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PAIRING: C/V (surprise!)

DISCLAIMER: Not mine, all theirs, no money. Happy now?

NOTES: Well, since so many of y'all are still stuck in winter, I thought I'd try to make the cold bearable <g>. Not much of a plot here; I trust y'all will forgive me. ;-) Thanks as always to Miz Ruby for catching my typos and just being my friend. Love ya, hon!

He held firmly to the reins and ruthlessly urged his reluctant, protesting horse onward, straight into the teeth of the storm. It had blown in with a shocking suddenness, the wind roaring out of the north like a runaway train, and now raged with a bone-cutting fury, lashing him with the ice and snow it carried on its frozen breath. Caught out in the open with no bolt-hole to tuck into for cover, he had no choice but to try and make his way through it to the shack that was his only hope.

If he didn’t reach it soon, he’d die.

Peso balked again and fought the bit, turning once more out of the wind, stubbornly determined to head south. But Vin was every bit as stubborn and yanked him back around, spitting curses and spurring him angrily until the damn fool animal lowered his head and resumed his grudging northward trek. Tanner could understand the gelding’s reluctance; hell, he wasn’t exactly happy about this himself. The cold had already penetrated through his coat and the layers of clothes beneath it, and he could feel a dangerous wetness against his skin where the sleet and snow had seeped through, too. His eyes watered from the stinging cold and his face burned beneath the ice-crusted woolen scarf that covered it. Stiff fingers ached in wet gloves and his feet had long since gone numb.

Lord, it couldn’t be much further … could it?

He didn’t think so, but knew that right now his thoughts weren’t worth a plug nickel. His mind was beginning to wander dangerously, his thoughts growing increasingly sluggish and confused, refusing to stay focused. He’d dismounted once, had thought walking might bring a measure of warmth, might clear his head, but had abandoned that effort after the second time he’d fallen and had only barely managed to haul himself back to his feet. Now, the idea of laying down and going to sleep seemed awfully appealing.

The cold was getting to him.

He lifted his head with an effort and tried to focus on his surroundings. But the constant and directionless swirl of snow dazed him, disoriented him, gave him a strange feeling of vertigo. Worried now about falling out of the saddle, he took the reins in one hand and wrapped the other firmly around the saddle horn, knowing that to lose his seat now would doom him. He shook his head to clear it and licked frozen lips, forcing himself to look through the snow for the landmarks he so desperately needed.

Lord, if he’d wandered off the trail …

No. No, this was right, it had to be. He’d been going on instinct, and his instincts had never failed him. Not where Chris was concerned. This was the way to the cabin, the way to Chris, he knew it on a level deeper than instinct. Felt it burning like the tiniest flame inside him, the only warmth left to him. Chris was safety, shelter, his surest refuge from any storm that battered him. The man exerted a pull on him that he felt in every part of his being, that throbbed in his heart and coursed through his blood and whispered on his every breath. Even exhausted and half-frozen he could feel it, and he trusted to it now as he did nothing else.

Ignoring sight and thought, he spurred Peso forward one more time and let his heart lead him home.

Chris fed another piece of wood into the fire blazing in the hearth, welcoming the feel of the heat against his fingers. The ice storm had sent temperatures plummeting, and he had little doubt that with the coming of night they would fall further still. That thought, and the soft sound of sleet hitting the roof, made him immensely grateful that he’d decided not to head back to town this afternoon after all.

Would’ve been miserable getting caught out in this.

He rolled his shoulders reflexively at that thought, almost able to feel the bite of ice against his skin. But as he cast an appraising gaze about the interior of the small cabin, he knew he had no cause for worry. The new roof he and Vin had put on in the fall showed no leaks so far, and the mortar he and the tracker had mixed and so laboriously slathered into the chinks between the logs kept the wind from whistling through the walls. New glass in the window panes also helped to keep the weather outside, where it belonged.

A soft chuckle escaped him and he shook his head. For a place that had started out as nothing more than an escape from troubles in town, this cabin was looking more and more like home. New – and whole – muslin curtains hung at the windows, replacing the dirty, tattered scraps that had once sufficed, a real bed had finally replaced his rickety cot in the corner, and a large rocking chair sat only a few feet from him.

All he needed was a vase of fresh flowers on the mantel.

He rose to his feet and turned away from the hearth, then crossed to the stove where a pot simmered. Using a folded bandanna to protect his hand from burning, he lifted the lid from the pot and leaned over, inhaling deeply of the rich aroma. Venison stew, made from one of Vin’s kills. And yet another sign of how much of a home his “shack in the hills” was becoming. Where once he’d kept only whiskey, coffee and a bag of beans or two on dusty shelves, he now boasted a larder fully stocked with dry goods, staple items and canned goods, along with a smokehouse out back that Tanner kept well provisioned with fish and game for drying and curing. The tracker had even begun tanning a few hides for rugs.

Hell, maybe they were both settling down.

A smile teased his mouth as he took up a spoon and stirred the stew. Settling down. Home. Words he’d once thought would never hold meaning for him again but that now lived and breathed within him. That had been given life and breath by Vin Tanner. No more than a fiddle-footed stray himself who’d spent his life merely ghosting around the edges of what he’d thought beyond his reach, Vin had somehow given him back all he’d lost, and so much more besides.

Strange how things worked out.

His smile turned wry and he shook his head slightly. Strange. He knew that was one way of looking at his relationship with Vin, but it would never be his way. Oh, his mind had fought it at first, unable to accept this feeling for another man as love. But his mind’s fight had been doomed by his heart, which had known the truth all along. He loved Vin as he’d only ever loved one other person in his life, loved Tanner with the same depth and fullness that he had Sarah, loved the man as he’d loved the woman, with all that he had and all that he was. And, with Vin as with Sarah, had been made so much more in that loving.

Nope, wasn’t a thing in the world strange about it.

He set the spoon aside and replaced the lid on the pot to let the stew simmer a while longer. Turning away from the stove, he crossed the cabin to one of the windows and pushed aside the curtain, shivering absently as he stared out into the storm. A good layer of snow already covered the ground, and it showed no sign of letting up any time soon. If anything, the flakes were getting bigger, falling faster. If it kept up, there’d be a couple of inches on the ground by morning–

“What the hell?” he breathed, leaning closer to the window and peering into the storm as a bulky dark shadow suddenly appeared through the wild swirl of white. The shadow moved slowly forward, gradually assumed a recognizable form, and Larabee’s heart slammed into his ribs. “Oh, shit, Vin!”

In a heartbeat he was spinning away from the window and rushing for the door, throwing it open even as he snatched his coat from the peg where it hung. Racing outside as he shrugged into the coat, he took the small porch in three long strides and jumped down, slipping momentarily on the slick ground before he found his footing.

Vin!” he shouted into the fierce, frigid wind. Tanner gave no sign of hearing or seeing him, sat slumped on the back of his slow-moving horse, his head hanging down. Fear twisted in Chris’s gut and he raced toward the tracker, flinching from the sting of ice against his face and the burn of the frozen air in his lungs. “Damn it, Vin, answer me!”

Peso shied skittishly at the sight of the onrushing man, tossing his head and snorting warningly, his frayed nerves showing in he whites of his rolling eyes. Chris immediately slowed his pace at the flash of the big horse’s dangerous temper, instinctively knowing that if Peso went into one of his fits, Vin wouldn’t be able to hang on.

“Easy, boy,” he soothed, pitching his voice low and slowly raising his hands. “It’s just me. You know I ain’t gonna hurt ya.” Peso snorted again and pawed fretfully at the ground, but held himself in place. Uttering a soft litany of assurances to the gelding, Chris slowly extended a hand, holding it close enough for Peso to catch his scent.

And close enough for the damn man-eater to bite …

But he didn’t. He snuffled cautiously at the hand, then snorted again and dipped his nose into it, signaling his recognition. Relieved, Chris caressed the blazed face for a few moments, wanting to be certain the big horse was truly settled before he moved.

Just never did pay to spook this one …

But even as he worked at calming Peso, he stared fixedly at the slumped figure in the saddle. Vin was shivering visibly, violently, his hat, hair and clothing crusted with ice, one gloved hand curled around the pommel, the other only barely rasping the reins in a frightfully slack hold. Chris’s fear solidified in his chest and he moved away from Peso’s head, going slowly to the tracker and reaching out to lay a hand on Tanner’s thigh. He flinched at the wetness of the trousers beneath his fingers.

“Vin?” he called hoarsely. “Can you hear me, partner?”

Long moments passed, but slowly, slowly Vin lifted his head a bit, roused from his stupor by the familiar voice. “C– Chris?” he stammered in a thin, strained whisper.

“Yeah, Vin, it’s me,” he said, moving closer still. He stared intently into what little of the tracker’s face he could see between hat and scarf, not at all liking the unfocused dullness of Vin’s blue eyes. “We gotta get you down,” he said with a calm he was far from feeling. “Get you inside and warmed up. You think you can do that?”

Vin puzzled over the words, not quite understanding them. “Got c– caught,” he whispered thickly, lips and tongue refusing to work just right. “Storm … b– blew up … outta n– nowhere. C– couldn’t f– find … nowhere … t’ h– hide.”

“I know,” Chris soothed, slowly stroking Tanner’s thigh, growing more frightened for him by the second. “But you’re safe now. We’ll get you down and I’ll take care of you. How’s that sound?”

“C– cold …”

“I know.” He stepped closer still and reached up, unwinding Tanner’s hands from pommel and reins, then sliding an arm around the younger man’s waist and pulling Vin’s arm over his shoulders. “You lean on me, partner,” he ordered gently, “let me help you down. You think you can do that?”

Vin gave no response for long moments, as if he hadn’t heard. Then his head dipped in a small nod and, as if simply unable to hold himself in it any longer, he began sliding from the saddle.

But Chris was ready and caught him, supporting his near-dead weight as he eased him off the horse. Vin’s knees buckled as his feet finally touched the ground, Chris’s secure hold all that kept him from falling.

“I gotcha,” Chris soothed, tightening his arms about the badly-shaking body, not sure how much of that shaking was due to cold and how much just to Vin being completely played out. “Lean on me, and I’ll getcha inside.”

“P– Peso,” Vin managed to get out through chattering teeth.

“I’ll come back for him, I promise. I’ll tend him real good.”

“I t– told him … g– get me h– home.” Vin looked at Chris then and seemed to see him for the first time. “I reckon … he d– did.” His eyes glazed over and rolled back in his head and he collapsed, a limp, dead weight in Larabee’s arms.

But again Chris kept him from falling. “Yeah,” he whispered harshly, his heart clenching painfully in his chest. “I reckon he did.”

Chris eased the unconscious tracker carefully onto the floor in front of the hearth, propping the inert man against him to strip him of his wet gloves, half-frozen coat and heavy gunbelt. Once those were gone, he laid Vin back and moved down to his feet to remove his boots and socks, then began vigorously rubbing the man’s icy feet, examining them closely for the tell-tale signs of frostbite. When he saw none, a leaden weight seemed to fall from his chest.

Maybe he hadn’t been out in it too long, then.

He released Vin’s foot and moved back up to his side, repeating the action with his hands, finding them deathly cold but also clear of any sign of frostbite. Another wave of relief swept through him, wringing a hard gust of air from him. He leaned over Vin, intending to start stripping him of however many shirts he was wearing, but instead cupped a trembling hand to a cold, whiskered cheek.

“Gotta stop scarin’ me like this, Tanner,” he rasped, gently stroking the younger man’s slack, pale face. Vin’s lips were blue and badly chapped, and Chris brushed a thumb lightly over them. “Got some salve here somewhere that should help with this. Guess I should try to find it.” But that would have to wait. First he had to get these wet clothes off and restore some warmth to the freezing man. He slid his hand down to Vin’s throat and rested his thumb against the pulse there, needing to feel that throb of life. “Jesus, Tanner,” he sighed, shaking his head at his own foolishness. “What the hell have you done to me?”

Vin stirred and murmured faintly, his head moving weakly against the floor, his face twisting into a mask of distress. Before the nightmare could take hold, though, Chris leaned over him and pressed his lips to the tracker’s icy flesh. “Ssh,” he whispered, brushing tender kisses against Tanner’s forehead, brows and eyelids. “It’s all right, Vin, you’re safe,” he murmured between kisses. “I’m here. I gotcha. You’re safe.”

Vin sighed softly and relaxed, his face easing once more into peaceful lines. But as Chris straightened, his eyelids fluttered and slowly opened, revealing two hazy slits of blue. “Chris,” he breathed, knowing instinctively who was with him even before he saw him. “Found ya.”

Chris smiled and reached down to stroke the damp, curling hair off his forehead. “Didn’t know I was lost,” he joked.

Vin stared up at him, sleepy blue eyes fixed on the gunman’s face, and licked dry, cracked lips with an equally dry tongue. “’S afraid … fer a while … that I was,” he said, his voice far raspier than usual. “Weren’t sure … I’s gonna make it through.”

Chris ruthlessly shoved aside the fear those words inspired and swallowed hard. “But you did. Now we gotta get these clothes off, get you warmed up.” He forced a strained smile. “Makes me cold just lookin’ at ya.”

Vin licked his lips again, then struggled to sit up. But exhaustion still gripped him, his strength drained by his exposure to and fight against the storm, and he slumped forward as a wave of vertigo hit him. “Oh, shit …”

“Whoa, easy, partner!” Chris urged, quickly slipping behind him and wrapping strong arms about the bowed and shaking body to cradle the tracker close against himself. “Just take it easy. You’ve had a hard ride.”

Vin exhaled unsteadily and sank eagerly, gratefully, into that embrace, taking refuge in Larabee’s warmth and strength. He closed his eyes and rested easily against Chris, knowing with instinctive certainty that he was safe here as he’d never be anywhere else.

Keeping one arm tightly about the tracker, Chris began working at the buttons of the man’s shirt with his other hand, knowing he had to get him out of the wet clothes as quickly as possible. Vin clumsily half-helped him, and between the two of them, though mostly in spite of Vin’s efforts, they soon had him stripped. Then, practically having to tear himself from Tanner’s side, Chris left him huddled naked and shivering before the fire to round up whatever blankets were closest to hand.

Vin folded his legs against his chest and wrapped his arms around them, then dropped his head onto them, colder than he could ever remember being. The fire was beginning to work on him, but not nearly fast enough. Violent tremors shook him as painful chills raced through him, seeming to slice into his very soul.

“Here.” Chris returned and dropped to his knees at Vin’s side, wrapping one blanket close about him and following it with another, then folding the quilt he’d snatched off the bed and laying it on the floor, helping Vin shift onto it. “Now, lemme see your feet.” When Vin wriggled them out from under the blankets, Chris slipped a pair of thick socks on them, then tucked the blankets back over them. “You all right here, or you wanta go to bed?”

“Stay here,” Vin croaked, head still on his knees. “Need the fire.”

“Okay. But how ’bout I get you a pillow and you lay down? You’re not far from topplin’ over.”


Chris kissed the top of his head, then rose to his feet and went to the bed, snagging the pillow from it and taking it back to Vin. He helped the tracker lie back on the pallet he’d made and rearranged the blankets over him, tucking them close as Vin curled into a tight, shaking ball beneath them.

“Okay, you rest here,” he said quietly, gently stroking Tanner’s forehead with the pad of his thumb. “I’m gonna go take care of Peso. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Vin merely nodded, too exhausted and too cold to form words. Beneath the tender caress of that thumb, his eyelids drooped heavily, then slid closed. Unable any longer to resist its pull, he drifted into sleep, knowing it was finally safe to do so.

He’d made it home.

Chris shrugged out of his shirt, peeled off his wet britches and stripped off his underwear, then slipped under the blankets covering Vin, fitting himself close against the tracker’s naked backside and shivering as that contact only heightened his own chill. Vin was no longer deathly cold, but was still far from warm. Realizing with a sickening twist at his gut how close he’d come to losing him, Chris pressed himself more closely still against the younger man and wrapped his arms tightly about the lean body, burying his face in the nape of Tanner’s neck and just breathing in his scent.

Vin was here, and he was alive.

Chris simply held him for long, long minutes, reassuring himself that, for now anyway, his world was still whole. He slid one hand over Vin’s chest to his heart and held it there, concentrating on that beat. Slower than usual, not quite as strong, but, merciful God, still there.

And so long as Vin’s heart beat, so could his.

He knew it was dangerous, this deep need he had for the man in his arms. The very love that had healed him, saved him, could also shatter and damn him. Loving a man like Vin Tanner, a man with a price on his head, a man whose very existence was as precarious as any Larabee had ever known, wasn’t the smartest thing he’d ever done.

But it certainly had to be one of the best.

Vin murmured faintly and stirred slightly and Chris tightened his arms about him, nuzzling through the long, curling hair to press soft, tender kisses to the nape of the tracker’s neck. “Ssh,” he whispered against the still too-cool flesh there. “Just rest. I gotcha. You’re all right.” Vin sighed and settled once more, and Chris smiled at such deep and complete trust from a man who had so very little of it to give.

Maybe being smart wasn’t everything.

Vin shivered again and nestled closer to Chris, the cold still clinging to him. Chris sighed and unwound one arm from Tanner, pulled it free of the blankets and reached back behind him, groping blindly for what he’d left there. While stripping Peso earlier, he’d remembered that during winter Vin carried a cut-down buffalo robe as part of his bedroll, swearing it was warmer than any soogan could be. Chris had brought in the tracker’s bedroll along with the rest of his belongings, had opened it and pulled out that robe, marveling at the buttery softness of the hide on one side and the thickness of the fur on the other.

Damn shame there weren’t any buffalo around here …

Chuckling at the ridiculous vision of himself accompanying Vin on a buffalo hunt, he pulled the heavy robe over them both and spread and straightened it as best he could. And chuckled again as Vin, the toughest, deadliest man he’d ever known, sighed and burrowed under it like a child seeking the security of his mama’s skirts.

“Damn thin-blooded Texan,” he murmured fondly. “Don’t know why you don’t just hibernate like the bears.”

But it wasn’t simply the robe’s weight and warmth that soothed Vin. Even in sleep, the sheer feel of it, along with its familiar scent, reached him, spoke to him of sweet times spent with people not his own yet who had been more to him, been better to him, than his “own” ever had. The robe spoke to him of home.

As did the man who shared its comfort with him. He pressed more closely against the body cradling his, shivering reflexively as its warmth seeped into him and loosened the grip of the cold that had held him fast for so long. The storm with all its frozen savagery at last began to fade from his mind, its fury and the fear it had inspired in him banished by the solid strength of the man who held him so securely.


“Ssh,” Chris murmured as Vin whispered his name. He pressed another kiss to the nape of the tracker’s neck, hoping to soothe him into deeper sleep. “It’s all right. You just rest.”

But wakefulness only grew more insistent. That kiss sank softly into Vin’s consciousness, and his body registered increasing awareness of the feel of Chris’s spooned up against it. Chris’s arms were wrapped around him, Larabee’s legs were entwined with his, and his ass was nestled snugly into the other man’s groin. And while there was, as yet, nothing sexual to their closeness, still the pleasure of it was more than he could ignore or deny. Even at the expense of the sleep he so needed.

He sighed drowsily and turned onto his back in Chris’s arms, smiling sleepily at the gunman. “Mornin’,” he drawled softly.

Chris chuckled softly. “Not hardly.” He frowned then and moved a hand to Vin’s face, stroking lightly. “How you doin’?”

A flippant answer rose immediately to Vin’s tongue, but, seeing the true worry in the green eyes fixed so intently upon him, he knew the man needed more. “Reckon I’m a helluva lot better now’n I was,” he rasped. “I gotta tell ya, cowboy, fer a while out there I wasn’t sure I’s gonna make it. When that storm blew up …” He shivered at the memory and instinctively huddled closer to Chris, curling into him and settling his head into the junction of Larabee’s shoulder and neck.

Chris immediately tightened his arms about Vin and held him close, knowing from what Tanner wasn’t saying just how close a thing it had been. “But you did make it,” he said roughly. “You’re here now, and you’re safe.”

“Yeah,” Vin sighed happily, sliding an arm about Larabee’s trim waist and slipping a leg between the man’s two. “’At’s what kep’ me goin’, thinkin’ about you, knowin’ you’d be waitin’ on me. Couldn’t stand the thought of never seein’ you again.” He buried his face in the warmth of Larabee’s throat. “Reckon I lied to ya that time I told ya I ain’t afraid ’a dyin’,” he breathed. “Truth is, these days the thought of it terrifies me. I jist ain’t ready t’ leave ya yet.”

Chris rested a cheek against Tanner’s shaggy head and slowly stroked the man’s naked back, deeply grateful to feel the warmth creeping back into the Texan’s flesh. “That’s all right,” he answered hoarsely. “I ain’t ready t’ let you go yet.” He smiled faintly, treasuring the feel of this man against him. “I’ve gotten too used to havin’ you around complicatin’ my life.”

“You ol’ sweet-talker,” Vin teased on a raspy chuckle. “Yer like t’ turn my head here.”

“Hope not,” Chris breathed, sweeping up a hand to comb his fingers slowly through Tanner’s long hair. “Kinda like it right where it is.” He continued to stroke Vin’s hair, a small, puzzled frown tugging at the corners of his mouth as he wondered yet again how Tanner had gotten caught out in the first place. The man was an expert at reading weather signs and, as Buck said, “had more hidey-holes than a whole prairie dog colony.” Didn’t seem likely that Vin Tanner of all men would get taken by surprise. “So what happened?” he asked. “What were you doin’ out in that mess anyway?”

Vin grimaced and snorted in self-disgust. “Weren’t payin’ attention, I reckon.” At Chris’s confused look, he explained, “Nettie come inta town yesterday mornin’, said a wolf’s been raidin’ her place an’ some ’a the other homesteads here’bouts. Got a bunch ’a her chickens an’ one ’a Jed Crowley’s calves.”

Chris’s frown deepened. “What’s a wolf doin’ huntin’ so close in? Winter ain’t been that hard.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Vin said. “Figgered somethin’ had t’ be wrong, so I took out after him. Couldn’t take the chance on him mebbe hurtin’ somebody. Mebbe bein’ sick. Spent all day yesterday an’ most ’a this mornin’ trackin’ him.” He exhaled sharply and scowled. “Only I got so wrapped up in what I’s doin’, I reckon I didn’t pay no mind t’ what was blowin’ in.”

Chris permitted himself a slight smile, knowing from experience just how single-minded Tanner could be on the trail. “So did you get him?”

Vin pulled out of his arms and sat up abruptly, shooting him an outraged look. “What the hell kinda question is that?” he barked.

Chris chuckled at the tracker’s affront. “Sorry, forgot who I was talkin’ to.”

“Did I get him,” Vin huffed, insulted by the very question. “Like I ain’t been doin’ this near my whole life. Hell, I ain’t some green kid, y’know! The day I cain’t track a damn wolf–”

“I said I was sorry!” Chris protested sharply, hoping to interrupt the tirade before it began. “Jesus, you’re touchy!”

Vin lifted his chin and scowled at the gunman. “Jist cain’t believe you’d even ask is all,” he scolded. “Y’ ever heard me ask you that when you’s aimin’ at somebody? An’ I reckon I been trackin’ near as long as you been shootin’ folks–”

“I’m about to shoot one more,” Chris warned, arching a brow. “You are an irritatin’ sonuvabitch, you know that?”

“Must be the comp’ny I keep,” he growled. “Did I get him? Hmph!”

“Well,” Chris slanted a teasing grin at the seething tracker, “did you?”

“An’ ya call me irritatin’!” Vin snapped. “Hell, yeah, I got him! Got him clean, with one shot–” He broke off then and winced, his annoyance with Chris fading as he thought of the wolf he’d killed. “Turns out he was crippled in one leg, couldn’t hunt in the wild no more,” he said softly. “’At’s why he’d sunk t’ raidin’ homesteads.” He shook his head slowly, still saddened by the memory of the once-proud animal reduced to scavenging for his survival. “I had t’ shoot him. Didn’t take no pleasure in doin’ it–”

“You had no choice,” Chris said quietly, hearing the regret in the tracker’s voice and understanding its cause. Tanner had a deep affinity for creatures of the wild, was damn near one of them himself. “Bein’ crippled and bein’ hungry woulda made him unpredictable. And dangerous.” He sat up, then reached out to pull the buffalo robe around Vin’s slumped shoulders. “Besides, you did him a favor,” he said gently, slipping a hand under Tanner’s chin and lifting until their eyes met. “Raidin’ farms wasn’t the life he was born to.”

Vin shrugged slightly. “He’s jist tryin’ t’ survive the best way he could,” he murmured. “Reckon I can understand that. Been there a time or two m’self.”

“But you’re not there now,” Chris assured him quietly, running a thumb lightly over the tracker’s lips. “And if I have anything ta say about it, you never will be again.”

Vin gazed into the clear, deep green eyes that seemed to see into his very soul, and a faint smile curved about his lips. “Awful damn sure of yerself, ain’tcha, cowboy?” he drawled softly.

“When it comes ta takin’ care of you I am. And I don’t plan to change.”

“Don’t wantcha to,” Vin sighed, even now marveling at the feelings this man inspired in him. He’d always prided himself on being able to take care of himself, on needing no one but himself, on being able to face whatever came on his own. Since meeting Chris, though, he’d come to realize what a hard and lonely life that had been, and how good it felt knowing he had another’s strength to call on when his own failed. “Kinda like that about ya. Think I could get used to it.”

“Good,” Chris said with a slow smile, “’cause I ain’t finished yet. Since you seem to be done sleepin’, how’s about we get dressed and get some food in ya? I got venison stew on the stove. I could fix up some cornbread to go with it, put on a pot of coffee. That sound good?”

Vin’s stomach answered for him, rumbling loudly, and he ducked his head as a hot flush of embarrassment burned his cheeks. But he suddenly realized that he hadn’t eaten since early morning, and Chris’s words brought a fierce hunger to immediate life.

Chris laughed aloud and shook his head, winning a sharp glare from the tracker. “Lemme guess,” he teased. “You got so caught up in your hunt that you forgot to eat, right?” Vin’s glare hardened, and he laughed again. “What am I gonna do with you, Tanner?”

“Likely irritate me to an early grave,” Vin grumbled. “Now, you jist gonna sit there an’ mock me, or ya gonna get them vittles goin’ like ya said?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Chris answered thoughtfully, cocking his head slightly to one side and studying the glowering tracker. “I kinda like mockin’ ya.” He winked. “Yer awful damn purty when yer riled,” he said, mimicking Tanner’s drawl.

“An’ you make m’ goddamn hair hurt!” Vin growled. “Hell, it ain’t enough I near froze ta death out there. Now I gotta sit here an’ starve whilst some uppity goddamn gunfighter gits his jollies from pokin’ fun at me.” He lifted his chin and scowled, his eyes flashing. “I shoulda gone t’ Nettie’s. She’da done had a plate in my hands by now!”

“Yeah, but,” Chris breathed, leaning closer to Vin, “would she have done this?” And he brushed his lips against the tracker’s in a soft, slow, achingly tender kiss.

Vin exhaled unsteadily and leaned helplessly into that kiss, his irritation fading as if it had never been. “No,” he whispered hoarsely as Chris pulled away again, “I d– I don’t reckon she would.” He licked his lips, still tasting Chris there, and sighed mournfully. “Damn, ya don’t fight fair!”

Chris grinned wickedly. “Don’t recall ever claimin’ I did. Now,” he rose gracefully to his feet and held down a hand to Vin, “let’s get you fed.”

But Vin only stared up at the man before him, eyes going wide and dark as he studied the long, lean form limned in firelight. “See a coupla things I wouldn’t mind nibblin’ on right now,” he rasped.

Chris laughed and shook his head, wiggling his fingers in invitation. “Later, when you got some of your strength back. Right now you’d probably only pass out on me, and that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”

“Hmph,” Vin snorted, setting his hand in Chris’s and letting the man pull him to his feet. “Awful damn smug– Oh, shit!” he gasped as he reeled dizzily.

“Whoa!” Chris said sharply, quickly wrapping his arms around Vin to steady him. “You all right?”

Vin leaned gratefully against Chris for long moments, resting easily in the man’s strong hold while his world gradually settled. “Yeah,” he breathed. “Jist got up too fast.” He shook his head slightly to clear it, then cast a wry smile at Larabee. “Reckon that storm took more outta me than I thought,” he admitted.

“Nearly freezin’ ta death’ll do that,” Chris said gruffly, fighting back the fear that had abruptly resurfaced. Every last vestige of color had drained from Tanner’s flesh, leaving only the gray tinge of exhaustion. He was shaking, too, though probably more this time from weakness than from cold. Chris had fought storms before, knew exactly how much battling the elements could strip from a body, and knew that Vin’s whipcord-lean build left him precious few reserves from which to draw. “Next time,” he said, worry making his voice harsh, “you pay more attention to what’s happenin’ around you, you hear?”

Ordinarily Vin would’ve resented such a tone, such a command, and would’ve given Larabee an earful in reply. This time, though, he heard the fear behind the anger and kept a tight rein on his own temper. He knew Chris had only the deepest respect for his abilities, but also knew he must’ve come damn close to giving the man heart failure when he’d ridden up in such a sorry state. And Chris Larabee was not a man who took well to being scared.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he finally allowed, knowing he probably wasn’t any more likely to change his ways than Larabee was.

To his credit, though, Chris made an effort. “I’m sorry,” he breathed, gazing into Vin’s eyes and cupping a hand to the tracker’s face. “I just … Jesus, Vin, you scared the hell outta me!” he admitted in a rush. “I know you’re no greenhorn, I know there’s no man better suited to stayin’ alive in this country than you, but I just … I just can’t help it,” he whispered, tenderly stroking Tanner’s cheek with trembling fingers. “The thought of losin’ you–”

“Ssh, hush,” Vin urged softly, laying a hand lightly over Chris’s mouth to silence him. “Y’ ain’t gonna lose me. Not this time, anyways.” He smiled slightly, his dark blue gaze slowly tracing the worry-lined face before him. “I ain’t in no hurry t’ leave ya, cowboy,” he rasped. “An’ when the time comes that I have to, I reckon even then it’s likely gonna take heaven an’ hell workin’ t’gether an’ a few sticks of dynamite besides ta pry me loose from ya. I ain’t goin’ without the biggest, dirtiest fight this ol’ world’s ever seen.”

“Promise me?” Chris pleaded, hating that he sounded so desperate but unable to help it.

Vin gave his familiar cocky, crooked grin and winked. “I promise. An’ I don’t reckon neither heaven nor hell wants me bad enough t’ go through what they’d have to t’ get me. So you’re stuck with me fer a while yet.”

“Well,” Chris said shakily, grinning at his own foolishness, “I guess I can live with that.”

“Good,” Vin said firmly, arching two brows, “’cause I ain’t givin’ you a choice. Now,” he gave a wicked grin, “let’s see what ya done t’ that buck I killed.”