Chapter One

There was no breeze, wind, or even the slightest rustling of leaves on the trees, which were lined up and down the street in front of the Trinity sheriff's office.  The only thing felt was the searing heat that had once again invaded the Carolinas during August.  Yet despite the heat and the stillness it brought, standing in front of the large picture window in the office stood Sheriff Lucas Buck, as cool-looking as ever.  As usual, he was clad from head to toe in black. 

Ben Healy, Buck's deputy, sat behind the desk, trying every method imaginable to find some small amount of coolness in the air.  Glancing at Lucas, Ben began shaking his head from sided to side while fanning himself with the recently completed stack of morning reports.  "Lucas, I don't see how you can stand there wearing long sleeves without breaking a sweat.  It's not but 10:00 a.m. and already at least ninety-five degrees out there.  I'm sitting here in short sleeves with the air conditioning and fans going full blast, and I'm still burning up."

Lucas turned away from the window and casually glanced at Ben with a devil-may-care grin on his handsome face; "Why Ben, I'd thought you'd have figured out by now that heat doesn't bother me at all."  With that, Lucas emitted a short laugh and went back to looking out the window.

Ben shuddered inwardly.  He had worked for Lucas Buck for what seemed like an eternity, back to the days when Lucas was a deputy himself, yet even though Lucas said things that were supposed to be in jest, they never ceased to chill Ben.  It was the manner in which he said them that was disturbing. 

After about ten minutes or so of silence, Lucas finally turned toward Ben and said quietly, "Ben, come here for a second.  I want you to see something."

Ben got up and walked around the desk, thinking, [What on earth is Lucas up to now?]  That was something else that never ceased to chill Ben—occurrences just seemed to simply happen, occurrences of which Lucas somehow always seemed to be the center.

"What did you want me to see, Lucas?  Whoa!  Is she for real?"  Ben was following Lucas' gaze toward a car parked across the street, in front of a vacant office.  A rather young-looking woman was struggling to remove a box, which appeared to be a lot heavier than she had any right to be lifting.

"Oh, just wait.  You ain't seen anything yet, Ben."  Sure enough, Lucas was right.  The woman turned her face in their direction and Ben could only stare.  Even from that distance, Ben could see how beautiful the girl was.  She had her hair in a ponytail and was wearing a ball cap, but even under that, he could see how angelic her face looked.  Ben wondered absently about the color of her hair and eyes.  She was evenly built-not voluptuous like Selena Coombs, or even had the self-assuredness that Gail Emory had always emanated.  This girl, to put it quite simply, reminded Ben of what an angel would look like.  She wasn't tall, but she wasn't short, either. Her legs were nicely shaped, the fact of which was displayed by the shorts she wore.  Through the T-shirt she had on, he could see that she had a nice figure without being over-endowed, like Selena.  After taking in the scene before him, Ben turned suspiciously towards Lucas.

Thinking carefully about the best way to approach the issue, Ben began, "Lucas, I can see where you'd think she's attractive, but I have to ask you.  Why?  I mean she's not your usual type.  She doesn't seem to be anything like Selena, Gail, or Sabbath."  Ben was sorry the minute he said Gail's name.  Gail had been a very taboo subject with Lucas ever since her suicide.  Ben was sure there was something that only Lucas and Gail knew between them, something that had finally pushed Gail over the edge.  Hell, he had intended to marry Sabbath, but talking about her had never bothered Lucas.  The mere mention of Gail's name did, however.

Lucas glared at Ben and finally asked, "Is there anything else you'd like to ask me about, Ben?"

Ben, seeing the underlying rage on Lucas' face backed up a step and replied, "No, Lucas, I was just curious, that's all.  I didn't mean any offense.  Hell, it ain't hard to see why anyone would be interested in her.  I'd try if I thought I even stood a half a chance."

Satisfied by Ben's answer, Lucas' anger vanished, to be replaced by mirth.  Chuckling at the thought, Lucas looked straight into Ben's eyes and answered,  "Well, you don't, Ben, so you just keep focusing your attention on Nurse Rita.  I think I'll go over and offer to help the little lady.  It looks like she needs a hand.  Besides, I have to do my duty as Sheriff and welcome the newest member of Trinity." 

With that, Lucas opened the door and disappeared, leaving Ben to wonder what Lucas had in store for the girl.  He knew Lucas always got his way when it came to women, but somehow, Ben suspected that this lady would definitely give Lucas a run for his money. 

After several frustrating attempts at removing the same box from the trunk, Dara Chambers had finally reached her patience end.  She wrenched the ball cap of her head and threw it to the ground, cursing.  "Damn it to hell!  I got it in there, it has to come out!"

"Oh, I wouldn't send it to hell if I were you, ma'am."

Dara turned her head in the direction of the seductively deep masculine voice.  She had been so preoccupied with prying the box from the trunk that she had failed to notice the man approaching.  If she had, she never would have thrown the ball cap down.  She had worn it because she had too much to get done to worry about fixing her hair, with all the sweaty work she was doing, she knew it was the only way to keep her hair from looking a mess and curling in every direction.  

Lucas held the ball cap out to her and simply stared at the woman.  He knew she was pretty, but he wasn't prepared for what he saw up close.  He knew her hair was a dark color, but with the removal of the hat, he could now see that it was the color of dark burnt rubies.  From afar, it had looked plain auburn, but with the sun behind her, he could see the deep dark red with shining gold.

Her eyes were another surprise.  He had assumed she would have attractive eyes, but this was something else.  They were a mystery.  One second they were grayish, and the next they looked deep green, as deep as the sea.  Lucas had to take a second to reorient himself.  He had seen a lot of beautiful women in his day; hell, he'd had most of them, but this woman was definitely different from the rest of them.  Not even Gail possessed the qualities this woman did.  She exuded a sense of purpose, which seemed to give her a strong air of self-confidence.  Yet as the same time, Lucas could see vulnerability about the girl.  With that added trait, she seemed more of a girl than a woman, but the two combined made for a most beguiling effect.

Lucas could only imagine how in God's name would she would come off to the rest of the male population in Trinity if she struck him that strongly, considering his own defenses, born after centuries of Buck men.  Falling back on the formality of his post, Lucas recovered and extended his hand, saying, "Let me introduce myself.  I'm Sheriff Lucas Buck, and that's 'Buck', with a 'B'."

Dara had to fall on formality herself to recover from her surprise.  When she had heard the strong, seductively masculine voice, she knew she would turn to see a handsome man, but Sheriff Buck was more than her expectations were able to consider.  He was tall, much taller than she was; she had to look up just to meet his eyes, which were seductively dark and penetrating.  He had a handsome face framed by dark, wavy hair that was not out of place by even one tiny strand, despite the fact that it was ninety-five degrees and scalding today.  The man was clad from head to toe in black, and with a long sleeve shirt, yet he wasn't so much as breaking a sweat.

Dara almost found herself sighing at the sight of him, but recovered quickly, [what in the world is the matter with me?] Dara wondered, [I've never behaved this way about any man.] Dara brought her thoughts and feeling into full rein and smiled, then returned the introduction.  "Hi, I'm Dara Chambers, I'm hoping this visit is just social and friendly, right?  I mean, I haven't really been in town long enough to break any laws, so I'm not in trouble, am I?"

Lucas had to return the smile.  She had grit and a good sense of humor; he had to give her that.  Still, he felt relief when she extended her hand to be taken in his.  He again was struck by something compelling when he made contact and felt the energy between them.  As with the rest of her, her hand was dwarfed by his.  He could have easily held both of her small hands in his one large one, but it was the sparks that flew from the contact that shocked him.   [My God], he thought, [I never felt this much energy with any of the others].  Lucas finally shook her hand after a few moments and released it. 

To Dara, it felt like an eternity.  Like Lucas, Dara too, had felt the energy flow, but unlike Lucas, she dismissed it just as rapidly.

Once again assuming the easygoing, good ole boy demeanor, Lucas replied to Dara's inquiry, "No, ma'am, I'm just here to welcome you to town and to offer my help. I noticed you were struggling to get things moved in and with nothing much happening at the office, thought I'd offer my services, if you feel you could use them."  The last statement was spoken with a very silky, seductive tone in his voice. 

Dara couldn't quite understand why, but the last of his statement sounded to her ears like some sort of an opening, but for what?  She didn't know, and she wasn't sure she wanted to know either.  The man definitely was charming as well as gorgeous, but she wasn't in the habit of falling into bed with anybody and everybody.  Something told her that she would have to be very careful around this man.  He seemed kind enough, but she sensed something very dark and foreboding just under his surface.  She supposed that was part of his charm, but to her, well she had a lot more important things going on right now.  The more focused she stayed on the here and now, the better it would be, at least until she could see her way to planning for her tomorrows. 

Lucas could sense that he had ventured one step too far with his last comment.  The last thing he wanted to do was to scare her away, although he couldn't understand why.  Ben was certainly right-she wasn't the usual kind for him, but something told him that somewhere down the road she would play a very important part in his life.  He wasn't sure in what way, but he couldn't shake the feeling.  Falling once again into the role of a Good Samaritan, Lucas offered, "Here, let me get that box for you.  It wont take me but a minute."

Before she could protest, Lucas had effortlessly done what she herself had struggled with earlier.  Lifting the box carefully out of the trunk, Lucas having already surveyed the space, saw nothing more to be taken in and used his bent elbow to close the lid.  "Where would you like this?"

Leading the way into the office, Dara pointed to an empty place on the desk.  Lowering it carefully to the surface, Lucas turned and surveyed the office, which didn't hold any signs of what she was going to do.  Lucas took the initiative, "If you don't mind my asking you, ma'am, what are you planning on opening?  I figure an office of some kind, but I have to honest, we have more layers and accountants than even Hell would have."

Dara turned and looked at him strangely and wondered why on earth he would phrase it like that.  Deciding to just chalk it up to his sense of humor, Dara looked and him and asked, "Well, since you have two of the leading causes of it, how about an office for a grief counselor?"

Lucas looked her in the eyes, those eyes again.  If he weren't careful, he would end up lost in them, and what was the point of that?  Lucas smiled and answered her with a small laugh, "Now that is original, and you know, come to think about it, we could use a grief counselor here.  As a matter of fact, I may have your first patient." 

Dara looked at him apprehensively.  "I appreciate the kindness you intend, Sheriff, but I am not in need of charity or pity."

Lucas wasn't sure what nerve he hit, but he had definitely hit one.  He could tell by her tone of choice and by the way her eyes went from a warm and inviting sea of green to a cold and chilly sea.  Seeking to make her at ease, Lucas replied, "I meant no offense, it's just that my son Caleb has suffered quite a bit.  He's lost his mother his stepfather, his sister, and his cousin.  I just thought you might be just the person to help him work his way through this."

Feeling deeply ashamed of herself for her suspicions, Dara looked up at him.  "I apologize, Sheriff.  I suppose I've been taken for a fool for so long that I am overly suspicious.  Yes, I would be glad to try to help.  Caleb, is his name?" 

At his nod, Dara continued, "You've been very kind to me.  I do thank you and I'll tell you what.  How about this?  Let Caleb come over next week to help me unpack and I'll see him for free.  That way we get to know each other in a relaxed setting and he'll be more inclined to open up.  OK?"

Lucas looked at her.  Yes, there was definitely something different about her, and she seemed to have compassion in her.  Even though he scoffed at it in others, he found it to be endearing and loving in her.  Lucas looked at his watch.  Was it lunchtime already?  "Tell you what, it's lunchtime now.  How about letting me take you out?  I saw this office before you started and I can tell you've really worked at it this morning.  You deserve a break.  Come on."  Lucas held out his hand, but she only shook her head.

"I'm sorry, but I want to finish up my house now that these things are out of the way.  Thank you anyway for the offer.  I do appreciate it, Sheriff."

Lucas looked slightly taken aback.  Even Gail had finally given in to him, and she had been utterly resistant.  This ball game was new for him.  He was the one accustomed to declining and disappointing, not being the one turned down and disappointed.  Deciding to play it off, Lucas smiled charmingly at the girl and replied, "No problem, Ms. Chambers, but we aren't much for formality around her, so call me Lucas.  Besides, we are right across the street from each other, so I'm sure we'll have a chance to have lunch sometime.  I'll send Caleb over here, say, Monday afternoon?"

Dara nodded and smiled her own charming smile.  "That would be fine.  Since we're avoiding formality, you can call me Dara.  I do need to get going now, so thank you for your help again, Sher…. I mean, Lucas."  With that, she pulled a ring of keys from her pocket and waited for him to precede her out the door, after which she followed, stopping long enough to turn the key and lock the door tightly. 

Lucas walked over to her Grand Prix, [She really isn't like any of them-even as far as her taste in cars.]  The women Lucas knew, like Selena and Gail and Sabbath, had all gone for something that showed sassiness and speed, whereas this woman's car-although it definitely covered the speed part and had style-also said safety and durability.  Lucas shook his head as he opened the driver's side door for her.  Once again, he extended his hand, but instead of shaking it when she extended her own, he bowed over it and kissed it ever so gently.  [Well, well,] he thought, glancing at her [even though she's been working in this heat, she still smells like fresh rain].

After disengaging her hand from his, Dara got in her car and allowed him to shut the door for her.  "Thank you again for your help.  I do appreciate it.  Yes, go ahead and send Caleb over here Monday afternoon.  I'll have my house done this weekend so I can focus here, but prepare him for emptying boxes, OK?"

Lucas couldn't resist smiling down at the upturned face that reminded him of some nymph with the smile on her face touching her eyes.  "You bet.  You drive carefully, and if there's anything at all, feel free to call me, even if I'm out of the office.  My deputy, Ben, knows how to get a hold of me."

Turning the key in the ignition and fastening her safety belt, Dara gave a small wave as she pulled away from the curb and headed away from town.  Lucas stared after her a minute, [river direction, huh, I'll have to get Ben to check that out for me.  I definitely need to know more about that young lady].  Lucas turned and walked back over to the Sheriff's Office, whistling a tune.

Ben looked up when he entered. Seeing this rare, happy side of Lucas, Ben had to ask, "I guess you hit pay dirt with this one, huh, Lucas?"

Ben thought he was crazy when Lucas responded with a genuinely happy grin and replied, "Nope.  She shot me down at every turn, Ben."

Ben just sat there with his mouth open.  "Well, what in the hell are you looking so happy about then, Lucas?"

Lucas thought for a moment and looked at Ben with the most thoughtful expression Ben had ever seen.  "Because, Ben, I do believe that the girl is about the most unique creature I've ever had the pleasure of encountering, and something tells me she's about to rip through here like a tornado without even so much a raising her voice."  With that, Lucas turned, walked out the door, and got into his car.

Ben thought a second and then grinned.  [Looks like Lucas may just find himself caught up in a whirlwind he can't get out of so easily.]

Driving down Route 10, just a little out of Trinity, Dara sat and contemplated her encounter with Lucas.  [I don't know what, but there is something more about that man than just what is on the surface.]  Dara pulled up in front of the house she had purchased.  It was just about a 100 yards away frown the river.  She checked her watch.  She was early.  It had been hard enough to find a reliable person to come in, but it was necessary.  She could no longer work out of the house after the last hospital stay, but since the medical bills were so staggering, taking a hiatus was also out of the question, so she had sold the old house and picked a place on the map.  After doing a little checking, she found the cost of living in Trinity wasn't at all high, the real estate market was very reasonable, and since the local hospital was trying to bring itself into modern times they had jumped at the chance to put her under contract to offer counseling.  The fact that she was able to get office space, not only for a very reasonable amount, but also in one of the better sections of town, was an added bonus.

After grabbing her purse off the passenger seat, Dara opened the car door and got out, just in time to hear Mrs. Adams giving a stern admonishment on the front porch about eating everything on the plate she had just placed on the table.  Shaking her head, Dara bounded up the steps and sat down in the chair in front of the table on the porch.  "Hi, Mrs. Adams, what's with the change of venue?"

Mrs. Adams smiled down at Dara as she poured them both glasses of iced tea.  Although she had only spoken with Dara over the phone and through correspondence before the move, Ellen Adams had become very fond of Dara very quickly.  Usually not on to associate with the younger generation, she herself being over fifty-five years old and Dara only having just turned twenty-six, she nonetheless liked the girl immensely. 

"Well to be honest with you, your mother had a rather bad morning after you left."  Seeing the stricken look on the girl's face, she rushed to explain, "It's fine now dear.  I think she just had a reaction to the medicine they have her taking.  It's just overwhelming her right now.  She's napping now and she'll fell much better when she wakes up, I'm sure."

Dara looked apprehensively at the woman and replied, "I wish you would have called me.  Maybe there was something I …"

Mrs. Adams broke in rather sharply, "What dear?  Something you could do to make it better?  Dara, you have to face this.  I've heard you over the phone, and you're wonderful at your work, so why can't you take your own advice and learn acceptance?  Dear, there isn't anything else to be done.  I'm sorry.  I know you love her deeply and that you two are very close.  I also know that with the exception of your sister Kara, you have had everything literally dumped on your shoulders to carry alone, but you have to learn to deal with this.  She will not get better.  She will not recover.  It's only going to go downhill form here, and I'm afraid it will only get much worse.  You have to accept it.  You're going to lose her, and I'm sorry."

With the last statement, Dara immediately threw her napkin down and rose from her chair.  Mrs. Adams looked taken back until Dara smiled a sad smile in her direction.  "I know you're right.  I suppose it reverts to the notion of, 'doctor heal thyself'.  Even though I'm just a counselor, I guess it still applies.  I'm not angry, truly.  I know it's coming, but I don't want her to think I know.  That would cause her more pain than the cancer does, so I have to be optimistic for her.  I know it's a lie, but I don't see the harm if its what helps to ease her pain."

Mrs. Adams looked sadly at her.  "You're right, dear.  I know how you feel.  I truly do, but you go ahead and see her now.  She may be awake.  I'll clean up, then leave."

Dara looked at the woman.  She had been an absolute Godsend.  "Thank you.  I won't need you again until Monday, if that is OK, unless you'd like to help unpack."

Mrs. Adams smiled at her.  "No, I'll leave that enjoyment to you, dear.  See you on Monday."

Dara went into the house.  Thank God it was cool in here, but with the disease, it was important to make mama as comfortable as she possibly could, so the light bill would just have to skyrocket.  She had managed it all so far, and she would continue to do so.  Dara walked into her mother's room.  The woman lay sleeping in her hospital bed.  The move had definitely been difficult for her, but to eliminate the source of a great deal of pain from her life was worth it. 

[At least she looks peaceful and is sleeping restfully,] Dara thought.  [Well, time to get to work and start unpacking.  I have to be ready for Monday.]

"Ben, what do you mean, this is it?  What kind of detective are you?"  Lucas snapped at Ben for about the hundredth time in two days.  Lucas raised his hand and began ticking off his complaints about his deputy.  "First, you tell me you can't track exactly where she came from, then you say you found it but that there isn't much information there, and finally, we end up knowing she took a lot of time off from work, but not why or where.  Tell me this, Sherlock; does she have a husband or a kid?  You know anything I REALLY need to know about?"

Ben stood looking at Lucas.  God, how Ben hated being on the receiving end of his bad mood,  "Look, Lucas, like I told you, she got into counseling in North Carolina, and got really good at it.  Everybody I talked to swear by her.  Apparently, something serious happened in her family.  Nobody knows what. I checked everything I could on that so whatever it is it isn't public knowledge.  All I know is that it happened after her grandmother died.  Oh, and one other thing.  I found out she is not an only child.  She had tow other sisters and a brother.  Funny thing, though, the brother has been in and out of trouble here and there.  Apparently, he's the type who likes to bully woman, especially his sisters.  Apparently, nothing of note ever really took place with the other two sisters."

Lucas eyed Ben.  Why did he have the feeling this was going to be something he didn't really want to know?

Ben looked at Lucas warily.  He really didn't want to be the one to tell him this one.  If what was happening to Lucas was what Ben thought it was, he could actually feel sorry for the poor bastard if Lucas got a hold of him after finding this on out. 

"OK, Ben.  I'm waiting.  What are you holding back about?  Something disillusioning about our girl?"

Ben looked at Lucas and carefully chose his words.  "Well, our favored son here has a little problem with his hands.  You know, he likes to show people whose boss and that sort of thing.  Anyway, with the other two sisters it wasn't really a big issue.  They were older than him and they had husbands, so he wasn't too keen on having his brothers-in-law give him plastic surgery the hard way."

Lucas began drumming his fingers on his desk with one hand while resting his chin on the other while looking up at Ben.  "But I take it out girl here is a different story, Ben?"

Ben took a deep breath and plunged in.  It was better to get it over with.  The quicker a storm comes, the quicker it goes.  "Lucas, she's younger than he is, and unfortunately a lot smaller than he is, and maybe worse yet, is apparently very stubborn.  So there have been some trips to the emergency room.  Luckily, he seems to be the kind to keep moving along, but her trips coincide with his visits.  According to one person I talked with who knows both sides, the brother's something of a vulture when it comes to death and money.  One trip was because she caught him trying to ransack their grandfather's wall safe.  Like I said, she's stubborn, but apparently he had to have some stitches thanks to her, so she's tough, too."

Ben looked at Lucas carefully.  It was there, all right.  The signs of the storm that Ben knew would come.  Lucas had stopped drumming his fingers and now had his arms crossed over his chest.

"Our guy likes to beat up on not only a woman half his size, but his own sister, too? Huh Ben?  Tell you what, if anyone even so much as sees anyone even thinking about looking like this guy I want to know and I want him brought in.  Understand me, Ben?"

Ben simply nodded and turned to leave.  "Oh, by the way, Ben, what time is it?"

Ben looked down at his watch.  "It's 2:45.  Why?"

Lucas looked up at Ben.  "Just wondering.  Caleb has an appointment after school.  I told him to meet me here."

At that, the inner door to the office burst open and in walked Caleb.  Ben shook his head sadly at the boy.  He didn't look like he had a friend in the world, and to tell the truth; Ben had never seen one person in all his life look so lonely or lost.

"Hi, son.  How as class today?"  Lucas looked at this son with a smile on his face.  He knew the boy felt alone, but he had to learn and accept that Lucas was the only family he had now, and was all he would ever need.  Still, seeing the boy look so sad and lonely was definitely depressing.

"Fine, I guess, same thing as yesterday and the day before.  So what did you want me here for, huh?"  Caleb asked, dejectedly.

Lucas was wondering how to approach the subject, and since he wasn't sure, he just jumped in.  "Son, I know you've had a rough time with not having a mama, losing who you thought was your daddy, then your sister, and then what happened to your cousin, Gail.  I think you need to talk to someone who could help you work through this.  What do you think?"

Caleb stared at his father, "Are you sending me to one of those head shrinkin' people or to the nut house, like Dr. Matt?"

Lucas shook his head at the boy.  "Nope. I'm going to let you talk to someone who's just going to let you talk.  She's just going to listen to you.  She'll help you to work through this in your own time, but she will make it easier for you."

Caleb considered this for a second and looked down, scuffing his sneakers on the carpet.  "Well, I guess it couldn't hurt to at least talk.  When do you want me to go?"

Lucas breathed a sigh of relief.  He didn't doubt Caleb would go.  He just wasn't sure how stubborn he would be about it.  "Well, come on.  Take a walk with me, and we'll see about now."

Lucas got up and headed out the door, followed closely by Caleb.

Ben looked at both father and son.  "Where you heading, Lucas?"

Lucas placed his hand on Caleb's shoulder.  "Caleb here had an appointment with our Ms. Chambers.  I wouldn't want him to be late."

Ben just shook his head as Lucas and Caleb walked out the front door.  "You know, Lucas Buck, I think you may have finally met your match in that lady."

Lucas and Caleb crossed the street and walked over to the now-occupied office.  "What are we coming here for?  This place is empty, ain't it?"  Lucas glanced down at his son.  "Nope.  I helped the lady move some of her things in myself.  Give it a chance, son.  I think you'll find that you like her.  She seems real easy to talk to."  [Not to mention end up falling in love with.]

Now where had that thought come from?  Buck men didn't fall in love.  Oh, they eventually married, but they never loved their women.  They used them to get themselves some heirs to keep the old family traditions going, but women were property, and that was it. 

Still, with this one, there was just something about her he couldn't shake.  Like telling Ben to run her brother in just for showing up in his town.  That wasn't like him.  Why should he care if some woman's brother got a little too 'hands on' with his sister, but care he did, the idea of someone abusing her infuriated Lucas.

Caleb caught the unfamiliar look on his father's face and asked him, "What are you looking like that for?"

Lucas shook himself out of his thoughts.  "Sorry, son.  Just thinking.  Anyway, like I said, I think you'll like this lady." 

Caleb contemplated a second and asked, "Is she pretty?"

Lucas had a distant look in his eyes as he answered his son honestly.  "Caleb, she's beautiful, inside and out."

Caleb's mouth turned up in a wide grin, which was a rare occasion these days.  "I sure never heard you talk like that before, so she must be something."

Caleb reached out and turned the doorknob to open the door and walk into the office.  Lucas looked around and whistled.  He thought her taste would be light and airy, which it was, but she utilized it in such a way that it brought forth the brightness in even the darkest of colors.

"Boy, if she can fix this old place up this nice, she must be something special." 

Both of them were taken totally by surprise by the light female voice.  "Why, thank you.  I'll take that as a compliment.  I do try." 

Both of the Buck men turned around.  She had definitely unsettled Lucas.  He had been so absorbed in gleaning a glimpse into her through her taste that he failed to notice her approach.  No one had ever snuck up on him before; usually it was the other way around. 

As for Caleb, he was in awe of her, too-not to the extent of his father, but she struck him nonetheless.  For Caleb, it was her eyes.  He saw a lot of compassion and caring in them as well as liveliness, but he also saw a sadness he couldn't understand.

[Damn,] thought Lucas, [I have to quit letting her effect me like this.  She is just another woman; nothing more, nothing less.] But the whole time Lucas was telling himself this, he knew he was wrong.  She was a lot more than just another woman, and that was what bothered him.  His whole live, he had scoffed at the illusion of free will, and here he was, willing to give it up for this lady. 

Dara stepped towards Caleb.  "You, I take it, are Caleb," she asked brightly.

Caleb couldn't help but respond to her brightness with a wide grin of his own.  "Yes, ma'am, I am, but I don't know you name.  Sorry."

Lucas stepped forward, glad to have something to interrupt the thread of the thoughts in his head.  "I'm sorry, son.  Caleb, this is Ms…"  Lucas started a formal introduction, but a slight shake of her head and something in her eyes told hi that formality wasn't going to be observed her.  "I mean, this is Dara, she's the one I told you about."

Caleb stuck his hand out and accepted hers in return, pumping it up and down enthusiastically.  "Glad to meet you, ma'am."

Dara smiled at the boy.  [Oh my, but he does pull at your heartstrings,] but she set the ground rules immediately.  "Well, Caleb, did your father tell you anything about what were going to be doing?"

Caleb looked sober for a minute.  "Yes, ma'am.  He said that you were going to try and help me fell better about all the people in my family dying."

Dara continued to smile as she nodded, "That's right, so first, let's drop the formality.  You don't have to call me 'ma'am', that's for your teacher or someone else important.  I'm just plain Dara, ok?"

Lucas sat back and simply witnessed the interchange.  He had truly hoped she could help Caleb, but he never thought that she would get through to him this quickly.  Lucas had never sent eh boy take to another living soul as fast as he did Dara.  His belief that she was truly something special was only reaffirmed after witnessing this interchange.  [Damn, there I am, not paying attention again.]  Caleb and Dara just asked him a question.

"Lucas, I asked if you would mind that since the office is all unpacked, could Caleb and I go for a walk around the town?  I need someone to show me where all the good stuff is."  With her last comment, she winked at Caleb as he smiled.

Lucas thought for a second.  "Well, I don't mind if Caleb doesn't."  Looking at his son, he saw Caleb nod his head in affirmation.  "But would you two mind if I went with you?  I'm needing a stretch of the legs too."

Dara and Caleb both smiled openly at the idea.  "I have no objections.  Caleb, do you?"  Dara asked.

"Nope, it's fine by me.  Let's go."

With that, Dara got up and grabbed her keys and wallet.  "OK, lets go."

She followed Caleb and Lucas out the door and they all headed toward the center of town.  Along the way, both Caleb and Lucas were pointing out things that seemed like they might interest her.  Caleb was pointing out the flower garden the school made the kids tend to for their civic pride projects.

To her credit, she found every bit of it fascinating.  Lucas couldn't help but be amazed at the beauty she found in even the simplest of things.  He himself never really had an appreciation for the small things in life-or truth be told, for the larger ones either-but he was starting to see through her eyes the beauty in even the minute details. 

Caleb ran alongside the, chattering away with Dara.  She listened intently to everything and anything he had to say.  "Oh, there's my friend Boone," Caleb suddenly shouted excitedly.  Boone was waving him over to play in the park with him, but Caleb was reluctant to go, for fear of hurting Dara's feelings. 

Sensing this before Lucas could even address the situation, Dara said lightly, "You know, Caleb, I could use a cool drink and a rest.  How about you play with your friend, and your father and I can sit for a while." 

Caleb immediately brightened.  "Are you sure?"  Before she could reply, he was off and gone. 

Lucas took it all in, including the sound of her laughter.  She had a sweet, infectious laugh that reminded him of bells.  [Now I know I'm nuts.  I should have checked myself instead of Harvard into Juniper House.]  But even that thought couldn't intrude on his enjoyment of her company.  "You mean what you said about the drink?" 

Dara looked at him and grinned.  "I said it, didn't I?"

Lucas looked at her and laughed.  "You find us a place to sit in the shade.  I'll get the drinks."

A few minutes later, he cam back, holding two plastic bottle of soda.  Handing hers over to her, he lowered himself to sit on the ground under the tree where she had chosen to site.  "You know, you must be a miracle worker of some kind.  I have never seen that boy take to another living soul like he has to you.  What's your secret?" 

Dara turned and shrugged her shoulders, while looking at Lucas, "It's not a secret.  I just let him know that I'm prepared to be open and honest and to listen to him.  When he feels the time is right, he'll start discussing his feelings about his losses.  Until then, he and I are creating a bond that I hope lets him see that he isn't alone, that he has someone else who cares about him."

Lucas appraised her.  She made perfect sense in what she said, but he was more than willing to bet that she didn't know that in the process of bonding herself to Caleb, she was also inadvertently bonding herself to him.  He wondered absently if she were to become aware of it if she would run in the opposite direction.

Lucas didn't have a lot of time to contemplate this.  At that moment, in the bank across the street, gunshots were fired.  They both stood up to see what was happening.

Caleb ran over immediately.  "Lucas, what's happening?  I heard shooting."

Lucas looked at both of them sharply.  "Somebody decided to withdraw their Christmas club money early.  You two stay well out of the way.  Do you understand me?  I mean it-I'll be right back." 

Dara watched as Lucas walked towards the bank.  What in the world was he going to do?  He didn't even carry a weapon that she could see.  Silently, she prayed that he would use his better judgment.  [Now why am I so worried about that man?]  Dara didn't have long to ponder this thought.  At that moment, she saw two men heading straight in their direction from the bank.

"Where the hell did Lucas go?"  She wondered, but she didn't have long to think.  Grabbing Caleb's shoulder, she spun him around and whispered, " Caleb, go hide under those bushes or somewhere you can't be seen.  "Hurry!"

Caleb looked into her eyes; "I can't leave you here alone.  They might hurt you or something."

Dara gave him a little push and hissed, "Do as I say, Caleb!  I mean it! Hurry up and go!"

With that, Dara shoved him into a run, where he ducked into the nearest set of shrubbery and faded out of sight.  He hugged himself close to the ground and turned around to see what was taking place.  He wasn't happy with what he saw.  The two men were headed straight for Dara and one of them grabbed her to him while the other was waving the gun in the air.  Caleb wasn't sure what exactly happened next, but the next thing he knew, the man with the gun turned around and backhanded Dara so hard Caleb thought her neck would break off her shoulders at the force of it.

Infuriated, Caleb clutched his fists to his sides as he ground out, "Lucas, where are you?  They got no right to do that!"

At that moment, Lucas steeped into plain view.  Caleb couldn't be sure from this distance, but he couldn't ever recall seeing a look of such serious deadliness on his father's face before.  This wasn't like Lucas.  Sure, he made things happen and usually made the bad guys pay, in his own way, but Caleb thought at that moment that if those men weren't holding Dara, Lucas would have killed them with his bare hands. 

Lucas took in the scene before him.  The tough guy with the gun apparently didn't like whatever she had said to him.  The proof was her now-unconscious form being held upright by his partner.  Mr. Sawed-Off had hit her with enough force not only to cause the immediate bruise Lucas could see starting on her face, but to also knock her unconscious.

"Mind telling me what the little lady said to upset you so?  Or you just got a thing for hitting women?"

The hood looked Lucas up and down.  "Who in the hell are you?  And what business is it of yours?  Or do you just have a death wish, mister?"

Lucas looked at the two calmly.  These two were definitely strangers to these parts.  "I happen to be the Sheriff.  Lucas Buck is the name.  Who might you fine upstanding citizens be?"

The man still holding onto Dara visibly flinched at Lucas' statement.  "Geez, Joe.  I told you this was a stupid idea, but you wouldn't listen to me.  Now look what we're into."

Joe, apparently not feeling in control at the moment, turned on his brother.  "Jesse, I told you shut the hell up.  I make the decisions, not you."

Lucas took the initiative, hoping his plan would work.  "Looks like big brother here wants you two fellow to take a long vacation, Jesse.  Say about five to ten for armed robbery, then another twenty for kidnapping.  Now of course, judging by the shape of your hostage there, add another few years for assault, and my guess would be that if you were to get away now, eventually we'd get to add rape and murder to that list." 

Jesse started looking truly frightened and started whining to his brother.  "Aw, come on, Joe.  Let's just give up and surrender.  They'll go easy on us, then."

Joe shot his brother a murderous look.  About that time, Lucas saw Ben silently slip up behind the pair with his gun drawn and ready.  Lucas took his cue to continue, "See, Jess, I have the feeling that ole Joe here don't care much about surrendering, because he's already done some had time.  Not anxious to do more would be my guess, so he figures not guts, no glory.  That about right, Joe?"  

Joe gave a snide grin and replied, "Yeah, Sheriff, that's about the size of it."

Lucas looked straight at the other man.  "You, on the other hand, don't have a record.  You could get off fairly light and not do too much time, but big brother here, well, they'd throw away the key on his ass."  Jesse looked from his brother to the Sheriff.  He knew the man was right.

"Joe, I ain't going to fall with you.  Man, you're on your own."

Joe looked at his brother and flew into a rage.  Lucas knew what was going to happen next, so he readied himself to spring into action.  Joe snarled and started his tirade.  "You lousy bastard!  You never did have any guts, so you won't miss them when I blow them away!"

At that, Joe pointed the gun at Jesse's middle, which unfortunately, was covered by Dara's still-limp body, and began to pull the trigger.

At that moment, Lucas leapt towards him, knocking him off balance and manipulating his target to his brother's shoulder instead.  Jesse screamed in pain as the lead seared his shoulder, causing him to lose his grip on Dara.  Lucas grabbed for her and caught her before she even hit the ground, as Ben leapt out from behind the tree to aim his gun at Joe's head. 

"Hold it, or I swear I'll blow you to hell and back!"  Ben looked over at Lucas, who was now cradling Dara on the ground.  "Lucas, is she all right, do we need to get her to the hospital?"

At that moment, Floyd decided to finally come from the bank after all the excitement and began cuffing the thugs.

"Nice of you to finally decide to join us, Floyd.  We didn't exactly need extra help or anything," Lucas stated sarcastically. 

Floyd looked sheepishly at his boss.  "Sorry, Lucas.  I was getting the ambulance over to the bank.  They shot the guard up pretty bad.  There's another ambulance coming.  Is she going to be OK?"

Lucas looked down at Dara.  Pushing her long hair away from her face, Lucas could see the black bruise that had spread across her cheek and the blood on her split lip.  Lucas suddenly became furious.  Gently laying her on a blanket someone had provided, Lucas got up and slowly, dangerously approached the now-handcuffed Joe.

Ben braced himself for what he now knew was about to come.  He knew Lucas had feelings for the girl, but after the look he just saw when Lucas assessed the damage, Ben knew Joe was not going to get off lightly.  Joe looked into the Sheriff's ominous, dark eyes and knew what real fear was for the first time.

"You know," Lucas calmly and dangerously began, "it takes a really beg man to hit a woman not only half his size, but with a gun to her head."  Lucas picked up the shotgun that had been dropped in the scuffle.  With all his might, he brought the butt end of it up to Joe's jaw, effectively smashing it.  Blood started pouring out of Joe's mouth as he hit the ground. 

"You son-ov a bitss.  You brote my jah."

Lucas abruptly threw the gun to the ground and turned to look at Ben.  "Our friend here broke his jaw when he hit the ground.  Got it, Ben?"

Ben considered the still-murderous look in Lucas' eyes.  "Sure, Lucas.  I'll put it in the report.  Do you want to get an ambulance here to take her to the hospital?"  Ben motioned over to where Lucas had left Dara.

"No.  I'll take her myself, Ben."

Ben wasn't sure he had even caught it, but he thought he saw a look of what could only be described as infinite tenderness when Lucas glanced at the girl.

Lucas turned and went back to where she was lying on the ground.  Kneeling down, he once again cradled her to him.  [Now where did Caleb get to?]  Lucas absently wondered.  At that moment, Caleb appeared as if by magic, holding a damp cloth out to Lucas.

"Here.  Wipe her face and mouth with this.  See if that helps her come around." 

Lucas looked up at his son, grateful to him for his thoughtfulness.  "Where were you hiding during all this?"

Caleb watched as his father began tenderly administering the damp cloth to Dara's bruised and swollen cheek.  He wasn't sure why, but he had the feeling that somehow this lady wasn't going to be like the other ones his father had shown an interest in.  "Well, she was them heading over here and told me to go and hide where they couldn't see me.  I think she distracted them so they wouldn't find me.  Is she going to be OK?" 

Lucas continued applying the cloth to her face, beginning to feel serious concern for her lack of response.  Then she started moaning and slowly moved her hand to her swollen mouth.  Finally, she opened her eyes to look up into Lucas'.  "Please tell me you at least gave the Mac truck that did this a speeding ticket."

Lucas looked over at Caleb, who was now grinning, and back at Dara with a smile of his own.  "In a manner of speaking, yeah, I gave him a ticket."

Caleb piped up, "Ticket?  My foot!  He broke his jaw for him."

Dara looked questioningly into Lucas' eyes and asked, "You broke the man's jaw?  Why?"

Lucas tried to brush it off, but he could tell that wasn't going to work in this case, so he fell back on the truth.  "The man was twice your size, not to mention the force he had to use to do this."  Lucas gently touched her tender mouth and swollen cheek.  "It made me mad as hell, especially because you were knocked out for so long." 

Dara smiled sweetly up at him.  "My knight in shining armor, huh?  I'm OK now, just a little dizzy.  Help me up and we'll call it a day."

Lucas stood up and reached down to take her hand in his to assist her progress.  She stood up and started to sway until Lucas steadied her on her feet.

"You sure you're OK?  You don't seem too steady there.  Maybe we need to take you to the hospital and let them check you out." 

Dara looked at him, touched by his concern.  "No.  I really am OK.  I'm just a little dizzy, that's all."

Lucas and Caleb looked at each other doubtfully, but began walking.  Suddenly, Dara turned and looked at Lucas.  "Can we stop a second?  I can't seem to get my bearin…" With that last effort, she went limp and began to crumple toward the ground.

Lucas, sensing what was about to happen when she stopped, simply caught her in his arms before she could hit the ground. 

Caleb looked up at him, frightened.  "Is she OK?  She doesn't look so good."

Lucas replied, "Yeah, I think so.  I think she just fainted.  Run over and tell Floyd I'm taking his car.  Then get the door open for me.  I'm taking her to the hospital."

Caleb ran across the street to the bank to deliver Lucas' message.  Lucas followed behind, making sure not to trip and drop Dara.  He looked down at her relaxed face, realizing that for some reason he couldn't fathom that she definitely felt as if she belonged in his arms.  Lucas finally realized just what exactly he had been fighting since meeting her.  In a short time, she had wound her way into that area of himself he didn't think existed-his hear, and apparently the soul he thought he had given up-all without the slightest bit of effort on her part.

Lucas reached the car just as Caleb opened the door.  "You stay here, and when Floyd gets finished, have him bring you to the hospital."  Lucas carefully laid her on the passenger seat and ran to the driver's side.  Once in the vehicle, he turned the blue lights on and floored it in the direction of Fulton County Hospital.  Lucas glanced over at Dara to make sure she was all right.  He flipped the volume on the CB and grabbed the mike.  "Ben, can you hear me?"

There was no reply, which added to Lucas' already rising ire.  "Ben, if you value your ass, I suggest you answer me."

After a second, the radio came to life.  "Sorry, Lucas.  I'm still here at the hospital with our boy getting his jaw taken care of.  What's the problem?"

Lucas grabbed the mike and began firing out orders immediately.  "Ben, tell the emergency room to get the best doctor ready.  I'm bringing in a patient for them."

After another second Ben replied, "Is it Ms. Chambers?  Is she OK?"

Irritation at the idiotic inquiry rose stronger than ever in Lucas.  "No, Ben.  She's fine.  I just thought she might like a tour of the town at ninety miles and hour, then finish up with a visit to the emergency room.  No, Ben.  She's not fine! She's unconscious.  She came to for a few minutes, and then passed out again.  Just do what you're told.  OUT!"  Lucas threw the mike to the floor.  He looked over at Dara, who was still not moving, and began to feel something he had never known before-worry for the welfare of another person.

Ben, after having done as Lucas asked and notified the emergency room staff, returned to check on his prisoner.