February 2005 Challenge by Helen A: We've seen that cupid is not exactly
kind to these guys, so write a story featuring one of the following: An
unrequited love or secret crush, a jealous suitor out for one of the guys'
blood, or one or more of the Seven playing match-maker for one of the others.
Bonus points if Josiah plays an important role. That poor guy just does not
get enough to do!
Authors Note: This is a sequel to my story Sunset. I decided that I wanted to know a little bit more about the woman whom Ezra had loved and lost.
Moved to Blackraptor November 2009
"Those look like some deep thoughts. Want to talk about it?"
Ezra Standish jumped slightly at the softly spoken words, eyes blinking for a moment as he returned from a daydream to find Josiah Sanchez gazing down at him with an amused expression. Mouth twitching into a chagrined smile, he asked, "How long have you been there?"
Josiah held up an empty beer bottle. "Long enough to finish this and order a replacement without you noticing. Should I leave?"
"Of course not. Please sit down," he replied politely, gesturing toward the other side of the booth. "Would you care for something to eat? Ive just ordered dinner."
Aware that Ezras deep-seated sense of propriety would not allow him to eat, much less enjoy his meal, unless his guest had something as well, Josiah whisked one of the tiny paper menus out of a plastic holder and perused it. The selection wasnt extensive, mostly burgers and assorted Mexican dishes. "Strange, in all the time Ive been coming here for drinks or a game of pool after work, Ive never tried out the food," he commented. "Any recommendations?"
"The chicken enchiladas are excellent. Three kinds of cheese and enough chicken to guarantee that the poultry farmers of America will be in business for some years to come," he responded with a slight laugh.
Josiah smiled at Inez as she arrived with his beer and a bowl of warm tortilla chips and salsa. "Evening, Senorita."
"Good evening, Josiah," the woman said cordially. Nodding at the menu in his hand she asked, "May I get you something?"
"Ezra was just telling me that your enchiladas con pollo are not to be missed."
Inez drew up a bit at the compliment, clearly pleased, and Josiah hid a smile. He wondered whether Ezra was even slightly aware of how much his opinion meant to the bar owner. It was obvious that she was interested in the genteel southerner but Ezra seemed to be the only member of Team Seven who had never noticed. Even Buck Wilmingtons flirtation with the pretty Mexican woman had lately taken on a salesmanlike quality whenever Ezra happened to be in the vicinity, pointing out Inezs beauty, intelligence and sweetness at every possible opportunity. Ezra would smoothly agree with every flattering comment, but never seemed inclined to follow up on them.
Realizing that Inez was still waiting for his order, Josiah decided, "Ill have a couple of those enchiladas with some beans and rice on the side."
"And may I have another of these, please?" Ezra added, rattling the ice in his otherwise empty cocktail glass.
"Of course. I will bring them right out," she promised, giving both men a smile before she whisked away to get the order.
Josiah frowned at the glass, having caught a whiff of its former contents when Ezra had shaken it. "Are you drinking tequila?" he asked in surprise.
"I am. Tequila sours, to be exact," the other man replied, smirking as he added, "Why; do you not approve of coworkers imbibing on their days off?"
"Its not that," he said quickly. "Though I admit Im a little surprised to see you in here by yourself on a Saturday. I was just thinking that Ive never seen you drink that stuff before. Figured you didnt like it."
Running his index finger along the lip of the glass, Ezra studied it thoughtfully. "I dont drink it very often. Somehow tequila seems like it should be reserved for sunny beaches and tropical locales."
Josiah glanced out the window and smiled. "Well, Denvers a little short on beach-front property, but it is sunny out and I suppose thats close enough."
Ezra smirked at the light joke. "Indeed, sunny enough for a walk down memory lane, at any rate. As for my being here alone, I assumed everyone else would be attending the barbecue Mr. Larabee is hosting this evening."
"A barbecue, to which you were invited," Josiah reminded, shooting him a pointed look.
Ezra merely raised an eyebrow. "As were you, I believe."
Josiah grinned. "True, but I already had a commitment. Gardenia asked me to repaint the trim on her porch. I wouldve rather gone to Chris, but Id already promised, and "
"And you could hardly disappoint the lady, particularly given that Mrs. Hutchins is just spirited enough to climb up on a ladder and do the task by herself if youd refused, despite her being somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 years old," Ezra guessed. He had met Josiahs next door neighbor a couple of times while visiting and had found her quite charming. Her habit of pinching Josiahs cheek and calling the 54-year-old criminal profiler a sweet boy gave the rest of the team endless teasing ammunition.
"So, were you doing neighborly acts today as well, or just feeling antisocial?" Josiah persisted, deliberately keeping his tone light and teasing to disguise his worry that Ezra might have been doing just that. The southern man had a history of backing away from his friends when he most needed their support, and Josiah had noticed him acting distant and distracted for several days. He had come to The Saloon on a hunch when a call to Chris Larabee had revealed Ezras absence from the barbecue and a call to the mans own home had also gone unanswered.
A soft laugh met the question. "Worried about me, were you?" Ezra asked, his tone playful. "Afraid Id decided to skulk off into the shadows to lick some unseen wound?"
Josiah shrugged and gave him a smile, knowing it would do no good to try and bluff his way out of answering. "Looks like I need to brush up on my subtlety."
"I offer lessons every Tuesday at 8pm. Only $50 an hour," Ezra returned, deadpan. "Finesse for $20 extra."
For a split second, Josiah wondered if he was serious, then he caught the sly sparkle in the younger mans jade eyes. They both laughed and Ezras slightly tense posture relaxed.
"I suppose I was avoiding company by coming here," he admitted abruptly, "but Im glad you discovered my whereabouts. Ive been wrestling with a dilemma and have yet to reach any sort of decision. Perhaps you can help me."
Pleased by the implied trust in that statement, Josiah nodded. "Ill do my best."
Instead of continuing, Ezra spent a few moments absently munching the rapidly cooling tortilla chips in front of him. Then, just when Josiah thought he had changed his mind, he quietly said, "It concerns a a matter of the heart."
Surprised by the halting confession, Josiah snagged a few chips from the basket and stuffed them in his mouth to buy himself a moment to recover. "Can you be a bit more specific?"
Again, Ezra hesitated, then asked softly, "Did I ever tell you I was engaged to be married? Back in Atlanta, I mean." Thunderstruck, Josiah choked on his chips, coughing and gasping until he knocked back a deep drink of his beer to recover. Ezra smiled faintly. "Ill take that as a, No."
"Forget subtlety," Josiah wheezed. "You should give lessons in secrecy. I had no idea youd even had a girlfriend in Atlanta, much less a fiancee!"
Ezra bristled. "Well, thank you for that vote of confidence, Mr. Sanchez. You realize, do you not, that I spent five years in that city before I moved to Denver? Did you imagine Id spent all of that time living in a monastery, or simply believe that no woman in her right mind would care to associate herself with me?"
"Whoa now, Ezra, that is not what I meant and you know it," he countered with a hint of exasperation. "Its just that weve been friends for more than a year now and youve never once mentioned leaving anyone special behind in Georgia. You caught me by surprise."
The southerners expression remained belligerent for a moment, then relaxed into a look of chagrin. "I apologize for my outburst. Its hardly your fault that I havent been able to bring myself to mention her before, its just that well, Im afraid I have something of a defensive instinct when it comes to that time in my life."
"The relationship didnt end well, I take it," Josiah said, his tone considerably softened as he noted the sadness filling Ezras expressive eyes.
Saving him from an immediate answer, Inez chose that moment to return, balancing their dinners on a tray. Instantly noting the tension at the table, she quickly distributed the hot plates and Ezras fresh drink before asking hesitantly, "Is everything all right?"
Manufacturing a smile, Ezra assured her, "Were fine, thank you. Would you mind seeing to it that Josiahs meal is added to my bill?"
Recognizing a dismissal when she heard it, Inez gave a small nod and moved away again, shooting a worried glance back over her shoulder.
"You didnt have to do that," Josiah said, referring to both the bill and the brush-off.
Ezra, unsurprisingly, chose to respond only to the literal meaning. "Consider it a return of the favor for your psychological services."
Taking a sip of beer, Josiah shrugged. "Just offering an open ear to a friend in need is all."
A genuine smile bloomed over Ezras face. "And I do appreciate that. So, where were we?"
"You were going to tell me what happened with your fiancee," Josiah reminded, keeping his tone deliberately matter-of-fact. Momentarily distracted by the delicious burst of flavor that exploded over his tongue as he bit into his enchilada, he exclaimed, "Mm! Thats good."
Ezra likewise took a bite, nodding in satisfaction as he swallowed it down and dabbed at his lips with a napkin. "As always." He took a few more bites, putting off the need to discuss his past for a little bit longer.
Josiah respected the silent request for space and spent a few minutes enjoying his own meal. It was not until Inez had returned with their bill and once again departed that Ezra spoke again.
"Her name is Lindsey Iverson," he said quietly. "We met three years ago at a party thrown by a mutual friend, a colleague of mine at the FBI named Devon Whitmore."
Josiah nodded. "Ive heard you mention him before. Hes the friend who was injured saving your life, right?"
"Thats right," Ezra said, with a regretful sigh. "We went through the Academy together and ended up working in the same unit after graduation. We were on a bust together and Devon knocked me out of the way of a rifle shot with a flying tackle. Saved me from getting my head blown off but he took a bullet to the knee that ended his career as a field agent."
"But you stayed friends," Josiah stated.
Ezra smiled. "We did indeed. Dev always joked that I owed him one for saving my life and that I was therefore required to show up at every party his parents, who are quite the social-climbers by the way, forced him to attend. I was to run interference any time I saw him cornered by persistent marriage-minded females from whom he couldnt escape quickly enough due to his injury."
Watching Ezra laugh at the thought, Josiah smiled. It was good to know that not every memory his friend had of Atlanta was a bad one. "What, he wasnt interested in milking sympathy from pretty girls?"
Ezra laughed again. "Not unless they had handsome unattached brothers tucked away somewhere."
The profiler chuckled and simply said, "Ah."
"It had been quite the well-kept secret when he was with the Bureau, but he quit after realizing that spending his life manning a desk while the rest of us went out in the field was not for him. After that it hardly mattered who knew about his personal proclivities, but Devon preferred not to advertise them in public. And I must say that running interference for him paid off rather well for me too. I may not have been in quite the same social class as he, but many of the women who pursued Devon were entirely willing to be distracted by his handsome FBI Agent friend." Ezra grinned wickedly, clinking his glass against Josiahs beer when the other man laughed and raised his bottle in salute. Pausing for a moment to take a sip, Ezra continued, "It seems strange now to think that I almost didnt go that night. I was buried in case work and didnt feel that I could spare the time, but I felt I owed it to Devon to make an appearance. I was rather irritated to see him duck out of the party not five minutes after I arrived, but decided that since I was already there, I might as well stay a short while."
"Never knowing that you were about to meet someone special," Josiah finished. "And if you had known how differently your life would have gone if you had skipped the party and never seen Lindsey, are you sorry you went?"
Ezra met his gaze squarely. "No, Im not. In spite of the pain that came with our breakup, I wouldnt give back a moment that I spent with her."
"Love at first sight?" Josiah guessed.
The southerner laughed. "There was no great melodramatic moment, if thats what youre asking. No electricity surging across the room or crowds disappearing the moment our eyes met, no angels singing or any other such nonsense." He paused, smiling as the memory engulfed him for a moment. "There was simply a dance floor, music playing and no one taking advantage of it. I picked a pretty face out of the crowd and asked her if shed care for a dance. Nothing earth-shaking or life-altering, at least not then, but I liked her right from the very beginning. She has a smile thats impossible not to return and a laugh that made me feel warm inside."
Josiah hitched his eyebrows. "Sounds like a good formula for romance to me."
"I wonder if you would have thought so if you couldve heard us," Ezra mused with a light chuckle. "We spent that entire dance whispering a series of rather cutting observations about all of the self-impressed people surrounding us. Really, we were quite uncivilized, but by the end of that dance, we were laughing and chatting together like the oldest of friends. We danced several more times over the course of the evening, and by the end I had asked for and been granted a dinner date. By the time a month went by we were being considered a steady item by nearly everyone who knew us."
Nodding, the older man asked, "How long until you became engaged?"
"We had been dating for about fourteen months before I asked her to marry me." Seeing Josiahs look of surprise, Ezra nodded in understanding. "Quite a delay considering our start, I know, but I wanted to be sure. I felt that if we could last an entire year together, then it would be a sign that we were meant to be. I thought it was true love."
The southerners suddenly defeated tone drew a grunt from Josiah. "Seems to me that it was, at least on your part."
"Believe it or not, that was the longest continuous relationship Ive ever had with anyone. Part of me kept trying to back off, to keep Lin at a safe distance, but it never worked. I just couldnt get enough of being with her." Ezra shook his head ruefully. "I know it sounds like a horrible cliché but everything in my life seemed better when I was with her. More fun, more meaningful, more exciting just, more." He sighed softly. "As long as she had faith in me, I didnt need anyone else. I could put up with anything that was done, or said, or implied about me."
Josiahs breath caught, knowing that Ezra was referring to the accusations that had nearly ruined his career. "Dont tell me she believed the lies," he said, heart aching for the torment he knew the womans lack of trust would have put his friend through.
"Yes," Ezra whispered, taking a drink to fortify himself against the memories. A faint smile flickered across his lips as he met the other mans eyes, reassured by the certainty he saw in their depths that Josiah did believe that those rumors had indeed been nothing but lies. "Lindseys parents are quite well-to-do and extremely influential in the state. They quickly made up their minds that I was nothing but a gold-digger, mining wealth and information from any source I came into contact with, including, and especially, their daughter. They made it quite clear from the moment the first breath of scandal reached them that I was no longer welcome in their company. It took Lindsey a while longer to share their sentiments but I suppose that between the pressure at home and my escalating social decline, her lack of confidence in me was understandable."
"No, it wasnt," Josiah stated firmly. Ezra blinked in surprise, encouraging Josiah to press his point. "If she truly knew you; if she loved you, then she should have known that you would never do anything as reprehensible as selling out the lives of your own men for money. If someone made a claim like that to me, or Chris, or Nathan, or any of the others, wed laugh in that persons face then give their ass a helpful boot out the door. If Lindsey believed those stories, then she didnt know you, and she certainly didnt deserve you."
Ezra swallowed, fighting to keep the emotion Josiahs firm words had brought out of his expression. "Thats what she said," he muttered.
Brought up short by the unexpected comment, Josiah blurted, "What?"
Ezras eyes lifted to meet his face for a moment, then dropped back down to stare into his drink. "She called me last week. Im not sure how she found me, but I suspect my mother may have had something to do with it. She always liked Lin. Or at least" he amended with a soft snort, "she liked the idea of being directly related to the Iverson fortune."
"What did she say?" Josiah pressed. "Lindsey, I mean."
"Not much. That she needed to apologize. That she had been wrong to believe I would ever turn my back on the things Id worked so hard for. That she was sorry she had taken her parents fears to heart and let herself be influenced against me."
"Do you believe she means it?" Josiah asked carefully.
A deep sigh answered the question, even before he spoke. "I want to. Call me a fool if you will, but a part of me still loves her, still wants-" Ezra stopped, embarrassed to complete the thought.
"Happily ever after," Josiah finished. At Ezras pained look, he smiled. "Im the last person to condemn you for that. After all, look at how long I spent dreaming about Emma DuBonet, a woman Id only known for a few weeks when I was in college."
An amused grimace twisted Ezras lips. "Well, considering how well that turned out for you, perhaps I should consider myself warned and avoid the risk."
"Of doing what?" Josiah pressed. "Of getting back together? Of taking a chance on loving again?"
"Of just meeting her, to begin with. Shes going to be in town this week and Ive been asked to have dinner with her, to talk. Part of me is dying to see her again and another part, the cowardly part, I suppose, is praying for a sudden deep-cover assignment so that Ill have a legitimate excuse not to." He sighed again. "I dont know what to do."
Josiah brought his elbows up to rest on the table, steepling his index fingers over his lips as he considered the matter from both sides. On the one hand, this woman had obviously caused his friend great pain and had the potential to rip open the scars she had left and set his heart bleeding once again. On the other, it was clear that Ezra still carried deep feelings for her and there was a chance that she felt the same and was truly sorry for her actions in Atlanta. As he pondered, Josiahs eyes were drawn across the room to where Inez Recillos was mixing drinks at the bar. It seemed that there was a legitimate reason for Ezras lack of reaction to a woman he openly acknowledged as being likable and attractive. The man had been hurt badly and was now shying away from any chance of going through that pain again. Josiah nodded, knowing what he had to do.
"Youve got to go," he said with certainty. "One way or another, youve got to move on. Maybe youll work things out with Lindsey or maybe youll discover that shes not what you need after all, but either way you deserve the chance to put what happened in the past behind you."
For a moment, Ezra stared at him. Then he knocked back the last of his drink and turned the glass slowly in his hands. "Tequila sours are Lindseys favorite drink. She introduced me to them during a trip we took to Mexico. Ive never much cared for the flavor of tequila, but I came to like these for the memories they invoked." Setting the glass down he added, "I learned to avoid them for the same reason. Perhaps Ive also avoided facing the past for too long."
Without another word, he rose and reached into his pocket, pulling out enough money to pay for the meal, the drinks and a generous tip. Nodding his head to Josiah, he pivoted gracefully and walked out of the bar.
They had agreed to meet at six p.m. at a small restaurant a block from Lindseys hotel, the location ideal for its intimate setting and lack of emotional association. Having been unable to escape from work promptly at 5:00 as he had planned, Ezra was running a bit late. He had driven home slightly faster than the law allowed and gotten cleaned up in record time, but then had paused for several long minutes in front of his open closet door, trying to decide what to wear. The restaurant was casual but he had suddenly desperately wanted to make a good impression. Finally, shooting a frustrated glance at his watch, he had chosen a pair of dark blue slacks and a cream colored cashmere sweater that he knew looked particularly good on him, and which, not incidentally, Lindsey had bought him as a gift. Nervously checking to make sure he had his wallet, keys and cell-phone, he had headed for the restaurant, anticipation and dread combining to make his stomach knot the entire way.
So now, here he was. The time was 6:10; he had made it safely to the parking lot, turned off the car and found that he couldnt move any further. "Just go in," he told himself. "You dont have to stay long. Just say hello, let her apologize face to face, and go home."
Still, he made no move to leave the car. Five more minutes crawled by. Finally, slowly, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. Tucked in the very back was a slightly crinkled snapshot. Pulling it out, he studied it closely. He had taken the photo during the week he and Lindsey had spent on a beach in Mexico. In the photo, Lindsey wore a dark green bathing suit and sunglasses, her long wavy brown hair hanging in a simple braid down her back. Her fine boned face was tilted up to catch the suns rays and she was laughing and waving a hand. Ezra smiled at the sight of the freckles that dotted her cheeks, remembering how much she had hated those little blemishes. He had always found them charming, liking the way they somehow made the fun-loving sparkle in her light brown eyes seem even more mischievous. She had said they made her look like a tomboy. But then, Lin had never been able to understand how lovely she was to him. He remembered how she had begged him not to take a picture of her in her bathing suit, saying that she was too fat. She had always believed that she needed to lose five or ten extra pounds, but while her figure was slightly too generous to be called slender, his hands tingled at the memory of stroking over those soft, tantalizing curves.
Ezra sighed gustily. While rather pleasant, this little trip down memory lane was doing nothing to calm his nerves and he supposed that Lindsey was probably getting a little annoyed by now if she had been as punctual as usual. "Make up your mind," he muttered. "Are you going to be a coward and stand her up, or just suck it up and get in there?"
Well, he never had liked being called a coward even by himself. Before he could change his mind, Ezra flung open the car door and jumped out, locking it in mid-stride with his remote as he moved toward the restaurant door.
He hesitated again as he entered, seeing Lindsey sitting at the bar waiting. She looked very pretty in a casual brown flowered skirt and olive green blouse with high-heeled brown leather boots, her expression calm and composed. For a moment, Ezra envied her lack of nerves. Then he noticed that she was staring at her hands and picking nail polish away from her cuticles. He grinned at the small tell, realizing that she felt as nervous as he did.
"You know, you shouldnt pick your nails," he said by way of greeting as he walked up to her. "Its not good for them."
She smiled. "And you should learn how to be on time. Its rude to keep people waiting."
They each laughed, the familiarity of the old arguments setting them both at ease. Ezra laid a quick kiss upon her cheek. "Its good to see you, Lin."
"Its good to see you too." She studied him for a long moment. "You look great, Ezra. Different somehow."
"Funny, I was just thinking that you hadnt changed at all," he replied softly, taking one of her hands in both of his. "Still as beautiful as I remember."
"Flatterer. Im glad you came. I really wasnt sure you would after the way I last treated you in Atlanta."
A soft snort escaped him. "Still direct as ever, I see." It had always been one of the qualities he appreciated most about her, her candor refreshing to him after a lifetime spent steeped in one sort of pretense or another. Now, however, he found it slightly unnerving.
Lindsey ducked her head. "Im sorry. Ive been running this moment through my mind for hours, trying to imagine just what Id say to you." She wrinkled her nose ruefully. "Somehow, blurting out something hurtful the second I opened my mouth wasnt in the script."
Ezra grinned, somehow enjoying the moment. "Its actually rather comforting to know that youre as disconcerted by this situation as I am. Id hate to think you had no regrets at all, after everything wed been through together." Noticing a waiter giving them an inquiring look, Ezra gestured toward him. "What do you say we sit down and try having this conversation a bit more civilly, over dinner?"
"Ever the sensible man," she quipped with a smile. Taking the hand he offered, she slid down off the barstool. "Lead the way, sir."
The next hour passed by like a pleasant dream, filled with laughter, catching up, and plenty of do-you-remembers. In some ways it was like no time had passed between them at all, and in other ways it was like a first date with a stranger. It was not until they had ordered dessert that things took a more serious turn.
"I am so very sorry for what happened, Ezra. Do you know how many nights Ive spent awake, just hating myself for the pain I know I put you through?" Lindsey asked him sadly. "Theres no excuse for what I did. I mean, you always had a little bit of a larcenous streak in you, but that was just part of who you were. In all the time I knew you, I never once saw you do a truly dishonorable thing. I dont know how I could have let my parents convince me that you would take payoffs from the very men you took such pleasure in getting off the streets."
Ezra had opened his mouth, intending to tell her he understood, that the past was the past and he had moved beyond it, but somehow the words just wouldnt come. "I dont know either, Lin."
They stared at each for a long moment until, eyes brimming, she finally said, "There are no second chances, are there?"
"For some things there are," he replied, thinking of Josiah, Chris, Buck, JD, Vin and Nathan, and the place they had opened within the ranks of their team and brotherhood for him. Meeting Lindseys emotion-bright eyes, he said softly, "But for others, I guess there never can be."
She closed her eyes, causing a tear to slide down one cheek. "I suppose I knew that, even before I came here." Drawing a deep breath, she brushed away the tear and gave him a gentle smile. "I never asked before. Is there someone new in your life?"
"No, there isnt," he said honestly, then hesitated a moment, "but I sometimes think that maybe there could be."
Understanding his meaning at once, Lindsey reached across the table and captured his hand. "I wish things had been different for us, but please dont let what happened in the past prevent you from taking a chance now. This woman, whoever she is, just might give you the happiness you deserve." She squeezed his hand, ignoring the new tears following the path of the first. "Please dont let me be the reason you never find out."
Ezra swallowed hard to be able to speak past the lump in his throat. Leaning forward, he brushed his lips over her knuckles. "Thank you, darlin. For this and for all the wonderful times we had together. I wish you equal or greater happiness in the future."
Laughing weakly as she gave a wet sniffle, Lindsey dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. "I think maybe youd better go now, before I really become a mess."
Nodding, he reached for the leather case holding their bill, which had been dropped off with dessert. Blocking his intent with her hand, Lindsey shook her head. "My invitation, remember?" Stopping his automatic protest, she added, "I owe you this one."
Ezra rose and cupped a gentle hand over her cheek, thumbing away the residue of her tears. He bent down, taking one last sweet kiss. "Goodbye, Lindsey."
As he walked away, he thought about all that he had lost, surprised to realize that the memory did not hurt nearly as much as it once had. Reaching his car, he took one last long look at the restaurant, realizing that a chapter in his life had finally closed.
Pulling out his cell phone, Ezra dialed a familiar number as he got in and started the engine. "Hello, Josiah. Yes. No, it went fine actually. Listen, do you think we could meet somewhere? I think Id like to talk for a while..."
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