking the warmth and security of its winter nest.

"Damn thin-blooded Texan," he chided playfully, turning onto his side and burying his face in Tanner's thick hair.

"Cain't help it," Vin defended himself drowsily, looping an arm about Chris's trim waist and nestling his head into the hollow of Larabee's shoulder. "Civilized folks wasn't meant ta live in a goddamn freezer."

Chris had to chuckle at that. "Who the hell ever said you were civilized?" he teased. "I always thought you were the great outdoorsman. But at the first hint of snow, you're ready to hibernate like a bear!"

Vin drew back his head until he could see Chris's face, and a wicked smile curved about his mouth. "Well," he mused softly, trailing a long, slender forefinger down Larabee's chest, "I always thought them bears had the right idea. Eat, mate, sleep. Sounds like a plan ta me."

Chris caught that finger at his navel, before it could go any lower. "A man of simple pleasures, huh?" he whispered, raising the finger to his lips and kissing it.

"Simple ones are still the best."

"Yeah, well, you've got the eatin' and matin' down pat," Chris chuckled. "Now if I could just find some way to keep you from gettin' out of bed at dawn, we'd have it all."

Vin arched a brow. "Thought you rancher types was s'posed ta rise with the sun. You gettin' lazy in your old age?"

Chris exhaled deeply and shook his head, frowning sorrowfully. "See? You can't go five minutes without mouthin' off. Here we were, havin' a deep, philosophical discussion, and you have to ruin it with a smart-ass remark."

"Yeah, I know," Vin sighed sadly. Then he turned an evil smirk upon his lover. "Reckon I never was much good at respectin' my elders."

Chris made a low, growling sound deep in his throat, grabbed Vin's shoulders and flipped him over onto his back, sitting atop him and pinning him to the floor, grinning wolfishly into startled blue eyes. "Who you callin' 'old,' boy?"

Vin scowled deeply, but said nothing. He knew a dozen different ways to break the hold Chris had on him, but never considered using one. Right now, he was wholly content to be at Larabee's mercy.

Feeling no resistance in the body beneath him, Chris loosened his grip on Vin's shoulders and took his weight onto his own legs. Still smiling, he leaned forward and claimed Vin's mouth with his in a slow, deep, loving kiss. He knew he was the only one whom Tanner would abide holding him down like this, knew the Texan would already have dislodged - hell, maybe even dismembered - anyone else who might have tried, and was touched, as always, by the trust implicit in Vin's allowing himself to remain in this position. It was a trust he was determined never to betray.

"Remember," he breathed, raising his head enough to gaze into shimmering sapphire eyes, "age and treachery will beat youth and skill every time."

Vin twined his arms around Larabee's neck and pulled him down once more, still hungry for the taste of the older man's mouth. "Always been a big admirer of age 'n treachery," he whispered just as their lips met.

Chris rolled himself onto his side, still holding Vin close against him, and groaned thickly as Tanner buried his mouth in his. He was no longer sure he believed in God, but, as Vin kissed and caressed him with a wondrous intimacy, he was damned sure there was a heaven.

Vin explored the warm cavern of Chris's mouth as if it were unknown territory, then caught the older man's lower lip between his teeth and sucked slowly on it. From there, he trailed his mouth to the slightly cleft chin, along the sculpted jaw, and down the long column of his throat, lapping catlike with his tongue and pressing soft, slow kisses as he went. He loved Chris in all his aspects, loved the sight, sound, scent, taste and feel of him, loved knowing this strong and vulnerable man of shifting lights and darks was his and his alone. He still wasn't quite sure how he'd come to possess such a treasure, but he gave thanks every day that he had.

"Don't you think you've had enough of a work-out for one day?" Chris breathed as Vin pressed a series of kisses to his shoulder. He slid a hand down Tanner's back and held it just above his right hip, knowing that was where he usually felt the most pain. "Don't want you over-doin' it. Again."

Vin raised his head at the slight emphasis on that last word, and frowned into Larabee's challenging eyes. "Ever'thing I did needed doin'," he defended himself. "Nettie and Casey cain't do it all, and they cain't afford-"

"Ssh," Chris breathed, laying a finger over Vin's mouth to silence him. "I understand. Believe me, I do. But that doesn't mean I don't worry about you. I know what Nettie means ta you, I know there's nothin' you wouldn't do for her and Casey. But I also know that she'd be the first one in line to kick your ass if you took on too much at once and hurt yourself doin' it. You spent most of Christmas and New Year's either here or at her place, takin' on every bit of work you could find that needed doin'. You know, Vin, you don't have to earn your keep. Not with Nettie, and certainly not with me."

Vin's frown deepened and he sat up, absently running a hand through his unruly hair. "You think that's what I'm tryin' ta do?" he asked, startled by the thought.

Chris shrugged and folded an arm under his head. "Seems like. Sometimes, I get the feelin' there's a part of you that thinks you have to prove your worth. Like if you work hard enough or good enough, it'll give me a reason to keep you around."

Vin slipped off Chris and sat beside him, folding and crossing his legs and resting his arms upon his knees. "Never thought of it that way," he admitted. "Jist felt like I owed-"

"You don't," Chris interrupted firmly, reaching out and taking one of Vin's hands in his. "You don't owe me a damn thing, Tanner. And I'm pretty sure Nettie would say the same thing."

He laughed softly and nodded. "Yep, she would. In fact, she did. Guess I shoulda listened, huh?"

"Yep. Of course," a smile tugged at one corner of Larabee's mouth, "that probably would've been a first."

"Fine," Vin groused. "From now on, then, you can fix your own damn fences. Reckon if I don't have ta do your work, then I don't have ta take your insults, either."

"Though I'm sure you'll still find it acceptable to eat my food and drink my beer, right?"

Vin grinned and winked. "Hell, I'd be doin' you a favor. Keep you from eatin' and drinkin' it all yourself and gettin' fat."

Chris narrowed his eyes and glared at the younger man. "That does it. I was gonna dig some steaks outta the freezer, let 'em thaw overnight and fix 'em tomorrow for supper, but after that remark-"

"Couldn't do it anyway," Vin interrupted smugly. "I got other plans."

Chris sat up at that and stared at him. "Other plans?" he asked quietly.

Vin chuckled, then swooped forward and kissed him quickly. "Like it when you're jealous, Larabee," he breathed, his eyes gleaming. "Even when you got no cause ta be. Nettie invited me ta Sunday supper. And she invited you, too."

Chris frowned, golden brows drawing down over puzzled eyes. "She invited me?"

"Yep."

"By name?"

"Hell, no!" Vin sighed sharply. "She picked you out of a line-up! What do you think?"

"She invite the others?"

"Nope." Vin smiled. "Jist you 'n me. Gonna have her brisket all to ourselves."

That information only deepened Larabee's confusion. "Now, why would she invite just you and me, and not the others?"

Vin shrugged, seeing nothing mysterious in it. "Maybe she ain't got enough fer all of us. Maybe she don't want a whole crowd in her house so soon after the holidays. Hell, I don't know. Maybe she's gonna kill us and hide our bodies."

"If she was gonna kill you, she'd've done it long ago," Chris murmured absently, still trying to make sense of it. He could understand Nettie inviting Vin. He could understand Nettie inviting all of them. What he couldn't understand was her just inviting them.

"Chris." Vin saw his puzzlement, and was himself confused by it. "It's supper, not a weapons bust. Quit tryin' ta figure all the angles." He smiled and reached out, taking Larabee's hand and squeezing it gently. "Look, I told her how ya helped me get through that seminar. Maybe she jist wants ta say 'thank you.'"

"Yeah, sure, that's gotta be it," Chris agreed with a smile, though he doubted that was it at all. If that was what she had wanted, Nettie would already have called to say it. The old woman was nothing if not direct. Or... was she? "You told her I helped you, huh?"

"Oh, yeah! Well, I had to." He shrugged easily. "She asked me how it went, and I told her. Told her I couldn'ta done it without you, that you were right by me ever' step of the way."

"Hm." Chris thought about that, then cast a sharp glance at Vin as a sudden thought hit him. Vin had been talking about him... and Nettie could read Vin like an open book...

"You'll go, won'tcha?" Vin asked softly, not liking Larabee's reluctance. He knew Chris wasn't the most social person in the world, but Nettie wasn't exactly "society," either. She was just... Nettie.

Chris heard the uncertainty in Vin's voice, and silently cursed himself. He knew how Vin felt about Nettie, knew the old woman was as much family to Tanner as he was, and knew how much a simple Sunday supper with the two people he loved most in the world would mean to him. Vin never asked him for much, always said he didn't need much. But Chris knew he needed this, and that settled the matter as nothing else could have.

"Of course, I'm goin'," he agreed with a broad smile. "Hell, you don't think I'm gonna pass up one of Nettie's briskets, do ya?"

Vin relaxed, and a broad, bright smile lit his face as Chris's words banished his uncertainties. "Thanks, cowboy. I appreciate it."

"Hell, Tanner, I'm not doin' it for you," Chris grumbled, though he knew he was. "I'm doin' it for Nettie's cookin'."

And, he added silently, to find out exactly what she was cooking up.

7~7~7~7

Chris stirred in his sleep and groaned thickly, lifting and rolling his hips as a wave of heat swept through him. More heat engulfed him, wondrously wet and soft, closing about him, pulling him ever deeper into it, and his body responded with a will of its own. A powerful shudder racked him, hard torrents of pleasure pounded through him, and he awoke with a harsh, wordless cry, arching off the bed and thrusting into the mouth feasting greedily at his swollen, throbbing cock.

Vin clamped strong hands down upon his lover and held him still, raising glittering sapphire eyes to Chris but never faltering in his ministrations. He swirled his tongue over the head of Larabee's cock and lapped catlike at the weeping slit, then licked slowly down the rigid shaft, blew lightly against the full, heavy balls, and licked his way back up. He blew another soft puff of air across the sensitive head, then took Chris whole into his mouth.

Larabee howled and bucked wildly as that glorious mouth claimed him. Vin sucked ravenously at him, his lips, teeth and tongue working in perfect concert, and with a bone-melting skill. He opened his throat, took Chris deeper still, and began to hum.

And it was too much. So early in the morning, awakened without warning, Chris had no control. Consumed in the firestorm hurtling through him, scalded by the very blood in his veins, he erupted into violent release and shot his boiling seed into his lover's mouth.

Vin took the stream eagerly, hungrily, relishing every drop and milking Chris for more. He sucked and swallowed until Larabee was dry, nourishing himself upon the salty essence and drinking Chris into his soul. When it was done, he let the softened, empty flesh slip from his mouth and slithered up Larabee's body, gathering the shaking, gasping man into his arms and holding him close.

Chris pressed himself tightly to the younger man, desperately seeking to draw warmth and strength from him, his own shattered by the force of his orgasm. Even after all these months together, he remained stunned by the intensity, the incredible ferocity, of the passion the quiet Texan ignited in him, and he prayed that never changed.

Though he also strongly suspected it just might someday kill him.

"Well," he murmured at last, his voice still strained and shaking, "good morning to you, too."

Vin chuckled softly and brushed his lips over Chris's forehead, tasting the salt of his sweat and breathing in the rich, strong musk that was all Larabee. "Time ta rise 'n shine, cowboy."

Chris gave a low, throaty laugh and lifted his head from his partner's shoulder, gazing into dancing blue eyes. "Oh, I rose, all right," he chuckled. "But I think you blew the shine right off me."

Vin's grin was broad and utterly unrepentant. "Better'n any damn alarm clock, ain't it? Now, come on," he slapped Chris's thigh and eased him out of his arms, sitting up, "let's go. Time's a-wastin'." He started to scramble from the bed.

"Wait a minute!" Chris called, grabbing his arm and pulling him back. "Just hold it right there." He stared up at Tanner and frowned in confusion. "Go where? Time for what? In case you've forgotten, pard, today's Sunday, and it's..." He glanced past Tanner to the clock on the bedside table, and felt a shock rip through him. "Jesus, Vin!" he yelped in horror. "It's seven-thirty in the mornin'!"

"Well... yeah," Vin agreed slowly, not understanding where the problem lay. "I let ya sleep in. Didn't figger you'd mind."

Chris's eyes widened and his mouth fell open, his mind numbed by disbelief. Seven-thirty... on a Sunday morning... was sleeping in?

"Don't worry," Vin assured him quickly, wanting to avert any outburst before it came, "I done fed the horses already and got ever'thing laid out fer later. Coffee's on 'n flapjack batter's made. We can eat after you shower, then we can head on out."

Chris blinked rapidly, trying to decipher the lazy Texas drawl and make sense of what Vin was saying. "Horses?" he finally rasped, latching gratefully onto a word he could understand. "Coffee?"

Vin sighed deeply and shook his head, gazing almost pityingly upon his lover. "No, Chris," he said carefully, patiently, as if talking to a slow-witted child, "I fed the horses. Coffee's fer us. I know Peso likes the stuff, but he sure as hell don't need the caffeine. He's fractious enough on cold days as it is." He frowned, then reached out, waving a hand in front of the bewildered eyes. "Hey, you with me here?"

"No," Chris admitted helplessly. "What the hell are you talkin' about? I'm not goin' anywhere, except hopefully back to sleep."

Vin felt something inside him sink at Chris's words. Last night, they'd talked about going for a ride if his back was better, and, except for that one bout of lovemaking, he'd done all he could to pamper it, even submitting to another dose of the hated muscle relaxers and going to bed early. And it had worked; his back was much better. But clearly Chris had either forgotten or changed his mind, choosing instead to stay in bed.

"Oh," he said evenly, forcing his disappointment deep inside himself and schooling his features to conceal it, "okay. That's prob'ly best, anyways." He swallowed hard and nodded once. "It's awful cold outside, and we been real busy with the Williams case. Reckon we could both use the rest." He forced a smile, then reached out to brush the blond hair off Larabee's forehead. "You go on back ta sleep. I'll put the flapjack mix in the fridge, 'n we can have breakfast later."

Chris frowned worriedly, knowing he was missing something, but not yet awake enough to put everything together. "What about you?" he asked quietly. "Aren't you comin' back to bed?"

"Nah. Went ta bed too early last night, 'n I already had coffee and a shower. Couldn't sleep if I wanted to. I'll watch TV or somethin'." He leaned over and kissed Chris tenderly. "You go back ta sleep. I'll be here when you wake up." He kissed him again, then climbed off the bed and left the room, closing the door softly behind him.

Chris lay on his side, staring after Vin's retreating figure and trying to figure out what had happened. Tanner had been disappointed about something. Oh, he'd hidden it, both quickly and well, but it had flashed in his eyes, deep and clear, for just a moment before being pushed into concealment. He'd had some reason for waking Larabee early, had been looking forward to something.

But what? What would entice Vin Tanner out of a warm bed early on a frigid Sunday morning when there was nowhere he had to be, and drive him out into the cold to feed the horses-

The horses...

"Oh... shit!" Chris spat, sitting up abruptly and throwing back the covers as memory returned in a rush. "Goddamn it, Larabee, you're gettin' old!" Furious at himself, he scrambled out of bed, almost falling over the pajama bottoms Vin had pulled down for his "wake-up call" earlier. Sitting back down on the bed, he snatched them off impatiently and dropped them to the floor, following them with his shirt, then rose and stalked to the bathroom for a quick shower, muttering curses all the while.

Goddamn it, he hated mornings!

7~7~7~7

Vin switched the radio from the NPR station Chris preferred to his own favorite country one, detesting the long-winded, in-depth, issues-analysis programs hosted by anchorpeople with hyphenated names and voices guaranteed to put him into a coma. He needed guitars and fiddles, damn it, and people who talked like he did.

Or worse.

Once he had the dial zeroed in on Lee Ann Womack's familiar East Texas twang, he sighed and set to work, determined to get over his disappointment. He'd wanted to ride, sure, but it wasn't like there wouldn't be other chances. Hell, he could do it practically any time. Peso was his, Chris had given the gelding to him, and had made it perfectly clear he should feel free to come out and ride whenever he wanted, whether Chris was here or not.

And it was cold out, damned cold, with the snow so high he'd almost forgotten what the ground looked like. Like as not, he'd freeze his balls off the first ten minutes they were out, and, once chilled, it took him forever to warm up again. He'd be a damn fool to leave a warm house just to go traipsin' through nature's freezer.

Still, though, it was always awful peaceful, ridin' out over a snow-covered landscape and feelin' like he and Chris were the only ones left on the earth...

He pushed the thought away and concentrated on cleaning up the kitchen. He put the batter in the refrigerator, then turned to the dishes left in the sink from last night. Chris had a perfectly good dishwasher, but Vin saw little point in using it. Weren't enough dishes to make it worthwhile, and, besides, he needed something to do. He rolled up his sleeves, turned on the hot water to fill the sink, and turned the radio up higher.

In the shower, Chris nearly screamed as the hot water turned suddenly cold, and he instinctively jumped back from the chilly spray. Still, the shock jolted the last remnants of sleep from him, though not necessarily the way he'd intended, and, bracing himself, he ducked his head under the water and washed the shampoo from his hair as fast as he could.

One day, he really was gonna kill Vin Tanner.

As soon as he had rinsed the soap and shampoo from him, he shut off the water and stepped out of the shower, shivering as the air hit his wet, naked skin. Goosebumps rose immediately, and he reached quickly for the big, thick towel, rubbing himself dry with a vengeance and cursing Vin under his breath the whole while.

Goddamn Texan seemed to have a hundred ways to get to him, and almost every one involved the threat of cardiac arrest.

He stalked into the bedroom and dressed hurriedly, pulling on a set of thermal underwear, wool socks, jeans, a heavy flannel shirt and boots. With warmth finally restored to his body, he ran his fingers through his damp hair and went in search of Vin, certain that there had to be better ways to start a Sunday morning.

Although, he had to admit, he had certainly awakened to a nice surprise...

The thought of that surprise sent still more warmth curling through his body and brought a slow smile to his face. He knew most people thought of Vin as quiet, reserved almost to the point of being withdrawn, a man who exerted a firm, almost unbreakable control over himself and his emotions. And that was true.

Up to a point.

Larabee almost alone knew the man beyond that point, knew the depth and beauty of the soul Tanner concealed with a slight, faintly mocking smile and dry wisecracks, knew the breathtaking intensity of the passions that ran hot and fierce beneath that cool exterior. He knew the wild, free creature that lived in the heart of Vin Tanner, knew the lost little boy that lurked there, too, the gentle poet, the embattled warrior. Knew them all better than he knew himself, and loved them all as he'd only ever loved one other.

God, how was it he'd managed to have two such loves in his life, when so many lived without ever knowing one?

Still shaking his head in disbelief and gratitude at such a miracle, he walked into the den, fully expecting to see Vin stretched out on the couch there, watching the lineup of classic 1960s TV Westerns one of the local channels ran on Sundays. Chris remembered them from his childhood, but they'd been a complete revelation to Vin, who'd stumbled upon them a few months ago and now couldn't get enough.

Hell, all Tanner needed was the standard red felt cowboy hat and pop-gun, and he'd be the same little kid Chris had been all those years ago...

But Vin wasn't in the den, and Chris could hear the country music wailing from the kitchen, pinpointing his lover's location. A soft chuckle escaped him as he followed the twangy, beer-and-boots lament to the man at the other end of it. Yep, you could take the boy out of Texas, but you just couldn't take Texas out of the boy.

He walked through the seldom-used dining room and into the kitchen, saw Vin elbows-deep in soap suds, and knew where the hot water for his shower had gone. Without a word, he walked around Vin to the radio, turned it down to a more civilized volume, took a freshly-washed mug off the drying rack and poured himself a cup of coffee, steeling himself for yet one more jolt to his system.

Cocaine had nothing on Tanner's coffee.

"I jist washed that, y'know," Vin pointed out as Chris raised the cup to his mouth.

Larabee took a small sip, and was pleasantly surprised. Vin had obviously restrained himself; the stuff was actually drinkable. "You'd rather I used a dirty one?" He drank again, more deeply this time, and frowned when it didn't eat a hole through him on its way down. "You make this?"

"Naw," Vin drawled, returning to his dish-washing. "Coffee fairies come in when I wasn't lookin' and done it."

Chris realized he'd deserved the smart-assed answer after such a stupid question. And after letting Vin down. He turned to face Tanner fully, still holding his cup, and braced a hip against the counter. "I'm sorry," he apologized quietly. "I forgot."

Vin set a plate in the rack and looked at Chris, arching a brow. "Forgot what?"

"The ride we talked about takin'. I know how much it meant to you." He searched the younger man's face intently, able to see the faint shadow of disappointment in the deep blue eyes. "I should've remembered, but I didn't. And I'm sorry."

Vin met that steady, repentant gaze for several moments, then turned back to the dishes with a shrug. "Don't matter none," he said, a man accustomed to letting such things go.

Chris, however, wasn't such a man, and it bothered him that Vin should be able to dismiss his own wants with such practiced ease. Bothered him to think just how much practice at it Vin had had. He sighed and set his cup down on the counter, then reached out and took Vin's arm, turning Tanner gently toward him. "Dishes can wait," he said firmly. "And it does matter. Matters a lot. You wanted to ride, and I said we would if your back was better." He smiled slightly, again thinking of his "wake-up call" earlier. "Obviously, your back is better, so I owe you a ride."

Vin relaxed and gave a slight smile, his first true one since leaving the bedroom, his eyes warming. "Don't owe me nothin', Chris," he said quietly. "I ain't a kid ya gotta make things up to." He shrugged lightly. "'Sides, it's cold out. We'd probably jist be better off stayin' inside. The ride can wait."

He had already resigned himself to not getting this, and that bothered Chris, too. "Look," he sighed, gently rubbing Vin's forearm with a thumb, "things are starting to heat up with the Williams case. Pretty soon, we'll be buried in it, and who knows when we'll be able to ride again? And the horses need the exercise. They haven't gone any further than the corral since before Christmas, and Peso's about to aggravate Pony to death. I'll cook us up some pancakes real quick," he winked, "even sprinkle some brown sugar and cinnamon in yours, we can eat, and then go out. And if we get too cold," his smile turned sly, "I'm sure we can find a way to warm up."

Vin's brows drew down over his eyes as he regarded Larabee with a slight frown. "Why's it mean so much ta you?"

Chris's eyes softened and he reached up, trailing a forefinger lightly over Vin's square jaw. "Because it means so much to you," he said simply.

Vin's frown disappeared at the honesty - and the love - in those words, and a slow, sweet smile curved slowly about his lips. "Damn, cowboy," he breathed, "how can I say no after that?"

"Then don't," Chris urged softly, still stroking Vin's jaw. "You wanta ride, we'll ride. Hell," he sighed, "we make enough promises in this life that we can't keep, I might as well keep the ones I can. Besides, I don't like bein' a disappointment to you."

"You're not."

"I came this close to lettin' you down," he said, raising his thumb and forefinger and holding them almost together.

"But you didn't," Vin reminded him, taking those fingers in his hand and carrying them to his lips for a kiss. "And I got news fer ya, cowboy. It's gonna take more'n a missed ride fer you ta let me down."

Chris drew Vin to him and kissed him slowly, marveling at the trust placed in him by the man who put it in so few others. And knowing how rarely it was given made it all the more precious to him.

They held the kiss for long moments, each delighting in the taste of the other, then Vin gently pushed Chris away. "Best get breakfast on and ride while we can," he breathed, blue eyes shimmering darkly. "I'm gonna have ta get back home soon and do some laundry so I'll have somethin' ta wear ta Nettie's." He arched a brow and shot a teasing scowl at his lover. "Y'ain't forgotten that, have ya?"

Chris sighed heavily, a strange feeling of foreboding building in him. "Believe me, Vin," he murmured, "there's no way in hell I could forget that."

Vin frowned at his odd tone, again wondering what he was missing here. Chris had never been reluctant to go to Nettie's before, yet now he was acting like he expected the woman to shoot him on sight. But at least he was going, and that would have to be enough. For now.

"Well," he said at last, putting aside his worry and smiling, "that's good. Reckon your memory ain't failin' completely in your old age, then."

Chris scowled and stepped menacingly toward Vin, who only arched a challenging brow at him. "Shit," he growled, his green eyes gleaming brilliantly, "it's a wonder I can remember my own name when you start the day by damn near suckin' out my brains!"

"Wouldn't have ta worry about that," Vin drawled with a broad, shameless smile, "if'n ya didn't keep yer brains down there."

7~7~7~7

They rode for almost two hours through a wonderland of white, hearing nothing save the calls of birds, the creak of saddle and the jangle of bridle, the soft crunch of hooves through snow, and the breathing as well as occasional nicker or snort of the horses. Though cold, the morning was beautiful, the vast sky clear and almost painfully blue, the sun shining brilliantly. Its light set the snow to sparkling and turned the icicles hanging from trees into glittering prisms that sent refracted rays dancing in every direction. The gaunt skeletons of trees stripped of their leaves danced jerkily in the wind, limbs clacking like bare bones or chattering teeth, while the evergreens swayed in a much more graceful rhythm, sighing softly as the air moved through their shaggy boughs.

Inspired by the quiet surrounding them, the two men remained silent as they rode, long since past the need for any words between them. Glances, smiles and easy, familiar gestures laden with meaning provided more than sufficient communication. With them, words only got in the way.

They guided the horses at an unhurried, careful pace over ground they both knew well, trusting the animals' instincts implicitly. They forced or rushed nothing, not wanting to risk an injury to a vulnerable leg. Now and then, though, true ever to his contrary nature, Peso gave in to his apparently compulsive need to depart from the chosen trail and investigate an inevitably harder route. Sometimes Vin gave in, never one to prefer the easy way himself, but at other times, true to his contrary nature, he growled low in his throat and tried to turn the gelding back the way he wanted to go. Predictably, with two such stubborn creatures working at cross-purposes, a fierce tugging match, if not an all-out battle for supremacy, ensued.

Chris merely watched in wry amusement as Vin and Peso tussled, and frequently gave Pony affectionate pats in thanks for his easy nature. He knew all of Peso's good qualities - and there were good qualities, many of them, despite what almost everyone who'd ever encountered the black said - and had bought him precisely for them. The gelding was beautiful - long-legged, deep-chested, powerfully muscled, built for both speed and endurance - and as strong and as hardy an animal as Larabee had ever seen. He had a quick, sharp intelligence, and a fine spirit that showed itself in every toss of his shapely head.

Unfortunately, he also had the manners of an alligator with a toothache.

He couldn't be pushed and wouldn't be pulled, would invariably go left when everyone else, including - hell, especially - his rider wanted to go right, and could be counted upon to wander off at the most inconvenient moment. He could untie almost any knot, slip almost any hobble, and his abilities to circumvent a lock rivaled Ezra Standish's. He was as independent as the day was long, as stubborn as a Missouri mule, and, when riled, possessed a mean streak a mile wide. He could bite and kick with the best of them, and, if he didn't want to be ridden, just getting on him could be a teeth-rattling, bone-jarring, pride-crushing experience. He seemed to know every way there was to toss, buck or just plain sling an unwanted rider from his back, and he was not at all above fighting dirty to get what he wanted.

In short, he and Vin were a perfect match for each other, though Chris suspected it was a match that had been made well south of heaven.

"Goddamn it, ya black-hearted mule, I ain't goin' down there!" Tanner now spat, pulling back hard on the reins to stop Peso in his tracks. "Don't think I don't know what you're up to." He shot a glare in the direction Peso had been wandering, seeing the small, ice-covered stream nearby, then scowled down at his horse and sawed firmly at the left rein to turn the gelding's head from the tempting sight. "Y'ain't tossin' me in no damn freezin' water!"

Peso laid back his ears, looking exceedingly irritated that his scheme had been thwarted. But as his rider pulled his head further back, still trying to turn him, his sharp, dark gaze alighted on one tempting leg, and fat, pink lips pulled away from the teeth that were his favorite weapon.

But Vin, with long and painful experience behind him, had expected that reaction and was prepared with one of his own. He quickly took the reins in one hand and held firmly to them, knowing better than to give Peso his head when the horse was in such a mood, and reached out with the other, grabbing one black ear and twisting sharply. Holding the horse absolutely still and balancing himself carefully, he leaned low to one side, stared into the eye he could see and twisted a fraction harder at that ear.

"Now, listen ta me," he ordered in a low, gravelly growl, "I've done had all 'a this I'm gonna take. We're goin' back up to Chris 'n Pony, and you're gonna behave yourself, else you're gonna be the main attraction at the next livestock auction. And I'm willin' ta bet the only ones who'd pay a nickel fer you would be the fellers from the dog food companies. Now, git."

So saying, he released Peso's ear, straightened in the saddle and touched his spurs lightly to the gelding's sides. Peso snorted in disgust, but obeyed the deft commands of reins and spurs, leaving behind the stream that had grabbed his attention and returning to the trail that had grown unbearably boring.

"You all right there, pard?" Chris called with a knowing smile as Vin and the sulking Peso rejoined him.

"Jist had a few things ta straighten out between us. But I reckon he'll behave himself now."

"Like hell," Chris snorted. "The day he behaves is the day we'll have to put him down." Green eyes raked over the Texan. "Kinda like another hard-headed cuss I know."

"Hell, I ain't anything like him!" Vin protested.

"Nope, you're worse. Now," he arched a golden brow, "if you two are through with your pissin' contest, we should probably head back to the house. Get these boys brushed down and put away, and get some lunch in ourselves. And get you warmed up before you catch pneumonia."

Vin straightened in his saddle and stared defiantly at Chris. "I ain't cold-"

"Your lips are turnin' blue," Larabee answered laconically, easily turning Pony around. "Either you're cold, or we need to talk about your choice in lipstick."

Vin's mouth opened, but, for once, he couldn't think of a suitable retort. Clamping it shut, he legged Peso after Pony, glaring holes in Larabee's back.

Goddamn uppity cowboy...

"I heard that," Chris warned without ever turning his head, smiling as he imagined the outraged look that would be pulling at his lover's face. "And I saw that," he added as Tanner shot him the finger. "Now, c'mon, blue-boy, quit your sulkin' and get up here with me where you belong."

Vin considered staying back, but his ever-present desire to be near Chris overcame the temptation. Urging Peso to a faster pace, he quickly caught up, and the two resumed their leisurely, near-silent ride.

Chris glanced across at Vin, and smiled at the sight. Tanner looked completely at ease out here as he never did anywhere else, all the hardness of the life he'd lived gone from him as if it had never been, years vanishing from his face. Beneath the wide brim of his battered cavalry-style hat, his eyes were as blue and as deep as the sky above, as ageless and eternal, and, right now, every bit as serene. The long strands of earth-brown hair danced and floated on the wind, as did the fringes of his heavy buckskin coat. Studying the careless slouch of the lean body in the saddle, seeing the instinctive ease with which he fit himself into the land about him, Chris had the sudden feeling that Vin had been born in entirely the wrong era, that he belonged in a time and place where walls and traffic and the crush of people did not exist, where he could simply breathe and be.

But, God, whatever mistake had put him here and now, Chris was infinitely grateful for it!

"Yer thinkin' too hard," Vin drawled softly. "Gonna give yerself a headache." He threw a sly grin at Larabee and winked. "That's my job."

"And you're damn good at it, too."

Vin's smile widened. "Well, anything worth doin' is worth doin' right." He cocked his head to one side. "Whatcha thinkin' on so hard?"

Chris smiled slightly. "You."

"Me?" he asked sharply.

Chris laughed quietly and fixed warm eyes on Tanner. "Why so surprised? Don't you

think I ever think about you?"

"Well... yeah... I reckon," he answered uncertainly. "I mean, sure. I guess."

Chris lifted two brows quizzically. "Don't you think about me?"

"Oh, hell, yeah!" Vin answered at once.

"Then why shouldn't I think about you?"

The logic of the question irritated Vin. He'd never really thought about Chris thinking about him the way he thought about Chris, but he couldn't say why. Didn't know why. Except that it made him seem more important to this man than he'd ever been to anyone before. Other men had said they'd loved him, but only Chris had ever meant it. And it was still a struggle sometimes to accept that Chris really did mean it.

"Guess I jist still ain't real used to it," he admitted softly.

"Better get used to it," Chris advised, just as softly. "Gonna be that way for the rest of our lives."

"'S a long time," he breathed.

"Not nearly long enough, though." Chris's voice was even, firm, but a strong undercurrent of emotion ran beneath it. "Sarah's death taught me that there's never enough time. Never enough words ta say how you feel, never enough ways ta show it. So I think about you, whether you're with me or not." He shrugged slightly. "It's a way of givin' myself a little more time with you."

Vin reined Peso to a stop and stared steadily at Chris, studying him intently. He saw Larabee's love for him in the clear, deep green eyes, but saw also a shadow of something past. "Still think about her 'n Adam, too, don't ya?" he asked softly.

Chris swallowed hard and looked away, narrowing his eyes as he stared into the horizon. "Yeah," he whispered tightly, still feeling the aching emptiness where they'd once been, an emptiness that not even Vin could fill. "I don't think I'll ever be able to stop. Not even for you."

"Don't wantcha to," Vin said, surprised - and a bit hurt - that Chris should think he'd want that. "Hell, Chris, they were your family, your wife, your son. I'd be a cold bastard to expect you ta forget 'em. And you'd be a colder bastard if you could."

"You're not a replacement for them, you know," Chris said suddenly, turning his gaze sharply back to Vin. "I don't ever want you thinkin' that-"

"I don't," he said easily, his eyes holding Larabee's. "I never have. If I'd thought that fer even a minute, I wouldn't be here now. Like I told ya before, I'll love you 'til I die, but I won't be shit on by ya. The day you try is the day I walk. After I kick your ass."

Chris smiled, but his eyes remained serious. "I figure we've both been shit on enough, partner. I may not be the smartest man who ever lived, but even I'm not stupid enough ta fuck up one of the best things that's ever happened to me. So what's say we do all we can to make this work?"

Vin smiled softly and edged Peso closer to Pony, then leaned over in the saddle and kissed Chris tenderly. "I'd say you got yourself a deal," he whispered.

"God, your lips are like ice!" Chris gasped, nonetheless returning that kiss. "C'mon, let's get you inside before you freeze to death!"

"You gonna warm me up?" Vin rasped suggestively.

"You're insatiable, you know that?"

Tanner lifted his chin and narrowed his eyes, mulling over the vaguely familiar word. "I hope ta hell that means I'm cute," he growled.

Chris laughed aloud and shook his head, his somber mood shattered. "Jesus, Tanner, don't you think you're a little old for 'cute'?"

He scowled and pulled Peso back. "Nettie thinks I'm cute!"

Chris laughed again and spurred Pony forward. "No, she doesn't," he argued with a smirk. "She just thinks you're mule-headed."

7~7~7~7

By the time they got back to the ranch and got the horses put up, Vin was no longer denying that he was cold. Once inside the house, Chris built a blazing fire in the hearth, then proceeded to light another one in him. Stripping him of coat, boots and multiple layers of clothing, Larabee ran his mouth and hands over every inch of his body, igniting a deep and pounding heat that he then relieved by reciprocating Tanner's "wake-up call" from that morning. Writhing and moaning beneath Chris's attentions, Vin was soon lost in the fierce tide of pleasure churning through him, and jetted into his lover's mouth with a wild and wordless cry as his orgasm exploded upon him.

"Oh, God!" he gasped shakily, collapsing back upon the pile of comforters as flesh and bone seemed to melt into a useless puddle. "Damn..."

Chris chuckled softly and lay down, gathering Vin into his arms and cradling him close against him. "Liked that, did ya?"

Vin shivered and nestled closer, his body fitting with Chris's as if they'd been fashioned precisely for each other. Chris flipped a comforter over them, strong arms closed snugly about him, and a sated, contented smile curved about his mouth. "Cain't say as 'like's' exactly the word," he breathed.

Chris laughed again and kissed the shaggy head resting against his shoulder. "Guess we found a good way ta beat the cold."

"Y'know what they say," Vin sighed. "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

"See, what'd I say?" Chris teased, running his long fingers slowly through the tangled wealth of Tanner's hair. "Greedy bastard, through and through."

"Reckon I am," Vin allowed. "Cain't help wishin' it could be like this forever. Just you 'n me, no worries, no pressure, and no havin' ta hide what we got. There's times I wish I c'd tell ever'body how I feel about ya. I hate havin' ta hide this, like it's somethin' dirty or wrong." He turned his head and rested his chin on Chris's chest, frowning slightly as he gazed into the older man's eyes. "It ain't wrong, is it?"

Chris smiled gently and ran a thumb lightly over Vin's mouth. "Not in my book, Tanner. Hell, I've never known anything more right. I said earlier that you're not a replacement for Sarah, and that's true. What I have with you means every bit as much to me as what I had with her. There's nothin', nothin', that could ever make this wrong."

Vin smiled and kissed the thumb moving against his lips. "Glad ta hear ya say that, cowboy, 'cause you'd have ta shoot me ta get rid of me."

"Yeah, well," Chris said dryly, green eyes gleaming, "I can't say that thought's never crossed my mind."

"Hmph," Vin grunted, pulling out of his lover's arms and scowling deeply, "ain't that always the way? Let a feller have his way with ya, 'n he thinks he can insult ya. Well, I ain't that easy."

"Oh, yeah, you are," Chris chuckled.

"Well," Vin crossed his arms against his chest, "mebbe I am. But at least I ain't cheap."

"Hell, I'll give you that, Tanner," Chris agreed readily, sitting up and grinning at the younger man. "Your junk food bill alone could pay off the debt of two or three small countries. And I don't even wanta think about your bar tabs!"

"Can I help it if yer always tryin' ta git me drunk?" he drawled.

Chris laughed softly. "Don't have to." He leaned forward and brushed his lips against Vin's, wringing a shudder from the younger man. "You're easy, remember?"

Vin swallowed and licked his lips, eyes darkening a shade as he reached for Chris. "Mebbe I need some remindin'," he breathed.

Chris steeled himself against the invitation in those words and shook his head. "Much as I'd love to, I seem to recall you sayin' you needed to get home and do some laundry. We got supper with Nettie, remember?"

"Yeah, but that ain't 'til six-"

"And it's nearly two, now," Chris said firmly. "Don't look at me that way, Tanner," he growled as deep blue eyes sought to entice him. "This is your fault. You got us invited to Nettie's. And you could've brought all your laundry over here to do for free, instead of leavin' it at your apartment, where you have to lug it down to the basement and feed quarters into machines that don't work half the time." He leaned forward once more and slid the tip of his tongue lightly over Vin's lips. "Gotta learn to think ahead, pard," he counseled.

"Shit," Vin whispered, shivering again and closing his eyes as that tongue teased him, "when I think of you, doin' laundry ain't exactly what springs ta mind!"

7~7~7~7

Casey Wells stood in the doorway of the living room and watched in wry amusement as her aunt vacuumed not just the floor, but the sofa, chairs and drapes, as well. Aunt Nettie was by no means obsessive about cleanliness, was much too practical to insist upon an immaculate house. She'd never been one to nearly kill herself trying to get up dirt no one else could see, yet there she was now, standing on a step ladder and running the vacuum over drapes she'd cleaned just last week.

Nope, this definitely wasn't good.

Oblivious to her niece's scrutiny, Nettie continued to vacuum, her thoughts in a tangle. Part of her felt truly guilty about her scheme. She'd never lied to Vin before, and, though she hadn't technically lied to him yesterday, she had invited him under false pretenses, using him as a way of getting Chris Larabee here. He'd be furious - and hurt - if he ever found out, and she wouldn't blame him one bit.

The other part of her, though, the part that had cooked up the scheme, felt entirely justified at such duplicity. She'd do anything in her power to protect "her boy" from harm, had never made any secret of that, and feared he had set himself up for a devastating fall. She knew how he felt about Chris, had seen it with startling clarity in his eyes, and wouldn't rest until she knew if those feelings were returned. She was meddling, she knew it, and she'd always hated meddlers. But, God help her, if her boy was headed for a fall, she'd move heaven and earth to make sure she caught him.

And God help Chris Larabee if he was what she had to move to do it.

Finally at peace with her decision, she turned off the vacuum and climbed carefully down the ladder. Turning, she startled violently at the sight of her niece and gasped, dropping the hose and clutching at her chest as her heart jumped in it.

"Casey!" she said sharply. "Good Lord, child, don't you know better than to sneak up on people?"

"Sorry, Aunt Nettie," the girl apologized sincerely, walking into the room. "I didn't mean to, honest. I guess you just didn't hear me." She looked around, then lifted her gaze to the ceiling. "Think you missed a spot up there," she teased, pointing to the far corner.

Nettie scowled. "Don't sass me, girl, or I'll put you to work."

Casey smiled, unfazed by the old woman's bark. Though she knew as well as anyone how formidable her aunt could be, she also knew that toughness covered a deep tenderness. Nettie Wells was the only mother she'd ever known, and she could see through her like glass.

"Don't worry, Aunt Nettie, I'll be out of your hair soon," she said, flopping down on the couch and propping her feet on the coffee table. A silent lift of one gray brow, though, quickly sent them down to the floor. "I asked JD to take me to the movies tonight. You know," she smiled innocently at her aunt, "so you could interrogate Chris without me interferin'."

Shock flooded Nettie at the girl's words and she stiffened, her eyes widening guiltily. "I don't know what you're talkin' about," she protested weakly, fidgeting nervously with the buttons of her shirt. "I just-"

"Invited him to supper so you could see what his intentions are toward Vin," Casey supplied, still smiling. "That is what you're planning, isn't it?"

Nettie stared at her niece for long moments, startled by her insight. All at once, she wondered just how much Casey knew. "Why would I be doin' that?" she asked quietly, watching the girl intently.

Casey sighed and sat back, returning that probing gaze steadily. "I'm not a child, Aunt Nettie," she said firmly. "I know how Vin feels about Chris. I was watchin' him at Christmas, and it finally dawned on me. The way he looks at Chris... He loves him," she said simply, shrugging her slim shoulders.

Nettie moved to the nearest chair and sank into it, still staring at the girl. She didn't seem shocked... "How long have you known?" she asked softly. "About his... preferences."

Casey shrugged again. "How long have I known Vin? Don't worry," she added suddenly, leaning forward as she recognized the worry in her aunt's eyes, "it doesn't bother me. I love Vin, you know that. Gay, straight, I don't care. He is who he is, and I happen to like who he is."

"And what about JD?" Nettie asked, thinking of the young man who could be so naive and foolish one moment, yet so incredibly wise the next. "Have you told him?"

Casey lifted two slender brows and regarded her aunt with a wry smile. "JD and I don't spend a lotta time talkin' about Vin's sex life."

Nettie had the good grace to blush at that, and to regret the question. "I'm sorry. I should've known."

Casey's smile and eyes softened. "It's all right. You're just worried about Vin." A trace of sorrow crept across her face. "Worried he'll get hurt. Again."

Nettie rose to her feet and started pacing slowly, crossing her arms against her chest. "I can't help it," she said softly, remembering the light she had seen shining in his deep blue eyes as he'd talked about Chris. "He's in love with a man who may not be able to love him back the way he wants, the way he needs... He's settin' himself up for a broken heart, and I won't stand idly by and watch it happen!" she declared fiercely. "I won't!"

Casey rose to her feet and went to her aunt, putting her arms around her and holding her close. "I know," she breathed. "And I don't expect you to. But he's a grown man, Aunt Nettie, and we can't make his decisions for him. He'd hate us forever if we tried."

"I don't plan to make any decisions for him," Nettie sighed, returning the girl's embrace. "Land sakes, I don't really know what I plan. But I just need to know-"

"That he knows what he's doin'," Casey finished for her. She hugged the old woman more tightly still, her own uncertainties rising strongly within her. "I hope he does," she whispered fervently. "Lord knows, he's been hurt enough in the past. And Chris is such a good friend. I don't think Vin could take it if he hurt him."

"Well," Nettie's head came up and her eyes flashed fire, "that's what I intend to find out. And if Chris Larabee isn't the man Vin thinks he is, then may God have mercy on us all."

7~7~7~7

Chris scrolled absently through his e-mails, vaguely noting the two from Orin Travis and sighing at the eight from Buck Wilmington, all of them forwards. And probably all of them jokes, in varying degrees of dirtiness.

He'd have to ask JD if there were some way to disable the "forward" function on Buck's e-mail program...

He opened one of the mails from Travis and tried to read it, but couldn't keep his thoughts from straying to Nettie. What was she up to? He knew she wasn't ordinarily a devious person, but he strongly suspected she was capable of anything when it came to Vin.

And he had no doubt that her invitation had everything to do with Vin.

He shoved his chair back and shot to his feet, prowling about the large den as a mounting sense of unease gripped him, then cursed himself for letting her get to him like this. He dealt with brutal gun dealers on a regular basis, could face down the baddest bad-asses with barely a flicker of emotion. Hell, he ramrodded the wildest, unruliest, most mind-bending group of men ever to draw breath without so much as a facial tick. Now, though, a simple supper invitation from a small, white-haired old woman had him practically chewing his nails.

Goddamn it, what did she want?

He exhaled sharply and raked a hand through his hair. The mere thought of those fierce eyes staring at him, through him, for a whole evening sent a ripple of dread running through him. She knew. She had to know. Vin had spent all yesterday morning with her, and she was one of the very few people around whom Tanner completely dropped his guard. And Vin had talked about him...

Oh, shit.

Chris made his way to the sofa and sank down upon it, dropping his head into his hands. He had no doubt that Nettie knew. But what was she going to do about it?

He considered everything he knew about her in an effort to predict her thoughts and actions. She'd known Vin for years, probably knew more about him than anyone else alive. Even Chris. But did that include his sex life?

Did Nettie Wells know "her boy" liked men?

He tried to imagine Vin dropping that particular bomb on her, and had to laugh out loud. Hell, he couldn't imagine Vin even saying "sex" to Nettie, much less admitting he'd had it. And with other men.

Tanner would probably rather be chewed to death by ants.

Which brought him right back to the question of what Nettie was up to. He scrubbed his hands over his face, trying vainly not to see anything malicious in her motives. But the more he thought, the more suspicious he got, and it only gradually dawned on him why.

Hank Connolly.

He shot to his feet and resumed his agitated pacing as the memory of his angry, embittered former father-in-law brought the familiar clenching to his gut. Hank had been convinced Chris Larabee wasn't nearly good enough for his only daughter, and he'd done everything in his power to try and keep them apart. When that had failed, he'd refused to give his blessing to their marriage, hadn't even attended the wedding.

But that sure as hell hadn't kept him from trying to interfere afterwards...

Anger rose through Chris in a hard wave, tearing a foul curse from him and twisting his face into a savage scowl. He ceased pacing, but lifted his head and knotted his fists, his green eyes flashing with a dangerous light.

He'd been through this once, and had hated every moment of it. Had especially hated seeing how it had torn Sarah apart. But she, and the life they'd had together, had been worth every moment of the pain.

Vin was worth it, too.

A grim smile curled about his mouth and his eyes narrowed as he considered the coming confrontation. Hank hadn't won then, Nettie wouldn't win now. If she thought she had any chance in hell of keeping them apart, she'd be sorely disappointed. His life with Vin, his love for Vin, meant far too much for that to be a possibility.

Well, he'd always said he'd fight heaven and hell for Vin. He figured even Nettie Wells had to fall in there somewhere.

7~7~7~7

Vin poured soap powder into the bottom of the washer, then added a load of jeans, frowning deeply and shaking his head in frustration. Four washing machines down here, and only one of 'em worked. Damn, maybe he should've taken his laundry to the ranch...

At that, he thought again of his Chris, of the odd way he'd been acting about Nettie, and his frown deepened into one of puzzlement. Just didn't make any sense. What bothered Larabee so about her invitation? Hell, he liked Nettie! More than that, he respected her, and Chris Larabee didn't respect just anybody. She was direct, honest, a woman of integrity with backbone to spare, all qualities Chris admired.

So why didn't he want to go?

Vin closed the lid and started the machine, then leaned on it and slowly drummed the fingers of one hand against its top, his mind working furiously at the riddle of Chris's behavior. Wasn't like Larabee had never taken a meal with the woman before; she'd fed them all on numerous occasions. True, the rest of the team had always been there, too, but...

Vin's fingers abruptly stilled and he straightened, hitching his thumbs into the waistband of his jeans and cocking his head slightly to one side. Was that it? Was it that this time it would just be the two of them with her? That, with no others around to distract them, they might somehow drop their guard and let slip some hint of their true relationship?

He chewed on that for several moments, turning the possibilities and implications over carefully in his mind. For a number of reasons, chief among them that they were both deeply and fiercely private men, he and Chris had mutually decided not to advertise their relationship. They had the delicate balance of the team, the five other men who'd become their family, to consider, as well as the whole thorny supervisor-subordinate issue. It was difficult, and sometimes painful, but, so far, they seemed to have successfully concealed the fact that they were lovers.

Was Chris worried that Nettie would see what others had missed? He narrowed his eyes and chewed his lower lip. Was it possible that she had?

Oh, hell, yeah. He sighed and winced. It was more than possible! Nettie knew him better than anyone else, except Chris. From the first moment all those years ago when he'd slipped into her class at the community center, she'd looked at him, looked into him, had taken in the whole of him in one sharp, shrewd, measuring gaze and seen him as no one else had ever bothered to try doing. A wary street kid who'd learned it was infinitely safer to avoid attention, he'd done all he could to make himself invisible, but Nettie Wells had looked right at him that night and hadn't looked away since. She knew him in the same instinctive way Chris did, knew his mind, heart and soul in their entirety, knew his light and darknesses, knew his brokenness and his strength. There was nothing in him that she couldn't see.

And God knew Chris Larabee lived and breathed in every part of him.

He turned around and slid slowly down the washer to the floor, all the wind gone out of him. He'd never told Nettie he was gay, hadn't been able to face the prospect of her turning on him, and turning him away, in disgust. He could take it from others, had taken it from others; from her it would kill him. So all these years he'd said nothing, deciding that a life of shadows and lies was a small price to pay for her continued love.

But what if she'd seen through him in this, as she had in all other things? What if she'd figured out that Chris was more - God, so much more! - than just a friend? Was that what tonight was about? Had she invited them to supper so she could watch them together and confirm her suspicions?

And if she did see what she expected to, what would she do about it?

He wrapped his arms around himself and dropped his head onto his knees, shivering as a sudden chill raced through him.

Oh, God, God. What if having Chris's love cost him Nettie's?

7~7~7~7

By four o'clock, Chris could no longer stand the waiting, or the anxiety gnawing at his gut. He had no idea what Nettie had in mind, and the not knowing had his stomach churning. Well, he'd never been one to sit back and passively await a confrontation, and he sure as hell wasn't about to start now. He went into his bedroom, grabbed his clothes from the closet and laid them on the bed. Then, going to his dresser, he pulled out a T-shirt and a pair of briefs, and went into the bathroom for a shower.

She'd said to be there at six. He figured five would do just as well.

He took a long, hot shower, allowing the water to ease some of the tension from his body. Despite his determination, and his unease, he knew he couldn't just go barging into Nettie's house as he would into a warehouse on a raid. First of all, the woman wasn't an arms dealer. Second, he knew how much she meant to Vin, and realized that whatever happened between him and Nettie would naturally spill over into his relationship with Tanner.

And he really, really didn't want to piss off Vin by pissing off his surrogate mother.

Third... well, hell, he liked the woman! And he wasn't fool enough to believe she had any of Hank Connolly's maliciousness in her. Hank's love for Sarah had somehow gotten twisted into a selfish inability to let her seek her own happiness, either because he didn't trust her or simply because he couldn't bear the thought of letting his "little girl" go. Nettie, however, had no such selfishness. Whatever she had in mind for tonight, Chris had absolutely no doubt that it was motivated entirely by her love and concern for "her boy." She'd never tried to hobble or control Vin before; he had to believe she wouldn't start now.

Still, that didn't mean he had to sit idly by and wait for her to make the first move.

By four-thirty he was calmer, though no less determined. He ran a comb through his dark golden hair and scrutinized his reflection in the mirror, knowing that, occasionally, appearances were everything, just as Ezra insisted. Clear green eyes stared back at him, their depths alight with purpose, and firm resolve shone plainly on his freshly-shaved face. He studied his chosen outfit carefully - khaki pants and a deep burgundy shirt under a dark blue sweater accented with muted shades of black, dark green, and a burgundy to match his shirt - than slammed the comb down onto the dresser with a snarled curse.

Goddamn it, he was not some eighteen-year-old going to meet his date's parents for the first time!

He turned and stalked out of the bedroom, but, once in the den, stopped and calmed himself. Anger would get him nowhere. Anticipating a fight before he actually faced one served no purpose. This was Nettie, not Hank, and he had to remember that. There was simply too much at stake here, and he couldn't allow resentments from the past to contaminate the future.

Not when it was his future with Vin he'd be risking.

He went to the closet and took out his black leather jacket, pulling it on with a sigh. Jesus, he hoped he was misreading the situation! The last thing in the world he wanted was for Vin to get caught between him and Nettie. No man should ever have to choose between people who loved him.

Especially when he'd had so very few of such people in his life.

He started toward the door, then checked himself with an effort. Not yet. Drawing a deep breath and releasing it slowly, he turned and walked to the bar, picking up the phone and dialing. He had to let Vin know he was leaving early, lest the other man call and figure he'd forgotten or just changed his mind about going when he got no answer. He silently counted the rings, and sighed when Vin's machine answered.

"This is Tanner. Either I'm not here or I jist ain't answerin'. You know what ta do."

Chris smiled and shook his head at the terse, barely civil message, remembering what a struggle it had been just to get Vin to say that much. Ezra had written out a lengthier, much more civilized greeting, but Vin had merely taken the piece of paper and set fire to it with Chris's lighter. Tanner and the spoken word were, at best, grudging acquaintances.

When the beep sounded, Chris spoke. "Hey, pard, I'm leavin' early. Got somethin' I need to take care of before supper. I'll meet you at Nettie's." He started to say goodbye, but added, "You drive carefully, you hear? I'm not leavin' a brisket to pull your scrawny ass outta some icy ditch. I'll see you there." And he hung up.

He waited a few moments to see if Vin would call back, but the phone didn't ring. Deciding Tanner was still down in the basement doing laundry, he nodded once and turned away, heading for the door. Again and again, he told himself not to borrow trouble, that, if it were coming, it would find him well enough on its own.

And, as he climbed into his truck and started the engine, he reflected dourly that it always seemed to be coming.

7~7~7~7

Vin unlocked and opened his door, carrying in one basket and shoving the other through with his foot. Once in, he kicked the door shut behind him, then walked to the couch and dropped the basket of clothes upon it. He glanced at the clock on his VCR and exhaled softly in relief.

Four forty-five. To be at Nettie's by six, he'd have to leave no later than five-thirty. Good, he had time for a long, relaxing shower.

The revelations in the laundry room had left him deeply shaken, and he still had a sea of acid churning in his stomach. He'd thought he'd been so careful, hidden every trace, buried every sign, giving nothing away. But if Nettie had grown suspicious enough to want to see for herself...

God, no wonder Chris hadn't wanted to go! He'd never had to face this kind of confrontation before, had no idea what kind of hurt a situation like this could bring. Oh, maybe he hadn't always made the best choices where his bed-partners were concerned, but at least, up until now, those partners had all been women. And, as Vin knew from past and painful experience, having to defend sleeping with a man opened a whole 'nother can of worms.

Oh, shit, how had this happened?

He closed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair, trying to calm his anxiety. Wasn't any use panicking. He didn't know for sure it had happened yet, or was ever going to happen. For all he knew, Nettie had just wanted him over for supper, and was being kind enough to extend her invitation to the man she believed was nothing more than his closest friend. And Chris... well, maybe Chris hadn't wanted to go just because he didn't relish the thought of having to get out on the roads on a frigid Sunday night.

Yeah, that had to be it.

Willing himself to believe that, he reached into the laundry basket for his best pair of jeans and new dark blue shirt, the one Nettie had given him for Christmas, and carried them into his bedroom. He dropped them onto the bed with the rest of the clothes already laid out there - wool socks, thermal underwear bottoms, long-sleeved T-shirt and heavy dark gray wool sweater - then sat down beside them and toed off his boots. Rising again to his feet, he peeled off the various layers of his clothes and let them fall to the floor, then walked out and padded down the short hallway to the bathroom.

He ran the water as hot as he could stand it and scrubbed his body and hair thoroughly beneath it, as if trying to wash away the uncertainty that persisted in clinging to him. Try as he might to deny it, he couldn't help thinking that Nettie knew about him, that the pretense he'd fostered so carefully over the years had all been for naught.

He tried to remember if he'd ever outright lied to her, and didn't think he had. His lies had been more of the just-not-quite-the-whole-truth variety. When she'd asked about his dating, he'd answered without going into great detail, never actually saying his dates were women, but certainly never admitting they were men.

God, no wonder he'd gotten away with it in the Army. He'd been living "don't ask, don't tell" long before he ever encountered the government version!

And Lord knew that kind of life wore on a body...

He finished just as the water began to turn cold and got out, not certain he felt any better. He hated having to hide any part of himself from Nettie, hated especially having to hide the love he felt for Chris. She'd always said she hoped he could find someone who loved him the way he deserved. Well, he had, and it was more than he'd ever dared dream it could be.

He just couldn't tell her about it, because he couldn't bear the thought of her despising him for it.

He wrapped a towel around his narrow hips and waist, then grabbed another and vigorously rubbed the water from his long hair. And again he assured himself it was entirely possible he was fretting over nothing. Nettie had never been one to hold her tongue. If she'd figured it out, he would have heard about it by now. She never tolerated those she didn't want around her for one second longer than she had to. And the things she'd said to him yesterday...

No matter what happens, you know my door is always open ta you, and when you've got nowhere else ta turn, you've always got a place right here!

He smiled slightly, softly, and relaxed, remembering the way she'd gripped his hand and the ferocity in her voice and eyes as she'd spoken those words to him. No, those words hadn't been a lie, and neither had the feeling that had given them their intensity.

She didn't know. She couldn't know. Not and still love him like she did.

Reassured, he draped the towels over the shower curtain rod to dry and went back to his bedroom, dressing with much more ease than he'd undressed. He carefully combed the snarls and tangles from his hair, then returned to the bed and sat down to pull on his boots. Whistling softly, he returned to the living room, and from the corner of his eye saw the blinking light on his answering machine. He walked over to the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen, where the telephone and machine sat, and pressed the play button, a smile forming at the sound of Chris's voice.

"Hey, pard, I'm leavin' early. Got somethin' I need to take care of before supper. I'll meet you at Nettie's." There was a brief pause, then, in an affectionate growl, "You drive carefully, you hear? I'm not leavin' a brisket to pull your scrawny ass outta some icy ditch. I'll see you there."

Vin froze, his eyes widening, his stomach clenching, all his former anxiety crashing back down upon him. He knew - God alone knew how, but he knew - where Chris was going, and why, and the realization drove the air from his lungs in a rush. He fell against the counter and hung there for long, painful moments, his whole world collapsing about him.

Chris was going to Nettie's to confront her. He didn't know that she didn't know, and he was going to be the one to tell her. And when he did...

Oh, God...

Her door, her heart, wouldn't be open to Vin ever again.

7~7~7~7

Nettie opened the oven and checked the brisket one last time, satisfied that she'd be able to take it out in another fifteen or twenty minutes. When it came out, she'd put the rolls in, and all that would remain to be done was the brewing of a fresh pot of coffee.

Meanwhile, there was a batch of molasses cookies that needed to be frosted...

She reached up and brushed a stray lock of white hair from her forehead with the back of one hand, a soft sigh escaping her. She knew she had to do this, but still wasn't at all certain how she'd do it. She felt like she was walking blindly into a room filled with dynamite, and about to strike a match. One wrong word, the smallest wrong move, could shatter Vin's trust in her and send him running from her forever.

And she'd rather die than see that happen.

Then there was Chris. He was in no way a man to trifle with, not someone who would easily or passively accept what he would very likely consider interference in his life. She knew how important his friendship with Vin was, knew how much it meant to him, could see that every time the two were together. Vin softened something in him, eased the terrible hurts that plagued him, seemed almost to shine a light into the darkness that, at times, had such a fearsome hold on him. And she knew he treasured Vin for that.

What she didn't know was whether he loved him for it.

She sighed again and wiped her hands on her apron, then turned her attention to the cookies. And as she applied the frosting to them one at a time, a small, soft smile tugged at her mouth. She knew Vin would be appalled if he ever found out just how much trouble she went through to do this for him, and would demand that she stop here and now. And that was precisely why she'd never let him know. He needed someone to take pains and time and trouble for him, hadn't had nearly enough of that in his life. He'd known far too much of the harm folks could do to him and far too little of the good. And if she could win one of his all too rare boyish smiles and maybe a quick kiss on the cheek, then she'd frost cookies from now until hell froze over.

And if that made her a foolish old woman or a soft touch, well, there were worse things to be.

Just as she'd gotten the last cookie frosted, she heard the sound of a vehicle on the drive outside. She glanced up at the clock, saw it was only a little past five, and frowned. JD and Casey had already gone, and she wasn't expecting Vin and Chris until six. Carrying the platter to the table in the small dining room just off the kitchen, she set it down, then went to look out the window.

And stiffened at the sight of a big black truck rolling to a stop before her house. She pushed the curtain aside and watched as the driver's door swung open, then swallowed as the tall, lean blond gracefully exited the cab.

Alone.

She continued to watch him as he closed the door. For long moments, he simply stood outside and gazed slowly about, clearly studying his surroundings. A soft, wry chuckle escaped her, and she shook her head slowly, wondering if he had any idea at all of the confidence, the strength, the tightly-controlled power he exuded.

Lord, was it any wonder her boy had fallen for him?

At last he started to approach the house, and she went to the front door, more acutely aware of her uncertainty than ever. She had to find out how he felt about Vin, but without doing anything to damage the friendship that meant so much to them both. She just didn't have the slightest idea how to go about that.

Still, Nettie Wells had never shrunk from a challenge or a fight in all her days, and she wasn't about to start now. Holding her head up high and squaring her shoulders, she opened the door and stepped through, walking with firm strides onto the porch to greet her visitor.

She'd be damned if she'd be intimidated on her own doorstep.

"You so hungry you couldn't wait?" she called, setting her hands on her hips. "Or you just tryin' to beat Vin to the bigger portions?"

Chris stopped short a few paces from the porch and stared appraisingly at her, taking in her stance, expression and tone. While neither unwelcoming nor threatening, she did appear slightly wary, as if she were as uncertain of the situation as he was. And that, he realized, was one of the biggest differences between Hank Connolly and Nettie Wells. In his determination to prevail, Hank hadn't cared who he hurt, even when it had been his own daughter. But Nettie did care, was acutely aware that it was Vin's heart they held between them, and would do anything in her power to safeguard it.

He felt himself relax slightly.

Shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket, he stepped to the edge of the porch but did not mount the steps. Still staring up at the old woman who held herself as if she were afraid of falling off whatever tightrope she walked, he said quietly, "I just thought maybe... we should talk."

She lifted her head at the conciliatory tone in that even voice, her eyes widening slightly as surprise flickered through her. It was clear that he suspected something, but it was equally clear that he was feeling his way as gingerly as she. She studied him a moment more, then nodded.

"C'mon in, then, before you freeze," she invited. "I'll get a pot of coffee on."

He stepped up onto the porch and followed her out of the cold air and into the warm house.

Or was it out of the frying pan and into the fire?

7~7~7~7

Vin was frantic. Barely aware of his actions, conscious only of the hideous fear that was clawing his soul to shreds, he threw on the first jacket he found - an old brown leather motorcycle jacket that was totally inadequate for a Colorado winter - and grabbed his keys, rushing out of his apartment. He took time for one lock only before running for the stairs and racing down them.

Oh, God, God, he had to get there in time!

His heart hammered wildly in his chest, and it was all he could do to breathe. He'd actually been sick earlier, and now felt like he just might be again. Except that he didn't have time. He burst out the front door of his building and ran to his Jeep, yanking open the door and throwing himself inside. In his haste, his fingers already beginning to feel the sharp, cutting chill, he fumbled with his keys and finally found the right one, jamming it into the ignition and turning.

Nothing.

He tried again, and heard the familiar "click" of the ignition system, but nothing else. A harsh, loud, wordless cry tore from him and he slammed his fists against the steering wheel as his frustration erupted into rage.

NO!

He tried the key again, heard the same click, and screamed out a curse. Reaching down, he yanked hard on the hood release, then thrust open the door and all but shot out of the Jeep, blue eyes glittering in his livid face. He stalked around to the front and, with a snarl, stuck his fingers into the grill, feeling for the latch. He found it, squeezed it, pulled up on the hood...

And smashed a fist against it when the damn thing refused to open. For long, agonizing moments he wrestled with the hood, spitting every curse he knew in every language he'd ever learned. Tears of pain, frustration and anger stung his eyes as he scraped, cut and bruised his hands in a desperate attempt to raise the hood. He knew he should calm down, but he couldn't.

Not with Chris out at Nettie's, unwittingly tearing his life to shreds.

Several people wandered by and gawked shamelessly at the sight of the enraged man battling his car, but no one stepped forward to help. No one dared to. Not with him clearly gone loco.

At last, with the aid of a very long screwdriver, and after doing God alone knew what damage to the catch, he managed to wrest the hood up and propped it open with the support rod. Shaking now from the force of his fury, he walked around to the passenger side, scowled savagely at the starter he knew to be the problem and dealt it a vicious blow with his fist. Sparks of pain shot up already abused nerves, but he barely noticed, was too lost in his anger. Breathing hard through gritted teeth, he walked back around to the driver's side, got in and turned the key again...

And could have wept when the engine turned over. Still shaking, he got back out of the Jeep, dropped the rod and slammed the hood shut, then got back inside and closed the door. He checked his watch, and was appalled at what he saw.

Fifteen minutes he'd lost, fighting with the goddamned hood!

But he forced himself to take a few moments longer to fasten his seatbelt, then shoved the Jeep into gear and pulled away, his nerves unraveling more with every second that passed. Even if he ignored every speed limit in the city, it would take him fifteen minutes to get to Nettie's. But with snow, and in some places ice, still covering many of the roads, he knew he was looking more at thirty.

Thirty minutes. Jesus, his whole life could be ruined in thirty minutes!

And it seemed he was to be shown no mercy. Five minutes later, another pang of fear and rage stabbed through him when he looked down and saw the needle of his fuel gauge pointing stubbornly toward empty. He shrieked out another curse and pounded the steering wheel, then cut the Jeep into the far right lane. Santiago's gas and grocery was about a block ahead, and he knew he had no choice but to stop.

Goddamn it, why was this happening?

Moments later, he whipped the Jeep off the street and into the drive, exhaling sharply in relief when he saw one unoccupied pump in the row furthest from the store. Pulling up to it, he cut the engine and jumped out, then began digging through his pockets for money.

Fuck it, why couldn't Hector get that pay-at-the-pump system like everybody else in town?

Between what he had in his wallet and what he found stashed in the various pockets of his jacket, he managed to put together enough money for a decent amount of gas, and started toward the store. Hector Santiago had been plagued by enough drive-aways that he refused to activate the pumps until he had either money or credit card firmly in hand. And not even for the ATF agent he'd known for years would he make an exception. Vin knew he'd have to go inside, and a sick, wrenching groan tore from him when he saw the length of the line at the counter.

It was all coming apart, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

He started forward, then stopped, closing his eyes and bowing his head in defeat. Shit, why should he even bother? Surely it would all be over by now anyway. He should just turn around, go back to his apartment and wait for the news that one more door had been slammed shut against him.

Lord knew, it was a sound that he'd heard often enough...

He turned and started back to the Jeep with heavy steps, all feeling drained from him and only a dull lethargy left in its wake. But that numbness was shattered by a scream from the alley that ran between Santiago's and the pawn shop next door. Vin froze at the sound, the hair on the back of his neck rising, his every instinct shifting into overdrive. Screams were common in Purgatorio, and not every one meant trouble.

This one did.

It rang out again, shrill, keening, fraught with terror, and launched him into action. Without ever once stopping to consider the possible consequences, and probable foolishness, of what he was doing, he sprinted across the parking lot and into the alley, reaching inside his leather jacket for the gun he'd automatically strapped on in his mad dash from his apartment.

Shit! Could things get any worse?

7~7~7~7

Chris stepped into the small dining room and moved to the table in its center, then settled himself stiffly in the ladder-backed chair at its head. Chewing his lower lip absently, he set his elbows on the table and laced his fingers together, resting his chin on his thumbs. Nettie remained in the kitchen behind him, putting on a pot of coffee, and, given time by her absence, he tried to figure out how best to get this started.

If only he knew for sure exactly how much she knew, or at least suspected...

He sighed and sat back in the chair, letting his gaze wander over his surroundings. He'd been in this room countless times, yet only now did he truly see how clearly it reflected Nettie's character. The heavy table and six chairs around it were made of oak, certainly not fancy, but beautiful all the same for their simplicity. Against the wall opposite him stood a massive china cabinet, and against the wall to his right was an equally imposing sideboard, both also made of oak. The furnishings clearly were not new, yet they had been made to last, and lent the same air of strength and sturdiness that radiated from their owner.

God, no wonder Vin loved coming here! So much of his life had been spent in a state of transience - being shuffled from one foster placement to the next, then running away and falling into a hard and sometimes brutal life on the streets of Purgatorio - that for him simply to set foot in this house, in this room, and be surrounded by the solidness of this wood and that woman had to give him the deepest sense of security that he'd ever known.

Beyond the solidness, though, there was warmth. Two large windows were set into the wall to his left, and Chris knew from experience that, during the day, light streamed through them in abundance, filling every part of the room and making it seem larger than it was. Fine lace curtains hung at those windows, Nettie's one concession to elegance, and cream-colored wallpaper imprinted with tiny, intricate vines of climbing roses covered the walls. An assortment of photographs in a variety of frames decorated those walls, suspending for a moment in time those whom Nettie held dear.

Casey was captured at various stages in her life, from wide-eyed, round-faced toddler and giggling, gap-toothed girl to freckled teen in braids and overalls, and finally as she was now, a young woman, beautiful, confident, yet with a smile that still held much of the child's mischief. Nettie herself was there, and it startled Chris to see her as a young woman, her face unlined, her hair dark and long rather than the short-cropped white of now. But her eyes... There was no mistaking those eyes. In a number of the older, black-and-white photos, she was shown with a strapping, handsome, smiling man, and Chris was struck by the sight of the younger Nettie gazing at the man who could only be her husband in rapt adoration.

Seemed strange to think of the indomitable woman he knew falling head-over-heels in love with any man...

Then another photo - part of a trio, formed by Nettie in the center, Casey on the right and this one on the left - caught his eye and brought him to his feet. Drawn by the force that had become such a constant in his life, he walked across the room and stopped just before the picture, wondering why he'd never noticed it before. A soldier stared back at him, young - God, so young - but proud, chin lifted with just a hint of defiance, wide mouth set in a perfectly sober line. The dark brown hair with its hints of honey-gold and red was cropped closer than he'd ever seen it, making the face look younger still, but those eyes, those infinite and infinitely blue eyes, hadn't changed at all, were the same ones that had captured and continued to hold his whole heart and soul.

Vin...

"That was taken the day he graduated from his training with the Rangers."

The voice at his back startled him, and he whirled to see Nettie standing halfway between him and the door. He stared at her a moment longer, then turned back to the picture, mesmerized by the image. He'd known Vin had gone into the Army at eighteen, but, for some reason, he hadn't expected that he would look so...

"Young," he breathed, unconsciously reaching out to brush his fingertips against that incredibly boyish face. "My God, he looks like a kid!"

"He was," Nettie said. She came up to stand just behind him, and crossed her arms against her chest as she stared over his shoulder at the picture. "Not even nineteen yet." She turned away and went to the table, seating herself in one of the chairs. "Wasn't quite a year after that was taken that he went to Somalia."

Chris jerked at that and whipped around, staring at her through shocked eyes. "Somalia?" he rasped, remembering vividly all the news reports about the debacle there. "He was... I didn't know," he said weakly. "It wasn't in his records, and he never told me."

She sighed heavily and shrugged, frowning down at the crocheted tablecloth. "He doesn't talk about it. Never has and, I expect, never will. Doesn't say much at all about his time in the Army, except that he came out an even better shot than he went in. And, believe me, that boy could shoot goin' in."

Chris watched her for long moments, studied her bowed head, the gnarled fingers picking absently at the pattern in the tablecloth, and realized that before him sat the one person in the world who knew more about Vin Tanner than he did.

And, possibly, less...

He went to the table and eased himself into the same chair he'd occupied before. She was sitting to his left, close enough to touch yet with a vast distance still between them. He leaned forward, set his arms on the table and dropped his gaze to his hands.

"Tell me why you asked me here," he said in a low voice, not demanding, but not really requesting, either.

"I'm not sure I can," she admitted, not even trying to pretend she didn't know what he was talking about. "Not without breaking a whole lotta rules, and a trust that means more ta me than my own life." She raised her head and fixed those direct eyes on the man next to her. "I never had any children of my own. Couldn't," she said with her customary forthrightness and without a trace of bitterness. "But I always loved other people's children. Likely that's why I went inta teachin'. But when my husband's brother and sister-in-law were killed in a car wreck, we got Casey. She wasn't much more'n a baby, barely walkin'. Maybe she wasn't mine, but I couldn't love her any more if she had been."

Chris smiled slightly, needing no words to tell him that. He'd seen it in the way she treated the girl, in the way she protected her, scolded her. Loved her.

"My husband died when Casey was seven," Nettie went on, sorrow sounding in her voice. "Heart attack. But God was merciful, took him quick. The doctors said he didn't suffer, likely never knew what hit him." She swallowed past her loss, then nodded, her fingers still working at the tablecloth. "For a few years after that, it was just me and her. I'd retired from teachin' full-time by then, but worked part-time with the GED program." A slight smile quirked at her lips as she looked at Chris. "Taught evenin' classes at a community center in a place called Purgatorio."

Chris stiffened and blinked, startled yet again. He began to wonder if Nettie meant to keep him off balance like this, and decided then and there that he never, ever wanted her and Vin allied against him.

She saw his reaction, realized that he knew none of this, and wished, not for the first time, that Vin weren't so reluctant to share more of his life, more of himself, with others. Especially others who cared about him as deeply as she knew this man did. "One night," she continued, "this skinny, long-haired boy come slippin' into my class, lookin' for all the world like a wild animal who'd high-tail it right back out if anybody even looked like they were gonna get close. Do you know," she leaned forward and pinned Larabee with her gaze, "it took me three weeks - three weeks - just to get a word out of him? One word! Until then, I wasn't even sure he could talk! But when he did," her eyes softened, and a tender smile lit her weathered face, "Lord, I heard that sweet drawl, and it sounded like music!"

"Yeah," Chris breathed, completely unaware he did so, "I know."

"But he was a challenge," she declared with a trace of sharpness, sitting back and shaking her head. "Smart as could be, with a memory that could put an elephant to shame, but fought me every step of the way when it came to readin' and writin'. Had himself convinced he was stupid and couldn't do it-"

"Others convinced him of that," Chris said bitterly. "He was just takin' their word for it."

"Well, they were wrong!" she countered fiercely, her eyes flashing. "Lord, when I think what all's been done ta that boy, when I think what he's suffered and at how many hands he's suffered it... He was seventeen years old when he came ta me," she said, her voice shaking, her whole being aching for that boy, "but when he looked at me, he did it through the eyes of an old man! Seventeen!" she declared roughly, her eyes shining with tears. "He should've been talkin' about cars with his friends, goin' to football games, goin' on dates. Instead, he was fightin' for his life nearly every day and just tryin' ta find someplace where he could lay his head and rest without worryin' about some animal tryin' ta take another piece of him! He was just a boy-"

"No," Chris said softly, reaching out to take one of her hands in his and holding tightly to it, "he was your boy. He was yours from that first day, and he'll be yours until the last one." He watched as she wiped away her tears with her free hand, thanking whatever fate had thrown Vin into this woman's path. "And that's why you asked me here."

Her head came up sharply and she fixed a hard stare upon him. "I can't tell you how many times he's been hurt in the past," she said in a low voice that throbbed with feeling. "Oh," she waved a hand, "he's never told me about it, but he's never had to. I could see the hurt in him when he came back here, needin' to hole up and lick his wounds before goin' out ta face the world again. But his heart's been broken so many times and in so many ways that it's a true wonder he can still love at all."

Chris nodded, his throat too tight for speech. He knew some of those ways, and it still sickened him to think of Vin being so cruelly used by others.

"But he does love," she said softly, sadly, studying the man beside her intently. She could see his strength, could feel it, and knew Vin needed that. But he needed so much else besides, and, for her own peace of mind, she had to be sure this man could provide that, as well. "I just want to make sure that, this time, he's loved in return."

Chris went absolutely still, inside and out, at those words, and regarded the old woman warily, wanting - needing - to be certain he understood exactly what she meant. "Nettie-"

"I'm not a fool, Chris," she interrupted firmly. "I'm not blind, I'm not stupid, and I'm not naive. Vin has never once breathed a word to me about bein' gay, has never told me his lovers have all been men, but he's never had to. And I've never asked, because I'd never do that to him. All these years, I've hoped he'd tell me on his own, that he'd trust me with this as he has so much else. But," she shrugged, trying not to feel the pain of this truth, "so far, he hasn't."

"He's been hurt before," Chris reminded her. "Hell, he's been betrayed before, and you and I both know that Vin's a quick learner. He doesn't set himself up to be hurt more than once."

Again, she leveled that fierce stare on him, arched an iron-gray brow, and said quietly, "Oh, but he did. The minute he fell in love with you."

Chris flinched as if she'd struck him. "What?" he gasped.

Nettie frowned deeply, not liking his reaction at all. Lord, if he turned out to be just one more in the long line of men who'd led Vin on and then let him down, she'd make sure no one ever found his body!

Her eyes narrowed and hardened, and her mouth set into a thin, grim line. She pulled her hand out of his and slid it and her other into her lap, and again that vast distance opened between them. "You can't tell me you didn't know he's in love with you," she said coldly.

He blinked and swallowed hard. "No! I mean, yes... Hell," he growled, suddenly furious at her for unsettling him like this, "of course, I know! Like you said, I'm not blind and I'm not stupid! Believe me, I am very well aware of how Vin feels about me!"

"Good," she said curtly. "Then I guess it's time for us ta talk about why I asked you here."

He licked his lips and sat back, feeling very much like a hare caught out in the open by a hungry hawk. "And that would be?"

Once again, that brow lifted, and those eyes bored into him. "I want to know," she said quietly, firmly, "what your intentions are toward Vin."

7~7~7~7

Gripping the gun with the ease of long familiarity, Vin continued into the alley, unable to stand idly by with someone else in danger. As he moved further into the shadows, he saw one figure half-dragging another around the corner to the back of Santiago's, and followed silently, not wanting to startle the would-be assailant into violence. He had no idea how the guy was armed - but, being in Purgatorio, it was a sure bet he was armed somehow - and was keenly aware of his own lack of back-up. He licked his lips slowly and picked his way carefully through the litter, keeping as quiet as he could and straining to hear any sound that might alert him to what lay up ahead.

Though he wasn't really sure he wanted to know...

He reached the end of the alley and pressed himself against the wall of Santiago's store, listening. He heard what sounded like a blow, followed by a sharp cry of pain and fear - a woman's voice - and then a male voice, high, harsh and wild. Shit. Two hysterical people, and one of 'em likely armed.

Oh, yeah, things could always get worse.

But he was in it now, and there was no getting out. Not without leaving a terrified and possibly injured woman to some lunatic's mercy. And he just didn't have that in him.

Yeah, you're a fuckin' saint.

Taking a deep breath, he peered carefully around the edge of the store, and, between what remained of the daylight and the glow of Santiago's security light, saw a young woman on her hands and knees, cowering against a dumpster, her body shaking convulsively as she cried. Looming over her, in profile to Vin, was a tall, thin youth in dirty denim jacket, the tail of a plaid shirt hanging out beneath it, and torn, sagging, wide-legged jeans. Long dirty-blond hair stuck out like straw from under a dark stocking cap. He spat a curse at the girl and kicked her, then thrust an arm toward her face. In his hand, he held a knife.

And that was all Vin needed to see. "Drop it!" he called sharply, stepping out of the alley and moving slowly toward the boy, holding his gun so it could clearly be seen.

The kid spun toward him, and Vin's stomach lurched. He knew him, at least by sight. Willie. A local street punk, a small-time crack dealer. And a big-time crack user. One of Purgatorio's lost souls, and already far beyond redemption. The kid was all of seventeen. And would likely never live to see eighteen.

"You stay outta this!" Willie snarled, his face white, his eyes wild. His hands were shaking violently, as was the rest of him. He looked as if he were about to fly apart. "She's got somethin' I need!"

"But you're not gonna get it this way," Vin said firmly, moving slowly, carefully toward the boy, never taking his eyes from him, never letting his gun waver. "Ya done hurt her enough. Jist back off 'n leave her be." Anxiety knotted his gut, but he forced himself to stay calm. The kid was in desperate need of a fix, and that made him unpredictable. And dangerous. "Back away from her, nice 'n slow, and maybe won't none of us git hurt." He consciously deepened his drawl, knowing from long experience that it often had a soothing effect.

Or, if nothing else, it usually made the armed jerks he faced think he was dumber than they were, leading them to underestimate him and make some stupid mistake. And he could deal with stupid.

"C'mon, now, Willie, drop the knife," he urged, still moving toward them. To his relief, the girl began inching slowly away from Willie, whose attention was focused wholly on him. "Yer gonna git somebody killed, 'n there ain't nothin' here worth dyin' fer."

The boy took several steps closer to Vin and fixed wide, glittering eyes upon him, his thin, sallow face twisting into a mask of raw fury. "I need money," he snarled hoarsely, "and she's got it! Saw her gettin' it from the ATM a coupla blocks back. She's got it, I'm gettin' it." Thin lips pulled back from yellowed teeth in an ugly, sneering grin. "And you ain't stoppin' me."

"Yeah," Vin sighed, "I am." In one fluid, unhurried motion, he moved himself between Willie and the still-sobbing girl, shielding her body with his. "You all right, miss?" he called softly, never looking away from the boy.

She lifted her head slowly, revealing a face already darkening with bruises. Blood ran from a gash torn into her cheek and from her split lip. Her dress was ripped at one shoulder, revealing scratches there. "I... He hurt me," she gasped brokenly, her accent heavily Spanish. "I thought... He grabbed me and... and he said... I thought he w... was going to..."

"It's all right, miss," Vin soothed, his anger rising a notch. "He ain't gonna do nothin' to ya now, I promise. You-"

"Just lemme have the money!" Willie snarled, taking a quick step forward and brandishing the knife. "Gimme the money, and nobody'll get hurt! I need it!"

"That's too damn bad," Vin growled, his voice low and menacing, his eyes narrowing. "'Cause y'ain't gittin' it. Now," he raised his gun slightly, "drop the knife, and back away. B'lieve me, you don't wanta know how good with this I am." Willie hesitated, scowled furiously, but stepped back. Vin spoke once more to the girl. "Now, miss, you jist go on over yonder, sit down 'n rest a spell. When I git done with Willie here, I'll call somebody ta take care of ya. You can give yer statement, git all them hurts looked at-"

"No!" she cried sharply, alarm flooding her face. "No, you do not understand! I cannot! No police... Por favor..." She lapsed into a stream of frantic, tearful Spanish, pleading with him not to call the police.

Vin's heart sank at her familiar fear. She was probably illegal, and wouldn't - couldn't - risk being discovered. Not with Immigration throwing folks back across the border right and left. And he couldn't do anything without involving her. Which meant Willie would just walk away from this, and likely find another victim a few blocks away.

Shit.

"Look, miss, please-"

"NO!"

Terrified, she shot abruptly to her feet, startling both Vin and Willie, and bolted. But her injuries made her clumsy, and she staggered into Vin, turning him and knocking him off balance. He stumbled and tried to right himself, then saw Willie lunge at the escaping girl. Gripped by anger and frustration, knowing he couldn't shoot without the risk of hitting her, he threw himself forward and reached her just as the boy grabbed her, tearing her out of Willie's grasp and shoving her aside. He and Willie went down in a tangle of arms and legs, his gun falling in the fray, and he hit the pavement hard, crying out sharply as a searing pain ripped through his left lower back.

Oh, shit, he'd thrown it out again!

Time froze, and a stunned silence descended upon the scene in deafening contrast to the previous violence. Vin lay still, trying to calm the agony screaming through his back, praying he'd be able to move if he had to. Willie was still atop him, and the girl lay where she'd fallen at the base of the store's back wall. For long, long moments, no one moved at all.

Then the spell was broken. The girl's dazed eyes lit on the fallen gun, and recognition jolted through her. With a strength and speed given her by desperation and panic, she leapt to her feet and grabbed the gun, gripping it in very shaky hands and pointing it at Willie.

"Go!" she spat, her voice as unsteady as her hands. "Go now, or I will shoot."

Oh, Lord, don't do that! Vin pleaded silently, knowing that, with her standing so close, any bullet she pumped into the boy would likely end up in him.

But Willie decided he'd had enough. She was putting up too much of a fight, and now she had someone fighting with her. The long-haired man was hurt, but there was no guarantee it was bad enough to take him out of this. And victims were a dime a dozen in Purgatorio.

"Next time, you little bitch, you're mine!" he snarled, untangling himself from and rolling off the man beneath him, then climbing unsteadily to his feet. "As for you," he dropped his gaze to the man and sneered, "next time I see you, you're dead!" With that, he launched a savage kick into his victim's side.

Vin cried out harshly and curled up instinctively as the kick sent new torrents of pain rolling through him. He heard Willie's footsteps pounding against the pavement as he raced away, and knew he should probably get up and follow. But even as he tried, fresh agony gripped him, and he collapsed with a wrenching groan, fighting against the nausea induced by the hellish torment in his back.

The girl stared at the injured man for long, long moments, her dark eyes huge in her ashen face. She saw the knife laying at his side, watched the dark stain spreading slowly over the portion of the shirt showing between the top of his jeans and the bottom of his jacket, witnessed his feeble, futile efforts to move, and felt cold, raging terror grip her. With a sharp, wordless cry, horrified by all that had happened, she dropped the gun from suddenly numb hands and ran blindly down the alley.

"No!" Vin gasped, raising his head and staring after her. "Please..." But she was gone, and he dropped his face to the cold pavement once more, hurting, dazed... and alone.

Chris.

Wanting nothing more than to get to the one man who'd always proven so wondrously able to ease whatever pain plagued him, he pulled his legs slowly beneath him and tried to push himself upon them, groaning thickly as pain and nausea twisted through him. Barely able to think, he slid a shaking hand to his tortured back, and felt the wetness there. More confused than ever, he raised his head and dragged his hand before his eyes, staring at his red-washed fingers. Then the familiar coppery odor hit him, and it was all he could do not to throw up.

Blood. His blood.

He remembered the knife then, and slumped back to the pavement with a breathless moan.

Oh, yeah, things could always get worse.

7~7~7~7

Chris stared at her in stunned disbelief, eyes wide, mouth hanging open, his mind gone numb. And all at once, despite what he'd told himself earlier, he was eighteen again, and faced with one of the most formidable "parents" he'd ever known.

"Wh... what?" he croaked at last, somehow forcing the word through his throat.

Nettie rose from her chair and walked around him, going back to the photo of Vin in his uniform and staring up at it. "I've seen that boy broken into pieces more times than I care ta count," she said quietly. "I've nursed him through bodily hurts, but, as bad as they've been, they've been nothin' like the hurts done to his heart and soul. I'd begun to think all that was over, that he'd decided he couldn't go through that again and just quit lookin' for anybody ta love. Then he met you. Somehow, you and the others dragged him out of his loneliness and shadows and back into the light. Back to life. You all gave him friendship the likes of which he'd never had before. But you more than anyone." She sighed. "And he fell in love with you."

She reached up and lovingly straightened the picture, then turned back to Chris. "I can't make him not love you," she said. "I'm not sure I'd wanta try. But I need to know if I'm gonna have ta pick up the pieces again. I need ta know if you're gonna break my boy's heart, so I can be ready to help him through this, too."

Chris found himself wishing she were Hank Connolly then, wanted to be able to hate her for her interference, to resent her for her presumption, just as he'd done his father-in-law. But he couldn't. Because where in Hank all he'd seen was arrogance and contempt, all he could see in Nettie was fear and pain. And the same deep, boundless love for Vin he'd seen in Sarah for Adam.

He wondered if Vin had any idea of just what he had in this woman.

He sat back in his chair and raised clear, deep green eyes to her, dropping every last defense. This was a discussion he'd never intended to have with anyone, but he knew he needed to have it with her.

"I always thought," he began softly, slowly, wistfulness in his voice and eyes, "that if a man is very lucky, he'll find one great, perfect love in his life. One love that makes getting up in the morning a joy, and going to bed at night a gift. One love that makes him look inside himself and say, 'This is why I was born.' And I had that love with Sarah. She made every struggle, every difficulty, every battle worthwhile because, in the midst of every one, she was there. And then, one day," his voice thickened, then broke, "she was gone."

He took several moments to compose himself, reaching deep inside himself for strength. And finding it where he always did. "For three years, I was lost," he went on, his voice still strained, but not quite so brittle. "I was living, but my reason for doing it was gone. I was still fighting the battles, but for the life of me I didn't know why. Because everything I'd ever fought for was gone. Then one day," a slight, tremulous smile spread slowly over his face, lighting his eyes and warming his voice, "this long-haired, smart-assed, blue-eyed, pain-in-the-butt Texan came sauntering into my life, and it was like someone had thrown a switch. All the lights came back on, the world started turning again, and I knew I had something waiting for me when I got out of bed in the morning. Without ever sayin' a word, the man can make me laugh so hard my sides ache, or so mad I could spit blood. There are times I absolutely wanta kill him, but I never do it because I know I'd be lost without him."

He frowned thoughtfully, still trying to figure out exactly how it had all come about. "It took me the longest time to realize what was happenin'," he said softly. "And I guess the only thing that held me back was the fact that Vin's a man. Even though everything I felt for him was exactly what I'd felt for Sarah, I was blind enough to believe it was just friendship. Until I just couldn't deny the truth anymore, no matter how I tried. And that truth was that, in that long-haired, smart-assed, blue-eyed, pain-in-the-butt Texan, I'd found the second great and perfect love in my life."

He looked up at Nettie, and saw that her eyes were fixed upon him, seeming to bore into his very soul. "I can't promise I'll never hurt him," he told her quietly, "and I can't promise I'll never break his heart. But I can promise this - if ever I do either of those, you won't be the only one pickin' up the pieces and nursin' the hurts. Because I'll be right there with you, doing everything I can to make it right again. I love him, Nettie." He shrugged helplessly. "I don't know how I can say it to make you believe it, but the simple truth is, I love Vin."

She watched him for long moments, gauging every flicker of emotion that crossed his face, weighing both his words and tone and hearing only conviction in them. She had no doubt that he truly believed what he was saying, and wanted desperately, if only for Vin's sake, to believe it, too.

But wanting a thing seldom made it so.

And she still could not help fearing for Vin. She had no doubt that Chris loved him, or sincerely believed he did, but she also knew that love, no matter what the poets and songwriters said, wasn't always enough, even in the best of circumstances. And, Lord knew, two men trying to make it in this world together had a much harder road to walk than most, especially when one of them had never walked it before, and knew nothing of the perils it held.

Chris Larabee was undoubtedly a strong man. But was he strong enough to bear the burdens as well as the blessings that loving another man, that loving Vin, would certainly bring?

She sighed and squared her shoulders, knowing Chris was awaiting her answer. "I hope so, son," she said at last, a trace of sorrow coloring her voice. "For both your sakes, I truly do hope so."

Continued......