by Helen Adams

A Little Ezra Story

Main Characters: Ezra, Chris

Author's Note: This is set in the same AU as my earlier fic: Santa Claws.

Chapter 1
Two enemies stared at one another across a swing set. They had reached the piece of playground equipment at the same moment, each laying a hand on one of the chains supporting the black plastic seat and refusing to let go. There were three other unoccupied seats available, but neither was willing to give up control of this one.

"Let go, you little runt. I was here first!" snarled the bigger of the two combatants, attempting to jerk the chain out of his opponent's hand.

The smaller boy held fast. "Excuse me, but I believe you're mistaken. Relinquish your grasp, you great behemoth."

Eugene scowled darkly. He loathed Ezra Standish with all the considerable passion an eight-year-old could muster. Everything about the younger boy; his neat clothing, his grown up manners, his straight-A schoolwork, and all of those big words delivered in that stupid Foghorn Leghorn accent; rubbed him the wrong way. Most of all, he hated that Ezra refused to be intimidated by him.

Suddenly, an idea occurred and Eugene smiled, letting go of the swing. "Take it. You might as well enjoy it while you can. You won't be here much longer."

Ezra frowned, confused by the easy capitulation and even more so by the comment. "What do you mean?"

The overweight boy squeezed his bulk into a second swing, hooking his arms around the chains and rocking back and forth. His small piggy eyes glittered as he observed the discomfort on his enemy's face. "You been here almost a year already. Once the time is up, your foster dad can get rid of you any time he wants to."

"That's a lie," Ezra countered, his jaw jutting angrily. "I was officially adopted last fall. Adoption is permanent!"

Eugene endeavored to look surprised, struggling not to allow the pleasure he felt to show on his face. He had seen the fear that leapt into the smaller boy's green eyes and knew that he had scored a hit. "That's only true if both your birth parents are dead," he said matter-of-factly. "Everybody knows that.
You said your mom was still alive."

"She is, but my mother signed a paper giving up her legal custody rights to Chris Larabee. She doesn't have any say now in where I go or who I live with," Ezra argued, lifting his chin but unable to quite disguise the sadness he felt over this fact.

One chubby shoulder shrugged as if it didn't matter a whit to Eugene, though inside he was exulting over this juicy new piece of verbal ammunition. "If your own mama doesn't want you, why would Mr. Larabee? I guess he'll just have to give you back to the State or maybe find some relative to stick you with instead. He doesn't have to keep you if he doesn't want you, y'know."

Crossing both arms over his chest, Ezra scowled. "You're wrong."

"Am not. My mom is a lawyer. She told me so." This was a blatant lie. Eugene's mother was only the legal secretary for a divorce attorney, but Ezra did not need to know that.

"Well, it doesn't matter," Ezra declared, a hint of desperation creeping into his voice. "Because Chris does want me. He loves me. He said so!"

Eugene snorted, pasting a pitying look on his face to cover the grin that tried to break free as he saw that Ezra was struggling not to cry. "Dummy. They always say they love you. That's just to keep you from making a run for it. Foster parents get a lot of money for keeping kids nobody else wants."

Ezra's face went white at this declaration. "They . . . they do?"

"Yep," he said calmly, wondering why this particular 'fact' had achieved such a reaction when none of his previous taunts had been successful. His face scrunched up as he pretended to ponder. "Guess Mr. Larabee will stop getting paid pretty soon. That's why foster parents only keep their kids for a year.
My mom says it's expensive to raise children these days. Prob'ly even worse when it's somebody like you, who has a lot of fancy clothes and stuff. Unless Mr. Larabee is rich. Is he?"

Miserably, Ezra shook his head.

"Oh," Eugene said carelessly, a satisfied smile breaking through as he saw tears begin to ooze past the other boy's control. "Too bad. He's gonna want to give you away for sure, then."

Ezra swallowed hard. His small fists clenched and suddenly he lashed out, striking the smugly grinning boy square in the face and knocking him backward out of the swing seat. With a startled squawk, the fat blond hit the ground and began wailing for a teacher.

Standing over him, chest heaving as sobs began to break free, Ezra choked out, "I hate you, Eugene Olson. I hate you!"

Ignoring the other school children who had gathered quickly at the promise of a fight, Ezra shoved past the crowd and ran, no longer caring who witnessed his tears.

The blubbering Eugene clutched his bleeding nose, suddenly not so certain that taunting his enemy had been worth it.

Chapter 2

Ezra ran blindly, his only intention to get as far away from the school and the horrible words of Eugene, as humanly possible. He squeezed through the uneven join of two fence gates at the far end of the playground and kept going, through the school bus parking area, past quiet residential streets and the long row of shops that led in the direction of home. As he reached another row of houses, he kept on running until finally the distraction of heaving breath and blinding tears caused him to miss seeing a bit of cracked sidewalk.

His toes caught on the uneven cement, the result of an overgrown tree root, and Ezra went sprawling, skinning hands and knees and smacking his chin sharply on the rough sidewalk.

The sudden shock of impact startled him out of his tears. Then the pain hit. It, combined with the scary sight of fresh blood oozing from his hands and the remainder of his emotional upheaval, proved to be too much for the seven-year-old. Panic caused him to hyperventilate which, in turn, caused his churning stomach to spray his recently consumed lunch all over the sidewalk and himself.

"Chris!" he pleaded, the logic of knowing that his adoptive father was far away and unable to hear his call giving way to the instinctive need for comfort. "Daddy!"

There was no answer. Humiliated, confused and in pain, Ezra curled into a ball on the sidewalk and hugged his abused and throbbing knees. Soon, the small boy's wails of anguish turned into soft ragged sobs.

"Oh, you poor child! Are you all right?"

The horrified voice and the touch of a warm hand on his back penetrated the fog of misery around Ezra's mind. He looked up, blinking some of the tears from his eyes, to see an old woman in jeans and a heavy sweater kneeling next to him, looking at him with concerned blue eyes.

His chin wobbled hard as he held up his abraded palms for her to see. "I fell," he managed with a sniffle. "And, and, then I b-barfed!"

That was all he could manage before the sobs took him again. The woman stroked his hair and shushed him gently. "It's all right, honey. Don't cry anymore. Things like that happen to the best of us sometimes, and this is partly my fault. I've been meaning to get this old tree trimmed back and the sidewalk fixed for a long time now."

Ezra could not have said why, his mother had not raised him to be trusting of strangers, but something about the old lady made him want to reach out to her. "I usually jump the crack," he offered, trying to ease the guilt he could read in her face as she glanced up at the overgrown tree.

She smiled, bringing more lines to her cheeks and causing pretty laugh crinkles to show around her eyes. The sight of them made Ezra feel a little better. Nobody who laughed enough to have developed that many eye crinkles would be mean to a little boy.

"Let's get you inside and cleaned up a little," she suggested. "Then maybe we can call your folks to come and get you. Can you stand up?"

Ezra nodded. He struggled to his feet with a helping hand from his rescuer, but was unable to stifle a cry of pain when his bleeding knees protested the action.

"Nice and easy, now," she told him, keeping an arm around his shoulders as Ezra began to hobble up the walkway leading to her front door. Once inside, she led him into a bright and cheerful kitchen painted in pale blues and yellows. Surprising Ezra, who would not have thought an old lady strong enough to pick up a boy as old as him, she placed her hands under his armpits and lifted him up to sit on the polished counter next to her kitchen sink. "There we are. Now you just sit still for a minute, honey. I'm going to go fetch some things from the medicine cabinet."

Ezra waited patiently for her to return, looking around the room with curious eyes. There appeared to be a decorative theme at work here. A clock shaped like a cow, stove mitts and spoon rests with pictures of chickens on them, dish towels with ducks and a refrigerator magnet shaped like a pig. He scowled at the magnet, suddenly reminded of Eugene.

Despair washed over him anew at the thought of the other boy. What if Eugene had been right and Chris was only keeping him because he had unknowingly been a lucrative investment? But that couldn't be true, could it? Chris had given him a real home with his own room, toys, books, new clothes, and plenty of shows of affection in the form of hugs and approving words. And Magic! Surely a man who didn't want to keep a boy would never have given him his very own cat for Christmas. Especially since he was pretty sure that Chris did not like cats.

"Daddy," he whispered, remembering how much Chris had liked it when he had begun calling him by that name. Sometimes he still could not get used to saying it and knowing that it was welcome. But maybe it wasn't! Had it just seemed less peculiar, a way to keep up appearances in front of Chris's friends, to have Ezra refer to him as Daddy? And what about the uncles, Buck and all of the others? Had they just been pretending to love him, or did they really not know what was going on? If it even was going on. If Eugene had been telling the truth. It wouldn't be unlike him to tell lies just to be upsetting, but he had seemed so very sure. . .

Ezra's head was throbbing, adding to his overall misery. His chin stung, along with his hands and knees, and his nose wrinkled against the strong odor of his shirt. He wished this day had never even started.

"Sorry to be so long, honey," the woman said, bustling back into the kitchen with her hands full of bright material and a first-aid kit. "I went and hunted up one of my boy's old shirts for you to wear while we get your own cleaned up."

"Ezra," he said quietly.

She paused. "Pardon?"

"That's my name," he said, holding out his right hand in polite reflex. "Ezra Standish."

The old lady smiled and very lightly shook his hand, careful not to touch the skinned palm. "Pleased to meet you, Ezra. My name is Nettie Wells. You go ahead and call me Nettie, if you want to."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Nettie."

She chuckled, treating him to those charming laugh lines again. "My, what a polite one you are. Your folks must be mighty proud."

Ezra's own smile faltered and he shrugged. He wasn't sure if anyone would be proud of him today.

Nettie laid a hand on his cheek, forcing him to meet her eyes. Those blue eyes carried a shrewd look that made Ezra want to squirm.

"Honey, tell me the truth. Were you running away from home just now?"

He shook his head. "From school," he replied. "My arch-enemy was saying horrible, mean things to me and so I hit him. It was all very upsetting, so I ran away."

Her lips quirked at this show of matter-of-fact verbosity. "Arch-enemy, eh? Let me guess. The kind of schoolyard bully that just won't leave you alone, no matter what you do or say?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said, eyes wide, marveling at her instant understanding of the situation.

"There seems to be at least one of those in every school. Well, whatever he said to upset you so much, don't you take it to heart," she advised firmly. "That type of person will usually say anything just to get a rise out of a body. All you can do is try to ignore him. Violence probably felt better, but it usually isn't a very good answer to a problem."

As she spoke, Nettie worked the filthy shirt over Ezra's head and rinsed it out in one side of the double sink before setting it in the other side to soak. Using a paper towel dabbed in water, she washed the tear stains from his cheeks and then applied the cloth to cleaning away the residue of blood and sickness from his chest. Soon he was clean and redressed in a short-sleeved yellow button-down shirt with checks in the pattern.

"Is that going to hurt?" Ezra asked timidly, looking over the bottle of antiseptic ointment in her hand with doubtful eyes. He was holding a second paper towel to the cut in his chin and not looking forward at all to the sharp sting of alcohol against the injury.

"Maybe a bit," she told him, "but it'll be over quick and I have a nice bandage you can wear until it heals a little."

He looked at the three Band-aids she held up, surprised to see that she had cool choices – Transformers, Spider-Man and Scooby Doo – rather than plain boring ones. "Do you have children my age, Mrs. Nettie?" She had said something about her boy, but he would have guessed her rather too old to be anyone's mom.

"My son is all grown up," she told him, shielding his mouth with her hand for a moment while she applied a squirt of antiseptic from the spray bottle to his chin. He pointed to a Transformers bandage and she applied it expertly to the cut. "But I have a couple of grandsons close to your age. You're what, about eight?"

"Seven," he corrected, pleased by the guess. Most people took one look at his petite size and went the other way.

She nodded. "Then one of my grandsons is just your age. The other is nine years old. They live in Dallas and come visiting when they can. My niece, Casey, is eighteen and she lives here with me when she's not away at college. She appreciates a fancy Band-aid now and then, too."

Ezra smiled, knowing she was teasing him. Her efficient manner and distracting words had allowed him to barely notice the sting in his chin as it was doctored, and she was providing equally gentle care to his hands as she cleaned them and gave each one a spritz of antiseptic.

"Now, what do you say? Can I get you out of those jeans so I can clean up your knees? The cuffs don't look loose enough to roll that high."

Pleased that she had asked, rather than just ordering him to disrobe the way most adults would have, Ezra nodded and allowed her to help him down. Kicking off his shoes he opened the fly of his pants and eased them down his legs, tongue poking out as he concentrated on unsticking the torn material from his knees. He had wondered why Nettie was applying a warm-water compress to his injuries while they were still covered, but now he understood as the material peeled away with little pain or difficulty.

He was beginning to believe that Mrs. Nettie was a genius.

Ezra blushed as she lifted him back up to the counter, knowing that she was getting a good view of his Batman Underoos. Nobody else knew that he wore such embarrassing undergarments except for Chris, who had purchased them for him. She made no comment, however, and he relaxed.

Flinching and whimpering occasionally as dirt and tiny rocks were cleaned out of his cuts; Ezra watched the expert technique with interest.

"There we go, that ought to do you just fine," Nettie decided as she applied antiseptic and a set of matching Scooby Band-aids to his freshly scrubbed knees and helped him back down to the floor and into his jeans. "Now, do you know your mom or dad's phone number, so I can give them a call and tell them where you are? If you ran away from school, they're probably getting really worried about you by now."

Fingers playing with the edge of his borrowed shirt, Ezra avoided her eyes. "I didn't mean to scare anyone," he whispered. "I just . . ."

"You just got upset and didn't stop to think it through?" she supplied when he faltered.

He nodded, fresh tears sliding down his cheeks. If Eugene had been right and Chris really was considering giving him away, would his own reckless behavior hasten that decision? Nobody wanted a trouble-maker in their home. His mother had always said so. And he was obviously a terrible trouble-maker, because Mother hadn't wanted him herself, and now Chris would find out that he was picking fights with other kids and running away from school. Likely he wouldn't want to keep Ezra either, after today.

Nettie could not read the troubled thoughts swirling through Ezra's brain, but she could see clearly that his upset was more than just a little childish reluctance to get in trouble with a parent. Moved by impulse, she knelt and wrapped her arms around the trembling little boy and gave him a reassuring hug. "It's all right, honey. I'm sure they'll understand."

Sniffling, Ezra returned the hug, feeling even more certain now that his first instinct had been correct. This old woman, whom he hadn't even known an hour ago, was a friend. Softly, he gave her Chris's cell phone number. He had been made to memorize that number and all of his surrogate uncles' numbers for safety's sake.

"Daddy . . . Chris . . . He's prob'ly at work," he mumbled into Nettie's neck, reluctant to lose her warm vanilla-scented embrace.

Sensing this, she held on for a few moments longer before leaning back and brushing his tears away with her knuckles. "We'll call him right now. If he can't get away from work, you're welcome to spend the afternoon here until he can come pick you up. Okay?"

Wiping his nose with the back of his hand, Ezra nodded.

Nettie sighed, smiling a little as she stood and got him a Kleenex. Ezra blushed at his lack of manners, blowing his nose properly into the tissue. He waited as the phone call was made, nibbling his lip nervously. His eyes widened in alarm when he heard Nettie say, "Hello, is this Chris Standish?" realizing that he had not told her Chris's last name. No one had insisted that he change his name when the adoption went through, so even though his official paperwork had him listed as Ezra Standish-Larabee, he still tended to introduce himself to people as Standish.

Could that be part of the reason that Chris didn't want him anymore? Did he think that Ezra didn't want to be his son?

"Oh, I beg your pardon, Mr. Larabee," Nettie was saying. "I just assumed. Yes, this is about Ezra. My name is Nettie Wells and I have your son here at my house. He ran away from school after an upsetting encounter with another student this morning, and accidentally tripped over a break in my sidewalk on his way home. Yes, he's all right, just skinned his hands and knees a bit, but I invited him inside so that I could clean him up and give you a call. Would you like to speak to him?"

She listened for a moment and then smiled and handed the phone down to Ezra. "Hello?" he said cautiously.

"Ezra, are you okay?" Chris asked, his voice filled with worry. "Your school just called me. What's this about you running away?"

"Eugene," he said flatly.

A heavy sigh. "I should have known. That little," he paused in that tense way that Ezra knew meant that he was trying not to say a bad word. "Did he hurt you?"

"It was a purely verbal altercation," he admitted, hesitating before he added, "Until I punched him."

A startled moment of silence met his ear. "You punched Eugene? The school just told me there'd been an argument of some kind."

"I didn't mean to, Daddy!" he blurted. "He just kept on and on, saying terrible things and trying to make me cry, and I just couldn't help myself. It hurt so much I just had to hit him!"

Something that sounded suspiciously like a snort of laughter came from Chris before he cleared his throat and said, "I understand. You shouldn't hit other kids, Ezra, but I'd be lying if I said I'd never felt or reacted the same way. You know you'll have to apologize, though, right?"

Anger welled up in Ezra's heart. Apologize to Eugene? Never! He couldn't! He wouldn't!

Then a thought struck, cooling his temper. Maybe if he did his best to behave like a perfect child, Chris wouldn't think of sending him away. Wouldn't that be worth the indignity of making one apology? After all, it wasn't like he had to mean it.

And, his mind desperately suggested, he could start making sure that he was cheaper to maintain from now on, too! He wouldn't eat school lunches anymore, or ask for any special treats, and when his clothes wore out he could suggest one of those second-hand bargain places to replace them. The idea of such a thing was horrible to Ezra, but not nearly as bad as the thought of living somewhere else.

"Ezra?" Chris said, alerting him to the fact that he had been silent for much too long.

"Okay," he mumbled. "I'll do it."

Sounding surprised but pleased, Chris said, "That's my boy."

Ezra heaved a relieved sigh. The plan was working already.

Chapter 3

As he hung up the phone, Chris pinched the bridge of his nose, wondering what he was going to do. This was the fourth fight that he knew of since Christmas between his son and the Olson boy. The first time had been a shoving match and the others mostly name-calling, but the two boys' repeated squabbling had come up frequently during parent-teacher conferences. Ezra would never say much about those fights except that Eugene liked to pick on smaller kids. Chris could read between the lines. His son was being tormented by a bully and all of his own well-meaning advice to avoid contact and ignore the taunting had clearly not worked. How could it if the other boy was hell-bent on getting the better of Ezra? And now, the first time Ezra had not only stood up for himself but bested his enemy, Chris was about to force the poor kid to apologize for it.

Sometimes, being a responsible parent was a pain in the ass.

"Problem, pal?"

Chris looked up to find Buck standing in his office doorway, one eyebrow raised in curious invitation.

"Ezra got in another fight with that brat, Eugene," he said bluntly. "Apparently they got into it at lunch recess and Ezra just admitted to throwing a punch at him."

"Good for him!"

"Buck," Chris growled.

Buck held up his hands. "I'm just saying. I mean, c'mon, have you seen that boy?"

Surprised, Chris asked, "Have you?"

He nodded. "Remember that time I filled in for you on Parent's Day because you were testifying in court? Well, I saw him then. Gluttonous little bastard was stuffing himself sick, mowing his way through all of the snacks and cupcakes that had been set out for visiting parents. That kid's half a head taller than Ezra, and about three times as wide. If Ezra punched him, he was either really brave or really mad."

"Mad, I think, or just too upset to give it any thought," Chris said. "I just spoke to Ezra on the phone and he said as much. He ran away from school, Buck. Just popped that other kid in the face and took off running, right off the school grounds. My God, do you realize all the awful things that could have happened to him?"

Concerned, Buck asked, "Where is he now?"

A deep sigh. "Apparently, he made a new friend. Fell over a cracked sidewalk in front of a Mrs. Wells' house and scratched himself up. She told me she'd treated the cuts and would be willing to look after him until I can get over there."

"Nettie Wells?"

Chris was surprised by the interested question coming from Vin Tanner, who had stuck his head inside the office to listen. "You know her?"

"Sure, she's one of the ladies who almost got swindled in that big real estate fraud scheme we investigated last year. Remember the one I told you blew the whistle on Royal Investments?"

He nodded. "Of course, I knew the same sounded familiar." His own company, Four Corners Investigations, had been hired to do much of the fact-finding on the case before it was sent to trial. They mostly handled felony investigations, such as arson or burglary, but occasionally a white-collar crime crossed their desks as well. Vin had been the lead investigator in charge of the case, but Chris had looked over all of the paperwork, as was his habit.

"So now Ezra knows her, too," Vin mused. "It sure is a small world, ain't it? Nettie's a real peach, Chris. You can bet she'll take good care of Ezra for you."

Relieved to hear it, Chris gave him a grateful nod. "I think I'd better head on over to the school this afternoon. Now that I know there was an actual fight between Ezra and Eugene, I need to nip this whole thing in the bud before the little brat's mother starts screaming for suspension."

"Josiah won't let that happen," Buck said confidently. "He's your friend, and Ezra's too."

"He may not have a choice," Chris sighed. "As school principal he can't be seen showing favoritism for one student over another and the fact is that no matter what the other boy said to Ezra, he did throw the first punch."

JD had come over to see what had everyone else gathered inside the office and his eyes widened as he caught Chris's words. "Whoa, Ezra punched out another kid?"

"That school bully who's always giving him a hard time," Buck said gleefully.

"Really? Aw right, Ez!"

He and Vin exchanged a high-five, drawing another exasperated sigh from their boss. "I'm glad he stood up for himself too, you guys, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't do that in front of Ezra. I don't want him getting the idea that we think fighting is the best way to solve problems."

Subdued by the warning, the men flashed sheepish grins and turned around to get back to work. Still, Chris did not miss the subtle thumbs-up gestures they exchanged on the way back to their desks. He smiled, secretly rather proud of Ezra's showing himself.

With a nod, he picked up the phone. Before he headed out to pick up Ezra, he would just shoot Nathan Jackson a quick call. As the school nurse for Jefferson Elementary, Nathan would have the inside scoop on exactly how much damage Ezra had done to Eugene, and how much damage-control Chris would need to do to make up for it.

Chapter 4

"Is my . . . is Chris . . . will he be here soon, Mrs. Nettie?"

Nettie Wells smiled at her young guest, understanding his concern. It had been less than twenty minutes since she had called Mr. Larabee, just long enough for her to put away the medical supplies and pop Ezra's dirty shirt into the washing machine for a quick wash on the delicate cycle, but to an anxious seven-year-old the time must surely be crawling by.

"He should be here any time now," she promised, setting a glass of milk and two fresh chocolate chip cookies in front of him.

Ezra reached eagerly for a cookie and then stopped, a worried expression stealing over his expressive face.

"What's wrong?" she asked when he failed to start eating.

He bit his lip as he studied the cookie, then looked up and blurted, "Are we strangers? I think you're a very nice lady, Mrs. Nettie, but I'm not allowed to take food from strangers."

"Well that's a very wise precaution and I'm glad to hear that you've been taught to be careful. I'll tell you what, though." Plucking another treat out of her ceramic cow cookie jar, Nettie snapped it in two and held one half toward Ezra. "You take this and give me half of yours."

Puzzled, Ezra did as she suggested, presenting her with half a cookie and waiting to see what he was supposed to do next.

"Now we each take a bite of what we were given as a show of trust in the other person. See, once folks break bread together this way, it means they're not strangers any more," she told him; nipping off a bite from the cookie Ezra had given her. "Now we can go ahead and be friends."

Ezra completed the ritual, taking a nibble of his own. "Does this mean we'll be extra good friends, since we're breaking cookies together? Cookies taste much better than bread."

Startled into laughter by his show of childish logic, Nettie replied, "Well, you're right and that makes perfect sense to me."

Ezra smiled and finished his snack, looking happy with her agreement.

"Ezra, do you mind if I ask you something?"

He shook his head.

"What did that other boy say that got you so upset today?"

One small shoulder shrugged as Ezra squirmed in his seat, obviously trying to think of a way to evade the question. Then, something seemed to occur to him and he sat forward, staring up into her face intently with his fine reddish-brown eyebrows bunched together. Nettie returned the gaze evenly. She did not know what the boy might be searching for but she intended to give him no reason to mistrust her.

Finally, Ezra seemed to arrive at a decision. "Can you keep a secret?"

She sternly suppressed the urge to smile at his oh-so-serious manner, knowing that to a small child there was no greater crime than the inability to guard a secret told to you by a friend. He was offering his trust and some instinct told Nettie that it was extremely important that she honor it. "I can, and I will."

He nodded, pondering for a couple of seconds before he asked, "Is it . . . do you know if it's true that grown-ups get paid a lot of money to look after foster kids?"

Nettie's features tensed at the nervous question, the inconsistency between Ezra's name and his father's suddenly making perfect sense. "I wouldn't say a lot of money, but they do get paid something by the State to help with the cost of food and clothing and such."

The boy seemed to deflate a little. "What if the kid is all the way adopted? Do they still get money then?"

Sensing that she would have to tread very carefully, Nettie told him, "I don't believe so. But before a child can be legally adopted, the State has to be satisfied that his parents are good people and that their home will be a safe and happy place to grow up. They check to make certain that the parents have enough money to give that child a good home before any papers are signed."

"But . . . but what if you don't come from an orphan's home or anything. What if your birth parents gave you away? Would you be worth anything then?"

Nettie struggled not to react, wondering if this boy even realized what he was saying. "Well, I . . . I really don't know. But I am sure that you're worth a lot more than money to your parents, Ezra."

The child looked so doubtful that Nettie wanted to cry. Just what kind of people had raised this sweet little boy, for him to so obviously believe that his only value was monetary?

"Is that what caused the fight today? Your school-mate said your parents were going to sign you away to someone with more money?"

"He said an adoption wasn't really legal if one of your birth-parents was still alive." Ezra's voice shook with this admission, but he gulped down the threatening emotion with a show of resolve that disturbed Nettie deeply. It looked so practiced. Like something that he had had to do far too many times before. "Eugene said that Daddy . . . that Chris . . . that he could change his mind any time he wanted to, once the first year was over."

His chin was wobbling with the effort not to cry again, unable to hide his devastation at the idea that this just might be fact.

"My stars and garters," she responded softly, astonished by the blatant cruelty in those words. "Honey, that just isn't true. A parent doesn't just check a child out and then return him like a library book once the expiration date is up!"

Again, a look of intense doubt shone from those big green eyes. Nettie's heart ached to realize that young Ezra's life experience must be telling him otherwise.

A knock at the front door saved her from having to come up with a counter to that terrible expression. "That must be Mr. Larabee."

Hope and happiness and nervous anticipation all leapt into his face at once, bringing a sad smile to Nettie's. At least the reaction allowed her to be fairly sure that it had not been Ezra's adoptive father who had put those cruel thoughts inside his head.

She opened her door to find a tall, handsome blond man on the porch. "Mr. Larabee?"

"That's right. And you must be Mrs. Wells."

"Nettie, please," she said, opening the door and ushering him inside.

He smiled. "In that case, it's Chris. Thank you for taking care of my boy."

Distracted by the sight of said boy standing in a doorway and bouncing on his toes in anticipation of being noticed, a warm smile immediately softened the man's tense features. He held his arms out and Ezra flung himself into the embrace, hugging his father around the neck like he might never let go. Lifting him, Chris settled his son more securely in his arms and smiled again at Nettie.

She returned the expression, relieved by Ezra's obvious happiness with the reunion. "I was glad to do it," she said. "Ezra and I have decided that we're destined to be good friends. Hope you'll let him come by and see me again some time."

"Would you like that, son?"

Ezra lifted his head and treated her to a blazing grin that brought out two previously unseen dimples in his cheeks. "Yes!" Pointing to his chin, he said, "Mrs. Nettie has super hero Band-aids. And cookies!"

She chuckled. "Don't worry, though. Ezra made sure not to eat a cookie until he'd satisfied himself that he and I weren't strangers."

Chris laughed as well. "I appreciate that, and while he also knows not to go into a stranger's house without permission," he paused, giving Ezra a significant look that was met with a blushing nod, "I think we can let it go this time, under the circumstances."

"Would you like to come in and sit down for a bit?" Nettie invited. "I've got Ezra's shirt in the wash and it will just take a few more minutes."

"What happened to your shirt?" Chris asked Ezra, who hid his face in his father's neck to avoid answering the question.

Nettie patted her little friend on the leg. "I'm afraid all that excitement at school, coupled with his tumble over my sidewalk, was too much for his poor little stomach to handle."

"Ah," he replied with an understanding grimace. He rubbed soothing circles over Ezra's back. "You feeling okay now, buddy?"

Ezra nodded but did not raise his head.

Chris hitched the child up a bit higher and turned again to Nettie. "I'd love to stay for a while but I need to get him home. We need to talk about what happened and then I have an appointment to see the people at his school this afternoon. Is there any chance I can come back for the shirt later?"

"Of course. And if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to know how this all turns out."

"That's only fair," he agreed, "since you accidently found yourself in the middle of it all. Did Ezra tell you what happened?"

"Some of it." Noticing the way Ezra tensed in his father's arms at those words, Nettie placed a hand on his back, waiting until he looked up. "Ezra? I keep my promises. I won't repeat a word of what you just told me, but I think you ought to trust your daddy with the whole story."

He looked so uncertain that she could not resist stroking a hand over his thick baby-soft curls.

"I think you'll be glad you did," she coaxed. "Everyone says that I'm a real good judge of character and I can tell just by looking at you two together that you love and trust each other a lot. I promise you it will be okay."

Ezra gave no answer but he was clearly considering her suggestion, judging by the expression of deep thought on his face.

Chris looked as if he was about to demand answers, but Nettie shook her head slightly and whatever he saw in her partly silent communication with Ezra made him bite down on the questions. "Do you know a Vin Tanner?" he instead asked abruptly.

Surprised by the non sequitur, Nettie raised a curious eyebrow. "As a matter of fact, I do. Why do you ask?"

"You know Uncle Vin?" Ezra interrupted, eyes wide.

"Uncle Vin?" she repeated, looking between her two guests.

"He works for me and he's a real good friend of mine," Chris told her. "He heard me say your name and promised that my son would be in good hands with you."

She smiled, recognizing the promise he was asking for in return. "That's right."

He looked her square in the eye and nodded, satisfied by whatever he saw there. "Thank you again for all you've done for Ezra. I'll come back later to pick up that shirt."

"I'll be here." She shook her head. "Vin Tanner, imagine that. Small world we live in, isn't it?"

Chris laughed. "That's exactly what he said."

Ezra was frowning at their exchange with the suspicious look of a child who suspects that grown-ups are unfairly talking over his head. "Can we go home, Daddy?"

"All right, son. Tell Mrs. Nettie thank you," Chris reminded him.

He smiled sweetly at her. "Thank you for everything, Mrs. Nettie. I'll come back to see you very soon."

"You'd better."

"Or perhaps you can come over to my house some time and meet Magic. She's my very special Christmas cat."

"Well, then, I wouldn't miss it for the world. I'm a cat-lover myself, you know." Ezra beamed at this news and Nettie could not help but smile, marveling at how this little stranger had wormed his way deep inside her heart with no effort at all. "You take care, honey."

Chris gave her a grateful nod, carrying his son out of the house and down the steps in deference to his injured knees. Ezra laid his head back down on that convenient broad shoulder, voicing no protest at all.

Chapter 5

Josiah looked up with a welcoming smile as his secretary ushered Chris Larabee and his son into the office. He stood, offering his hand. "Chris, thanks for coming."

Ezra was shuffling, clearly unhappy to be here, as he trailed slowly in his father's wake. He glanced up at Josiah then dropped his eyes again. Today, the big gray-haired man wasn't his daddy's good friend, Uncle Josiah. He was that authority figure most forbidding to all small children, the Principal, and they were in his office because Ezra had broken the rules.

"Ezra, how are you?" Josiah asked him as the duo took a seat in two of the four chairs he had had brought in for the meeting.

The boy's politeness reflex kicked in. "I'm fine, thank you, sir," he mumbled.

The door opened again and the secretary, Mrs. Travis, showed in Eugene and his mother. Alice Olson smiled brightly at the Principal, the expression dimming to a barely-civil nod when she looked at Chris and Ezra.

"What happened to your chin?" Eugene snarked. "You get into a fight with your stupid cat?"

"What happened to your nose?" Ezra countered sharply, a tiny smile darting over his face at the sight of the puffy feature. "You mistake it for a potato and try to bite it?"


The sharp word of warning from all three adults quickly cowed the children, who satisfied themselves by sticking their tongues out at each other as Eugene took a seat on his mother's opposite side.

Josiah sighed heavily, steepling his forefingers and resting them against his lips as he looked over the two obviously unrepentant young enemies. "We have a serious problem here, people. This is the fourth time this semester that Ezra and Eugene have had a confrontation. They've both received prior warnings, but this time the altercation led to violence. School rules make the discipline for that action very clear, but before I make a final decision, I'd like to hear anything you have to say."

"Well, I certainly have something to say!" Alice snapped, straightening in her chair and giving Ezra a venomous look that made him shrink back in his seat. "This vicious little beast attacked my Eugene, without provocation. All he wanted was to play on the swings and this boy wouldn't let him. When Eugene protested, the other boy just hit him and took off! I demand that you expel him, Principal Sanchez. This kind of violence should not be allowed in a well run school. Just look at what he did to my poor baby!"

She grabbed Eugene by his chubby face and shook it, drawing all eyes to the swollen nose. "Ma-aa!" he protested, yanking himself away.

Chris shot the angry woman a glare of such heated intensity that she actually gulped and sat back. Turning his eyes to Josiah, he said, "That isn't quite the way I heard it. Ezra hasn't given me all of the details yet so I don't know what was said between the boys, but as I understand it Eugene was verbally taunting my son, and it wasn't the first time. Ezra has already admitted that he threw the first punch, but it was certainly not unprovoked."

"Boys, stand up please," Josiah requested. Looking doubtfully at one another, the children complied. "It seems to me that Eugene is about twice the size of his opponent. He's bigger, older and more than capable of defending himself if events transpired the way you suggest, Mrs. Olson."

Alice frowned, clearly seeing the difference for herself and experiencing a moment of doubt.

"Ezra," Josiah continued, gesturing them back to their chairs, "I've noticed that you have an injury as well. Tell me the truth, now. Is that cut on your chin the result of your confrontation with Eugene this morning?"

"No fair!" Eugene squawked. "He's the one that hit me!"

Josiah shut him up with a sharp glance. Turning back to Ezra, he said, "Well?"

Ezra considered the question, looking at his father, then at Eugene, before returning his attention to Josiah. "It was the result of our confrontation, sir," he replied, carefully repeating the exact question. Then he sighed and admitted, "But he didn't hit me back, if that's what you mean."

"Then what did happen?"

The little boy shifted in his seat. "He said stuff to me. Really mean stuff that hurt. I think he was tryin' to make me cry."

"And you did! Stupid little cry-baby!"


Seeming to realize from his mother's warning tone that he was not doing himself any favors, Eugene subsided with a sulky look.

Shooting his enemy a glare that was almost as intense as the one Chris had given to the boy's mother, Ezra said, "Yes, sir, he succeeded in his attempt. I didn't mean to hit him, but I was so mad, it just kind of happened. I was so upset that I turned and ran for home." Shooting a reluctant glance at his father, he admitted, "I couldn't stop crying and I couldn't see where I was going. I tripped and fell and that's how this happened." He gestured at his bandaged chin and then scrunched back in his chair with an air of great relief that his terrible confession was finished.

Josiah turned his attention back to Alice, who looked more resigned than angry now. Both Ezra's words and his embarrassment over having to say them carried a clear ring of truth. Turning to her son, Alice demanded, "Eugene, did you lie to me about what happened this morning?"

Eugene fidgeted and squirmed, refusing to meet her eyes. Finally he whined, "How come you're taking his side!"

At this feeble lack of defense the harried mother covered her eyes with one hand, as if she had a sudden headache.

"Thank you, boys. Why don't you both wait outside with my secretary while your parents and I discuss the next course of action," Josiah said, his suggestion clearly an order. Both boys leapt at the chance of escape. "And no fighting!"

When the door was securely shut once again, Josiah looked both parents in the eye. "Well, I think we can safely rule out expulsion as a punishment for this particular crime. Not that I would have taken such harsh measures for a couple of second-graders anyway."

"I suppose that would be a bit extreme," Alice admitted uncomfortably. She clearly recognized now that her son had been as much as fault as Chris's. Attempting to save a little face, she added, "Eugene tells me the other boy is a foster child. Heaven only knows the kind of environment he must have experienced before coming to live with Mr. Larabee. A boy like that would need the discipline of a regular ongoing education."

Chris was clutching the arms of his chair and looking as if he were trying to hold onto his temper with both hands and his teeth. Josiah held up a hand before his friend could lose the battle and invoke a second incident.

"First of all, Mrs. Olson, Ezra is adopted and Mr. Larabee is fully aware of his background. And even if he weren't, Ezra is a good boy. He just needs good role models and fair treatment in order to learn how to behave properly. This is true of all children, including your Eugene." He settled back in his leather chair, considering the matter. "Since both boys have received prior warnings and not corrected their behavior, and since both of them appear to be equally guilty of wrongdoing in this morning's fight, I'm afraid that both of them will have to be punished."

Alice looked as if she wanted to protest, but confined herself to a simple huff before nodding her head. Chris appeared somewhat mollified by the news that his son's tormenter was not going to get away with his actions scot-free.

"Tomorrow is Friday, so I'm going to suspend both boys for one day and demand a mutual apology be delivered," Josiah decided, his deep voice carrying a ring of authority that both parents recognized. In this school, his word was final. He turned to Chris. "In addition, Ezra will have to serve three days detention next week, one half hour each day. I'm sorry, Mr. Larabee, but striking another student on school grounds is not tolerated under any circumstance. Additionally, Ezra left school property without permission, which is an automatic unexcused absence. If both boys serve out their punishment, and provided they don't get into any more fights for the final six weeks of the school year, the slate will be wiped clean and they can both start again fresh."

"That," Chris paused, then sighed and held out his hand, "Sounds fair. Thank you, Mr. Sanchez."

Alice also shook hands with the Principal. "Thank you for your time," she said stiffly.

"Mrs. Travis," Josiah called out. She opened the door with an inquiring look. "Show the boys back in, please."

As expected, the biggest protest of their punishment came from the news that they would have to apologize to each other, but the adults stood firm on this.

Ezra, having already given his word to Chris, capitulated first and reluctantly stuck out his right hand. Not looking at the other boy, he said, "Sorry I gave you a bloody nose."

Eugene limply shook the smaller hand, letting go as soon as he had said, "Sorry I made you cry."

The two boys glared at each other, neither liking the reminder of what they had suffered, and all three adults sighed, easily recognizing the lack of sincerity in those apologies.

Realizing that this was the best he was going to get, Josiah nodded. "Let's have no more fighting out of you two from now on, all right?"

"Yes, sir," they both mumbled.

Eugene slunk out of the office with his mother, loudly protesting her promise that she'd be finding him a long list of chores to do on his unexpected day off.

"Will I be completing chores as well?" Ezra ventured, squirming in his seat as Chris made no move to leave the Principal's office.

"I'm afraid I can't take tomorrow off to watch you," Chris told him seriously. "Since this is pretty short notice, you're just going to have to come to the office with me and spend the day helping the guys out."

Ezra blinked and started to grin, then quickly stifled the expression with a meek glance at Josiah, not wanting to seem as if he was looking forward to this 'severe' punishment.

Josiah chuckled. "I'll just pretend I don't know what that really means. Ezra, after class on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, you're to report here to my office. I'll have some class assignments you can do to serve out your detention."

The boy scowled, knowing instinctively that Josiah's assignments would not be nearly as much fun as a day at his father's office, but he just said, "Yes, sir."

"Ezra, why don't you run along to your classroom and pick up your school bag and any homework you may have missed? Afterward, go visit Nathan and let him check out your hands and knees before we go home," Chris told him. "I'll meet you down there. I want to talk to Josiah for a minute first."

"Okay," he agreed quickly, out the door before Chris could change his mind.

"I'm not going to lessen the punishment just because you and Ezra are my friends, Chris," Josiah warned.

Chris nodded. "I know that, and I wouldn't expect you to. Your judgment was fair and while I don't like Ezra getting a harsher sentence than the other boy, I understand why you had to do it."

"So . . ." Josiah held up his hands in an enquiring gesture.

"So I'd like to know, off the record, if you know what that brat said to him. I tried, but Ezra isn't talking and I have a feeling that whatever it was cut him pretty deep."

Josiah drew a deep breath. "The same thought occurred to me when one of the other children reported that he had run away from school in tears. That's not like Ezra." He grimaced. "I wish I had the answer for you, Chris, but you know how kids are about 'ratting out' a fellow student. None of them would say anything about what they heard."

"Damn. Now what am I supposed to do?"

"Give him a little time. Be there for him when he decides the time is right. Meanwhile, don't be surprised if he acts a little odd. If he was that badly upset, he's probably going to be seeking extra attention or reassurance from you. Just give him comfort whenever he seems to need it, and be patient with him."

Chris scrubbed a hand through his short blond hair. "Never been my biggest virtue, Josiah, you know that."

The large man chuckled. "I think you'll do fine. That boy loves you with all his heart, and that's a huge point in your favor."

He smiled, releasing his concern in a heavy sigh. "Well, it probably won't do to be consorting with the enemy while Ezra is being punished, but do you think Uncle Josiah would like to come over and join us for a barbecue a week from Saturday?"

The Principal grinned. "I'm sure that he would. I'll make sure he gets the message."

Chapter 6

"Hey, Nathan."

Nathan Jackson, RN, looked up from his inspection of Ezra's left palm. "Hi, Chris. Ezra told me you'd be down." Turning his attention back to the boy, he nodded. "This looks real good. Your friend did a nice job. If she did the same good work on your knees, I don't think we need to mess with them just yet. Be better to leave them covered up until you have your bath tonight. Just make sure you soap all of these abrasions up real good and put fresh Band-aids on before you go to bed."

"I'll make sure he does," Chris promised, smiling at Ezra's pleased expression. Obviously he hadn't been looking forward to having his cuts re-scrubbed, and he suspected that the boy had also had not wanted to give up his cool Scooby bandages just yet either. "That reminds me, I need to stop by the store on our way home and pick up some Band-aids. I used up the last of the old box on a scratch I got from Ezra's cat."

"Need me to take a look? I got a nice 'Hello Kitty' Band-aid you can put on it," Nathan joked, earning himself a giggle from his young patient.

Chris shot him a sour look. "No, thank you."

His dark eyes twinkled. "So, you and that cat still haven't managed to declare a truce, huh? It's been four months, Chris. When are you gonna put up the white flag?"

"Never," he shot back. "That cat hates me."

"Magic just resisted because she thought he was taking her to see Aunt Rain," Ezra defended. "The last time she was picked up unexpectedly; Daddy put her in her cat-carrier and took her in to get a shot."

Nathan smirked. "I might have scratched you, too. Nobody likes getting a shot, even from a beautiful lady doctor."

"I wasn't taking her to the vet. I just wanted her out of my chair!" Chris insisted. Seeing no sympathy coming his way, he huffed and asked Ezra, "You pick up all your stuff?"

He nodded. "I have to do some math problems, and read a book and write a book report on it for next week."

"Do you have the book already or will we need to stop off at the library?"

The child made a face as he reached into his bag and pulled the item out. "The teacher says I have to read this one. It's a biography."

"Little Sure Shot: The Story of Annie Oakley'. That doesn't sound so bad. She was a teenager who became a world-famous sharp shooter back in the old west," Chris told him. "The main attraction of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. I'm sure it will be a great book."

"Well, it sounds pretty good," he agreed doubtfully, tucking the book back in his pack. "Maybe it will be okay, even if it is about a girl."

The two men chuckled, realizing his problem with the choice. "Don't worry, Ezra, you won't get cooties from reading it," Nathan teased him. The boy gave him a smile and a willing hug when Nathan told him, "You're all set. I'll see you soon."

"But hopefully not as a patient," Chris added, helping Ezra hop down from the tall examination table and shaking hands with his friend. "Can I count on you and Rain to come over for dinner and game night a week from Saturday?"

"Wouldn't miss it. Just don't let Ezra clean us all out this time, okay?"

He laughed; ignoring Ezra's answering eye-roll at the worn out joke. Chris and Nathan had met three years ago through Vin, who had invited the other man along for a weekend poker game. Nathan had subsequently introduced them both to Josiah, who fit into the group like a hand in a well-worn glove. Buck, Chris's oldest friend and now business partner, had eventually brought along an orphan teenager he had taken under his wing from the local 'Big Brothers' program, and JD had become a regular fixture among them, and had taken on an apprentice agent-in-training position at Four Corners Investigation as soon as he turned 18. When Chris had fostered and then adopted Ezra, everyone had assumed that it would mean an end to their frequent poker nights, only to discover that the boy adored the game. Unfortunately for Ezra, Nathan and Josiah had both balked at playing against him after he had taken them for $20 apiece, so now the men played strictly for chips until after he was sent to bed.

"Make sure you have everything, son," Chris told him, picking up Ezra's bag and setting it on his own shoulder. "Where's your jacket?"

"Right here," he said, picking up the red windbreaker from the bench where he had left it. "I'm sure that's everything."

Holding out his hand, Chris enveloped the much smaller one in his grasp, enjoying the warm surge of love that shot through his heart at that trusting touch. "Let's go then. Thanks, Nathan."

"Bye, Uncle Nathan."

The RN flashed them a warm smile. "You take care, now."

Chris made a quick stop at the local market for some Band-aids, a regular box for himself and, much to his son's delight, a box of assorted super-hero designs for Ezra, then continued on his way back to Nettie's house.

"What do you say we drive into the city and have dinner at the Soul Savor tonight?" Chris asked, glancing in the rearview mirror to gauge Ezra's reaction to the mention of his favorite restaurant. They served a wide variety of southern dishes and Ezra absolutely adored their fried chicken and hushpuppies with sweet tea. Chris did not take him there often, not wanting the boy to have a steady diet of deep fried foods and sugar, but an occasional visit did no harm and tonight he really wanted to show Ezra that he was not upset over the incident at school.

He was therefore puzzled when Ezra looked momentarily delighted, only to have his sunny expression unexpectedly cloud over into a stricken one. "Can't we just go home?" he asked timidly.

Completely confused, but remembering Josiah's advice to tread carefully, he replied, "Of course, if you'd rather." Ezra looked so relieved that Chris knew he'd made the right choice, even if he didn't know why. "Afraid I forgot to get anything out of the freezer this morning, though. If we go home we'll have to make do with some hot dogs and canned chili."

Knowing full well that Ezra did not like chili, he was surprised to hear him say, "Okay."

The rest of the drive to Nettie Wells' house was quiet. Now and then, Chris would glance into the mirror and see Ezra staring into space with a deeply thoughtful expression. He wondered what the boy was thinking about but decided not to ask.

As they pulled up in front of the neat little gray painted house, Chris waved to Nettie, who was outside watering her plants with a garden hose. She smiled and waved back.

"You wait here, Ezra. I'll be right back," he promised, waiting to see if his son would protest missing out on seeing his new friend again. But Ezra simply nodded and waved to Nettie from his back window.

Getting out of the vehicle, Chris said, "Hi, there. Am I too early?"

"Nope, the shirt is right inside on the hall table," she said, shutting off the hose. Gesturing to the freshly watered planter boxes, she said, "I came out to clean off the sidewalk and figured I might as well give everyone a drink. How'd it go at the school?"

"It could have been worse. Ezra got a one-day suspension and he'll have to stay after school a few times next week, but the other boy got suspended for his part in the whole thing too."

"Good," she said, so emphatically that Chris wondered again just what Ezra had told her. She saw his expression and said, "I'm sorry, I wish I could tell you what I know, but I gave my word that I wouldn't."

He sighed. "I understand. And even though it makes my work harder, I appreciate that. Unfortunately, Ezra is no stranger to broken promises."

"His birth-parents?"

Chris hesitated then said, "His mother. She set him on my doorstep with a suitcase and a note, told him she'd be back in a week and just took off. Didn't even wait to find out what kind of people she was leaving him with."

Nettie shook her head. "Some folks just shouldn't be allowed to have children. And did she ever come back?"

"Eventually. The authorities were after her on various fraud charges and she thought they might go easier on her if they knew she had a young child. When I challenged her for custody, she gave him up with hardly any fight at all. Hell, she almost seemed relieved, like he was some stray pup she didn't have time to look after."

"Mercy sakes! That poor child."

Like Ezra, Chris found himself instinctively liking the old woman. "Am I right in guessing that whatever Eugene said, it had something to do with Ezra's mother?" He knew of no other subject that had the power to distress Ezra more.

She considered the question. "I'm getting the impression that you're a pretty good father, Mr. Chris Larabee. I think you should trust your instincts."

Chris sighed, not sure if he'd really received an answer or not. Nettie's wisdom sounded a lot like Josiah's. "Thanks. Well, let me grab that shirt from you and we'll be on our way." As she reached inside the front door and brought out the freshly laundered garment, he said, "I'll have Ezra bring back the one he borrowed on his next visit, if that's all right."

"Fine, fine. I keep a few of my son's old things on hand for my grandsons to wear when they visit. An active young boy can never have too many clean shirts in reserve."

He chuckled. "I'd have to agree with that. Ezra is about the neatest kid you'll ever hope to meet and he still goes through laundry about three times faster than I do."

"You have a good evening, Chris," she said cordially, waving again to Ezra as she stepped back inside. "Come back any time."

"Thanks, Nettie. I'll do that." Halfway down the walk, he paused, a crooked smile tilting one side of his mouth. "Say, you don't happen to play poker, do you?"

She laughed. "I've been known to win a hand or two. Why?"

"I'd like to invite you to a barbecue Ezra and I are throwing for some friends a week from Saturday. They're all good guys, I promise, and Vin will be there."

Nettie's blue eyes twinkled. "That sounds real nice. You mind if I bring my niece along, to keep me from being the only female present? Spring classes at the University are up next week and she'll be back home for a while. She's a bit of a tomboy, so I know she'd enjoy it."

"The more, the merrier. I'll call and give you my address. And you won't be the only woman. My friend Nathan will be bringing his wife."

She smiled. "I'm looking forward to it. Tell young Ezra that I'll be expecting a formal introduction to that very special Christmas cat of his."

Hoping his smile didn't look like a grimace, Chris waved his agreement and got back in the car.

"You were out there a really long time," Ezra said, his tone a trifle suspicious.

"I invited Nettie and her niece to come along to the barbecue we're having next weekend."

He sat up straighter in his car seat. "We're having a barbecue?"

Chris grinned as he started the car. He had been formulating a plan in his own mind all day, without saying a word to anyone. "I thought it would be a good idea. Is there anyone you'd like to invite?"

"Can I ask Billy Travis and Olivia Greer, from my school?"

"Sure, you can." As he pulled out into the street, Chris shot a curious look into the rearview mirror. "Olivia? I thought you didn't like girls."

Ezra's face scrunched up. "Well, no, but Olivia isn't a girly girl. She likes to play tag and hide & seek, and she's almost as good a poker player as I am. She has the gift."

Suspecting he did not even want to know what that last part meant, Chris just grunted. "Should be a real good time. Food, games, all kinds of fun."

"Are we having a party for someone?"

Chris smiled at the question. "A week from Saturday will mark a whole year since you came to live with me, Ezra. I don't want any of our friends to miss it."

"A . . . a year? Really? Already?"

"I know, I can't believe it either. Sure you don't want to go to the restaurant? We could start celebrating a little early."

Ezra's voice was so quiet that Chris could barely hear him. "No, thank you. I'm rather tired tonight."

Chastising himself, Chris looked at the sad eyes staring up at him from the back seat and said, "Right, of course you are. It's been a pretty hard day for you, hasn't it?"

"Yes, sir," he whispered.

Ezra did not speak another word all the way home.

Chapter 7

Ezra's eyebrows scrunched together in concentration, his small pink tongue poking between his lips as he rubbed his soapy fingers against the partly scabbed abrasion on his right knee. He had already washed up and Chris had offered to do this job for him, but he had refused, just knowing it would hurt worse if someone else touched it. Besides, he needed to show Chris that he could be self-sufficient and no trouble at all to have around. The wounds on his knees had looked nasty when the warm bathwater had peeled away the bandages, red and scaly with goopy centers, and he had been afraid to touch them but the soap didn't feel too bad and he persevered.

"That's enough, son," Chris told him. "You don't want to peel the scabs away with too much scrubbing. Just rinse yourself off and come out of the tub now."

Nodding, he dunked his knees under the waterline and splashed some water up over his chest and shoulders, making sure he'd got the rest of the soap off. Pulling the drain plug out, he stood and put his favorite bath toy, a pirate ship with real sails and a tiny Jolly Roger flag that Uncle Buck had given him, carefully back on its shelf. He stroked one finger over the wooden lady carved into the bow, thinking how much he would miss this ship if he went to live with someone else.

Realizing that Chris was waiting for him, he turned and lifted his arms. "I'm ready."

Chris responded by embracing him in a thick bath towel and lifting him out of the deep old-fashioned clawed bathtub. He scrubbed Ezra's hair dry with one end before briskly fluffing the towel over his wet body. Opening the cupboard where he had taken to storing Ezra's clean underwear, he said, "What'll it be tonight, buddy? Spider-man or Superman?"

"Superman," he decided, pulling on the pair of boys boxer-briefs and matching T-shirt that Chris handed to him. He smiled down at the red 'S' logo emblazoned on his chest. "Band-aids, too."

"No secret identity for you tonight, huh, Supes?"

He could not keep from smiling at the joke. "I'm not really Superman. If I was, I wouldn't need any bandages at all. He's invu'ner'ble."

"Invulnerable," Chris corrected with a smile as he put the new Band-aids in place, "and you're right. I forgot about that."

"Bet Eugene wouldn't dare to say mean things to me if I was Superman," Ezra muttered, scowling at the memory of his enemy.

Chris gave him a searching look that made him squirm a little. He had not meant to be heard but he had been trying to work up the courage to talk to Chris all evening. He knew that his father really wanted to know what had happened this morning, but he was afraid to say the words out loud in case it turned out that Eugene was right. Ezra did not want confirmation of his departure any sooner than necessary.

"Let's get you into your pajamas and go out into the den, where we can be more comfortable," Chris suggested.

Ezra nodded, happy to put things off for a few more minutes, and accepted the hand that was offered to him.

"Any preference?" Chris asked, opening Ezra's pajama drawer.

"Can I wear the plain blue pants and my fuzzy bathrobe?" he asked, wanting to keep his brave symbol visible while they talked. If he could pretend deep down inside that he really was Superman, then maybe he could prove to be invulnerable after all and not cry if Chris confirmed that their time together was almost at an end.

Chris produced the requested items along with a pair of slippers. Ezra put them on and looked around, frowning when he saw no other distractions leaping out at him. He had already done most of his homework. He had helped make dinner and eaten his chili con carne with no complaints over the flavor, even though it had been pretty yucky, and even offered to dry the few dishes they had dirtied, hoping to seem indispensable. His mother would have been pleased, she hated household chores, but Chris had just thanked him for the offer and popped everything into the dishwasher for later before suggesting that it was bath time.

Ezra sighed softly. His bath time behavior, though impeccable, had not been a good way to help prove what a good boy he was. He liked baths and had never made a fuss over them. Suddenly he wished that he had, just so he would have seemed extra well behaved tonight.

Realizing that he was out of options, Ezra put a hand to his tummy. He could feel the hot dogs and chili churning in there and hoped with all his might that he would not be throwing up for a second time today. Eating had probably been really a bad idea. Certainly it had not been easy. When Chris had offered to take him out for dinner, even though he'd been bad today, Ezra had suddenly remembered all the times his mother had offered him special treats, only to have them turn out to be nothing more than distractions for the bad news that he was about to be shipped off to some unknown relative's house. Maybe that was the way all grown-ups handled such situations.

Dragging his heels, Ezra trudged down the hallway and into the den behind his father. He smiled to see Magic waiting for them in Chris's favorite chair, her sweet little face smug with catlike superiority. Running past his father, Ezra plucked her out of the seat, hugging the sleek black feline to his chest as he waited for Chris to dust off the cushion and take a seat. "Can we both sit in your lap, Daddy?" he asked hopefully, knowing Magic would give him moral support. "Magic will be good, I promise."

Chris grimaced, but put his hands under Ezra's armpits and dragged him up, cat and all. Magic, at nine months of age, was not quite full grown but she had already mastered the talent for oozing out over any comfortable surface and taking up enough room for three cats. As Ezra settled sideways in Chris's lap with his legs extended over the armrest, Magic spread herself over him and soon established herself as a living, purring blanket for the boy. Chris shifted, trying to get a bit more comfortable and the cat opened one green eye, flexing the set of claws closest to his hand.

"If Ezra didn't love you so much," he muttered, drawing a smile from Ezra and a sniff of complete indifference from the cat. Returning his attention to the boy, Chris prompted him. "So, are you ready to tell me what happened this morning?"

Chapter 8

"Talk to me, Ezra. Whatever it is, it can't be that bad."

Giving him a long skeptical look, Ezra began to stroke his fingertips over Magic's smooth black fur. Finally, after several long moments of tense silence, he said, "Eugene wanted the swing I picked out at recess. We reached it at the same time but I knew he only wanted it because I had it, so I refused to let go. Then he said he didn't care if I took the swing because . . . because I wouldn't be in school for very much longer."

Glad that he finally seemed to be getting to the crux of the matter, Chris prompted, "Why did he think you wouldn't be in school? Did someone tell him you were moving away from Four Corners?"

He was startled by the stricken expression on Ezra's small face when he looked up, green eyes slowly filling up with tears.

"Ezra, are you all right? What is it?"

"Then it's really true?" Ezra asked in a small voice.

"What's true?"

"What Eugene said," he replied unhelpfully. Ezra looked down, small fingers lifting to brush over the design on his T-shirt and he drew a deep breath, making a visible and startlingly effective effort to hide his upset from Chris. "Is it the money?"

Disturbed by the sudden absence of all facial expression and his son's calmly adult-sounding question, Chris repeated, "Money?"

Just as suddenly as it had come, the blank expression vanished again. Ezra pulled his legs up, dislodging his cat onto the floor as he squirmed around to face Chris, sitting backward on his lap.

Ezra's hands latched onto his father's shirt front in a pleading gesture that Chris suspected he was not even aware of as he excitedly said, "I know it's already been a year but I can still be a very lucrative investment if you'll let me try! I know lots and lots of card tricks and shell-games and other things that will make strangers contribute cash. I'm a little out of practice, but I'm sure I can get my skills back if I try hard. Or if I'm still too costly to maintain, maybe I can just stop eating so much! I really don't need snacks and I could spend all of my lunch hours brushing up on my talents. Maybe I can even sell some of my toys and books to other kids at school."

Completely flummoxed and wondering just what he had said to prompt this increasingly peculiar sales-pitch, Chris set his hands on Ezra's arms and gave them a squeeze. "Hey, stop! We're getting along just fine. My business is doing very well and even if it wasn't, I certainly wouldn't expect my seven-year-old to sell his treasures or go out and earn a living for me! And I don't want to hear about you skipping meals, either. You don't need to change anything about yourself for me, Ezra."

Instead of being reassured by this, the little boy's face crumpled and he broke down into helpless sobs that only got worse when Chris gathered him closer and began to rock him, tears filling his own eyes at the sound of his child's heart-break.

"Shhh, Ezra, please don't cry. Just tell me what's bothering you."

"I don't want to go away!" Ezra wailed. His next words were barely coherent through his hysterical sobbing. "If we don't need money and you're not unhappy with me, then why don't you want me to stay with you?"

"What! Ezra, what on Earth are you talking about? Of course I want you to stay with me. You're my son and I love you."

Ezra shook his head. "You're just sayin' that! I'm a foster kid, and they only get to stay in one place for a y-year."

Sure that he had to be hearing this wrong, Chris drew the weeping child back from his shoulder and forced him to look into his face. "Is that what Eugene told you? That I'd be giving you up because it's been a year?"

A miserable head-bob and a gulping snuffle were his only reply.

"Oh, my God," Chris groaned, thinking that it was a good thing he hadn't known all this when he'd had Eugene and his mother within arm's reach. Needing to make sure, he asked, "Did he say anything else?"

"He said . . . he said that f-f-foster kids were worth a lot of money but that you won't get any more once my year is up, and that you'd prob'ly want to give me back. I didn't want to believe him, but he sounded really sure."

Chris sighed deeply. "That's when you hit him."

Ezra nodded miserably. "I know I'm a t-t-t-trouble-maker and my mother always said that nobody wants one of those, but," he paused, gulping in a breath and fixing pleading eyes on Chris as he desperately continued, "Could you maybe convince Uncle Vin or Uncle Josiah or one of the others to take me? That way, even if I don't live here, maybe I'll still get to see you sometimes!"

"Ezra," Chris whispered, too choked up to speak for a moment as he rested his hands on either side of that tear-stained little face. "Ezra, you're not a trouble-maker and I have no intention of getting rid of you. I wouldn't, even if you were. You'll be with me all of this year, and next year, and as many years after that as you want to be. You're my legally adopted son. That means you're mine forever and that I love you, just as surely and deeply as if you'd been born to me. I want you to stay."

The boy gulped, wanting to believe him but so unsure that it broke Chris's heart. Sounding confused, Ezra blurted, "Then why did you want to take me out for dinner?"

Chris's brain stuttered as Ezra switched tracks on him again. "What?"

"Whenever I became inconvenient for Mother, she would buy me something special to soften the news that she was sending me away. The more special it was, the longer I would be gone. Before she sent me here to you, I got a double-scoop chocolate fudge ice cream sundae with whip cream and sprinkles. That's how I knew she intended be away for much longer than the week she promised."

"Oh, Ezra," Chris sighed, realizing for the first time just how much damage the words of a spoiled schoolyard bully had inflicted. A few well-chosen taunts had served to reopen all of Ezra's deepest wounds and bring back the fear and uncertainty connected with memories of a mother's selfish disregard. It would take more than a few reassuring words on his part to counter the effect, but for now words were all he could offer. The rest would take time.

Heart aching for this poor love-starved child, Chris pulled Ezra back into a tight embrace. "I would never do that to you. When I give you a gift or offer you a special treat, it's because I love you and because you're a wonderful boy who deserves good things. I asked if you wanted to go to the Soul Savor tonight because I know how much you like it there. I just wanted to cheer you up after you'd had such a terrible day. That's all."

Ezra's arms stole around his neck and clung with all their might. "Then you're really not planning to send me away next week?"

"I will never send you away," he said again. "You're my son and I'm your dad. I'm afraid you're stuck with me from now on, kid."

"Good," he sighed, that one word sounding so amazingly relieved that it brought fresh tears to Chris's eyes.

He held the boy a little tighter, rubbing one hand slowly up and down the small back in a soothing gesture that soon had Ezra relaxing. He slid back down to settle more comfortably in Chris's lap and laid his curly chestnut head over his father's heart.



"Can I sleep with you tonight?"

"Of course you can."

A few quiet minutes slipped by, each of them content just to bask in the comfort of the other's presence. Then Ezra said, "Can I tell you a secret?"


"I'm glad I punched Eugene today."

Chris laughed softly. "Can I tell you a secret back?"

"Uh, huh."

"I'm glad you did, too. Just don't do anything like that again."


Pleased to know for certain that he was forgiven, Ezra settled back down for a few seconds, and then, "Daddy?"

"Yes, Ezra?"

"Did you know your voice gets all deep and rumbly when you talk with my head against your chest?"

"Imagine that. Do I sound like Uncle Josiah?"

"Kind of. I'm glad you're really you, though."

"And I'm glad that you're you."

The room grew quiet again for almost five minutes. Chris was just becoming convinced that Ezra had fallen asleep, when he heard a sleepy voice say, "Daddy?"

Chapter 9

Chris struggled to open his eyes, wondering why he felt so hot and heavy, and why it felt like something was crawling on his cheek. As he wrestled the reluctant lids up, he was momentarily surprised to find a set of small curled fingers resting upon his face. They were moving slightly as Ezra slept, accounting for the tickling sensation.

Carefully shifting the out-flung appendage down to his chest, Chris turned his head to study the sleeping child. Ezra had awakened with nightmares three separate times last night, making Chris glad that he had agreed to keep the boy with him, in spite of his frequently interrupted sleep. Right now, Ezra was out cold, snuggled close against his right side and held securely by one arm. It was the same position in which they had fallen asleep after the final bad dream had been chased away

A shift from the second unfamiliar weight on his body caught Chris's attention and he glanced down, confirming the presence of Magic, who was curled up in a purring ball atop his stomach. Naturally. Wherever Ezra went, that cat was sure to show up eventually. She was more loyal than a dog when it came to her boy.

And speaking of dogs, Chris now understood why he could not move. He had been so distracted with Ezra the previous night that he had neglected to put Pepper and Bo out in the kennel before he went to bed. The two dogs had taken happy advantage of the situation and were also occupying their fair share of his bed. Pepper had trapped his legs beneath her body and Bo was curled into the crook of Ezra's knees, keeping him pressed tightly against Chris's side. Neither dog was the least disturbed to be sharing their space with a cat, nor did Magic seem at all worried about them. It seemed that the only uncomfortable member of the family was himself.

Giving his son a jostling hug, Chris whispered, "Wake up, Sleepyhead."

Ezra made a soft protesting noise and tried to cuddle in tighter.

"No, you don't," Chris said, shaking him again. "It's time to get up."

"Ah'm too tired to go to school," Ezra mumbled, his normally soft southern accent thick with sleep. Chris chuckled, bringing the boy a bit more into the waking world as heavy lidded green eyes squinted open. He looked around himself in momentary puzzlement, then smiled and said, "Mornin'."

Chris kissed him on the forehead. "Hey, there. You ready to get up and go to work with me?"

Ezra's eyes blinked wider as the previous day's events came back to him. "I forgot. Are we late?"

"No, but I have to meet with a client today, so we'd better get up and moving. Think you can herd the menagerie out of my bed so I can go start breakfast?"

The boy lifted up on one elbow, grinning to see the trio of sleeping animals who had come to join them in the night. He poked Bo with a finger, giving his nearest paw a shake when that had no effect, but this latter action just caused the Labrador to groan and rolled onto his back, offering his tummy.

Ezra giggled and sat up, obliging the dog with a scratch, then shoving him off the bed once he began showing signs of life. The dog did not seem to mind his expulsion, hunkering down and wagging at Ezra, assuming they were playing some kind of new game. Ezra ignored him in favor of plucking Magic off his father's stomach and scooting down off the bed with the cat dangling patiently in his arms. Then Bo barked, causing Magic to wiggle free and run from the room. The dog followed excitedly on her heels, with the boy not too far behind.

Chris sat up, smiling to see Pepper watching him with no apparent intention of getting up and following the youngsters. "Come on, old girl, you know the rules. No dogs on the bed."

With a sigh that seemed to come all the way from her toes, the German Shepherd uncurled and hopped down, trotting off in the direction of her departed friends.

"Four down, one to go," Chris muttered to himself, groaning as his stiff body protested his shortened sleep and the hours he had spent locked into a single position. Leaned back, he lifted his arms and listened with satisfaction to the crunching of his vertebrae as everything worked its way back into place. After a trip to the bathroom for a quick shower and shave, he dressed and went to find Ezra.

The boy was on the back porch, still wearing his pajamas. He was carefully pouring cupfuls of dry kibble into two metal bowls on the floor, much to the delight of his eagerly wagging audience. Magic was devotedly circling her owner's short legs, rubbing and purring in an attempt to hurry him toward her own food, waiting up on the shelf above the dog bowls.

"You got that okay, buddy?"

Ezra looked up and nodded. "Two cups each with a little water, just like Aunt Rain told us." Ezra had come to be on much better terms with the two dogs since Christmastime, though he still often found them too rambunctious and messy for his taste. He patted the obedient but clearly impatient duo on their heads and said, "Time to eat."

The dogs wasted no time digging in. Chris put the first bag back in its place and brought down the sack of dry cat food to fill Magic's dish. Normally this was Ezra's job, but he figured he owed the cat one for her help in comforting her distraught owner yesterday. "There you go, kitty," he told her, surprised when the cat bumped her head against his hand in a friendly way before starting to eat. Clapping his hands together, he said briskly. "All right, we got all the furry people fed, so now I think it's our turn. What sounds good?"

"Do we have time for waffles?"

Chris smiled at the hopeful question, realizing that after yesterday's lunch fiasco and the miniscule serving of chili Ezra had eaten for dinner, he was probably starving. "Plenty of time and waffles sound good to me too. You want bacon or sausage?"

"Bacon, please."

"You got it. Why don't you wash up and go get some clothes on?"

The boy nodded, then paused, an inquisitive look on his face. "What sort of clothing is correct for a day at the office?"

"I let the guys keep it pretty casual. Usually jeans and a button down shirt like this one, though we do each keep a jacket and tie on hand for meeting clients." He saw the somewhat disappointed look on Ezra's face and added, "No reason you can't class the place up a little today, though. How about you wear your black slacks and that green shirt Nathan bought you for Christmas?"

Ezra beamed. "Okay!"

As he took off inside, Chris chuckled, happy that the prospect of dressing up had been able to bring that delighted expression to his son's face.

He was just setting two filled plates on the table when Ezra returned, neat, combed and dressed in the suggested outfit. He also wore his favorite tie, a crimson silk one that had been in his suitcase when he first arrived, tied in a slightly crooked Windsor knot. Chris smiled and straightened the knot, then settled a long cloth napkin over the boy's clothing to prevent any syrup disasters.

Noting the new Band-aid on Ezra's chin, Spider-man doing the honors today, Chris asked, "How are those cuts feeling? Do you need me to take a look?"

"My hands are much better," he said, putting his fork down to show off his scabbed palms. "But my knees are still a little sore."

"I'll put some more antiseptic on them before we head out, just to be safe."

Ezra grimaced but merely nodded and went back to eating. Chris watched in silent amusement as his son picked up a knife and neatly sectioned his waffle into individual squares. Each square would then be speared on the end of his fork and given a tiny smear of butter before it was swum through the pool of syrup oozing across the plate. Each lean crispy bacon strip was snapped into equal parts and made to serve as a waffle raft before the combination disappeared into the boy's mouth.

"Finish your milk," Chris said automatically as the final square disappeared.

Ezra was not overly fond of milk, but he drained his glass without protest. "I'm all ready," he announced, wiping his lips with the napkin and folding it neatly before setting it beside his plate. "Can we go to work now?"

"Wish all my employees were that eager," Chris retorted with a smirk. "Go brush your teeth and wash your hands while I get the dishes going, then I'll check your knees and we can go."

He reluctantly sighed, "Okay," obviously having been hoping to get away without the medical check-up.

Chris frowned as he watched his son leave the room. Was Ezra being just a little too obedient this morning? Not to mention precise! He was a naturally fastidious child but, even so, he did not normally perform surgery on a waffle before eating it. And the napkin-folding was certainly new. He had thought last night that Ezra truly understood that his presence here was secure, but today Chris could not quite shake the feeling that his son was taking no chances.

Hoping that his tired brain was just overreacting, Chris made up his mind to tell Buck and Vin what was happening as soon as Ezra was out of earshot and well distracted by JD. He had a strong feeling that he was going to need some back-up.

Chapter 10

"Uh, oh!  Watch out, fellas, it looks like the boss is bringing in a V.I.P. to inspect our work today!" Buck announced, grinning widely as he caught sight of Ezra, entering the office hand in hand with Chris.

Ezra smiled at the joke.  "It's only me, Uncle Buck."

"Well, what do you know!  You're so spiffed up today I thought you were somebody else," he replied, scooping the boy up into a hearty hug that quickly started him giggling.  When Ezra had first come to live with Chris he had been very uncertain about gestures of affection, but even then he had been unable to resist the delight of a Buck Wilmington bear hug.  Giving him a hearty but painless swat on his rear, Buck settled Ezra comfortably in his arms and asked, "How'd you know I was wishing for a visit from my favorite nephew today?"

He grinned.  "It must be your lucky day."

"Hey, Bucklin, quit hoggin' all the hugs," Vin ordered, transferring the boy into his own firm embrace.  "Hear tell you had a little scuffle at school yesterday.  Everything okay?"

"Yes, but that's why I'm here," Ezra admitted as Vin set him back down.  "Uncle Josiah evicted me from school for a day for fighting.  I have to stay after school next week, too."

JD shook his head.  "Harsh.  That must've been some fight."

Ezra shrugged, satisfaction in his tone when he replied, "Not really.  I gave him a bloody nose."

"Guess Josiah was only doing what was fair, then," Vin said, earning himself an approving nod from Chris.  "You do the crime, you got to pay the time.  That's the rules."

Stroking a hand over his son's hair, Chris said, "I figured Ezra might as well do something useful to serve out his sentence since he can't be in school.  JD, how'd you like a helper today?"

"Cool," he replied with a grin.  "I was getting ready to pull a bunch more files from the dungeon. Ezra can help me with that."

"Dungeon?" The boy repeated dubiously.

Buck laughed.  "He means the archives in the basement, kid.  We got a ton of old research papers and stuff down there.  Your dad finally moved out of the Stone Age and bought a new computer system last month, but it's taking us a while to load all the information into the database.  JD's pretty good with computers so we left him in charge.  This is mostly grunt-work, though, so he'll definitely appreciate a helping hand."

"Menial labor," Ezra sighed, regretfully brushing a hand down his pretty silk tie.  

The four grown-ups all chuckled at his doleful tone.  

"Reckon all those boxes would be a mite too heavy for a fella your size," Vin told him.  "JD can haul everything upstairs for you, and you can do the scanning.  How's that sound?"

Ezra nodded happily but JD made a face. "Gee, thanks," he said sarcastically.  "And what are you two gonna be doing while I'm sweating my life away?"

"Man never drowned in his own sweat, JD," Vin retorted with a laugh.  "Me and Buck got some work of our own to catch up on."

"Speaking of which," Chris interrupted, "I'd like to meet with you two in my office as soon as I show Ezra how to work the scanner.  I've got a meeting at ten and there's something I'd like to discuss with you both before I get tangled up in that."

The two men nodded, neither one missing the significant look he shot toward his son.

"Sure thing," Vin agreed.  "I'll just go get us some coffee before we start.  Ezra, you want some hot cocoa?"

He looked to Chris for permission.  "May I?"

"Of course," Chris said, a concerned expression flickering over his face.  "Thanks, Vin.  Oh, and Vin?  Try not to use up the entire can of whipped cream.  I just bought it."

Ezra gave him a peculiar look.  "You put whipped cream in coffee?"

"Yep," he said with a grin.  "A little chocolate powder, milk, sugar and whipped cream.  Those big coffee chains got nothing on a Vin Tanner special."

Buck and Chris both looked revolted but JD said, "Make me one of those too, will you, Vin?"

"Sure thing, kid.  You want to try one, Ez?"

"Don't even think about it," Chris said, as Ezra's mouth opened, an interested light in his eyes.  "One cup of Tanner coffee would be enough to keep you bouncing off the walls throughout the entire weekend, even with all that other crap thrown in to dilute it."

Looking a bit disappointed, Ezra said, "Just hot chocolate, please."

Vin laughed.  "You got it."

An hour later, Ezra was hard at work, lining up stacks of pages from the box JD set next to him onto the scanner tray and using the `cheat-sheet' Chris had given him to press the key sequence that would upload the information into the computer.

"You're doing great, Ezra," JD praised, setting down another box and collapsing back into a handy chair.  "Man, I'm bushed, but that stack is shrinking down way faster than if I was doing this all by myself.  I really appreciate your help."

"It's fun," he said, eyes shining.  Ezra had a natural love for neat and orderly jobs, dealing with them in the same efficient manner with which he handled playing cards.  Combined with his childish delight of doing important `grown-up' work inside a real office setting and he was enjoying this task far more than JD ever had.

JD smiled.  "Glad to know one of us thinks so.  I sort of figured agent-in-training would be a little more glamorous, myself.  But hey, everyone else has done their share of this stuff, so I guess I really can't complain."  He watched Ezra work for a couple more minutes, then when his current stack was gone, stopped him from grabbing another.  "Can I ask you something, Ezra?"

Ezra pushed on the desk to turn his office chair around, grinning when it kept right on going and spun him a complete 360 degrees.  He pushed again, harder, sending himself around three more times before JD reached out and stopped the ride.  "We need one of these chairs at home!" he said, green eyes dancing.  

"Maybe you should ask your dad to get you one," JD laughed.  

He nodded.  "Our computer chair is boring.  What did you want to ask me?"

"I just wanted to know about yesterday.  What was the fight all about?"

The boy shrugged. "Eugene said something that upset me.  He always does that, but this time I believed him."  His nose wrinkled in a sign of embarrassment.  "Guess I should've known better, huh?"

"Well, probably," JD said, "but sometimes all it takes is for a bully to press just the right button and all our logic and good intentions go right out the window.  I had a kid like that in my school too, name of Sammy Kirkland.  He never got enough of pushing me around.  Sometimes I could ignore it, and sometimes I couldn't."

Eyes wide and hopeful as he recognized a possible kindred spirit, Ezra asked, "What did you do about Sammy to make him leave you alone?"

"I finally figured out that he was cornering me because I spent a lot of time by myself," JD said frankly.  "It wasn't that nobody liked me, but I was kind of a shy kid and I didn't know how to reach out to people so I didn't have many friends.  When I finally made friends with a couple of other guys at school, Sam wasn't interested in bullying me anymore."

Ezra nodded thoughtfully.  "I spent a lot of time alone, too."

"Maybe you should approach some of the other kids and ask if they want to play with you or have lunch with you at noon recess.  I'll bet some of them would be glad to.  What about that kid you talk about sometimes, the one with the Lego collection?"

"Billy Travis," he supplied.  "We're friendly, kind of, but he usually plays with Danny Morrison at recess. He's very nice too, though.  Do you think they might let me join them, if I asked?"

Seeing a good opportunity to bring Ezra a little more out of his shell, JD nodded.  "I'll bet they would.  You have a great imagination and you're a fast runner, I'll bet you could come up with some great games you guys could all play together. And Eugene would probably leave you alone if he thought you had other kids to back you up."

Startling JD, Ezra blurted, "Yesterday, he told me that Chris didn't want me anymore and was going to give me away to somebody with more money."

"What?  Aw, man, that's awful!" JD exclaimed, hazel eyes full of shocked indignation.  "And you believed that?"

Ezra blushed, giving himself away.

"Aw, Ezra, Chris would never do a rotten thing like that to you.  He loves you too much."

"I know, I guess. It's just that . . . well, my mother did."

JD blew his breath out in a silent whistle.  "Wow, I guess so, huh?   But you can't judge all parents by your mom.  Most of them aren't like that at all, and Chris really isn't like that!   He'd never give up somebody he loves for money.  Especially his own kid."

"That's what he said."

JD smiled at him.  "Then I think you can take it to the bank.  No offense to your mom, Ezra, but if she thought having money was better than having you, she was pretty dumb."

Looking much relieved, Ezra hugged him.  "Thanks, JD."

Ruffling his hair, JD stood up.  "You're welcome, Ez.  Now I'd better go down and get another load of boxes.  I probably won't get another chance to work with such a great helper."

Happily, Ezra returned to his project.

Another hour passed productively before Buck came to interrupt with the cheerful announcement of, "Break time!"

"Chris has gone off to meet a client," Vin told them, coming in behind his friend.  "And we figure you done enough work for one morning, Ezra."

Buck looked over the stacks of paperwork set aside to be shredded and let go a whistle.  "Dang, you two do all this today?"

"Ezra's a great worker," JD said, giving praise where it was due.

"I'll say," Vin agreed.  "Maybe we ought to hire him full time and send you back to second grade, JD."

Ezra grinned.  "I don't think Katie Whitman would appreciate that."

"Who's that?" Buck asked him.  "You got a girlfriend we don't know about?"

Ezra made a disgusted face.  "No!  Katie sits behind me in class.  If JD took my place, she'd never be able to see the blackboard."

They laughed, though Buck could not resist pulling JD up and measuring him against his much taller self as he said, "I don't know about that."

"Cut it out, Buck," JD laughed, pushing him away.  

"So, what do you want to do, Ezra?" Vin asked him.  "We could set you up on one of the computers and let you surf the Internet for awhile.  Or you could draw some pictures on all this nice scrap paper you just freed up."

Ezra made a face.  "On the way here today, I promised Daddy I would finish reading the book my teacher assigned.  It's about Annie Oakley."

"Cool," Vin said, surprising the boy.  "When I was a little kid, my ma used to tell me stories about the Wild West and the big rodeos with trick-riders and sharp-shooters.  Annie Oakley was one of the best.  Maybe you wouldn't mind reading it out loud while I do my budget requests for Chris.  Sure would help to keep me from getting bored."

Pleased with the request and looking forward to spending a little time with Uncle Vin, Ezra smiled.  "Okay!  Should I come over to your desk?"

"Sounds good.  When we're done, we'll all go out and get some lunch, what do you say?"

"Can we bring some back for my dad?"

Buck laughed.  "Sure, why not?  How do you guys feel about Chinese?"

The boy's brow crinkled.  "But he doesn't like Chinese food."

"I know.  That's what he gets for telling me he had nothing in the house to feed you last night except for chili," he said, grinning wickedly.  Buck shared his nephew's feelings on that particular food.  "What do you say, boys?  Lunch is on ol' Buck today!"

Chapter 11

Ezra could read quite well and Vin's encouraging noises and occasional comments on what he was saying kept him interested in the book until it was done. Surprised to find that he had enjoyed it, he closed the cover and offered his uncle a smile. "That was good, huh? Do you think Mrs. Nettie could have been like Annie Oakley when she was young? I can sort of picture her standing on a horse and shooting targets like the book said Annie used to do."

Vin laughed. "You know, so can I! You'll have to remember that and tell her next time you see her. She'll get a kick out of it." He shook his head. "Still can't believe you know Nettie. Guess it's like Josiah says about God workin' in mysterious ways."

"She's really nice," Ezra said firmly, as if Vin might have some doubt. "She fixed up my cuts so good it hardly even hurt."

"Yep, she is a wonder," he agreed whole-heartedly. "Wish I'd met her when I was your age. Things might've been a little different. Take that book, for example. You read like a pro and sometimes I still can't don't do it all that well."

Ezra shook his head. "You do it perfectly when you're reading to me."

Vin smiled and gave him a nod of thanks. Ezra's assessment wasn't entirely accurate but he appreciated the show of loyalty. Having been orphaned at the age of five years old, Vin had grown up bouncing back and forth between foster homes and the streets and as a result, he had been functionally illiterate until his early twenties. He had started taking remedial education courses at a local community college and had eventually earned his G.E.D., but to this day he was a little embarrassed by his comparatively slow reading comprehension.

Chris, fully aware of Vin's difficulties, had suggested last year that maybe he just needed to get more practice reading out loud before an uncritical audience and he had reluctantly agreed to try.

The benefit had been two-fold. His stumbling effort with a few simple story books had done much to lessen the discomfort of the shy six-year-old who had suddenly found himself a long-term guest in the home of a stranger. Vin's admission to Ezra that he hadn't learned to read until he was 'old' had also gone a long way towards earning him the boy's sympathy and trust. Ezra had been amazed to discover an adult who also knew just what it felt like to be always a little out of place. Over the past several months, their reading sessions had become a source of great enjoyment for both of them.

"Think you can remember enough to write up that book report now?"

"I think so, but I want to wait and do it this evening at home."

Vin raised an eyebrow. "You're gonna do homework on a Friday night?" He paused a beat, watching Ezra's face carefully for a reaction as he added, "You afraid that Chris won't believe us when we tell him you were good today? Got to see it for himself before he'll let you have some time off for good behavior?"

And there it was. Ezra's ears flushed red and he started nibbling his lower lip, a sure sign that he was worried. "I just want him to know for certain that I appreciate his benevolence," he said softly, the large words adding to Vin's certainty that Ezra was still disconcerted by what had happened yesterday. The more unsure of himself the poor kid got, the more he tended to talk like a miniature 40 year old.

"Benevolence, huh?" Vin repeated, rolling the word on his tongue. "You think Chris did something special that you owe him for?"

The flush spread to Ezra's face and he hugged the book to his chest, suddenly finding the carpet entirely fascinating.

"I don't believe Chris is the sort of a person who'd count doing something for his kids as being owed a favor, Ezra," Vin said carefully.

Embarrassment flashed in the boy's green eyes. "What do you mean?"

Vin chose to pretend ignorance of the pleading, weeping and night full of bad dreams that Chris had painfully described to him and Buck earlier, recognizing that Ezra just might view Chris's plea for help as a betrayal of his confidence. He met his young friend's gaze steadily. "Just 'cause you got in a fight and panicked a little yesterday don't mean you have to be extra good now in order to earn that party Chris promised you. He's really looking forward to havin' us all over to celebrate his first anniversary of being your dad."

Ezra looked confused, then so relieved that it made Vin feel a little sad, but also glad that he had followed his instincts and not spilled the beans for Chris.

"He said that? Really? Like . . . like we'll have lots and lots of other anniversaries in the future?"

Happy to back up Chris's word, Vin smiled. "Reckon that's about the size of it."

"I thought maybe he was just being comforting," Ezra admitted shyly. "You see, I got a little upset last night."

A decided understatement if Chris's version had been accurate. "What about?"

Ezra once again began studying the carpet. "I was afraid that . . . well, that perhaps I might have . . . my mother used to say that it isn't good policy to outstay one's welcome anywhere, or else that welcome will be worn out." The small shoulders shrugged uncomfortably. "A year is a really long time to stay in one place."

Vin stifled a sigh. For a seven-year-old, a year was indeed a very long time. The fear of outstaying his welcome was a hell of a thing for a little kid to worry about, but Vin remembered that feeling only too well himself.

"I know just what you mean, kid. I think I used to average about six to nine months with most foster families. Sometimes it hurt like the dickens to leave 'em and sometimes I couldn't get away fast enough. I never was lucky enough to find a family who wanted to adopt me permanent like you, though. Reckon when you came along, Chris was smart enough to know just how bad he needed you."

"He needed me?"

Vin nodded at the surprised question. "Sure did. He's told you how he lost his wife and son in a fire, right?" Ezra nodded, his eyes sad. "Well after that happened, Chris carried around a big ol' empty hole in his heart for years and years. Then he met you and it turned out you were exactly the right size to fill that hole up for him. I know he ain't ever gonna be fool enough to let you go."

"I'm sorry none of those families knew how much they needed you, Uncle Vin," Ezra said wistfully. "Cause I think getting adopted by the right person might be the best feeling in the whole wide world."

"I know it is," Vin agreed with a smile. "See, Chris and the rest of you are family to me now, and that feels pretty darned great, too."

The boy returned his smile. Then, a slightly worried expression stole across his expressive little face. "Uncle Vin, if I was just the right size for Chris's heart a year ago, are you sure I'm not going to get too big some day?"

He laughed. "Not a chance, kid. See, that's the great thing about hearts. They're made to just keep getting bigger and bigger the more people and good times we stuff inside of 'em. I think Chris's still has a lot of years' worth of room waiting to get filled up by the two of you."

Eyes shining now, Ezra hugged his book a little tighter. "Mine, too."

Vin stroked a hand over his hair. "I'll bet it does." He drew in a deep breath, his own emotions threatening to spill over if he didn't change the subject quickly. "Well, what do you say we go round up Buck and JD? My stomach's throttling my backbone, it's so empty."

Chapter 12

The party of four returned from lunch stuffed to the gills on everything from eggrolls to fortune cookies, each carrying several boxes of leftovers from their inability to choose just one entrée apiece. Ezra carefully toted a medium-sized box of untouched chicken fried rice, the one form of Chinese food that his father found at least somewhat appealing.

"Looks like he isn't back yet," JD noted, taking a peek inside Chris's open door and finding the note they had left on his desk still untouched. "You can just leave that box of rice on his desk, Ezra. I'm sure he'll be here before long."

"May I wait for him in his office?" Ezra asked, clutching the still-warm container tightly. "I can sit on his couch and read until he comes. I promise I won't disturb anything on the desk."

The men looked at each other and nodded. "Sure, go ahead," Vin told him. "Chris won't mind."

Happily, Ezra disappeared into his father's private sanctum.

Waiting until he was sure the boy was out of ear-shot, Buck gestured his friends into the scanner room and shut the door behind them. "Either of you managed to get anything out of Ezra this morning about yesterday?"

JD and Vin filled him in on what they had learned and what advice they had offered, each man experiencing fresh indignation over the situation as they spoke.

"How can some kids be so rotten when others are so terrific?" Buck groaned. "I've never been a big believer in spanking, but that Eugene kid really tempts me to change my mind."

"Me too, but that wouldn't do Ezra much good," JD said frankly. "In my experience, kids like Eugene just find a way to pass on their punishment to smaller, weaker kids. Ezra's having enough trouble being bullied by him already."

Buck sighed. "I know. Well, at least he's talking it out some now. Guess if nothing else good comes out of this whole mess; at least Chris will be more aware of what's going on inside the kid's head." He ruffled one hand through his dark wavy hair in an agitated manner. "I still can't believe he thought Chris would just dump him! That mother of his must have been one messed up lady."

Vin snorted at his choice of noun. "That ain't what I'd call her. Any woman who'd take a sweet little boy and twist his thinking around until he believes that he's worthless and unwanted unless he can help rake in cash . . . well, that's no lady at all in my book."

"Mine either!" JD said, making a face. "I think he was lucky to get away from her when he did."

"She's still his mom, though," Buck reminded them. Seeing the incredulous looks on their faces, he held up both hands. "I know, I feel the same way you do, but no matter what we think, Ezra still loves her. He already feels guilty enough that he still misses her sometimes, without thinking that all of us are looking down on him for it."

Surprised, JD said, "He told you that?"

The mustached man smiled ruefully. "He didn't have to, kid. I can see it in his face whenever her name comes up. We all think of our mothers as special and wonderful. Why should Ezra be any different?"

"I think you might be right," Vin said, squinting thoughtfully into the distance. "Ezra's mom didn't want him, but that doesn't stop Ezra from wishing that she had. I think his insecurity with Chris might have something to do with knowing that they'd never even have met if Maude Standish had been worth a damn as a mother."

"So in addition to fretting over whether Chris really wants him, he's been worrying that he might not love Chris enough because part of him still wants his mama." Buck grimaced. "It's messed up, but it makes sense."

JD looked mournfully in the direction of the office. "Poor little guy."

"You gonna go try and straighten him out?" Vin asked, looking straight at Buck.

Buck nodded, his blue eyes already warm with compassion for the confused child. "I think somebody has to." Then he laughed. "And hell, if it turns out that we're barking up the wrong tree here, the worst thing that'll happen is that Ezra will give me that look of his that says he's too well mannered to interrupt the crazy man."

They laughed, knowing exactly what he meant.

As Buck entered his partner's office, the conversation starters he'd been practicing in his head proved to be completely unnecessary. Ezra had slumped sideways toward the arm of the sofa, book forgotten in his lap as he succumbed to the pull of sleep. Given what Chris had told him about their restless night, Buck was not surprised that Ezra had needed to catch up on a few Z's.

Sitting carefully down on the couch next to his nephew, Buck slipped the book out of his loose grasp and set it aside, then maneuvered the sleeping boy out of his uncomfortably folded position and over to rest against his own side, a protective arm tucked around the small shoulders. Ezra mumbled softly and snuggled in, a cute little snore beginning as he found a comfortable spot.

Buck watched him as he slept. This boy was completely different from Adam Larabee, in both physical traits and personality, but holding Ezra in this manner took him back to memories of the first little boy who had loved 'Uncle' Buck. It still gave him a little swell of pride to know that he was the first of Chris's friends to have been granted that wonderful title again.

A small smile lifted his lips as he studied his sleeping nephew, watching Ezra's nose twitch a little as he dreamed. The smile faded into an expression of concern when the twitch transformed into a twist of the small face and Ezra began to whimper and struggle against his hold.

"Shh, Ezra, it's okay," he crooned, stroking a hand over the little boy's head and giving his body a soft shake. "You're just dreaming. Come on, now."

Ezra sat up, coming awake with a gasp and an expression of such devastation that Buck's heart ached for him.

"Ezra?" he said gently, not wanting to startle the boy if he was not yet fully awake. "You okay?"

Rather than answer verbally, Ezra gave a very definite 'no' by scrambling right into Buck's lap and bursting into tears.

"I got you," Buck crooned. "Shh, it's okay, pal. You just go ahead and get it all out. Uncle Buck won't let anything happen to you."

It took a couple of minutes of soft shushing and comforting nonsense in the safety of Buck's warm embrace before Ezra managed to get control of his surging emotions. Surreptitiously wiping his eyes on Buck's shirt, he sniffled and sat up straight, tear-blotched face turning red with discomfort over his display. "Sorry, Uncle Buck," he mumbled, fingers rubbing at the large wet patch decorating his uncle's blue cotton shirt.

"Nothing to be sorry for," Buck told him. "I'm always happy to be here for you, Ezra. That must have been one scary dream you were having."

Ezra nodded, seeming in no hurry to leave his uncle's lap. He settled back down into those welcoming arm with a sad little sigh.

"Chris told me you'd been having a lot of bad dreams," Buck prompted. "You want to talk about 'em? Might not be so scary anymore if you do."

For a couple of minutes, Ezra was silent as he pondered this offer. "Did he tell you everything?" he asked finally.

Buck debated fudging the truth a bit, but then decided that honesty was the only way to go. "Yeah, he did. Your daddy is worried about you, Ezra, and I've been his friend for a long time. I'm always here if either one of you needs to talk."

Ezra considered this. "I was dreaming that Daddy changed his mind."

"Aw, he . . . heck," Buck groaned. "I thought you understood. Chris won't ever do that to you, Ezra. I know your mama pushed you away, and I know how much that hurt you, but I promise you that Chris never will. He'd never even consider it. He wants you to stay with him."

The boy sighed, his frustration clear. "I know! At least when I'm awake, I know. But whenever I go to sleep, I keep dreaming that everything is bad again. I'm begging him not to send me away but he just looks at me the same way Mother used to, like he's annoyed that I'm even asking. Then he tells me that I'm not good enough to keep, and says that he's already asked all of you but nobody else wants me either, so he's sending me away." Ezra sniffled, rubbing his eyes as a few more tears escaped.

"Well, I can set your mind at ease about that last one right now," Buck told him, relieved beyond words that he could offer the reassurance honestly. "We weren't planning on telling you because none of us wanted you to start worrying that something might happen, but I think you need to know."

"Know what?" he asked curiously.

Petting a hand over Ezra's hair, Buck told him, "When Chris lost Sarah and Adam, it made him a lot more aware of the need to be prepared for anything. So when he was getting together all of the legal paperwork for your adoption, he also had his attorney make up a will. You know what that is?"

Ezra nodded. "It's how people know how much of your money they'll get after you die. My mother never missed the reading of a relative's will."

More uncharitable thoughts about the absent Maude Standish flickered through Buck's mind, but he firmly squashed them before his irritation could show in his face. "Well, that's part of it, but in the case of a parent, creating a will also means that they have a legal say in who gets custody of their kids if anything ever happens to them."

"You mean if Daddy were to . . . y'know . . . somebody of his choice could re-adopt me?"

"They wouldn't have to re-adopt you. On paper and in Chris's heart you're every bit as much a Larabee son as Adam was," Buck said, wanting to impress this on him again. "So, if anything happened to Chris, you'd be looked after. You'll never be sent off to stay with strangers again, Ezra."

Green eyes huge, he asked, "Who gets me?"

"I do," he said, smiling at the pleased look on the boy's face. "And Nathan and Rain have also been named as backup guardians in the unlikely event that something happens to me. The others all volunteered, too, but Chris had to reject them for practical reasons."

"JD is too young," he guessed, "And Josiah's too old?"

Buck nodded, "And Vin's background makes it likely that somebody would put up a fuss and try to challenge the will. He'd still be there, fighting for you every step of the way if you ever needed him to, though. They all would."

A very thoughtful expression filled Ezra's young face as he thought over this new revelation. He was old enough and worldly enough, even at seven, to know that preparing for the worst did not mean that Chris was planning to die any time soon. The knowledge that Chris had not only loved him enough to adopt him, but also enough to make certain that he would always have a safe and loving home was overwhelming.

"Uncle Buck?"


Ezra nibbled his lip, a small frown line forming between his scrunched-up eyebrows. "Do you know if it bothers him that I still go by Ezra Standish?" He sat up straight, looking earnestly into Buck's face. "Does he worry that I don't love him?"

"Chris knows you love him," Buck said with a smile. "He also knows that you don't want to lose the connection to your mom. That's why he didn't ask you to change your name."

"Oh," he sighed, clearly relieved. Then he frowned again. "My mother wouldn't have cared, would she? She got married four times, just since I was born, and she got a new name every time. I never had any name except my birth-name, so I kept it."

Not quite sure how to answer this, Buck said, "Well, maybe you should think of it this way. What's more important to you, where you came from or where you're going? You don't have to answer that question right now, Ezra. Just give it some thought. I know Chris will be fine with your decision, whatever it might be."

Nodding, Ezra wiggled around so that he was once more sitting next to Buck on the sofa. Picking up his backpack he pulled out a spiral notebook and a pencil. Buck looked at the paper curiously, wondering what kind of deep and complicated topic was about to be introduced next. He grinned widely when Ezra instead offered him the pencil and asked, "Want to play hangman?"

"Sure," he chuckled. He'd forgotten just how quickly a child's mind could move on from a problem once they'd received a satisfactory answer to it. "I'd love to."

Chapter 13

Chris returned to the office well after two o'clock, tired, cranky and thanking his lucky stars that tomorrow was Saturday and he and his son could have an entire weekend to themselves. His interrupted night had started catching up with him about halfway through the meeting with the firm's newest client, an insurance company that wanted in-depth investigation into several suspicious accident claims. After a while it had been all he could do not to yawn in the representatives' faces. This retainer was potentially worth a very tidy sum, however, more than enough to keep his company's books in the black for the entire remainder of the year, so Chris had done everything he could to appear not only competent but deeply interested through the long and complicated contract meeting.

He wondered how Ezra's day had gone. He'd called in around lunchtime to tell the guys he expected to be out for quite some time and to ask them to keep his son occupied, but he'd gotten the machine. He hoped Ezra wouldn't be too upset with him for missing out on most of his 'work' day.

A shriek of childish laughter met his ears as Chris opened the door, the sound accompanied by a chorus of grown-up chortles. Curious to know what was going on, he crept forward and looked inside. Buck and Vin were holding Ezra firmly by his feet, upside down, as the boy attempted to emulate JD, who was doing a hand-stand in the middle of the office. The boy was somewhat hampered by his tie, which was dangling down to cover his face and blocking most of his view.

"Come on, Ezra, you can do it," JD encouraged, his voice sounding a bit strained from his inverted position. His face was beet-red and Chris wondered just how many times the young man had already demonstrated this feat.

"Lock your arms, Ez. We're going to let you go," Vin warned.

"I'm ready!" He tried, but as the supporting strength disappeared from his ankles Ezra's balance immediately went with it and he yelped, "Whoa!" as he tumbled to the floor, Buck's quick reflexes preventing him from landing on his head.

Bobbing up to sit cross-legged on the floor, Ezra grinned at his three uncles as JD righted himself and also plopped down on the carpet. "I did it better that time, I think."

JD chuckled. "A little. At least you didn't kick Vin in the face this time."

"I'm really sorry about that, Uncle Vin," he said sincerely, wincing as his uncle reached up and rubbed his chin. "I couldn't see you."

"Don't worry about it, pard. It was my own fault for leaning in too close," Vin said, waving off the incident with a grin.

Buck made a rude noise. "You're not fooling anybody, Tanner. You were just bucking for one of those cool Spidey Band-aids like the kid's wearing."

"I have another one in my back-pack if you want it," Ezra offered.

He chuckled. "No thanks, I'll live."

"I guess your hands must be feeling better, if you're trying to stand on them," Chris greeted, startling all four of the others with his stealthy entrance.

Ezra's face lit up with a heart-warming expression of joy as he scrambled to his feet and ran over for a hug. "Hi, Daddy! Did you see me?"

"Sure did," he said, returning the embrace then turning Ezra's hands up to examine them. The scabs were holding steady and he did not appear to have done any extra damage. Raising an eyebrow toward his fellow adults, Chris growled, "Should I assume that everyone's work is all done?"

Guilty looks flashed over their faces. "Uh, well, Ezra helped me finish a lot of the scanning this morning. We only have a few more boxes to pull up from the dungeon," JD offered. "In fact; I think I'll do that right now."

"The budget reports are all finished, and I'm just about done with the report on that arson over at the warehouse on 8th," Vin told him, retreating a couple of steps. "Maybe I'll just go add a couple more paragraphs." With that, he also beat a hasty retreat.

"Ezra's been a big help to all of us around here today," Buck told him, smiling at the pleased look on the boy's young face. Completely immune to Chris's grouchy mood, he slouched back comfortably against the wall and added, "He's helped everybody out so well, in fact, that I think he's done more than enough to earn a weekend parole."

Eager to support their claim, Ezra clutched his father's arm, "I read my Annie Oakley book to Uncle Vin, and Uncle JD helped me with some spellings for my book report. I was going to wait and do it tonight, but Uncle Buck said that since I had a quiet place to work here, I might as well do my report and get it over with."

"That's only because he beat me five out of six tries at hangman. My ego couldn't take any more, so I put him back to work," Buck joked.

Chris smirked. "Well, that was good advice. Now you won't have to worry about doing any more homework over the weekend. What else did you do today?"

"Uncle Buck took us out for lunch, and I brought you some back," Ezra announced, his enthusiasm waning a bit as he said, "It's only chicken fried rice, and I know you don't like that very much, and it's probably all cold now anyway, but I didn't want you to miss everything."

Patting him on the shoulder, Chris said, "Don't worry about it. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness in saving me something." Shooting Buck a glare, he said, "You bought me Chinese food?"

"Nothing in the house to eat last night but canned chili?" Buck countered archly.

Chris snorted. "Ah, sh . . . shoot, I knew I shouldn't have told you that." Returning his attention to Ezra, he told him, "I am sorry I had to be gone so long today. Our new client had a lot of questions and concerns and I couldn't get away any sooner."

Ezra smiled. "That's okay. Did you have a good meeting?"

"Well, it was a little boring, actually, but we now have a new contract that's going to be worth a lot of money to the company over the next several months. Maybe longer if they like our work."

Ezra beamed with pride at this achievement and Chris could not help but grin, suddenly feeling much better about his long absence. He realized that Ezra was probably also reassured by the certainty that they would not be hurting for money any time soon.

Reminded of the favor he had asked his friends for, he looked at Buck and asked in what he hoped was a light tone, "So, how did everything else go today?"

Buck knew exactly what he meant, nodding subtly to let him know that he had been right in his concern for Ezra. "Everything went real good," Buck told him, his easy smile loosening the knot of apprehension in Chris's gut. "We got a few little misunderstandings ironed out between us. There might be a couple of problems that still crop up, but the prep-work you did was solid and I think it'll stand up over time."

"Glad to hear that," he said, giving his friend a nod of thanks. Glancing at the clock and seeing that it was close to 3pm, Chris decided, "Ezra and I are going to cut out a little early today. Why don't you and the guys wrap things up here and get your weekend off to a good start?"

"Sounds good to me," Buck said with a grin. "I've got a hot date tonight, and she's worth taking a little extra prep time for."

Chris rolled his eyes. "Aren't they all?"

His partner's smile became dazzling, "You know it, pard! Only the very best will do for any lovely ladies taking a ride on the Wilmington love-train."

Ezra made a gagging noise that had both men chuckling.

"Ezra, why don't you go in and tell Vin and JD that they're free to go?" Chris suggested, giving him a little push in the right direction. "I'll get our stuff together."

"Okay!" he agreed, obviously eager to escape what might turn into one of his Uncle Buck's gross kissing stories.

Watching him scamper off, Chris smiled and shook his head. "What do you want to bet that in ten years he'll be giving me gray hair by chasing after every pretty girl he meets?"

Buck laughed. "I wouldn't doubt it a bit."

Following Chris into his office, Buck gave him a quick rundown of everything he and the others had been able to get out of Ezra during their day together, including his own decision to tell Ezra about the details of Chris's will.

"I know you didn't want him to know about the will, Chris, but I thought he really needed to hear it. You should've seen the look on his face when he understood that you'd cared enough to provide for him, even if the worst should happen," Buck said with a sigh. "A kid his age shouldn't think about things like that, but when he told me about those nightmares, I knew he already had been."

"Damn it," Chris said vehemently. "I feel like that old story about the boy trying to plug up a dam with his finger. Every time I think I've anticipated and fixed one problem for Ezra, another crack appears and he's hurt all over again by something that I never even considered. Do you think he's been worrying about his future all these months and just hiding it from me? Or not hiding it and I just wasn't paying enough attention to see the signs?"

Buck gave him a sympathetic look. "Wish I could tell you, Chris. Off-hand, I'd say he's felt pretty happy and secure over the last few months, but some wounds are hard to see. They just scab over without ever really healing unless we expose them to the light and clean 'em out real good. You know how that goes."

The power of that all-too-understanding gaze made Chris squirm. He had struggled for years after losing his wife and child, just slapping the proverbial bandage over his wounds and allowing the harsh and painful infection of them to fester and slowly poison him. His friends, especially Buck, had been there to help him during those terrible times and Ezra had finally done the rest, bringing true healing and happiness back to Chris's heart through his innocent love and desperate need to be loved in return.

"You're right, I do know," he acknowledged. "I guess I just didn't realize how badly Ezra's wounds were affecting him."

"I feel okay, Daddy," a small worried voice interrupted, drawing their attention to the doorway, where Ezra stood looking at them with a dubious expression in his eyes. He had obviously overheard Chris's last statement, but not understood it. "My knees don't even hurt anymore. I'm fine."

Chris smiled and held out his arm. "I'm glad to hear that. And since you're feeling so well, maybe you'd like to go with me to the 4-C Mall and do a little shopping."

Excitement leapt into Ezra's eyes. Chris never wanted to go to the mall. "Really?"

"Sure. They've got one of those party-supply stores over there I'd like to check out. I was hoping you might help me pick out a few things for next weekend. If we're going to invite all our friends over to celebrate our first anniversary, we want the place to look good, right?"

"Right," he said firmly, cheeks adorably creasing with dimples and big eyes shining as he thought about all the wonderful things they might find. "We could get some party invitations, too. That way everyone will be sure to have the right address, date and time."

Chris nodded. "Good idea. I forgot that not everyone we're inviting has been out to our place before. You want some balloons?"

He nodded, "And red streamers! I like streamers."

"Me too."

"All right, you two," Buck interrupted, grinning at the pair of them. "I'm sure the place will look fantastic. Just don't go getting so busy planning the decorations for this here party that you forget to buy any food! If I'm invited to a family barbecue, I expect to be well fed."

Chris's stomach seemed to agree with that sentiment, suddenly giving off with an audible grumble that had his friend and his son both bursting into laughter. Patting the noisy area with an embarrassed grin, he said, "I think we'd better stop for some dinner on the way home, too."

Ezra hesitated a moment, then asked, "Do you think . . . could we do what you wanted to do last night?"

"You want to go to the Soul Savor?"

He nodded. "Please?"

Understanding that Ezra was trying to offer his own brand of reassurance that everything was okay between them, Chris bent down and gave him a hug. "I think that'd be a great idea."

Ezra heaved a happy little sigh. Picking up his backpack, he put it on and gave Buck a hug as well. "Thank you for a very nice day."

"You're welcome. You have a good weekend, Ezra," he replied warmly, whispering in his ear, "You need to talk about anything else; you just give me a call, okay?"

He nodded. "Thanks, Uncle Buck."

Chris also gave his friend a nod. "Thanks, Buck."

Ezra followed his father out of the office, smiling and waving to Vin and JD as he passed. "Bye, Uncle Vin! Bye, Uncle JD! Thank you!"

"Bye, Ezra," they chorused, waving back until he and Chris were out of sight.

As they waited for the elevator to arrive, Chris smiled down at his son. "So, it sounds like you had a pretty nice day today."

Ezra grinned back at him. "I wish I could come to work with you every day, instead of going to school. It's fun here!"

"I know, but school is important. Besides, office work isn't quite as much fun when you have to do it every day. It's just like anything else. There are some good days and some bad days. You just have to balance them out and try to make the most out of whatever life throws at you."

They got into the elevator and pressed the button for the ground floor. As the car began to move, Ezra surprised Chris by flinging both arms around his waist and squeezing.

"Hey, what's all this?" Chris asked gently, stroking his son's hair.

"I just wanted to," he said simply, loosening but not releasing his grip. "I think today was one of the good days."

He chuckled. "So you're making the most of it?"

Ezra nodded. "Uh, huh. Because it's even better now that I'm with you."

Touched by the impulsive gesture, Chris swung the boy up into his arms and hugged him tightly. "Well, guess what? You just made my day a whole lot better, too."

Chapter 14

When Monday morning arrived, Ezra was in a much better mood than he had left school with on Friday. Over the weekend he had suffered only one nightmare bad enough to seek out the comfort of his father. The warm purring presence of Magic had been enough to chase the rest away for him. Luckily, Chris had not seemed to mind the one invasion of his bed, just holding him until he went back to sleep and then transporting him back to his own room for the remainder of the night.

As he reached his classroom, Ezra peeped inside his backpack to make sure just one more time that he had remembered to bring the party invitations. Chris had allowed him to explore every nook and cranny of the party store on Friday and they had found a section filled with themed decorations. The pirate, safari and western themes had all appealed mightily, but since Chris had invited the grown-ups to play poker, he had decided to go with a casino theme. Everything from tablecloths to bunting, all decorated in cards and poker chips, plus lots of bright red streamers and multi-hued balloons.

The invitations had proved to be more difficult. Everything they saw seemed to be made for either a birthday or a wedding. There were a few for anniversaries, but they were obviously meant for married couples. There seemed to be no ready-made invitations for their particular event, so Chris had purchased a box of plain red and white ones that simply said 'Party!' on the front and were blank inside.

After a delicious early dinner at the restaurant, where Ezra had amused his father by making a happy little pig of himself, they had gone home and made out their guest list for the party. Ezra and Chris had spent much of the weekend carefully filling out the inside of each invitation and Ezra, with JD's advice still fresh in his mind, had asked if he could take a couple of extra cards to school with him in case he thought of anyone else to invite. Chris had been happy to oblige, looking so pleased at the idea that he was making new friends at school that Ezra had privately resolved to try and do just that, no matter how scary it might be.

He glanced up at the clock. There was no time now, class was about to begin, and Ezra felt just a little bit relieved to know that his ordeal could be put off for a couple more hours.

The teacher started with math today and Ezra was glad of it. Math was easy, he had been able to add and subtract into the hundreds of thousands since he was four years old. He could multiply and do long division as well, but that was reserved for third grade at this school, so he just went along with the program and kept his other skills to himself. Nobody seemed to like children who were too smart for their own good.

Finally, morning recess arrived. Taking the small stack of cards from his pack, Ezra followed the other students outside, looking around and considering his options. Billy and Danny were on the blacktop, already spreading the contents of Billy's ever-present bucket of Lego's over the hard surface. Olivia was over by the swing-set, chasing two other girls around the perimeter. Then he noticed that Eugene was also hovering near the playground equipment, just watching the other kids. He didn't look like a threat just now, but Ezra decided that he wasn't ready to risk another confrontation. He would talk to the boys first.

"Hello," he greeted, walking up to them and trying to appear more confident than he felt.

Billy glanced up and cheerfully replied, "Hi, Ezra. Want to play with us?"

Surprised, he nodded. "I'd like to, only I didn't bring any Lego's with me."

"You can use some of mine," Danny offered, pushing a few in his direction. Kneeling down next to them, Ezra accepted a few pieces and slowly began to assemble them. He was amazed when Danny said, "That was neat the way you stood up to Eugene last week. He pushes other kids around all the time, but I've never saw anybody hit him back before!"

Ezra shrugged. "My dad says I shouldn't have done it, and the principal is making me stay after school because of what happened."

"No fair!" said Billy, looking so indignant that Ezra felt a warm glow of kinship suddenly kindle within him.

"You guys want to come to my party on Saturday?" he blurted.

"Is it your birthday?" Danny wondered.

Ezra shook his head. He had wondered whether it would be okay to tell people what the party was for, worried that they might all view his being an adoptee the same way that Eugene had, but now he suddenly found that he wanted to tell. "My birthday isn't until June. This Saturday will be one whole year since I came to live with Chris."

Danny, a recent transplant to Four Corners himself, looked confused. Billy explained, "Ezra's adopted. Chris is his new dad."

"Oh," he said, thinking it over for a moment before nodding and saying, "Cool. Would I have to bring a present?"

"Um," Ezra said uncertainly. That hadn't come up in the weekend planning session. "No, I don't think so. It's both of our anniversary, mine and Daddy's, so he said we both get to invite friends to help us celebrate."

The little blond boy grinned. "Neat. Danny and me wanted to be friends with you before, but you always seem to play by yourself so we thought you didn't want to."

"No, I do!" he protested. "I just didn't know if you'd want to be friends with me."

They nodded, having no problem with that.

"And if you come on Saturday, you can help me set up my Piston Cup racetrack in the living room if you want to. It's really neat!" he said, hoping to sweeten the deal.

Excited, Danny asked, "Do you have all three racers?" He nodded. "I want to be Lightning McQueen!"

Ezra's nose wrinkled. Lightning was his favorite, but he couldn't offend his brand new friends by being selfish. "Okay," he decided, then asked Billy, "You want to take turns?"

"No, I want to be Chick."

Danny protested, "But he was the bad-guy!"

"So what? He was funny," Billy countered.

Ezra smiled as they launched into a friendly argument over which car was best. Making friends was turning out to be a lot easier than he had feared.

"Who else are you gonna invite to the party?" Billy asked suddenly, accepting the Lego airplane Ezra handed to him and zooming it over his rickety Lego skyscraper.

"I thought I might ask Olivia. She's pretty fun . . . for a girl," he admitted.

The boys looked a bit dubious, but shrugged it off. This was to be Ezra's party so he could invite whoever he wanted to.

The bell rang; signaling the end of recess, and the three boys quickly gathered up their toys and dumped them back in the bucket. It did not matter that their designs were ruined. They could just make something else next time.

Danny and Billy were in a different classroom from Ezra, so he quickly handed them their printed invitations and scampered off to his own class, buoyant with success.


His opportunity to talk with Olivia Greer arrived at lunchtime. She happened to be in the lunch-line ahead of him, so, as they gave the lunch lady their prepaid tickets Ezra fumbled a slightly squashed rectangle of pasteboard out of his pocket and thrust it at the girl. "My dad and I are having a party on Saturday, if you want to come. You don't have to bring any presents and there'll be food."

Olivia looked at the invitation and said, "I'd have to ask my mom."

"That's fine. I put our phone number on the back. Just have her call my dad and let him know if it's okay for you to come. I mean, if you even want to."

"I do," she said, grinning. "Thanks for inviting me."

Unable to help it, Ezra grinned back. "Sure. Um, see you later."

He turned on his heel and retreated to a table as far away from where the girls always sat as he could manage, face flushed with success.

"Ezra's got a girlfriend! Ezra's got a girlfriend!"

A scowl instantly clouded Ezra's expression as he realized that he had inadvertently chosen a table next to one solely occupied by Eugene. "Shut up!"

"Make me!"

Ezra took a big bite of his mashed potatoes and gravy, then stuck his tongue out, hoping to gross his enemy out.

The larger boy glowered but retreated from the argument as Ezra was joined by his two new friends from morning recess. "Hi, Ezra," they greeted in chorus.

Glad to have an excuse to give up the confrontation, especially as he only now remembered that he had promised his father and Uncle Josiah that he wouldn't fight with Eugene any more, Ezra turned his back and ignored the other boy for the rest of the lunch period.


The final recess of the day was much like the first, Ezra joining Danny and Billy to play together until the bell rang. This time, however, Ezra found himself watching Eugene across the playground. He was standing by the fence again, watching the other kids play and scowling to himself.

"Why do you suppose he's so mean to everybody?"

Danny and Billy followed his gaze and shrugged. "Just is, I guess," Billy told him, unconcerned. "Some people don't like anybody."

Not finding that overly helpful, Ezra put the question away for later. He found himself pondering it again as he walked to the Principal's office after the last bell rang.

Josiah was waiting for him. A desk had been set up in the corner of the office and he handed Ezra a pencil and a sheet of 20 misspelled words to correct and define.

"What should I do now?" Ezra asked ten minutes later, as he handed the finished worksheet in.

Josiah accepted the sheet with a look of surprise, checking over his work with interested eyes. "This is very good, Ezra. I didn't think you'd get it done so quickly."

"They're pretty easy words, sir. We already learned them in my class."

"I see. Guess tomorrow I'll need to prepare something a little more challenging for you to do!" Josiah was trying to keep his expression bland but Ezra grinned, able to see his uncle's pride in him shining out from behind the stern façade of Principal.

Setting his elbows on the desk and resting his chin in his hands, Ezra said, "Can I ask you something?"

"May I . . . and yes, of course you may," he said, sitting down on the edge of his desk. "What's on your mind, Ezra?"

"How come some kids are really easy to make friends with and others don't want to make friends with anybody?

Josiah cocked his head to one side. "Are you talking about you and Eugene?"

Ezra shrugged. "Sort of. I made friends with Billy Travis and Danny Morrison at recess today. Billy and I were already acquainted, but I never really talked to him before, and Danny is Billy's friend so now they're both my friends, only Eugene isn't anybody's friend 'cause nobody wants to be friends with somebody who's mean all the time, except I've been wondering if maybe the reason that he's mean is that nobody wants to be friends with him."

The principal frowned, sorting through the rapid tangle of words with the patience and gravity that made him so good at his job.

"You may be on to something," he said at last. "It is true that some people don't know any other way to get attention except to act out. It's possible that Eugene simply doesn't know any other way to reach out and connect with his peers."

Ezra sighed, a little disappointed. Part of him had been hoping Josiah would just say that Eugene was a brat and that's all there was to it. "I don't like him, Uncle Josiah. He's cruel and he makes me feel bad, but I was watching him today at recess and he looked sort of . . . lonely."

"And you know how that feels," Josiah guessed, his tone very gentle. "Pretty terrible, isn't it?"

"It's awful," he agreed, "but sometimes it's easier to stay lonesome all by yourself than to find out for sure that nobody wants you around."

Josiah closed his eyes for a moment as if something had pained him. "Sounds like you took a pretty big risk today, making some new friends," he said, his voice somehow remaining calm. "I'm glad to know it paid off."

Ezra smiled, happy with the reminder. "It was easier than I expected."

"And now you're wondering if you should try and do the same for Eugene?"

He made a face. "I don't want to. He'll probably just say something awful and make me want to cry, or maybe just punch him again."

Covering his mouth with one hand, Josiah cleared his throat. "Well, that . . . that could certainly be a problem," he said after a moment, expression restored to equanimity but his pale blue eyes twinkling. "There are a lot of full grown men who wouldn't think of trying to make a friend out of someone they consider an enemy."

"So I shouldn't try?" he asked hopefully.

"I didn't say that. It's entirely up to you," Josiah said, smiling at the scowl his answer brought to Ezra's face. "I think having one real honest friendship could be exactly what Eugene needs most. The problem is that he might not agree. He might throw the offer right back in your face."

Ezra slumped, his cheek against his fist. "And then he'll act even meaner than he already does," he predicted gloomily.

"Rejecting an overture of friendship doesn't make it wrong to have been offered one," Josiah told him, his voice filled with understanding. "Whatever you decide, Ezra, I'm proud of you for considering this."

"Guess I'll have to think about it some more," he decided.

Josiah smiled. "You do that. For now, I see that it's four o'clock. That means that you, sir, are a free man."

Ezra grinned. "Thanks Uncle . . . I mean, Mr. Sanchez. I'll see you tomorrow."

"You need a ride home?"

He shook his head. "Uncle Nathan is off duty now and he's gonna babysit me until Daddy gets home. Miss Recillos is out of town visiting relatives."

Inez Recillos owned the property next door to Chris's and was Ezra's usual after school sitter.

"All right. Tell your dad I said hello."

As he started to leave the office, Ezra remembered, "Oh! I still have your invitation to the party on Saturday!" He rummaged until he came up with the card. "You already know where we live, but everybody gets one anyway."

The gray-haired man smiled. "Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And a very nice invitation it is, too. Did you write this up yourself?"

"Uh, huh. You're coming, right?"

"I wouldn't miss it," he promised. "You have a good night, Ezra."

Chapter 15

Ezra had spent all week debating with himself over whether or not to try and make friends with Eugene Olson. He had asked Uncle Nathan's opinion and been given much the same one as he'd received from Josiah, that it was good and mature of him to consider it but that he shouldn't get his hopes up.

In fact, Ezra wasn't even sure that he wanted it to work. It would be very nice not to have his own personal tormenter any more, but he had a strong feeling that Eugene would act the same way about a friend that he did about everything else, as if that person was his alone so nobody else could share them. Ezra didn't think his other new friends would stand for that, and he did not want to lose them. Three for one felt like a very bad bargain.

Unable to make up his mind, Ezra had bided his time. One day he would decide that yes, he was going to give it a try. Then he would change his mind and decide that it was a bad idea. Ezra knew that he could very easily turn his back on Eugene and nobody would even blame him for it, but he could not quite shake the uneasy feeling that rejecting a potential friendship because he did not personally need it would be wrong.

Finally, the last recess of Friday arrived. Squaring his small shoulders, Ezra made his mind up that it was time to do or die. Walking solemnly across the playground, with a curious Billy Travis and Danny Morrison in his wake, he walked right up to Eugene and thrust an invitation at him. "Here."

Eugene looked at the card like he expected it to contain a stink-bomb. "What's this?"

"I'm having a party tomorrow, and I've decided that you can come."

Clearly confused, he demanded, "Why would I come to your stupid party?"

Ezra shrugged. "I don't know, but my dad and I are having a celebration of our first anniversary of being a family. He does love me and he's never ever going to send me away, and nothing you say or do can make me leave this school. And I'm not afraid of you any more, so you might as well quit picking on me."

"What if I don't?" he demanded, puffing himself up importantly as he tried to stare down the much smaller boy.

Squaring his stance, Ezra's jaw firmed up and he clenched both fists. "Then I guess we'll have to fight."

"You told Mr. Sanchez that you wouldn't fight any more," Eugene shot back, shifting nervously as he glanced around at the crowd of interested fellow students who stood listening.

"I'd rather not," he replied frankly, "but I will if you make me."

Eugene looked down at the invitation, then again at the interested crowd. He scowled, seeming to realize from the looks on their faces that Ezra's public declaration had very nearly stolen away his power of intimidation. "My mom is taking me to see my grandparents tomorrow. I couldn't come to your party, even if I wanted to."

Relieved beyond measure, Ezra nonetheless did his best to hide his feelings behind an emotionless façade. "I understand. Family is important to everyone."

He knew just from the look on Eugene's face that he had not missed the subtle dig in his comment. The other boy actually looked a little bit shamed, though he never lost his determined scowl. "Just because you invited me to your dumb ol' party doesn't mean we're friends now. I don't like you!"

"I don't like you either," he said flatly, not giving an inch.

Unease flickered in Eugene's deep set eyes as he noted the admiring looks being directed at Ezra from the first-graders and some of the smaller second-graders.

Ezra stuck his right hand out. "Truce?"

Eugene eyed the appendage distastefully, but the grins on the faces of the other kids seemed to tell him that he had been beaten. Much as he had done the previous Friday, he gave the southern boy's hand a fast shake. "Okay."

With that, Ezra turned around and marched back the way he had come, leaving a crowd of dumb-struck peers behind him. Olivia, Danny and Billy went with him.

"That was really brave!" Olivia enthused, her dark eyes shining.

"Bet he won't ever push you around again!" Billy exulted.

Danny thumped him on the shoulder. "I thought he was gonna wet his pants when you offered to fight him!"

Exultation and the adrenaline rush that follows pure terror warred for dominance in Ezra's quick-thumping heart. "I can't believe that worked," he said in a soft, awed voice. Excitement flaring in his green eyes, a huge grin spread across his face. "Wait'll I tell my dad!"

Chapter 16

On Friday evening, Chris and Ezra sat together in the big recliner watching a movie, their own particular end of the work-week ritual. Ezra had requested 'Cars', one of his favorites, and Chris had put the movie in without an argument, settling back in the chair with the footrest up and Ezra in his lap. The two of them lounged contentedly, with Magic once again playing the role of purring throw-blanket for Ezra.

Somewhere around the half-way point, Chris started to wonder if his son was actually watching the movie. Ezra's eyes were pointed toward the TV screen but he wasn't reacting to any of the action or dialogue. When the infamous 'tractor-tipping' scene came and went without so much as a giggle, Chris was certain. Ezra was quite mature for his age, but he viewed those flatulent tractors with the same level of hilarity as any other little boy.

Chris picked up the remote control and clicked off the television. Ezra blinked; the sudden lack of color and sound breaking through his reverie. "Is it over already?"

"Not quite, but you seemed to have lost interest," Chris told him, shifting so that he could see his son's face a little better. "You looked kind of far away just now. Is something wrong?"

He shook his head. "I was just thinkin'."

"About?" When Ezra immediately looked guilty, Chris prompted, "You can tell me, son. I won't get mad, whatever it is."

"Well, it's just . . . if tomorrow is a year since I came to live with you, then that means today is a year since the last time I lived with my mother, and I sort of . . ."

Chris wrapped an arm around the warm little body and pressed a kiss into Ezra's hair. "You miss her?"

"Is that bad?" he asked anxiously.

"No, Ezra, that isn't bad. You love her and you'll probably always miss her a little."

He bit his lip. "Are you sure it isn't, you know, ungrateful after everything you've done for me?"

Having talked with his friends in depth about the day Ezra had spent in the office last week, Chris had been expecting something like this for days, and thus was able to keep his expression neutral. "Of course not. Loving me and being glad that I'm your dad doesn't mean you're supposed to automatically stop loving your mother." Stroking the tousled chestnut curls, he smiled. "Do you think my loving you means that I never miss your brother?"

Ezra looked startled by his terminology. "You mean Adam?"

Chris nodded. "He would have been your brother if he had lived," he said gently. "Sarah and I could have adopted you together, and that would have made Adam and any other children we might have had your siblings."

"You'd have wanted me anyways, even with your real children around?" An awed look passed over Ezra's small face. His shock made him blunt as he asked, "You didn't adopt me to replace him?"

A spike of pain passed through Chris at the question. "No, Ezra. You could never replace Adam in my heart, any more than I can replace Maude in yours. Each of us has our own special place in the hearts of those who love us."

Ezra looked relieved, but then he said, "Uncle Vin told me you had a hole in your heart after they died and that you needed me to fill it back up."

"That's true," he said seriously. "Losing them hurt me worse than anything I've ever felt and for a long time I was sure that the hole they left would never heal. But loving you helped me to realize that a part of Adam and Sarah are still here." He tapped his chest for emphasis. "They're in their own special corner, where good memories live, and I'll always have that."

"Lots of the times I spent with Mother were good," Ezra ventured. "She didn't always want me around, but she was mostly lots of fun whenever she did. It's okay if I keep those memories tucked in a corner somewhere, and take them out to think about sometimes?"

Chris smiled. "I hope you will. And the rest of the time I hope that you'll live your life with joy and be glad for all the new memories we're making together."

"I will. Tomorrow's gonna be a really good day for making memories," Ezra decided, interrupting himself with a huge yawn. He smiled and snuggled a little closer. "But I'm not sure anything could be better than this."

"I think you're right. How'd I ever get so lucky?"

Ezra smiled and tucked his arm around Chris's ribs. "Me, too."


The next day, Ezra was up with the dawn, for once having no difficulty waking up bright and early. He was in a dither of excitement and could hardly contain himself through the mundane events of morning ablutions and breakfast. "Can we start decorating right away?" he begged, the moment the last dish was safely settled in the dishwasher.

"Why don't we save that for later? I want to get over to the grocery store before they get busy and buy the meat. That way I can have the ribs and chicken marinating while we fix up the house."

"That's a good idea. And don't forget that we need to buy Aunt Rain something to eat, too," Ezra reminded. As the group's only vegetarian, Rain would not be eating the same fare as the rest of them.

Chris nodded. It was a consideration they were all quite used to by now, but he was pleased that Ezra was thoughtful enough to remember. "Don't worry, I bought a fruit and veggie tray and some tofu burgers on my way home last night."

"How come you didn't just get the party food at the same time?"

"I wanted to make sure we bought everything a fresh as possible," Chris told him, helping Ezra into his bright red windbreaker jacket. This was true, but in fact Chris had mostly waited because he knew that the span of time in which an excited little boy could be patient was finite. This way they could waste at least one hour shopping and another on food preparation, which would leave plenty of time to put up the decorations before guests began to arrive in the early afternoon. "Besides, the guys volunteered to help out by making this a potluck, remember? I don't need to buy much."

Ezra grinned brightly. "Oh, yeah! Uncle Josiah promised me he'd make some of his mother's world-famous cornbread."

Chris chuckled. "I'm not sure how famous it is, but I'm glad he's bringing it. Remember the batch he made for Thanksgiving?"

The dreamy smile on Ezra's face was proof that he did indeed. Chris laughed again, remembering how much of the sweet golden bread his son had personally demolished on that festive day.

"Do you think Uncle Vin will bring that green stuff he made before?" Ezra asked, coming back to earth as they went outside and climbed into the car. "That was weird."

"He probably will," Chris told him, grimacing as he recalled the peculiar dish made of fruit, cottage cheese and dyed-green whipped cream that Vin had introduced them to at Christmas. "He and Buck both love it and I'm told it's very easy to make."

Ezra continued to ponder the menu as they drove. "If Uncle Nathan and Aunt Rain are bringing salad and stuff, like they usually do, what does that leave for Uncle Buck and JD?" He perked up suddenly. "Dessert?"

"As a matter of fact, yes. I asked Buck to pick up something very particular."

"What?" he demanded eagerly.

Chris grinned at him in the rear-view mirror. "It's a surprise."


He laughed. "Don't worry, I think you'll approve. Is there anything else you can think of that we'll need?"

"Chips, maybe? And stuff to drink."

"We have beer and juice and bottled water in the refrigerator at home, with backups on the porch," Chris told him. "And Nettie Wells volunteered to make some kind of party punch for all you kids. Chips are a good idea, though."

Ezra grinned. "I'm glad Mrs. Nettie is coming. Thanks for inviting her."

"You're welcome. I think she'll be a good addition to the crowd."

"Did you remember to invite Miss Recillos?"

He nodded. "She'll be there. Billy's mom is bringing your friends out, so I invited her to stay for the party, too."

"Mrs. Travis is nice," he said agreeably. "We know a lot of people, don't we?"

Chris laughed. "I guess we do. Between your uncles, the ladies and your friends from school, we're expecting twelve guests today."

"That's another good thing about Eugene not coming," Ezra said, grinning cheekily. "Thirteen is supposed to be a very unlucky number. He'd have spoiled the whole thing!"

Chris merely smiled. He hadn't quite believed his ears yesterday evening when Ezra had announced over dinner that he'd invited his nemesis to the party, but that happily he'd been turned down. It gave him a warm glow of pride that Ezra had handled his problem in such a way.


At one o'clock, practically on the dot, the doorbell rang. Both Bo and Pepper ran to the front door barking like maniacs. Chris collared them and said, "Come on, you. Out to the kennel. Ezra, would you please get the door?"

Ezra beamed. Like most kids, he loved playing the role of official greeter. Glancing around at the house, all festive in streamers, balloons and themed decorations, his eyes shone with satisfaction. He opened the door and smiled at finding his Aunt Rain and two of his uncles, Nathan and Josiah, on the porch, "Hi!" he greeted enthusiastically. "You're the first ones here. Want to come in?"

They grinned back at him, stepping across the threshold as he moved back out of the way. Rain leaned down and pressed a kiss to his cheek, "Happy Anniversary, Sweetie!"

"Thanks," he said, smiling bashfully as he rubbed the spot with his fingers.

"Whoa, don't close it yet!" came a call from outside, stopping Ezra from shutting the door. He opened it back up and looked outside, waving enthusiastically as he spotted Buck and JD exiting from Buck's newly parked truck.

Ezra stood on his tiptoes, trying to get a look inside the grocery sacks both men carried in. "Did you bring dessert? Can I see?"

Buck laughed. "We sure did, but you can't see just yet. You're going to have to be patient. Your dad would skin me alive if he found out I'd showed you what was in these bags."

"He's right, I would," Chris said with a smirk as he came to greet his guests. "Welcome, everyone. Thanks for coming."

Over the next half-hour the rest of the invitees arrived, each escorted inside by a happily smiling Ezra. The last to arrive was Nettie Wells. She was greeted with a big hug, much to the surprise of Ezra's father, who knew that the boy was not typically given to impromptu shows of affection.

The presence of Mrs. Wells' teenaged niece gave Ezra momentary pause, but when Casey flashed a conspiratorial grin and thanked him for saving her from an afternoon of doing chores, Ezra promptly decided that she seemed okay . . . for a girl. She further endeared herself to him by praising Magic, who had slipped into the crowd unnoticed and was busily winding herself around the ladies' ankles and making a very charming impression on everyone.

JD had perked up at the sight of Casey. Ezra noticed that his youngest uncle seemed to be having trouble coming up with anything to say to her, however, so he picked up Magic and handed her to JD. "Uncle JD, would you mind telling Casey more about Magic for me? I promised to go set up my race-track for the other kids."

"Sure!" he said, bright with enthusiasm. Casey looked equally happy with that plan and Ezra shrugged. He didn't really understand why grown-ups made everything so complicated.

The Piston Cup track proved to be a big hit, not only with the children, but also with Casey, JD and Vin. Buck usually liked to play race-cars as well, but today he was more interested in trying out his charms on their pretty neighbor, Inez Recillos. Ezra just rolled his eyes at the interplay, exchanging a grossed out grimace with Billy when they both noticed that Billy's mom and Ezra's dad also seemed to be flirting with each other. Ezra looked askance at Nettie and Josiah, but luckily they seemed to be acting like sensible adults, merely conversing with Nathan and Rain as the latter couple set up the two card tables they had brought along for games later in the day.

Danny, Olivia and Billy had all been quite shocked to find their school nurse and, more so, their school principal attending Ezra's party but Josiah's friendly easy-going manner soon put them at ease, allowing him to just blend in with the rest of the grown-ups.

The barbecue was soon fired up and the long picnic table Chris kept stored in the old barn out back – a relic of the days when this property had been a working horse ranch - was brought out and set up in the middle of the back yard with rows of folding chairs on either side. The ladies quickly set the table with the plastic tablecloths and disposable dishes decorated in playing cards that Chris and Ezra had bought from the party store.

The food was good and plentiful, and everyone's contribution was enthusiastically consumed. Ezra practically glowed with satisfaction as he and Chris were repeatedly congratulated on their anniversary, mingling his way from friend to friend and enjoying his opportunity to play host, busying himself with making sure that everyone was served and happy before sitting down to enjoy his own share of the feast.

A short while after lunch, Buck and Chris disappeared into the house. Suspecting that dessert might be on its way, Ezra attempted to follow. He was prevented by his uncles, who tagged him 'It' and took off running in every direction. The other children and Casey quickly joined in the game and soon it was a wild free-for-all of running, laughing and screaming. Someone released the dogs from their kennel and they were soon barking and running along, adding to the general joyful madness of the occasion.

Finally, a panting Josiah called a halt to the game, grinning with satisfaction as he looked over the tired but happy crowd. "Can I have everyone's attention, please!" he called out in a booming voice. He gestured toward the house. "It looks like Chris would like to make a speech."

As everyone retook their seats at the long picnic table that Chris had rented for this affair, JD, Vin and Nathan went inside to help Buck bring out dessert. Ezra obeyed an inviting gesture from his father and stood with his back to Chris, who rested his hands upon the boy's shoulders and gave them a squeeze. Ezra watched with interested eyes as fourteen individual ice cream sundaes were brought out and set down on the table in front of each chair.

Tipping his head back, he gave Chris a questioning look.

"Double scoop, chocolate fudge, sprinkles and whipped cream," Chris told him with a smile. Addressing the crowd, he explained, "Ezra told me once that his mother bought him a chocolate sundae just like these the day she sent him here to live with me. In honor of what turned out to be one of the very best days of my life, I decided that I wanted a very special kind of treat to celebrate. Ezra's favorite dessert seemed the perfect choice."

"Wow," Ezra whispered, amazed that Chris had not only remembered what he had said, but also taken the opportunity to turn a bad association into a wonderful one.

Kneeling down in front of him, Chris addressed his next remarks solely to Ezra. "In the last three hundred and sixty five days, you've turned my whole life around. You've given me so many surprises, and so much laughter and happiness that I don't know how the years to come can possibly be any better, but as long as we're together I already know that they will. I am so glad that you walked into my life that day, Ezra Standish."

Much sniffling and sighing arose from the assembly of friends, who applauded as father and son hugged each other tightly.

Smiling at the crowd, Ezra said, "I have something to say, too. Uncle Buck told me that I should decide which was more important to me, the past or the future, and I know now which one I want to choose." He turned, resting his hands on Chris's shoulders and shyly said, "From now on, I want everybody to know that my name is Ezra Larabee. Is that okay?"

Tears welled up in Chris's eyes and slid unashamedly down his face. "Oh, Ezra." He laughed, pulling the boy into another firm hug. "It's more than okay. Thank you. Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I love you, Daddy."

"I love you, too, son. I love you, too."