It looked like a daisy chain, or some type of procession driving down the highway, all of it heading in the direction of Larabee's ranch. Josiah's Suburban led the caravan, followed by a Ram, a Harley motorcycle riding tandem with a Ninja, a rental car giving them plenty of space, a Jaguar keeping pace, an older model truck riding the Jaguar's bumper, and an SUV rounded out the rolling collection of ATF Agents and their wheels. When they started, the rental car was directly behind the Ram, but the two motorcycles passed the chain, settling in behind Chris' truck. Both motorcyclists knew that Chris would give them no end of grief for putting their bodies in front of his truck so they stayed put.
Josiah took one of the exit ramps, following the curve of the road until it straightened out onto a smaller, less busy street. They drove down this stretch of road, taking a right at the second light. The roadway changed into a two-way narrow street, continuing straight for miles. When the caravan neared the end of the road, a short distance away a large guardrail marked with reflective signs and the bold words DEAD END stopped their forward progress. The road widened to a circle, allowing vehicles to turn around if they came the wrong way.
On the right side of the guardrail, a dirt driveway led back into the trees - 'driveway' defined as basically tire ruts with layers of grass growing between them. Josiah stopped his truck and got out, watching the caravan stop in a line behind his Suburban.
Buck leaned out his truck window. "This it? I don't see the house."
Sanchez yelled back, "Figured we'd load the motorcycles now, because there's plenty of potholes in the driveway."
"That's not a driveway, Josiah, that's a dirt track." JD took off his helmet, shaking his head and running gloved fingers through his mussed hair.
"Driveway, dirt track, the less traveled path. To each his - or her - own. Just rather not go to the hospital because someone didn't see a pothole."
"Smart thinking, Josiah. Hang on, let me move." Buck pulled his truck out of the line, turning around in the circle, stopping when he felt he was in position.
JD grabbed the tailgate, lowered it, and stretched across the bed for the board ramp they kept there. He set it up, Buck and Vin helping him roll the Ninja onto the bed.
"Junior, you want your bike on here?" Buck checked with the sharpshooter.
Vin shook his head. "Nah. Make Larabee take it."
Chris jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Buck, move that excuse for a truck out of the way for a REAL truck."
"Don't bust on my Sweetheart." Nevertheless, Wilmington moved his truck, letting Chris adjust his Ram. Buck helped Vin load the Harley on the back. Both riders secured their motorcycles to the beds of the trucks.
When everything seemed ready, Sanchez nodded. "Drive where I drive. I'm going to look like a drunk weaving, but I think you would rather not hit a pothole."
"This ought to be good." JD opened the passenger door to Buck's truck. "Josiah, don't forget I'm riding with Whack It Wilmington behind the wheel of his precious Sweetheart. Never saw a man caress a wheel like that."
"You're not riding with me, not if you're insulted me and Sweetheart." Buck glared at him, reaching over to shut JD's door with a bang in the younger man's face. He then locked the passenger side.
Unfazed, JD asked, "Josiah, got room?"
"Harper, if you want to leave your car here, you can ride with me." Nathan offered. "Figure a bumpy ride won't help those bruised ribs. Ezra, you're welcome if you don't want to take the Jaguar."
"Thanks." Harper moved the rental car to a spot on the far right side of the circle, locking it and pocketing the keys. It did not look like people traveled this road much, if at all, from the condition of the pavement. Still, she was not going to take any chances with the rental.
Ezra parked the Jaguar behind her car, setting the alarm and taking a spot in the backseat of the SUV.
Nathan opened the SUV's passenger door for her, giving her support as she climbed into the front seat. When she found a comfortable position, Nathan spoke. "I have one rule. Seatbelts."
"Not a problem." Harper reached up, wincing when the tender muscles worked, pulled the belt down, and fastened it. Behind her, a click told Nathan and Harper that Ezra fastened his.
Jackson climbed in and grabbed the CB mike. "We moving, or are we sitting here?"
"Moving, brother, moving." Josiah started his truck, pulling into the driveway. Almost immediately, the Suburban swerved hard left, followed by a dodge to the right. The Ram gamely followed, and Sweetheart kept up. Nathan muttered under his breath as he caught the edge of the pothole, giving them a good jarring. The crazy back and forth weaving continued for a short distance, before the driveway curved even more sharply into the woods.
"Mind if I say something?" Harper indicated the CB. She had learned from Travis, during one of his many dinner horror stories about the Seven, that all of them kept a CB in their vehicles, especially after getting lost and separated from each other. The fiasco from that incident still made the AD cringe.
She grabbed the mike, pulling it to her and lessening the stress on her ribcage, instead of leaning forward. Harper spoke into the mike. "Should have told me to wear a sports bra."
Ezra started laughing. "I'm curious about Mr. Wilmington's response."
Nathan chuckled. "You are crazy. You know that?"
"I work for the ATF. Isn't that a prerequisite?" She still held the mike, not speaking into it.
Buck interrupted their conversation. "Darlin', I said JD couldn't ride in my truck. You're always welcome. I'm here to support you."
Nathan grabbed the mike from her. "Yeah, right into that pothole."
"What pothole? OOF."
"That pothole, Bucklin. Keep both hands on the wheel." There was a pause, and then Vin commented again. "Ya need a play-by-play?"
JD's voice came through loud and clear. "He's still stuck on the bra comment, Vin. Give him a play-by-play and he'll hit every pothole."
"Since you brought it up, Harper, what kind are you wearing?" Buck's voice held a note of laughter.
She snatched the mike back from Nathan. "You want me to describe it?"
"No." Larabee's answering bellow echoed in the speakers. "Your undergarments are your business. Just like they're none of anyone else's."
"Oh. That stung, Chris. Are you still mad about the flags?"
"Perhaps if you had not made us such a public spectacle, he might not be so surly." This came to Harper from behind her, delivered in a thick, sarcastic drawl.
"Ezra, you made money off that, so I would not play it high and mighty."
"What?" Nathan nearly slammed on the brakes. "You wagered on us?"
"I didn't see any of that."
"You were not supposed to, Mr. Jackson." Ezra glared ineffectually at Harper's back.
"I beg your pardon?"
Harper gave the Southerner an innocent expression over her shoulder.
The undercover Agent shook a finger at her.
"How much did you make, Ezra?" Nathan split his vision between the crazy weave and the dapperly dressed gentleman in his back seat.
"What I made that night, Mr. Jackson, went to another good cause."
"A worthy cause."
"What cause, Ezra?"
"He gave it to me." Harper said this almost inaudibly.
"We spoke during a break, Nathan. I forwarded it - anonymously - to a local Make-A-Wish foundation."
"You did that?" Nathan nailed the rearview mirror with his eyes, catching the Southerner's eyes, staring straight ahead through the windshield.
"A moment of weakness, I assure you."
"A few more of those, and we'll make a charitable person out of you yet."
Ezra shuddered. "Please, sir, don't insult me."
"You constantly amaze me, Ezra." Nathan's tone sounded pleased.
"We're almost there." Josiah's voice boomed at them, and they stopped talking to look around.
= = 7 = =
The driveway formed a loose semi-circle in front of the house, part of it veering off to a separate garage. The four-car garage was two stories, a stout staircase leading up to the second floor. Painted a drab, faded brown, the building almost cried out for a little care.
With peeling paint and overgrown bushes covering the front of the house, they could barely make out the picture window in the front, along with the large front porch. Because of its age, the house blended into the rest of the environment, making it part of the landscape. Huge fir trees surrounded the clearing around the house, enclosing the property from prying eyes.
"Welcome, welcome, welcome!" A middle-aged woman, dressed in a casual outfit, strode over to them from her own car. "Hello again, Josiah. When you said you were bringing friends, I had no idea you meant this many. But I believe the more the merrier!"
"Hello, Mrs. Martin. Pleased you could meet us earlier than expected." Josiah took the woman's hand, pulling it up to his lips and kissing the back of it.
"Oh, pshaw, Josiah. Call me Ruthie, everybody does."
The Agents got out of their vehicles, and Ezra helped Harper down. The bumpy ride affected her more than she thought, and her head spun. Just when she started swaying, Ezra slipped an arm around her waist, holding her up.
He spoke softly to her, ignoring the introductions occurring near the SUV. "My dear, you must take it slowly, or Mr. Jackson over there will pour some wretched concoction he calls herbal tea down your throat. You can be assured the taste alone makes that an unpleasant event to be avoided if possible." Once he felt she regained her balance, he held out his arm. "If the lady would not mind, I offer my services as a temporary escort."
"The lady does not mind." Harper hooked her arm in his, and he put his hand over hers, giving her a little more support.
"Oh, hello, you two in the back! I'm Ruthie Martin." She walked over to them, extending her hand. She faltered when she saw Harper's face. "Oh my." Her hand flew to her bosom. "Your face."
Suddenly self-conscious, Harper ducked her head, letting her hair fall to cover her temporary disfigurement.
No one knew what to say, and the silence started growing uncomfortable. Chris took a step toward them, and Ezra shifted so that he partially blocked Harper.
"You poor dear. I'm sorry; I was rude. I should not have stared. Forgive my manners. A car accident, I'm guessing? My daughter, Doris, looked dreadful after her fender-bender." Ruthie moved closer. "Please accept my apology; Arthur's always telling me I need to think before I speak, and I really did not mean to make you uncomfortable."
"It's okay, ma'am. Of course, I'll accept your apology. Human nature makes us curious, so staring at something unusual or unexpected happens." Harper kept her hair in front of her face, but turned so her good side faced Ruthie.
Ezra subtly shifted, putting his body a little closer to Ruthie, bringing Harper a tiny bit back. "Ezra P. Standish, ma'am." He extended his right hand, his left arm occupied with the training Instructor.
"Ruthie Martin." She gave him a solid handshake.
"Call me Harper." The female Instructor smiled.
"Well, since you have the arm of such a debonair man, one not seen very often in these parts anymore, I'll skip the handshake. Now, are you all ready for a tour of this charming home?"
"We would be delighted," Josiah answered for all of them, ushering Ruthie ahead of him. Over his shoulder, he shot Harper a quick look of apology.
The entourage stepped onto the front porch, listening and staring down at their feet as it creaked.
Vin bounced up and down and then back and forth, testing the strength of the wood.
"Since it is an old house, you can expect some creaks and groans." Ruthie covered the loud, ominous sound with idle chatter.
She opened the front door, and it creaked too. "Come in, come in, and come in. Don't be shy. There's plenty of room."
They came through the front door, finding themselves in the crossroads of the center of the house. To their left, a large living room opened up, a fireplace complete with mantle at that end of the house. Light tried coming in through the picture window, mostly obscured by the overgrowth of foliage outside.
On their right, a room opened to what could only be the dining room, with its close proximity to the kitchen, which they saw on the other side of the swinging door propped open.
Straight ahead from the front door was a set of narrow stairs leading up, and beyond the landing the house continued, splitting in two directions - left and right.
Ruthie started her spiel, "Over here is the living room, and it does have such a gorgeous fireplace. If you cut back the shrubbery, it will allow more light to come in and brighten the place."
"Ruthie." Josiah held up a hand.
"You mind letting them walk through on their own? I'd like to get their unbiased impressions."
"Oh, sure. Please, feel free. If you have any questions, I'll be here."
"Thanks, Ruthie." Josiah turned them away from her, herding them upstairs first. As they went up, Buck, Nathan, and Josiah ducked, for the ceiling did not allow them to stand upright and go up the stairs. Chris and Vin ducked their heads, just in case. JD bounded up, the stairs creaking beneath his lively step. Ezra stayed behind Harper, his hands near her waist in case she slipped.
At the top, Vin waited for the slow-moving Harper to arrive upstairs safely, his eyes constantly on her. "Ez, why don't ya make a list of everything good and bad we see, so we can give Josiah a pretty solid idea of what it will take ta fix this place?"
"An excellent idea, Mr. Tanner. One I should have thought of myself. Ms. Harper, if you will excuse me?"
Standish moved ahead, catching up with the main group in the master bedroom.
At the top of the stairs, there was a room straight-ahead, opening to the end of the house. A small hallway ran parallel to the stairs, one door opening off the hallway. At the end of the hallway, another door opened up to the master bedroom.
"I don't say fancy ten dollar words, but I'd be happy ta give ya a tour." Vin held his arm out for her.
"Thank you, Vin. I probably could do this alone, but it will be easier with a friend's support." She latched her arm through his. "So I'm learning, at least."
"Damn right." They joined the others.
"It's a hardwood floor, Mr. Sanchez. One can easily see that through the rips in this garish carpeting. That raises the value of the home."
"Big, too." Buck walked around the perimeter, checking out the size of it. "You could easily get JD's entire room in here and still have space to spare."
"My room's not that small."
"It's pretty spacious." Josiah looked around. "I was thinking of putting the bed under the window, and installing some skylights."
"The master bath's nice." Chris walked out of there. "It will need some plumbing work done, but it has a claw-footed porcelain tub in there. Shower head's attached in the ceiling, so even tall people can stand up and take a shower without bending over."
"I like that. I hate bending over to rinse my head." Nathan leaned into the bathroom, and he whistled. "You're right about the plumbing, Chris."
"What about it?" Josiah turned around, facing Chris and Nathan. His last walk through had been almost six months ago, when the house still had occupants.
"There's none. The toilet's not hooked up, and the pipes leading into it are rusted. They'd have to be yanked out and replaced."
"It wasn't that bad before." The profile stuck his head in and visibly winced. "Or they hid it well."
"I know a few plumbers that live near me, Josiah. I'm sure they'd take some independent work." Vin leaned against the doorframe, propping Harper against the other side.
"Where are the outlets?" Harper's question sounded incredibly naïve, or just plain dumb, causing all of them to stare at her.
"The electrical outlets. Does anybody see them, or am I missing them because of this shiner?"
Seven men glanced around the room, and not one of them found an outlet.
"I'll be damned. That explains all the extension cords." Josiah winced. "It will cost me to have the wiring redone."
"Trust the woman to notice that she can't do her hair." Chris fired this salvo at Harper in a teasing voice.
"Trust the men not to notice there's no outlets. A big, tough man like you does not need electricity or running water, does he? Just go outside and find a tree."
"I'd say yer feelin' better, Harper." Vin chuckled.
"'Course she's feeling better, Junior. She's with me." Buck came over, took her arm, and led her to stop in the bathroom halfway down the hall. This bathroom, on the left side heading toward the stairs, held a ceiling to counter mirror, stretching almost the entire length of the wall. This time, a regular tub with showerhead sat waiting for use, beside a more modern toilet and dual sink combination.
Realizing that her reflection was the last thing Harper needed to see right then, he changed directions and pulled her into the other bedroom at the top of the stairs. "Mine!" Buck called, closing the door behind them. "See you in a few."
"Poor Harper!" JD called. "If a few minutes are all he can last."
The door whipped open. "Kid, you better run."
JD practically flew down the stairs, Buck in pursuit, and they heard JD laughing even harder after a loud thump.
Buck started cursing. "Son of a, uh, excuse me, ma'am."
"Brother Buck forgot to duck." Josiah looked pleased at his pun.
The rest broke out into laughter, joining Harper in the other bedroom. It was smaller than the master bedroom, mostly due to the slant of the roof. A closet opened beneath the harshest slant, using the space instead of wasting it.
"This will be a nice guest bedroom, Josiah."
"Once you get electric run in here." Chris looked around with satisfaction.
"I think I know some electricians down my way, too." Vin scratched his chin. "Won't cost ya too much, especially since yer a friend, but I know they could use the work."
"What about cable television? You'll want that run while they are at it. Then there's satellite, too." Nathan said. "Considering all the educational shows you watch, you'll go through withdrawal without them."
"Perish the thought he misses his shows," Ezra said, without looking up from his notes.
"Heating and air while you're at it. Oh, and the telephone, too." Harper added.
"Fer those crank calls in the middle of the night." Vin smirked.
"I can do the heavy breathing real easy right now, but the doctor tells me that's normal, at least until I'm healed." Harper joked.
Larabee chuckled. "Moving on, let's see the rest of the house." Chris led the way downstairs, followed by Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and Vin helping Harper down.
"I'm not helpless."
"Never said ya were."
"I can do this myself."
Chris called to her over his shoulder. "Quit your bitching, Harper, and accept the helping hand."
"Can I help you to the bottom of the stairs, Chris? One good push."
"Make a right at the bottom of the stairs." Josiah said loudly, ducking his head. "You'll find a full bathroom - centrally located, a good thing. Moreover, two bedrooms. One of them, the smaller one, I thought to turn into a library, study, and office. The other will be a guest bedroom."
"I can see that, Mr. Sanchez. The smaller one also has more light, so it would be perfect for reading." Ezra continued studying the room, visualizing possibilities.
"Planned to put two double beds in the larger one, make some room if you boys wanted to stay over some night." Josiah's hand swept the other bedroom, this one closest to the stairs. "Maybe a sleeper sofa in the office, too." They went into the living room, checking out the walls, the floor, and the fireplace. "There's plenty of room in here, so I wasn't going to fill it with much. Maybe a sofa or two, some reclining chairs."
"Ya have a lot of ideas for this place, Josiah. Been thinking about it for a long time?"
"Yes, Vin, I have."
"Guys! You have to come down here!" JD bolted through the dining room. "It's amazing."
Buck followed closely behind. "It can be amazing." He qualified JD's expression. "With a lot of work, and money." He smiled and waved to Ruthie, who was doing her best impression of not listening and failing miserably, in the kitchen.
"What specifically are you talking about?" Harper asked, steering herself and Vin through the dining room, taking in the room by swiveling her head.
"The basement's clubbed out. It's got, like, everything set up to host a major party."
"Charming." Ezra looked in the kitchen, discovering a huge eating nook, complete with massive table and chairs lining both sides. The back of the kitchen opened out to the yard. Someone replaced the small doorway that came with the house - the outline was visible on the ceiling where it once was - and put in French doors a long time before, from the worn condition of the metal trim. It probably happened before being listed as a historic site because of the strict codes a site must abide by in order to stay on the registry, and receive the break in taxes.
Ruthie left them in the kitchen, heading to the living room.
"Nice kitchen." Harper looked around with approval at the size and layout.
"You'll have to get some new appliances," said Nathan. "How old is that refrigerator?"
"Antiquated." Ezra made another note. "Dishwasher, garbage disposal, stove."
"What's wrong with that stove?" Josiah pointed to the potbellied stove. "Just because it's old, doesn't mean it has to go." A touch of anger entered his tone.
"Yeah?" Sanchez stood with his arms crossed.
Harper smiled at him, or she tried until her lip started splitting - again. "If you are seriously considering buying this place, it would be interesting to merge the old with the new. I agree with you that because something has aged well, it does not mean it should be pushed aside. What if you used the stove for heating purposes? Right in that corner over there?"
Buck nodded. "I can see that."
Nathan added, "It will save on your electric bill. That stove probably cranks out some heat."
Josiah slowly nodded. "It would add to the atmosphere, too."
"Come on. You need to see this." JD started down the stairs located behind a door on one side of the kitchen. Buck went down, followed by Ezra, and then Chris.
Harper grabbed the railing, gently descending one step at a time. Vin kept hold of her waist, supporting her and ready to catch her if she slipped and fell.
Josiah called down to them. "Watch that fifth step. It gives a little."
"Which step?" Harper asked over her shoulder, putting her weight on the next stair down. The stair gave, and the Instructor lost her balance.
Her feet went out from under her, knocking into the back of Larabee's knees. He went forward, smashing hard into Ezra's back, sending them tumbling.
Back on the stairs, Harper fell back into Vin, whose hands tightened on her waist. He tried his best to keep her from falling, but lost the battle with gravity, and down they went.
Ezra fell on his front, hands protecting his face. Before he could draw a breath, Chris landed on top of him. Harper slid down feet first, coming to a stop on top of Larabee. Her foot pressed Ezra's head down. Vin tried to control his fall, slowing enough to land on top of the pile. Vin's long arms splayed on either side of Harper's body, the muscles straining to keep his weight above the pile, instead of pressing down on her bruised ribs.
"Will you move, Mr. Larabee? Ms. Harper, I'd appreciate your foot off my head." Ezra's complaints sounded muffled due to his position at the bottom of the pile.
"Ow." Harper groaned, taking inventory of the damage before attempting to move.
"Harper!" Buck hustled over, lifting Vin up and dropping him off to the side.
"Oomph. Real gentle, Bucklin."
Buck ignored Vin, reaching down to lift Harper clear of the pile, cradling her in his arms. When he stepped away, Wilmington's foot crushed Chris' hand.
"Damn it, Buck. That was my hand."
"You have another." Wilmington set Harper on her feet, keeping steadying hands on her torso. "You okay, darlin'? You didn't get hurt?"
Nathan hurried over and stepped around the two figures still tangled on the floor. "Harper? Did you bump or bruise anything?"
"Get off of me, you oafish lout!" Ezra elbowed Chris. "Will you move?"
Josiah extended a hand to Chris, easily lifting him up. The other hand reached down, pulling Ezra to his feet. "You all right, brothers?"
"Fine, thank you. I'm pleased to see that someone on this team shows concern for my well-being." Ezra started brushing the dust and dirt off his expensive suit.
"Yeah, Josiah. Thanks. Harper okay?" Chris looked over.
A nod from Nathan reassured them.
"Oh my goodness! Is everyone okay? Was anyone hurt?" Ruthie stood at the top of the stairs, drawn by the commotion, peering down at them.
"Mr. Sanchez." Ezra pitched his voice low.
"This little tumble just saved you thousands." Standish adjusted his tie.
Chris smirked. "Only you, Ezra."
"If not me, who else?" The Southerner moved into Ruthie's line of vision. "Ma'am, four of us took an unfortunate spill down this rickety set of stairs. Sadly, the charming, and already injured, Ms. Harper was one of the victims. Can you tell me why there were no markings posted that designated these stairs as potentially hazardous? Or why a disclaimer was not offered to sign in an effort to limit liability for your agency and the sellers?"
"Oh my! Is the young lady all right? And the others?"
"For myself, I believe I will recover given time, and only suffered some painful bruising. We're checking over my compatriots as well. Perhaps you could inform me a little of the house's history, and we can discuss the current owner's reasonability."
"Excellent. I will meet you in the living room momentarily."
"Oh. I'll wait for you."
"Ezra." Josiah gave Standish a look of concern.
"Do not worry, Josiah. I will do nothing to endanger your purchase." Ezra smiled, carefully making his way upstairs.
"Play nice." Nathan shook his head.
"Speaking of nice, thank you for playing my cushion, Chris." Harper appeared sincere, as she looked at the leader.
"Don't mention it." Chris brushed some more dust and dirt off his pants, creating a cloud around him. He coughed, and then stepped out of it. Streaks of brown and gray dusted his dark clothes.
"Okay, I won't."
"Before you two start a hissin' match, take a look around you." Buck turned Harper, bringing her back to his front, and whispered, "Lean back, Lady Ash. Your knight's got you."
Harper gave him her closest approximation of a smile over her shoulder, and then examined her surroundings.
The room opened up, giving plenty of space in the basement. To the right of the stairs, someone installed a replica wooden bar from the late eighteen hundred's. Stools lined the front of the bar, and the gilded marble mirror hung behind it. In one corner, they saw the outline of a lovingly tended round felt covered table, sitting under clear plastic sheeting. Antique straight back chairs, all with golden gilt worked on the tops, waited for someone to remove the covering and sit down to play.
Across from the stairs, on the far wall, an archway with batwing doors opened to a sunken square room. Harper walked over, swinging one of the doors, and noted numerous electrical outlets. High above, a wagon wheel held electric candles, presumably operated by the dimmer switch marked 'lights'. The room seemed perfect for an entertainment center, television, VCR, DVD, and stereo, along with a sofa that went around the room on three sides. There was no electricity on the second floor, but plenty down here.
A door led out of this room, opening into a cedar paneled squared off area. "What's this for?"
Josiah chuckled. "Previous owners spent more money and time down here than in the rest of the house. They kept a hot tub there."
"Sounds good." Chris continued his exploration, taking the door behind the bar into a utility room, with access to the side yard. Attached to the utility room was a workshop. The leader knew Josiah find plenty of uses for the workroom, and probably let the others use it for their own projects. He heard Harper ask a question, and wandered back that way.
"Another bedroom, Josiah?"
"Could be." Sanchez shrugged.
"There's also a bathroom down here." JD opened the door for it, the half bath built under the stairs.
"Convenience." Nathan chuckled. "Most people wouldn't want to go upstairs if they're in the middle of something down here."
"Damn right. Calls of nature should not include running up the stairs." Buck leaned against the bar.
"Yes, but men have one advantage."
"What's that, darlin'?"
"They can point and shoot anywhere."
"On that note, I want ta go outside. See the property. 'Sides, no offense, Josiah, but I'm not usin' those stairs." Vin entered the utility room.
"What's the matter, Vin? You did not like being the top of a Harper sandwich?" She slowly moved that way. "Of course, Larabee had his best side up, ass to the world."
Vin shook his head, and kept going. He paused at the door and used his best Ezra imitation. "Ms. Harper, I refuse to dignify your remarks with a response." Out the door he went.
Chris came up behind Harper. "Lady, one of these days your mouth will get you in trouble."
Her head swiveled to face him. The lone hazel eye locked onto his green ones. "It already has, and I survived."
"You wouldn't have suffered if you let us protect you."
"Who says I was talking about this beating?" She walked outside, not waiting for a reply.
JD moved around the Larabee statue calling, "Harpy! Wait up!"
Nathan followed JD, leaving Buck, Chris, and Josiah alone.
"She scares the hell out of me when she says stuff like that." Buck shuddered. "Makes me wonder what kind of shit she's seen."
Chris continued staring out the open door. "Or been through. That whip mark bothers me."
"That had to hurt. Bad as that scar is, I'm guessing a lot of pain went with it."
"Whip mark? Somebody whipped her?" Josiah asked, unaware of the mark on Harper's arm.
"That's right. You hadn't gotten there yet this morning." Chris lifted his right arm and pointed to his left, tracing the pattern. "She's got a scar from here to here from a whip. Won't talk about it."
"Thank you for telling me. That explains a lot, and explains nothing at the same time. Excuse me." Josiah hurried outside.
Buck watched him go. "Think we'll ever understand him?"
"Nope, and he likes it that way." Chris stepped outside into the fading sunlight.
"Guess you're right." Shaking his head, he caught up to Chris, the two friends walking side by side.
= = 7 = =
The property defined gorgeous. Vin wandered around the side yard, appreciating the size and age of the trees. When he reached the back, partially uphill, he went to the cement patio coming out from the kitchen. In the distance, he saw the lake, water shimmering in the dying sun. The sun itself hung low, just on the other side of the lake. Vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow contrasted vividly with the deeper blues of the sky. The green of the grass, combined with the browns of the earth, completed the spectacular color palette.
"Wow." Harper barely whispered it, afraid to break the magic of the moment.
"Come here," said Vin. He brought her to stop in front of him, pointing at something in the distance. "Look." Without turning around, he said, "JD, stand here."
She followed his finger, finally discerning the shapes of a herd of deer. They drank from the lake, letting the smaller fawns go first. "Aw, look at them."
"What are we staring at?" Nathan came up on the other side of Vin.
Josiah stood beside Nathan. Buck and Chris joined them. They formed a straight line, Harper in front.
"May I inquire what holds your fascination?" Ezra exited the kitchen, taking a place in the line.
"Baby deer." Buck pointed.
"A beautiful sunset."
"I'll be right back." Harper hurried into the kitchen, picking up her purse. She usually kept a disposable camera in there for investigations, or moments like this. The Instructor came back out, and moved to the far corner of the patio. Once she lined up her shot, she snapped the picture, and a second one just in case.
When Vin heard the second click, he caught Harper advancing the film. He smirked at her.
Sensing an opportunity, Ruthie joined them. "Will you gentlemen turn around? I think she could get a lovely shot of all of you framed by the sunset."
They looked at each other, shrugged, and turned around.
Harper looked through the lens. "Get closer, please."
Seven men shifted so they stood shoulder to shoulder. She snapped two pictures.
"Dear, why don't I take one with you in it?" Ruthie held her hand out for the camera.
"Get your butt over here, Harper." Chris lifted an eyebrow.
"Now. Or do I have to come get you?" He grinned from ear to ear.
"Fine." Harper walked over, pulling her hair down to cover her facial injuries.
"Boys?" Buck, Vin, and Chris lifted her, turning her sideways, having the bruised side toward the ground. Her hair hung over it, and each member of the team held onto part of her.
"On three. One, two three - Cheese!" Ruthie clicked the picture of all of them.
They put her down, everyone laughing, but Chris held on. "Boys, you want to see how Harper left the airport?"
"Chris! Let go of me!"
"Yeah." Tanner laughed. "Ruthie, take a picture."
"Put me down!"
Chris slung her over his shoulder, ignoring her protests.
Click. Ruthie captured the moment forever.
"Ow. Ribs, Larabee!" Her fist punched his side.
"Okay, okay." He swung her in a circle.
"Chris, put her down. Meds she's on might make her sick." Nathan warned Chris, not wanting to see Harper throw up.
"You would, wouldn't you?" Chris put her on her feet, taking a few more blows in the process. He laughed them off.
"Come on, guys, it's almost over." JD pointed at the bright orb slowly sinking into the horizon.
Seven men and two women stayed silent, watching the sun complete that day's journey. It shimmered, finally falling from sight, leaving only the pinks and reds behind to fade into the gathering darkness.
"If you want to see the apartment over the garage, now's probably best before the light's gone completely." Ruthie worked on finishing her sale.
"She's right. Come on." Josiah led the way to the four car detached garage, opening the door and showing them the empty spots. The garage was larger than it appeared, with built in deep cabinets opposite the doors. He followed Ruthie upstairs, letting her unlock the door. The apartment could be accessed from both the outside and inside of the garage.
Inside, the apartment consisted of two bedrooms, a full bath, kitchen, living room, dining area, and a small den. All the closets were built in, some having shelves, and the others completely empty. The ceiling showed where the roof leaked, and Ezra jotted that down. A couple of walls had holes, looking like someone punched through the drywall. Ezra noted that too.
The bigger bedroom's window overlooked the back of the property, showing the lake and rainbow-hued sky.
"Well?" Josiah stared right at Harper.
"Ruthie, would you excuse us for a few minutes?"
"Certainly. Although there's no electricity turned on, I started the generator. I'll be in the kitchen." She left.
No one said a word until they heard the main house door slam.
"What do you think?" Josiah scanned each of them with his eyes.
"It's you, Josiah." Nathan patted him on the back.
"Old and rundown?"
"More like a treasure, a family heirloom." Buck made sure Josiah met his eyes. "Because no matter how old it gets, it's loved and wanted, the most important thing in life."
"I can accept that." Josiah cleared his throat.
"This place just needs some TLC." JD looked out one of the windows. "Besides, restoring an old house sounds like fun."
"And work." Chris said this softly. "But, if you buy it, I'll help."
"Ez'll be glad to pitch in." Vin gave the Southerner a shove forward.
"I abhor manual labor, but offer my services to negotiate."
Nathan retorted, "Ezra, he wants to buy the place, not go bankrupt."
"Won't happen. We can do most of the work ourselves." Vin bobbed his head. "Be good to work with wood again."
Jackson glanced at Josiah, barely seeing him in the growing darkness. "You know I'm in."
"Can't forget me." Buck clapped Josiah's shoulder.
"If you want my help, I will be glad to. Just don't want to trespass where I'm not wanted."
"We're standing in your living room."
"Does that mean I can throw Chris out the door and down the steps?"
"In what lifetime? You couldn't throw a flea right now." Chris crossed his arms.
"Remind me to kick his ass harder the next time, okay?"
"Sure thing." Buck dodged the swat from Larabee.
"Let's go make an offer." Josiah turned to go outside.
"Not now!" Harper said this, making 'no' motions with her hands.
"You're a fool if you do." Ezra and Harper both raised their voices.
"She wants an offer now." Harper stepped closer to the door.
"Yes, you do not want to show eagerness." Ezra moved beside her. "Especially after I negotiated having the stairs replaced by the seller, along with a respectable drop in price."
"How did you con her into that?" Nathan's voice carried across the falling darkness.
"I assure you, there was no con, as you put it, involved."
"I'm not convinced."
"He threatened to sue." Harper said this monotone. "I would have done the same thing."
"What?" Josiah dropped his head into his hands.
"The fall." JD's voice held a note of wonder. "No warning signs, no disclaimers, so if you sued, it would be against the realty company."
"He's catching on. Nice job, JD." Harper said this with her mimicry of a smile.
Josiah asked, "So why am I waiting?"
Ezra answered. "To make them nervous. You are the only person to express interest for the duration the house has been on the market."
"Which, if I read correctly, was a year and a half ago. The other people rented, one way to alleviate the owner's financial responsibility." Harper took a breath. "Along with being a historical site. The rules of repair will be very strict as well as the guidelines of what you can and cannot do to preserve the history of the house."
"Precisely, and the renters inflicted most of the damage we've seen. The realtors told the owner about it, and the owner lowered the price instead of making repairs." Ezra joined Harper by the door. "So, you do not make an offer."
"You tell her you're thinking about it, and that you need to see the agreement for the stairwell repair in writing, along with showing the lowered price. This will give her time to call the owners, see what they are willing to do."
Ezra said, "I believe she will call you tomorrow with a list of concessions."
"Then you negotiate terms. Like a home inspection, this will be a comprehensive list of the problems. You use that to force the seller to drop even further, or pay for some of the repairs, in lieu of a down payment and closing costs." Harper added her knowledge.
"Your down payment, Mr. Sanchez, will be routed to home improvements. For, if you have a considerable list of repairs, and I believe you will, you will argue that the price is too high in comparison to the estimated repairs."
"In addition, you insist on leaving a deposit check, insuring the seller and realtor cannot show the property during negotiations. We'll get a contract to that effect."
"I don't know about the rest of you, but those two working together gives me the heebie-jeebies." They heard Buck making a pronounced shudder.
JD said, "You're not the only one, Buck."
"Now that we have a plan, mind if we go inta the house? I don't like bein' skeeter food with the window over there lettin' everybody in."
"Sure, Vin." Josiah led the way down the stairs, Nathan assisting Harper, and the others following along.
"Well, what have we decided?" Ruthie smiled at them halved in the light of the lantern.
Ezra took the lead. "Mr. Sanchez has a considerable amount to ponder. However, he does not want to lose the opportunity of potentially purchasing this abode."
"Are you interested in leaving a deposit?"
"He is, but requests some stipulations." Harper sat across from Ruthie at the massive kitchen table.
"Such as?" Ruthie stared Harper in her one eye. The affable realtor disappeared, leaving a capable businesswoman.
To unsettle Ruthie, Harper tucked her hair behind her ear, tilting the injured side of her face into the light. It worked. Ruthie recoiled and looked away, almost anywhere but the battered woman's face. "A home inspection, to be completed before the first offer. Second, an agreement that the property will not be shown or sold without first contacting Mr. Sanchez AND allowing him the opportunity to match the offer."
"Not to mention the earlier agreement of replacing the stairs, along with the adjusted list price." Ezra stood behind Harper, making Ruthie stare above Harper's battered face to see him.
"How much of a deposit are we talking about? I need something to convince my client to agree to your terms."
The rest of the men stayed silent, watching the power play between the three.
"How much are you asking for?" Josiah asked.
"Ten thousand." Ruthie addressed Josiah.
"Madame, please do not consider us amateurs and insult our intelligence." Ezra shook a finger at her. "We all know you have considerable latitude regarding opening negotiations. That amount of a deposit could easily pay closing costs, including your commission, which would be placed in trust, and used for that purpose without being returned to Mr. Sanchez. If he does not go through with the purchase, the check would be returned to him without being cashed."
Ruthie smiled. She gave a fake smile that never reached her hard, cold eyes. "Absolutely correct."
Harper propped her chin on her fist. "The deposit will be just that - a deposit - refundable at any time of Mr. Sanchez's choosing. Which would be documented in the contract regarding the deposit."
"Acceptable. As for the amount of deposit? How about one thousand dollars, a fair show of good faith?" Harper queried.
Josiah blanched. He knew, and Harper knew, that he did not have that available in his account right now. What would happen if they tried to cash it? He felt a feminine hand reaching back to squeeze his, and he knew then that it would be okay.
"Nathan, would you get my briefcase out of your truck? We have a contract to draw up." Harper waited for Ruthie's objection.
"I have blank contracts here. It won't take long to fill out one of mine."
"I'll feel better if I type it myself. I am a notary public, so it will be binding and legal."
"As you wish."
Nathan returned with the briefcase, helping her remove her laptop. She powered it up on the battery, opening one of the files she used during extended tours of duty away from her home office.
"Ezra? Care to do the honors?"
"I would be delighted." They exchanged places, Ezra's nimble fingers flying through the contract. He printed it out, giving one copy to Harper, one to Josiah, and one to Ruthie for review.
It only took a few minutes to affix signatures, and for Harper to notarize the deposit contract.
"Now, may I have the deposit?"
"Uh." Josiah stopped when Harper opened her checkbook.
"One thousand, correct?"
"Here you go." Harper handed her the check.
"A pleasure, ma'am."
"Ruthie." The women shook hands. "Josiah, I'm hoping we can finish this deal."
"So do I." He smiled weakly. He shook hands with Ruthie, still somewhat in a daze. They went outside, gathering around their vehicles.
Vin spotted something in the grass, something long forgotten by its owner, and an idea formed. He walked to the other side of the object and called out. "Hey, Ez! C'mere for a second." Tanner knew Ezra's eyes still had not completely adjusted to the darkness, which figured nicely into his plan.
"What is it, Mr. Tanner?"
Ezra sighed. "As you wish." He started walking toward Vin, being careful where he stepped.
"Tell me where ya learned real estate."
Standish glanced up. "Here and there. Mother makes a habit of buying low, and selling high."
"You ever do that?"
"Once or twice." Ezra felt his foot hit something, and something wooden and hard smacked him between the eyes. "Aw, hay-ell."
Vin laughed, knowing Ezra stepped on a metal rake, sending the pole into his face.
"That was not amusing."
"Fer me it was." Vin bent in half, still laughing.
"Yeah?" Vin wheezed.
"Run." Ezra took off after Vin, and the sharpshooter ducked behind Chris.
"Don't involve me." Chris threw Vin at the charging Southerner, sending both down into a pile.
Ezra quickly recovered, pinning Vin with the move that ironically Tanner taught him.
"Lemme go, Ez, 'fore I teach ya somethin' new."
"Don't insult me."
"I warned ya." One second later, Ezra flew over Vin's body, landing hard on his back.
When Ezra went to stand, everyone heard a loud rip.
Unrepentant, Vin grinned at him. "Ain't that a bitch."
"You're not submitting that as a work-related expense." Chris warned him, leaning against the Ram.
"I did not think I would see your flag again so soon." Harper giggled. "Can I guess what color?"
"Just be careful of any drafts. Hate for you to turn blue with cold." Nathan chuckled.
"I am not amused." Ezra removed his suit jacket, tying it around his waist. "Nor will I entertain a she-devil with unusual habits." He climbed in Nathan's truck. "May we leave the site of my humiliation? Now?"
"You can change at my house, Ezra. Steaks on the grill sound good to everyone?" Chris checked with all of them.
"Sounds good. I'm starved." JD hopped in Sweetheart.
"I could eat." Buck climbed in. "See you there." The truck pulled out.
"Let's go." Vin opened the door to the Ram. "Harper, yer comin', right?"
"You remember the way?" Chris smirked at her through the driver's open window. One hand clicked his seat belt.
"Want me to tell you what else I found?"
"Shut up, Harper." Chris took off, getting in the last word.
"All right, Ezra. Keep your shirt on."
"His pants are a different story."
"Shut up." He slammed and locked the doors.
"Well, Josiah, may I ride with you to my car?"
"Yup." He waited, watching her reach the side of the truck. "Can you make it up and in?"
"Under control." She lifted herself into the Suburban.
Nathan's SUV left, leaving behind Josiah and Harper.
"We need to talk." He closed the door on his side, fastening his seat belt.
"Yes, we do."
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