Tuesday arrived with nothing distinguishing it from being another day. The Agents of Team Seven rose, got ready, and reported to the Training Center. They finished their breakfasts in the small room, mumbling greetings to each other.
Harper stayed in her office, making sure she ran off enough copies of their multiple examinations. The lost time yesterday, due to the raid, changed her schedule, compressing it into an almost unmanageable level. If she pushed hard today, they could have a break tomorrow. She locked her office, stepping into the Training Center with a tall stack of files. "Good morning, gentlemen."
Three grunts, a wave, a smile, and one "Hello, Harpy" came back to her.
"Glad to see we are all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We have plenty to cover, and little time to do it all."
"Pardon my leap of joy," The Southerner dryly remarked.
"And Good Morning to you too, Sunshine. If you all are willing, I will give out pre-tests, and if you score well, we will count those and move on to the next topic. Acceptable?"
Six heads bobbed up and down.
"Good. Test One: Probable Cause. Read the directions, the scenario, and answer the questions. No talking, discussion amongst yourselves, or giving each other the answers. You are coming at this on your own. Do not open the test booklet until I say so."
"Are we in grade school again?" Wilmington accepted his booklet, trying to hold her hand a second longer than proper. He failed.
"Would you like me to find the dunce cap, Buck?"
"Yeah, the Kid needs it." He jerked a thumb in JD's direction.
"We will see after the test. You may begin."
Harper watched each man open the booklet. Some started answering the questions right away while others read the scenario. Vin and Ezra read, and then put down their pens. They stayed silent while the others worked.
Ezra shook his index finger in gentle admonishment, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
Vin smirked at Harper.
It took Chris a minute to realize that neither Vin nor Ezra worked on their tests. He flipped back to page one, skimming the directions. He stopped and reread the instructions. Larabee looked up, seeing Harper's laughing eyes. Chris set his pen down, barely refraining from chuckling.
"Something funny, Chris?"
"Better late than never. Everyone, stop where you are. Return to page one and read the directions."
Their faces showing dread, Josiah, JD, and Buck flipped back and this time stopped to read them.
"This test is set up in several sections. Each section will have a paragraph, or group of paragraphs, presenting a case study for probable cause. It will be followed by a series of multiple-choice questions. When you reach the end of this sentence, put down your pen and wait for further instructions." JD smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand. "Dumb, dumb, dumb!"
"All right. Give me the dunce cap. I just earned it."
A soft voice reached her from the back. "You enjoy humiliating others, Harper?"
"No, Chris, I don't. Nevertheless, this should show you that reading first could save you a headache. I did instruct you to read the directions, and you not only did not do what I said, you ignored what was on the paper in front of you. The lesson: any document used for probable cause, or that could directly effect your case, should be read in its entirety before committing yourself to an action. Look for the 'fine print'. Details can make, or break, any case."
"We knew we were taking a test, Harper. We assumed..."
"Stop right there, Buck. Assume nothing. I'd hoped Chris learned to read everything I put in front of him before he signed, but I guess I was wrong. Need your tags changed again, cow-poke?"
Chris gave her a smirk. "No, but you need another walk through the airport."
"I would like to see you try."
JD asked, "What happened at the airport?"
"What'd we miss?" Buck glanced from one smug face to another.
"I zigged when I should have zagged." Harper changed the subject. "My point about this entire directions issue was to prove that two out of the six of you actually read what you are supposed to do, and followed a verbal command. One person started, realized something was wrong, and backtracked until he found his error. Now, let me apply this to a real-life scenario. Say this test booklet contained the ATF's regulations, and you are being tested - open book - on your knowledge. Fifty percent of you did not bother to check the regulations before acting. Guess what - they changed on you."
"Obviously," Ezra drawled.
"Okay, we get it. Read everything first." JD blew out a breath.
"Very good. Let's move on. Put those tests off to the side, and I will pass out the real exam on probable cause." Harper handed them out, told them to begin, and was pleased to see each of them carefully read the directions before proceeding. They finished it quickly, letting Harper grade them based on the multiple-choice answers.
"I'm pleased to say you passed. No one got anything wrong, so we can move on to Writing a Warrant."
"Harper, we're not cadets, recruits, or new Agents. We know how ta write a warrant," Vin said with a disgusted look on his face. "Don't need ta go over the basics with us."
"Really?" Her voice sounded deceptively soft.
Chris cut him off. "What's changed?"
"Local, State, or Federal?" asked Harper.
"Go over the changes, Harper, then we'll take the pre-tests." The leader made the decision for all of them.
"Okay." Harper handed out pamphlets explaining the modifications to the laws. Surprisingly, Team Seven knew most of them. When they took this exam, everyone scored in the high nineties or hundreds. Everyone agreed to let the pre-test stand as the final.
"Part three - Search and Seizure Warrants."
JD complained, "We just did warrants."
"You can write them, but this covers reading and executing them."
"Give us the test, and then we'll go over what we missed." Chris held his hand out for the test.
Their results on this section showed weaknesses, specifically in the area of interpretation. They spent an hour discussing the topic, Harper clearing up questions some never thought to ask before today. Their second test - the actual final - demonstrated an increase in scores and a rise in their confidence levels. Harper released them for a twenty-minute break, figuring they probably needed it by now.
Buck angled over to Chris. "Got a minute?"
"Sure." They took their coffees outside, enjoying the crisp air. "What's up?"
"I have a question for you."
"But I'm not sure how to ask."
Chris gave him a curious look.
Buck blew out his breath. "Are you interested in Harper?"
"You want to know if I'm thinking about going after Harper."
"Yeah. She's a fine-lookin' gal, but I won't if you are."
"I can't decide."
"Oh." Buck's head dipped a little.
"I can't decide if she's just a pain in my ass, or someone I might eventually call a friend."
"A little of both, I think."
"If you're worried about my feelings, Buck, don't. She's not my type."
"Why not? She's a redhead."
"Means she has a temper."
"Too thin - almost a skeleton."
"That's an acid tongue, not wit."
"I'd like to taste that tongue again, this time without her pouring her Harp's over my head and her knuckles threatening the crown pieces of the Wilmington Stud Farm."
"Too much information."
"Don't tell me you haven't thought about it."
"Back off, right there."
"You have, Chris. Damn."
"I am a male."
"And she is most definitely a female."
"Doesn't scare easy."
"Meaning you can't intimidate her, Chris. That's a new feeling for you."
"Shut up, Buck."
"That's it!" Blue eyes lit with amusement.
"She's a lot like you. What does Josiah call it? Oh yeah. She's an alpha female to your alpha male. No wonder you butt heads."
"Harper's not like me!"
Buck gave him a shit-eating grin. "Truth hurts, pard."
"For that, you're welcome to try. Don't come crying to me when she rips you bloody. I warned you."
"Thanks, Chris." Buck clapped his friend on the back.
"But I don't think she's your type, Stud." Chris shoved his friend in the shoulder.
"We'll see. Never been a woman yet who could resist me forever."
"You two done blowing hot air around Denver, or do you want me to hold up class until your talk finishes?" Harper held the door open.
"Darlin', we were just discussing your sweet disposition."
"I am not your darlin', Buck. As for my disposition, even honey has a bite to it."
"I remember how sweet it tastes. Can I have another sample?"
"You have to earn that privilege, Buck. And if you try to kiss me again, like you did in the restaurant, I'll dump you on the ground so fast your head will spin."
"Touchy, aren't we." Chris commented, taking the door from her.
"We have too much material to cover to waste time."
"You need to have some fun, Harper. That invitation that came with the telegram still stands." Buck treated her to a slow smile.
"I am still thinking about that." She turned on her heel and strode into the classroom. "Any time you boys want to join us, do come in and sit down."
"Crash and burn," as he took a seat, Chris mumbled this to Vin.
"Buck struck out. Again?" Vin raised an amused eyebrow.
"A swing and a miss, but he's just warming up."
"Hope he likes rejection."
Before Chris could respond, Harper took over the class. "We still have a considerable amount to cover. I will start us with the Bill of Rights and the Miranda warning, and go from there."
Team Seven (minus one) sighed, steeling themselves for more work. The rest of the day quickly passed, Harper letting them leave early for not giving her too many problems.
Harper greeted them, starting their day off with a pop quiz on what they went over the day before. Their scores all ranked between ninety-eight and one hundred. Quiz out of the way, she moved on. Next, she re-showed the videos, skimming through to the parts that they needed to answer the question. She saw no point in making them suffer through another showing; this way she satisfied requirements and they received credit for their training through the examination.
She kept up the brisk pace after lunch, pushing them relentlessly forward until a revolt seemed likely. Only then did she release them, giving them the next day off in compensation. She managed to cover three months' of material in two days. Harper figured they would need a break after that massive feed of information. Besides, her inbox threatened an overflow.
After they left, Harper cleaned the Training Center, removed all her teaching supplies, and sat behind her desk. She pulled up the presentation she planned to give that night at a satellite office, flipping through it to make sure she could answer any question thrown at her and that her computer slides were complete and in order. Her telephone rang, breaking the silence.
"You're going to pay, bitch." Click.
Staring at the receiver, Harper considered, and then called the switchboard. "Hi, this is Instructor Harper. Would you tell me where the last outside call to my office came from? Oh, okay. No, no problem. Thank you." She hung it up.
Harper pondered. She figured she ticked someone off somewhere, and probably that person gave her this as a crank call to make her paranoid. If they thought a telephone call scared her, they obviously did not know her too well.
If the call was a warning, though, it would not hurt to be a little more careful. Obviously, the caller wanted to be anonymous, because he (the voice sounded male) called from an untraceable cellular telephone.
The Instructor decided to let it go for now, but watch her step a little better the next couple of days. Checking her clock, Harper nearly jumped. She spent too much time thinking about the stupid telephone call, so if she didn't hurry, she would be late. Well, late by her standards. Quickly, she gathered her materials and left. Unfortunately, she was forced to park on the street by a meter, since the class brought in so many people and they took the entire visitor parking section. Sighing, Harper lugged her equipment with her, making sure the car was locked before she left it.
As he stood there waving goodbye, Buck swore he would never let an old friend, other than one of the six, set him up on a blind date ever again. Even then, and with their recommendations, he would have to give the matter a lot of thought. He loved women and everyone, himself included, could tell that from the first meeting. He enjoyed their different shapes, sizes, colors, attitudes, and fascinating minds. They were his favorite hobby. However, the girl tonight grated on his nerves from the moment they met and that said a lot. His charm, normally effortless, labored during dinner and barely carried him through the trip to the country western bar, but he drew the line at taking her home. Nuh-uh, no way, have a nice night. He walked her to the car and said goodnight with only a minor kiss, somehow still in the good graces of his old friend, visiting from out of town with his new wife and her octopus sister.
He stood outside taking in great gulps of air; the woman may have been passably pretty, but she wore too much perfume. The overwhelming scent had immediately started a pounding headache and if she had used her long fingernails to pinch him one more time, he swore he would not have been responsible for what he did. Clearing his mind, he thought the night could only get better. Then rethought that when he saw her; the forlorn figure of a woman sitting on the curb by her vehicle a block away outside the ATF's satellite offices. He recognized the car and hastened his step. Never able to resist a woman in need, he prepared to assist her if she let him; this woman required careful handling.
"Hello Harper, can I help you?" he called, noticing the car. It had four flat tires, every window and light broken or smashed, the interior cloth slashed, the paint keyed, and some rather descriptive crude terms sprayed on the hood, roof, and trunk. Someone took her beautiful car apart and it pissed him off. Someone would pay for this, he vowed to himself. It was one thing for his team to redecorate it into a banana split in their ongoing prank war. What they did was all in fun; nothing he and his friends did was permanent or malicious; this destruction was flat out hate. The woman instantly raised her head from her knees.
"Oh great, my night is now complete," she groaned. "Not only do I have a trashed car, but my humiliation with Team Seven continues." Harper met his gaze briefly, and then banged her head on her knees three times.
"It's not that bad, darlin'. What can I do to help?" Buck was serious. He realized teasing her was the last thing she needed.
"Do you have a spare car?"
Admiring her wit, he sat next to her. "You call the police?"
"Yes, just sitting here waiting." She did not mention she'd been waiting for forty-five minutes.
"Mind if I wait with you?"
"Why? Do you believe I can't take care of myself? Because I'm a woman, I need a man's help?"
Buck immediately saw the harping for what it was and soothed her. "I know you can take care of yourself, but there's no sense you waiting here alone."
Her shoulders slumped. "Sorry. Defense mechanism."
Buck chuckled. "It's all right, darlin', we've been a little difficult."
"I'd appreciate the company."
"You know how your tires got that way?"
"With a knife."
"Okay." Buck laughed silently, knowing he had asked for that response; with Harper, one needed to be precise. "Any idea who did it?"
"Cannot prove it, therefore won't say."
"Jefferson or Mentral?" Buck guessed that with both on suspension because of her, they probably hated her enough to do this to her car. From the amount of damage, they hated her a lot.
"I knew you were smart." Harper gave him a sarcastic smile that did not reach her eyes.
"You called it in anyway?" Both knew the futility; unless she insisted the car receive processing on the few surfaces that could hold a fingerprint, a simple report would be written and that would be it.
The answer she gave him sounded defeated. "What kind of Instructor would I be if I failed to follow proper procedure?"
"Not the good one I know you are," he quickly replied, with enough seriousness in his tone to show his true opinion.
"Thanks." The smile grew a little in gratitude. "Besides, I need the report for my insurance company."
"True. You've got a pretty smile," he remarked.
"Are you coming on to me?"
Buck tilted his head and answered, "Just saying you've got a pretty smile."
Her shoulders slumped again with the realization she was taking every comment, even innocent friendly ones, the wrong way. "Sorry, and thank you again."
"It's okay." He patted her arm. "Rough night. I'd be worried if you weren't a little testy."
"Testy?" She arched an eyebrow. "Am I a cranky baby now?"
"Okay, upset." He grinned at her.
She asked, "Why are you here, Agent Wilmington?"
He gave her a lopsided smile and a brief admonishment. "Thought we agreed for you to call me Buck."
"Fine, Buck. Again, why are you here? Other than to see the destruction of my baby and my bad mood?"
"Your knight in shining armor?" His head went side to side with emphasis and his eyebrows waggled.
The image gave her a genuine laugh this time. "That you are. At least for the moment. I would probably start crying if I was alone right now."
"We can't have that, darlin'. Red eyes won't look good on you and I'm a sucker for tears. I'll give you a ride home, if you don't mind."
"I appreciate that. Thank you." She looked up, seeing a patrol car stop near them.
"Don't look now but the fun's here," she muttered. "Please follow my lead, okay? Don't say anything, because they'd just love to have gossip about me."
"Sure," he replied, not understanding why, but if it kept her calm and happy, he'd go along with it. Until it went against his better judgment, of course.
The officer climbed out of his vehicle and examined her car with a low whistle. "Someone sure doesn't like you," he exclaimed when he joined her. "Officer Beltson, DPD."
"Instructor Harper, ATF, and it must be my charming personality," she retorted.
The somewhat friendly woman Buck talked to disappeared in favor of the Harpy, arriving dressed with her figurative heavy armor completely in place.
Beltson said, "I've heard of you. You're supposed to be tough as nails and meaner than a cornered rattler."
"At least at work." Beltson shrugged. "Heard you don't date much."
"You believe everything you hear?"
"When it comes from DPD officers in your classes."
Her tone turned frosty. "I suggest you open your mind and form your own opinion."
"Just might do that. Starting now." The officer looked at Buck. "Who are you? Her boyfriend?"
Buck smiled, making no move to identify himself. "You didn't tell me you make friends so easy, Instructor."
"I don't." Harper crossed her arms.
Wilmington leaned down to whisper in her ear. "You're a puzzle mixed with a bag a contradictions, and I aim to figure you out."
"Give it your best shot." She whispered back, not looking at him.
"You done whispering sweet nothings long enough to give me your name?" Officer Beltson stared at the taller man.
"None of your business," she sniped. "Just do the report." The less she gave him for the gossips, the happier she would be. Harper already knew this officer would tell all his buddies that someone trashed her baby. Then they would all laugh and some would say she deserved it. This whole train of logic just upset her and brought out her prickly exterior.
"Not until I know who he is, and if he's involved. Have to fill out all the information on the report. So who are you? Friend, boyfriend, or loser of a bad bet? To be honest, you don't seem her type." Beltson faced Buck. "Some figure a troll's about right as a good mate for her, but you don't fit that description."
Buck clenched his fists. He opened his mouth to say something, only to be cut off.
Harper said, "Someone who is just leaving and none of your business, Officer. Now, are you going to work on the report or are you going to stand there and insult me? I would prefer not filing a complaint against you, because this game bores me and borders on harassment."
Buck wanted to smack that smug look right off the officer's face, but refrained for her sake. He nodded to her and walked back to the bar, knowing she would meet him there. He also planned to watch from the front windows. The first wrong move and there would be a DPD smear on the ground, interagency professional courtesy be damned.
"Hey, come back here," Beltson called to the retreating man's back.
Buck blatantly ignored him, flexing his hands out of clenched fists.
Harper moved in front of the officer invading his personal space. "He is not your concern. Are you going to write the report or will I have to file a complaint?"
"Don't get your panties in a knot, Agent. I guess I'll finally learn your first name, huh?"
She only answered to Agent or Instructor Harper and drove pool vehicles, not letting anyone know her first name. That was her choice. It was also something people wanted to know, and she realized the betting pools already possessed several unusual and horrible names for her. "Instructor, and how wonderful." The look on her face clearly said it was not.
"So what is it? Must be bad if you keep it deliberately unknown."
"Ash," he repeated, motioning with his hand for her to continue. "As in Ashley?"
She simply stated, "Ash Harper."
"That's not your legal name." Beltson argued.
"If you do not believe me, run my tag. If you can find it in all that mess."
He did find the tag and ran it, the registration coming back listed to an Ash Harper. "Let's see your license." She handed it to him and it read Ash Harper. The same occurred with her ATF Identification card. "No middle name?" he asked.
"You have proof my name is Ash Harper. Can we get this over with, okay?" Seeing no foreseeable break in the near future, her head started to hurt.
The officer exhaled loudly. "Less time with you, the happier I'll be."
They hustled through the information needed for the paperwork, as the tow truck arrived and took her car to the garage. Before it went up on the rollback, she removed her overnight bag and briefcase and hoped it wasn't the last time she saw her car. Finally, Harper joined Buck after making sure the officer cleared the area. Buck did not need her messed up life interfering with his. Gallantly he opened his truck for her things, before leading her back inside the bar.
He asked, "You okay, darlin'?" Buck decided not to tell her he made a few telephone calls from inside the bar to friends on the DPD force. He wanted to make sure Harper's car made it to the lot without a problem and would be held for processing. Fortunately, his friend was working a late shift tonight and would tend to the detail personally. Buck also dropped a quiet whisper in Beltson's superior's ear as a concerned citizen, suggesting Beltson reform his attitude.
She shrugged. "I will live, regardless of the status of my baby."
"Let me buy you a drink." He signaled for a refill on his beer. "Harp's, right?"
"I wore it when I kissed you. Hard to forget. Or the fact you had it served when you put my underwear on display."
Once their drinks arrived, he took a sip, giving her a measuring look around his bottle of beer. "Want to tell me about it?"
"What's to tell? Someone or several someone's vandalized my car." She sighed.
Her nonchalance bothered him. "How often has this happened?"
"Here? This is the first time." Her voice held the resignation that having something vandalized, or maliciously destroyed, was not a new experience for her.
Buck guessed, "Baltimore?"
"More than once. A lot of people don't like my teaching style, or my attitude." Their drinks arrived and he paid over her objections, looking offended when she offered.
Buck chuckled. "You do come on a bit strong." He looked in her eyes to take the sting out of his words.
She understood, but he did not identify with her position. She was a good Instructor, damn it, not a reject like some of the people currently teaching. At least she liked to tell herself she was. "I have to, or I won't get any respect." Harper almost said to him, 'you, as a woman, walk into a room full of men, get their attention, and keep it long enough for them to learn something'. Law enforcement still held some prejudices against women and although they never spoke of it aloud, it came through. A female training Instructor usually meant she could not cut it in the field where it counted, unless she specialized in some technical aspect of the job.
Buck replied, "There's a difference between respect and hatred."
"A fine line; I walk it every day," she answered, a grimace on her face.
"Tell me something."
"If I want to."
Buck eyed her shrewdly, thinking she was an attractive woman, but did her best in downplaying it. He also knew she worked very hard at keeping people at arm's length. How much would she really reveal now? "Fair enough. How many people actually know you outside the offices? I'm guessing very few."
"Not many." At his disbelieving expression, she relented. "Outside of the Travis', none."
"A beautiful, charming woman like you and you don't see anyone outside the office?" He shrugged his shoulders. "I guess some would consider that pretty smart."
"I'd agree with that."
He looked right into her soul when he answered. "I don't."
"Really?" She tried to be sarcastic, but it fell flat. The last thing Harper wanted was someone telling her how lonely her life must be without friends, or family close by; she already knew that and did not need the reminders.
"I think you need a little fun in your life." Buck gave her a huge smile and winked.
"A little fun? Having my car smashed isn't fun?" Sarcasm dripped from her tone, but it did not hide the underlying hurt at this violation.
A lively country line dance started on the dance floor. Buck stood, holding out a hand to her. "Dance with me." His eyes showed he was serious.
She looked from the dance floor back at Buck. "I don't know how." The slow dance the other day, yes, she could handle that, pole-dancing, piece of cake, but this line dancing? Definitely not.
"Follow my lead." His most charming smile actually worked on softening her resolve and he could see it. "You won't regret it."
Harper bit her bottom lip. "I'm not dressed for this."
He followed her eyes to appreciate the dress black pants and embroidered black blouse. "You look wonderful, darlin'. Cut loose and have a little fun." His grin was infectious, bringing an answering one to her face, much to his relief.
"What the hell." Grasping his strong hand, she followed him onto the dance floor, where he swirled her along the outside of the lines with the rest of the couples. She spun, twisted, and turned, finally finding the rhythm at the end of the song.
Buck led her into another, then another, then a drink, then more dancing, then talking, until she finally felt and looked relaxed.
Harper was grateful to see Buck limit his consumption, since he was the one driving her home.
Finally, the bar was in the process of closing and kicking everyone out. He helped her into his truck and climbed into the driver's seat. "Where to, Harper?"
"Hmm?" She gave him a blank look, as if he were speaking a foreign language.
"Where do you live?"
"Oh. The Hampton Inn." Wide hazel eyes stared at him with no clue of how wrong it all sounded.
"A hotel?" Both eyebrows raised in disbelief. Who lived in a hotel unless one owned it, was rich enough to pay for it, or just moved in the area? He knew Harper came here some time ago, from the waves she made when she first arrived, but he hadn't met her earlier because of their conflicting schedules and workloads.
"Gotta find a new apartment." She listed to one side, her head on his shoulder. "Mine changed over to condos and I'm not sure how long I'll be assigned here."
He stared at her in amazement, truly seeing her condition. "You're snookered." Buck reviewed their drinks and realized she took the lion's share. His head nearly drooped; he did not want to get her drunk; he only wanted her to have fun.
Unknowingly she echoed his thoughts. "I feel good. I thought you wanted me to have fun." The look she gave him clearly conveyed she thought he was disappointed in her.
He pulled her close, and then fastened the center seat belt around her, before pulling on his own. "I do, Harper." His sincerity came through in the tone.
Her doubts fell away with a bright smile. "Good. Don't take me back yet. An empty hotel room sounds boring."
Buck paused. "Where do you want to go?" He incorrectly figured she probably wanted to go home and go to sleep, because they both needed to be up early the next day for work.
"Don't care, just not there. Too alone."
He thought maybe some food might help her and give them somewhere neutral to go. "Are you hungry?"
"Not really." She shrugged.
He considered his options and wondered if she would go along. "You know, JD's out for the night. We could go back to my place and talk." He emphasized the word talk, to show he did not expect anything else from her but conversation. No pressure was his motto at this point and he refused to take advantage of an intoxicated woman, unless she was completely willing and knew what she was doing, and with whom she was doing it.
"Wonderful, Sir Wilmington. To your castle we go: the damsel and the knight." Her left hand waved out from her body then pointed out the windshield. She adopted a haughty air like a fairy tale princess ordering her loyal subject about.
His lips snaked into a big smile. Using his left hand, he drove. "I have to warn you the maid quit." He hoped JD managed to at least get the dishes into the sink and not leave empty glasses in the middle of the living room. JD was not the only guilty party, but the kid usually cleaned it all up for them, because he could not stand the glasses everywhere. The dirt, okay, the kid dealt with that, but utensils and glassware required near immediate washing, or relocation into the sink.
She gasped and her hand covered her open mouth. "Horrors upon horrors! However do you cope?" Harper batted her eyes at him.
"We manage," Buck managed to say around a chuckle.
Her tone changed, as she remembered something. "I cleaned it completely for you two. It was spotless."
"You did and it was. Then you quit." Her hand impacted with his chest, without moving her head from his shoulder. "Ooof." She chuckled when his right hand grabbed hers, the move entwining their fingers and giving him control, so she could not hit him again.
Once they reached his and JD's place, he unbuckled her seatbelt and helped her inside. She refused to leave her briefcase and suitcase behind, carrying them in with her while clinging to Buck. Not that he complained, but he was surprised, never thinking he would see this side of her: a more relaxed Harper instead of the stern taskmistress with the acid tongue and biting wit. Once inside, he steered them onto the sofa.
"Can I get the lady something to drink? Water, beer, wine, soda, fruit juice?"
"What are you having?" she asked.
"Beer." Right now, he wanted something alcoholic.
"You sure? Don't want you to get sick, darlin'."
Harper immediately replied, "I'm Irish. Beer does not make me sick."
Buck had to laugh at that boast. He rummaged around in the kitchen to find two beers and two mugs.
"Don't bother with a mug," she called from the living room. "Unless, of course, you drink from them."
Buck grinned. Who would have thought Harper drank beer from the bottle? After popping the tops, he handed her one and watched her put half of it down in one swallow. "Easy there, darlin', or you'll be paying for it later." He only wished he could drink beer that fast and then changed his mind; he'd be broke in a week and seriously drunk all the time at that rate.
"Probably, but right now I don't care." The rest of the beer disappeared.
Buck quirked an astonished eyebrow; the lady did keep surprising him. Oh well, when in Rome...he polished off his and took the empties into the kitchen. "Want another?" He half expected her to say yes.
"No thank you."
He returned and stopped by the stereo. "Music?"
Buck picked a CD and a slow song swirled its magic through the room. Standing, she pulled him into an embrace. "Dance with me."
Her balance was slightly impaired by alcohol and he knew her blood was filled with liquid artificial courage. She clung tightly to him and he obliged, enjoying the feel of her against him. She lay her head against his chest, eyes closed, and he felt her lips move into a smile against him.
"What's your first name?" He asked her the question that had been bothering him for some time.
"My first name?"
She leaned back and stared into his eyes. "No."
"Your first name is no?" He teased her.
"No. I'm not telling you."
Giving her his most charming smile, he tilted his head and squeezed her where he held her. "Why not?"
"Darlin', with someone as pretty as you, I'm betting it's just as beautiful as you are." The song ended, but they stayed locked together in an embrace.
Her eyes bored into his. "Promise you won't laugh."
"Ash, short for?"
"Ashling Selma." She winced.
"Now, that's pretty. Your Irish is showing. Do you know you have this cute little lilt right now and when you were talking to your dad? May I call you Ashling?" He did not mention she just told him she was Irish earlier.
"Thank you and call me Ash."
"An angelic name for angelic girl," he told her.
"So are you." He leaned down and briefly touched his lips to hers. She did not rebuff him; in fact, she leaned closer. Buck shifted his weight and rearranged his arms, wrapping her tighter in his embrace and pulling her into a deeper kiss, adjusting for his greater height by bending his knees a tiny bit. She fit just fine, he thought, just fine. Things heated up from there in the next few minutes. Deciding to move them somewhere a little more comfortable, Buck picked her up and carried her into the bedroom with her laughing when his mustache tickled her neck. Words stopped and actions took over.
Harper felt wonderful. Between the alcohol, dancing, and the exquisite attention lavished on her, the room spun. It felt great to let herself go, to be herself, to be a woman. No one ever saw her as just a woman; they saw the Agent, or the Instructor, and made comments about her not being human. She often heard rumors of people saying that if they saw her in a bar and thought she looked good, it was time to quit drinking alcohol. None of her detractors realized she knew, or heard about it from others, or how much it stung to be compared to a 'triple bagger', or that some men considered her one step up from a beast on the evolution scale.
Right now, though, this man thought she was attractive and not a sympathy case. She went with it, enjoying the sensations, a buzzing in her head and stomach, a stirring in her body. It had been too long. Then she finally realized her stomach was not fluttering from excitement. Uh-oh. "Buck." The whisper sounded low and she swallowed once. His weight was not helping the situation, as her insides churned and killed the moment for her.
"Yea, darlin'?" He nuzzled her neck while his hands expertly unbuttoned her blouse, sliding it off her arms with practiced finesse.
She swallowed again and tasted something nasty. Harper needed to stop him now. "Buck."
= = 7 = =
Harper sounded a little more urgent this time and he took it as a good sign. "Hmm?" he asked, his concentration focusing on his task with the clasp in front of him. One more twist...
His hands stilled. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he expected this. Disappointed, he rationalized to himself that he was not just a lover of ladies - he respected them; when a woman said stop, he stopped. "Okay."
He rolled off her and she shot out of the bed for the bathroom. The next thing he heard was her being sick. That completely killed the mood for him, wondering if he made her sick, until he remembered how much she drank. He also rationalized that shooting that last beer as quick as she did, probably pushed her to this.
Tossing any romantic notions out of his head, he stood and followed her into the bathroom. Never one to leave a lady in distress alone, when he could help it, he sighed once, and then went to work. Standing behind her, he rubbed her back while the alcohol relocated then wiped her face down with a cold cloth, dodging the hands trying to knock him away. One hand held the hair out of her face and he knew she probably felt embarrassed. For him, he only wanted to help her through the worst of it, then they could talk and he could put her in his bed alone. The couch or JD's bed sounded good for him; he refused to leave her by herself in a hotel room sick. In the midst of the worst of it, he realized she wasn't wearing a shirt, so during a lull, he fetched her one of his T-shirts and silently offered his help in putting it on.
Harper finally murmured in a small voice, "Hell of a date, aren't I?" Her comment and the forlorn look she gave him caused him to laugh; even physically sick her sense of humor stayed with her. She accepted his help, standing unsteadily with her arms stretched over her head.
He finished pulling the shirt over her shoulders, staring at her arms over her head for modesty's sake. "Hell of a woman." Buck complimented her. "What the hell?" He noticed a thin, deep, white scar wrapping completely around in a diagonal pattern on her left arm from her elbow to her shoulder joint. A scar he did not remember in the surveillance videos they took of her and only visible now because of his up-close position.
"Don't ask," she told him, tugging on the shirt to cover it. It still did not hide it completely and likewise, she could not hide the remembered pain of that injury.
Buck also knew his boundaries. "All right." He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "How about some water?"
"I am so sorry," she said.
"It's okay, darlin', we all have our moments."
"Yeah, well, this does nothing for my love life."
He chuckled and said, "There's always other opportunities." One finger ran down her nose to tap it once. "Water sound good?"
Harper studied him quietly. "Sounds heavenly. You mind bringing me my purse?" She sat on the bathroom floor staring at him in amazement. Most men would not stand by and do their best to help, while the woman they liked, or were interested in sleeping with, threw up in the bathroom right after things got interesting. Nor would they give up their clothes without asking, or say something sweet and encouraging while the woman finishes making an ass out of herself.
"Nope." He left, bringing back both her purse and a bottle of cold water. "How's the stomach?"
"Much better now." Her head fell into her hands. "I rarely get sick from drinking too much. I am so embarrassed."
"How often do you have anything other than Harp's?"
"Huh?" She gave him a confused look between her fingers, seeing his mustache twitch in barely concealed amusement. He didn't seem to mind having been led on and stopped so abruptly.
"You mixed your drinks tonight, and I'm guessing your body's got a preference." Buck winked at her.
The fingers closed and she groaned. "I know better. I am definitely not going to like waking up this morning. Heck, it's already morning and I don't like it."
"Take these." He handed her two white pills. "Tylenol(tm)."
"Thanks." After seeing his grin from ear to ear, Harper managed a tiny smile of gratitude. She washed the pills down with the water, finishing the bottle. Rummaging in her purse, she found a toothbrush and cleaned her teeth. Buck brought her a pair of sweatpants so she could change her bottoms, leaving her alone for a few minutes.
Once she left the bathroom, Buck sized her up. "Darlin', I know I look good in my clothes, but you . . ." He gave her a saucy wink. Neither mentioned the shirt hung to her knees and the pants were practically tied around twice, with bunches of material gathered around her ankles.
She laughed in spite of herself. "I'm thinking romance is out tonight."
"Hell, darlin', with the night you had before I came across you, I wasn't expecting anything." He grinned sheepishly and ducked his head. "Have to admit it was an outstanding start, though." He wagged his eyebrows at her. "But to be honest, hell, I never did and still don't, actually. At least not yet."
His honesty and self-depreciation touched her. Along with the fact that he stayed with her while she was sick, and still talked to her afterward. Heck, he flirted with her and she knew she was a sight. "Why hasn't someone snatched you up yet?" she asked.
"I haven't let them catch me. Go on, go lie down on the bed."
She gave him a look.
He pacified her by saying, "Ash, if you want, take my bed and I'll take the couch or JD's bed. I'd rather not drive you back to an empty hotel room if you're not feeling well."
She moved a little hesitantly into the bedroom and then turned back to him before he could leave. "Buck," she said, and once he turned back to her, she hesitated again. Harper felt completely unsure of herself and she privately admitted a little afraid of his reaction. "Please don't think me too forward, but would you mind sitting with me for awhile? You're right; I don't want to be alone." She spent too much time alone and right now, she needed human companionship. Okay, so she made an idiot of herself, but she really did not want to be alone. Without anyone there, she knew she'd turn into a blathering crying idiot, feeling tremendously sorry for herself.
Buck's smile lit up the room. "Anytime, and I don't think you're forward." Her offer surprised and pleased him, because he really did not want to leave her alone either. Buck knew the romantic part of the evening finished some time ago, but the emotional part of her still needed to deal with her car's destruction and he did not want her to go through that without help, if possible.
He smiled watching her, as she nervously sat on the bed and cast her gaze all around the room, looking anywhere but at him. Buck knew she felt vulnerable right now, and probably a little embarrassed . . .damn, she was cute like that. Walking over to the bed, he pondered on how he would handle this, then just decided to be himself. It worked for him before, and it should work for him now.
Sitting at the head of the bed, he flopped back against the headboard with his legs stretched out in front of him. He reached out and grabbed her arms, pulling her to his side. Settling down more comfortably, he draped his arm around her shoulders and guided her head to rest on his broad shoulder.
"Now you just relax and tell ol' Buck all about it." He earnestly looked at her and waited for her to speak.
She managed a smile and looked up into his smug grin. He really was a nice man, so easy going and easy to be with . . .and open up to, she thought to herself. Stifling a chuckle, she thought . . .a true knight in shining armor.
They sat like that, getting comfortable with each other, as they took turns talking about whatever was on their minds. Both shared their most embarrassing moments, since tonight ranked up there for her and he was part of it, told a little of their backgrounds, and laughed as they found they had more in common than originally believed. Occasionally Buck would rub his hand up and down her arm and she would relax against him a little more. Sometime during their long talk, they realized, and mutually agreed, they would be better friends than lovers, because neither wanted the ties to one person right now. Both felt comfortable being friends without the added pressure a liaison brings. Wrapped around each other, exhaustion finally claimed them both and they slept, still cuddled side by side.
= = 7 = =
The sounding alarm woke Harper with a start. The arm around her waist felt different because there normally was not an arm there and it did not feel like her ex-husband's, so she twisted around to find herself in bed with Buck. Buck? Buck Wilmington? Oh dear Lord, what happened last night? Before she finished that question, the previous nocturnal events rushed back to her consciousness and she blushed at her behavior. She got drunk and made an ass of herself. No wonder she never drank more than two Harp's in an evening; this situation almost mirrored what happened with Donald, her father's not so subtle choice of a husband for her.
The difference between last night and the night with Donald was she got really drunk in her father's pub that night, and she actually had sex with Donald. Of course, throwing up rather put a damper on having sex with Buck. Getting sick was probably a good thing in a twisted way, since she was still dealing with the consequences of the night with Donald. Both her father and Donald hoped for something more permanent.
"Mornin', darlin'," Buck whispered in her ear before disappearing into the bathroom. She heard the toilet flush and he came back in wiping his hands on a towel. Before she could hide herself under the covers - how cliché, you bimbo, she told herself - she found her suitcase sitting on the end of the bed. "I'll let you have the bathroom first, darlin', if you promise not to use all the hot water." The look he gave her made her forget her embarrassment; it was the look a good friend gives another when they are feeling down or unsure of themselves.
She managed a small smile. "I promise," Harper assured him. He left her alone and headed to the kitchen to make coffee and breakfast. The hot water made her feel better, brushing her teeth felt heavenly, and her mind started to clear. Always efficient, she dressed quickly, pulling her damp hair into a French braid and letting it go at that. Her spare black suit matched the intermittent, throbbing pain in her skull.
When she reached the kitchen, the welcome aroma of coffee greeted her. "Please tell me that's fresh coffee?" Harper asked hopefully. Her head did not hurt as much as she thought it would, but it reminded her through a mildly queasy stomach and stuffed-cotton-ball feeling in her noggin that overindulgence was not one of her better moves.
"After you drink this you can have some." He handed her a concoction in a glass.
"What was it?" she questioned after she downed it.
"Hangover cure. Take it you've seen them before?"
"Usually mine smell a whole lot worse and bubble funny."
He gave her a strange look, prompting her to kiss him on the cheek. "Thanks, Buck, for making me smile. I have not had fun like that in a while."
His arms easily came around her and he pulled her close. "Anytime, Ash," he whispered in her ear. "You just call ol' Buck when you want to have fun; no pressure."
"I appreciate it," she sighed thinking how nice it was to have such a friend. "Sir Buck," Harper teased. She squeezed his sides where her arms wrapped around his back.
"I'm liking the sound of that." He tightened his grip. "Sir Buck, defender of Lady Ash."
The sound of something hitting the floor caused the couple to turn to catch the stunned deer in the headlights look on the young Agent's face. From his expression, they could see his shock. Apparently, he walked in on the pair of them holding each other so close, and knowing her, was enough for him to lose his normal composure and just gape.
Casting each other sly glances and biting back laughter, the look on the computer whiz's face was enough to confirm what JD thought happened...they spent the night together.
"Hello, Agent Dunne," Harper greeted him calmly, neither becoming embarrassed, obviously immensely enjoying his discomfort.
"Uh, hi, Harpy. Harper. Ma'am." He looked from one to the other; no help came from either.
Buck chuckled, as he positioned himself behind her, one hand around her neck and shoulders, pulling her body into his. "My Lady Ash," he whispered in her ear, earning himself an elbow in the gut and a giggle.
The Harpy giggled? JD stared at her like she had three heads. He blurted, "Did I walk into the Twilight Zone?"
Buck chastised his roommate with a smile. "JD, you gonna leave that soda there to collect flies, or are you going to clean up because we have a guest?"
"Uh...um...okay...yeah!" Shaking off the shock, he cleaned the soda while the pair exchanged a look and exited the kitchen heading for Buck's bedroom. They missed the spectacle of JD's jaw dropping to the floor as they disappeared into the confines together.
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