"Did you see his face?" Buck grabbed his stomach, laughing quietly.
She leaned against him, one arm around his waist, as she gave over to the teenage giggles. "Priceless. You think he'll tell the rest of your team?"
"Once I threaten him a few times, he'll be busting a gut to tell someone."
"And will they believe nothing happened?"
"Now, Ash, I don't think nothing happened." The look he gave her showed his emotions about their blooming friendship.
Harper smiled back, sincerity in her eyes. "Okay, let me clarify. Nothing sexual happened."
"Not from lack of trying," he muttered.
"In the beginning." She qualified. "Before I made an idiot of myself."
"You got sick." Buck shrugged then changed the subject. "Let me ask you a question."
"Would you? If you hadn't gotten sick, would you? We?"
She placed a hand on his mouth and gave him the smile women were gifted with at birth. The smile to make men want more and always wonder. "I think you know the answer, but I'm not going to vocalize it."
His face lit up. "Hell, girl, it would have been something," he told her, puffed up with pride.
"Would have, could have, should have, did not. Something a little more special came out of it and I for one won't regret that."
"Neither will I, darlin'."
After one final hug, Harper gathered her things and they walked back out to the living room. They met JD there, coming out of his room slicking back his still shower damp bangs and ready to go.
Buck spoke. "JD, we're giving A-whoomph! What was that for?" A startled Buck stared down at the woman and rubbed his abdomen. "You need to register that elbow, darlin'."
"Why'd you hit him this time, Harpy?" JD laughed. "And you didn't say you weren't his darlin'." He smiled at seeing Buck being abused. He was also surprised she didn't tell Buck she wasn't his darlin'.
"Because he was about to say something only a select few people know and I'd like to keep it that way." The meaningful look she gave him reminded Buck that she preferred her given name as something exclusive between them.
He caught the message and continued, "We're giving Harper a ride in today; she had some car problems last night."
JD quizzed, "Your car's practically brand new. What happened?"
Buck clapped an arm on the smaller man. "JD, we'll talk about it later."
"I am asking you not to do anything. There is no proof." She warned.
"Give me about ten minutes. I'll have proof. The lab techs will find something."
"I do not want to talk about it," she said, with a warning shake of her head again.
"Talk about what?" JD flipped his gaze from one to the other.
"Never mind, Agent Dunne," Harper's return to her stern self more than said the subject was closed.
JD and Buck exchanged a look around her back that said they would talk later.
= = 7 = =
Ten minutes after they dropped off Harper, Buck knocked on Larabee's door.
"Chris, got a minute?" Buck looked uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot.
"Sure." Chris raised an eyebrow when Buck closed the door. "Stud? Something up?"
Wilmington tossed himself into the chair in front of the desk and stared at his long time friend. "I've got a problem."
Chris put down the pen and closed the folder. Buck rarely came to him with problems, so when he did, Chris listened with one hundred and twenty percent of his attention span. "What's wrong?"
"There's some snakes working here," Buck finally said. "Slithering around here and calling themselves Agents."
"Who did what to JD?"
Buck gave him a startled look. "No one's messing with the Kid; they know better. They don't want all of us ripping their throats out."
"So who is it?"
"Who's messing with Harper?"
"Someone trashed her car last night. Hell, trashed isn't the word for it. It's FUBAR."
Chris leaned back in his chair. It disturbed him to think someone would take out their frustrations on her car; if they started with the car, what could they do to her? "What happened?"
"She found it that way. Chris, if you had seen it, it would have pissed you off. I know I was pissed. I'm afraid it's either Mentral, or Jefferson."
The leader nodded slowly. "I thought they were too quiet. Harper ask you to get us involved?"
Buck sighed. "Nope, she's too independent for that. She's not going to follow up, or let our techs check the car. DPD could care less and that's not right. I don't know who she's told here, but I don't think she's..."
"You don't think she's following all the procedures."
Buck scratched the back of his neck. "Well, yeah. I'd hate to see her burned because of it."
"You want to request our people go over her car as a favor?" Chris clarified, thinking of the markers that he could call in to accomplish that. Technically, they stepped on toes if they got involved, but this was for a good cause. Besides, people expected toe mashing from Team Seven.
"Yeah. I know I'm asking a lot because you're the one that usually ends up paying for it, but it just isn't right."
Chris nodded slowly. "Does Travis know?"
Buck snorted. "I doubt it. I didn't see her call him last night and she didn't mention it to me."
"Let me call in a favor."
"Appreciate it, Chris, and I owe you for this."
Chris waved that off. "Give me about fifteen minutes and someone will be sent down there."
"Thanks, Stud. I knew I could count on you."
"Haven't done anything yet, Buck."
Buck gave Chris a big smile. "Yeah, but you will." He left before Chris could think too long about his remarks.
Chris stared at the now-closed door and picked up the telephone. He called a couple friends in the DPD and found out the scoop about the incident. No suspects given, no suspect information, and the report read as a malicious destruction of property. He sighed, and then contemplated his next move.
What he wanted done needed some backup a little higher than his level, especially if they planned to run a parallel investigation with DPD. He made a call. "Sir? It's Chris. Do you have a minute?"
Travis leaned back in his chair and removed his glasses. "Always. What's wrong?"
Larabee started his inquiry gently. "Did Harper talk to you?"
"Regarding her car, sir. It was purposely destroyed last night."
"What?" The bellowed surprise echoed through the receiver.
"Apparently someone, or a group of people mangled it. From what I'm told, there's a good possibility it will be totaled by the insurance company."
"No, it was not reported to me. Yet."
The tone told Chris that Harper would have some questions to answer about why she did not report the incident to her supervisor. An idea struck and he vocalized it. "Unless she told Jeff."
"Knowing Harper, she probably did. She followed the rules, but left me out of the loop. Why?"
"I have a guess, sir, but I will need your support."
"What are you asking?"
"I want our people to run a parallel investigation to the DPD's. I'm not convinced DPD will follow through. They do not have the budget, or the advanced equipment our lab techs do."
"You want our techs to go over the car?"
"Yes. I'll order it and take responsibility."
"Mentral and Jefferson?"
"I'm not making any guesses at this point, sir."
"But if Standish took a bet?"
A small chuckle escaped Chris' lips. "They'd be the front runners."
"All right. Do it."
"Now for the hard part, sir."
"I'm asking you to stay out of it for now, until we get the results back."
Chris remembered the AD once served as a judge and the gruffness of the command reflected that authority. "I want to keep this quiet. The techs find anything linking Mentral and Jefferson, we'll notify IA. If there's nothing, then I don't want her to know." Larabee listened to the silence and waited, secure in the knowledge that the AD weighed all the options and considered every possibility before answering.
"Do it, but keep me informed. I want to know about this from start to finish."
Travis laid down the law. "If it is Mentral and Jefferson, none of you seven will do anything. I repeat, not one of you will do a single thing. We'll handle this by the book and through IA. Am I understood?"
Chris involuntarily straightened in his seat, the tone too militant to be ignored. "Yes, sir."
"Good." The line disconnected.
Larabee stood and stretched, walking to his office door and opening it. He saw Buck's hopeful look and nodded, a single glance telling Wilmington to join him in the office. Once Buck was seated, Chris sat across from him. "I want you to listen, Buck."
"I can do that."
"Good. We're getting involved, techs only at this point. Anything we find, if we find anything, goes right to IA. We don't do anything beyond supervise the investigation. Got it?"
Green eyes met dark blue in a moment of understanding. "All right. Here we go." Chris called the lab and ordered the techs over to the garage where Harper stored her vehicle. Fortunately for them, Buck's calls the night before arranged for the vehicle to be stored inside in a dry place with no one having access to it. Larabee's next action was to send Nathan and Josiah along with Buck to supervise the evidence collection.
It took two hours before they found what they wanted. Having both men's fingerprints on file made things easier to compare. Once the fingerprints from the car matched those on file, Nathan called Chris and delivered the news that Jefferson and Mentral were involved.
In turn, Chris telephoned Travis and told him the bad news. IA went to the garage and before lunch, Harper's car was then tagged as evidence. All this happened without her knowledge as she taught in the Training Center. This was one of the few days during the month that she did not have Team Seven because of a pre-existing class.
= = 7 = =
During her lunch break, Harper caught a cab to pick up a rental car and waited for the rental company to fix their crashed computer. Since she had time to kill, she walked next door to a card and gift emporium. Wandering through the aisles, she found something perfect in one of the display cases.
Calling the salesclerk over, she bought the item, had it gift-wrapped, then drove herself in her rental back to the Training Complex. With luck, she found Team Seven still out to lunch and left 'it' and the card on Buck's desk.
= = 7 = =
When Buck returned from his solo lunch, he went directly to Harper's office and dropped off the gift he found at a jeweler friend of his. He found it empty; she was teaching in the closed Training Center with a large sign 'Testing In Progress' on the doors.
When he reached Team Seven's offices, his teammates grinned, smirked, and poked each other before bursting into guffaws, including Chris.
The leader walked over to him and ribbed him, "So, Stud, you didn't tell me that you and Harper had a date last night." He learned about this fascinating turn of events from JD, who tried so hard not to say anything, but failed miserably. Finally the story stumbled forth by letting Josiah guess and being overheard and further interpreted by Ezra.
Buck punched Chris lightly on the arm. "JD!"
"I didn't tell," Dunne quickly denied, retreating to a safe distance.
"Yeah, right." Buck continued advancing on JD, only stopping because of Ezra neatly inserting himself between them.
"Mr. Dunne did not confirm, or deny anything, but your actions, Mr. Wilmington, speak volumes. I trust you do not have too many puncture marks from that she-devil's tail?"
Buck shook his head. "It's not like that, Ezra."
"Then pray tell how it is."
The rogue gave Ezra a gentle shove out of the way when he saw something of interest on his desk.
The gift-wrapped box caught his attention and the rest of his team ceased to exist for him. His eyes lit up and he opened the card, reading the message and smiling before tucking the card in his back pocket and not sharing it with his friends.
"So what does Harpy say?" asked JD.
"None of your business, Kid." Buck's voice sounded a little gruff even to him, so he concentrated on opening the paper.
The men exchanged glances over the oblivious surveillance expert's head. JD rolled his eyes. Ezra lay a hand over his heart, while Josiah smiled broadly. Nathan shook his head and Vin gave them all looks, as if it was none of their business. Chris stayed silent, watching and waiting to see what would happen.
Inside the gift-wrapped box was a little statue of a painted pewter knight in shining armor, mounted on a barded warhorse, with a lance raised. Buck started laughing; in the bottom of the box was a display case. He carefully placed the statue inside and set it in the safest part of his desk - the desk drawer. He only hoped Ash found his gift as touching and amusing.
= = 7 = =
Harper found the box and smiled. Opening the card first, she 'aw'ed and smiled, happy to see that her feelings were reciprocated. Inside the box was a gold necklace with a small knight on horseback armed with a lance charm. She put on the necklace and grinned, getting a kick out of the fact they thought alike.
As she went to call him, her telephone rang. "Harper," she answered brusquely.
"Instructor Harper, this is Ken Barnett of IA. You have a minute?"
She nearly groaned when she sat down. Harper hated this mess with Jefferson and Mentral; she took no pleasure in ending their careers. "Yes."
"Care to tell me what happened to your car last night?"
Her mind kicked into gear and she wondered how he heard already. She told Jeff, her supervisor here, but no one else. "Excuse me?"
"Instructor, this is not the time to dodge, or prevaricate. What happened to your vehicle last night?"
"Someone vandalized it, Agent Barnett. I'm curious how you think this is any of your jurisdiction. DPD's handling the report."
"It's my jurisdiction when Agents Jefferson and Mentral are involved."
"Precisely how did you reach that conclusion?"
"They left their fingerprints behind."
"And you know this how?"
Ken Barnett sat at his desk in the Internal Affairs Section, staring at the tech's report, and laughing. No one informed her they examined her car and he figured she'd hit the roof when he told her. "The ATF examined your vehicle today, Instructor, and recovered the prints. As of now, the vehicle is considered evidence and will be thoroughly processed."
"On whose order?"
"I'm afraid I do not know."
She knew he lied; she heard it in his voice. Who else knew? Damn it, Wilmington. One hand reached up and nearly ripped the necklace off, but something stopped her. Harper answered, "I see."
"So we'll need to get a statement from you as soon as possible."
"Do you realize they could do something worse once we go forward with this?"
"I am well aware of that, yes."
"As long as you understand that, but we are moving forward."
"I understand. I will have the statement to you shortly. Is there anything else?"
"Not at this time."
"Thank you for the call, Agent Barnett."
"Hope your day improves, Instructor." He disconnected.
She stared at the receiver that she did not realize she slammed down with considerable force. "I'm going to kill him." Before she got to the office door and realized she said it aloud, her telephone rang again.
"Harper." This time she cared less if she snapped at the person on the other end.
"Tell me why I wasn't informed your vehicle was vandalized last night."
Harper swallowed. AD Travis also knew and now it was time to account for her misdirection earlier. Another reason to string Wilmington up, and make him pay, just landed in her lap. "Sir, I did inform my immediate supervisor."
He interrupted, "I AM your immediate supervisor."
"You are my joint supervisor, sir."
"Then I should have been informed as well. What is your excuse?"
"You're not stupid, Harper. Tell me why you did not want me to know."
Harper went with the truth. "I have enough problems here, sir. I would prefer this not becoming common knowledge."
Travis sighed through the line. "Too late."
"If I may, sir, how did you find out?"
"Agent Larabee contacted me about following up on the investigation."
"Agent Larabee needs to mind his own business." She complained, and then covered her mouth with her hand.
"I'll forget you said that, Harper. Because of him, we are aware there are now threats against you and of the criminal activities of Agents. That is unacceptable."
"What is unacceptable, sir, is having interference in my personal life."
"Instructor, you will comply with all requests regarding this situation. This type of behavior against you, or any Agent working here, will not be tolerated. Is that understood?"
"Good. Now, the next time something happens, I will be notified. Correct?"
"Keep me informed." He disconnected on those words, leaving her staring at the telephone for the second time that day.
Having her personal life invaded, and now further embroiled in a case against fellow Agents, brought Harper's temper to a boiling point. It was not the fact that the case was being investigated and her suspicions were confirmed which bothered her; it was the fact they went behind her back. That angered her more than anything did because it was her car and her life.
Using her planning time between classes for this encounter, she left the Training Complex. She stormed upstairs with angry fingers rubbing against the new knight charm. People cleared the hallways for her without a second glance, because of the briskness to her step and the fire in her hazel eyes.
Harper reached Team Seven's offices and walked inside, neither looking left or right. This time she took control of the meeting and brushed right past Larabee into his office, Buck standing behind him. Her shoulder intentionally knocked into him. "Your office, now." Without waiting for an acknowledgement, she walked over to the window in his inner sanctum and stared outside.
Chris drew his head back slightly, flicking his eyes to Buck. "You're coming too."
"Uh-uh," Buck said.
Larabee only grabbed Buck's arm and dragged him into his office. "You wanted something, Harper?"
"Close the door."
"My office, I want it open." Chris stepped behind his desk and stayed on his feet, not wanting to give her the advantage of her standing and looking down on him.
She walked past Buck and slammed it shut. Buck scooted out of her way just as she turned to face them. Chris stood on her left and Buck on her right.
"I said I wanted it open."
"Then come over here and open it around me."
"If I do, you're going out and I'll close it behind you."
"I'd like to see you try."
"Now, darlin', I wanted to thank you for the statue. That was right nice of you." Buck tried changing the subject, giving nervous glances to the two combatants. They looked like they would dismember each other.
She nodded. "You're welcome. Thank you for my gift."
"Well now, it's nice to see we have the same taste."
"Taste, perhaps, but ethics? I do not believe so."
Buck winced. "Darlin', let's not get ugly."
"You haven't seen ugly yet." She faced Chris. "About your ethics?"
"Ethics?" asked Chris, raising an eyebrow in her direction.
"Ethics. Such as what gives either of you two the right to interfere in my life?"
Larabee blandly inquired, "That a question or a statement?"
"Question. What possessed either of you to have a full team go over my car? That's my business, not yours."
Buck winced at the sharpness of her tone. "We care?"
Larabee sent a hard glare of warning to his friend and shook his head. Trying to reason with Harper on a personal basis was not the way to go. "Instructor Harper," his most stern voice brought her attention back to him. "If it's ethics you want to question, then aim your daggers at the right people. The two scumbags that chose to throw their careers away by childish retaliation."
"That's beside the point. You went behind my back and started your own investigation."
"No, it's precisely the point. We have procedures for a reason. You did not follow them."
"You're lecturing procedures to me?" Contempt dripped from her tone.
"Practice what you preach, lady."
"And if I don't, you'll do it for me?"
"You'd do the same for us." The subtle hint about her and Travis covering for them lay underneath the seemingly innocuous comment.
"Stick your noses where they don't belong?"
"Why are you so upset that we found out who did it?"
"DPD was handling the case per their procedure."
"That's a cop-out." Buck snorted, and then shook his head. "All three of us know they weren't going to process your car for prints."
"I followed procedure!"
"No, you didn't." Chris crossed his arms and leaned against his desk.
"Oh really, All Knowing One? Tell me what I didn't do."
"You want the list?"
"Give it to me."
"One: You know you are a primary witness in an ongoing IA investigation. They should have immediately been called to rule out retaliatory strikes. Two: You made no move to preserve your vehicle as evidence. With IA involved, you should have known they'd want to go over it. Three: You failed to notify your supervisor."
"Oh, I called Jeff this morning."
"Jeff, not AD Travis. Travis probably wants to scalp you for that. What happened to your loyalty for him?"
"It wasn't his concern."
"That's bull!" Buck interjected. "You work for him and from what you told me last night, he stuck his neck out for you."
"Speaking of last night, I thought you might have exercised some discretion, instead of running right to Larabee here and blabbing my business. I trusted you, Buck." She glared at him, hurt shining in her eyes.
"Darlin'." Buck took a step toward her.
Chris stopped his friend with his tone. "Back off, Instructor. Agent Wilmington did more to follow procedure than you did. He arranged for your car to be processed and brought the situation to his leader when he saw you fail to obey the rules. Don't make it a personal attack."
"Which brings us back to why you chose to get involved. In case you missed the bulletins, nobody likes me. I fend for myself and that's the way I like it." Her words fell between them with the weight of an anchor dropping to the sea floor. She continued to glare a challenge at both of them.
Chris stared impassively, none of his thoughts evident on his face. They all knew she violated procedure, but he wondered at the real reason. Larabee firmly believed bad Agents needed removal from the ranks, and the longer they stayed, the more damage they did to the ATF. Why couldn't she see that? He flicked his gaze to Buck.
The rogue returned the look, a million thoughts crossing over his expressive face. Larabee first read hurt, then confusion, and finally understanding. Buck's next words changed the tone of the conversation. "You're scared of them."
"They scared the hell out of you last night. That's why you got drunk and let me take you back to my place."
"I'm not scared." Her hands landed on her hips.
"You may not admit it, but they have you spooked. If they did that much damage and put so much hate into destroying your car, you're thinking of what they could do to you."
"He's right." Chris said this quietly, seeing a small flicker of surprise on her face. He waited for her denial.
"That they'll come after me now? Probably. IA seems to think so." She looked away from their direct gazes.
"You didn't want to report it because they may come after you? What happened to the tough bitch that gives everyone fits?" Larabee kept his voice gentle.
"Maybe I don't want to sleep with one eye open and jump at every noise." She walked over to the window, refusing to face them still.
"We'll protect you," offered Buck. He slipped an arm around her shoulders.
"Thanks, but no thanks. I won't live my life in hiding or behind someone else's protection." She slipped out from under his embrace.
"So you'll take your chances?" Chris looked at her with his head tilted to one side.
Buck asked, "Why can't you accept help?"
"Because the last Agents that tried to help me made things intolerably worse. I'm still recovering from their 'help'. Some of their 'help' got two very good Agen...people killed."
"You have to trust someone sometime. You also have to follow procedure." Chris said this softly and evenly.
"Trust is earned, not given." Harper paused. "As for procedure, did you ever consider I might have had a valid reason?" She moved to the door, putting her hand on the doorknob. "Maybe, if I let them destroy my car, then I might breathe easier that they got their frustrations out. Even let them think they pulled one over on me? But now, thanks to both of you interfering, there's more charges and more of a probability of them to come after me personally."
"That wasn't the intent, Harper. You know how important rules are to follow. That's why you tossed Mentral and Jefferson hung himself."
"You don't get it." She shook her head sadly.
"No, you don't get it. You were on the right track getting them out of here. Now you've folded since things have turned tough."
"If you think that's a pep talk, it's not working. I haven't folded; I just don't want to get beaten up again. I've had more than enough beatings for one lifetime. Tell you what. You can give me this speech again, when I either turn into a paranoid wreck, or end up in the hospital. I might let you see me if only to say 'I told you so'."
"That won't happen."
"Darlin', we can help you if you let us."
"Your team's done enough 'helping'. See you in class tomorrow." She walked out without a further word.
"We're watching her, right?" Buck asked his friend following Harper with his eyes.
"She won't like it."
"We won't tell her."
"I wonder who beat her up before, and who got killed. I'll do some checking."
"Because it's classified."
"What Travis needed me to know, which isn't much. But whatever it is must be pretty bad. I don't remember about hearing about two Agents killed in the last couple years. Have you?"
"That tell you something?"
Buck stayed quiet for a minute. "Thanks, Chris." Wilmington went to the door.
"She's scared and won't admit it. Just remember fear makes people do stupid things."
"The voice of experience?" His hand stayed on the knob and he looked over his shoulder at his friend with his trademark grin.
"Yeah. Now she's got us like I thankfully had and have you."
"It will be a hell of a fight."
"With her, or the two who caused this mess?"
"Her." Buck waved off what he thought of the other two. "Those two...we can kick their asses so hard and we wouldn't even break a sweat. Josiah hasn't let out enough frustration lately."
"Let them do something stupid; we'll be there to catch them in the act."
"Now you're talking." Buck left with an evil grin on his face.
Chris closed the door and sat behind his desk. It felt strange, a good strange, to be the rational one and see Harper as the emotional one. He started chuckling as he considered what Travis put up with on a daily basis, and perversely how good it felt to play the supervisor to the woman who technically outranked him. Grabbing a legal pad, he started charting out a schedule to guard Harper, whether she liked it or not.
It took until Thursday night before Harper figured out someone followed her. More specifically, seven men were following her around. They were that good. However, Vin Tanner was obviously not the shopping mall type, looking very uncomfortable among the women and strollers, gamely keeping pace from store to store in her wake.
When she was in a body care shop, she caught sight of his extremely flustered personage as he tried surreptitiously watching her. Shaking her head, she thought that Josiah would have been a better choice. He could at least come up with a good reason for being in the mall. Deciding to play along, and not letting the Texan know she spotted him, Harper puttered around the store. Periodically, she held up various items up in front of her and sniffed, putting them down as she looked.
Finding nothing she liked, she left that boutique and wandered the wide corridors, down to the large department store at one end. Harper perused women's clothing, checking and finding Vin loitering in the entrance. Nothing appealed to her fancy, so she kept moving through sections until she reached lingerie.
At this point, Harper started looking at the more risqué pieces, Vin studying the neighboring department, valiantly attempting to blend in. Harper noticed some of the women giving Vin strange looks the longer he loitered in the area. Taking pity on the uncomfortable man, she decided to test his mettle and undercover skills.
Harper found a black lace teddy in her size, removing it from the rack and pretending to look around some more. She 'happened' to look up and her face lit into a grin. The lilt of her Irish heritage came out in full bloom. "Honey! Quit hiding over there! You know you're the best at choosing this for me! What do you think of this?" She walked over to him. The black teddy resting in her left hand, she stretched up to kiss him on the cheek. Next, she hugged him close. "I missed you today. Where were you?"
Long accustomed to changing situations during his partnership with Ezra, Vin leaned down, wrapped his arms around her, and hugged her back. Very self-conscious of the staring female customers, he brushed a kiss on the top of her head. "Workin', baby."
"Well, you're here now." She pulled back in his embrace and smiled. "What do you think of this one?" Harper freed one hand and showed him the teddy. "I know it's a wee bit fancy, but I kinda like it."
"I'll just have ta see it on," he replied, giving her a wicked grin.
She read the challenge in his eyes and that smile. "Well, then, come on over here and have a seat. I'll be out in a minute. Anything else catch your fancy?" Harper dragged him by the arm over into the department.
"Reckon I could find somethin'." Vin stopped at one of the racks and admired a deep emerald green chemise. "Like this."
"Well, I'll just try it on."
Under the amused eyes of the salespeople and the women sighing at the romance of it, Harper led him to sit in a chair beside the dressing room, entering the room alone to change. She first came out in the teddy, stopping at the entrance to the dressing rooms, saying, "Well, honey? What do you think?"
Vin turned his head, stared at the bare skin, and flushed. "Reckon that works."
"Oh, I forgot. You like the taking off part."
The salesclerk giggled behind her hand-covered mouth.
"I'd like ta see the other one." Tanner coughed, hiding his head and flaming face.
"Sure. So is this a keeper?"
He nodded instead of answering.
Harper smiled at him. "Let me try the other. Why don't you look for something else for me?"
"That's all right, honey, I'll let you pick."
"You sure you don't mind waiting?"
"Your friends won't get mad if you make them wait?"
"Ain't seein' them tonight."
"Meanin' I'm all yours."
Harper winked at him. "Even better." She disappeared back into the small cubicle and came out wearing the chemise and her jeans. "Better?"
He nodded his approval. "I like."
"Good. Let's find some more." Harper changed back into her clothes, placed the two on the counter for purchase, and spent the next forty minutes getting Vin's opinion on various items. Surprisingly, she found he had excellent taste and an eye for knowing what worked for her. The next trip to the dressing room contained an air of frivolity as both slipped into their 'roles', having fun with the entire process. When she finally paid for her purchases, he stayed at her side, a hand resting on her waist for effect. Once they left the department store, Harper smiled. "Okay, Vin, now that I've tortured you, have you eaten yet?"
"Nope. Planned ta get something later."
"How about now?"
"If ya don't mind the company."
"Not at all."
They left the department store, heading for the parking lot. She dropped off the bags in the rental car, before driving to the restaurant on the outskirts of the mall. He joined her there. The pair entered the dining room and was seated almost immediately.
After receiving their drinks, Harper stared at Vin. "You played that well."
"Ya could've been more helpful."
"I could have left you there and had Security called for a pervert."
"Nah. Not yer style."
"Ya prefer ta make it personal."
"Ya like having yer victims know yer responsible. Ya want examples?"
"The note when ya created the dummies durin' our recertification. Tormentin' Chris when ya could've won, the shower stripin'. And I haven't forgiving ya for that one." He gave her a mock-glare.
"You will pay me back." Harper shrugged.
"Yeah, I will. Let's not forget the flag raisin', the music playin' equipment with 'Training Division' stamped on them, or my personal favorite - sendin' Harp's ta the condemned. Reminds me I owe ya special fer the underwear."
"Hmm. I was surprised to find them. Didn't picture you wearing a thong."
"Shorts stick ta my legs after a while."
She nodded. "When you are shooting, you want to pick off bad guys, and not your butt."
Their food arrived, saving him from answering.
"Noticed yer necklace. It's nice." Vin took a swallow of his beer.
Her hand reached up and caressed it. "Thank you. It was a gift."
"Yes." She smiled. "I assume you saw my gift to him?"
"Yeah. I ain't pryin'."
"I know. But I also know you're wondering about Buck and I."
"None of my business."
"Nothing happened, Vin. Buck found me next to my car after...well, after, and offered me a ride."
"Ya don't have ta tell me." Vin shook his head.
"I know. But we're a lot alike, Vin. Loners, careful with who we trust, and always watching our backs. Even when we don't realize it. Because I'd like to be friends with you, I don't want you thinking I slept with one of your friends. Well, we were in the same bed, but that was after I threw up."
"Drank way too much. I'll ask you something now. If you see me getting drunk, stop me."
"I will either go crazy, and get very, very frisky, or I will get sick. The latter happened at Buck's."
Vin laughed. "I get it. He took care of ya, and he called himself yer 'knight in shining armor'."
"Exactly." Harper chuckled. "We realized we're going to be good friends for now, and talked for hours."
"Then what about JD?"
"JD saw two friends hugging. He drew his own conclusions."
The sharpshooter laughed harder. "And we thought we were getting somethin' good out of him." He paused to take a breath. "Yer secret's safe with me."
"Good. So what part of Texas are you from? I lived at Fort Hood and Fort Bliss."
"Moved around a lot, but lived near both. Were ya Army?"
"Army brat. Da's retired now."
"Ya never enlisted?"
"Nah. My brothers did their stints, but the ATF recruited me my freshman year in college. I took a heavy course load to finish early, and went right to the Academy after graduation."
A brief shadow crossed her face. "My best friend in high school died from alcohol poisoning. Seems she drank some illegal rum, and it wasn't properly made. One minute she was fine, the next I'm doing CPR. The ATF stepped in and caught the rum makers. My friend was the tenth fatality, so her friends and I gave them information. What they did with the information fascinated me, so I did everything I could to be noticed and recruited."
"Sorry about yer friend."
Harper looked down. "Thanks. Now, I've talked myself right through this dinner. It's your turn because I'm wondering about you."
"I'm not that interestin'."
"Yes, you are. So you'll tell me about yourself during dessert."
They found they had plenty of interests in common, especially considering they both traveled extensively, either work or pleasure related, and visited a lot of the same places in different parts of their lives.
The only snag came when she caught him following her back to the hotel. She grabbed her bags from the rental and stormed over to his jeep. "Are you going to walk me in and tuck me in bed, too?"
"Now, Harper, ya know we're just watchin' out fer ya."
"Jefferson and Mentral, I know. They may or may not be after me. You know what? I'm not going to live my life in fear of them, and I DO NOT need bodyguards."
"It makes Chris and Buck feel better, knowin' someone's watching yer back. Reckon not many people will do that with yer reputation."
He looked at her hard, giving her an honest admission from the heart. "Ya don't have ta be tough all the time. Took me a while ta realize and get comfortable with people watchin' my back, not havin' ta do it all myself. It's a pretty good feelin'." He stopped and gave her a wink. "But I won't tell them that, and don't ya do it either."
Harper looked away. "I wouldn't know; it's been so long since I could trust someone to watch my back. Last person that did put me in hell. It's hard to trust again."
Vin leaned down to make sure she met his eyes. "Give us some time."
"No promises, but I will try. I just don't want a full-time detail on me. Those two are definitely not worth me saying I'm scared and depending on your team to protect me."
"Hell, we're not here all the time, just part of it."
"Uh-huh. Well, thanks for the entertainment today. If I haven't said so, before red does look real good on you."
Vin chuckled before teasing her. "Ya look pretty good in what ya bought. 'Fore I say the wrong thing, let's get you inside."
"I can handle myself from here."
"Harper, I'm tryin' ta be a gentleman. Let me walk ya inside." He proffered his arm.
She sighed. "Who am I to deny you your manners?" Harper linked her arm in his, walking with him to her room before saying goodnight.
Giving her a two-fingers to the forehead in salute, Vin left.
After a grueling class of watching videos and taking tests, both the Instructor and Team Seven were ready for a break from each other. She released them for a long lunch, and decided she wanted to go out instead of eating in her office.
Chris nodded at Ezra, who slipped out to follow Harper.
The Southerner drew lunch detail today, and instead of following her, he caught up to her. "Ms. Harper, may I have the pleasure of your company for lunch today?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Do I need a reason to take a lovely young woman such as yourself to a meal?"
"Do you have one?"
"Shall I take your answer as a no?"
"I would be pleased to accept your offer, Ezra, on the condition that you admit that your team has been watching me because of the threat."
His gold tooth flashed at her. "Guilty, as charged. However, I would prefer that you accompany me as not to draw the ire of my fearless leader."
Harper laughed. "Full alert?"
"Sadly, yes. I find it is my turn."
"Then come along. I would like having a charming, handsome escort for my meal."
"I thank you for the kind praise."
Harper let him take her to a moderately expensive restaurant, enjoying the upscale meal and the time away from the Training Center. They passed the meal with quiet conversation, returning all too soon to the Training Center for the second round.
After an afternoon of handouts, quizzes, and debates, they finally took the final exam for that week and she excused them.
When she went to the grocery store, she ran into Buck and JD. Already in a raw mood about being followed, she barely tolerated them before checking out and taking off while they finished bagging their order. The knock on the door failed to surprise her.
Harper peered out, confirmed the identity of her callers, and reluctantly opened the door. "Yes?"
"Hello, darlin'. Just didn't get the chance to say goodbye to you earlier." Buck grinned.
"Oh. Goodbye." She tried closing the door.
Wilmington's foot stopped it from closing.
"You're not going away, are you?" The woman sighed.
"Harpy, we thought you might like some company." JD looked at her earnestly.
She opened the door and leaned against it. "I'm fine. Without being rude, can I just have some time alone?"
"Well, darlin', there's a problem."
"Chris doesn't want me alone, does he?"
JD shrugged in response, still standing in the hallway.
"I have to call him."
"Come on, A... um, Harper, what's wrong with spending a little time with two handsome men?"
"Show me some and I'll let you know."
JD hit Buck and he shoved JD back. "Come on, Buck. We're not wanted here."
"JD, I just want a little time alone. I've seen all of you almost all week at work, outside of work, and one of you constantly follows me. I'm tired of it. I want a little peace and quiet."
"Kinda feeling a bit smothered?"
"Yes, Buck, I am. I don't like feeling smothered. I get testy when I'm smothered."
"I noticed," said JD.
"Look, guys, nothing against you, but I don't want an escort, I don't want company, and I want to be able to walk out of the hotel and not see one of you. Is that too much to ask?"
Buck finally nodded. "I respect that, and you know it, but we're worried."
Her eyes closed. "Buck, I appreciate it. That's the truth, and I'm concerned too, but I'm not letting those two dictate my life. Which includes having people constantly hovering over me. Go home, go out, and have fun doing something other than babysitting me. I'll be fine."
"I'm sure, JD. Don't you have a girlfriend you'd rather spend time with?"
"Well, Casey said she might be able to take a break from studying."
"Go on, don't keep her waiting. Buck?"
His eyes bored into hers and he saw she truly did want to be alone. "All right. Call me if you need me, okay?"
"Sure. And I'll call Chris and tell him to drop the watches, so all of you can have a good weekend."
"Thanks. Take care of yourself."
"Always have, always will." She grinned at him, earning one in return, before they left.
Next, she called Chris at his home.
"What a charming greeting, Chris. No wonder people fall over themselves to call you."
"Harper. What can I do for you?"
"Call off the surveillance."
"You're in danger."
"It's my life. Why do you care?"
"Why shouldn't I? We're in the middle of it along with you."
"Ah, yes, you are, aren't you? Feeling a bit responsible for Vin and Buck stopping Mentral?"
"Call it off, Chris. I'm not joking."
"Not while you're still in danger."
"What will it take to make you stop following me?"
"Knowing you're safe."
"That may not be for months."
"Then get used to us, lady, because we're going to stick around."
She hung up on him at that point, immediately calling Travis at home. When he answered, Harper said, "Sir? Sorry to bother you at home, but I have a situation you need to help with."
"What's going on?"
"Team Seven has voted themselves my protectors and are constantly following me. It's upsetting, annoying, and I want it to stop."
"What exactly are they doing?"
"They're taking me out to eat, showing up at the hotel, the grocery store, and the mall. Now that I think about it, probably a bunch of other places since my car was destroyed."
"Why is this a problem?"
Harper nearly screamed in frustration. "Because, sir, you know I like my privacy. I don't have any with them constantly around. I've asked Chris to stop and he's refused."
"You know as well as I do that they are doing this on their own time."
"Yes, but it can be construed as harassment, sir. Do you really want me to go that route?"
"They're bothering you that badly?"
"Honestly, yes. I want to be able to walk out of the hotel and not feel paranoid, not only because of Jefferson and Mentral, but because of them there."
Travis sighed, a sound that carried clearly through the telephone. "I'm sorry you feel that way. This was done in your best interest."
"And I appreciate it, but I don't want it, I don't need it, and I want it stopped."
"I'll talk to Chris."
"Thank you, sir."
"Don't thank me yet; I have a bad feeling about this."
"I can take care of myself, sir."
"We'll see. I'm doing this against my better judgment."
"I appreciate it."
"Then good night, Harper. Have a good weekend."
"You too, sir."
= = 7 = =
The telephone rang at the Larabee ranch, and the master answered it on the first ring. "Don't ever do that again, Harper."
"It's not Harper, Chris."
"Yes. I'm guessing she hung up on you."
"What can I do for you, Sir?"
"Nice dodge, Chris, but Harper's the reason I'm calling. Stop the surveillance and the escorts, effective immediately."
"Sir, with all due respect, what we do on our own time does not fall under your control."
"It does when I'm dealing with an informal complaint of harassment."
"Harassment? What the hell?"
"Harper's considering filing a harassment complaint against you unless you stop. As your boss, and your friend, knock it off."
"But, sir, the threat's credible."
"You know that, I know that, and she knows that, but she's adamant on this point. So, as a favor to me, please stop."
Chris ran his hand down his face. "Right."
"Thank you, Chris. I knew I could count on you."
"Yeah, well, I don't like it."
"I don't like it either, but that's what she wants."
"She willing to pay the consequences when they attack her?"
"We're hoping it won't come to that."
"Then you're both wrong."
"We'll see, Chris, we'll see. Thank you, and goodbye."
When Chris heard the dial tone, all he wanted to do was throw the telephone across the room. Seven, his faithful dog, looked up at him and listened to the tirade, riding out the storm of curse words. Seven walked over and sat beside Chris's leg, rubbing his head against his owner's calf.
Absently, Chris reached down and scratched the Labrador behind the ears, giving his companion some attention. Once that activity calmed him, he called the rest of the team to tell them that the surveillance was over and not to do anything else. He made it clear to them that Harper threatened harassment. To his surprise, Vin, Ezra, and Josiah understood, and Buck made sympathetic noises. He could not reach JD, but Buck explained that when they saw Harper, she made her position very clear. Nathan was unavailable due to his ride-a-long.
Frustrated, Chris settled in on his sofa with a couple beers. About an hour later, Vin showed up with three movies and tons of popcorn ready for the microwave. They made themselves comfortable and enjoyed the quiet night.
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org