Just For Fun

by Helen Adams

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

Chapter 31

"So, what time is your appointment at the spa?" Josiah asked as he and Ezra headed in that general direction, waving goodbye to the others as they headed off in pursuit of their own entertainments. "I'm scheduled around forty-five minutes from now."

Ezra checked his watch by reflex. "Not until three o'clock. I could have gone a bit later, actually, but I wasn't certain what time the rest of you might expect to dine. I'll need adequate time to clean up and put on appropriate attire."

Josiah smiled as his friend glanced down somewhat distastefully at his clothing. He was wearing blue denim shorts, a t-shirt with a subdued blue and white pattern, and a pair of deck shoes so vividly white that it hurt to look at them for long. Ezra was clearly making an effort to match the casual mode that the others favored and Josiah would have bet serious money that every single item on his person had still had a tag on it two hours earlier.

"Nathan's hot to try the Mediterranean restaurant they have here. Olives, I think it's called. It's his turn to pay tonight so he put in a reservation for eight o'clock. Figured he could cancel it later if the rest of us didn't want to eat there."

"Mr. Jackson does like to be prepared for all contingencies," Ezra mused. "I've been to the Olives restaurant in Boston and the food was excellent there, so I'd certainly be willing to take a chance. I'm not sure Vin and Buck will appreciate having to dress for dinner two nights in a row but Nathan will get no complaint from me."

He grinned. "Good, and if they do protest we can just point out that the vote already stands three to two."

Ezra laughed. "With such an argument, how can they possibly refuse? Enjoy your massage, Mr. Sanchez. I shall meet you at the restaurant at 8 o'clock."

"Don't be late."

"You may set your watch by me."

With a parting pat on Josiah's broad shoulder, Ezra veered left toward the hotel poker room. Even at noon the place was busy and his eyes lit up at the sight of generous stacks of poker chips adorning the tables in front of many players. Quickly exchanging a roll of cash for a tray of chips, Ezra found himself a likely game and settled in to enjoy a few hours engaged in his favorite pass time.


Unlike when he played with his friends on the occasional Saturday night, Ezra felt no compunction toward a generous attitude and a withholding of his time-honed skills. He played with care and precision, alternating his technique to fit his opponent as each of their styles and acuity levels were tested. Those players with obvious tells were eliminated quickly by the more proficient gamblers and Ezra's own face showed no trace of the wild thrill thundering through his blood each time he outplayed one of these more experienced gamesmen.

It had been a worry, kept tucked away at the back of his mind but real nonetheless, that the long time away from truly skilled opponents might have caused his own abilities to fade. It was a relief to find out for certain that his talents in the game had not waned from lack of practice. Not that Chris, Josiah and the others were bad players. They were simply too accustomed to the rules of friendly play to be any real challenge to him. Ezra had been raised under Maude's strict tutelage, and her take-no-prisoners attitude had been virtually imprinted on his DNA. The other men of Team7 would never know just how often they had been allowed to win out of sheer rebellion against his mother's teachings.

Ezra frowned a bit, imagining Nathan Jackson turning purple with apoplexy if he were to ever find out that his suspicions of cheating were often true, but geared toward personal loss rather than personal gain.

A female card sharp with a blandly innocent face and manner that had been holding Ezra at a standstill for close to two hours noted his expression and suddenly went all-in, anticipating a kill.

Ezra's left eyebrow rose, uncertain why the woman had made her move but knowing it was time to take a chance. He called her bet and smirked triumphantly when he proved to have the superior hand.

With a friendly curse, the woman rose and shook hands as her remaining chips were added to Ezra's own.

Checking his watch, Ezra noted that he had just under an hour to go before he was due at the day-spa. "Ladies and Gentlemen, it has been a true pleasure but I'm afraid my time here is almost at an end. Regretfully I must soon depart."

There were a few grumbles of mixed disappointment and relief. Ezra smiled, knowing that the rest of them were enjoying this matching of wits and ability just as much as he was. He had increased his original stake tenfold and his hot streak showed no sign of cooling down. He was both delighted and triumphant, neither of these emotions being allowed to show on his face, when a pit-boss appeared at his elbow offering to comp his stay at the hotel as incentive to stay in the game awhile longer.

Ezra pondered the offer for a moment, then with pretend reluctance agreed to stay for a while longer. The employee borrowed his room-key to arrange his free stay and wished him continued good-fortune. He nodded graciously, hiding a grin. He knew that if he were to stay and keep winning at his present rate then the next offer would be an upgrade to a suite; anything to keep him playing long enough for his luck to turn and all of his newly accumulated wealth to pour back into the casino coffers.

Ezra was sorely tempted to cancel his appointment and remain right here for the rest of the day but after a few moments spent wrestling with temptation, he knew that he would not. As satisfying as the financial gain was, he had really come here today to prove a point to himself. He had needed to know for his own peace of mind, that he was still worthy of his raising - as peculiar as that had been - and able to hold his own and better. He could now hold his head high the next time his mother began to lament the loss of his God-given talents, reassured that his chosen career was not a failure to live up to her teachings, but rather an alternative of his own choosing.

Lightly fingering a tall stack of chips, Ezra smiled and tossed a few into the pot. He played another three hands and then took his leave without regret, his personal mission having been accomplished.

Chapter 32

Dressed once more in his green and gold swimsuit and a borrowed terrycloth robe bearing the logo of the Bellagio on its lapel, Ezra sat in a woven wicker chair sipping on a glass of ice water, bouncing one leg up and down while drumming the fingers of his free hand on the twitching muscles of his thigh. How ridiculous to come in for a relaxing massage and then sit here growing tenser by the moment.

He wondered if he shouldn't have opted for the traditional Swedish variety after all. The brochure he had read through in the lobby on Watsu had implied that the aquatic massage technique involved floating in a warm pool of water and just letting go; turning over complete control of one's body to the skilled machinations of a therapist. It was meant to sound relaxing and appealing; he knew that, but the writers of that little pamphlet could not possibly have known that there was nothing more certain in this world to make Ezra Standish into a nervous wreck than to demand loss of self-control.

More than half-tempted to just tell the receptionist that he had changed his mind, Ezra had stayed put, forcing himself to remain outwardly calm as he filled out the required paperwork at the front desk. He had answered a multitude of questions pertaining to his present state of health, allergies, past and presently existing medical conditions, and particular areas of stress. Afterward, he had been led back to the changing area and advised to partake of the herbal teas, fresh spring water and light fruit juices on offer in the small lounge until someone came to meet him. He had already been advised during the setting of his appointment that this form of massage required a swimsuit to be worn, so he had come prepared for that.

"Ezra Standish?"

Ezra looked up to find a tall well-muscled black man of about forty-five years smiling at him. "Yes."

He held out a hand which Ezra shook automatically as he rose. "I'll be your massage therapist today. My name's Moose."

"Excuse me?" The incredulous look on Ezra's face brought an easy laugh and a bright twinkle to the man's light brown eyes. Clearly, it was precisely the reaction he had expected.

"It's short for Maurice," he clarified. "Got the nickname back when I played high school football and it's stayed with me over the years. Even my wife calls me Moose."

His cheery matter-of-fact demeanor was already helping to calm Ezra. He returned the man's cheerful grin with a small smile of his own. "I feel as though I ought to introduce you to my friend Buck. That's not his birth name either, but it might as well be."

Moose chuckled and gestured him to follow. They walked through a couple of hallways and into a small pool area. The air temperature was moderate but Ezra could feel heat from the water as he stepped closer to it. The pool was only about fifteen feet long and ten across, and he could see a mark on one wall that set the depth at four feet.

"I've never had this sort of massage before," he confessed, allowing a trace of his doubt to show through. "I must confess that I'm a bit apprehensive."

The therapist nodded. "Most people are the first time, but I promise you that it's a wonderful experience. I've had it done many times myself and have been a practitioner for more than nine years. All I need you to do is relax and trust me. I'll do all the work."

A soft snort escaped and Ezra smiled ruefully. "That may be precisely the problem. My friends claim that I'm a bit of a control freak. Trust is not one of my hallmark characteristics."

The other man simply smiled, not seeming at all disturbed by this confession. "Well then, why don't we start off with some conversation? Come on in the water and sit down on this step here. Just settle back against the edge of the pool and float your legs in the water. Get used to the temperature while we talk for a bit."

Well, that didn't sound too bad, Ezra decided. Leaving his robe on a wooden bench he obeyed, a bit surprised by how warm the water felt. More than a heated swimming pool, it was close to his own body temperature, giving the pool the feel of being more like a large bathtub. Swinging his legs gently through the warmth, he relaxed a bit, enjoying the feeling.

Moose slid into the water, resting one elbow on the pool's edge as he picked up a clipboard he'd left resting on the dry surface, asking a series of questions pertaining to Ezra's daily living conditions and stress levels.

Without going into unnecessary detail, Ezra explained that he was in law enforcement and had just come off a very stressful assignment that had left him physically and emotionally drained, causing insomnia, frequent nightmares when he did manage to rest, and persistent knots of tension in his joints. That was more than he would have confessed to most people, ATF bureau shrinks and his own friends included, but the fact that he would never see this man again after today gave Ezra the freedom to be honest and he took advantage of it. He hoped that just as talking with Keziah yesterday afternoon had helped restore his emotional balance, being honest with this man now might help to restore his physical well being.

"I think we're ready," Moose told him, setting aside his clipboard at a safe distance from the water. Holding up a set of brightly colored plastic rings, he said, "I'm just going to attach these floats to your ankles to help you remain buoyant."

Ezra nodded, watching impassively as the ugly little rings encircled his lower legs. He was a bit more dubious when instructed to place his left arm around the therapist's shoulders and allow his other arm to float freely. He did as instructed but then tensed, unable to disguise the acute feeling of embarrassment that swept over him when Moose slid muscular arms beneath his back and knees, lifting him off the step as easily as if he were a child being carried off to bed.

"Easy now," the man crooned, drawing Ezra toward the middle of the pool and maneuvering him gently so that he was floating on his back as the therapist lowered his own body further into the water, allowing Ezra to hold on lightly without straining his arm. "Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. As soon as I feel you start to relax, I'm going to begin a series of simple twists and pulling maneuvers, allowing your muscles to stretch out without putting any stress on your joints. Your back will remain supported at all times and your face will never go under the water. Just let yourself float in the heat and feel yourself letting go of that stress. Don't try to resist unless what I'm doing starts to hurt you in any way."

The therapist's voice had a hypnotic effect as he worked. The mellow baritone never stopped as Moose gently pushed and pulled Ezra's body through the water, seemingly knowing what a comforting focus it provided. After only a few minutes, Ezra felt himself relaxing into the treatment. He kept his eyes closed, allowing the heat and the buoyancy to separate him from his consciousness of time and needed control. Per his promise, Moose never allowed his face to submerge, though the feeling of water lapping in and out of his ears was slightly disconcerting. Ezra sighed deeply as strong skilled fingers moved firmly against the pressure points in his back and neck, loosening and relieving tension and pain wherever they explored.

"There you go," Moose said at last, waking Ezra from a very light doze into which he had fallen, allowing the reality of the world around him to fade while at the same time remaining conscious of the light massage. It had felt almost as though he were engaged in some strange dance as his legs continued to float and sway through the water while the therapist lightly manipulated the rest of his body. Feeling Ezra tense as he regained full alertness, the therapist steadied him and removed the ankle floats, then assisted him back into an upright position. Offering another friendly smile, he asked, "How do you feel?"

Ezra paused for a moment to consider the question, surprised to honestly answer, "Much better. That was rather enjoyable."

The large man laughed a bit. "I'm glad to hear it." Leaving Ezra's side, he hauled himself out of the pool and grabbed a fluffy towel from the stack near the bench. "Take your time getting out. When you're ready, just go through that door to your left. There's a shower room there. When you're finished come back out to the lounge and I'll take you through for the second part of your treatment."

"Thank you," he said sincerely. For several minutes after his therapist left, Ezra simply sat on the bench inside the warm pool feeling too drained to move. At last, he stood and walked up the steps to collect a towel and his robe. He smiled as he moved under one of the waiting showerheads, rinsing and drying his body quickly. Now that the first part of his session was over, he was looking forward to the rest with great anticipation.

Chapter 33

Ezra ducked into the men's locker room when he reached the lounge, Moose having confirmed that it would be all right to remove his wet bathing suit. The toweling robe would be sufficient for the rest of his session. After helping himself to another cup of fresh cold water, this one lightly flavored with lemon juice, he happily followed his therapist into a small room just off to the side of the lounge where he took a seat in a narrow reclining leather chair.

Moose settled himself onto a rolling stool at Ezra's right side and picked up his hand. Shoving the sleeve of the robe up over Ezra's elbow, the therapist began by interlinking his fingers with Ezra's, using the other hand to support his arm as he rolled the wrist, massaging the base of it with his thumb. When he felt the tension begin to abate, he moved on to the forearm, massaging in long strokes and occasionally pausing to tug and twist lightly on each finger. He continued this treatment for about ten minutes before rolling his stool around to repeat the entire procedure on the left arm.

Ezra watched impassively, heaving an occasional quiet sigh. Unlike the previous procedure, he was comfortably familiar with this. Much as the others liked to tease him for it, he had never made any secret of his liking for manicures and pedicures and this was the primary reason why. There was just something blissfully luxurious about a hand and foot massage, and this one was even better than most. For all the evident power in this man's physique, Moose had a skilled touch. His ministrations were strong enough to properly work the muscles, gentle enough to soothe each area, but not so light that his touch tickled the more sensitive areas.

"You're very good at this," Ezra commented, when the big man rolled back and drew his right foot up to settle it into lap atop a thick towel. Squeezing a large dollop of gritty cream from a tube, Moose began working it into his foot with the same firm dexterity that he had used before on his hands.

"Glad you're enjoying it. This is the ankle you said you broke last year?" When Ezra nodded, he asked, "How'd it happen?"

Ezra grimaced at the memory. "One of my coworkers tackled me out of the path of a flying projectile and the ankle twisted badly and gave way. Far preferable to the alternative of a bashed-in cranium, but still rather painful. "

"Any pain now?"

"No. It's perfectly sound, so don't worry that you'll hurt me if you put pressure on it. The tension simply builds up in the tendons from time to time, leaving me with a rather annoying stiffness. It only pains me a bit in very cold weather." At the therapist's concerned look, he smiled. "Believe me, it's nothing. I must confess, however, that between that ankle, the shoulder that tends to occasionally become displaced, and the assorted on-the-job injuries I've accumulated over the years, I'm not looking forward to the winters of my dotage with any great enthusiasm."

The big man grinned. "Just think of it as a way to keep guys like me in business. Sounds like you've had a pretty interesting career as a cop."

"Colorful, at any rate, but I enjoy it. The occasional bump in the road is well worth the satisfaction it affords me, knowing that I play some small part in keeping the criminal element at bay."

Switching feet, Moose began to work his strong fingers into the arch. "Sounds worth it to me," he agreed. "That friend of yours, Buck, he on the force with you?"

"Indeed he is, and we're not actually police officers but rather ATF. There are seven of us who have all become close friends, so when this vacation came along I proposed a trip to Las Vegas. All but two of my colleagues proved free of other plans so the five of us rented a van, packed our supplies and off we went."

Moose nodded. "Nothin' like a road trip to recharge the ol' batteries. Couple of my old college buddies and I try to do that every couple of years. The wives and kids don't seem to mind as long as we don't do anything stupid."

Ezra laughed. "That is the prevailing hope, but I must confess that it doesn't always work out." He proceeded to entertain the therapist with a description of his first night in Vegas, as far as he could remember it up to the point of leaving the Star Trek bar. Moose laughed when he said, "Things get a little fuzzy after I jumped into the fountain but luckily no one appears to have suffered any lasting damage, myself included."

"Sounds like you'll have some good memories to take home with you." Settling Ezra's feet on a soft towel on the floor to dry, Moose stood and put away his stool. Walking around to the top of Ezra's chair, he reclined it back a bit more, giving Ezra a moment to settle himself into a more comfortable position. The therapist cradled Ezra's head in his palms as he began to rub slow circles into his temples with both thumbs while strong fingertips stroked firmly over his neck and the base of his scalp.

All desire for conversation faded, and Ezra closed his eyes. This was a pleasure he rarely experienced and he wanted to put his entire concentration into enjoying it. The therapist seemed perfectly understanding of this and merely hummed very softly as he worked the neck and shoulder muscles, giving equally as much attention to the scalp. Occasionally, he would slide his fingertips over Ezra's forehead, nose and cheekbones, driving away the tension there as well.

Feeling a little light-headed, Ezra reluctantly abandoned the chair when this was over and followed Moose back into another room. It was small, dimly lit and warm, though not uncomfortably so, and contained no furniture other than a long flat massage table. As the therapist stepped out to give him a moment's privacy, Ezra removed his robe and hopped up on the table, lying face up with his arms settled loosely to either side, a towel draped across his hips for modesty's sake.

As Moose reentered and began to work, he kept up a light monologue, not requiring Ezra to respond unless he wished to. As before the pleasant baritone had a soothing effect and Ezra sighed contentedly as his skin was gently brushed with a set of pumice stones then sheathed in a warm sheet soaked with some sort of herbs. He felt somewhat like a human tea-bag as the herbs worked to exfoliate and detoxify his skin but promptly forgot about that slightly unpleasant sensation as the sheet was removed and his skin was stroked with light brushes and once more rubbed with pleasant smelling massage oils. Eventually he was told to roll over onto his stomach and the same treatment was applied to his back. This massage was designed to be entirely pleasant and soothing, less about working out kinks in tired muscles than just promoting overall relaxation.

After another twenty minutes or so, he was left to slowly work himself back into a state of full alertness as the therapist softly wished him a good evening and then left him alone with a light click of the shutting door.

Ezra lay still, assimilating the experience for a short while, then he rolled off the table and put on his robe. After another quick shower to wash away the massage oil and settle his disheveled hair back into order, Ezra got dressed and went out to pay the receptionist. He left a very generous tip for Moose and took a moment to fill out one of the small comment cards on the desk, extending his compliments for the quality of the service he had received. He hoped that the man would reap some well-deserved reward from his glowing appraisal.

A glance at his watch showed that it was only a few minutes past six o'clock when he emerged into the main lobby of the hotel. Ezra felt both relaxed and energized, and his previous plan to catch a nap before dinner no longer sounded appealing. There was still an hour and a half until dinner, so he stopped into a small cafe for a sandwich and a glass of iced tea, then followed a sign at the back of the shop to its opening into the pool area.

It was a beautiful setting, mimicking the classic Old World appearance of a Mediterranean villa with artistic gardens and citrus trees lining the entire area and beautiful stone fountains enhancing the pools. As he had hoped, Josiah, Vin and Nathan had followed through on their plans to congregate here and he saw that Buck had joined them at some point. All four were sitting at a glass picnic table shaded by a large umbrella, sipping drinks.

"Hello, gentlemen. Do you mind if I join you?" he greeted as he approached the table.

"Hey, Ezra. You have a nice massage?" Buck said, reaching out to snag a chair from an unoccupied table and pulling it over in silent invitation.

Ezra settled into the chair and took a hearty bite of his sandwich, nodding in response. He narrowed his eyes and laid a guarding hand over the dill pickle next to his plate when he noticed Vin hungrily eyeing the sour little morsel. Taking a sip of tea to wash the food down, he replied, "It was excellent. I came out of the spa feeling both relaxed and ravenous."

Nathan watched him eat for a couple of minutes, smiling at the unusual enthusiasm with which he did so. "You want me to see if I can move our dinner reservation up an hour?"

Having polished off the sandwich with a speed that embarrassed him, Ezra grinned sheepishly. "I'm sure this will hold me until the appointed time. So, what have you all been doing while I enjoyed the delights of the day-spa?"

Vin and Nathan enthusiastically described the botanical garden, Josiah boasted of his low golf score and Buck showed off the contents of the shopping bags at his feet. The bags seemed to mostly contain a great deal of perfume and flimsy lingerie for his assortment of girlfriends back home, though he had also picked up a pair of designer sunglasses for Chris and a slot-machine bank for JD.

"Couldn't let the boys think we forgot about them," he explained, seeing Ezra's amused expression at the bank, which exhibited strobe lights and clanging sounds when one opened it to retrieve their coins. It looked like something a twelve-year-old would buy and Ezra laughed outright when Buck proudly pulled out a second one just like the first and added, "Got one for myself too!"

"It seems we've all had an enjoyable day then," Ezra commented, after filling them in on his successful bid to win a free room for the night through his poker playing skills. "Any thoughts on what we should do after dinner? It is our last night in this fine city, after all. We should make it a memorable one."

Several suggestions from concerts to circus acts were thrown out, then Vin brought the conversation to a screeching halt by saying, "I think we should go see one of them topless review shows. The one at the Riviera is supposed to be pretty good. I hear that the costumes are pretty much just G-strings and spiked heels."

Buck slapped him on the back hard enough to nearly knock Vin out of his chair. "That's my boy!"

Josiah chuckled. "Well, I certainly have no objection to that."

For a moment, Nathan looked doubtful. "I don't know. Got a feeling my wife might not exactly approve of me going to something like that."

"Aw, come on, don't be a wet blanket," Buck coaxed. "These shows are all look, no touch, so it's not like you're doing anything you shouldn't. Besides, after seeing this particular show, you might feel disappointed that Rain isn't here!"

An embarrassed grin lit Nathan's dark features. "Probably. How about you, Ezra? Guess you probably wouldn't want to do something like this. Doesn't really seem like your type of entertainment."

"Why does everyone assume that an appreciation for social propriety and decent manners means that I must be fundamentally lacking in a normal masculine libido?" he replied, his tone both puzzled and indignant. "I assure you that I have no moral stance against the voluntary revelation of female anatomy. In fact, I quite enjoy it."

"So, you'll go then?" Vin asked, sounding hopeful. At Ezra's curious look, he grinned. "Hey, just because I don't grab what I ain't been invited to doesn't mean I don't want a good look now and again. Reckon it's the same with you."

Ezra laughed. "Indeed it is, and I'd be pleased to join you. In fact, given my good fortune earlier today I'll even front the price of admission if one of you would care to make the reservation."

Buck's eyes lit up. "You got a deal!"

He smiled and rose from his chair. "Very well, my friends, as it seems our plans have been made I'm going to go upstairs and attire myself in something more appropriate for an evening out. I will meet you at Olives restaurant in one hour."

Chapter 34

It was 5 am and with the exception of a few employees and die-hard gamblers, the lobbies, corridors and casinos of the Bellagio were empty. Vin walked around the place near-silently, enjoying the rare oasis of calm in the normally bustling hotel. He had awakened just after 4:30, unable to get back to sleep but not overly bothered by it. Rising early was his habit back home, even when he wasn't due in to work, and he loved the peaceful hour before dawn better than any other part of the day.

Peaceful had not exactly described the room upstairs where his roommate was snoring to beat the band and Vin shook his head ruefully at the memory. After an assortment of camping trips and surveillance assignments with Nathan Jackson, they all knew that the man very rarely snored. That had been a big part of the reason that Vin had volunteered to room with him and for the first two nights the usual status quo had maintained, though Vin had to admit that his memory of Monday night was a little hazy. Unfortunately, last night Nathan had broken his pattern, falling asleep and immediately turning into a virtual human chain-saw.

Vin wondered absently whether the huge plate of fettuccini Nathan had consumed at dinner last night had anything to do with the change. Maybe he was allergic or something. Then he grinned. Or maybe it had been the sight of all those nekkid ladies at the review last night that had done it. Nate had looked as if he'd forgotten how to breathe a few times.

A soft chuckle broke free as he remembered the look on Nathan's face when one of the girls had sauntered up and run her fingers, and a couple of other prominent body parts, over his hair during one of the dance numbers. Vin waved off the curious look he received from a houseman who was emptying a trash receptacle in the lobby outside one of the restaurants. The man shrugged and returned to his task, as though guests burst into spontaneous laughter in the middle of the food plaza every day. Who knew, maybe they did!

Pausing in the middle of the large open area, Vin was wondering just what he could do with his time until the others started showing signs of life. Normally he would have gone for a run, but somehow the Las Vegas Strip hadn't struck him as an ideal place for such exercise. He wouldn't be at all surprised to find the streets still crowded, filled with tourists who were only just finishing up their night's revels. He had spotted a hotel gym on his way downstairs but the doors were not yet open for business. The casino he rejected outright. After two hours playing slots last night when they'd returned from the strip club he was just not in the mood for more gambling.

Suddenly the sound of piano music caught his ears. The soft chords reverberating out into the piazza were intricate and lovely and Vin simply stood for a few seconds with his eyes closed, drinking them in. He normally didn't care too much for classical music but it felt good to hear something in this place other than buzzers and bells for once.

The music changed, a few notes of a pop song floating out, followed by a quick bluesy riff, then something that sounded a lot like a Disney movie soundtrack, then suddenly back to classical, a different melody than the first. Vin frowned a bit. He knew that song, pretty sure it was by Beethoven, and he knew the style. The impatient noodling from tune to tune until the right one struck the player's fancy; that was the way Ezra always played, and 'Moonlight Sonata' was one of Ezra's favorite songs. That was precisely the reason Vin was able to identify it so readily. His friend had about fifteen different versions of that tune on CD, though Vin had never heard Ezra play it himself. He always claimed that he couldn't do it justice when asked, quickly steering the conversation onto a different topic.

Vin stepped into the open doorway of the Baccarat Bar, a distant part of his mind marveling over the fact that the place would be open for business at this time of day, and allowed his eyes to adjust to the dim setting. Yep, there he was. Up on a raised platform there rested a beautiful black baby grand with Ezra at the keys. His eyes were closed and his head was tipped to one side, swaying ever so slightly in response to the music pouring out of his fingertips and into the finely tuned instrument. There was no one else in the bar except for the bartender and she smiled and nodded when Vin shook his head at her inquiring look and pointed to indicate that he'd come in to listen.

The soft yearning melody and stirringly intricate harmony drifted outward, pulling Vin into its embrace as he silently took a seat and listened, marveling over both the skill and the passion with which Ezra played. The southerner was oblivious to his audience, lost in the music and Vin smiled sadly, understanding at last why he had never succeeded in talking his friend into a performance of this song. There were no walls when Ezra played this way, no hiding of his emotions, no playful bluster. He was completely open at this moment; vulnerable.

For a moment, Vin wondered whether Ezra had spent the entire night here. His hair was slightly disheveled and a shadow of whiskers darkened his jaw-line, but no, he was not dressed the same way now as he had been last night at the club. Then, he had been wearing a neat crimson dress shirt with a black and red necktie. Vin remembered because Ezra had teased that he'd surely outshine them all in his bright finery. Now he wore a plain white shirt, open at the collar and loosely rolled at the cuffs, with a pair of jeans.

Glancing at his watch and noting that it was still only half past five, Vin concluded that Ezra had been unable to sleep and had gone wandering, just as he had.

After another few minutes, Beethoven's melody drew to a close. Hoping he would not anger Ezra by doing so, Vin raised his hands up and gave him an honest round of applause. Ezra's eyes flew open, startled by the sound. When he saw Vin sitting there and realized that he must have witnessed the small concert, Ezra's face flushed. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't realize that anyone else had come in."

"Don't apologize," Vin said, rising to go stand next to him at the piano. "That was beautiful, pard. Honest to God beautiful. I never knew you could play like that."

Ezra searched his face for signs of mockery, green eyes widening in surprise at not finding any. "Thank you," he responded, not knowing what else to say. Feeling that some explanation was in order, he quickly added, "I found myself sleepless in the middle of the night and came down for a libation, hoping it might lull me enough to resume sleeping. When I discovered that this facility possessed a piano whose player was off-duty, I made a request and Miss Carla was kind enough to allow me to play for a bit in the regular pianist's stead."

Vin nodded to the bartender, who smiled back and placed two cups of fresh coffee on the bar. "On the house," she said. "Your friend's right, honey. That was beautiful."

Still appearing a trifle embarrassed by the praise, Ezra ducked his head and offered her a shy smile. "Thank you."

Taking a sip of his coffee, Vin sighed in contentment. Hot and strong, just the way he liked it. Addressing the bartender, he asked, "Ma'am, is there anyplace open around here at this time of day that serves breakfast?"

"Palio, just across the way, will open up at six. They serve pastries and such. If you're looking for something more substantial, I'd recommend Raffles restaurant over at the Mandalay Bay. They're open 24 hours and the food is great."

"That sounds perfect. What do you say, Ezra? Care to join me in a little early morning constitutional?"

Ezra smiled at the flippant use of one of his own typical phrases. "I would like that very much. My original plan was to go back upstairs and sleep for a few more hours, but I still don't feel as though I would be able to accomplish that goal. Breakfast sounds like a pleasant alternative."

"Great! Can you wait a minute while I go fetch my wallet? I left it upstairs."

"Of course, take your time."

Vin was upstairs, in and out of the room where Nathan was still locked in his oblivious mission to shake down the walls, and back downstairs as fast as the elevators would allow. He had stopped long enough to grab the camera, which he had somehow retained possession of after everyone split up for the night.

Ezra was waiting on one of the stone benches surrounding a large ornamental planter when he returned. "That didn't take long," he commented. Scratching absently at his stubbled cheek, he mused, "Perhaps I ought to run upstairs and make myself a bit more presentable before we depart."

"Nah, you look fine," Vin objected. Rubbing his own growth with a mischievous grin he added, "Near as good as me."

As he had hoped, Ezra laughed at the quip. Vin wanted a chance to talk to Ezra while he was still in this morning's open mood and afraid that if he allowed him to disappear into his private sanctum long enough to clean up and change clothes, he would return with his metaphorical armor firmly in place.

"Very well," Ezra acquiesced. "I'm rather too hungry to bother anyway."

Vin beamed. "Me too. Let's head out."

The two friends left the hotel quickly, pausing out front for a consultation on the location of the Mandalay Bay, which Ezra remembered was just a couple of buildings down from the Excalibur where they had spent their first night. They walked at a casual pace, enjoying the fresh air and gradually lightening sky that heralded a new dawn. The air was not as warm as they had become accustomed to but both men knew that this would likely have changed by the time they finished eating and headed back.

"Why the camera?" Ezra asked after a moment. "Are you anticipating a photo opportunity or just cataloguing the location of every eatery we grace on this trip?"

Vin grinned at the question. "Always good to remember where you been, case you ever want to go back. Actually, I just wanted to have a look at the pictures we took last night. Bet some of 'em are pretty funny."

Ezra smirked. "I certainly do hope the shot of Buck doing a mambo with a ladies G-string on his head came out. Something tells me there's a fine opportunity for future blackmail in that particular snapshot."

"He was pretty hammered by that point, that's for sure," Vin agreed. "Reckon we should have that shot framed and give it to Inez to hang over the bar back home."

He snorted. "She would, too."

Walking and checking snapshots at the same time, trusting Ezra to steer him away from any dangerous obstacles, Vin suddenly burst out laughing. Craning his head, Ezra checked to see what he was looking at and then joined him in laughter as he caught sight of a very red faced Josiah who had each of his arms draped carefully over the shoulders of a smiling young woman. The look on Josiah's face, wide eyed with surprise, was priceless. "Reckon Nathan must've taken this one just as that little gal grabbed Josiah by the butt."

"Most definitely worth a thousand words," Ezra chuckled.

"Here's one of us," he said, showing off another photo of the same two women, this time posing with Vin and Ezra, who were each wearing expressions of almost childish glee.

Ezra winced. "Well, that's rather embarrassing. You'd think neither of us had ever been that close to a pair of exposed breasts before."

Shrugging, Vin said, "That sight don't never get old, pard. Reckon it's the gift that keeps on givin'."

Ezra smiled and shook his head but did not deny his friend's observation.

Pointing down the street, Vin said, "There's the place. Let's get in there and pull up a table before I fall over in a dead faint from hunger."

"You do and I'll leave you right where you fall," Ezra threatened with a soft snort. "Maybe take a picture just so everyone will know what a valiant effort you expended to reach your destination before you were overcome."

"Gee thanks, Ezra. You're all heart."

The two men walked through a large casino into the main part of the hotel and followed the signs to Raffles restaurant. It was a tastefully decorated place filled with square stonework tables and comfortable multi-colored chairs. From the number of already occupied tables it appeared that the restaurant was popular. As soon as they were seated, Vin ordered eggs, sausage, hash browns and a large stack of pancakes with a cup of strong coffee. Ezra, more typically, took a few moments to study the menu before requesting a Belgian waffle with strawberries, a side order of crisp bacon and a glass of orange juice along with his coffee.

For a minute or two, Vin played with the silverware and napkins, wondering how best to draw Ezra into conversation about what he had seen back in the piano bar. Finally, he decided to just start and see where it took them. "You're not upset with me, are you? For listening in back there?"

Ezra made no pretense of misunderstanding. Lowering his gaze to the tablecloth, he considered the question for a moment. "No. If I hadn't wanted anyone to hear, I had no business playing in a public lounge. I must admit that I hadn't anticipated your presence at such an early hour but I'm not upset."

"Good, 'cause I meant what I said. That was great, and it was nice to see you takin' the chance to enjoy yourself." He paused for a second, then plunged ahead. "I sure wish you felt like you could do it in front of us, though."

A surprised expression in his eyes, Ezra looked up. "What?"

"We're not stupid, pal. We all figured out that you been hurtin' some ever since that last case was finished, and that you felt like you weren't as much a part of us anymore for some reason. Josiah says you needed time to reconnect, and I can sure as hell respect that, but what I don't understand is why you're so scared to do it now that you got the chance. You done let your hair down on this trip more than I ever saw you do before, havin' fun with us and doin' things we all liked, but whenever it comes down to letting any of us see that hurtin' side of you, you clench up tighter than a virgin on her wedding night."

Ezra was stunned and it showed. "If what you say is true," he said slowly, "and I haven't allowed my feelings to be apparent, then how did you know?"

"We know you," he replied. "If you was a stranger we probably wouldn't have seen anything at all, but you're not. You're a friend; hell, practically a brother, so you let a few cracks into that armor of yours and we done spotted 'em."

"You did?"

He sounded so tentative, ashamed almost, that Vin impulsively reached out and clamped a hand over Ezra's wrist, wanting him to feel the contact. "It's nothing to feel bad about, Ezra. We want to help if we can. We want to listen if you want to talk. You matter to us, man, and if you're hurtin' then we need to fix it so you're not."

Ezra swallowed, looking down again. "Thank you," he murmured.

He said nothing further and Vin knew that he was not yet ready to spill his guts, but at least the offer was now on the table. When - IF - he ever was ready to talk, he knew that someone would be there to listen.

The waitress returned with their food just then and both men laughed to hear Ezra's stomach give off a loud gurgle of anticipation. It broke the tension nicely and the rest of the meal passed in light enjoyable conversation.

Chapter 35

As he and Vin walked back to the Bellagio after breakfast, Ezra's thoughts were reeling. After three days of R&R, sharing some of his feelings with two sympathetic strangers, and a few nights of largely uninterrupted sleep, Ezra had felt sure that he'd come to terms with the emotional upheaval that had led him to propose this getaway.

Glancing to his left, Ezra bit his lip. If Vin Tanner had been able to read his turmoil so plainly while he was distracted with the piano, then perhaps he had not dealt with things as completely as he'd hoped. He had realized a couple of nights ago that his teammates had become aware that he was out of sorts, but he had assumed that they would wish him to work things through on his own. He had never considered that it might be distressing to them to know that he was upset but unwilling to tell them why.

Perhaps he had done them a disservice.

'You matter to us, man, and if you're hurtin' then we need to fix it so you're not.' The gentle words reverberated in his memory, warming his heart once again. He had no doubt that Vin had been sincere and he suspected that the other men would rally behind that statement without hesitation were he to give them half a chance.

It was just such an uncomfortable idea! Ezra Standish making open, honest emotional declarations . . . hell.

He rubbed his forehead, feeling the beginnings of a headache as he visualized himself trying to get through such an ordeal. He supposed he could fake it, pretend that he was indulging one of his undercover personas and just telling someone what they wanted to hear. Of course, that would rather defeat the purpose of trusting the other men with his private thoughts, wouldn't it? But, what if he lost control once he'd entered that unfamiliar territory and made a fool of himself? What if he started rambling or shouting or, God help him, crying?

He would never live it down.

Then Ezra smiled as he pictured the others' reaction to him if he were to do such a thing. He could see Nathan standing serious and concerned like some sort of medical sentry, waiting for him to hyperventilate, Vin awkwardly patting his shoulder in a show of embarrassed care, Buck giving him the big sad sympathetic eyes, like he did whenever JD got upset. Ezra chuckled suddenly as he imagined Josiah doing handsprings and turning cartwheels with the sheer triumph of having broken through the impenetrable emotional barriers of one Ezra P Standish. It might be worth opening up just to see what he would really do!

"What's funny?" Vin asked curiously.

"Nothing," he demurred. "An entertaining mental picture just came to me, that's all. Did you sleep well last night, Mr. Tanner?"

A bit confused by the non sequetur, Vin shrugged. "Not especially. Nathan's been puttin' Josiah to shame for most of the night. I finally gave up around four o'clock and went downstairs."

"I wish I had known. I would have gladly allowed you into my room for a proper rest. At the very least, you would have had a fellow insomniac around to keep you entertained with conversation."

"True enough, but then I'd have missed the piano recital." Ezra smiled but did not answer, so Vin decided to change the subject. "So, what's the plan for today, Ez? We just gonna pack up and head to Tahoe or do you have something else in mind?"

His brow furrowed a bit as he replied, "I had originally assumed that we would leave around noon today, drive straight through and arrive sometime this evening. However, seeing as you and I are already up and moving perhaps the others might also find it advantageous to depart early. According to the directions I called up online yesterday evening, it takes just under eight hours to get from here to South Lake Tahoe." Checking his watch, he noted that it was just after six thirty. "We need to allow our compatriots breakfast and then find a grocery outlet to replenish our supply of snacks and beverages, but if we can get on the road by eight o'clock then even factoring in a stop for lunch we should hit Tahoe in late afternoon."

"Great!" Vin said, smiling at the thought of once again being surrounded by open air and lush scenery. "By the way, where we stayin'? Tahoe's not like Vegas, where they got so many hotel rooms you can't spit without hittin' one. This bein' the busy season, we might just be camping under the stars tonight if you didn't think to make a reservation someplace."

"Have no fear; our accommodations are all taken care of." Noting Vin's disappointed look, he assured him, "I'm sure you'll approve. A former relative of mine has agreed to loan me use of a lakeside cabin for a few nights, free of charge."

Vin considered this. "How come?"

Ezra smiled. "A favor. Jonathan was my step-brother for approximately seven months when I was fifteen, and unlike most of those faux relations, we got along quite well and have remained in contact throughout the years. A few years ago, I was asked to check out an investment deal Jonathan was interested in and I uncovered evidence that it was a complete fraud. My ex-brother would surely have lost his shirt had he gotten involved. He was very grateful to be spared such a calamity, and since his family owns a great deal of property in the western United States, an occasional prepaid get-away seemed a fair trade to us both."

"How many of these get-away nights have you gotten from him?"

"Not many. This will make the third and I doubt I'll ask again afterward." Seeing Vin's surprised look, he explained. "There are some of my former relations whom I would be only too happy to squeeze until their tightly closed pocketbooks burst from the strain, but Jon is different. I like him and consider him a friend. I don't wish to take unfair advantage of that friendship, lest it be withdrawn."

"Reckon I can see the sense in that," Vin agreed, his smile warm at this subtle admission that Ezra's instinct toward greed did have its limits.

Shrugging one shoulder, Ezra continued, "To be honest, part of the reason I settled on Tahoe for my vacation destination was the cabin's availability. My choice could just as easily have been Palm Springs, Beverly Hills or Sun Valley, depending upon the proliferation of summer bookings."

"What if none of 'em had been available?"

A very blasé smile met the question. "I'm sure I would have been able to work something out."

Vin laughed. "Yep, I'll bet you would at that." As they entered the lobby of their hotel, he asked, "You want to roust Josiah and Buck, or should I do it?"

A devilish grin lit Ezra's features. "Oh, I think I owe Mr. Wilmington a wake-up call after his kind performance of that duty on Tuesday morning."

For a moment, Vin pondered this statement, then he unstrapped the camera and passed it over to Ezra. "I want pictures."

Chapter 36

Getting into Buck and Josiah's hotel room was gratifyingly easy. Ezra simply stopped at the front desk, showed his identification to the clerk to prove that he was the same Standish to whom all three rooms were registered, and requested an extra keycard.

Clicking the small plastic card in and out of the door lock, Ezra cautiously stuck his head inside the room. If they were already up he had no wish to alarm anyone. The harmonious sound of twin snores filling the semi-darkness of the room assured him that both of his friends were still asleep, so, sneaking up to Josiah's side Ezra gave his shoulder a quick hard shake and whispered, "Josiah, wake up!"

With a great snort, Josiah obeyed the command, half sitting up in his bed with a startled expression on his face.

Before he could ask any questions, Ezra darted a hand over his mouth. "Shh, it's me, Ezra. Speak softly so you don't awaken Mr. Wilmington."

Confused and sleepy, Josiah scratched his left hand over his mop of pillow crushed gray curls and mumbled, "What's wrong?"

Ezra moved a bit closer in the hopes that his voice would not carry and breathed the words, "Vin and I have decided that an early start toward our next destination would be prudent if we want to miss the midday traffic into Tahoe. He's waking Nathan, while I came in to rouse the two of you."

Josiah rubbed at his eyes, frowning a bit as he squinted at the bedside clock. He nodded, awake enough now to see that the words had a certain logic, but with a glance toward the still happily snoring Buck, he whispered back, "If that's so then why are we whispering?"

Hoping that Josiah would not disapprove and spoil his fun, Ezra told him the truth. "I owe Buck a rude awakening for his behavior on Tuesday morning. That's why I woke you first, so you wouldn't be needlessly alarmed."

With a wry laugh, he replied, "Need any help?"

Surprised, Ezra repeated, "Help?"

Eyes narrowing as he viewed the sleeping man, he said, "You're not the only one mister 'I don't tend much toward hangovers' woke that day."

Ezra had not considered this but quickly revised his plan. It would work better if Josiah aided him anyway. Nodding, he leaned even closer and whispered directions into Josiah's ear. Josiah quickly muffled a burst of laughter and nodded.

Stealthily working his way out from under the covers, Josiah took up a position next to the window, hand on the curtain pull. Buck had quit snoring and was mumbling something in his sleep, the words unintelligible but the lascivious tone familiar to both of his friends.

Ezra grinned. This was going to be even easier than he had supposed. Bending close to Buck, he crooned in the most feminine tone he could muster, "Oh, Buck!" He brushed the backs of his fingers feather light against Buck's cheek, gaining himself a smile and a throaty chuckle from the slumbering man. Pitching his voice even higher, he chirped, "Buuucky."

He only narrowly escaped the hand that suddenly reached out and tried to grab him. Mouthing 'Now!' Ezra reached out and slammed the bathroom door shut just as Josiah flung open the curtains to let a bright stream of dawn light into Buck's face while at the same time bellowing, "What are you doing with my wife!"

The result was even better than could have been anticipated. Buck shot out of the bed like it was on fire, catching one leg in the covers and landing with a heavy *THUMP* on the floor between the two beds. As he scrambled up again, head poking over the blankets like a prairie-dog popping out of its hole, blinking and squinting in the dim light as he looked wildly around for the outraged husband, a flash went off in his face.

"Good morning, Mr. Wilmington!" Ezra said cheerily, chuckling as he viewed the captured image in the camera's memory screen. "Or should I say, rise and shine?"

Buck abruptly plunked back down onto the floor. "Son of a bitch," he gasped. "That's just not a nice thing to do to a man!"

Josiah was overcome, one arm wrapped around his jiggling abdomen and the other pressed to his thigh as he bent double with the force of his mirth. "How's your head this morning?"

Looking from one laughing friend to the other, Buck's features slowly morphed from outrage to amusement as he woke up enough to realize what was going on. "Fine, just fine. Course, the rest of me's a little sore now, thanks to you two."

Ezra grinned at him. "I must say you're taking this better than I would have. I thought at the least you'd be threatening us with dire retribution."

Rumpling his tangled black locks, Buck shook his head. "Nah, I get it. This is payback for the other morning, ain't it? I knew I hadn't heard the last of that. Least you didn't shave off my eyebrows or something."

As he cautiously fingered his face to make certain that his brows and mustache were all intact, the other men's laughter renewed itself. "Have no fear," Ezra told him. "I prefer that retribution not take the form of physical disfigurement. After all, I have to spend the next three days looking at you!"

"Oh, har har," Buck sneered, working his way free of the dislodged bedding and scrambling to his feet. As Josiah had, he checked the clock and his eyes widened. "My God, it's not even seven o'clock yet! What the hell are you doing up, not to mention all bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and bent on revenge, so early in the day?"

"I found myself gripped with a bit of insomnia this morning. Perhaps it was the sense of excitement brought on by the prospect of continuing our journey westward. At any rate, I've been up for quite some time." He proposed the itinerary for the day, adding in the information about quality accommodations being arranged in order to smooth any feathers that might still be ruffled by his early morning disturbance. "I'm sure that the two of you and Nathan will all need a bit of time to ready yourselves for the day before we depart. As Vin and I have already had breakfast . . . I highly recommend the Belgian waffles over at the Monterey Bay restaurant, by the way . . . I propose that the two of us take the van and do our on-the-road grocery renewal while the rest of you eat. We'll meet you back here in time to check out and be on our way. Does that sound like an agreeable plan?"

"Uh, sure," Buck said, plunking down heavily on the foot of his bed.

Josiah nodded. "Sounds good to me. Pick me up some Pringles while you're shopping, would you? The cheddar cheese or pizza kinds if they've got 'em."

"I shall," he agreed. Tossing the extra key card to Buck and the camera to Josiah, he grinned and made his way out the door. "See you shortly, gentlemen."

As he left, Buck looked once more at the gleaming red dial on the clock and shook his head in wonder.

Chapter 37

"I cannot believe we're buying five different kinds of chips, four brands of cookies, four types of Hostess snack cakes and a half dozen different varieties of soda pop," Ezra said in exasperation as he looked over the already tall stack of items in his grocery cart. "There must be enough sugar in this cart to finance the American Dental Association for a month!"

Vin grinned at him and chucked another package of cookies onto the load. "Technically there's only four kinds of chips. Ritz are crackers."

"Oh, well excuse my ignorance. Clearly we've struck just the right balance then." He eyed the pile sourly. "Wouldn't two of each be enough? It's not as if we're driving all the way to the upper Canadian border! And there will be another chance for food before we hit our destination. Assuming you can even refer to some of this as food."

Shaking his head, Vin heaved a dramatic sigh and returned a box of Twinkies to its former place on the snack aisle shelf. "There, you happy? Now there's room for you to tuck in a few heads of broccoli or whatever you wanted."

Green eyes narrowed. "Did I not provide an adequate enough selection to keep all five of us content on the drive in from Denver?"

Vin could not deny this. The three coolers of assorted beverages had been perfect and the snack foods had been equally varied, providing at least one item that each of them enjoyed. "Well, yeah, but this is some kind of cabin we're heading for, isn't it? Might not be enough to last us, and we got to have something to nibble on the way back home."

Ezra snorted. "Last time I checked, civilization had reached all the way to Tahoe. All we really require for now are a few snacks and something to store in the kitchen at our cabin. I'm told there's a refrigerator/ freezer, a stove and an outdoor grill."

"Reckon we can cook up some steaks?" Vin asked, perking up instantly at the thought of an outdoor barbecue.

"I don't see why not," he replied, resolutely returning two packages of cookies, an enormous bag of Ruffles potato chips and both boxes of Snowballs to the shelves. As he noticed his companion's dismayed look at the latter, Ezra told him, "I will not have pink coconut shavings littered all over the back seat of the rental car. You'll have to make due with the Ding-Dongs and Cupcakes."

Rolling his eyes, Vin grumbled, "Aw, all right. But just for that, I want something good for dessert tonight."

To his surprise, Ezra grinned. "I can live with that compromise. What would you say to us buying the makings for s'mores?"

"You like s'mores?"

"Don't sound so surprised, Mr. Tanner. Hot marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers may be a trifle messy but the flavor is like nothing else on earth."

He grinned. "Cool. Okay, then. What else do we need?"

"We need to buy the meat, a side dish or two, bags of ice for the coolers, a few vegetables for Mr. Jackson and myself, and something for breakfast."

"And beer," Vin remembered. "If we got a fridge, then we can haul along some suds to store in it. Can't have a real cookout without beer."

Ezra laughed. "I think the rest of our party would agree with that assessment."

By the time the supplies were being run through the check-out, Vin had managed to surreptitiously replace the Ruffles and he smiled to see that Ezra had added small bags of oranges, grapes and granola bars to the mix without being seen. Yep, everyone would be happy with this shopping trip.


When they returned to the hotel, the others were waiting for them in the lobby, breakfasted and ready to go. Ezra ran upstairs and in less than fifteen minutes had managed to shower and shave, change his clothes and collect his bags. He could move very quickly when the situation warranted it, the result of years of practice at making a quick getaway when he had lived with his mother.

He looked around to make certain that nothing was being left behind except for a tip he placed on his pillow for the maids. A warm smile lit his face as his gaze travelled over the luxurious furnishings, thinking about what a fine time he'd had so far on this trip. He could not think of a single element of this stay in Vegas that he would have wanted to change. Not even that horrible roller-coaster ride!

Satisfied that everything was in order, Ezra went back downstairs, gathered up everyone's room keys and checked their party out of the Bellagio. He could not help noticing that Josiah had a huge grin upon his face. "What are you so happy about?"

"While you were upstairs I went into the casino and finally managed to beat one of the slot machines!"

Josiah had been the only one of their party to show a financial loss on this trip, so Ezra was delighted to hear it. "Congratulations. How much did you win?"

"You are now looking at the proud owner of a twenty dollar profit."

Ezra blinked. "Twenty dollars? That's it?" He had expected a much greater total from the way his friend was beaming.

Josiah gave a philosophical shrug. "Sometimes it's the little things that mean the most. Wouldn't you agree?"

Looking around at the four happy faces of his friends, each man filled with memories of this trip that were

undoubtedly as fond as his own, Ezra had to smile. "Yes, indeed." Gesturing grandly toward the door, he said, "Shall we?"

By eight-fifteen a.m., Nathan was taking a turn in the driver's seat and the Las Vegas Strip was quickly disappearing into the background as the five friends took to the road once again.

Chapter 38

With Nathan behind the wheel, Vin had deemed it his turn to ride somewhere other than the back seat and had claimed the shotgun position. Buck had replaced him as the keeper of the snacks and drinks while Ezra and Josiah filled the middle row.

Glancing into the rearview mirror, Nathan called back, "Pass that CD case up, will ya Buck? Ezra looks like he's nodding off again and I'm thinking maybe a little music will keep him with us a while longer."

Roused by the comment, Ezra sat up straighter and blinked away the doze he had indeed been falling into. He blew out a frustrated breath. "Why do I do that? It's damned embarrassing; makes me feel like I'm about five years old."

"Nothing to be embarrassed about," Josiah countered, accepting the case Buck passed forward and riffling through the choices inside. "There's something very relaxing about travelling smoothly along a stretch of open highway; the whir of the tires, the slight rocking of the vehicle, the trees and hillsides slowly rolling past your window, the comfort of familiar voices talking quietly in the background. It's kind of like a lullaby."

As Josiah's slow, deep voice made its list, Ezra once again had to jerk himself awake. He shot a dirty look at the older man who simply grinned in response.

From the front Vin said, "Dang it, Josiah, knock that off! I been up since four o'clock and you damn near had me makin' up for lost time. You better pass up that music before Nathan falls asleep too and kills us all."

Nathan chuckled. "I'm doin' just fine. Worry about yourself."

Taking the case, Vin flipped through the plastic disc holders looking for something promising. "You got a lot in here, Ez. Anything in particular you want to listen to?"

"Choose whatever you like," he said. "After all, I selected this music so it's a safe bet that I'll like anything you happen to pick."

"What are the colored CDs in the back of the case?" Josiah asked him. "They don't have any labels."

Vin held up the case so that Ezra could see them and he nodded. "I keep meaning to affix labels to those but I never seem to have the time while I'm thinking about it. They're just an assortment of songs that I burned onto disc, compilations of assorted artists grouped together in random themes."

"Such as?" Buck asked, leaning forward on their seat back to join in the conversation.

Ezra's brow furrowed. "I believe the blue one is '50s rock and roll, the red is southern rock and folk, the purple is jazz, the green is a modern-day assortment, the orange is a compilation of '80s and '90s songs." He shrugged. "They're all different genres and some of the themes don't quite hold up. As I said, it's all just music I happen to like. You don't have to listen to any of them if you'd rather not, I assure you I won't be offended."

"Are you kidding?" Vin chortled, pulling out the red disc and popping it into the CD player.

After a moment, the group America came up singing about the 'Horse With No Name' and grins spread throughout the Suburban. The Eagles followed with their musical warning to the 'Desperado' and then Lynrd Skynyrd paid tribute to 'Sweet Home Alabama'. By the time the Mamas and Papas had come on to do a little 'California Dreamin" everybody was singing along and Ezra was wide awake and watching his friends with a mixture of surprise and amusement on his face.

"You know, Vin and me enjoy this kind of music," Buck said after a moment. "And Josiah was a hippie so I know they're right up his alley, but somehow I wouldn't have expected you two to know these songs, much less be able to sing with 'em. You seem more into jazz and soul and classical."

Nathan laughed. "Are you kidding? I grew up on this stuff, along with Elvis, Motown and disco. Then there was the 40's swing stuff that my parents liked, and my mom's opera records. Between them and my older brother and sisters I had a pretty well-rounded musical education."

Ezra nodded. "I would say the same applied to me. You forget that I spent the majority of my childhood traveling. It seemed like every relation I spent time with enjoyed a different form of music, so I heard it from all walks of life and all parts of this great nation, as well as many others." Gesturing at the case, he added, "Currently I try to keep abreast of as much different music as I'm able, not only because I find it provides for interesting listening, but because it comes in handy in my line of work to be able to relate to my contacts on a simple entertainment level."

"People will talk far more freely to someone that they have a common interest with, you mean," Josiah deciphered.

"It helps to be able to be whomever the other person is interested in spending time with," he agreed, his good mood seeming to fade as he turned toward the window, a far-away look in his eyes as he frowned at the passing scenery. "People tend to be far more comfortable and trusting with a man they see as a reflection of themselves."

The other men exchanged concerned glances. Hadn't that been exactly what Ezra had done this entire trip? Dressed down, curbed his fancy speech and elitist behavior, adjusted his activities to join in with whatever the rest of them found appealing? They had all believed that he was simply relaxing and having a good time. What if instead he had been working extra hard at being accepted back into their fold, still worried that he no longer fit in?

Nathan opted to take the bull by the horns. "You're not trying to tell us something, are you, Ezra?"

He looked away from the window, clearly surprised by the concerned frowns covering every face. "What?"

Buck reached forward and laid a hand on his shoulder. "You really are having a good time, aren't you? You haven't been pretending just so we'd be happy?"

Realizing that his words had been misinterpreted, Ezra flushed. "Forgive me, my friends. I hadn't intended to bring down the mood and I wasn't referring to you. I'm afraid I slipped into a momentary contemplation concerning our recently finished assignment. My comment was not intended as an insult."

Blue eyes serious, Josiah told him, "We're not insulted, we're just a little worried about you. You know you kind of faded out on us for a minute and what you said sounded like there might be some concerns you need to share."

Ezra sighed softly. "Perhaps." Thinking about his breakfast time conversation with Vin, he added, "And perhaps we do need to talk, but not just now." He sat up straight again and smiled. "I apologize for brooding, gentlemen. It won't happen again."

After a moment, they let it drop, realizing that Ezra did not intend to say any more on the subject. Ezra was pleased to be saved from any more direct attention by the sudden loud chiming of Buck's cellular phone.

Nathan turned the music down to allow Buck to take his call and they all listened with shameless interest as he said, "Hey, kid," realizing that it must be JD.

"You got our email okay?" Buck asked, laughing at whatever he was hearing. He had used the opportunity of Vin and Ezra's absence this morning to send the daily write-up of their activities.

Josiah grinned. "He tried to erase that picture of himself with the G-String before I could send it to Chris and JD but I wouldn't let him. Figured they deserved the entire show." The other men chuckled, knowing they each had shots they'd rather not have shared too, but fair was fair.

"Yeah, we did the town up right last night! You make it back okay from Wichita?" Buck laughed again. "Well that's good. I figure three days is enough of a vacation from all of us. He needed a houseguest."

Vin interrupted. "Is JD stayin' out at the ranch?"

Buck nodded, blue eyes twinkling. Holding the phone away from his face he said, "I think being surrounded by all those married couples at her class reunion was giving Casey ideas. JD needed an escape-hatch so when he got back into town last night he called Chris and asked if he could stay over. The ol' dog didn't mind a little company." Going back to his call, he said, "I'm not sure where we're staying. Ezra's got some old friend who owns a cabin by the lake and he's letting us stay there. I don't know, kid, why don't you ask him yourself?"

Ezra's head jerked to one side to avoid Buck's arm as it suddenly shot forward with the phone. "Hello, JD. Yes, I can tell you the address of our lodgings, but why do you want to know? Or should I say, why does Mr. Larabee want to know?" As he listened, Ezra turned on his laptop and activated the remote internet connection. Typing a quick search, he told JD. "I'm sending you the web address now."

Vin craned over the back of his seat. "You didn't tell me the place had its own website. Let's see it."

Ezra turned the computer around so that they could each see the photograph of their destination. Buck let go an admiring whistle, while Vin simply said, "Holy Crap!"

Accepting the laptop from Ezra, Josiah shook his head and chortled. "I should have known. I'm impressed, Ezra."

Green eyes sparkling at their reaction, he tapped his finger against the phone, indicating that he was getting a similar reaction from JD. Then a surprised, pleased expression replaced the smugness. "You do? You are? Well, of course you may! There's plenty of room as you can see. There didn't happen to be any other guests interested in the property at this particular time. Quite a surprise really, when you consider this most popular time of year, but a pleasant one for us. When will you arrive?" The others were all grinning as they caught the gist of the conversation. "Fine then, we'll see you later. Thank you, JD. Thank Chris for me as well and tell him that we look forward to seeing you both."

He hung up and turned delighted eyes upon his friends. "Chris and JD are at the Denver airport, getting ready to catch a flight to Tahoe. They'll meet us this evening at the cabin."

Buck's loud warm-hearted laughter filled the vehicle. "Surprise!"

"You knew?" he said, amazed.

Buck grinned. "Wasn't sure they'd be able to pull it off but I suggested it to Chris last time I talked to him. He said he'd wait until JD got back and talk it over with him, but since he'd managed to avoid Vegas, he was happy to come along on the last leg of the trip. He figured JD'd be willing but that they'd have to try and find a couple of hotel rooms somewhere close to wherever we ended up staying." Gesturing toward the laptop with its photo of a grand log-house nestled among pines and picturesque boulders, he added, "Looks like that ain't gonna be a problem! Not with five bedrooms and a bunkhouse."

"What else does it have?" Nathan asked, being the only one of the five who wasn't in a position to see the screen.

"Three bathrooms, fireplace, wet bar, pool table, a fully equipped kitchen, and a deck with its own hot tub and barbecue pit," Josiah read aloud. "TV, DVD, stereo, microwave. Hell, it's even got a washer and dryer. And we're staying at this place for free?"

Ezra chucked the small cell back to Buck, who caught it deftly. "Even I was surprised by the grandeur of it when Jon suggested the place, but he insisted that he still owed me a boon so the stay is complimentary." Smiling but still shaking his head in disbelief, he said, "I just can't believe they're coming."

Vin grinned widely. "The Magnificent Seven ride again! Good thing you bought them extra steaks."

Chapter 39

Ezra was in a peculiar frame of mind as they continued the drive northwest. One minute he would be full of energy and conversation, speculating about how long it would take the others to arrive at the cabin and what they all might find to do in the small tourist community surrounding Lake Tahoe, the next minute he would fall silent and simply brood for a while. Whenever he caught anyone looking at him during one of the quiet moods, he would immediately perk up and become full of lighthearted quips and anecdotes again.

The other men went along with their friend's yo-yo mood swings, realizing that they were watching nervous energy at work. Ezra had become comfortable with the four of them again over the past three days, but now that JD and Chris were about to be thrown back into the mix, all of his insecurities about being trip-leader had come back over him.

Finally, to everyone's secret relief, Ezra gave up conversation in favor of photography. He took shots of their journey for several miles, but eventually grew bored with scenery and turned the camera back toward his fellow passengers. He captured Buck stuffing his mouth so full of Cheetos that he looked like an orange-lipped chipmunk, Josiah laughing uproariously at someone's joke, Vin licking the icing out of the middle of an Oreo cookie with such concentration that he did not even notice the camera pointing his way until the flash went off, and finally a shot of Nathan flipping him off from the driver's seat after being encouraged for the fourth time to "express" himself.

"Why you still taking all these pictures anyway?" Buck asked, blinking to rid his eyes of the little dots of light still flashing before them. "With JD and Chris joining us at the cabin we won't need to do anymore travelogues."

"Perhaps not," Ezra agreed, making a grab for the camera as Josiah snatched it out of his hands, taking a quick shot of his irritated expression at failing to maintain possession. He stuck his tongue out strictly for the sake of revenge, only to have Josiah smugly snap another photo. "I want plenty of pictures to remember this excursion by and the camera still has plenty of room on the memory card so why not take advantage of it? I'd like to retain memories of this holiday in living color for as long as possible."

Buck smiled. "Well, in that case I suppose I can stand to let you boys fill up a few more frames with my handsome face." He struck a cheesy pose, grinning toothily, winking one eye and pointing both index fingers like guns toward Josiah, who obliged him with a photo.

Even as he rolled his eyes at the performance, Ezra could not help but laugh when he heard Josiah mutter, "Lord help us all."

Noting that a stray peanut had fallen from the jar Vin had been snacking on before he'd reached the Oreos, Ezra picked it up and pelted it at Nathan. He could not have said why he derived such entertainment out of harassing the team medic while he was driving, but the opportunity brought out the back-seat adolescent in him every time.

"Nathan?" he said in a nasal whine. "Are we there yet?"

"We'll be there soon enough," he said, shooting a warning look into the rearview mirror.

Knowing that he was waiting for a comeback, Ezra grinned and replied in the same tone, "But I'm hungry!"

Happy to join in the fun, Vin said, "Me too!"

"I gotta go, Nathan!" Buck chimed in from the back seat. "Real bad!"

"You should've thought of that before we left, Buck."

Not one to let an opportunity pass, Josiah shouted out, "Nathan, Ezra's poking me!"

"Am not," Ezra snapped back.

"Are, too!"

Nathan's attempt to maintain a straight face failed as he heard Josiah's petulant accusation. His deep chuckle rolled forth and was quickly joined by laughter from the others. "All right you kids, knock it off back there," he joked. Glancing at the dashboard clock, he asked, "So, you really ready for lunch, or were you all just playing?"

"I could eat," Vin said instantly.

Ezra's tone was so dry it could have evaporated a flood as he remarked, "Why, Mr. Tanner, I'm shocked." Considering the question for a moment, he decided, "I am actually rather famished and Doritos and vegetable sticks simply aren't filling the void. Do you think we might be able to find a decent place to stop for lunch?"

"I'm sure we can," Nathan agreed with a smile. "With you four hoggin' all the snacks I'm feeling pretty empty myself. Besides, I think it's time one of you took over behind the wheel for a bit. I'm not used to making long drives anymore."

"That's what you get for buying a house less than two miles away from the office," Buck teased. "You're out of shape."

A frown creased Ezra's brow. "When did you buy a house? I thought you were still renting."

Surprise coloring his voice, Nathan said, "Didn't I tell you? Rain and I found a real nice place in the suburbs about three months ago. Had to move fast to beat out two other couples who were interested, but we got a real fast push on the escrow deal and we moved in right away. Been living there a couple of months now."

"And are you happy with your choice?"

"Oh, yeah, it's beautiful! We love it there. The boys have all been out on a regular basis helping us decorate and furnish the place, and it's come together real fine," Nathan gushed, not seeing the sad look that flickered across Ezra's face before he covered it up with a smile. "You need to come out and see it after we get back home. Come out and have dinner with us some night."

Ezra nodded slowly. "That would be very nice. Thank you for the invitation."

Nathan beamed as a new thought struck him. "If you want, we could have a real good old fashioned southern supper: ham, biscuits, collard greens, sweet-potato pie, sweet tea, the whole shebang!"

A grin broke free as Ezra listened to the list, shaking him free of the flash of self-pity he had experienced at discovering himself to be the only member of the team who had not been a part of, or even known about, Nathan's big event. "That sounds most appealing. Let me know the address and what night to come by and I will be there will bells on."

Vin chuckled. "By the sound of it, maybe you should just arrive with a big ol' napkin tied around your neck instead."

"Let me know if you decide to do that," Josiah quipped, holding up his camera.

Laughing, Ezra pointed to a highway sign advertising a restaurant at the next off-ramp. "Speaking of satisfying our appetites, it looks like we have another Denny's up ahead. The first one proved to have a palatable menu. Shall we try our luck again?"

The others agreed that this sounded like a plan so Nathan immediately hit his blinker and made for the exit.


When lunch was over, Josiah took over the driver's seat. Ezra sat next to him, prepared to navigate them to the cabin once they hit Tahoe, using the directions he had printed off his computer. Vin had stretched out on the middle seat for a nap while Buck and Nathan were talking quietly in the third row.

"Nervous about something?" Josiah asked after a few miles had rolled by.

Ezra looked at him in surprise, only then noticing that he was bouncing his left leg up and down and tapping his fingertips against his thigh. He stopped the traitorous tells instantly, flushing at having been caught displaying such an obvious indicator of his mood. His mother would have disowned him.

"A bit," he confessed, glancing over his shoulder to make certain that the other men were not paying attention to the conversation. Josiah raised an eyebrow in question and he continued, "Something Vin said this morning made me realize that y'all have been watching me for some sign of emotional distress. I suppose I'm not quite certain how to deal with that . . . with the knowledge that all of you have apparently been somewhat . . . worried about me."

Josiah had leaned a bit closer to catch the last few faltering words as Ezra nearly swallowed them in his reluctance to voice them out loud. Realizing what he'd said, the older man nodded. "That we have. You haven't quite been yourself ever since you got back home and that's definitely worried us. We've all been hoping that this trip might snap you out of it, and I think it's helped, but you still seem to be feeling a bit depressed."

For a moment, it seemed as if Ezra would let the opening pass, but finally he said, "I'm not sure if depressed is quite the right word. It's more as though I've somehow become disconnected from my own life, and resultantly all of your lives. Normally, I'm quite secure concerning my place within your ranks." He smiled ruefully at Josiah's doubtful frown. "I may not always show it, but I am. I know where I belong and I know that I can count on all of you to back me up when needed."

Allowing his pleasure at this admission to show, Josiah flashed him a smile, then asked gently, "But?"

Ezra heaved a soft sigh. "But . . . lately I've felt as though all of my anchors have been pulled loose without my knowledge, leaving me adrift. I don't understand how or why, only that from the moment I completed our last assignment and affixed my signature to the affidavit of my actions during the case, I've felt empty. It's as if, by consigning Ethan Andrews back to the ether from which he came, I suddenly had no identity any more."

"You don't normally feel that way after an assignment," Josiah said, the words as much a question as a statement.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "Normally I'm quite adept at letting a false identity go and picking up the threads of my own life, but this one was somehow different. That's partly why I wanted all of you to make this trip with me. I needed to get away, but I also needed someone to remind me of all that I had. Does that even make sense?"

"A great deal."

He sighed again. "While we were in Vegas it was easier. Everything was so light-hearted and we were having such fun that I was sure I'd overcome my difficulties. Now, I'm no longer certain of that. The minute we left the city limits, my insecurities began to overwhelm me again. It's as though I want to reestablish my ties to you all but I just can't quite manage it, and I resent the hell out that inability. I even find myself growing angry every time one of you mentions something that you've done without me over the past few months."

"Like Nathan buying a house?" Josiah clarified.

Ezra nodded, unaware of how bleak his expression had become. "What kind of a person resents the news of a friend's good fortune? I wouldn't have done that before, would I?" He looked to Josiah as if he might have the answer, but did not wait to hear it as the words he'd kept bottled up for so long demanded an out. "I've felt so calm and relaxed and happy over the last three days, and now, I once again find myself getting upset over nothing! I resent the loss of my security and I'm afraid that if I haven't resolved this issue by now then there's a possibility that something within me has been permanently damaged. Or if it hasn't been yet, that it will become so the next time I go undercover."

"You're thinking burnout?" Josiah questioned softly.

Ezra stilled suddenly, as if hearing the word out loud had cut off his ability to speak. The silence stretched uncomfortably for several seconds, but finally he swallowed hard and said in a near whisper, "For so many years, the job has been all I've had. Even the six of you became a part of my life because of my abilities as an agent. If I've lost that part of myself . . ."

He could not finish the sentence, so Josiah finished it for him. "Then you haven't lost everything, Ezra. You've still got us. You may have found us because of the job, but we've become more than just your colleagues. We're your friends, your family and you're stuck with us now. You could quit tomorrow and move to the other side of the world, and we'd still remain a major part of your life." He reached over and gave Ezra a light slap on the knee. "We'd just be trading a lot more photo-logs, that's all."

Unable to deal with any more conversation, Ezra turned his head away to stare out the window. For several miles, he studied the landscape without ever actually seeing it, until finally the motion of the vehicle combined with the blur of passing scenery lulled him into sleep.

For a minute or two the van was silent. Then Vin carefully sat up and reached forward to pat Josiah on the shoulder. "You done good, Josiah."

Casting a concerned glance at the sleeping man, he replied, "I knocked a brick out of the wall, Vin, that's all. You knocked the first one out this morning. I think he might need all six of us to take down the rest of them."

Buck's quiet voice floated forward. "Then that's what we'll do."

"That's a promise," Nathan added. Addressing the slumbering figure, he added, "We worked too damned hard to make you one of us, Ezra. We'll help you fix this, whatever it takes."

As if he'd understood the words, Ezra smiled and settled more comfortably against the passenger side door.

Chapter 40

"According to the map, it's just at the end of this road. There's supposed to be a gravel driveway that leads straight up to the cabin," Ezra said, glancing back and forth from his printed directions to the ones he'd jotted down while on the phone with his ex-stepbrother.

"Well, would you look at that," Josiah marveled as they found the gravel road and drove around a long curve, coming out to a small parking area in front of a huge log house that gave off an air of luxury even from the outside. "This is your idea of a quaint little fishing cabin?"

Remembering his use of those words when Buck had pressed him for details back at the hotel, Ezra grinned. "Perhaps I underestimated the grandeur a bit, but you must remember that I hadn't actually seen the place for myself."

Vin gestured toward the closed laptop computer. "And that didn't give you an idea?"

His green eyes sparkled. "Perhaps a small one." As Josiah parked, Ezra hopped out of the van and looked around him in satisfaction. The cabin and its attached bunkhouse were surrounded on three sides by a lush woodland vista of firs and Ponderosa pines. Before them, just past the road where they had turned in, lay a breathtaking view of the sapphire majesty of Lake Tahoe. Ezra's sharp gaze softened as he studied the sight. "How beautiful it is. Suddenly I regret never having ventured this way before."

"It's a sight worth seeing, at any time," Nathan said, stepping forward and resting a hand on Ezra's shoulder as he too looked out over the lake. "It's been years since I've been here but that view is even prettier than I remember."

"It's a little piece of heaven," Vin said, smiling beatifically as he drank in the beauty, fresh air and quiet surrounding them.

Josiah smiled in understanding as he watched Vin draw in an impossibly deep breath and hold it for several seconds as if trying to make himself a part of the surrounding nature. "The Lord was in a fine mood when he created this place, that's for certain."

Ezra was first to break the spell. Curiosity about the inside of the cabin overwhelming him, he grabbed his suitcase and was up the path with the front door unlocked and thrown open before the rest of the men had even registered that he was going. As soon as they had sorted out their individual luggage, they followed him inside and looked around with pleasure at what they discovered.

The cabin was a single story structure with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a game room on one side, three bedrooms and two baths on the other, a handsomely stocked kitchen and breakfast bar at the back and a main floor which was fashioned as a great-room with a huge wood burning fireplace at its head. The game room was filled with a pool table, a video game system and folding card tables on which a provided assortment of board games, card games or jigsaw puzzles could be enjoyed.

Buck chuckled when he saw the recreational area. "Don't think we're going to need that bunkhouse, boys. Chris will curl up in one of those chairs by the fire like a big old housecat and JD will be so in love with this game room that he'll probably just stay in there until we leave."

"They may do whatever they like!" Ezra's voice called out, drawing them toward the bedroom on the opposite side nearest the great room. He grinned when he saw them enter; spreading his arms wide across the huge bed he laid sprawled in the middle of. "I will be quite happy right here."

The other men grinned at his choice. The room was large, clearly built as the master bedroom, and filled with polished pinewood furniture. It offered a perfect view of the lake and had its own walk in closet. The truly dominant feature was the bed, which was so deep and luxurious that Ezra had been nearly swallowed up by it.

"Comfortable?" Buck joked watching him wriggle his body even deeper into the enveloping softness.

His eyes drifted shut and his mouth spread into a wide satisfied smile. "I may never move again."

Vin laughed. "Don't think you're gonna be able to without help. Want me to throw you a rope?"

"No need." Tensing his lower legs, which still dangled over the side of the bed, Ezra lifted his arms and thrust himself upward, bouncing a bit to get all the way up to his feet. He smiled at their surprised expressions as he led the way back out into the main room. "Have you gentlemen chosen your accommodations yet?"

Nathan nodded. "I'd like the room nearest the kitchen. Not as big as this one but the bed looks sturdier and it seems real comfortable."

"So does the one next to it," Josiah said, as he emerged from that room without his suitcase. "Hope nobody had their eye on it because I've staked my claim."

"In that case, I'll take that blue room next to the one with all the games," decided Buck. "Guess that leaves the one next to it for you, Vin."

He shook his head. "Nah, Chris or JD can have it. I'd rather sleep out in the bunkhouse. I took a peek and there are a couple of nice comfy lookin' beds in there, plus it looks out into the trees and it's got its own little deck. Should be near as good as campin' out."

Ezra snorted at the comment, quickly covering the sound with a fake sneeze when Vin shot him a challenging look. "Pardon me. Must be the mountain air."

"Yeah, 'cause you're not used to that," Buck said sarcastically.

"After three days in desert country, I merely need a moment to become re-acclimated," he returned smoothly. Gesturing toward the door which led to Vin's chosen quarters, he said, "At any rate, I'm sure our remaining brethren will appreciate having some choice in where to stay once they arrive."

The sound of footfalls on the gravel path outside alerted them that they had company just before Chris Larabee's voice called out, "Anybody home?"

"Well, speak of the devil!" Buck shouted, striding forward to give each of the new arrivals a hearty bear-hug, which Chris accepted tolerantly and JD returned with back-slapping enthusiasm. "You made good time! We just got here a few minutes ago ourselves."

"Boys," Chris greeted, meeting each man's eyes and finishing up with Ezra. "Ezra, you're looking a lot better than you did on Friday night. Guess Las Vegas agreed with you."

Ezra grinned as he came forward to shake his team leader's proffered hand. "Indeed. That lovely city always agrees with me, Mr. Larabee, but I found that the addition of cheerful company gave it an extra quality of enjoyment. Pity your plans didn't permit you to accompany us on the first leg of our holiday excursion, but I think I speak for us all when I say that we're entirely pleased to have the two of you with us now."

Waving a casual hand to the new arrivals, Vin called out from one of the wing-chairs next to the fireplace, "Howdy, boys. C'mon in and set a spell."

As Chris went over to join Vin, Josiah and Nathan, Ezra turned to JD. The young man was looking around him wide eyed wonder but grinned as he focused in on Ezra and greeted him with the same sort of rib-cracking, back-thumping hug with which he had met Buck. "Hey, guys! Good to see you, Ezra!" he gushed, breaking away from the slightly constricted southerner and waving his arms around. "Look at this place! I never seen anything like it! Did you really get it for free, like Buck said? Your old friend must like you an awful lot to do that. Wow, check out that view! Do you think they let you take boats out on Lake Tahoe? Maybe we could rent one someplace and take a ride tomorrow. They say Tahoe is one of the deepest lakes in the world. It's supposed to have its own kind of sea monster, or lake monster, or whatever you call it. Maybe we'll get a look at her! Oh, hey, check out this game room! Cool."

Ezra looked just a little bit shell-shocked in the wake of Hurricane Dunne, but he was grinning widely just the same and when JD passed his way again to collect the duffel bag he had dropped, Ezra delighted the surprised young man by giving him a hug, having been too overwhelmed with trying to breathe to return the initial one. "Welcome, JD. It's good to have you with us."

"Thanks!" he said, beaming. Hefting his bag, he asked, "Where am I bedding down? I got some pictures in here from Casey's reunion if you want to see 'em. Say, we got any food around here? I haven't eaten since breakfast except for one of those chintzy little bags of pretzel sticks on the airplane."

"I could go for something myself," Chris agreed, rejoining them and resting his forearm on Ezra's shoulder. "I hear rumor you've been planning a barbecue."

Trying not to show his surprise at the friendly gesture, Ezra motioned toward the empty bedroom to his right. "To answer JD's first question, there's a bed in there and another in the bunkhouse with Vin which have not yet been claimed. I leave it to you to decide who goes where."

"Ooh, can I have the bunkhouse?" JD piped up, hazel eyes brightening with enthusiasm at the idea.

"Sure, kid," Chris said, waving him on. "I'm happy with the private room."

"Cool," he said again. Patting his stomach, he looked expectantly at Ezra. "How about the food?"

Josiah clamped a friendly hand on JD's collar and steered him toward the front door. "C'mon, Buck. It sounds like we have a volunteer to help us bring in the groceries!"

As they went outside, followed by Vin and Nathan, Chris turned back to Ezra. "So, how've you really been?" he asked bluntly. "Josiah said you've been having some problems letting go of the last case, but he wouldn't give me any details. You all right?"

More shocked by the concerned words than he had been by the unexpected physical contact a moment ago, Ezra simply gaped at him.

A wry smile twisted Larabee's lips. "It's not that hard a question, Ezra."

"Actually," he said, "It is. For now, I will simply say that I'm a great deal better than I was when I left Denver on Monday morning, and I'm finding that a certain party of federal agents is determined to see to it that my status continues to improve. Whether it actually can or will, I have not yet determined, but I do sincerely appreciate the efforts being put forth on my behalf."

Accepting this with a thump of one hand on his shoulder, Chris told him, "All right, then. Reckon you'll keep for another couple of hours. Once we've all had some food and a couple of beers, we can talk more about it. Or we can just watch the stars and enjoy the silence, it's up to you."

Ezra felt warmed to the core of his being by Chris' unexpected show of understanding. Then he laughed as he heard JD chattering his way back into the cabin as he hefted in a large bag of food. "I appreciate it, Mr. Larabee, but I have a strong feeling that silence is not going to be an option tonight."