By Winnie

Rating---PG13---language and violence

Disclaimers-----I do not own mag7 or the characters. This is a work of fiction in the hopes of keeping the seven riding forever.

Comments-----Thanks to Kay for asking me to write a story for the zine...it just didn’t want to quit. Thanks as always to Marti and Antoinette for the wonderful beta job. You guys have been great. Feedback is welcome, flames are quickly extinguished.

 

Prologue

Buck smiled as he saw the beautiful redhead walking toward him. They’d been seeing each other for a month now and tonight would be something special. Angela Tate was twenty-two, fully developed in all the right places, with green eyes flecked with gold. Tonight they were meeting Chris Larabee for dinner and Buck was going to ask her to marry him. His stomach was in knots as she closed the short distance and he picked her up in his arms.

“Oh, Buck, I missed you so much.”

“Angela, it’s only been four hours,” he said as he breathed against her neck.

“I know, Buck, but every minute I have to spend away from you is agonizing. I want to be with you all the time.”

“Me too, Darlin’. So are you ready to meet Chris?”

“I don’t know, Buck, I’d rather just spend time with you...alone...if you know what I mean.”

“Oh, I do, Darlin’, but I really want you to meet Chris. He’s my best friend...”

“I thought I was your best friend?”

“You are...my best lady friend...there’s a big difference. Come on we’ll have dinner with Chris and then we’ll make our way out to Lover’s Landing,” Wilmington suggested seductively. They’d been there several times, but hadn’t made love and Buck knew he wouldn’t make that kind of advance on her until she made the first move.

“All right, but after dinner you’re all mine,” Angela told him as she allowed him to kiss her passionately.

“Angela, I’m already yours,” Wilmington said, as they linked arms and strode towards the Midfield Hotel and Restaurant.

Midfield was a fair sized town for the Midwest and the restaurant and hotel were well known across the territory as being one of the best west of Boston. The jail was situated at the south end of the town, the livery across from the jail, and a fair sized mercantile was situated in the center of the north side of the street. There was a small church that was always packed to capacity for Sunday service and it also served as a place for town meetings. There was a telegraph and post office in the building next to the hotel and a boarding house was set to the right of the telegraph office.

Buck smiled as he pushed open the door to the restaurant and spotted his friend seated at a table near the window. The sun glinted off the blond head and he could tell Chris had taken a bath and cleaned himself up for this meeting. The gentle ladies man was proud of the woman holding his arm and he wanted Larabee to like her. A slight tug on his arm stopped his forward momentum and he turned to look at his beautiful companion.

“What’s wrong, Angela?”

“Are you sure you want me to meet him, Buck, he looks kind of scary?”

“That’s just Chris, Honey. He’s kind of rough around the edges being from Indiana and all, but don’t let that fool you. He’s a good friend and he knows how much I care for you. You’ll like him and he’ll like you, but don’t you go falling in love with him or I just might get ugly.”

“Oh, Buck, how could I fall in love with anyone when they disappear as soon as I see you?” Angela asked coyly.

“Now that’s music to my ears. So, do you think you can face him?”

“As long as you hold me tight,” the woman said and gripped his arm before they walked towards the man seated at the table.

Chris had noticed them as soon as they entered the restaurant, but did not let on that he’d seen them. Angela Tate was even more beautiful than Buck had described and Chris thought she was someone he might have taken a chance on if his friend had not already laid claim to her. He saw the duo stop and the redhead turn towards Wilmington and briefly wondered what she was saying. Something about her movements spoke of a seduction and Chris wondered if she was as innocent as Wilmington believed her to be. He stood up as the two people began moving towards his table once more.

“Chris, I’d like you to meet Angela Tate, the most beautiful enchantress in the territory.”

“Pleased to meet you, Ma’am,” Larabee said as he tipped his hat and held the chair for her.

“Oh my, thank you. Buck told me you were well mannered, but I think he was wrong. I think, Mr. Larabee, that you are a charmer.”

“Hey, you ol’ war dog, that’s my girl you’re sparking there.”

“I’m not sparking her, Buck, but only because she’s your date. Would you like a glass of wine, Miss. Tate?”

“Yes, please, Mr. Larabee.”

“Call me Chris...”

“Only if you call me Angela.”

“Done,” Chris said and sat down. He motioned for the waiter to come over and ordered a glass of red wine for the young woman and whiskey for himself and Buck. The waiter brought menus before leaving to get the drinks.

“Chris, Buck tells me you want to breed stallions,” Angela said, blushing as she realized what she’d said.

“Well, yes, I guess you could say that. Horses are beautiful animals and if treated properly they can be a man’s best friend,” Larabee told her.

“Me and Chris are thinking about starting a place just north of here. Figure we’d start off with a couple of purebreds and work our way from there.”

“Oh, that sounds so exciting. What about a house?” Angela asked as the waiter returned with their drinks.

“We’ve already started building one, but it’s going to be small to start with,” Wilmington explained. “We’re going to need a big barn to stable the horses and then we’ll need to finish the corral before we concentrate on the house, but it’ll be big enough for our needs.”

“Sure will,” Larabee agreed. He had a feeling Wilmington was leading up to something and sat back to let the other man talk.

“Angela,” Wilmington said, reaching for the white-gloved hand.

“Yes, Buck.”

“Will you,” the mustached man sank to one knee and took her hands in his as he looked into her green alluring eyes, “marry me?”

“Oh, Buck, I...I...”

“Please, Darlin’, there’s no one I’d rather spend my life with and I promise to do everything in my power to make you happy and give you the world on a gold platter if that’s what it’ll take,” Wilmington told her.

“Oh, Buck, I don’t know what to say...”

“I think you’d best say yes before Buck stops breathing for good,” Larabee said, a slight smile gracing his handsome features.

“Yes, Buck, oh yes,” she said and laughed as he stood up, whooped loudly, threw his hat in the air, and finally picked her up in his strong arms. “She said yes!”

The small crowd in the restaurant had been quietly watching the three people by the window and smiled as the man made his announcement. The promise of happiness hung in the air, but there was also a harbinger of regret lurking nearby.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Four Corners

“Buck, watch out!” Dunne shouted as Wilmington walked haphazardly across the street. The young sheriff breathed a sigh of relief as the passing wagon veered away before hitting the unwavering figure. He hurried after the older man and grabbed his arm before moving in front of him. ‘What the hell’s the matter with you, Buck?”

“Huh, what?”

“You could have been killed. What’s wrong with you?”

Wilmington saw the wagon making its way towards the end of town and knew he’d been in a world of his own. He looked down at the paper held tightly in his hand and took another step towards the saloon where Larabee and Tanner were sure to be found. Without a word to Dunne he continued on with a determined gait.

“Buck, what’s going on?”

“Nothin’, Kid, just gotta see Chris.”

“Why? What was in that telegram? Is it about Ella Gaines?”

“Ella Gaines? No…not about her.”

“You sure...you’re awful pale, Buck, maybe you should go see Nathan.”

“Don’t need Nathan, Kid,” Wilmington said as he reached the saloon and pushed through the batwing doors. He scanned the dim interior until he spotted the two men at the back of the saloon. Both sat with their backs to the wall in an effort to watch everything that was going on. This position had saved them all more than once and he knew it was the easiest way to defend each other. Without a word Buck made his way to the back and slumped into the chair across from Chris Larabee.

“Buck, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Larabee said softly.

“Maybe not seen one, Chris, but I heard from one.”

“You’re not making sense, Buck,” Larabee said as Dunne sat next to Tanner.

“Here,” Wilmington said and handed his long time friend the telegram.

Chris read the words quickly and took a breath of air before meeting the other man’s eyes once more. “Angela?”

“Yeah, I need to see her, Chris. I need to know why she left.”

“When are you going?” Larabee asked.

“Was thinking I’d leave tomorrow.”

“Want some company?”

“Hell yeah, you know I do! It’s just, well, you know what I was like after she left.”

Larabee rubbed his chin as if remembering all too well his encounter with a straight razor. Chris regretted using the same form of terror on Buck the day he’d found out the rogue was talking about his own private affairs.

“Yeah, I remember, but it seems to me payback’s a bitch. So, are you sure you want to see her again?”

“I have to, Chris. I need to know why she left like she did.”

“All right, Buck, we leave in the morning.”

“Need any of us to come along?” Dunne asked.

“No, Kid, I think me and Chris can handle this. You boys will need to make up for our absence,” Wilmington said.

“Are you gonna send a reply?” Larabee asked, feeling the buckskin clad body tense up beside him.

“Yeah, figure I’d better...just in case she’s got company,” Wilmington said and accepted the drink Larabee slid across to him.

“Ya gonna tell us about her, Buck?” Dunne asked.

“No, I’m not, Kid. Right now I’m going for a ride. See you boys later.”

“All right, Buck, just be careful,” Larabee warned and watched the other man leave.

“Who was she, Chris?” Dunne asked.

“That’s something you need to ask Buck, JD, but I’d leave him alone right now. Vin, think you boys can handle this place on your own?”

“Hell, Chris, the way it’s been lately we could all go and leave the town ta watch the grass grow. Ain’t much happenin’.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Larabee said and leaned his chair back once more. The town had been unnaturally quiet of late and the peacekeepers were taking advantage of it. He could feel JD watching him and sensed that the younger man was not ready to give up, but there would be no answers forthcoming from him.

“JD, seen Casey lately?” Tanner asked.

“Yeah, we went fishing out at the creek and…”

“She throw ya in ag’in?” the Texan asked with a grin.

“Ain’t never thrown me in, Vin. She got lucky that one time when I wasn’t expecting it, but I’m ready for her now.”

“Don’t bet on it, Kid, ladies have a way of surprising you when you least expect it,” Larabee said from under his hat.

“I know how to handle Casey,” Dunne stated with a little too much certainty.

“Oh, Kid, are ya in fer a rude awakenin’,” Tanner told him.

“What’s that mean.”

“Ain’t gonna tell ya. Casey’ll letcha know when ya make a mistake!” the Texan advised as he poured a shot of whiskey into his glass. He knew the younger man had serious feelings for Casey Wells, and they all loved to tease him when they had the chance.

“Casey’s really something, Vin. I thought all girls were afraid to put worms on a hook, but she does it and don’t get all squeaky about doin’ it.”

“Good thing, Kid, otherwise ya might never catch anythin’,” Tanner teased and smiled at the sheriff.

“I catch lots of fish!”

“Sure ya do, but who puts the worms on the hook, JD?”

“I put my own dang worm on the hooks, Vin!”

“I’s jest teasin’ ya, JD. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with bein’ squeamish.”

“With bein’ what?”

“Squeamish...”

“Vin, you’ve been hangin around with Ezra too much,” Larabee said. He’d heard the conversation but his mind was on the past. Angela Tate was a real beauty and she’d stolen Buck Wilmington’s heart. Could they get past the missing years and find happiness again, or was she the conniving bitch he thought she was. He remembered the last time he’d talked to Buck about her and how they’d nearly killed each other in the ensuing fight. Now it seemed she was back and she was setting her eyes on the ladies’ man. No matter what Buck said, Chris Larabee would have followed him in order to protect him from his own weakness, and he was glad that Buck wanted him to come along. Standing, he quickly nodded to his two friends before making his way towards the doors. There were arrangements to be made and he’d make sure everything was ready for their departure once the sun came up.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris watched his friend closely as Buck saddled his big bay and tightened the cinch. It was evident that Wilmington hadn’t slept well and Chris knew he would probably have sleepless nights until he confronted Angela Tate and his feelings for her. He knew what love was, had experienced it with Sarah and knew no matter what others said; the feelings could not be squashed. Buck had loved Angela Tate with everything he had and everything he was. Wilmington’s reputation as a ladies’ man stemmed from Tate’s betrayal and his need to keep the women in his life at arm’s length. Oh he’d sleep with them and respect them, but he never let anyone close again.

“Buck, are you sure you want to do this?” Larabee asked.

“No…no, Chris, I’m not, but I have to. I have to ask her why, you know. That’s all I want to know is why she left like that.”

“I understand, Buck, I just don’t want to see you hurt again.”

“Hurt! Chris, nothing ever hurt like that. I need to ask her why and then I’m going to come back here and buy the biggest bottle of red eye and forget Angela Tate ever existed or else I’m going to take her in my arms and show her what a stupid mistake she made.”

“Tough decision,” Larabee said with a cocky grin as he tried to lighten the rogue’s somber mood.

“Yeah, but either way I’m glad you’ll be there to watch my back or...”

“Kick your ass if I think you need it.”

“Knew I could count on you, Chris. Are ya ready?”

“Yep, are you?”

“No, but that’s not gonna stop me. Let’s ride.”

Chris followed the other man and knew the trip they were undertaking would bring closure to a part of their lives that neither talked much about. Buck had gone through hell after Angela left him and Chris thought he’d lost him more than once, but one day Wilmington had woken up and turned away from the anger and depression. They’d started the horse breeding ranch soon afterwards, but not in Midfield as they’d planned. Things had changed not long after they left Midfield and Chris met a young Irish woman and fallen head over heels in love. History seemed to repeat itself, but in a harsher way than what happened to Wilmington. Larabee had lost not just his wife, but his son as well in a fire set by Ella Gaines. The woman was still out there, somewhere and sometimes Chris felt as if the wanderlust would grab him and again he would seek her out and strangle her with his own hands.

Chris spotted Vin Tanner as the Texan returned from his patrol of the area to the south and knew the younger man would work with the others to keep things quiet and orderly in Four Corners. It would take him and Buck five days to reach their destination and Chris knew they would talk of old times when the nights grew chilly and darkness overtook the land.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“He’s coming,” Angela said, smiling at the woman seated at the table.

“Are you sure,” Rosemary Clark asked.

“Oh, yes, I have his telegram and he’s on his way here now. Oh, Rosie, it’ll be so good to see him again. Do you think he still loves me?”

“What’s not to love, Angela. You’re still as beautiful as you ever were. Any man in his right mind would fall in love with you.”

“Thank you, Rosie, I hope you’re right.”

“Is that other man coming with him?”

“I’m afraid so, but I don’t think he’ll be a problem. Buck and I fell in love back then and even Chris Larabee knew that. He may not have totally approved of me, but he would have done anything to make his friend happy.”

“Are you sure you still love this man?”

“I hope so, Rosie. When I think of Buck my stomach feels like it’s full of butterflies. He’s everything a woman could want and I want him!” Angela said as she paced in front of the big window overlooking the front yard of her home.

“I know you want him, Angela, but there’s a difference between wanting and loving someone. I mean I wanted Joseph, but do I love him? No…no I don’t, but he belongs to me.”

“And Buck Wilmington belongs to me, Rosie. Mark my words, Buck and I will be married as soon as he gets here.”

“What makes you so sure he’s not already married?”

“He would have said something in the wire, but he didn’t. He just said he’s on his way.”

“Are you going to tell him you’ve been married?”

“I’ll have to tell him about Robert, but there’s no point in bringing Joseph and Brian into it. That’s all in the past and he doesn’t need to know about them or how they died,” Angela turned towards her friend and smiled at the look on the woman’s face. Rosemary Clark knew about her past, knew about her husbands and most of all knew how they died, yet she could not turn her in, because Rosemary had supplied the poison that put them into the ground.

“What about Larabee?”

“If he gets in the way I’ll simply turn him over to you, Rosie. Think you can handle him?”

“Do you even have to ask, Angela? I’ve handled your ‘problems’ for years without a problem, haven’t I?’

“Oh, yes, and I must say you’re very neat about your work. The undertaker was very impressed with your generosity. Now, why don’t we get the guest rooms ready before you go home?” The two women laughed as they made their way up the staircase, but the laughter was cold and held little mirth.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The first day on the trail passed with both men riding along in silence. Buck continued to relive the past as the beauty who’d captured his heart took control of his feelings once more. He knew a lot of time had passed since he’d seen Angela Tate, but something told him her beauty was as ageless as the sun hanging high in the sky. He’d often thought of her over the years and wondered what could have made her leave without so much as a goodbye. Their wedding day had dawned with such promise, the hangover dissipating before it had a chance to take hold. He’d danced across the floor and yelled at Larabee to wake up and smell the roses and Chris had told him to shut up or he’d make him eat the roses, thorns and all. He heard Pony come up beside him and turned to his friend.

“Buck, it’s getting late. There’s a creek up ahead.”

“You wanna make camp?”

“Might as well. We’ve made a few miles today.”

“All right, Pard, show me the way,” Wilmington said and rode alongside his friend. It didn’t take long to reach the creek and the two men quickly set up camp for the night. Buck quickly set out the bedrolls while Chris warmed a pan of bacon and beans. The coffee was strong and hot as he poured it into two cups and added a dollop of whiskey to each one.

“Thanks,” Wilmington said as he sat on his bedroll and sipped the hardy liquid. “Nice touch, you always did make the best trail coffee.”

“Figured it’d help us both sleep. No one’s following us and I don’t think any animals will bother us if we keep the fire going. Not much point in losing sleep for now,” Larabee said as he dished up the food on two tin plates and passed one to his companion.

“Thanks…this brings back memories.”

“Yes, it does,” Larabee agreed leaning against a large boulder behind him.

“Remember the nights we used to ride down to Purgatorio after…after Angela disappeared?”

“I remember. We rode hard…”

“Not just the horses,” Wilmington said with a grin.

“Never was one to go slow, Buck. I think a lot of them Mexican mamas hid their young women when they heard your war cry.”

“Wasn’t a war cry, Chris, was a love cry and them mamas were probably right to hide the innocent ones, but there were a lot of ladies who were happy to see us.”

“Yes, there were. Remember the blond who came charging into our room that first night in town?”

“Booby?”

“That’s what you kept calling her, but I think her real name was Bobbie.”

“Don’t matter what her name was, she was damn fine to look at.”

“Sure was,” Larabee said with a cocky grin.

“Hey, what happened after I passed out anyway? Was she disappointed?”

“Far from it,” the blond said and toasted the other man with his coffee mug.

“You didn’t? Why you sly fox. Booby was my date…”

“She was, but since you weren’t up to it she just kind of…” Larabee couldn’t help chuckling as Wilmington tried to look indignant. “It’s okay, Buck, she didn’t go away unappreciated. Woman was a bit of an exhibitionist.”

“Sonofabitch! All this time I thought you were my friend!”

“I am, just did what any friend would do. More coffee?”

“No, but I’ll take some of that whiskey you’re so damn tight with!”

“Better watch it, Buck, seems I’m the only saloon in the area,” Larabee said pouring the strong libation in both mugs. He took the empty plates and cleaned them off before settling back on his bedroll. The moon was shining brightly overhead as he added more wood to the fire and pulled the thin blanket up over his body. He looked across the fire and noticed that Wilmington seemed to be sleeping, the empty coffee mug hanging from his fingers. Settling back he closed his eyes and thought about the strange friendship he had with the other man.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Three days later the two friends drew to a stop several miles south of Midfield. They could have rode on through the encroaching darkness, but neither man wanted to take a chance on the horses taking a wrong step and landing in a gopher hole. Buck was growing increasingly impatient, but he knew there was no choice. The horses needed rest and so did their riders whether they admitted it or not.

The water hole was just that…a hole with very little water, but enough so both men could fill their canteens, but not enough to bathe in. Chris took care of the horses, ground tying them close to the water’s edge and making sure there was plenty of grass for them to feed on. He watched as Buck worked at getting the camp set up and knew his friend was thinking about the woman waiting for him at the end of this trip.

“Chris, beans or,” the ladies’ man grinned as he spoke. “Beans?”

“How about…hard choice their Pard, but I think I’ll take the beans,” Larabee answered in the same easy-going voice his friend used.

“Any more of your special brand of coffee?” Wilmington asked.

“Yep, had it refilled in that little burg we passed through earlier.”

“Little burg? There were only four buildings in the place. Ain’t nothing changed about that place since the last time we rode through there.”

“Nope, ‘cept maybe the whole place should be condemned,” Larabee told him. “Nothing wrong with the Red Eye though.”

“Know whatcha mean.” Wilmington said handing Larabee a plate and accepting a cup of ‘coffee’. The two men settled down for the night and enjoyed the simple meal. By the time they cleaned up and added more wood to the fire, fatigue had taken over and a small groan escaped Buck’s throat.

“Good thing Vin and JD are not here.”

“Why?” the ladies’ man asked.

“What would those two say about you moaning and groaning after a days’ riding?”

“Ah, hell, can hear ‘em both now…‘gettin’ old Bucklin’.”

“Be lucky if they don’t bring you one of those shawls Nettie Wells makes.”

“You tell them and I’ll just have to pull a Larabee on you.”

“A what?” Chris asked as he watched the twinkling stars high overhead.

“A Larabee! You know one of those I’ll just have to shoot ya!”

“Very funny, Pard. Go to sleep!” Larabee lit a cheroot and inhaled the smoke, exhaling slowly as he relaxed against the saddlebag he used as a pillow. He knew tomorrow was a day Buck was looking forward to, but something about Angela Tate had never set well with him. The woman seemed superficial, but there was nothing he could do except be there and look out for his friend.

“Chris, what do you think she’s like now?”

“Who?” Larabee asked softly, knowing full well ‘who’ Wilmington was talking about.

“Angela. Do you think she’s changed?”

“We all change, Buck, and it’s been a lot of years since we saw her.”

“I bet she’s still beautiful. I bet her hair is still that same shade of fiery red and her eyes the color of the turbulent sea.”

“You sound like a man in love, Buck,” Larabee said.

“I am…I was. I don’t know, Chris. I just know I need to see her again and maybe I’ll have the answers I need.”

“What will you do if you still love her, Buck?”

“I don’t know…marry her I guess. Maybe. Won’t know until I see her again, Chris.”

“Just don’t jump in with both feet, Buck. If you get there and feel like you’re in love then step back and give yourself time to make sure it’s real and not leftover feelings from long ago. I just don’t want to see you make a mistake.”

“I know, Chris, and that’s why I’m glad you agreed to come with me. Remember the first time I cold-cocked you?”

“How could I forget? Stopped me from making the worst mistake of my life. That woman had something against Sarah.”

“Yeah, she did and she was using you as payback. The bitch had you pretty done in when I got there. Thought I was too late when you waved the gun around,” Wilmington said softly.

“You saved me from making a big mistake, Buck, and for that I’m grateful. My jaw wasn’t at the time, but at least it healed pretty quickly.”

“Thought for a few minutes I’d broken your jaw.”

“Me too,” Larabee said as they grew quiet once more. The sounds of the night included a far off coyote and several other wild animals. The smell of the burning wood and the soft breathing of both men were the only thing out of the ordinary in the area.

“Chris, do you remember the day Angela disappeared?”

“How could I forget? I nearly lost you that day, Buck.”

“Came damn close, Chris. If you hadn’t stopped me I’d probably have been buried that day. I just wasn’t thinking...never do when I’m around Angela.”

“I’ll keep you honest, Buck.”

“You always do. You know I’m as nervous as a virgin on her wedding night,” the ladies’ man admitted.

“Ah, hell, Buck, we’re not gonna get much sleep tonight are we?”

“Probably not. Maybe we should just ride on.”

“Not a smart idea, Buck. Too many places where a horse could break a leg.”

“Yeah, I know...ain’t keeping you awake am I?”

“Not yet,” Larabee said as he took a long drag on the cheroot before throwing the last of it into the fire. He turned on his side and looked at the man lying across from him. Wilmington was staring into the flames as if lost in the past and Chris knew there was a lot going through his friend’s mind. “Buck, don’t think about it too much. What happened is in the past and if this is your chance at happiness then I’ll be damn proud to stand by your side.”

“Thanks, Chris, I just hope I’m not making a damn fool of myself.”

“Well, won’t be the first time, Pard,” Larabee grinned in an effort to lighten the mood before lying back on his bedroll.

“Good night, Chris,” Wilmington said.

“Night, Buck,” the blond answered and pulled his blanket closer around his lean body.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Angela Tate sat on the porch swing and watched as two riders came towards her ranch house. The sun was going down and cast long shadows over the house and the well-kept grounds. She was pretty sure who the men were, but remained seated as she waited for them to come into her yard. Smiling as the duo drew to a stop in front of her, Angela raced down the two steps and threw herself into Wilmington’s arms before he’d planted both feet on the ground.

“Oh, Buck, God I’ve missed you so much,” the woman cried as she continued to hold tightly to the mustached man.

“I missed you too, Angela,” Wilmington said a flurry of emotions colliding with each other as his body reacted to her nearness.

“I can’t believe you’re actually here, Buck. I didn’t think you’d come.”

“You asked me to, Angela. You remember Chris Larabee,” Wilmington said, disentangling himself from the woman.

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry,” she smiled brightly as she turned to the blond haired man standing between the two horses. “Hello, Chris, it’s good to see you again.”

“You too, Angela. Buck, I’ll take care of the horses.”

“Thanks, Chris,” the ladies’ man said as he held the woman in his arms.

“The barn is at the back of the house. Tell Manual I said to take good care of them.” Angela watched the lean, black clad gunfighter for several seconds before turning her full attention to the man standing before her. “You haven’t changed, Buck.”

“I wouldn’t say that Angela, but the years have been good to you. You’re still the most beautiful lady to grace the west…east…north and south.”

“Oh, Buck, you’re still my silver tongued scoundrel. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried myself to sleep because of you.”

“Then why did you leave, Angela?” Wilmington asked as she wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Because I couldn’t stand the thought of you being killed.”

“Me? Who’d want to kill me back then?”

“My jilted ex fiancé.”

“Whoa! Your what?” the ladies man asked. “Thought you and me were getting married?”

“Oh, Buck, how can I explain?”

“Well, you can tell me who the hell this ex fiancé is…was when I get hold of him!”

“Robert’s dead, Buck, and I’m finally free of the debt I owed him, that’s why I sent for you.” She reached up and pulled his head down into a kiss that deepened and sent a flash of hot desire tingling through Wilmington’s body.

“A…Angela, God you still set me on fire,” he said of her wanton behavior.

“I want y…you, Buck…so bad.”

“I want you too, Angela, but not here…not now.”

“Your body tells me different,” Angela said as she slipped her tongue past his lips. She smiled as another groan escaped from her would-be lover.

“Believe me I want nothing more than to take you right here and now, but we can’t…I can’t. I need to know why, Angela, I deserve an explanation.”

Angela pulled away, hiding the anger and disappointment as she stared out over the landscape. This was her home and it would be Wilmington’s as well, no matter what else happened she would have this man her body craved. There were drugs she could purchase off the local Chinese apothecary that would see Wilmington in her bed. For now she would rely on his lust for her, because it was strongly evident in the way he’d kissed her, bruising her lips and brushing his tongue across her mouth.

“Who was he, Angela?”

“Someone I knew back home in St. Louis.” Her answer was spoken softly and she knew it sounded pained, and she smiled inwardly at her own duplicity. She turned back to the mustached man and swallowed several times before meeting his eyes and letting him see the tears. “His name was Robert Stratton and he came over here from England, looking for a wife he said, but it wasn’t a wife he wanted, Buck.”

“What did he want?”

“He wanted to take me back to England and make me some kind of harlot, Buck. He already had a wife, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. He told me the night before we were to sail that his wife was living at their house in town and that the country estate would be mine, but I couldn’t do that, Buck. I couldn’t be a concubine,” She broke down crying, her shoulders shaking with the force of her sobs as he pulled her close. He didn’t see the wicked gleam in her eyes as she continued with the tale of woe she’d concocted to make this man believe in her once more.

“What about your family? Surely they didn’t agree with those arrangements?”

“They didn’t agree with them, but Robert was blackmailing my father. Daddy had no choice but to go along with it.”

“So how did you end up here?” Wilmington asked.

“Robert found me the night before you and I were to be wed. He forced me to go back to St. Louis with him and told me we would be wed or my father would pay the price with his business, reputation, and finally his life. Robert and I were married, but no one else knew he was already married in England. The night we were to set sail, Robert was involved in a disagreement over a poker game and one of the other gamblers killed him. My father arranged for me to obtain my things from the boat before it sailed and we were also given the strongbox that held the money from Robert’s business dealings.”

“Why didn’t you contact me after Robert died? I would’ve understood,” Wilmington assured her.

“I tried, Buck, but you and Chris had already left Midfield and I had no idea where to look for you.”

“Damn, Chris and I settled near Eagle Bend…”

“Did you ever start that horse ranch of yours?”

“Yeah, we did, but…”

“What happened?” Angela asked, as the man grew quiet.

“It just didn’t work out,” Wilmington finally answered as the visions of the horrendous fire finally dissolved. “So what made you come back to Midfield?”

“It just seemed the right thing to do at the time. This place had some wonderful memories and it was the last place I saw you. I came back here hoping to find you and Chris well established as horse breeders, but they said you left long before I returned.”

“How long have you been back here?”

“I came back six years ago and I sent out telegrams to surrounding towns asking after you, but they always came back unanswered until a few weeks ago.”

“What happened a few weeks ago?”

“Some cattle drovers came through Midfield and they had an old newspaper clipping from a town called Four Corners.”

“That’s where I live now.”

“I know. The paper said the town was celebrating the fourth of July thanks to seven peacekeepers. I couldn’t believe it was you when I saw the picture. I felt like I’d finally come home and that’s why I sent the telegram. I love you, Buck, I have since the first day I laid eyes on you and…and…”

Buck watched the tears as they slipped from her eyes and slid down her cheeks. His fingers touched against her right cheek and he felt her press into his touch.

“Oh, Buck, I’m so…so sorry.”

“So am I, Angela…”

“Is it too late for us, Buck?”

“I don’t know…”

“Please, Buck, give us a chance…give me a chance to show you how much I love you. I promise you won’t be sorry…”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris had helped Manual with both horses and was impressed with the man’s skills. After brushing Pony down he’d turned both animals over to the Mexican and walked back towards the front of the house. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but something about the woman’s voice sent chills down his spine. Her explanation of why she ended up back in Midfield seemed lame and he knew he would send inquiries to St. Louis and find out what had happened to Robert Stratton. He heard Buck’s voice, and recognized the hope in his softly spoken words as Angela Tate, or whatever her name was now, pleaded for him to give her a chance.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Just say you’ll stay with me and let me show you…give us a chance at the happiness we deserve.”

“I’ll stay for a while…see what tomorrow brings,” Wilmington said and again found his lips on hers as if to release her now would be the worst thing he’d ever done in his life.

“God, Buck, I love you so much…”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris shivered as he heard her words and remembered the chill he’d felt when he first met Angela. The woman seemed like a cold fish to him, but it was not for him to dictate how Buck Wilmington lived his life. He thought about Ella Gaines and the heated words he’d had with Vin Tanner and knew that his role was now that of the Texan. He’d have to wait and watch, but no matter what he’d make damn sure Wilmington would not be hurt. Taking a deep breath, Chris walked quickly around the corner and tried not to look sheepish as he caught the two locked in a passionate embrace.

“Excuse me…didn’t mean to interrupt…”

“Ah, hell, Chris,” Wilmington said as he pulled away from the woman.

“I’m sorry, Chris. I didn’t mean to monopolize Buck, but it’s been so long and I can’t seem to tear myself away from him.”

“I can see that,” Larabee said softly and dusted off his jeans.

“Oh my, where are my manners? You must be starving and I can imagine how thirsty you must be. Come into the house and I’ll see if Carmon has dinner ready. She’s a wonderful chef and was preparing roast beef with stew and some kind of specialty herb mixture she uses.”

“Well, Chris, we seem to have a choice tonight. What’ll it be, beans or beef?” Wilmington asked with a grin.

“Let me see…think I’ll take the beef if that’s all right with you and Angela,” Larabee said and smiled at the slight coloring of his long time friend’s cheeks.

“I would be honored, Chris,” Angela said and stepped into the house. The long hallway was wide enough for the trio to walk side by side and Angela linked her arms though each of her guest’s arms as they walked towards the back of the house.

Chris cringed inwardly at her touch, and glanced towards Wilmington who seemed enthralled by the attention she lavished on him. Chris knew Buck was a good judge of character and normally he would not interfere, but the gentle rogue seemed to be under her spell as they made it to the dining room. He watched as Angela gestured for Buck to sit on her right and for him to sit on the left. Buck, his usual manners coming to the front pulled back her chair and waited for her to sit down before taking his own seat.

“You really have a wonderful home here, Angela.”

“Thank you, Buck, it suits me,” the redhead said and smiled sweetly at the man she wanted.

“Yes, it certainly does.” Wilmington said of the lavishly decorated dining room with the flowered wallpaper and highly polished furnishings. He looked up as a rotund woman entered the room and looked towards the woman of the house.

“Si, Carmon, you may serve dinner now.” Angela smiled as the older woman nodded and hurried from the room. “Carmon is unable to speak, but she understands simple commands and gestures. She was born that way and chose to learn the skills of a chef. Her meals are simple, but oh, you can not imagine how they taste until you’ve had the pleasure of partaking of her culinary arts.”

“I’m sure it’ll be great,” Wilmington said and smiled as she reached across the table and placed her hand on his. She turned her attention to the second man and smiled sweetly as she spoke.

“Chris, I had heard somewhere that you were married. How is your wife? Did she mind you coming here with Buck?”

“My wife’s dead, Angela,” Larabee stated and tried to hide the sorrow the words conjured up.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up such bad memories.”

Chris had the sense that she wasn’t sorry at all and that her eyes seemed to glow with the news, but she quickly hid her emotions and reached for the bottle of wine. She offered it to him and he shook his head as she turned back to Wilmington. He knew Buck was feeling bad about her bringing up Sarah and Adam and Chris tried to assure his friend that he was okay.

“Ah, here’s dinner,” Angela said as Carmon pushed a trolley into the room.

Chris ate the meal in near silence as Angela and Buck talked about the past and her plans for the future. He knew Buck would have a hard time making his decision, but the gunfighter also understood the ladies’ man was truly in love with the woman seated at the head of the table. Feeling as if he was intruding on the intimate meal, Chris finished his dessert and accepted a cup of coffee before standing up.

“I think I’ll take this outside,” Larabee said and turned towards the woman. “Thank you for dinner, Angela.”

“You’re welcome, Chris. When you’re ready to turn in Carmon will show you to your room.”

“I can sleep in the bunkhouse…”

“Nonsense. I won’t hear of it. You’re as much a guest here as Buck is and I won’t hear of you sleeping with the hired hands when there’s a perfectly good bed in the guestroom. I’ll have Carmon turn down the blankets and make sure the room is ready when you are.”

“Thank you,” Larabee said and quickly retreated from the room.

“He’s still as close mouthed about himself as he always was,” Angela observed softly.

“He’s been through more hell than any man deserves and then some, Angela. Chris ain’t never been one to talk about himself much and it’s best if you just let him come to you if and when he’s ready.”

“How did his wife die?” Angela asked.

“Murdered…burned to death while me and Chris were in Mexico selling horses. Came home to nothing but a shell and lost himself in a bottle for a long time after, but he’s made it past all that.”

“Did he find out who did it?”

“Not sure…seems to be two different stories on that, but somehow I think Ella Gaines told the truth more so than Cletus Fowler.”

“Who is Ella Gaines?”

“A woman Chris met a long time ago. She was very possessive of him and had his wife and son killed so she could have him. The bitch came after him again about a year ago and that’s when he found out about what she’d done!”

“I hope she’s in jail…or did she hang?”

“No, she escaped after Chris was shot and seems to have disappeared.”

“I’m so sorry. It sounds like he’s been through hell.”

“And then some,” Wilmington finished and looked out the window as Larabee’s dark shadow passed the room they were in.

“I am sorry, Buck, but I want to talk about us.”

“What about us?” Wilmington asked as she pulled her chair closer to his.

“I want…I need you to know how much I love you…have always loved you.”

“I wish…” Her hand covered his mouth, as she looked deep into his soft blue eyes.

“Don’t tell me what you wish right now, Buck, just give me a chance to prove what I say to you. Will you do that for me?”

“I don’t know, Angela. A lot of time’s gone by.”

“I know, but believe me, Buck, I know right down to the minute. I’m not some nervous virgin who’s excited about taking the man she loves to her bed. I love you more than ever and I want to feel your arms around me. I want…”

“Sh, Angela, I want the same thing, but you have to think about your reputation.”

“None of my hands will talk, Buck, and Carmon is loyal to me. So the only one we need worry about is Chris.”

“Chris ain’t one to talk about my business,” Wilmington assured her.

“Then come to bed with me…love me tonight and we’ll take the future as it comes.”

“If that’s what you really want,” the ladies’ man said.

“It is…it’s something I’ve wanted for longer than I can remember.” The two would-be lovers stood and walked out of the dining room together. She held tightly to him as they enter her bedroom and closed the door behind them. “Oh, Buck, I’ve waited for this for so long.”

“So have I,” Wilmington soothed as he lifted her into his arms and carried her to the four-poster bed. The soft feather mattress sagged under their combined weight as the rogue gently placed her on the bed and his hands ran down the length of her frame.

‘Buck…please…I need you so much!”

“I need you too, Darlin’, believe me…”

“Oh, I do,” she said as she felt his body shift slightly. She pulled his head down to hers and deepened the kiss she’d started earlier. Tonight she would make him love her and tomorrow he would be hers forever.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris sipped at the hot coffee as he stood looking out over the darkened landscape. He knew where Buck was spending the night and couldn’t help feeling guilty at his thoughts. Something was definitely wrong with Angela Tate’s story and Chris knew what he had to do. Come daybreak he’d ride into town and send a telegram to St. Louis. Hopefully he’d get the answers, whether good or bad, within a day or so. Taking a long draw on the Cheroot, the gunfighter remembered his own reactions when Vin Tanner had found out about Ella Gaines duplicity. Chris had been angry with the Texan for digging into his business, but Larabee owed the tracker far more than he could ever repay.

Taking a deep breath, Chris walked slowly along the outside of the house. He heard the unmistakable sounds of lovemaking from an open window and hurried past. The sounds of the night filled the air and the far off cry of a coyote added to the slight chill that crept through him. No matter what happened Buck would be hurt, but there were two kinds of hurt. Chris would make damn sure if Angela Tate was even slightly like Ella Gaines she would not have the chance to harm one hair on Wilmington’s head. He finished the Cheroot as he made it back to the front of the house and stamped it out before entering through the front door. He smiled as Carmon came out of the kitchen and gestured for him to follow her.

His bedroom was at the back of the house and he entered the bedroom to see the blankets folded back. A basin of hot water sat on the small table near the bed and a clean towel and face cloth hung over the back of a chair.

“Thank you,” Larabee said and smiled as the older woman left the room. He quickly washed the trail dust from his face and hands before easing the boots and clothes from his body. The water was gritty with dirt and he knew there would be no point in washing the rest of his body.

‘Maybe they have a bath house in town,’ he thought as he sank back onto the bed. He hadn’t meant to sleep, but the softness of the bed and the warmth of the blankets soon had him slipping towards sleep. The dreams that came bordered on nightmares as Ella Gaines’ face floated in front of him, taunting him with plans for the future that included becoming Mrs. Christopher Larabee.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Buck awoke to the pleasant sensation of a warm body spooned up against him. The intoxicating scent of roses brought back the memories of earlier times and the wondrous night of lovemaking he’d shared with Angela Tate. She was as bold as he was in bed and they’d found many ways to pleasure each other through the early hours of the morning. Dawn was beginning to creep into the sky when they finally lay sated in each other’s arms. He felt her soft breath against his arm and smiled as he pulled her tight. He nuzzled the thick locks of vibrant red hair and luxuriated in the velvety softness of her body. His left hand traveled down her shoulder and along her stomach, stopping at her navel where he continued to lavish his attention on her.

“Buck, if you continue in this manner we’ll never leave this bed again.”

“If that’s meant to stop me, Darlin’, it ain’t gonna happen.”

“I would like nothing more than to stay here in your arms, but this is a working ranch and since I own it I have to…”

“Don’t you have a foreman?”

“I do, but he takes orders from me. Besides, I think I smell fresh coffee and bacon.”

“I smell only roses…”

“Buck, aren’t you hungry?”

“Oh yeah!” The rogue said nibbling at the nape of her neck. He felt her push back against him and chuckled softly as she continued to berate him.

“Buck, you’re insatiable.”

“Hmm…”

“Oh, God,” Angela said and turned towards the ladies’ man. She soon found herself lost in the touch of his hands and the brush of his lips against her skin.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris woke before dawn and stretched his lean frame under the blankets. The fatigue of days of travel and subsequent nightmares left him feeling worse than the night before; yet he knew he would not be getting any more sleep. Sitting up and sliding his legs over the edge, Chris rubbed at tired eyes and reached for his pants. He dressed quickly and silently walked out of the bedroom. No one else was up yet as he made his way towards the front door. Once outside he lit a cheroot and sat on the top step of the porch and sighed contentedly. He loved the night and took solace in the quiet that was missing during the hubbub that made up the daylight hours.

He looked towards the house as the sound of movement from within caught his attention. If it were Wilmington he’d join Chris, but if it was anyone else he didn’t really want the company of strangers. By the time he finished his cheroot much of the stiffness had left his body and he stood up once more. The door behind him opened and he turned to see Carmon standing there with a cup of coffee in her hands. Accepting the cup he smiled and thanked the woman before settling back on the step once more.