Secret of Love

by Purple Lacey

Nineteenth story in the Angel Girl series.

Standard disclaimers apply.

I will be the first to admit I know nothing about ATF or police procedures… so I made them up. ;) I wanted to confess that up front. Thanks to Jenn for her input, especially on weapons, and Marian for her encouragement and suggestions. This story is certainly better because of their contributions. Much obliged ladies! Any mistakes you may find are mine alone.

The crystal-clear night sky was ablaze with the wonder of a million luminous stars as the exhausted man drove through the deserted streets of Denver at three o´clock in the morning. The magnificence of the spectacle occurring above was lost on him as one desire drove him onward: home. He just wanted to go home.

After almost three days with no more than four hours sleep, Buck Wilmington had reached the end of his endurance. Buck had spent the last three anxious days and nights helping hunt down a load of stolen explosives that were destined to disappear into the black-market if not retrieved in time. Knowing the terrible consequences of allowing the thieves to escape with their stolen goods, the head of the ATF had assembled a taskforce charged with recovering the explosives. Buck had been drafted into this taskforce and had, along with the other men picked for the job, worked tirelessly to track the stolen shipment and apprehend the thieves. Buck had hardly had time to scarf down a doughnut or a stale sandwich much less have a full meal, and the lack of nourishment and rest had stretched his reserves to their limits. With the successful conclusion to the difficult case, Buck was headed toward the security of the restored Victorian house he called home, and the loved ones that waited for him there. His tired mind refused to focus on any other thoughts but the daughter he had missed so much and the bed that was awaiting him.

Buck´s heavy limbs felt a bit lighter as he turned the corner onto the street that ran in front of his home. He breathed a sigh of gladness as he brought his purple Volvo to a stop in front of his garage and cut the engine. Buck laid his head against the steering wheel for a moment as he tried to draw enough energy to exit the car.

“Come on, boy. You made it this far. You can´t quit now,” he whispered to himself. “You´re almost there.”

Taking his keys from the ignition, he opened the car door and dragged himself from the vehicle, quietly shutting the door behind him. He fumbled for the key as he made his way to the backdoor and let himself in as silently as his tired body would allow. Buck stashed the keys in his front pocket and started unbuttoning his shirt as he made his way upstairs. He slipped the shirt off as he reached the top of the stairs and threw it over one shoulder as he started down the hall.

Buck walked passed his bedroom without hesitating. As much as his exhausted body screamed at him for sleep, he knew he had a greater need to satisfy before he could rest. Stopping at the door at the end of the hall, he quietly turned the doorknob and pushed the door open a few inches. Buck smiled at the sight of his four-year-old daughter, Angela, sprawled across her bed as she slept. In the soft glow of the nightlight burning on her dresser Buck could see she was wearing her favorite Beauty and the Beast pajamas. Buck silently made his way across the room and reached down to straighten the covers the little girl had managed to kick off during the night, gently tucking her back in. He softly ran his hand over the tousled golden brown curls, drawing peace from the sleeping child…the child that owned his heart.

Satisfied that all was well with his daughter, he quietly made his way out of her room and closed the door. Buck stifled the yawn that tried to escape as he entered his bedroom and tossed the discarded shirt toward the chair that sat by the window, not caring when the shirt slipped off and fell to the floor. Going to his closet, Buck took down the lockbox he always used for his gun whenever he was home and set in on his bedside table. He dug into his pocket and pulled his key ring out, finding the small key for the lockbox and using it to open the box. Buck reached behind him and unsnapped the gun in the holster hooked on his belt at the small of his back and placed it into the lockbox. After snapping the lid shut, Buck double checked that the lock had engaged then threw the key ring into the blue glass bowl he kept on the table for emptying his pockets. He reached into his back pockets and pulled his wallet and ATF badge out and threw them down on the table as well then reached over his head trying to stretch a few of the kinks out of his tired muscles.

He pulled his belt free from the loops in his blue jeans and dropped it on the floor beside the bed as his mouth stretched wide with a jaw cracking yawn. Buck pulled back the covers then sat on the side of the bed to remove his shoes. Not having the energy to remove anything else, he stretched his weary body across the bed with a contented sigh, pulled the blankets up around his head, and was asleep within seconds.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

The early morning sun shining on her face woke Angela Sarah Wilmington from a deep sleep. Giving a kittenish yawn as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, the four-year-old sat up in her bed. It took a moment for full wakefulness to hit the child but when it did it struck with the force of a hammer. “It´s morning! Maybe Daddy´s back!” was all the excited child could think.

The last three days had been hard on Angel. She hated it when her Daddy had to go away and she had missed her Daddy so much. Uncle JD had been there, but although Angel loved JD and he loved her, he just wasn´t Daddy. Angel loved no one as much as her Daddy, because no one loved her as Daddy did. Every night Angel had asked Uncle JD if Daddy would be home tomorrow and every night he had told her he didn´t know. So every morning for the last three days Angel had hurried into her Daddy´s room hoping he would be in his bed only to be disappointed. Uncle JD and her other Uncles had been doing their best to entertain her, but after three long days without seeing her Daddy Angel was getting very unhappy.

Angel threw the covers back and jumped from her bed to hurry over to her bedroom door and throw it open. She quickly ran to her father´s room and stopped with her small hands encircling the doorknob.

Angel scrunched her eyes closed tight and wished with all her might, “Please, let him be there. Please, please, please.” Hardly daring to breathe, the child turned the knob and opened the door then peeked around it.

“Daddy!” she squealed in delight as she saw the large lump under the navy blue covers of the king size bed.

The sleeping man was startled into awareness at the child´s cry and jerked his head upright in time to see the excited blur that was his daughter as she shot like an arrow to his bedside. Buck laughed in happiness as he quickly sat up in bed and stretched his arms out in welcome to the excited child.

“There´s my girl,” Buck said with a grin.

“You´re here,” Angela yelled as she leaped onto the bed and into her father´s waiting arms. Her little arms wrapped around his neck and held on tightly as Buck´s loving arms closed around her and hugged her to his chest. Buck rested his cheek on the top of her light brown curls and breathed in the scent of shampoo, soap, and little girl that was uniquely Angela´s. The scent that reminded him he was home, his daughter was where she belonged, and all was right with his world once more.

Angela was too excited to allow a long snuggle and she pulled back quickly. Throwing one leg across her father, she sat on his stomach, her little hands spread on his chest to maintain her balance, and Buck had to be content with letting his hands rest around the tiny waist. Angel smiled happily at her father.

“I missed you, Daddy,” she said, “I´m so glad you´re back.”

“Me too, Angel,” Buck said settling back onto his pillows and pulling his knees up to act as a backrest for the little girl, as he prepared to thoroughly enjoy this first morning visit. “I missed you like crazy. I couldn´t wait to get home to my Angel girl. Were you good for Uncle JD and Rita?”

“I was real good, Daddy. You´da been proud. I didn´t get into trouble once… well, maybe once, but it wasn´t my fault. Did you catch the bad men?” Angel hurried to ask with the wide-eyed, innocent look Buck had come to associate with an attempt to snow him.

“Uh-huh, we got ‘em.” Buck said then, with a raised eyebrow, focused the conversation back on what interested him the most, “What exactly wasn´t your fault?”

Suddenly the hair on his chest seemed to become infinitely fascinating to the four-year-old as she kept her eyes focused on it while she answered his question. “Frankie was hot.”

“Oookaaay,” Buck drawled.

Frankie, whose full name was actually King Franklin Xavier Armitage, was their next door neighbor´s prized purebred Pekinese. The dog was incredibly spoiled by his owner, and given free run of her home and fenced backyard. He was also desperately in love with Angel. Buck was always filling in the holes Frankie dug under the fence in his determined desire to get to the little girl. Buck knew this didn´t bode well.

“So, Frankie was hot, and…,” Buck prompted the child.

Angel gave a little shrug of one shoulder as she continued to watch her own fingers gently tugging at his chest hairs. “And he looked so uncomfortable.”

“Umm hmm, go on,” Buck commanded.

“I was just trying to help!” Angel raised pleading eyes to her father´s.

Taking a deep breath to brace himself, Buck asked the question he was sure he didn´t want to know the answer to, “What did you do, Angel?”

“I…gotmyscissorsandcuthishairsohe´dbemorecomfortable, ” the child spilled out as quickly as she could.

Buck closed his eyes and pounded his head on the headboard three times before raising his head and facing his daughter again.

“You cut Frankie´s hair?” Buck questioned, hoping he´d heard wrong.

A silent nod from a downcast head was his only answer.

“Angel…” Buck began, shaking his head.

“Uncle JD made me sit in my time out chair for an HOUR, and then told me I couldn´t watch Powerpuff Girls for a WHOLE WEEK,” Angel said indignantly. “I don´t think that´s fair, Daddy. I was just helping Frankie feel better.”

“Did Uncle JD explain to you why you were being punished?”

“He said it was wrong to do that to Frankie because he didn´t belong to me, and if I thought something was wrong with Frankie I should have told Mrs. Weeks because he belongs to her and she would take care of it. He said we´re supposed to respect what belongs to other people just like we want them to respect what belongs to us. He said I wouldn´t like it if Mrs. Weeks cut all the hair off my dolls.”

“Did you apologize to Mrs. Weeks?”

“Yes, sir. Uncle JD took me over and I told her I was sorry. She looked real mad at first then I ‘splained that I was only trying to help ‘cause he was so hot and then she said she understood and thanked me for trying to take care of him but made me promise to let her know first before I helped the next time. She said it´d grow back... won´t he get hot again, Daddy?”

“You let Mrs. Weeks worry about Frankie, Angel. I´m sure she knows what to do for him. You have enough to worry about just staying out of trouble,” Buck told her firmly.

“Do I still gotta not watch Powerpuff Girls for a week?” Angel raised pleading, puppy-dog eyes to her father.

“You know Uncle JD is in charge when I´m not here, and if that´s what Uncle JD said, then that´s that—no reprieves, Angel girl,” Buck reminded her sternly, causing her to give a deep, dramatic sigh and nod her acceptance. Buck had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing at the child´s melodramatic antics. “Now tell me what else went on around here while I was gone.”

“Uncle Chris and Uncle Vin and me went riding out at Uncle Chris´ ranch. Uncle Vin let me sit on his horse all by myself, and Uncle Chris says I´m getting good enough at riding to get my own pony in a couple of years. Can I have a pony, Daddy? I could ride him, and take care of him, and…”

“We´ll talk about that in a couple of years,” Buck interrupted quickly, mentally cursing Chris for putting the idea in her head. “You´re still too little for that yet. What else did you do?”

“Uncle Ezra and Aunt Katherine took me to see ‘Beauty and the Beast´ at the children´s theater. It was really cool, Daddy! The Beast was real big and scary, but Uncle Ezra told me it was okay ‘cause it was just pretend. We got to go get ice cream when it was over, and I got to put all the sprinkles and gummy bears I wanted on mine,” Angel grinned with remembered greed. “Aunt Katherine got mad at Uncle Ezra for letting me put so much on my ice cream and told him I´d be sick, but I wasn´t,” Angel finished proudly.

“But I bet you were bouncing off the walls with a sugar high that night,” Buck mumbled under his breath.

“Uncle Josiah and Uncle Nathan took me to Chucky Cheese. We had pizza and we got to watch Chucky Cheese and his friends put on a show. It was fun but it was really loud. Uncle Josiah said he thought he lost his hearing, but he only laughed when I asked him if he wanted me to help him look for it and Uncle Nathan told him it was just old age talking. When we finished the pizza we got to play the games. Uncle Josiah helped me play skree… skwee, uh,”

“You mean skeeball?” Buck asked with a smile.

“Yeah, that´s it. Uncle Josiah helped me and we won enough tickets to get this really cool pair of sunglasses. They´re green and orange and Uncle Nathan said they make me look just like a movie star! Uncle Nathan won a lot of tickets shooting the water guns, and Uncle Josiah got a bunch shooting basketballs. And then you know what? They gave all their tickets to me! I got enough to get a big stuffed Sponge Bob Squarepants. Uncle Josiah said it was a good addition to my collection. Uncle Nathan said it looked weird.”

“So you had fun?”

“Uh-huh… well except for when Uncle Nathan wouldn´t let me play in the ball pit. It looked like lots of fun, but Uncle Nathan said you never knew how often they clean it out and there was no way to tell what kind of things where in the bottom of the pit. He said he wouldn´t let me take a chance on getting hurt or sick, and I´d have to choose something else. I was mad at first but Uncle Josiah told me I had a choice -- I could either be mad and we could go home, or I could get over it and we´d find another game to play. He said I got to choose what we would do, so I chose to go play the hit the gopher game.”

“Well is certainly sounds like you had a good time while I was gone,” Buck said while he ruffled her hair.

“It was…” Angel began only to be interrupted by a very loud, rumbling growl coming from Buck´s stomach. Angel´s eyes got big in surprise and she looked at her father. Both started laughing at the same time.

“Why don´t we go see what Rita´s making for breakfast? Maybe we can talk her into making pancakes. I could sure go for a big stack of her pancakes and a big pile of bacon this morning.” Buck´s mouth was already starting to water at the thought of food. “How about you, darlin´?”

“With strawberry syrup?”

“You betcha.”

“Umm yummy! I want a stack this high,” Angel said, and stretched her arms out wide.

Laughing, Buck ran his fingers lightly over her ribs and delighted in making her giggle and squirm to get away from his tickling fingers. “You better save some for me.”

“Nuh-uh,” she said between giggles. “You snooze, you lose,” Angel quoted the line she had heard her father use so many times.

“Oh, yeah? Well the last one there´s a rotten egg,” Buck laughed and started to sit up.

Angel shrieked her own gleeful response and quickly began pushing herself backwards off the side of the bed, eager to race her father to kitchen. In her haste, her small foot caught the corner of the bedside table and knocked the lockbox sitting there off the edge and on to the floor. What happened next would live in Buck´s memory for the rest of his life.

The lockbox hit the floor and the top popped open causing the gun to be forcefully propelled out, grazing the safety lever against the lock mechanism as it went, releasing the safety. When it impacted with the floor the gun went off. The loud report of the weapon shocked both of the room´s occupants for one frozen moment. When realization of what had happened hit Buck, he wildly grabbed at Angel and pulled her to him, desperately checking to see if she had been wounded, looking for any trace of blood.

“Did it hit you, baby? Are you all right? Are you hurt?” Buck sounded frantic.

The loud noise from the weapon had startled Angel but the frenzied actions of her father frightened her more. She started wailing in fear and tried to throw her arms around her father´s neck, but Buck was too busy trying to reassure himself that she had not been hit to allow it at first.

“Daddy! Daddy!” she cried in fear, reaching for him.

Buck finally convinced himself that she was alright and wrapped her in his arms tightly, rocking back in forth in an attempt to calm them both.

“It´s okay, baby. It´s okay. We´re fine. Everything´s alright. We´re fine,” Buck said in a strained whisper and squeezed his eyes shut to hold back the tears of relief. “Thank you, God. Thank you. Thank you,” was all he could manage for the moment. The two continued to rock, drawing comfort from each other, and Buck raised one trembling hand to stroke Angel´s hair as she buried her face in his shoulder.

At that moment the door of Buck´s bedroom was thrown all the way open and JD came into the room in a crouched stance, gun in hand. He quickly swept the room looking for threats before locking his eyes on the two people on the bed. JD flicked the gun back to safety and pointed it at the ceiling.

“What happened? I thought I heard a gunshot?” JD said as he advanced to the bed.

Buck tilted his head toward the gun lying on the floor. JD took in the sight of the gun and the lockbox on the floor in one glance.

“It fell out of the box and went off?” he asked. Buck just nodded. “Are you both alright?”

“Yeah,” Buck answered with a shaky voice, “we´re okay. We got lucky. It must have impacted the wall.”

Angel pulled back and raised tear-filled eyes to her father. “I´m sorry, Daddy! I didn´t mean to,” she wailed. “Don´t be mad.”

Buck tightened his arms again and drew her face back to his shoulder with the hand still entangled in her hair. His voice still trembled slightly as he hastened to reassure the frightened child, “It´s alright, baby… really. I know you didn´t mean to. It was an accident, Angel. You didn´t do anything wrong, sweetheart, and I´m not mad at you. I was just worried that you had gotten hurt, that´s all. I didn´t mean to scare you, baby.”

“Is everyone alright?” Rita Aragon, Buck´s live in housekeeper and babysitter, said as she rushed into the room breathing heavily from her run up the stairs. “I thought I heard a shot.” Rita was very familiar with the sound of gunfire having lived so many years in Purgatorio with her husband. Rita approached the bed and put one hand on Buck´s shoulder, and the other on Angel´s. “Is anyone hurt?”

“No, Rita. Everything´s fine. We´re both alright. We just had a little accident this morning,” Buck said trying to downplay the incident in order to help calm Angel down.

“That is good,” Rita´s sharp eyes took in the slight tremors that still shook the large man´s frame as he comforted the small child, and decided the best thing for all concerned would be to reassert a sense of normalcy as soon as possible. “Well if the excitement is over for the morning, we better see about some breakfast for everyone, hmm?”

Buck raised grateful eyes to the little grey-haired woman that had become a member of his family and tried his best to smile, but it fell far short of his usual charming grin. “I told Angel we might be able to talk you into making pancakes this morning.”

“I believe we can do that… if I had a little help in the kitchen that is,” Rita said. “Why don´t we get you dressed, Angel, then you can help me make breakfast for your father, alright?”

The little girl raised her head and looked uncertainly at her father, not sure whether she wanted to leave the shelter of his arms just yet.

Buck smiled reassuringly and told her, “That sound´s like a very good idea. I´d love some pancakes that you made just for me.”

Angel´s face brightened and she scrambled away and jumped off the bed. “I´ll make you some special ones, Daddy. The kind with smiley faces.”

“That´s sounds good, honey,” Buck replied. “You go ahead and change and go help Rita. Just call me when they´re done.”

“Okay, Daddy,” Angela threw over her shoulder as she ran from the room, the fear from the incident already fading in the excitement of this new adventure.

“I´ll watch out for her,” Rita instructed, “you take a few minutes to pull yourself together. I know it was frightening, but it´s over. You need to be calm when Angel sees you again. If she sees you upset she´s going to get upset again.”

Nodding in agreement, Buck said, “You´re right. Thanks, Rita.”

Rita gave him another pat on the shoulder then turned away. She made eye contact with JD, silently letting him know she was leaving Buck in his care. JD nodded in acknowledgement.

“I´ll go put this away.” JD motioned to his own gun, “and then I´ll call Chris.”

Buck pulled a face but knew there was no help for it. There were procedures to be followed anytime an agent´s weapon was fired.

“Alright,” Buck said as he threw back the bedcovers and swung his legs over to sit on the side of the bed. “I´ll get dressed while you do that.”

JD gave his friend and roommate a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder then left the bedroom. “I´ll be right back.”

Buck remained where he was, trying to reconstruct what happened. His gaze was capture by the lockbox and his weapon as they lay on the floor in front of him. In his mind, he played and replayed all the actions he had taken the previous night when he finally reached his home.

“I know I locked that box,” he mumbled. “I KNOW I did.”

He was still sitting there fifteen minutes later when Chris arrived. JD found him in the same position when he returned to the room with their team leader.

“Buck?” JD asked as he entered the bedroom, “You okay? I thought you were going to get dressed.”

“I locked it. I know I locked it,” Buck said as he gazed up at his friends.

“The lockbox?” JD asked.

“Yeah. JD, I know I locked it last night. I was tired, but I remember doing it,” Buck stated emphatically.

JD sat on the bed beside Buck and Chris stood in front of them, looking at the gun and lockbox that remained on the floor by the bed.

“Tell me exactly what happened, Buck,” Chris commanded.

Buck´s blue eyes locked with those of his oldest friend. “I took the box down from the closet and set it on the table. Then I unlocked it and put my gun in. I closed the lid and I locked it. I remember I double-checked it to make sure it was locked. I know I should have put it back into the closet, but I was so tired and I thought it would be safe enough for one night because I KNOW that box was locked. I couldn´t have made a mistake like that. I just couldn´t.”

“I believe you, Buck,” JD hastened to reassure his distraught friend. “I know you would never be that careless with Angel in the house. You don´t have to convince me. I know you better than that. There has to be a logical explanation.”

Chris, as Buck´s supervisor had to reserve judgment, but as Buck´s friend he felt the need to reassure Buck that he had faith in him, so gave him a half grin and a small nod in encouragement.

JD reached down and snagged the lockbox from the floor, turning it over in his hands trying to examine it from all sides. The grey, thick metal of the box appeared undamaged by the morning´s rough treatment, and JD could see nothing that would interfere with the locking mechanism.

“Toss me your keys, Buck,” JD ordered, never lifting his eyes from his perusal of the box.

Buck lifted his key ring and placed it in JD´s outstretched hand without a word. He and Chris watched as the younger man found the small key and fit it into the keyhole of the box and locked it. JD removed the key and tested the box to be sure it was indeed locked. He tried pulling the lid open but it remained in place. JD tried opening the box while he applied pressure to different parts of the box to see it the lock would slip apart, but again it failed to open. JD held the box still in his hands once again and a stared at it in intense concentration.

“Okay,” he said after moment, “show me exactly where this was when you put it down last night.”

Buck took the box from JD´s hand and placed it back on the bedside table in the same position he had left it the night before.

“It was right there.”

“So this morning, what happened? How did it wind up on the floor?” JD asked.

“Angel and I were on the bed and we were going to race to the kitchen. Angel scooted down and hit the table and the box just fell,” Buck replied.

JD motioned for Buck to stand up, and then the young man took his place on the bed. “So if Angel was coming down off the bed from this side then her foot would have hit the table on the side closest to the bed… right about here?” JD pointed to the general area of the table where he assumed Angel had made contact. He looked at Buck for confirmation.

“I guess. JD,” Buck said and shrugged his shoulders. “It happened so fast and I really didn´t see, but I would think so.”

JD nodded his head in response to Buck´s answer then hit the side of the table hard with his fist. Predictably, the lockbox was jarred off the table and hit floor. The front left- hand corner of the lockbox smacked the floor first, and the lid popped open as it impacted.

“I´ll be damned,” Buck swore as he stared in disbelief at the now open box.

“The lock is faulty on this box,” JD grinned up at him. “It wasn´t your fault, Buck.”

“JD´s right. This was an accident as a result of the faulty lockbox. That´s what my official report will state,” Chris smiled and punched the still stunned agent in the arm. “You´re in the clear, Buck.”

“Why don´t you go ahead and take a shower and get changed, Buck. I don´t know about you, but I could use some coffee right about now. Come on, Chris, and we can go see if Rita has it going yet. ” JD slapped his friend on the shoulder, and started from the room, good humor restored. “Better hurry if you don´t want Chris to eat your share of breakfast,” he threw over his shoulder with a grin. “You know how he loves Rita´s pancakes.”

“You go on, JD,” Chris said. “I´ll be down in a second.”

Chris and Buck stood silently and watched while the younger agent walked from the room with a happy bounce to his step. Buck faced his oldest friend and voiced his thoughts.

“It was still my fault, Chris. It never would have happened if I had only put the lockbox back on the closet shelf. Angel could have been hurt because I was so careless. What kind of parent does that make me to almost kill my own daughter?”

Buck picked up his gun and put it on the shelf in his closet and closed the door.

“You´re a parent but you´re also human, Buck. That means you make mistakes. This isn´t the first mistake you´ve made and it won´t be the last. That doesn´t mean you´re a bad parent. That´s part of being a parent, Buck-- making mistakes, learning from them, and going on.

You made a mistake. Yes, this mistake could have had tragic consequences… but it didn´t. It didn´t happen. Angel is alright. Call it a miracle. Call it her guardian angel watching out for her. Call it fate or good luck or whatever you want, but for whatever reason it didn´t happen. You need to concentrate on that, Buck. Sometimes the hardest part of making a mistake is forgiving yourself, but you have to in order to move forward. Trust me; I know what I´m talking about here. You have to forgive yourself now… and go on. For yourself and for Angel, you have to get past this.”

“You´re right, pard. I know you are, but it´s hard to move on when I keep seeing these images of what could have happened flashing through my brain,” Buck admitted with a shiver.

“Then I´d say you need to bring Angel out to the ranch and we´ll try to give you some better pictures to focus on,” Chris said firmly. “We´ll go saddle up the horses and take a picnic out to the lake and spend the day with Angel. I can´t think of any way better to appreciate the fact that you´re both still alive and fine than chasing that little bundle of energy around all afternoon,” Chris finished with a smile.

Buck chuckled at his friend and said, “You may have something there, Chris. It sounds like a good deal to me.”

“Good. You go on and get dressed. I´m going to get that coffee JD promised.”

Chris turned to start out of the room when Buck´s voice stopped him and he swung around to face him again.

“Thanks,” Buck said, “for being here. It seems whenever I need you, you always come through for me.”

Chris shook his head, smiling again, and replied, “You don´t have to thank me. That´s what friends do… what family does. Now hurry up or I can promise there won´t be any of those pancakes left.”

Buck remained where he was for a moment, watching as his oldest friend left the room, and giving silent thanks to whatever deity was listening that, in spite of all the problems they´d had in the years since they´d met, this man was still his friend.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Buck, Angel, and Chris had been gone about a half hour when JD went looking in the laundry room for his favorite pair of jeans. He had a date with Casey that night and wanted to be sure the jeans were clean and ready to wear. JD stopped by the table that Rita used to fold the clothes and started searching through the piles of folded laundry for his jeans when he happened to notice a familiar pattern on the crumpled fabric in the trashcan beside the washing machine. Puzzled, JD reached in and withdrew a pair of pajamas, Angel´s favorite Beauty and the Beast pajamas to be exact. Thinking they must have fallen in by mistake he started to toss them into the basket of dirty clothes on the washer when he noticed the two small holes in the back of the pajama top. He´d seen too many bullet holes in his own and his friend´s clothing not to recognize them for what they were. He folded the cloth over and matched the two holes.

JD felt his knees start to shake as he realized the bullet must have passed through the fold of the material as Angel was getting out of Buck´s bed. It couldn´t have missed her by more than a couple of inches. JD reached out a hand to steady himself against the washing machine. He raised shocked eyes to see Rita standing silently in the laundry room doorway watching him. Neither one moved for several moments.

“You knew,” JD whispered. “That´s why you threw these away. You knew…and you didn´t say anything. You didn´t intend to say anything, did you?”

“I knew,” Rita confirmed softly. “I found a red mark on her back and then saw the holes in the pajamas. I knew right away what had happened.”

“Why didn´t you tell us? We… Buck has a right to know, don´t you think? Angel is his daughter.” JD was confused and hurt that the woman who had become a surrogate mother to him the last 4 years would withhold such information from them.

“Tell me, JD, what could he do about it now? Angel is not hurt. Believe me, if she had been I´d have been screaming the house down, but she doesn´t even know she has the tiny burn from the bullet. It´s too small for her to really notice. What good would telling Buck do at this point except burden him with more pain and guilt? How do you think he would really react to this news? Think about it, JD.” Rita´s wise eyes never broke contact with the young man´s as she spoke.

JD stared back at her and considered her words. His face paled as he realized how right she was. The big-hearted man he called brother would be devastated if he learned just how close his beloved daughter had come to being killed… with his own gun. Buck was only now starting to calm down from the incident in his bedroom where he assumed the shot had gone wide and completely missed the two of them. If he knew the truth it would probably break him.

“I love that charming devil like he was one of my own boys. I would protect him just as I would protect them… and you, niño. If that includes not telling him something that I know will hurt him, then I will stay silent.

There are times when the truth hurts too much, JD. Sometimes loving someone means shielding them from the truth.” Rita sighed and JD could see a far away look enter her eyes before she continued. “I loved my husband, JD. I loved him more than anyone I have ever known. I knew he would be the only man for me from the moment I first saw him. On our wedding night one of the promises we made to each other was to always be honest with one another. I kept that promise for ten years, until one day I learned a secret that would have shattered his life… his very soul.

His mother let it slip one day that the man he had called father all of his life… the man that raised him and loved him, and taught him all he knew about being a man… was not the father of his blood. His parents had never told him. Once I knew the truth I had to decide whether to tell him and by telling him destroy everything he believed about himself and his life, or keep silent and break the promise I had made on our wedding night-- knowing if he ever found out I had known the truth but didn´t tell him it might ruin our relationship forever. It was a hard choice to make, JD, but in the end I knew I loved him too much to cause him that kind of pain, so I kept his parents´ secret. I chose to protect him.

To this day, I believe I did the right thing. I kept this secret from him out of love. I would keep this secret from Buck for the same reason. I care too much about that sweet man to hurt him.

That was my decision, JD. Now you must make one. You must search your own heart and conscience, and decide whether you will tell Buck the truth or whether to keep this secret. I will abide by your decision and will not try to sway you any further.” With these final words, the little woman wrapped the young man in a comforting hug then withdrew from the room, leaving JD behind to ponder her words.

JD stood silently in the laundry room looking after the small grey- haired housekeeper. The words she had just spoken so softly seemed to reverberate in his head like they had been cannons fired on a battlefield. As the metaphorical smoke cleared he realized his choice was already made. JD tightened his hold on the pajamas in his hand and strode into the kitchen. He walked right up to Rita and handed her the pajamas.

“Put these in the very bottom of the garbage can, Rita. That way no one will see them. I´ve got to go shopping,” JD said firmly as he shared a level look with the housekeeper. “Size three wasn´t it?”

Rita reached out a gentle hand and cupped the young man´s face giving him an approving smile.

“Si, size three.” Rita assured him

JD nodded and started to pull away.

“JD,” Rita said softly, “it is the right thing to do.”

JD moved forward and wrapped the diminutive woman in his arms, giving her a heartfelt hug.

“I know, Rita. I owe Buck more than I can say… and I love him and that little girl more than I thought it was possible to love anyone. I can live with it. For that man…I can live with it. It will be our secret.”

“A secret of love,” Rita replied with a smile.

“Yeah,” JD smiled back, “the best kind of secret.”

The End

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