Simple Pleasures

by Helen Adams

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Mog for creating the ATF playground and to several wonderful people who provided suggestions and beta-reads along the way. This one is for Karen F, whose periodic hints for ‘more of the birthday story’ kept me going.

The song "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" was written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. The book "Modesty Blaise" was written by Peter O’Donnell. Both are used here without permission. But hey, no money is coming from this anyway!

A loud annoying buzz cut through the silence of the darkened room, drawing a jerk and a startled grunt from the man nestled within the comfort of a quilt-topped queen size bed. Clawing the covers away from his face, Ezra Standish groped blindly out to the right, nearly upsetting the tall floorlamp next to his bed as he reached for the small digital clock. The intrusive noise stopped, only to begin again moments later. This time he managed to drag one eye open as he slapped at the clock again, noting the time displayed in large red numbers. 9:05 am. Why was the alarm going off at such an odd time? Come to that, why was it going off at all? "It's Sunday," he informed the ill-mannered piece of machinery with a snarl, almost daring it to make another sound. When a few seconds dragged by in silence, Ezra snuggled back into his pillow with a satisfied sigh. Then the noise started again, a prolonged, insistent, irritating buzz and this time it finally registered that he was not hearing an alarm clock at all, but rather some rude somebody leaning on his doorbell.

Grumbling and cursing, he wrestled his limbs free of the bedclothes and stumbled out to the living area just as the doorbell sounded for a fourth time. "I'm coming!" he snapped. As his hand touched the doorknob it occurred to Standish that he was not exactly dressed for company. Blocking his body with the door he pulled it open a couple of inches and peered around it to find Buck Wilmington, JD Dunne and Vin Tanner waiting expectantly in the hallway. Ezra's sleep-fogged mind struggled to come up with a good reason why three of his teammates would be standing there smiling at him at barely nine o'clock on a Sunday morning. Failing to come up with anything, he blurted, "What're y'all doin' here?"

The three agents grinned at the unusual thickness in their friend's southern drawl. Buck held up a lidded paper cup and told him, "We brought you some coffee. Non-fat mochaccino with extra whipped cream, just the way you like it."

"You woke me from a dead sleep because you felt the sudden urge to deliver coffee?" One hand rose to rub his forehead as Ezra tried to figure out why that almost made sense.

JD laughed. "Yep, and not just coffee. Got balloons too!"

Opening the door a little further, Ezra accepted the small collection of brightly colored latex and Mylar spheres that his young friend thrust at him. This new gift had him completely befuddled and a grinning Vin took advantage of this to add, "We also brought an invite. Thought we'd treat you to breakfast if you want."

Ezra blinked, fighting to make sense of all these unexpected visitors and their even more unexpected gestures. "That'd be nice, I guess," he mumbled. Realizing suddenly that it was a bit rude to keep them all standing on the doorstep, he moved back and allowed them entry. Vaguely waving a hand at himself he apologized. "Forgive me, I wasn't expecting visitors."

The others smiled at the sight of their habitually immaculate friend standing before them with rumpled hair, bleary eyes and a whiskered jawline, wearing nothing more than a pair of wrinkled blue pajama bottoms. He was still holding JD's helium-filled gift at arm's length, seeming not quite sure what to do with it. Buck took pity on him; lightly slapping one bare shoulder as he removed the balloon ribbons from Ezra's hand and replaced them with the cup of coffee. Tying the colorful array to a bookcase, he said, "In case you haven't figured it out yet, Ez, Happy Birthday."

Ezra's eyes widened and he turned to look at a calendar adorning the wall behind him. "Good lord, I'd completely lost track of the date."

Vin nodded. "With all the undercover work you've been doing lately, you've spent more time living somebody else's life than you have your own. It's not much surprise you forgot. Lucky for you, we didn't."

Suddenly feeling a strong need for caffeine, Ezra removed the lid from his drink and took a long swallow of the chocolate flavored beverage within. JD grinned at the whipped cream milk mustache that appeared on his upper lip and told him, "When we figured out that you'd be back from assignment in time for your birthday, we all put our heads together to figure out how to help you celebrate it. You told me one time that you'd never had a birthday party so today we're gonna give you one. The whole works from balloons to cake."

"We had ourselves a great time figuring out what kind of things you'd like, too," Buck told him. "Nothing fancy since it was kinda short notice, but we definitely got good stuff lined up."

The heavy drowsy feeling was rapidly disappearing from Ezra's body, leaving a warm tingling in its place. He found himself unable to stop smiling as his friends outlined their plans for him. Breakfast, followed by two intriguingly mysterious activities that Buck and Vin had decided upon as gifts, then later on a trip out to Chris Larabee's ranch where the other three members of Team Seven would be waiting with dinner, cake and more presents.

"Well, what do you think?" Vin finished, his blue eyes sparkling as he beheld the undisguised pleasure in his friend's face. "Sound good?"

Ezra found his usual verbose speech patterns strangely absent. All he could manage was a nod and, "Be right back."

+ + + + + + +

In less than twenty minutes, Standish was ready. He had quickly showered and shaved, then dressed in blue jeans, white cross-trainers and a plain green T-shirt. Even his hair was a change from the usual. He had towel dried and finger combed it rather than taking time to style and blow-dry as he normally did and the damp locks were already arranging themselves into thick waves as they dried.

"Damn Ezra, you actually look like a normal person," Buck teased, circling the shorter man and appraising his surprisingly casual attire. "If I'd known all it took to get rid of Mr. G.Q. was a free breakfast I'd have been shoveling eggs and bacon down your throat for the past year!"

"Lovely imagery," Ezra drawled. A crooked smile drifted over his lips, showing the dimples on one cheek. He had known his choice of outfit would get a reaction. "I merely decided that just this once, appearances were not everything."

"Speaking of which," JD said, reaching out to flick at a lock dipping over the southerner's left eyebrow. "What'd you do to your hair?"

"Nothing," Ezra told him, swatting the intruding hand away. "This is how it looks when I fail to put up a fight against Mother Nature."

"Maybe you should let her have her way more often, Ez," Vin decided. "Looks good like that."

Buck nodded. "Yeah, hoss. If you hadn't gone and shaved off that stubble you had when we first came in you and Vin could've passed yourselves off as twins."

Vin gave a theatrical flip of his own wavy tresses and grinned at Ezra. "You and I coulda had the ladies faintin' in the aisles, pard. Even ol' Buck wouldn't have had a chance if we really poured it on."

"Says who?" Buck challenged. "They wouldn't even see you boys if I gave 'em the look."

Wilmington's brows waggled at some imaginary female as he gave her a toothy smile. JD and Vin, not to be outdone, instantly set out to dazzle the invisible woman with come-hither glances and poses strongly reminiscent of trashy romance novel covers. Rolling his eyes at all three of them, Ezra grabbed his keys and made a beeline for the front door. "Please, let's go before you gentlemen cause me to lose my appetite."

+ + + + + + +

"See, we've all been trying to figure you out for awhile now," Vin was explaining as the four climbed into Buck’s extended-cab pickup truck. "Nathan pointed out that when you're doing undercover work, you seem just as comfortable pretendin' to be a good ol' boy in some honky tonk bar as you do pretending to be a billionaire at a country club. I figure that's because you like the simple side of life just as much as the snooty side, only you don't like to show it."

A puff of laughter greeted this statement. "And just what do you base your theory on, Mr. Tanner?"

"Lots of things. For instance, you know more about fancy art than anybody I ever met, but last month I saw you and Billy Travis workin' on a paint by number kit like it was the most important artwork in the whole world."

Willing himself not to show embarrassment at the discovery that he and young Billy had had an audience, Ezra explained, "The boy asked for my assistance. I couldn't very well insult his choice of picture."

JD picked up the argument. "Okay, well what about music? You keep a bunch of classical and opera on display but I've seen what's in that cabinet behind your sofa. You've got CDs of everybody from Ella Fitzgerald to Aerosmith in there. Big band, Jazz, Country, R&B, Rock 'n' Roll, Pop; even a little disco!"

"Let's not forget movies," Buck countered. "Right before you went on that last assignment you, Chris and Josiah went to that double feature of 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'Casablanca' down at the Regal, then you came over to our place the next day and watched the whole 'Lethal Weapon' series with JD and me. And don't even try to pretend you didn't enjoy 'em. You were delivering some of the lines before Gibson and Glover could."

Ezra fought the urge to squirm; knowing there was no point trying to deny their first-hand observations. He opted for sounding blasé instead. "And I suppose all this points me out as some kind of closet redneck?"

"Hell no!" Vin said cheerfully. "Just one of the guys by our way of thinking. Gave us some good ideas for today too. You been pretending to be a snobby, super-rich, gun-running asshole for the last few weeks so we figured today you'd like to indulge some of your simple tastes."

"Such as?"

"Plain food a man can order without a translation dictionary for starters."

Ezra snorted. "If that’s your subtle way of telling me that we’re headed for the local McDonald’s, you can turn this vehicle around right now."

JD snickered. "Nah, already been there this morning."

Turning around to look at him, Ezra raised an eyebrow. "This is your second meal of the day, Mr. Dunne?"

"Well, sure. Not everybody waits until almost ten o’clock to eat breakfast, y’know. Some of us actually know what a sunrise looks like."

"Saw one of those once," he deadpanned. "Highly over-rated spectacle. So, where do you gentlemen plan on taking me to feed these so-called simple tastes?"

"The Southern Cross," they chorused, all three grinning smugly at the stunned expression on his face.

The Southern Cross was a small local diner that Ezra had discovered one day soon after he had moved into his high-rise apartment. It was a warm, homey little place full of old country charm. Ezra had considered introducing the place to his team, but had shied away knowing he would be unable to hide the fact that he was whole-heartedly in love with the quaint little restaurant.

"How did you know? Have you been spying on me?" he asked in disbelief.

"Not spying," JD assured him quickly. "It was more like, um…"

"Surveillance," supplied Buck. "Remember that time your car was in the shop and I was giving you rides to work? I came by early one day and you weren't home. Your doorman told me where you'd gone. Said you go to that place every couple of weeks or so."

Sounding a bit miffed, JD asked, "How come your doorman knew your favorite restaurant and none of your friends did?"

Ezra couldn't help himself. He laughed. This most unexpected surprise party had just begun and he was already both tickled and deeply touched to realize how much trouble the other men had gone through to scratch beneath his deliberately pretentious surface image and find the 'real' Ezra. It was truly heart warming. "No need to be insulted. Gary's wife Marlene happens to be the owner of the Southern Cross. The first time we ever spoke he recognized me as a fellow southerner and wasted no time directing me to, and I quote, "The best home cooking west of the Mississippi." Turned out that he wasn't exaggerating and the Cross has since become my favorite refuge whenever life gets to be a bit too real."

His friends nodded, knowing exactly what he meant. All of them had getaways; they were virtually a requirement in a career like theirs and such refuges were rarely shared. Suddenly worried that they might have overstepped their boundaries, Buck offered, "We can go someplace else to eat if you'd rather."

Ezra recognized the man's concern and shook his head. "Thank you, Mr. Wilmington, but that won't be necessary. It's high time Marlene met some of my friends, and most definitely time you all found out what constitutes a decent meal!" He saw relief sweep over them all and cheerfully took another verbal swipe at Vin, renewing the banter as Buck's truck swept along the quiet urban streets.

+ + + + + + +

The moment the four men entered the Southern Cross, it became obvious both why Ezra loved it and why he had been reluctant to share its existence. Standish was a man who prided himself on keeping his equanimity intact in any situation, never showing his feelings too freely and always having the upper hand. It was clear within moments of entering the restaurant that things were different here.

Almost simultaneously with the bell over the door chiming announcement of their entry, a delighted squeal rent the air. Vin, Buck and JD were then treated to the sight of a plump middle-aged lady rushing forward and grabbing their friend's face between small ruby nailed hands to plant a firm kiss upon his lips. A bright red lipstick print transferred itself to Ezra's skin during the process and his face nearly matched the color as he self-consciously wiped the mark away, then laughed and leaned down to give the woman a hearty embrace. "How are you Miss Marlene?"

"Just fine, sugar pie, now that I'm seein' your handsome face again," she told him happily, giving his cheek a pinch. "We haven't seen you in weeks, darlin'."

"I know. I'm sorry," he told her sincerely. "Work hasn't allowed much free time for awhile."

Instantly, a look of sympathy filled her attractively lined face. "Well, what matters is that you're back." Her hand touched his cheek again, this time in a gentle caress. Then she turned her attention to the rest of the little party, a brisk businesslike tone coming into her voice. "Be a good boy now and introduce me to your friends!"

Reminded that he had not come in alone, Ezra obeyed at once. "Oh, I'm sorry. Marlene Landry, this is Vin Tanner."

A grinning Vin stepped forward and shook hands with the little red-haired woman. "Right pleased to know you, ma'am."

"Another southern boy!" she declared with delight. "Texas?"

Surprised, he nodded. "Yes'm."

"I thought so," she said in satisfaction then smiled at the next young man, who was waiting impatiently for his introduction.

Ezra obliged. "This is JD Dunne."

JD enthusiastically shook hands. "Good to meet you, Mrs. Landry. This is a really nice place you have here."

Her laugh lined blue eyes twinkled at him. "Thank you, son. Glad you like it, and you just call me Marlene."

His boyish grin brightened even further and he tugged the brim of his cap in response.

"And this is Buck Wilmington."

Before the words had even cleared Ezra's mouth, Buck was stepping forward and capturing Marlene's outstretched hand in both of his to plant a kiss upon her knuckles. Gazing deeply into her eyes he purred, "If I'd only known that Ezra was hiding such a beautiful lady from me, I'd have been taking my meals here every day of the week."

Roses bloomed in the woman's plump cheeks and she giggled, pushing Buck playfully away. Winking at Ezra she said, "Honey, if you'd told me that all your friends were such handsome young charmers, I'd have made you bring 'em by a whole lot sooner!"

The men laughed and allowed their hostess to lead them to an airy table near the back of the diner. "Now, what'll it be boys?"

"Since he comes here so often, maybe we should just let the birthday boy order for all of us," Buck suggested loudly, shooting Ezra an evil grin when he saw Marlene and two of her employees all perk up at his words.

"Is today your birthday, sugar pie?" Marlene asked him, eyes alight. "How old are you?"

Ezra cursed silently as another blush overtook him. He just couldn't seem to control the damned things today. "Thirty Four."

"Same age as my boy Jimmy," she told him with satisfaction. "Well then, this calls for something special. You boys just sit back and relax. I'll have Jenny bring you out some fresh coffee while I fix you up all your favorites!"

She bustled off, leaving Ezra to the mercies of his teammates. Vin nudged a bony elbow into his ribs. "So, what are we having for breakfast, Sugar Pie?"

The extra color had started ebbing out of Ezra's cheeks, but now it blazed back up hotter than before. "You aren't planning on sharing that rather embarrassing endearment with the rest of our compatriots, I hope."

"I think it's kinda cute." Buck teased. "Maybe we should adopt it."

"Please, don't," Ezra said flatly. "I rather enjoy it coming from Miss Marlene, but it would quickly lose all favor were I to start hearing it on a daily basis from the men I work with."

"Suppose it just slips out?" JD asked innocently.

Ezra fixed him with a stern glare that would have done Chris Larabee proud. "Then I suppose I'll have to let it slip out that a certain Miss Wells enjoys leaving love notes for her 'Little Pookie'."

Now it was JD's turn to go bright red as Vin dissolved into quiet guffaws and Buck's eyes went round with devilish delight as he repeated, "Pookie?"

As JD sputtered and stammered his way through an explanation, Ezra settled back in his seat with a contented sigh. He had accidentally discovered one such mushy little epistle while searching for a file on JD's cluttered desk. As tempting as it had been to torment the boy with his newfound knowledge right then and there, Ezra had withheld his discovery, suspecting that it would come in handy at a later time.

When breakfast arrived it was everything they could have hoped for. The table fairly groaned under the weight of hot cakes, sausage, biscuits and gravy, grits and scrambled eggs and bacon. The men were allowed to serve themselves, each taking as much as he liked of the various dishes and when they were done, not a single man among them would deny that they had indeed had one of the best meals of their lives.

Marlene would not hear of letting them pay for the food, silencing Buck's protest with a stern shake of her finger. "I don't want to hear it, young man," she scolded, wrapping a possessive arm around Ezra's waist. He responded immediately and easily with a companionable embrace of her shoulders, a sight that brought smiles to each of the other men's faces. "I haven't seen half enough of this boy lately, and he doesn't look like he's had a decent meal since I did see him! The rest of his birthday is up to you boys, but this is my gift."

Seeing that there would be no arguing with her, they agreed, beaming when she further informed them that she expected to see each of them again soon. Ezra's relaxed grin made it clear that he had no objection as he bent to receive another loving hug and kiss from the little lady. "See you later this week," he promised softly.

"I'll be counting on it, sugar. Now go have a good time with your friends."

Tipping an imaginary hat in her direction, he bowed slightly and followed his friends out the door.

+ + + + + + +

"Damn that was good," Vin groaned contentedly, slouching into his seat in Buck's truck and patting his stomach with a soft belch. "Marlene's a real nice lady, Ezra, and a darned good cook. Not surprised you spend a lot of time at her place. Looks like you two have something real special with each other. Kinda like me and Miss Nettie."

"Yeah," JD agreed. "She reminds me of my grandma. Mom used to take me to visit when I was a kid and grandma always stuffed me with food and gave me loads of hugs and kisses while I was there. Kinda embarrassing but it made me feel really special, you know?"

Buck nodded. "I had one of them too, kid. Not even really related to me, I don't think, but Aunt Fran used to love to spoil me rotten." He laughed. "And I loved letting her!"

Ezra ducked his head, pleased that no one apparently thought his relationship with the restaurant owner was funny or silly. "I never had grandparents growing up," he told them frankly. "Stayed with more aunts, uncles and obliging family friends of Mother's than I could count, but somehow none of them ever gave me what Miss Marlene does. I never knew what I was missing until I met her."

"I can believe that. Maude's a nice enough lady, but she ain't really a fresh baked cookies and bear hugs kinda gal."

Vin's description was so utterly incongruous with the woman whom Ezra called mother that he started to laugh. "Not hardly, Mr. Tanner. In fact, I feel sure that Marlene and my mother would experience loath at first sight, were they to ever meet."

"Do they know about each other?" JD asked curiously.

"Yes and no. I've told Miss Marlene some of my history and about my sometimes fractious relationship with my mother, but I make it a point never to mention any aspect of The Southern Cross when I'm speaking to Maude. She simply wouldn't understand and I have no wish to disturb what I have with either of them."

There was nothing bitter in his words, he was simply stating a fact, but his friends' faces all took on expressions of sympathy.

"That's probably for the best," Buck agreed, then deciding that the mood was growing far too melancholy, he reached over and gave Ezra a backhanded slap against his chest. "So. You ready to find out what I got you for a present?"

A sparkle of interest instantly filled Ezra's eyes. "Indeed I am."

Buck checked his watch. "I told her eleven o'clock, so we should be getting there just about the perfect time."

"Her?" Ezra allowed a wary note to creep into the question. Anything involving Buck Wilmington and women was automatically worth a bit of caution. "What 'her' are you referring to?"

"You remember me telling you about Brandy and Sherry Blake?"

A thoughtful pause, then the wariness increased as Ezra ventured, "I hope you aren't referring to that set of twins you were so enamored of a few months ago. The exotic dancers?"

Oblivious to the snickers coming from the back seat, Buck nodded happily. "Yep, that's them, but they don't work the clubs anymore. Got a new business now."

Ezra swallowed. "What sort of business?"

"Massage!" he crowed. "I figured that was right up your alley so I talked to Brandy and arranged to get you a couple hours today."

Dead silence met the announcement. Ezra saw Buck's puzzled frown and struggled to come up with a reply but his mind was reeling. Buck's women friends were notorious for having, to put it kindly, easy virtue and the idea of a pair of twin ex-exotic dancers turned masseuses was absolutely mind-boggling in its possibilities. For the life of him, Ezra could not decide whether he should be excited or terrified. Clearing his throat, he finally forced his voice back into working order. "I don't doubt the sincerity or kindness in your intent, but-"

"But what? I promise the girls are good, if that's what's worrying you. They gave me a rub-down last month and I sure didn't have any complaints afterward!"

Somehow, that assurance did very little to ease his mind. "I-I- appreciate that, but-" Hearing himself begin to stammer, an unfortunate trait that occasionally manifest when he became unsettled, Ezra decided to just lay his cards on the table. "Mr. Wilmington, exactly which portion of my anatomy have you paid these women to, as you put it, rub down?"

From the back seat, chortling erupted at his question, growing even louder when a puzzled Buck answered, "All of 'em." Suddenly, Ezra's question and alarmed expression clicked together and Buck nearly drove off the road as he began to howl with laughter. Finally he pulled to a stop and wheezed, "Oh, God, this is too good. I think you got the wrong idea. Look over there."

Ezra followed Buck's pointing finger with his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. Across the street from them was a small building with a neatly painted sign on it reading: Serenity Day Spa - appointments only.

Clapping him on the shoulder, a still snickering Buck added, "Damn, Ezra. For a minute there you looked like a virgin sacrifice headed towards the fire. And here I thought Vin was supposed to be the shy one!"

"Given your natural proclivities it was a reasonable misunderstanding," Ezra said stiffly. As his three friends continued to grin at him, a reluctant smile lifted his lips. "I suppose you aren't going to let me forget this anytime soon, are you?"

"Ain't plannin' on it," Vin agreed cheerfully. "The look on your face was enough to keep us all entertained for a long time comin'. Wish I'd had a camera on me."

"Yeah, we don't get to see you makin' a fool of yourself over women very often, Ez," JD chuckled. "Usually that's Buck's job."

Two simultaneous cries of, "Hey!" sent everyone into fresh spasms of mirth and Ezra was still smiling hugely when he left the truck and jogged across the street. Sometimes he wondered what he had done, both good and bad, to deserve such friends.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra's concerns resurfaced instantly upon meeting the Blake twins. To say that they were striking was an absolute injustice. Tall, slender and voluptuous enough to put Playboy models to shame, the women had beautiful identical faces framed by long luxurious auburn tresses. They greeted him with enthusiasm then flanked him, each taking possessive grip of a bicep as they led him into the back of the spa. As they told him how happy they were to do a favor for any friend of Buck's, the sound of their low velvety laughter sent Ezra's brain plummeting straight below his belt. After being shown to a small changing room, he experienced a long surreal moment trying to decide if he wasn't actually asleep somewhere and having a vividly sensual dream.

"Get a hold of yourself, boy," he murmured. "Anyone would think you'd never met a pretty woman before. Well, a beautiful woman. Actually, two beautiful, no, gorgeous women-" Ezra cut himself off with a soft groan. If he was rambling this badly with only himself to hear it, he could just imagine what a fool he would make of himself with an audience. Quickly replacing his clothing with a tightly wrapped towel, Ezra sternly ordered his mouth to stay shut and certain other parts to refrain from embarrassing him.

Upon his reemergence Ezra was directed to a seat in a narrow reclining chair. "You just lie back and let us do all the work," Sherry, at least he was pretty sure it was Sherry, ordered with a smile. An assortment of supplies had been gathered and he could not help tensing when she knelt before him and placed both his feet in a small solution-filled tub. After a few minutes' soak, the woman gathered up one foot and began working strong fingers into the arch and heel.

Ezra had just begun to relax into the treatment when Brandy entered the room and moved behind him, tilting his head to rest against the padded top of the chair. She moved her hands in firm but gentle strokes along the back of his neck and shoulders. It was very soothing and he smiled, idly enjoying both Brandy's touch and the close up view of her well-defined bust as she leaned forward to hand a bottle of lotion to her sister. Catching his eye, she grinned knowingly at him. Ezra smiled sheepishly in return, acknowledging that he had been caught, then closed his eyes to better concentrate on the fingertips now drawing concentric circles against his scalp, thumbs brushing down his neck and releasing tension he had not even been fully aware of. Within minutes any remaining doubts Ezra had about the Blake sisters' new choice in career evaporated and he settled deeper into his chair with a quiet noise of contentment.

The next two hours passed all too quickly as Ezra moved through the various processes of his treatment, allowing his body to be kneaded, exfoliated, steamed, stroked and manipulated by two veritable goddesses. It was somewhat shocking to realize how tense he had been and how many stiff aching knots he had simply learned to ignore over long weeks on the job. Again and again, muscle groups were reduced to trembling weakness as four talented hands worked their magic. By the end of the first hour Ezra was floating in a haze of blissful sensation. By the end of the second he was practically purring with enjoyment and when it was all over he felt more relaxed and, strangely, more energized than he had in months. As he got dressed and combed his hair a fond smile played over his lips. He would definitely need to come up with something special when Buck's next birthday rolled around.

Making his way back to the reception area, Ezra found only Buck and JD waiting for him. "Greetings, gentlemen. Was Mr. Tanner afraid the ladies would abscond with him if he ventured past the door?"

Buck laughed. "Nah, he's putting together a couple things for your next surprise. Speaking of which, did you enjoy your present?"

"Yeah, Ez! How'd it go?" Nudging Wilmington with an elbow JD added in a stage whisper, "Looks pretty darn happy, don't he Buck? S'pose he got his anatomy all taken care of?"

Buck cackled at the innuendo and Ezra rolled his eyes, wondering just how long he would be enduring such comments. "I certainly did. The ladies proved to have very talented hands."

The Blakes appeared just then, cutting off Buck's intended response. Watching his friend out of the corner of his eye, Ezra presented the ladies with a slow smile. "Brandy, darlin', I want to thank you again for takin' such good care of me. I've never had a better massage." The woman giggled at the charming southerner when he placed a lingering kiss upon her hand. He then did the same for her sister, his voice silky and low as he told her, "Sherry, honey, you truly make a man feel glad to be alive. Thank you for…everything."

Buck's mouth had fallen open at his friend's seductive display, consternation filling his features as the twins each responded with a dreamy sigh and a kiss to Ezra's cheek, telling him to come back anytime. Feeling the need to put their attention back in its proper place, he hitched a suggestive eyebrow at the girls. "Hey, let's not forget that this was my idea! Don't ol' Buck get anything?"

JD whispered something in Ezra's ear that caused his smile to grow wider. "Forgive my rudeness," he said, a mischievous sparkle entering his eyes as he turned, rose up on his toes and placed a smacking kiss upon the mustached man's left cheek. "Thank you, Buck."

Feminine giggles and an outraged bellow could be heard clear out in the street as the door flew open and JD and Ezra ducked out of the spa and ran for their lives.

Buck gave chase for a block and half before laughter impeded the other two men enough for him to overtake them. Delivering a running slap upside the back of JD’s head, the tall man lunged forward and grabbed the other prankster around the middle, swinging Ezra right off his feet as he spun him around and began scrubbing vigorous knuckles across the top of his head.

The expression on Ezra’s face when he pulled free was something halfway between amusement and outrage. "Really, Mr. Wilmington! A noogie? How undignified."

JD snickered. "Good thing you didn’t kiss him on the mouth, Ez. He probably would have given you a wedgie!"

The green-eyed man raised an eyebrow. "Is that experience I hear talking?"

Chagrin filled the young man's tone as said, "Yeah," then abruptly changed to, "No! I mean, yeah he's- That is, I've driven him to it but it wasn't 'cause I kissed him. Cause I haven't! Kissed him, that is. I ain't ever kissed a guy at all! Not like I'd want to, even for a joke. I mean, not that there's anything wrong with you doing it. I mean-"

By this time a laughing Buck was clutching his ribs for support, as his roommate's speech and facial expression both grew increasingly confused. Ezra was somehow managing to keep a straight face but his eyes were dancing. "What exactly do you mean, JD?"

The boy fumbled for a moment more then blew out a disgusted sigh and gave up. "Aw hell. Shouldn't we be joining Vin at the you-know-where Buck?"

Giving both younger men a friendly push in the direction of his truck, he agreed, "Yeah, kid. Everybody ought to be there by now."

Interested, Ezra prompted, "Everybody?"

"The rest of the guys."

"I believe you informed me earlier that we would be meeting Misters Larabee, Sanchez and Jackson out at Chris' ranch. Is that where we're going?"

Buck shook his head. "Ain't you ever heard about curiosity killin' the cat, Ez?"

"Of course, but since last time I checked I hadn't joined the feline race, perhaps you could provide me with a hint. "


"Just a little hint? Please?"

At times like this one Buck Wilmington had no trouble whatsoever figuring out how Ezra had made such a good living as a con man in his youth, and an undercover agent in his adulthood. Currently he was rivaling JD's best wide-eyed innocent look and the wheedling in his voice reminded Buck of a small child begging an extra treat from an indulgent parent. It was an impressive combination and he could feel himself caving under the pressure. "Oh, okay, just a little one." Seeing Ezra's triumphant grin, a sly smile spread across his face. "What we're gonna do takes balls."

"Balls?" he repeated blankly.

"Big ones," JD added helpfully.

As he had earlier, Ezra's thoughts instantly became cautious wondering what Buck could possibly have in mind for him this time. Then he remembered that this activity was coming courtesy of Vin and somehow that made the strange clue all the more intriguing.

Watching his friend become lost in thought, climbing into the truck and automatically buckling himself in while continuing to stare off into space with a speculative squint, Buck winked back at a grinning JD and started the engine.

As they turned into a large parking lot, Ezra immediately spotted Josiah's black Suburban. The dented left fender and 'Spiritual Man' bumper stickers were hard to miss. Noting their location, he grimaced. "I should have remembered how literal you two are." Shaking his head, he growled, "Big ones."

JD laughed. "Really had you goin', didn't we!"

"Indeed. I must admit that of all the possible places Mr. Tanner could have chosen to have me spend my birthday, a bowling alley never entered my mind."

"He figured you'd have fun learning a new sport."

Ezra laughed. "Sport? I'm sorry my friend, but I don't believe that flinging a large heavy ball at ten small, closely-packed objects constitutes athleticism."

"Sure it does," Buck countered. "Bowling is a game of skill. Things can get mighty tricky if you get a bad split or if the ball doesn't hook quite right and you miss a spare. Specially when you're only separated from your opponents by a couple of points. Some pretty good betting goes on in situations like that."

Refusing to rise to such obvious bait, Ezra snorted. "And what else do you wager on? How many pitchers of beer each man can polish off in a single game? How much farther one athlete's belly hangs over his belt than his opponent's does?"

"Aw, it ain't like that," JD insisted. "It's fun. We'll teach you everything you need to know and you'll have a great time, I promise."

Casting another dubious look at the entrance, Standish sighed. "Well, I suppose I shouldn't risk injuring Vin's feelings by not even trying to enjoy his gift."

"That's the spirit!" Buck declared happily. "Let's go make sure the fellas picked us out a couple of good lanes. I'm feelin' lucky today!"


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