Wednesday, November 1st
Buck Wilmington had set an extra alarm clock before dropping in his bed to ensure that he made it into the office early. He couldn't wait to hear what went on after Chris had left the ball the night before. He was whistling softly as he got off the elevator and pushed his way into the Team's office area. He stopped off in the break room and quickly filled two mugs with the coffee he had picked up at the local 7-11. Then, with a bakery bag hanging from his teeth, he carefully made his way to Chris' inner office, carrying the much-needed caffeine. With a flourish, he presented his old friend with a steaming mug and dropped the bag onto the pile of paperwork Chris had been working on. With a pointed glance at the wall clock, Chris laid his pencil down on the spreadsheet and rooted in the bag, triumphantly re-emerging with a warm blueberry muffin.
"Buck," Chris said, leaning back in his chair. "What brings you in this early?" After propping his feet up on the corner of his desk, he calmly took a bite of the muffin.
"Chris, you old dog!" Buck exclaimed. "Don't hold out on ole Buck now."
"Don't know what you're talking about," Chris teased. "Something on your mind?"
Buck stretched his legs out in front of him and grinned insolently at his friend. "Come on now. You know exactly what I'm talking about, Chris. I thought you might want to tell me about that new friend you made last night."
Chris looked over at the big man sitting across his desk and slowly shook his head. "Now Buck, since when do I kiss and tell? You know me better than that!"
"Why don't you tell me about her. What's her name? What's she do? Come on, you know what is riding on this, Chris," Buck said, as he grabbed his coffee off the desk.
"Okay, I'll tell you this much. We didn't want to waste time with the little details." Chris stretched his arms above his head before cracking his neck. "I gotta tell you, she was something!"
"Yeah? Tell me more!" Buck prodded eagerly.
Ezra Standish found himself setting the alarm on his black jaguar in the underground garage at the ungodly hour of seven o'clock in the morning. With a groan, he forced his tired body to move towards the parking garage elevator. Usually he was the last agent in the office but he had to come in to finish up some preparation for an upcoming raid. Knowing that the Team relied on him to be completely prepared, he wanted to be sure that he had as many facts as possible about the players. This was the only way he could ensure that he had the best chance of getting out of the sting alive. It wasn't enough for him to be a smooth talker, he had to know each of his targets inside and out. Know how their minds worked and exactly who their cohorts were. Knowledge was the essential tool that would help take down the gunrunners his Team had been targeting for months.
The elevator's bell quietly announced his arrival on the seventh floor and the southerner juggled his Starbucks cup with the file folders he had reviewed after the party the night before. He made it to his desk without dropping any of his burdens and slumped in his chair with a sigh of relief. 'Gawd. I hope this day proceeds with all due haste.'
After taking a few moments to gather his thoughts, Ezra pushed away from his sparsely decorated desk and began to mentally catalog the tasks he needed to accomplish. With a slight grimace, he started to organize the pages of notes he had jotted down at home. He had been searching for some common bond that would link the gunrunners with the notorious kingpin, Roberto Marcello.
After shuffling the papers into chronological order, he decided that he should make a copy for Vin. Ezra had learned that the sharpshooter was very helpful in ferreting out small pieces of useful information that he sometimes overlooked. He enjoyed working with the quiet Texan on these projects. It was during these times that the Team profited from their combined unique strengths. Ezra moved slowly across the darkened room towards the copier, hesitating at the sound of quiet voices drifting out of the inner office. 'I didn't expect that there would be anyone here at this time of day.'
"... . smooth, silky skin...."
Ezra couldn't help himself as he moved a step closer towards the voices. He had never heard such warmth in Chris Larabee's voice, especially over some woman. The entire Team had all believed at one time that Chris would have been the perfect match for that journalist, Mary Travis. But, real life and fiery tempers did not help that combination. The two had tried to date but found themselves better suited to being just friends. With his interest peaked, he shamelessly stood silently, listening to his two friends discussing their exploits from the previous evening.
"You're goin' to sit there and expect me to believe you never got her name?" Buck asked, continuing his interrogation. Chris simply shook his head and tossed an insolent grin at Buck. "Okay, fine. You and the 'mystery lady' left the party pretty quick. What happened? Where'd ya'll go?"
As he savored another sip of his coffee, Chris shifted in his seat before answering. "I'll tell you this much. She was remarkable. It was a night that doesn't come close to any you can think up." Chris watched as his friend squirmed in exasperation caused by his lack of details.
"Chris," Buck warned. "This ain't gonna cut the cake. You know the rules."
Chris dropped his booted feet back on the floor and scooted the chair closer to the desk. With narrowed eyes, he continued, "Between just you and me, right?"
"Scout's honor!" Buck assured his buddy as he raised two fingers in the air.
"As we were dancing, we both agreed that we would not switch names or any pertinent information about ourselves. She knew as well as I did that this was going to be a one-time thing. We talked about common, everyday things. ... " Chris trailed off, a smile dancing on his lips. "She had one of the sexiest husky voices I have heard in years! You know the type, just caresses your entire body as the words flowed from her lips. There's just something about a woman with a southern accent!" Buck nodded eagerly, encouraging Larabee to continue. They were finally getting to the part that he liked best and he was anxious to find out exactly what went on.
"Well, before I knew it, she suggested that we leave the party and go find a quieter place to get to know one another better. So, we went on up to her room that she had at the hotel . Damn Buck, you wouldn't believe it. She had candles all over the place up there. Once we got up there, she suggested that we keep our masks on. You know, add to the mystery and all that. We talked for a while and then we did things that I hadn't done in years. Got to tell you pard, I haven't been so tired in a long time!" Chris divulged with a huge grin.
"So are ya gonna see her again?" Buck asked impatiently.
"Naw. She and I both decided that one more time just couldn't improve on what we had last night!" Chris drained the last of his coffee and ducked down to throw out the crumbs from the long-departed muffin. "Hell, Buck. We've only been talking about me. What about you? Did your lady succumb to your world-famous charms?"
Buck stretched his arms above h is head, stalling for a couple of minutes before answering his friend. "If your asking me if I got lucky, then I got to say I did. I met a really nice gal and came away with her phone number and a promise to get together later this week!"
"Now Buck," Chris said with a shake of his head, "sounds to me like you fell short of your objective. A phone number ain't going to cut it. Guess this means I win!"
"Ah, hell... "
The faint jingle of car keys jerked Ezra out of his silent reverie, causing him to move quickly away from the doorway. 'I never would have thought it possible! Mr. Larabee and some mystery woman.' Ezra pondered the conversation he had just heard with a slight smile. 'Well, it's too bad that this was to be an one time happening. The lady sounds intriguing!'
"Hey, Ez!" Vin drawled. "Ain't this a bit early for ya?"
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied. "While this may not be my normal routine, I assure you that I would not have graced these premises with my presence if it weren't for some preliminary preparations that need to be accomplished before next week's meeting with the Marcello organization."
"Ya need any help?" Vin offered.
Grinning at his fellow teammate, "I could always benefit from your exceptional perception of the matter at hand, Mr. Tanner."
Both men turned at the sound of the youngest agent entering the office. "Hey, guys! Have you seen Buck? He wasn't home when I got up this morning."
"I believe that Mr. Wilmington is conversing with Mr. Larabee," Ezra informed the young man. Turning his attention back to Vin, he said, "Shall we retire to the conference room where we can review these documents in more tranquil surroundings?"
Tanner and Standish both moved in the direction of the small conference room that the team occasionally used to plan their operations. Just as they reached the glass door, JD called out, "Hey Ez. Did you see the message I left on your desk last night?"
"Message?" Ezra asked as he turned to face JD. "No. I am unaware of any such missive."
"Your mother called after you left last night. I forgot to tell you when I saw you at the party. Sorry."
"Don't trouble yourself, Mr. Dunne. I am sure that my mother was just calling to confirm our dinner plans for next week, " the undercover agent assured him.
JD vehemently shook his head, "Nope. Hold on ... Let me get it so I don't mess it up." The team's computer specialist ran over to Standish's desk and shuffled the files that were on the desk around until he found the pink slip of paper he had been searching for. "She told me to tell you 'Plans changed. Coming in tonight. Lunch tomorrow at that cozy restaurant you took me to on my last visit.'"
With a muffled curse, Ezra accepted the message slip and scanned the message for himself. He briefly closed his eyes in an effort to process the reality of the upcoming invasion by 'Whirlwind Maude'. Carefully he folded the paper in half and slid it in his right front pocket before speaking again. "Mr. Dunne. I noticed that there was no contact number on this message. Am I correct in assuming that my mother did not inform you of where she would be lodging during her visit?" Ezra knew the question was a futile one. If Maude had wanted him to know where she was she would have left a number. This way, he could not cancel this impromptu luncheon.
"Nope. Sorry, but that's all she told me to write down," JD said. "It's great that your gonna get to visit with your mom, huh?"
"Of course, just splendid," Ezra muttered derisively. "Mr. Tanner, since it seems that my day has just gotten busier than I had originally planned for, we should proceed with our review of these papers."
The morning had flown by as Ezra and Vin immersed themselves in the numerous stacks of papers and charts that were scattered all over the mahogany conference table. Josiah and Nathan had stuck their heads in and offered their services coming away with several blueprints to go over. Buck and JD were busy cleaning up old case files, trying to meet their Friday deadline. Not realizing the time, the Team was startled by Maude Standish's grand entrance at noon sharp.
"Maude!" Josiah boomed from across the room, "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes!"
"Why, Josiah," Maude rasped with a fond smile. "I am so pleased to see you lookin' so fine this wonderful day."
Josiah quickly made his way to her side and captured her bejeweled hand in his large one. With a large smile, he brushed his lips over its smooth skin before holding it to his heart.
"Miz Standish," Nathan said with a concerned look in his eyes. "I hope you don't mind me sayin' so, but you don't sound like you are feeling well today. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"How kind of you, Mr. Jackson, but it is only a little bitty cold. Nothin' to concern yourself with," Maude said, looking around the room. "All I need is my darlin' boy. Do you know where he's keepin' himself?"
"Howdy, Miss Maude," Buck said, coming out of the break room. "He's working on a case with Vin in the conference room. Hang on and I'll get him for you."
Turning around, he caught sight of JD and hollered, "Hey, Kid! Go get Ezra, his ma's here!"
JD tossed down his pencil with a scowl before going to get the undercover agent. He stuck his head in the door and waited until the two men inside noticed him, "Hey, Ezra. You mom's here."
"Thank you, Mr. Dunne," Ezra replied. "Please tell her that I shall be with her shortly."
Ezra escorted his mother into the The Papillon Café, mentally calculating just how much time he would have to endure before he could take his leave. The maitre d' quickly showed them to their table after smoothly pocketing the folded incentive Ezra had slipped him. If he had been there with anyone other than Maude, he would have appreciated the exquisite ambiance that the restaurant had to offer. The contemporary art was tastefully arranged so that patrons' attention was not swayed from the culinary art that was presented to them on fine bone china. The hardwood flooring gleamed under the warm spotlights that illuminated the interior.
"Darlin', you don't seem very happy to see your mother," Maude chastised.
"Nonsense, mother. It is just that I was unprepared for this luncheon," he replied, as his long fingers tightened their hold on the menu. "I was unaware that you had arrived earlier than originally planned."
"Well, I did ring you as soon as I arrived."
"Yes, however, I did not receive your message until this morning."
"Oh, dear. I do hope you are not inconvenienced by taking time to visit with your own mother," Maude said, lightly coughing in her silk handkerchief.
"Are you not feeling well, mother?" Ezra asked with concern. He had noted earlier at the office that her voice sounded a bit rough but didn't pay it much heed.
"Nothin' for you to worry about, darlin'," Maude replied, waving her hand dismissively. "I will feel right as rain soon enough! Besides, after the evening I had last night, I must say I am on the road to a full recovery!"
Ezra closed his menu and focused his attention on the woman across the table from him. Maude looked exceptionally lovely in a forest green Chanel suit, adorned with a diamond encrusted broach. Smiling thoughtfully, Ezra reached for the bread basket and offered it to Maude first before selecting a small roll for himself. "Last evening? I thought you said you just arrived in this fine town last evening?"
"I did, sugar. But I didn't just go to the hotel and retire for the evening."
Knowing that his mother was waiting for him to ask her for further information, Ezra complied. "How did you amuse yourself last evening?"
"Well," she began just as the waiter approached their table.
"Excuse me," the young server interrupted. "Are you ready to place your order?"
Catching his mothers nod of assent, Ezra smiled at the young man and re-opened his menu. "Yes, thank you. The lady shall have ... " he began with an inquiring arch of his right eyebrow.
"The Cobb Salad," Maude supplied. "With a bottle of your finest Chardonnay."
"And I will have the Lobster ravioli," Ezra decisively stated, closing the menu before placing it in the waiter's outstretched hand.
"As I was sayin'," Maude continued. "I attended this delightful masked gala last evening. You should have seen the people who were there. I wasn't sure if I would even go, but decided to at the last moment. You know how hard it is to pull together the appropriate attire on such short notice."
"Yes," he murmured distractedly.
Maude leaned closer to her son and continued in a lower voice. "I met this most compelling gentleman."
"Mother," Ezra cut in sharply. "Have you forgotten that you are supposedly a happily married woman? I believe to husband number four."
"Of course not, dear," she quickly reassured her son. "Oliver and I have a private arrangement that works for us. I assure you that I did nothin' to compromise my commitment. Oliver has always realized that I need variety. In fact, I have his complete blessing."
"Good God! That is the most inappropriate way to conduct a marriage, Mother!"
"Ezra, must I point out to you that you do not have the experience from which to speak on this subject."
Slumping in his chair, Ezra allowed his head to fall on the back of his chair and closed his eyes. He ran his fingers through his hair before looking at his mother again. "Mother, have you ever considered that your formula for a successful marriage has not been successful in the past?"
"Of course," Maude nodded, as she took a sip from her water goblet. "This is why Oliver and I have our arrangement. Now, I must tell you about this scrumptious creature that I encountered at the ball."
As he prayed for divine intervention to any god that was possibly listening, Ezra scanned the room in an effort to locate the closest exit. His mother was sitting across from him, acting like a giddy schoolgirl. 'What did I do in my life to deserve this hell?' he silently bemoaned. 'I do not have any interest whatsoever in acquiring any knowledge about my mother's private exploits, but I can not escape. What I wouldn't give to be anywhere but here.'
"... so tall and handsome, well as much as I could see of his face. He was wearin' a black mask that covered most of his face." Ezra shook his head, forcing himself to focus on the conversation at hand. "He walked up to me and after just a few brief words, I found myself melting into his strong arms on the dance floor."
"Excuse me, mother," Ezra said, "but is there a point to this delightful narrative?"
"Ezra," she impatiently remarked, "if you had been paying attention, you would know that I have been sharing an important event in my life with my only son!"
Relieved to catch sight of their waiter approaching their table, bearing their meals, Ezra smoothed the linen napkin in his lap and sat back in his chair. The food was served with a flourish as the wine steward presented the chilled bottle of wine. After approving the selection, their wine glasses were filled and the servers silently departed, leaving the two alone once again.
Maude took a dainty bite of her salad before laying her fork on the side of the dish. She took advantage of the momentary lull in conversation to study her son with a practiced eye. She could see that he was still working out by the way his custom tailored Armani suit caressed his lean form. His appearance was pleasing to the eye but she was seeking a glimpse of the man beneath the surface. Frustrated, yet proud of the way Ezra was able to deflect her invasive gaze, she reclaimed her fork and speared a piece of lettuce.
"As I was sayin'," she began again, "he was a most impressive man. He literally swept me off my feet. Before I knew it we had left the party and retired to my room."
'Dear Lord, please spare me the details!' his brain screamed.
"You wouldn't believe it but he suggested the most sensual thing! He told me that he had always had this fantasy of making love to a woman where both participants wore masks. I can not begin to describe to you how sexy this was!"
Choking on the stuffed pasta he had just placed in his mouth, he grabbed the nearest glass to clear his throat. "Please, Mother, I really do not need to hear the sordid details!"
"Oh, Ezra! Grow up. I am a very vibrant woman who is in the prime of her life!" Maude delicately patted her napkin against her lips. "There is nothin' wrong in having physical needs and seeing that they are satisfied."
"Mother!" Ezra exclaimed with his eyes wide open.
"You should listen and learn, dear boy. You may love this life that you have chosen to lead against my better judgment, but I do not believe that you have yet to find what will make you truly happy."
"Mother... " Ezra forced out through his clenched teeth.
"It really is not a big deal. We met, spent some lovely time together and parted amicably."
"The only way you can describe what you have just related to me is the term "one night stand". I do not think that this is the example that you would want me to follow on my quest for a fulfilled life. Is it?"
"I admit, while it was a chance meeting and he was gone when I woke this morning, it was not some vulgar romp!" Maude argued heatedly.
Carefully placing his fork and knife on the right side of his plate, Ezra lifted the wine to his lips and took a large mouthful. 'Count to ten. Just count to ten before saying anything to her.' he coached himself. He watched his mother as she broke off a small piece of roll to eat. Ezra blew out the breath he had been holding, feeling more able to finish the meal without strangling his companion.
"Mother, not that I am trying to change the subject or anything, but I couldn't help but notice you are carrying a rather large jewelry box with you," Ezra said.
Maude looked shrewdly at her only child and could see that he was unwilling to continue the previous discussion. She decided that, for the sake of the tenuous peace they had been enjoying these past few weeks, she would accept the change without complaint. She reached down the side of her chair and retrieved the box her son was referring to and offered it to him with a smile.
Ezra accepted the box and gingerly turned it around in his hands until the brass clasp faced him. The black velvet brought back several pleasant childhood memories. In his mind's eye, he could vividly see himself as a small boy, perched on the chaise lounge in one of his mother's many dressing rooms. He had always loved that hour before Maude departed for the evening of gaming pleasure. This was the one time he could be sure of peace and tranquility while being in the same room as Maude. She would emerge from the inner closet dressed in one of her many ball gowns and sit down like a fairy princess in front of her oval mirror. His sharp gaze followed her slim hands as she selected that evening's jewels that would compliment her outfit. The brilliance of the clear stones caught the lamplight, casting multicolored rainbows across the ceiling above. It wasn't until years later that he discovered that the gems he had seen his mother wear when he was younger were only paste. Even with this knowledge, he held those images close to his heart.
The top of the case popped open when its clasp was released and Ezra was momentarily blinded by the dazzling facets that were revealed. One manicured finger traced the line along the inside of the necklace that was nestled inside the box. There was something familiar about the setting that caught his attention.
"It's an one of a kind design that Oliver had created for me," Maude confided. "Isn't it simply scrumptious?"
A fleeting image of another woman's neck ran across Ezra's memory as he continued to stare at the gemstones. "One of a kind? Are you sure of that, Mother?" Ezra asked in a strained voice.
"Why, of course. Dear Herr Schultz designed this setting to compliment my neckline. He assured us that no one else in the world would ever wear this design but me!" Maude answered quickly. She had noted the look of consternation that had briefly crossed her son's face but had no idea why he would be so interested in a necklace.
With a gasp, he grabbed the napkin from his lap and stood abruptly. "I'm sorry Mother. I just remembered something that I need to handle back at the office. I fear that I must leave at once."
The southerner left a stunned Maude Standish gaping at his quickly retreating back in one of Denver's finest restaurants. After a few calming breaths, Maude gestured for the waiter to refill her wine glass and finished her meal alone.
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