Just For Fun

by Helen Adams

Chapter 1 - 10
Chapter 11 - 20
Chapter 21 - 30
Chapter 31 - 40
Chapter 41 - 50

Chapter 21

"Room Service!" The loud call aimed at the unmoving lump of covers produced a faint moan from somewhere inside of them, and Buck Wilmington smiled as he reached out a finger to poke the huddled blankets. "Hey, anybody in there?"

"Mmmmm." The sound was long, drawn-out and filled with protest, proving that the ball of blankets did indeed contain a human being.

Buck stood patiently to one side of the bed for a few moments to see if there were any further signs of life, but none was forthcoming. He tried again, placing both hands firmly on the still form and shaking briskly.

That got a response. A volley of cursing rose up as the mound twisted and squirmed. Finally, a leg covered in green and black plaid kicked out, followed by one bare arm and shoulder. The arm flailed a moment then managed to yank at the covers hard enough to free the head that went with the limbs, and Ezra squinted up with a decidedly unhappy expression on his face. Slightly bloodshot green eyes blinked sleepily and then squeezed shut as he pressed a fist to his temple and groaned, "Ohhh, my God. Has my cranial capacity been reduced during the night? It seems to have become too small for my brain."

Buck grinned. "Josiah's theory is that somebody hired a marching band and implanted a recording of them inside his head, Vin's still blaming the Klingons, and I don't know what Nathan thinks. He still hasn't managed to produce anything other than moaning."

"And why are you so bright and annoyingly cheerful this morning?" Ezra growled back. "You had as much to drink as the rest of us."

"True, but I got me some exercise after the rest of you went to dreamland. Sweated off the booze," he replied, leering in a way that left little doubt as to how he had obtained his workout. "Never did have much tendency toward hangovers anyway."

Ezra glared at him. "I hate you."

The other man just laughed. "That's what Chris always says, too." He walked over to the window and yanked open the drapes to allow the morning sunshine in. This action produced a much louder groan and a very choice expletive as Ezra rolled over and hid his splitting head underneath his pillow. Buck tsked, "Come on now, is that any way to talk to a friend who's only trying to help you?"

"Go help somebody else!" the muffled voice snapped back. "Just leave me alone and let me die in peace."

"You ain't dead yet, boy," he reminded him as he came back to sit beside Ezra on the bed. "Come on, now. It's after eleven and we have to check out pretty soon. Get your ass up and get some clothes on. I know a great little restaurant that serves the best weekday brunch you ever tasted. A little food and coffee will do you good. I'll buy."

Ezra pulled his head out and opened one eye enough to glare at his friend, thinking it was absolutely obscene for anyone to be so bright and cheerful at a time like this. "And what if I refuse?"

Buck loosed a hearty peal of laughter, causing his friend to wince. "Then I guess I'll have to carry you down to the front desk myself, just the way you are. Not real dignified but it'll make a great picture to add to the photo journal."

Studying the affable man's face and deciding that he just might be willing to follow through on his threat, Ezra slowly struggled up out of his blankets and into a gingerly balanced upright position. His left hand reached up to rake hair out of his eyes and accept the pain pills that Buck had magically produced from thin air. Swallowing them dry, he stood up and stretched the muscles of his back, grimacing as the vertebrae crackled and crunched.

With a smile, Buck patted him on the shoulder and declared, "Since you look ready to rejoin the living, I reckon I'd better go back and get my stuff together, see how everybody else is doing. Meet us downstairs in a half hour, okay?"

Ezra vaguely waved a hand. "Fine. I'll be there." As soon as Buck was out of the room, he sagged back against the wall, rubbing his forehead tiredly with one hand. He actually didn't feel too horrible now that he'd conquered the step of standing up and coaxing both eyes to open at the same time, so apparently the restoratives Josiah had given him last night had done some good, but he still wished that he could have spent a few more hours in bed.

The memory of Josiah's caring assistance the previous night brought a thoughtful frown to Ezra's face. He couldn't remember now what they had talked about but he had the oddest feeling of comfort in thinking about it. Brushing his fingers through his hair, he tried harder to remember. Had there been something about hair-dye and naked women? Seemed like a peculiar combination but then again, Josiah's thought patterns often roamed off in strange and unexpected directions. It was one of the reasons that Ezra enjoyed talking with him. One never knew exactly what they were going to get.

Ezra dismissed his speculations and resisted the urge to lie back down and attempt just a few more minutes of sleep. He instead pushed away from the wall and wove his way into the bathroom where he devoted twenty minutes to a vigorous tooth-brushing, a quick shower and what felt like the longest urination in the history of mankind.

Deciding that the others would not be surprised if he were a little bit late, that in fact they would probably expect him to be late, Ezra spent another ten minutes engaged in a series of long slow stretches, controlling his breathing and concentrating on forcing the lethargy and lingering aches out of his body. His head refused to quit throbbing but the light exercise did manage to awaken the interest of his stomach and Ezra knew that a good breakfast and a few non-alcoholic beverages would take care of the rest.


"There he is," Josiah said as Ezra emerged from the elevator, dragging his wheeled suitcase behind him. Greeting the late arrival, he said, "We were about to send up a bloodhound."

"I thought you'd already done that," he shot back, giving Buck a nudge.

Buck smiled. "You're looking better than you were a few minutes ago. A little hair of the dog?"

"No, but the day is young yet."

A grinning Vin lazily waved from his spot on the round lobby sofa. "Looks like you ain't feeling too bad after last night anyhow."

"I'll live. How about you?"

He shrugged. "Nothing a little food and a few more aspirin won't fix."

Noting that Nathan had yet to speak, but was only sitting on the sofa next to Vin and moaning softly, Ezra frowned. "Is he all right?"

"Think he was too busy lookin' after me last night to remember to follow his own good advice about drinkin' water and such," Vin said, a mixture of regret and humor in his voice. "He ain't managed a coherent word yet."

Ezra winced, sympathy in his eyes. "You have my sincere apologies for convincing you to try that alcoholic confection the bar so aptly named 'Phasers on Stun' last night, Mr. Jackson. I truly had no idea what it would do to you." Nathan mumbled something that could have been either acceptance of the apology or an order to go fornicate with some foreign object. Ezra chose to believe it was the former. "Right, well then, if you gentlemen would go put our things in the car, I'll check us out and we can be on our way."

"We still going over the MGM?" Buck asked.

"Yes, I called in a reservation last night. They'll be expecting us anytime after two o'clock. In the meantime, considering our present condition, perhaps we should just stop for food and then drive around a bit and take in the local scenery. I'm not certain any of us is up to being surrounded by crowds and clanging slot machines right now."

The others nodded agreement. "I'll give you the five-cent tour," Buck offered. "Show you the old homestead and some of the things to do in downtown Vegas."

"Sounds good to me," Vin agreed, absent mindedly rubbing his stomach. "Now, how about that grub?"

Chapter 22

Buck drove with the easy navigational skills of someone totally familiar with his surroundings. The streets of Vegas were busy, though not half as much as they would be later in the day, and he was able to leave the Strip without much difficulty. He drove them through downtown, pointing out places he used to frequent as a boy. "This here is Fremont Street," he said. "It's changed a lot since I was a kid, really built up a few years ago in an effort to keep downtown Vegas from being totally overwhelmed by the Strip, but this is one of the oldest parts of the city."

His tour-guide routine was mostly for the ears of Josiah, who had taken over Ezra's shotgun seat in the front. Ezra had joined Vin in the third row, allowing Nathan to stretch out along the bench seat in the middle of the car and nurse his hangover in relative privacy. After awhile, realizing that the others weren't really paying attention, Josiah and Buck quietly discussed the history of the area, noting landmarks connected with assorted famous mafia figures and musing on what their own jobs might have been like if they had lived and worked in the Vegas area during that bygone age. Vin and Ezra had no interest in discussing work, real or imagined, and were busying themselves with Ezra's laptop, writing up an account of their first day's vacation for JD and Chris. Josiah had already downloaded his photos to be included with the narrative.

"Chow-time, boys," Buck called back as he pulled into a parking lot adjacent to a small casino. "Welcome to the Paradise buffet, a place that truly lives up to its name. We ought to be just in time for the lunch spread."

Vin's eyes lit up when he saw the variety of food spread out on the long counters inside the restaurant. "Chicken wings, fruit plates, sandwich platters, burgers, salads, soups, a pasta bar, pizza... damn, Buck, you weren't kiddin', were you? Maybe we ought to forget about the Grand and just stay here!"

"It's all you can eat," he replied, pointing toward the sign next to the cashier. "Let me just pay the lady and we can make pigs of ourselves all day if we want."

Ezra raised a finger in warning. "Please do not take that suggestion seriously, Mr. Tanner. I would like to take in a few more sights today than your admittedly-fascinating ability to eat three times your own body weight in a single sitting."

"Spoilsport," he growled playfully, grabbing a tray and beginning to fill it with all the items he had named and then some. The plastic was groaning beneath the weight of his selections by the time Vin moved it over to an empty table.

"Don't forget to leave room for dessert," Buck called to him, adding a slice of cake and a small bowl of pudding to his own selection of pizza and hot wings.

"Glad to see everything here isn't just grease and preservatives," Nathan muttered, filling a plate with a large serving of assorted fruits and a few dinner rolls.

"It's alive!" Josiah exclaimed in a perfect Dr. Frankenstein impression that earned him a dirty look from Nathan and laughter from everyone else. Chuckling, he asked, "Feeling a little better?"

Nathan's brows rose and fell in a kind of rueful shrug as he added a cup of potato soup and a large cup of coffee to his tray. "Getting there. I should have known better than to mix all those different types of booze last night."

"So should we all," Ezra agreed, wincing as someone in the casino behind them hit a big win and the sound of bells and excited shouting filled the air. "Tonight we'll have to remember to temper our excesses," he added, debating for a moment over the barbecue wings and then piling several on his plate to join the sandwich and salad already residing on his tray.

Josiah quickly selected soup, salad and a submarine sandwich that looked big enough for them all to take a ride in. "Ah, but Vegas is all about excess," he commented, joining the others at their table. "We may have overdone it a bit but it was all in the name of fun and I think we all enjoyed it while it lasted."

Taking a huge bite of pickle, Vin garbled, "I sure as hell did."

Rubbing at his right temple, Nathan smiled. "Yeah, me too. It was worth it."

As the others agreed that they too had enjoyed their first day in Vegas, Ezra visibly relaxed. Noticing this, Josiah decided to push a little. "Take it easy, Ezra. We're not going to revolt and head back to Denver at the first sign of trouble. You had a great idea and we're all glad you asked us to come along with you."

Noticing the others looking at him with curiosity in their eyes, Ezra shook his head, he said, "I don't know why I keep worrying so much about this trip. It shouldn't matter to me if everything turns out perfectly. After all, it isn't as though every one of those camping and fishing trips I've joined at your insistence have turned out to be ideal vacations."

Nathan laughed. "You remember the time we were fishing and you and I went looking for firewood and found ourselves a bee's nest? Lord A'mighty, when they started stinging I thought you were going to have a coronary. I was about ready to grab the epi-pen, thinking you were having an allergic reaction to the stings but it turned out you were just mad as hell."

"Well it hurt a great deal more than I'd expected," Ezra protested mildly, unable to keep his smile from showing.

"Or how about that time we headed up to the Rockies to go hiking and I damn near fell off a cliff because I was so busy looking over my shoulder and giving JD advice on what to do," Buck chuckled. "You guys still haven't let me live that one down!"

Vin joined in, "It's not just the vacation trips either. Ezra, you remember the time that Josiah had to go to the forensics conference in New York and I asked you to go to the baseball game in his place? Perfect weather, great game, cold beer and a couple of hot dogs in our bellies; we were living it up like kings when a fly ball suddenly comes out of nowhere and beans me right in the head."

Ezra laughed. "You had such a funny expression of surprise on your face. The point of impact swelled into a huge purple knot right in the middle of your forehead but all you cared about was whether or not I had preserved the ball."

He grinned. "Which you did."

"So quit worrying. Even if something goes wrong on this trip, eventually it will all come out right," Josiah said firmly, finishing his point by taking an enormous bite of his super-sub.

"Only you would take a hangover and turn it into an opportunity for philosophical lecturing." Ezra paused for a few seconds, nibbling thoughtfully on a chicken wing. "I appreciate it."

"My pleasure."

Vin nudged him. "Our pleasure, he means. Now, if you're done mopin' for awhile, I say we go check out the dessert bar and then come up with a plan for today. We got a lot to do and only a couple more days to do it in."

Chugging the last of his coffee down, Nathan said, "I agree. I'm feeling better and there's a giant chocolate-chip cookie over that looks like the perfect cure for any aches and pains I've got left."

"Chocolate therapy?" Ezra scoffed. "You really think that will help?"

He grinned. "Three years as a married man tells me that it works wonders."

Ezra opened his mouth to offer another barb but then his gaze was captured by a fresh chocolate cream pie that was being set down on the bar. Wiping his lips with a napkin, he stood. "Far be it from me to argue with the expert. Lead on, sir."

Chapter 23

As the five friends finished up with lunch and dessert, Ezra pulled up the hotel's webpage on his laptop. Perusing the site, each man found something different to interest him. The MGM boasted its own 24 hour poker room where Ezra and Vin each declared interest in whiling away a few hours, Vin itching to try the Texas Hold-Em tournaments while Ezra was more intrigued by a no-limit Seven Card Stud offering. Josiah was surprised and delighted to find a golf course on the premises and declared that today was a good one for brushing up on his skills. Nathan, still feeling the effects of his alcoholic binge though he tried to deny it, was drawn to the luxury spa with its advertisement of therapeutic massage treatments. In Buck's opinion they were all crazy not to take advantage of the Grand pool complex with its manmade waterfall and river, sunbathing, whirlpool tubs, most importantly, beautiful girls in bikinis.

"Come on, how many opportunities do we get like that in Denver?" he scoffed. "We've got to seize the day!"

Nathan snickered. "You go right ahead and enjoy the beach, Buck. Just make sure that whatever you end up seizing is old enough not to land you in jail."

"Josiah, c'mon, how about you?" he pleaded. "Tell me you wouldn't rather check out a bunch of beautiful near-naked women than spend the afternoon with a lot of old fogies in golf-pants!"

For a few seconds, Josiah looked as if he might change his mind. Then he shook his head. "The temptation is strong, I must admit, but I've been looking for an opportunity to brush up on my short game and I'm going to take it."

"Perhaps you should go with him, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra teased, swallowing a bite of his chocolate pie. "The way you were operating with the ladies last night, it looked like you might be the one who needs to polish up his short game."

"At least I'm not planning to hide out in a dark casino all day," he shot back. "What's the matter, Ezra, you afraid that if you put on a bathing suit all that fish-belly skin of yours might just blind somebody? Or maybe you just figure you're too old to keep up with a cute little beach-bunny any more. How long's it been since you even went out on a date? You scared of finding out that the ol' junior partner don't remember what to do with a pretty girl any more?"

Vin chortled. "Oooo, Ezra, he's throwin' down a gauntlet. You ain't gonna let ol' Bucklin show you up, are you?"

"Whose side are you on?" Ezra asked in irritation. He had been looking forward to a few hours of real gambling with fellow poker enthusiasts, but Buck's remarks were hitting a bit close to the bone. Maybe he was a little out of practice at the romantic arts, but really!

"Come on," Buck coaxed, his dark blue eyes shining with enthusiasm. "I'll bet you fifty bucks that my animal magnetism can get a good-looking filly into my arms and ready to cross the goal line before your sweet southern-boy manners can even get you to first base."

Josiah smirked. "Getting your sports metaphors a little mixed up there, aren't you, Buck?"

He shrugged, unconcerned, sparkling eyes never leaving Ezra's face as he waited for his answer.

"Aw hell, forget the poker game," Vin laughed. "If you two are gonna go down there and make fools of yourselves, I'm takin' the camera and findin' me a good spot to watch! How about you, Nate? Want to come?"

He laughed and waved a hand. "I'll pass. Something tells me this is going to get ugly."

"Now Nathan, that isn't very nice," Josiah scolded. "Buck can't help the way he looks in a swimsuit."

Buck retaliated by pelting the grinning older man with a cold onion ring while the other three just laughed. Turning back to Ezra, Buck held out his right hand. "Well? What do you say?"

Straightening in his chair, Ezra dusted off his hands and grasped the offered appendage. "Mr. Wilmington, I hope you're prepared to lose some money."

Chapter 24

"Let's not be too obvious about this," Buck suggested, straightening the cheap red-framed sunglasses perched on his nose. "You take the left side of the pool and I'll take the right. Don't want any of these gorgeous gals to realize there's a contest going on."

Glancing over the top of his own dark Ralph Lauren shades, Ezra smoothed the lapels of the forest green lounging robe he had put on in one of the provided poolside changing rooms. Buck had scoffed at the garment, proudly flexing his well-bronzed chest as they passed a bevy of women sitting in lounge chairs, and asking Ezra if he felt that he had something to hide. Ezra, typically, had ignored him. "You do whatever you like, Mr. Wilmington," he said airily. "I am going to get myself a drink at the bar and take in all the available options before I make my move."

Buck whistled appreciatively at the sight of a young Hispanic woman in a lime green bikini who had just smiled over her shoulder at him. Slapping Ezra on the shoulder, he moved to pursue. "Well, don't take too long making up your mind, pard. That fifty is practically warming my pocket already."

"I wouldn't count on anything valuable coming within that general vicinity today, my friend," Ezra called back, laughing as he watched Buck abruptly veer to his right and execute a clean dive into the deep end of the swimming pool as though that had been his intention all along when the woman he'd been following threw herself into the arms of a very muscular young man at the other end.

For a few moments, he watched with a small smile as Buck splashed and cavorted with the other swimmers, flirting outrageously with every female between eight and eighty. He would never understand just how Buck managed to do that without ever drawing offense or causing misunderstanding. Then, remembering his end of the bet, Ezra strolled over to the bar and ordered a simple glass of iced tea. He had briefly considered something stronger, finding his stomach fluttering a bit in anticipation, but decided that he would need his wits unimpaired if he was going to compete with Mr. Animal Magnetism.

For a few seconds, he lounged against the bar idly sipping his drink. To his amusement, he noticed Vin Tanner sitting on one of the two balconies that overlooked the pool area, camera at the ready as he scanned the area with a small pair of binoculars.

Then, Ezra saw her. A woman in her mid to late twenties, wearing a cross-strapped blue and red tankini swimsuit; her dark hair slick with pool water but already beginning to twist into wet curls over her shoulders. She was smiling at the fun going on inside the pool but content to stay outside of it, just watching as she continued drying her lightly tanned skin with a towel. The expression on her face became slightly wistful as she watched the assorted happy couples frolicking around her, no doubt wishing that she had someone to laugh and play with as well. Ezra could not imagine why none of the men in her area were making a move to get acquainted. She was not as model-perfect as many of the ladies present, but to his eyes she was quite pretty.

Requesting another glass of tea from the bartender, Ezra wove his way carefully through the crowd until he'd reached the lounge chair next to the mystery woman's. Putting on his best smile, and taking care to inject just a touch more southern into his accent than normal, he gestured to the empty chair and asked, "Excuse me, Miss. Would you mind if I joined you? I thought perhaps you might like to join me in a libation."

The woman looked startled by the question, looking from Ezra's smiling face to the glass of tea, and back again as if not sure what to do. This further supported his suspicion that she wasn't overly used to being flirted with.

Edging back a half-step, he manufactured an embarrassed expression and allowed his tone to become apologetic. "Of course, I fully understand if you're waiting for someone else. I'm sure such an attractive woman as yourself must be attached."

This was a risk. Having been given an easy out, she might very well choose to take it, but Ezra did not believe that she would. The opportunity to flirt with a handsome stranger, even if just for a few minutes, would prove to be too tempting to resist. He knew that he had read the situation correctly when she flushed prettily and reached out to accept the drink he had offered, gesturing with her other hand for him to take the lounge-chair. "Actually, I'm here with a couple of girlfriends," she said. "They're over there playing water polo. I'm not really very good at that kind of thing."

Ezra glanced at the water and saw Buck pitching a plastic beach ball to a couple of extremely well-endowed young women dressed - barely - in string bikinis. "Neither am I," he told her. "I've never been much of an outdoor enthusiast, to be honest."

Setting his drink down, Ezra half turned away but kept an eye on his new companion to gauge her reaction as he untied his robe, revealing the green and gold swim trunks he wore beneath. Contrary to Buck's teasing, his skin was not shockingly white but was instead tinted a pleasant light golden color. Product of a tanning booth, but nobody needed to know that. After all, it wasn't as if he'd found a lot of opportunities for sunbathing over the last several months, especially in the Denver suburbs! He had chosen this particular swimsuit because he knew that it flattered his skin tone and showed off his lean well-defined musculature to good advantage. Perhaps it was a little vain, but the clear appreciation reflected in his new lady friend's blue eyes told him that he was entitled to feel a little smug.

"May I ask whose company I'm sharing?" he asked, holding out his right hand to her as he settled into his lounger with a soft sigh at its unexpected comfort. As she accepted the handshake, he deftly captured her hand in both of his and smiled again.

Sounding a little breathless, she replied, "Kez."

He blinked, wondering if he had heard wrong. "What an interesting moniker."

She blushed again. "I know, everybody talks about how unusual it is. It's short for Keziah. It's biblical."

"Indeed it is," he said, laughing a little. "Well, you and I have something in common then, though I can't claim that either of my parents necessarily knew they were bestowing a biblical name when they chose mine. I'm Ezra."

For a moment, the expression on her face suggested that she didn't believe him but as he continued to smile at her, allowing his light green eyes to remain wide and guileless, she smiled. "Nice to meet you, Ezra. So, how long have you been in Vegas? My friends and I just arrived this morning."

"I am also here with a group of friends, one of whom is right now happily allowing himself to lose to your companions at water polo, and we arrived yesterday. We'll be in town just through tomorrow night. We'll be headed for Lake Tahoe the next day."

"I'm leaving in a couple of days myself," she said, and he quickly hid a smirk at her clear regret over the short duration of their potential acquaintance. "We flew all the way from Michigan to spend a few days in Vegas."

"Quite a way to travel," he agreed, "but then, people from all over the world travel great distances to take in the sights and sounds of this unique metropolis."

She grinned. "You certainly did, by the sound of you. Tennessee?"

"Georgia, actually," he corrected, drawing the words out lazily, seeing no need to correct her assumption by saying that he'd only traveled two states for this particular journey. For reasons he had never fully understood but had always been most appreciative of, northern women tended to turn into mush at the sound of a slow southern drawl. Add in a few compliments, sincere looks and an attentive manner and they virtually became putty in one's hands. This woman appeared to be no exception.

By the time they had chatted together for a half hour the body language of his companion told Ezra that a few months away from the game had not dimmed his charms one whit. Her breathing had become slightly heavier, her eyelids had taken on a sexy half-lidded appearance that he doubted she was even aware of, and she was coming out of her polite verbal shell with gratifying speed. Much more of this and Buck would not be the only man on this trip laying claim to a conquest! Ezra was not worried that he might be leaving any broken hearts behind if such a thing happened. The clear delineation between serious relationship and fun vacation fling had been drawn by the discussion of how long they each meant to stay in town. This was pure flirtation, on both their parts. It might lead somewhere fascinating or it might stop right where it was. That was truly up to the lady and she was clearly not finished playing the game yet. He had nearly forgotten how much fun this kind of a game could be.

And maybe a spirit of competition was not just for the male of the species, either, he mused. It had not escaped Ezra's notice that his companion kept casting small triumphant glances back toward her friends in the pool. He wondered if she had made a bet on him, too. The raucous play in the pool had subsided so Ezra held out a hand and said, "The temperature seems to be climbing at an alarming rate. Would you care to join me in a swim?"

"I think I could use some cooling off," she agreed playfully, making no move to relinquish her grip on his hand as they moved toward the pool.

Buck approached as they reached the edge of the pool, a broad grin on his face as he looked at Ezra, each of his arms wrapped around the waist of one of Keziah's buxom friends. "Hey, Ez." The two sets of friends introduced one another then Buck said, "We're going to head out for awhile. The girls have promised to introduce me to a couple of hot spots. Wonder if you'd be able to give me fifty bucks."

Trying not to react to the over-innocently delivered double-entendre, Ezra covered up a sigh. He might have known that he could never work faster than Buck. "I suppose."

"Kez, can we talk to you for a minute?" the girl on Buck's left interrupted suddenly, seizing her friend's arm and dragging her off to one side where all three girls began whispering animatedly to one another.

By the slight droop in Buck's mustache, he was clearly wondering if Ezra and his companion were about to be invited along on his 'date', but Ezra suspected the conference was on another topic entirely.

When Keziah suddenly left her friends and grafted her body to Ezra's side, giggling a little as she began to nibble at his ear, his suspicions were verified. He was startled at the overt gesture but relaxed into it, suspecting that her behavior was mostly an act for the other girls, who had been far more surprised than was polite at seeing their friend with a strange man.

"You know, my dear, perhaps one of the private Jacuzzi's might be more fun than the pool. Much more . . . intimate," he suggested, letting his drawl go soft and husky as he kissed her neck in response. Feeling her slight jump of nervousness, he nuzzled her ear and whispered, "Don't worry."

As he felt her relax again, Ezra turned his attention back to Buck. "Oh, I am sorry, Mr. Wilmington but I just remembered that I won't be able to give you that money after all. You see, I already spent it at a sports bar. A foolish wager on whether a field goal was superior to a home run. You understand."

Buck gaped at him for a moment, and then looked at Kez and abruptly beamed as proudly as a new father about to pass out his first parcel of cigars. "Trust me, Ezra, I totally understand. Not a problem. I'll just catch you later, then. Nice to meet you, miss."

"You too, Buck. See you guys later." Keziah's friends were still whispering together as Buck led them away and blushed as she met Ezra's eyes. "I probably shouldn't have done that to you, letting them think we . . ."

A small chuckle broke free and then blossomed into a full-throated laugh. Swooping closer, Ezra gave her a peck on the cheek. "Oh, my dear, please don't apologize. That was magnificent and I believe your two companions will think twice before they go making any more assumptions about you."

She looked relieved to realize that he really did understand. "What about your friend?"

"Well, if you have no objection, I believe it would do my reputation a world of good in Buck's eyes if you were to allow me to let him believe that we spent our afternoon the way he and your friends clearly intend to spend their own."

Her eyes sparkled, flattered by the honest admiration in his gaze. She studied his face for a moment, seemingly searching for something, and then surprised him by reaching up and gently gripping the sides of his face with her fingertips. Planting a soft lingering kiss upon his lips, she smiled. "I'd hate to make a liar out of you, Ezra."


Up on the balcony, Vin Tanner whistled as he watched the action below. He had snapped several photos of Buck's water games and Ezra's lounge chat, but now he put away his camera. He was not a voyeur.

He shook his head with a small smile. When Buck had suggested this morning that the promise of a little healthy competition would be all Ezra needed to pursue the kind of 'relaxation' Buck felt he needed to let go of the burden of stress he'd been carrying, Vin had thought he was crazy. Surely Ezra, with all the wary suspicion that came so naturally to him, would not fall for such an obvious ploy, and even if he did he wasn't so much of a ladies man that he could just take up with a gal for an afternoon of fun the way Buck always seemed to.

"Looks like I was wrong all the way around," Vin muttered, grinning as he watched Ezra being happily led away from the pool area by the pretty girl in the red and blue bathing suit. "Good luck, Ezra. It looks like dinner's on me tonight."

Chapter 25

The afternoon was slowly giving way to evening when Ezra showed up at the Starbucks café where the five friends had agreed to meet up and make plans for their second night on the town. Leers and questioning looks greeted his arrival, Nathan and Josiah having been filled in on Ezra's poolside rendezvous by the other two. Ezra greeted their curious expressions with an enigmatic smile as he walked past them to place his order with the barista.

"Oh, yeah," chortled Buck as he watched Ezra order. "He definitely got him some good lovin' today."

"How can you tell?" Nathan asked curiously. "I'll admit that he looks more relaxed than he did this morning but that might be just because his hangover wore off."

Buck made a swaying gesture with his right hand. "You kidding? The way his step is bouncing can only mean one thing." He nodded in a knowing way, leaning forward and telling them in a low voice, "Our boy's been poppin' the weasel."

Amidst the snickers at his choice of euphemism, Vin mused, "Well, his chances did look pretty good when he left with that little gal, but don't forget that this is mister subtlety and good manners we're talkin' about here. He could've backed off and spent the afternoon readin' poetry to her for all we know."

Josiah's left eyebrow climbed into an intrigued tilt as he observed Ezra smoothly charming two female employees as he waited for his beverage. "No, I'd have to agree with Buck on this one. Look how cheerful he is all of a sudden, and did you hear what he ordered?"

"Venti double-shot white mocha and a butter croissant," Vin supplied, shrugging his shoulders. "So what?"

Buck cast a pitying look at Nathan and Vin. "Boys, boys, boys," he said, shaking his head in sorrow. "A man only orders that much sugar and caffeine when he's used up all his reserves."

"Or when something has put him in a very self-indulgent mood," Josiah chuckled.

Nathan rolled his eyes. "So, what, the milkshake last night and the chocolate pie this morning were just Ezra's way of revving his engines in case opportunity came knocking?"

Their speculation was cut short as Ezra returned to the table and helped himself to a chair, taking a long sip of his hot mocha. "Heavenly," he commented. "Not too bitter, not too syrupy."

"Notice you ordered that drink with the full-fat milk today," Josiah told him coyly. "That's not like you. And whipped cream too?"

Licking a dab of cream off his upper lip, Ezra smiled serenely. "Is that a problem? Vacations are all about indulging oneself, aren't they? Or did I misunderstand that observation from you this morning?"

Holding up both hands, Josiah replied, "Not at all, brother. Glad to see you getting into the spirit of things is all."

"Why shouldn't he have the good stuff?" Buck said lightly. "All that swimming this afternoon probably worked up quite an appetite. Oh, wait . . . you didn't do any swimming, did you, Ezra? Guess maybe you got yourself some other kind of exercise instead."

Ezra gave a soft snort as he took a bite of his croissant. "Oh, very subtle, Mr. Wilmington. As a matter of fact, I spent a very pleasant afternoon in the confines of my hotel suite."

"Doin' what, exactly?" Vin pressed, grinning in anticipation.

A tiny smile twitched at the corners of Ezra's mouth, allowing just a hint of deep dimples to crease his face. "Haven't you ever heard the expression, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?"

"In other words, mind your own damned business," Nathan translated with a deep chuckle, earning himself a smile and the tip of an imaginary hat.

"All right, all right, no details required," Buck tried again. A note of pleading entered his voice as he said, "Just tell me that you aren't going to leave here a Vegas virgin on Thursday morning."

At these words, Ezra finally laughed outright. "Buck, I haven't been a so-called Vegas virgin since I was seventeen years old!" At Buck's relieved but still hopeful expression, he shook his head fondly. "Let's just say that I refreshed my local credentials this afternoon and leave it at that, shall we?"

Happy with this, Buck raised his cardboard cup in a silent toast.


The available nightlife at the MGM Grand revealed that the show Buck had been hoping to check out; the Crazy Horse Paris exhibition of artistically choreographed nude women; was unfortunately closed for the week. Tickets were still available for Cirque du Soleil, however, and since it turned out that none of the men had ever seen that troupe's live shows they decided to give it a try and follow up with dinner at Emeril's.

"Sure you can afford that, bud?" Buck asked Vin. "I wasn't aiming to break you when we made that bet this morning."

"What bet?" Ezra asked him. "Did you make a wager that ended in Vin's purchasing your repast this evening?"

Vin cast a comically frantic look between the grinning Buck and the puzzled Ezra. Quickly deciding that the truth might not go over very well, he said, "Buck bet me a free dinner that he couldn't pick up two women at the same time down at the pool today. You saw them two he walked out with, so . . ."

"Ah, yes. The silicone sisters," Ezra said tartly, drawing a hoot of laughter from Nathan, who shared Ezra's opinion of cosmetically engineered beauty. "A somewhat foolish wager, all things considered, Mr. Tanner."

He nodded. "I reckon it was, but at least it's good for the rest of you. Josiah picked up the tab last night and Buck got lunch today, so I reckon it's my turn to pay tonight." Answering Buck's earlier question, he added, "I ain't a big spender most of the time so I got plenty to play with. Besides, I still got time to try out one of the poker games before dinner. Might get lucky and not end up payin' anything out of my own pocket at all."

Ezra smiled in approval but felt honor-bound to ask Vin, "Are you certain you want to do that? You don't exactly have the best record of success at poker."

"Not with Draw and Stud, and not against the likes of you," he agreed, "but I been playing Texas Hold-Em for years. Reckon I'm pretty good at it by now."

"I'm up for it," Buck said. "Even Chris can't beat me at Hold-Em."

Ezra shook his head. "Hardly a glowing recommendation. Mr. Larabee is far too impatient to be a good poker player. However, I wish you both the best of luck in your endeavor. I believe I shall stick with my original plan to try the seven card stud tables."


Josiah and Nathan had also opted for a game of stud. The poker room was somewhat crowded in early evening but each of the five men managed to find an empty chair at their game of choice; only Nathan and Ezra ending up at the same table.

Before an hour had passed, both Buck and Josiah, who knew enough to quit when they were behind, had given up and were content to watch the remaining action from the sidelines. The differences in the styles of their three remaining friends were fascinating to watch. Vin's quiet, easy going manner was proving to be an effective tool for bluffing his opponents and a healthy little pile of chips had accumulated in front of him. Nathan played with a confident style but a very serious demeanor, the same way he approached most things in life, while Ezra had a breezy, chatty, laid-back manner that served as a complete contrast to the careful calculation that lurked below the surface.

The contrast between Ezra and Nathan was marked but oddly enough, it seemed to be working a peculiar psych-out on their opponents. By the time the second hour was up, all but one of their original four opponents had either opted out or busted.

As Nathan won the next hand, he smiled and tossed a chip to the dealer. "That's enough for me, folks. I'd better quit while I'm ahead." He shook hands with Ezra and the other player, a heavy-set Asian man about Josiah's age.

Just then, a groan of good-natured dismay rose up from the Hold-Em table where Vin was grinning and raking in the last few chips from one of his fellow players. Buck and Josiah had taken turns watching the two in-progress games which were on opposite sides of the room, but after his own resignation, Nathan decided to stick with Ezra, curious to see if his friend would win the day.

"Vin's doing pretty well so far. Holdin' his own, at least," Buck whispered as he returned from Vin's table, where the Texan had just lost a stack of chips to an older woman with a bad bleach job. "How'd you make out, Nate?"

"Good," he whispered back. "Won about two thousand dollars, I think."

Buck let go a low whistle. "Tomorrow night's dinner is on you, bud, unless ol' Ezra cleans this feller out. Then you two can just fight for it."

A soft chuckle was Nathan's reply. "You really think Ezra wouldn't be happy to let me have that particular honor?"

The game continued slowly, Ezra and his fellow player each choosing to bet conservatively, standing and raising with care through the next three hands. Ezra gained a little, then lost a little, and his opponent appeared to be in no hurry to move things along. Josiah and Vin joined their friends in the observation area just as the third hand ended.

"You win?" Nathan asked Vin, his voice soft but full of interest.

Vin grinned. "Yep. Dinner tonight won't be a problem. Y'all can even have dessert."

Smiling, the two shook hands, silently congratulating each other on their good fortune as they returned their attention to Ezra's game.

Ezra flashed his opponent a confident smile as he checked his watch. "Well, my friend, my time is almost up. I need to join my companions for an evening engagement soon, so what do you say we make this final hand a bit more interesting? I am going to open this hand with one thousand dollars, so I propose making each subsequent raise no less than half that amount."

The other man studied his freshly dealt hand, then glanced at the table and finally at Ezra's face. He smiled slowly. "Sounds good to me, sonny. You sure you can afford to lose that much?"

Ezra's smile became predatory as he tossed a thousand dollars worth of poker chips into the center of the table. "Can you?"

His opponent matched the bet, then doubled it, shooting him a challenging smirk. Ezra discarded two of his cards and accepted replacements from the dealer. The other man did the same. The pot was raised another five hundred, and then another. The watching crowd held their breath as Ezra finally Called.

"Full House," the other man announced, "Tens and Fives."

Ezra made a sad tut-tutting sound with his tongue, and then smiled in a way that could only be described as smug. "Not today, my friend." He slowly laid down the Queen, Jack, Ten, Nine and Eight of hearts. "Straight Flush."

"Damn!" the man exclaimed bluntly, shaking his head as he held out a hand in congratulation. "You play a mean game, son. I thought sure you were bluffing."

"And as circumspect as you've been with your cards, sir, the smile on your face just now led me to the conclusion that I was about to get walloped by a Royal Flush," Ezra replied. "You have one of the best poker faces it has been my pleasure to see."

"Reckon you haven't played in front of many mirrors, then."

They shook hands again and Ezra returned his chips to the dealer in exchange for a voucher to be taken to the cashier's station. He was elated as he returned to his friends, pleased to see them all in attendance. "Greetings, gentlemen! How did you fare, Mr. Tanner?"

"Real good," he said, a modest grin lighting his features. "Not as good as you, but I made enough to get some braggin' rights."

"Excellent," he applauded. "Shall we go redeem our winnings and find our seats at this evening's entertainment?"

As they started forward, Nathan slipped a $100 poker chip into Ezra's hand. At his questioning look, Nathan said, "To cover the rising cost of slot machines."

Remembrance dawned. Ezra opened his mouth to tell Nathan that there was no need for reimbursement, but then changed his mind, knowing that Nathan Jackson had never backed out of an honorable agreement in his life and would probably be offended at the mere suggestion. "Thank you," he said instead. "I'm certain that Rain will wear our joint gift with pride."

Happy that the matter was settled, Nathan simply clapped him on the back as they continued on their way.

Chapter 26

"Well, that was . . . interesting," Nathan commented as they left the theater at the end of the live performance of 'KÀ'. "Not really what I thought it was going to be, but it was kind of pretty to look at and the story was good."

"I liked it," Vin decided. "That moving stage inside the theater is cool and I thought the show itself was pretty exciting. Death defying escapes through mountains and forests, bandits, rockslides, storms at sea . . . hell, I thought some of our assignments were rough!"

Ezra smiled, feeling a bit relieved by his friend's enthusiasm. Attending Cirque du Soleil had been his idea and he had wondered as he watched the show how his less artistically inclined friends might view it. As a result, he was both pleased and surprised by the appraisal. Buck had fallen asleep half way through the first act, luckily not sharing his opinion through audible snoring, and Ezra had expected Vin to do the same.

"I found the martial arts aspect exceptionally well done," he replied, "and the costumes and visual effects were stunning. My only complaint was the lack of acrobatics. I had been under the impression that Cirque du Soleil always featured amazing physical prowess in variations of the traditional circus style acts and I was quite looking forward to seeing these performances for myself. This show seemed to be designed as more of a play."

"That was kind of disappointing and I could've given those twins a few pointers on usin' the land to escape the enemies," Vin mused, "but I still enjoyed m'self."

Josiah smiled. "So did I, but I would agree with the rest of you that it wasn't quite what I was expecting. You missed a pretty good show, Buck."

He made a rude noise. "Right. Next time I want to take a sixty-five dollar nap, I'm hiring a masseuse to do the honors. You ask me that was boring as hell."

Ezra gave a tiny apologetic shrug. Everyone couldn't be pleased all of the time. Checking his watch, he said, "It's only a few minutes after nine o'clock. We'll still have plenty of time after dinner to seek out a different form of entertainment elsewhere if you've got any suggestions, Buck."

"No all-night bars!" Nathan cut in, drawing laughter.

"How about just a regular ol' saloon, kind of like Inez's place back home," Buck said. "Just a nice friendly place to have a couple of brews and chew the fat for a while. I know just the spot, if you boys don't mind leaving the Strip again for awhile."

Josiah nodded. "Sounds good to me. It's probably a good idea to balance out the bright lights and glamour with some simple low-key entertainment."

"Always up for a beer and little B.S.," Vin agreed with a grin. "Maybe we can give Chris a call and rub it in a little about what a great time he's missin'."

Ezra, who had felt just a bit disappointed in the prosaic suggestion, had to smile at that. "JD as well, if we can get hold of him. His reunion escort duties should have been completed by the time we arrive and that way it would feel even more like our usual evenings out."

"Works for me," Nathan said, looking relieved. "As long as this bar serves drinks I can recognize I should be able to avoid another morning like today's."

Vin clapped him on the shoulder. "Tell you what, Nate. I give you leave to order up lots of good food on my tab. Something to soak up the excess booze, just in case you get a little crazy again," he teased. Pointing to the sign for Emeril's restaurant, he gestured the tall black man ahead of him. "Shall we?"

A determined throat-clearing had them all turning back to look at Ezra. He plucked meaningfully at the collar of his soft cream colored dress shirt, on which he had neatly rolled the sleeves to give the expensive garment a casual look. He swept a hand down his body to draw attention to the rest of his outfit; crisp navy cotton slacks and dark leather deck shoes, then gestured outward toward his friends. All four were dressed in variations of the beach-bum style, shorts, tees and loose button-down shirts with sneakers, flip-flops or in Josiah's case, Birkenstock s, on their feet. "If I'm not mistaken, gentlemen, this restaurant has a business casual dress code," he said, hoping no one would take offense. "Perhaps you might want to refresh your attire before we go in."

"We can't go into the bar later lookin' all preppy," Buck protested. "Besides, all I brought was casual stuff; shorts and blue jeans and shirts like this one."

"I can loan you something," Nathan offered, distastefully eyeing the electric blue and yellow Hawaiian nightmare currently adorning Buck's torso. "I didn't know where we'd end up going so I packed for variety. A dress shirt with your jeans should be okay. You can always change back before we go out tonight."

"And it's not like we're insisting you put on a tie," Josiah said with a smile. "Though if you want one, I can loan it to you. Like Nathan, I packed for all contingencies. Must be the boy-scout in me."

Ezra smirked. "I'll see that you get a merit-badge for your foresight. How about you, Vin, do you need a loan?"

Looking a bit self-conscious as he wiped his hands down the legs of his cut-off jean shorts, Vin eyed a couple coming out of their restaurant, noting that they were dressed far more nicely than he was. "Yeah, I reckon that'd be a good idea. Never even thought about some of these places requiring fancy duds."


Twenty minutes later, they were seated inside the New Orleans themed restaurant looking handsome and well-groomed. Vin had tied his hair back and taken a moment to shave away the day's stubble before changing into a pair of khaki slacks and a borrowed sky blue dress shirt. Like Ezra, he had left the collar unbuttoned and rolled the sleeves, achieving a cool but dressy look. Nathan wore black dress pants and a long-sleeved silk patterned shirt in a variety of brown and gold shades while Buck appeared slightly pirate-like in the oversized maroon shirt that Nathan had offered. The two men were nearly the same height but Nathan was more thickly muscled, giving the shirt a puffy quality on Buck's lean frame. It suited his rakish manner and devilish smile admirably. Josiah had also chosen jeans but had paired his with a deep green polo shirt and black loafers, earning himself a long look of approval from a woman at the bar.

"Looks like you got an admirer over there, you ol' dog," Buck murmured with a saucy grin. "Why don't you go over and introduce yourself?"

"I'll pass," he said dryly, watching the woman gulp down her drink and slap her palm down on the bar for a refill as she gave the bartender a sloppy wink. "Looks like she's found a new friend already."

Vin laughed. "Don't sweat it, Josiah. You were doing some pretty decent warm-up flirting at Quark's last night. Maybe some of Ezra's afternoon luck will rub off on you at this saloon and you'll find somebody to put a smile on your face for morning."

"Maybe we both will," he agreed with a grin.

Nathan heaved an exaggerated sigh, "If you do, it looks like I'll be spending the night with the one-armed bandits. Knew I should've got my own room."

Over their friends' chuckling, Ezra offered, "If Vin should find himself with company for the evening, Mr. Jackson, you're quite welcome to transfer your belongings into my room. It has a second bed."

"Don't be so hasty, Ezra. Little miss red-white-and-blue seemed awful impressed with all that southern fried charm of yours. How do you know she's not planning to come back for seconds?" Buck hitched his eyebrows suggestively. "Or would that be thirds?"

Ezra refused to take the bait. "Nice try, Mr. Wilmington, but you have received all of the intelligence you're going to regarding how I spent my afternoon. The only thing I plan to do tonight is sleep."

"Boooo," Buck hooted softly, grinning as he deftly caught the fresh roll Ezra tossed at him and stuffed it into his mouth.

Vin chuckled at the byplay. "Don't worry, Nathan. That whole 'what happens in Vegas' thing sounds like a lot of fun, but I reckon I'm on my own for this trip. One-night stands ain't really my thing."

"Mine either," Ezra said, smiling in a bemused manner as he took advantage of Buck's distraction with the dinner roll to flash Nathan and Vin a scrap of paper with a phone number scribbled on it in curly feminine handwriting. Both men grinned in response, Vin giving him a surreptitious thumbs-up.

"So, who's hungry!" Josiah said, deliberately shifting the conversation as he opened his menu with a hearty snap.

Chapter 27

"Man, that Cajun chicken was some hot stuff," Vin griped, sticking his tongue out and fanning it with his hand. "It's been more'n a half hour since I finished it, I had dessert and two drinks since then and I can still feel it tinglin'!"

Nathan laughed at him. "What did you expect? That's what you get for telling the waitress you wanted it kicked up another notch after she told you the dish was spicy. If it makes you feel any better though, by the time I finished that pepper-steak I could hardly feel my lips anymore."

He pondered the statement a moment, and then grinned. "Actually, that does make me feel better. Least I know I'm not sufferin' all alone."

"What a couple of wusses," Josiah chided them. "I had the Delta Gumbo and I'm doing just fine."

Ezra, having reclaimed his spot in the front passenger seat, glanced over his shoulder at Josiah. "That's hardly a fair comparison, and you know it. Your senses have been numbed into asbestos-like proportions over forty-odd years of four alarm chili and hot Indian curry. Considering your regular consumption of such fare, I doubt you even require Novocain when you visit the dentist's office!"

He laughed. "Well, maybe you have a point there, but I don't hear you complaining either."

Buck snorted. "He probably scorched all the skin off his tongue and can't feel the pain yet."

"Oh, come now. It wasn't that hot and the flavor was exceptional."

"Not that hot!" Buck persisted. "You ordered New Orleans barbecued shrimp with the extra-hot dipping sauce and after the first bite, your eyes were watering like Niagara Falls. Hell, I could almost see the flames shooting out your nose each time you bit down on one of those babies. I though you were crazy when you ordered that."

"That's 'cause you got no sense of adventure," Vin taunted. Winking and waggling his eyebrows in an exaggerated flirt, he tried to imitate Buck's voice as he said, "Darlin', just give me the biggest, juiciest steak you got in this place, medium-rare and nothin' fancy."

Unperturbed, Buck smiled at him in the rear-view mirror. "Well, y'know, some of us can't afford to take the risk of burnin' our lips off on super-spicy food. We need to keep 'em in good shape for more interesting adventures. Take this afternoon for example. . ."

"Oh, lord, here we go. We're now doomed to hear the latest recap," Ezra groaned dramatically, dropping his face into his hand, but then laughing as the action earned him a friendly slap on the back of his head.

"You're just afraid my story will be beat yours," Buck said, clearly offering a challenge.

Ezra flashed him a disdainful look. "Not at all. For some of us, quality is simply more important than quantity."

Buck let go a loud laugh. "You keep tellin' yourself that, Ezra! Bet you won't believe it the next time you see me headin' for a hot date while you're going home to watch summer reruns on TV, though."

The SUV suddenly jerked to the right, causing Ezra's head to clunk against the window and ruining his opportunity for a witty comeback. "Ouch! Damn it, Buck!"

Buck grinned unrepentantly as he pulled into a parking space in the small lot. "Sorry boys, I almost missed the sign. Welcome to Big Red's Tavern!" He smiled in satisfaction as he got out of the vehicle and looked the building over from top to bottom. "Looks just the way I remember it."

"Is that supposed to be a good thing?" Josiah asked him wryly as he exchanged dubious glances with the others. Big Red's was a western-themed bar which, according to a small hand-painted sign in the window, boasted a live band twice a week, all you could eat hot wings Tuesday through Thursday, and line-dancing lessons every Friday night. The place also looked to be a complete dive, with peeling paint, sagging eaves and a neon sign that had half its letters burned out.

Nathan's brows rose as he caught sight of a second bit of weakly flashing neon. "A karaoke bar? Buck, are you sure you got the right place?"

"Sure!" he enthused. "Trust me, it's great. The inside looks a lot better than the outside."

"It couldn't look much worse," Ezra decided, eyeing a supposedly picturesque hitch-rail on the outside of the building that looked to have hosted more termites than horses in its lifetime. He understood now why Buck had been worried about being over-dressed to come here.

As the five men entered the establishment, Buck went straight to the bar and greeted the bartender with a loud shout of, "Earl! How's it hangin', man?"

A tall gaunt man with graying hair and a huge handlebar moustache looked up, his lined face lighting up with recognition. "Buck Wilmington, well I'll be damned!" They shook hands with enthusiasm. "Thought you moved on to bigger and better things, boy. What the hell are you doing back in this rat-trap?"

Ezra glanced at the floor, half-expecting to find actual vermin scurrying past his shoes. The action was noted by Josiah who leaned close and whispered, "I'm sure he's only joking."

"He'd better be."

After being introduced to Buck's old friend and former employer, which at least explained his sentimental attachment to Big Red's, Ezra stepped back from the reunion and looked around the room. There were only five other patrons in the place, three men and two women, most looking about half asleep. Evidently, this was not one of the three live music nights judging by the empty band-stand, but one brave soul was trying out the karaoke stage, belting out what sounded vaguely like a Garth Brooks song with far more gusto than talent.

"Reckon the five of us should be considered a crowd?" Vin joked in a low voice as he walked over to join Ezra in his amused perusal. "Bet they don't get ten customers around here on just any night."

With a grunt of agreement, Ezra pulled out his cellular phone and turned on the camera. He took three photos of the seedy little bar, taking in the bartender animatedly talking with Buck, Nathan and Josiah, the somnolent patrons, and the singer who was apparently working on a medley as he had just launched into a second song. Saving the pictures into memory, he sent them to Chris' phone and then to JD's with a text message reading: 911 - Country Karaoke Kills Vegas!

"The alliteration would be better if we were still in Colorado, but they'll get the idea."

"Yep, that should get their attention," Vin chuckled, reading the message over Ezra's shoulder. "Let's find us a table."

As they sat down, Vin watched the singer for a while then asked, "How much booze you s'pose it would take to get Nathan and Josiah to do a duet on 'Beer for My Horses'?"

Ezra considered the question, a slight raise of one eyebrow giving away his amusement at the idea. "I somehow imagine that Josiah would be willing to do it stone cold sober, but Nathan we might just have to get in a similar condition to last night's."

"Think so?"

"Well, how much would it take to get you up there?"

He snorted. "Not more'n a beer or two. I'm not shy and it kinda looks like fun except you know I can't carry a tune in a bucket. Could be a mite more painful than the rest of you'd be willing to put up with!"

"I'm sure we'd survive the experience," Ezra coaxed, warming to the idea now that Vin had made his surprising declaration, "and it would make a wonderful addition to Josiah's photo gallery. We've hardly taken any pictures all day."

"Well, then you get up there," he shot back. "You can sing, at least. Maybe you and Buck can throw something together."

A pitcher of beer thunked down on the center of the table followed by five already-brimming mugs as the other men rejoined them. "Compliments of the house," Buck said, and then added, "What are we throwing together?"

"Our thanks to your friend," Ezra replied, taking a sip of his mug and happily noting that the beer was both cold and of decent quality, for draft. "Vin and I were just discussing who among our party would be most likely to brave the spotlight on that stage to our left. His money was on you and me, mine was on Josiah."

"Why me?" Josiah asked with a frown.

Vin winked. "Cause somebody who'd call somebody else a wuss for their eatin' choices deserves a little payback."

"Ah," he chuckled.

"There is that, but Mr. Tanner also thought you would probably be the least self-conscious of any of us," Ezra said. Turning back to Vin, he remarked, "Now that I think about it, on those grounds perhaps we should have nominated Josiah and Buck to do the honors together."

Nathan looked rather miffed. "What about me? I can sing. Don't I get any votes?"

Surprised, they both stared at him. "No offense, Mr. Jackson," Ezra apologized. "By your rather horrified reaction to the sign outside we both assumed that the last place you would volunteer to spend time this evening would be up on a karaoke stage."

He shrugged, "Done it before. Rain talked me into trying it at her cousin's wedding reception last year. It wasn't as bad as I expected and a place like this with no crowd to worry about should be easy compared to that. There must've been five hundred people at that damned reception."

"Well, live and learn," Josiah said, having also assumed that Nathan would avoid such a form of entertainment at all costs. "I say we all take a turn at some point. At the very least we can get a few more pictures for the vacation album."

"That's what I said!" Ezra agreed, his enthusiasm for the idea growing by leaps and bounds. He would not have been caught dead in a place like this one back home, but somehow the relative distance coupled with the assurance that he would not be alone in his foolishness was making the idea seem bizarrely appealing.

Buck grinned at them. "I'm game if you all are. Who goes first?"

Chapter 28

"Let's flip for it," Ezra suggested, seeing that nobody was going to volunteer.

Vin looked puzzled. "How the hell do five people flip for it? You got a bunch of trick coins or something?"

Digging into his pocket, Ezra counted out five quarters. "Heads are dominant. We each flip a coin and those who have heads-up then flip again. This goes on until someone is chosen, or if preferred those chosen may go on stage as a double or triple act. Then we just go down the line in whatever order the next men were eliminated."

"Sounds fair enough, I guess," Nathan decided, unable to find a flaw in Ezra's plan but nonetheless stealthily examining each coin to insure that there were none with the same image stamped on both sides.

The others agreed that this would work and each picked up a quarter. After the first flip, everyone except Vin was still in. Another toss and Nathan and Josiah were each exempted.

"Guess that leaves you and me, hoss," Buck observed. "What do you say? One more flip or do you want to team up?"

Ezra took a deep swallow of his beer as he considered the question. If he went now, he could get it over with. On the other hand, another flip could send Buck up to break the ice first. Alternately, if they went together, Buck might deliberately choose the most embarrassing song on the playlist but at least he wouldn't be alone.

"Mr. Wilmington," he decided, "I have never yet had any reason to doubt your reliability as a partner. I don't think you'll give me one now."

Buck jumped to his feet, clearly pleased with the compliment. "Great!" He turned back to the others. "Any requests?"

"Didn't you say you wanted to do 'Beer for My Horses?" Vin said, happy to know he would have a chance to sit back and make fun of his friends for a while before his own turn came up.

"No, you said you wanted to hear Nathan and Josiah sing it," Ezra corrected dryly, holding out his hand. "And give me back my quarters."

Four coins were sheepishly dug out of pants pockets where they had been deposited after the toss.

"Thank you," he said, a hint of exasperation in his voice. "I don't know what it is with you people and stray objects. I lose a dozen pens a month in the same fashion, yet somehow none of you ever seems to have anything to write with."

Buck laughed. "Just one of those things, like stray socks in the dryer when you started out with matched pairs. Now quit stallin' and let's get up there before we lose our nerve."

The karaoke machine was set to the left of the stage and the audience stirred with a show of interest as they realized that someone new was about to take the stage. Clearly, Ezra's opinion of the Garth wannabe had not been a unique one. The disc catalogue was better stocked than expected but as he and Buck flipped through the choices, Ezra found that it was still difficult to make a selection. While he did not object to it, country music was not his preferred choice of listening and he was forced to reject several of Buck's suggestions on the grounds that he had no idea what the song sounded like. The monitor would provide the lyrics, but he had no intention of warbling his way through some strange off-key melody in hopes of landing on a few correct notes.

"Wait!" he said, just as Buck was about to flip another page. "Do you know this one?"

Taking note of where Ezra's finger was pointing, Buck began to grin. "Do you?" Ezra nodded. "You're sure it ain't beneath your dignity or something?"

"It probably is, but it's also an undeniably fun song," he explained. "I hear it on the 'we play everything' station now and then and I can never resist cranking the volume up."

Buck beamed in approval. "Me either! You want the lead or the harmony?"

"Which has the spoken-word part in the middle?"

"Uh, harmony."

Ezra smiled. "That particular section always makes me think of you," he admitted, "so why don't I take the lead?"

"You got it," he agreed. Looking around him, his smile widened. "Tell you what, let's make this interesting. You start at the left of the stage, I'll take the right and we can meet in the center. Put on a good show for the paying customers."

He laughed. "Nobody is paying us for this. In fact, if it sounds the way I expect it to they may end up paying us to leave the stage!"

"So, either way, we win!"

Ezra laughed again and picked up one of the available microphones, turning it on and testing for volume. Buck did the same, then punched his selection into the karaoke machine and ran to take his side of the stage just as the music started.

It came up with a hard beat of drums and the pounding of guitar strings. Pulling their faces into serious expressions, Buck and Ezra strode toward one another on the downbeat, each executing a simple two-step line dance maneuver around the other as easily as if they had practiced this a dozen times. At the center, they pivoted toward the grinning audience and started singing. 'Well, I walk into the room, passing out hundred-dollar bills, and it kills and it thrills, like the horns on my Silverado grill. I buy the bar a double round of Crown and everybody's getting down, and this town ... ain't never gonna be the same. Cause I saddle up my horse, and I ride him to the city. I make a lot of noise, 'cause the girls they are so pretty. Ridin' up and down Broadway on my old stud, Leroy, and the girls sing: Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy!'

Within moments, the crowd was into the performance, stomping their feet, clapping their hands and shouting out the title line each time the singers reached it. None were more enthusiastic than the three observers at the table in the corner. Josiah was snapping pictures like a mad paparazzi and Vin and Nathan each held up a phone and waved it in the air, causing Buck and Ezra to exchange rueful glances. Apparently, Chris and JD were now enjoying their performance as well.

Pleased with the crowd's enthusiasm, the two friends threw themselves into the performance, Buck even going so far as to hop down off the stage and dance a bit with one of the women in the audience. When they finished the song, all nine of their viewers, including Earl the bartender, burst into hearty applause.

Waving off somebody's laughing shout of, "Encore!" Buck and Ezra went back to their table and gave Josiah and Nathan a prompting shove. The two men gamely took their turn, Josiah filling in the lyrics of Willie Nelson while Nathan provided Tobey Keith's on the requested song.

Picking up his cell phone while Buck did the same with Nathan's, Ezra left the picture taking duties to Vin. The number on the readout proved that Chris was on his line. "Hello, Mr. Larabee!" he called out, shouting a bit over the volume of the music. "What did you think of our performance?"

"Never thought you had it in you," Chris's voice chuckled from the speaker. "You two sound good together! You ever done that before?"

"Not once," he replied truthfully, swallowing down the remaining half of his beer in a single long gulp as relief and giddiness swept over him in equal measure. "It was fun, though. I wouldn't be opposed to trying it again some time. Suppose Inez would be amenable to the notion of adding a karaoke stage to her establishment?"

Chris laughed. "You're drunk, aren't you?"

"Not yet!" he replied cheerfully, pouring himself another round from the pitcher. Realizing that Josiah and Nathan were about to reach the chorus, he said, "Listen!" and held up the phone. Buck cut off his conversation with JD and did the same.

'Justice is the one thing you can always find. You gotta saddle up your boys, you gotta draw a hard line. When the gun smoke settles we'll sing a victory tune, and we'll all meet back at the local saloon. We'll raise up our glasses against evil forces, singing...'

All five members of Team Seven, including those on the phones, chimed in on the line, 'Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses."

Buck and Ezra swapped phones. While Buck filled Chris in on the trip so far, his overheard enthusiasm making Ezra grin as the other man repeatedly told Chris that he should be kicking himself for missing out, Ezra found himself providing similar details for JD.

"Man, I wish I could have been there," JD said mournfully, quickly adding, "Not that the reunion wasn't great too. Casey introduced me to a lot of her old friends and they turned out to be pretty cool people."

Ezra laughed. "May I assume by that remark that Miss Wells is in the room with you?"

"Yeah," he admitted. "She says to tell you hello."

"You do the same from me," he replied. "And JD? Next time, I promise we won't go anywhere without you. I should have waited until I was certain that everyone would be available."

JD dismissed the apology with the forgiving nature that made him so much of a gem as a friend and teammate. "You had to take the chance while it was there, Ezra. I knew that. Not like you've always been able to do what we wanted, though we all wished you could have. Nothing's ever quite as good without all seven of us."

Ezra felt a small hole in his heart heal up at those sincere words, only then realizing how much he had needed reassurance from his absent brothers. "I would certainly agree with that assessment, my friend."

"I need to get going but I want to hear Vin first," JD said, and Ezra suspected that the note of begging in his voice was directed at Casey rather than himself. "Don't hang up until he's done with his song, okay?"

"As you wish," Ezra promised. "Josiah and Nathan are returning now so it's his turn."

Vin cast him a dark look at those words. Clearly, he had hoped that the others might be having such a good time that they would forget his turn.

Easily reading his expression, Ezra held out his hand for the camera. "Not a chance, Mr. Tanner. Get up there and do the state of Texas proud."

Vin flipped him off.

"You want one of us to go up with you?" Buck offered, realizing that it wasn't exactly fair that Vin was the only one forced to sing without a partner.

"Nah," he said, "but I 'preciate the offer."

Congratulations were exchanged among Buck, Josiah, Ezra and Nathan while Vin took his time browsing the available selections. Finally, he grinned and picked something out.

"This one's for you, Ezra!" he shouted, stomping his foot in time to the beat as the familiar fiddle strains of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" started to play.

Josiah guffawed. "I might have known he'd find the one song in the whole catalogue that's mostly spoken instead of sung. Go, Vin!"

The crowd was thoroughly into the entertainment by now and Vin had very little to worry about when it came time to sing the chorus. He could barely hear himself over the drunken patrons, who were few but filled with enthusiasm. Three more customers had drifted in since the singing began, apparently drawn by calls from those already there since they quickly took places at the already occupied tables.

Leaning towards Buck, Ezra said, "I think your friend Earl is happy that you decided to pay him a visit this trip!"

Buck grinned and raised his glass toward his old friend. Earl grinned and gave him a thumbs-up.

"I think that was worth a free pitcher of beer," Nathan observed, laughing as he picked up the empty, "but I'm going to go buy us a new one."

Ezra handed him some cash. "Make it two. Vin downed most of the last one by himself in an attempt to bolster his courage."

"You got it."

As he observed those around him, Ezra felt warmth glowing inside of his chest that had nothing whatsoever to do with any alcohol or spicy food he might have consumed over the course of the evening. Listening to the laughter and camaraderie surrounding him, he felt another chunk of his built up wall of stress crumble away. God, he had missed this.

Chapter 29

Ezra stood at the window of his room at the MGM Grand looking out over the twinkling landscape. The hour was late but he did not feel the least bit tired yet. The energy of the hectic night-life below seemed to thrum through his bloodstream, warm and tingling with life.

Yet strangely, for all the connection he felt with the city tonight he had no wish to rejoin its masses. He was content right now to simply observe, taking this rare moment of complete privacy to reflect upon the events of the day.

Ezra pulled the folds of his favorite red silk bathrobe tighter around his body as he leaned against the glass, resting his forehead upon its cool smooth surface. He noted absently that he was probably leaving a smear on the glass where the dampness of his freshly showered hair lay touching it but he did not move from his spot, too comfortable to be bothered by such a trifling matter.

Other than the bathrobe, he had not bothered to get dressed after his ablutions were complete and knew that he would not do so when it came time to climb into bed. He rarely slept naked but somehow bare skin suited his mood tonight. He felt vulnerable, open, the purity of his emotions demanding physical expression.

Today had been wonderful. Even starting off with a hangover had not made it any less so, for it had been amusing to see his colleagues in an equally sorry state and to feel certain that they had all thoroughly enjoyed the events that got them there. It had been a long time since he just let go and had fun, doing whatever sounded good at any given moment. And he could have chosen no better company to do it in. He smiled, thinking over Buck's flirtation challenge. Never for a moment had he imagined how rewarding that particular game would turn out to be.

The smile deepened as he caught the pale reflection of his eyes in the glass, remembering how Keziah had remarked on their lightness and clarity. She had claimed she could see eternity by looking into them then forced his lids to close as she laid a soft kiss upon each one. It had been too long since anyone had touched him with such tenderness and Ezra had felt his defenses crumbling more with every sweet touch.

She had peppered every inch of his face and neck with those light petal soft caresses, pausing every so often to trace her fingertips over his brows, his cheeks, and the outer shell of his ears. She had seemed fascinated by him and he had not hesitated to reciprocate, touch for touch, kiss for kiss, loving the feel of Keziah's smooth sensual curves beneath his hands, and the delicate whispers and moans that she voiced as he loved her with quiet expertise, her pleasure in his touches heightening his own enjoyment almost to the point of pain.

The culmination had been equally slow and tender, completion washing over them like a gentle wave, but as the sensation passed, it had somehow ignited something entirely different. Instead of relaxing into the expected post-coital haze, adrenaline had surged through both of their bodies, hot and wild as fever, filling them with a mutual need for more. They had given in to that powerful feeling, coherent thought vanishing into pure animal instinct as they coupled again with fierce frantic urgency, struggling to pull each other ever closer. As the intensity continued to climb, they had driven together in a hard, passionate rhythm until they reached the summit and fell together at last.

They had held one another tightly after it was over, breathless and spent, and Ezra had found himself teetering on the edge of an unexpected hysteria that for a moment did not seem to know whether it wished to be expressed in laughter or tears.

Keziah had seemed to understand his reaction, holding him in her arms for a long while and soothing him with tender touches. He had rested against her breast, content, allowing himself to bask in the comfort of her presence. Soon they had drifted into a long easy conversation that had nothing to do with either of their day to day lives and yet proved to be all the more revealing for that lack.

He had found himself telling of his emptiness, his loneliness, his need to reconnect with the closest thing he had ever found to real family. She had told him of her own fears, and they had reassured one another that everything would be all right.

Ezra drew one loosely folded hand over his breastbone, remembering the feel of Keziah's small hand caressing his chest over and over, offering comfort to his body just as her words offered a balm to his roughened spirit.

They had made love one final time after that, once again moving slowly and gently, memorizing one another's bodies; creating a talisman against future lonely times. He had held her for a while when it was over, then he had let her go. She had kissed him sweetly as she said goodbye, pressing the scrap of paper into his palm with the words, "In case you ever need it."

A faint sigh drifted over Ezra's lips; an expression of contentment. He did not know if he would ever call the number on that paper, but it was nice to know it was there. Just in case. He smiled again, wondering what Buck Wilmington really would have thought if he'd given in and told him the truth about his afternoon adventure. He had no intention of sharing the details of his time with Keziah, but he would have staked his life on the fact that he had had a more fulfilling afternoon than Buck had managed, even with both of his buxom beauties. Not that Buck would ever believe that!

Drawing himself away from the window, Ezra pulled the curtains closed with a soft whoosh. Retrieving a bottle of water he had stored in his mini-fridge, he sat down in one of the room's two upholstered recliners and took a long sip, picking up the poker-chip Nathan had given him earlier from the table next to his chair. He had stuck it into his pocket rather than cashing it out with the rest. As long as Nathan never knew, he could keep it as a souvenir of one of the most rewarding stretches of time he had ever spent with the Team7 medic.

Ezra danced the plastic chip over his knuckles, back and forth, back and forth as he remembered the surprisingly easy camaraderie he and Nathan had been enjoying ever since this trip began. It was amazing to realize that they had not gotten into a single argument or experienced even one serious misunderstanding in two full days together.

He shook his head. It would never last. They would go home and he would begin behaving in his normal fashion again, allowing this more vulnerable side of himself to hide behind a wall of aloof sarcasm where it felt safe and familiar. Nathan would likewise return to normal, solicitous of his physical well-being but wholly exasperated by his attitude, and they would be fine. They would be more than fine because they would each have had a good look at the other's heretofore unknown fun side.

A soft chuckle broke free from Ezra as he flipped the poker chip into the air and set it spinning on the tip of his index finger. Who would ever have suspected that Nathan Jackson enjoyed nickel slot-machines, Star Trek and karaoke?

His green eyes softened with fondness as he set the chip down and picked up the program Josiah had given him from the roller-coaster yesterday, telling him to look it over and remember it the next time he felt that he could not master some fear. How well Josiah knew him, even without his having to express himself in words.

Ezra wondered suddenly whether Josiah had told the others of their conversation at his home, if that was why they were all being so cooperative and supportive. He frowned slightly as he thought over that idea. He had seen those studious soul-deep glances Vin Tanner had been giving him whenever he thought that Ezra wasn't looking, and Buck had been even more hearty and jovial toward him than was normal. Josiah himself had adopted that peculiar paternal manner that he got whenever he felt that one of his friends was in need of emotional bolstering. These were all sure signs that his attempts at keeping the other men from knowing how much he needed them had been futile.

Ezra snorted softly, surprised that his newfound discovery did not disturb him. He thought about the karaoke bar and how enthusiastically everyone had thrown themselves into their somewhat embarrassing performances. They had all seemed to enjoy it, true, but deep in his heart Ezra knew that if he had not been there tonight, the small stage would likely have been ignored while the men spent their evening just telling tall tales over mugs of beer.

Settling more deeply into his chair, Ezra allowed his head to loll against the seat-back as he considered the matter more fully. In the past, he had gone mountain climbing, trail-riding, fly fishing and white-water rafting; had attended sporting events ranging from a bowling tournament to a Denver Broncos football game, not because he had been interested but because his friends had wanted to do these things and he had been willing to humor them. And the fact was that he had mostly enjoyed himself during those activities, allowing the enthusiasm around him to color his own experience, but a part of him had always wondered whether the favor would be returned if he should ever propose an art gallery, a music hall or a casino as a choice location for an evening's entertainment.

Now he had his answer.

A sudden wave of sleepiness washed over him and for a moment, he considered giving in to it and falling asleep right where he was. Then he shook his head and hauled himself out of the chair. He had paid good money for a decent bed and he was going to use it. Draping his robe across the foot of the bed, he slid between the smooth Egyptian cotton sheets - an amenity that he had felt well worth the extra expense of this room - and switched off the light.

Thinking about the plan for tomorrow, a satisfied smile dimpled his cheek. What had Josiah said about the Bellagio hotel? World-class spas and high-class gambling establishments; what bliss! Ezra nestled into his plump pillow and snuggled more fully into the soft mattress, enjoying the touch of the warm smooth covers against his skin as he drifted further into the arms of Morpheus, certain that he would have nothing but pleasant dreams tonight.

Chapter 30


Vin Tanner's soft exclamation drew grins from Josiah and Ezra as the five friends entered the lobby of the Bellagio hotel on Wednesday. They had all enjoyed a good night's rest at the MGM and had woken in time to share a leisurely breakfast at one of the hotel's small café restaurants. Killing a couple of hours at the slot machines in various casinos along the Strip had brought them to the Bellagio just as the posted check-in time arrived.

"Something, isn't it?" Josiah said, waving one hand in an expansive gesture, his tone holding as much pride as if he owned the place himself. "I stayed here one time right after they first opened. Truly a work of art."

"Indeed," Ezra agreed, glancing up at the exquisitely intricate display of blown-glass flowers overhead. "I should have hated to miss this sight. I understand that this hotel also features its own art museum and botanical garden."

Interest filled Vin's blue eyes as he looked around. "I like them. Not quite as pretty as a wild outdoor display but botanical gardens are usually real nice. I expect it'd be a good place to relax for awhile when the clanging of slot machines gets to be too much."

Nathan smiled at him. "Are you getting to that point already?"

He shrugged, his smile becoming a tad apologetic. "I'm not complainin', I've had a real good time these last couple of days, but yeah, those sounds are startin' to horn in even when I'm sleeping. Did you notice that some of these places even got slot machines in the john?"

Ezra laughed, his worries of personal fault over any expression of dissatisfaction seeming to have vanished with the new day. "I must admit, they do get a little excessive at times. Feel free to explore the gardens, or go shopping or spend your day poolside if you've had enough gambling, Mr. Tanner. This is our last day in Las Vegas and I believe we should all do whatever we like with it. Personally, I intend to spend the next few hours playing poker before my appointment at the day spa this afternoon."

"You made an appointment?" Buck said, wrinkling his brow. "Why? Nathan got right in for his massage at the MGM yesterday morning. Don't expect this place would be too busy to take a walk-in on a Wednesday afternoon."

"For the basic Swedish variety that would probably be true, but I've decided to try the three-hour Spa Splendor package. It includes something called aquatic massage, followed by a more specialized treatment of the hands, feet and scalp, finishing with a skin exfoliation."

Nathan let go a whistle as Ezra finished describing his intended treatments. "You do realize that a place like this probably charges upwards of four hundred dollars for all that stuff, don't you?"

"Of course," he said serenely, "and I fully expect it to be worth every penny."

Noticing Buck's expression, caught somewhere between disbelief, envy and disdain, Ezra smiled. He could tell that Buck was reconsidering his decision to give all of the 'girly' day spa treatments a miss. "Something wrong, Mr. Wilmington?"

"No," he said, fingering his mustache in a thoughtful manner. "I was just wondering if they got anything a man can enjoy for an hour or so without needing to sign away his first-born."

Josiah grinned widely. "I'm going in for the Ashiatsu Oriental massage. It's a couple hundred less than what Ezra's getting but still well worth the price."

Vin's brow wrinkled. "Ain't that the thing where the girl walks around barefooted on your back?"

"It's an experience like no other," he replied, a blissful expression already filling his eyes.

Vin chuckled. "Well, it don't sound like much fun to me but whatever floats your boat, I guess. Actually, come to think of it that might be right up your alley, Bucklin. You like to let the gals walk all over you."

Buck made a face at him that just made Vin laugh harder. "I'll pass, thanks. I want to pick me up a few souvenirs so I think I'll see what kind of shops this joint has. Besides, it's not like I can't find a woman who'd be willing to give me a nice private backrub for free." He looked smugly at Ezra. "And I bet I'd also get a few amenities that your spa doesn't have on offer."

"I'm sure you're correct," Ezra replied dryly.

"You don't know what you're missing," Josiah averred, not at all disturbed by Buck's boast. "I intend to go have my massage then play another round of golf and spend the rest of my afternoon lounging by the pool with a tall frosty drink in my hand."

"Sounds good to me," Nathan decided. "Think I'll join Vin at the botanical garden, maybe grab some lunch and a nap, then meet you down at the pool later on. If you two don't mind some company

that is."

Vin nodded. "Glad to have you. I'll probably be ready for a swim by then myself."

Josiah smiled at them. "I'll keep an eye out for you."

Conversation paused as they reached the beginning of the line at the check-in desk. Ezra smiled at the female concierge and handed her his credit card. "Good day, we've reserved three rooms under the name Standish. Two queens and a king." Given the increased expense of their new accommodations, Buck and Josiah had opted to share a room.

"Very good, sir," she said, checking the computer readout, confirming the reservation and handing over a room key and brochure to each man. "You're on the seventh floor. Enjoy your stay."

Looking at his key, Vin grinned as they walked away from desk. "Seventh floor, huh? Must be our lucky day. Maybe I oughtta reconsider going back to the casinos."

Josiah chuckled. "Not me. I'm all about sunshine, relaxation and pampering today. As far as I'm concerned, Ezra can do the honors for all of us."

A dimpled grin met his declaration. "It will be my pleasure, gentlemen."