My Fair Ladies’ Man

by Beth Green

Author’s Note: This is what happens when I watch too many musicals. What started as a light hearted little romp grew into something more.

Part 1
Ezra Standish had just settled into his most comfortable chair with the Wall Street Journal and a glass of brandy to chase away the evening’s chill. He swirled the brandy along the sides of the snifter, inhaling the fragrant bouquet. Ezra smiled as the aroma brought to mind an incident which had occurred last weekend. Mister Larabee had hosted an informal gathering of the members of Team Seven at his ranch. As his contribution to the festivities, Ezra had brought along a bottle of a particularly fine vintage of brandy as an after dinner libation.

When everyone was comfortably settled in the den, Ezra proceeded to uncork his treasure. "Gentlemen, you are in for a treat."

Buck arose from his seat, announcing, "I’ll get the glasses." He returned in a moment, holding something which caused Ezra to abandon his task, utterly appalled.

His eyes widening, he stated, "Mister Wilmington. You cannot be serious."

Buck paused in the act of setting down the paper cups he’d retrieved from the kitchen. His look of bewilderment was quickly replaced by his usual joking manner. "Well, now, Ezra, that’s where you’re wrong. I can be serious, if I know what it is I’m supposed to be serious about."

Ezra pointed a finger in accusation. "You can’t expect me to pour a fine California vintage brandy into a, a. . ."

JD helpfully supplied, "A paper cup."

Buck flipped his free hand palm upward as he asked, "Why not?"

Ezra thought to himself silently, "Good God, where do I begin? How does one explain modern society to a Neanderthal?" Deciding to stick with the subject of the beverage involved, he verbally began his instruction. "To be enjoyed to the fullest, a fine drink such as this brandy deserves an equally fine presentation. Ideally, it should be decanted in amounts no larger than six ounces at a time into a brandy snifter." At Buck’s continued look of puzzlement, Ezra used his hands to illustrate the size and shape of the glass as he spoke. "A brandy snifter consists of a bowl-like glass perched atop an elegantly flared base. The bowl is the proper size to rest comfortably in the palm of one’s hand, as the stem of the glass is placed between the fingers. The palm of the hand thus serves to warm the brandy. The glass is narrower at the top, to help to contain the beverage’s fragrance."

Ezra pantomimed raising the nonexistent glass to his lips. His eyes closed in ecstasy, he continued. "The elegant design allows the aroma to waft into the nose while drinking, providing a veritable feast for the senses."

Impressed with Ezra’s almost erotic presentation, Buck quickly stated, "Okay: no paper cups."

Everyone was kind enough to refrain from laughing out loud, although a few smiles and outright grins appeared. Chris disappeared into the kitchen, returning shortly thereafter with a stack of cocktail glasses. "Well, I may not have any brandy glasses, but I expect these might work a bit better than the Dixie Cups."

Seeing that Chris’ offering was a considerable improvement over Buck’s, Ezra agreed.

Buck poured himself a generous serving then enthusiastically slurped down his drink. His eyes widened as the brandy burned its way down his throat. He thumped a fist against sternum, declaring, "Damn, Ezra, that’s some mighty fine hooch! What the hell’s the alcohol content, anyway?" He grabbed the bottle, whistling as he read the contents. "Fifty-five percent alcohol. I gotta say, Ezra, you sure know your booze."

Ezra found himself chuckling at the remembered scene. He sipped delicately at his drink, complimenting himself on his choice of beverage. His reverie was interrupted by the ringing of his doorbell.

A genuine ear-to-ear grin arose as he viewed his visitor through the peephole. He quickly undid the locks, coming face to face with a distinguished looking gentleman. The barrier between them removed, he enthusiastically grasped the hand of his oldest friend. "Edward! This is a pleasant surprise."

His visitor was a tall, gray-haired man in an elegantly tailored suit. The older man wore an equally welcoming smile. His accent hinted at upper class British roots, as he spoke. "Standish! I must say, you’re looking well. The ATF must agree with you."

Ushering his visitor into his home, he agreed. "It most certainly does. Please, come in."

Ezra showed his guest to the comfortable seat he’d so recently vacated and poured the man a glass of brandy. They sipped, making small talk. They spared a few minutes for the usual social niceties. The routine left his mind free to reminisce on his long association with his visitor, Edward Harrison.

Ezra had first met Edward Harrison when he was eleven years old. Edward was part of the legacy from Ezra’s unconventional childhood. Throughout his formative years, he’d been witness to his mother’s constant string of beaus. Maude spent her time going from man to man as a bee flits among flowers. She’d gather what she wanted from one conquest before leaving him for the next. None of her male companions had ever embodied the classic character of "Father" which Ezra had seen hints of on various television programs. For that matter, Maude was not like any other mother he’d ever seen.

As far as male role models went, Ezra had many from which to choose. Some of Maude’s gentlemen friends actually acknowledged the fact that the object of their affections had a son and would try to befriend him. Others would reluctantly put up with their lady love’s offspring in the vain hope of gaining her favor, while secretly (or sometimes not so secretly) loathing him. The feeling was often mutual.

Once Maude had severed a relationship, she usually managed to convince her discarded lovers to keep as far away from her, and consequently, Ezra, as possible. It was very rare that any man remained friends with either Maude or her son when she made her exit. One of the rare exceptions was Edward Harrison.

Edward was everything an English lord should be. His speech, manners, and carriage bespoke someone who was above the general riffraff of the mundane world. He was an excellent role model for someone who aspired to emulate the aristocracy. His mother encouraged Ezra to learn from the man. Fortunately, Edward was more than tolerant of Ezra, and always seemed to have time for him. Long after he’d been discarded by Maude, Edward continued to visit periodically. Indeed, Maude encouraged it. She liked the fact that an English lord was at her beck and call whenever she required an escort.

Despite a twenty year age difference, Ezra’s relationship with Edward was that of friends, rather than father and son, or mentor and student. Though age and now, distance separated them, their friendship remained steadfast. In appearance, Edward was stiff and unbending. However, Ezra had no doubts regarding the affection the man bore him. The feeling was mutual.

Ezra refocused his attention on his guest. "So, Edward, what brings you to my humble abode?"

Needlessly tugging at the perfectly tidy cuffs of his shirt, Edward answered. "Well, my dear boy, your last letter indicated that perhaps you’ve finally found a place to call home, as it were. Naturally, this intrigued me to no end. I thought for certain that you’d follow Maude’s example, and continue to move on at the first sign of possible rooting. Upon receipt of your missive, I decided that it was high time I paid you a visit."

Ezra responded, "It’s not the place, so much, as the people that I work with who have convinced me that it might be advisable to put down roots. In my line of work, trust is everything. And it’s something I never really had before; until now. The men that I work with, I trust with my life. In turn, they trust me with theirs. Sometimes it seems as if we’re more than coworkers; we’re almost family."

Edward snorted derisively at Ezra’s last remark. "Family? What do you know about family, other than the rubbish you’ve seen on the television?"

Ezra leapt to his own defense. "It’s true, I don’t have any real personal experience as to what constitutes a family. But, with these six men, I’m learning."

Edward shook his head. "Tut, don’t get me started on nature versus nurture again. Despite whatever low class environments you may have inhabited over the years, blood will tell. You’re like me: born to rise above the common detritus of the world. You don’t need someone to show you the way of things. You know it instinctively, as do I."

Their discussion continued on into the wee hours of the morning, until Ezra reluctantly called a halt. "Much as I wish to continue, I’m afraid that I’ve got to get up for work in. . ." he glanced at his watch, heaving an inner sigh, before continuing. "Four hours. How long are you planning to be in town?"

Smiling, Edward replied, "As long as you’ll have me. Seriously, I’ve planned an open-ended stay in my rooms at the Radisson."

Desiring to clarify which Radisson, Ezra questioned, "Graystone Castle?"

Edward nodded, adding a light flick of his wrist. "Of course."

Ezra decided on an immediate rearrangement of his schedule. He would postpone meeting with his new friends in order to spend time with his oldest friend. "I was going to meet with my teammates this evening at the saloon. I’ll just let them know I can’t make it, and we can spend the evening together."

Edward disagreed. "Nonsense. After everything I’ve heard about them, I’d quite like to meet these fellows. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to join you at the, er, ‘saloon’ this evening."

Ezra hesitated, finding it difficult to picture Edward in the casual surroundings of the saloon. Nevertheless, he agreed.

+ + + + + + +

That evening, Team Seven gathered at their usual table in the saloon. They’d pulled up an extra chair in anticipation of their guest’s arrival. Ezra barely touched his drink, his stomach knotting in anxiety. As he watched the drunken revelry which surrounded him, Ezra realized that he’d made a terrible mistake. He should have never invited Edward to join them. Much as he loved the man, Edward was a terrible snob. He considered himself to be above the sort of people who would frequent a place like the saloon. In his superiority, Edward saw no need for tact, and could be very cruel to those he considered his inferiors.

Ezra’s eyes darted uneasily towards the door. There was no mistaking Edward as he made his entrance. The man was dressed impeccably, as always. His current attire was more appropriate for dining at the Palace Arms than a visit to the saloon. He looked horribly out of place. Ezra finished his drink in one swift swallow, before rising to greet his guest.

Thank God, Edward had on his company manners. He politely nodded as introductions were made. Buck welcomed Edward with his usual enthusiasm, grabbing his hand and pulling him toward the vacant seat. "Hey there, pleased to meet you. Set yourself down, and name your poison." Rather than admit to the obvious disgust he felt when Buck dared to actually shake his hand, Edward simply wiped his own hand on a handkerchief afterwards.

Ezra translated, certain that, between his accent and colloquialisms, Edward had not understood Buck. "Yes, please join us. Would you care for a drink?"

Edward politely declined. Buck ignored his demur, pouring him a glass of beer from one of the half empty pitchers scattered around the table. "There you go, don’t be shy. This one’s on me."

Although Ezra’s teammates made efforts to include Edward in their conversation, their efforts fell flat. They could find no common ground on which to meet, other than the subject of Ezra. When they tried to make Ezra the focus of their conversation, Ezra quickly dissuaded them from doing so.

Buck was not easily put off. "So, Edward, you’ve known Ezra since he was just a little tater tot?"

Once Edward figured out what Buck was asking, he agreed. "Yes, that’s true."

Rubbing his hands in anticipation, Buck continued. "Then you must have a tale or two you could tell of his hell raising younger days."

Edward tilted his head, the better to look down his nose at Buck. "If I were the sort to tell tales, I suppose I could. However, I’m too much of a gentleman to do so. A real gentleman wouldn’t ask."

Buck ignored the scold. With the amount of alcohol he’d consumed, Ezra couldn’t be certain that Buck had even picked up on it. "Well, seeing as ol’ Ezra ain’t a real gentleman, I guess we don’t have anything to worry about. Now, where was I?"

Diplomatically steering Buck away from the topic of himself, Ezra reminded him of the subject which had been occupying his colleague on and off for the past hour. "I believe you were endeavoring to relate every bad joke associated with bars that you’ve ever heard."

Buck smiled, happily resuming his previous exercise. "Oh, yeah. How about this one? A man walks into a bar, swinging a set of jumper cables in his hand. The bouncer quickly throws him out, saying, ‘You’re not starting anything in here buddy!" Buck laughed, as the punchline elicited a chorus of groans from around the table.

Eventually, Ezra and Edward were isolated in their own corner, while the remainder of Team Seven joined in relating a series of increasingly bad jokes. Quietly, Ezra stated, "I know this isn’t your usual sort of crowd. If you want to leave, I quite understand."

Edward smiled, looking anything but annoyed. "On the contrary, Standish. I’m finding this all quite amusing; especially your friend, Mr. Wilmington. He’s so delightfully low."

Considering some of the adjectives Ezra might have expected Edward to use, he felt no need to defend Buck against this mild slur.

Edward continued. "Really, this goes back to our discussion of yesterday evening: nature versus nurture. There is no doubt that Mr. Wilmington was born lower class. If you were to attempt to polish him up, put him in a suit, his lack of breeding would still shine through as a beacon in the dark."

Ezra was beginning to get upset on Buck’s behalf. He waved his hand in negation of Edward’s pronouncement. "And that statement shows how little you know. Mr. Wilmington is actually a fine example of just how flawed your theory is. I have worked with Mr. Wilmington on undercover assignments. Given sufficient instruction, he is able to carry off whatever pretense is required of him."

Edward scoffed in disbelief. "You must be joking."

Ezra smiled. "Although Buck may be joking, I most certainly am not."

Buck was grinning in anticipation of the punchline as he shared his latest attempt at humor. "This baby seal walks into a bar and the bartender asks, ‘What’ll you have?’ The seal says, ‘Anything but a Canadian Club." Buck was immediately pelted with peanuts as his teammates booed, hissed, and otherwise let him know how little they appreciated the alleged humor. Buck opened his mouth to protest. Before he could say a word, a tremendous belch escaped.

JD frowned. "Geez, Buck, you are such a classy guy."

Buck smilingly agreed. "Yeah, ain’t I? Now, let’s see, where was I?"

Edward and Ezra continued their private discussion. "Really, Standish, the man himself gives lie to your claim."

Ezra was not about to back down. "Given half a chance, Buck would prove you wrong."

Edward leaned back, crossing his arms. "Would you be certain enough of your claim to venture a small wager?"

Ezra perked up at the prospect of a bet. Warily, he sought clarification. "That depends. What sort of a wager?"

"It just so happens that a friend of mine is in need of an escort to a diplomatic function in ten days’ time. Perhaps you’ve heard of her? Heather Lyn?"

Considering that the female in question was a top fashion model, Ezra was as familiar with her as was any male who happened to glance at any one of the dozens of magazines whose covers she’d graced. "I may have seen her face a time or two."

"If you think that you would be able to coach your Mr. Wilmington well enough that Miss Lyn would have no reason to take offense at his being her escort to the Governor’s Ball, then feel free to take me up on my wager."

As Buck’s jokes degenerated to the gutter, Ezra contemplated the one fact about Mr. Wilmington of which Edward was totally unaware: his self-proclaimed animal magnetism. If all else failed, Buck should be able to win the bet for Ezra purely based on the fact that he was, as JD as phrased it, "A babe magnet."

Before verbalizing his agreement, Ezra asked, "What, exactly, are we wagering?"

Edward shrugged. "It’s not the dollar amount which is of any significance. Rather, it is a test of your theories versus mine. You name the figure."

As sure as Ezra was that he would win, he nevertheless decided to hedge his bets. If he should happen to lose, he would enjoy a decent dinner, if nothing else. "In that case, loser pays for dinner at The Broker."

"Ah. That exquisite dining establishment set in a former bank vault. How appropriate." He extended his hand. "Wager accepted."

During their discussion, someone other than Buck had finally told a joke. Buck laughed so hard that the tears had leaked from his eyes. Sniffling, he wiped his streaming face with his shirtsleeve.

Ezra sighed at the display. He certainly had his work cut out for him.

Buck suddenly brightened as he recalled another joke. He looked hopefully in Edward’s direction, letting their visitor know he’d not been forgotten. "Hey, here’s one about an Englishman. An Englishman walks into a bar with a steering wheel in his shorts. The bartender asks, ‘Isn’t that painful?’ The man answers, ‘It’s driving me nuts!’ Get it? Driving me nuts?" Buck again endured a chorus of boos and hisses, as well as a stray peanut or two in response. Edward merely raised an eyebrow as he observed their antics.

Ezra rested his forehead in his hand, realizing the enormity of the task he’d undertaken. The only thing that he knew at the moment, with unshakable certainly, was that he would endeavor at all costs to keep Buck as far away from alcohol as he could.

Part 2

Ezra waited until the next day before approaching Buck with his proposition. While he had no doubt that Buck would agree to a date with a super model, he preferred to wait until Buck was sober and better able to understand the terms under which he would be allowed to escort Miss Lyn. By waiting a day, Ezra gave himself time to rehearse his presentation so as to guarantee Buck’s enthusiastic cooperation.

He followed Buck to the break room, taking advantage of the opportunity for a private conversation. "Mr. Wilmington. I must say, you made quite an impression on Mr. Harrison yesterday."

Buck smiled. "Is that so?" His smile faltered, then disappeared altogether at Ezra’s scowl.

Ezra clarified, "Unfortunately, yes. After spending the evening observing your inebriated antics, he dared to place a wager with me."

Buck’s eyes narrowed as he waited for Ezra to finish. After a moment’s silence, he prompted, "What kind of a wager?"

"It seems that he’s been asked to arrange an escort for a female acquaintance to the Governor’s Ball nine days from now. He seems to think that you would be totally incapable of performing that duty."

Buck frowned. "He does, does he? And what did you say?"

"Mr. Wilmington. . . Buck, I’ve seen you work undercover, adopting a number of different personae. Knowing that such a bet would be a sure thing, I immediately accepted."

Hands on his hips, Buck stated, "You did. What if I decide not to be a part of your little game?"

"I did consider the possibility. However, I calculated that your pride, combined with your sense of honor, would lead you to accept my tutelage. That, and the fact that the lady in question is Miss Heather Lyn."

Buck shook his head, not believing he’d heard correctly. "Heather Lyn? Heather Lyn, as in drop-dead gorgeous super model Heather Lyn? That Heather Lyn.?"

Ezra nodded. He confirmed, "That Heather Lyn."

Buck smiled a full wattage light-up-the-room grin. "I guess you know me and my sense of honor pretty good. I think I could put up with escorting Heather Lyn. When and where do I pick her up?"

Ezra raised his hand in a "stop" gesture. "Wait a minute, not so fast. Have you ever attended a diplomatic function?"

"Well no, but. . ."

"Trust me, it’s not the same as taking a date to the local Burger Biggie. There are certain unwritten rules, protocols, which must be followed, lest one give offense. And thus, we come to the crux of the bet. In order to succeed, you must conduct yourself so as not to offend Miss Lyn in any way, shape or form. No vulgarities, either verbal or physical, must originate from yourself. In short, you must conduct yourself as a perfect gentleman."

Buck shrugged. "Heck, Ezra, consider your bet already won."

Not nearly as confident as his colleague, Ezra arranged for Buck to visit his apartment that evening after work.

+ + + + + + +

Buck arrived at the appointed hour. He started for the sofa but was headed off by Ezra.

"Mr. Wilmington; I think that our discussion would be easier to conduct at the dining room table."

Buck frowned as he was led to a seat. In front of him was a large legal size pad of paper, as well as a pen. "Damn, Ezra, what exactly are we doing here?"

Unruffled, Ezra replied. "I merely wished to make it as easy as possible for you to take the necessary notes."

"Necessary notes? What kind of ‘necessary notes?’"

"Well, to begin with, what do you know about formal dining?"

Feeling defensive, Buck answered, "I know a lot about formal dining. I know there’s courses, and a bunch of silverware, and glasses, and real napkins, not paper ones. And, no elbows on the table." Buck sat back, satisfied that he’d answered correctly.

"Alright, let’s start with the napkin. When do you use it?"

"When? When you need to."

Ezra began his instruction. "That is only partially correct. The napkin is put into use the moment you sit down to dine. Next question: Where do you place the napkin?"

Buck snorted. "That’s easy. In your lap, not tucked up like a bib."

"Can you set it on the table whenever you like?"

Not quite as confident, Buck replied. "Before you asked, I would’ve said yeah. But, ‘cuz you did ask, I expect that’s not the right answer."

Ezra continued his lecture. "The napkin should remain on your lap while eating. The only time it is to be placed on the table is when you are finished dining. If you should need to leave the table during dinner, the napkin should be placed on the seat of your chair."

Buck admitted defeat. Picking up the pen, he began to write.

Three hours later, he tossed the pen down, heaving a tired sigh. "Ezra, I can’t take in another thought tonight. If I try to cram anything else in, my head is going to explode." Buck rubbed his fingers along his aching temples, closing his eyes in exhaustion. He tried to will away the headache which he’d developed somewhere along in the lecture on glassware.

Ezra had been enjoying himself in the role of teacher and had been prepared to launch into the next chapter of his etiquette lesson. He took a moment to assess his pupil. He could see the lines of stress and strain beginning to show on Buck’s face. His friend was finally realizing how little he actually knew on the subject of formal dining. Based on his observational skills, Ezra feared that Buck’s knowledge deficit in the realm of social etiquette was equally large. However, tomorrow was another day.

+ + + + + + +

Over the next two days, Buck continued to visit Ezra after work. By the third evening, there was no trace of Buck’s usual casual good humor. He sat, atypically quiet, as Ezra lectured on how to meet and greet various politicos and foreign dignitaries. Ezra was pleased to note that Buck’s notes filled several pages by the end of the evening.

"Mr. Wilmington, I’m quite impressed at your diligence in approaching this upcoming assignment. As much progress as we’ve made in the past several days, we’ve only seven more days before the Governor’s Ball. Therefore, I’d like to give you something to study on your own, during idle moments." With that pronouncement, he produced two books which he’d taken the liberty of purchasing. He presented them to his prize pupil.

"This first book you should read from cover to cover, and commit its contents to memory. It is ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette.’ Some of the material we’ve covered in the past three days. The rest, we can go over in the days remaining to us. The second book contains detailed advice on how to assure that one is always held in the highest regard. Some of this, you already know, but over all, the book is an excellent guide. Read it at your leisure."

Buck looked at the title of the second book: "Command Respect: Cultivate the Qualities that Inspire and Impress Others." He stared at the stern face of the man adorning the cover. He thought that the gloomy black and white photo was a good reflection of his current mood.

Ezra finally took note of Buck’s silent acceptance of his offerings. "Mr. Wilmington, are you quite all right?"

Buck’s smile looked rather sad. "Yeah, Ezra, I’m just fine." He shook his head as he rose, learning materials in hand. "I guess I’d better be gettin’ home." He headed out the door, stifling the impulse to turn and bow as he left.

Ezra was pleased with Buck’s progress over the next several days. More and more, Buck Wilmington was able to adopt the airs of a perfect gentleman. Ezra surprised him with a pop quiz one evening, which Buck passed with flying colors. Ezra happily pounded him on the back, doing a poor imitation of Edward’s English accent. "By jove, you’ve got it!"

Ezra was disturbed when Buck merely gave a weak smile in response to Ezra’s overflowing enthusiasm. Not for the first time, he tried to get Buck to tell him what had happened to dampen his initial agreeability. "Buck, excuse me for saying so, but I’m getting the distinct impression that there’s something wrong. Is it something I’ve said or done? Or, perhaps something which I’ve neglected to do?"

Buck shook his head in denial. "No, there’s nothing wrong."

Ezra might have been more inclined to believe him if he’d been able to look him straight in the eye when he’d uttered his denial. He tried again. "I’m not quite certain that you really appreciate how well you’ve progressed over the past several days. Let me assure you that, were the Governor’s Ball to be held tomorrow, you would perform your role as escort to Ms. Lyn admirably."

Buck’s attempted smile was more of a grimace. "I’m sure you’re right. I’m just a little tired, I guess."

As Buck was not forthcoming with any further explanation, Ezra was forced to settle for Buck’s non-answer.

The next day, Ezra met with Edward for lunch and a progress report. "Well, Edward. Not that I wish to sound overconfident, but you should prepare yourself to be on the losing end of our wager. I was just telling Mr. Wilmington yesterday evening that he is currently well enough versed in his role that he could attend the Governor’s Ball tomorrow and make us all proud."

Edward smiled benignly. "It’s funny you should say that. It just so happens that Heather Lyn arrived in town yesterday. She’s quite anxious to meet your Mr. Wilmington, and was wondering if he would be available to escort her to the opera tomorrow night."

Ezra hesitated. Not because Buck wasn’t ready. No, he was more concerned that in Buck’s current atypical mood, the man might not agree to a trial run. "I’ll speak with Mr. Wilmington when I return to the office. I’ll call you with his answer."

Buck had worked right through lunch, trying to finish up a report. Ezra decided to smooth the way for his request by picking up a sandwich from his favorite deli. Buck’s nose twitched at the delightful smells emanating from the bag in Ezra’s hand. He face lit up in glee when the bag was placed in the middle of his desk. Ezra stated, "I noticed that you skipped lunch today. I thought you might appreciate a personal delivery from Little Tony’s."

Buck dug into the bag enthusiastically. "Do I ever! Thanks! What do I owe you?"

Ezra waved a hand in dismissal. "No, Sir, it is I who owe you. You have devoted a considerable portion of your free time to aiding me in my attempt to win a wager. Win or lose, I am beholden to you."

Buck mumbled his reply around a mouthful of food. "Gee, thanks." Ezra grimaced at the visual reminder of how difficult it was to retrain an adult in the ways of proper etiquette.

Buck frowned and began to chew more slowly when he caught Ezra’s expression. Dammit, the man couldn’t even let him enjoy his food without turning it into another lesson. He put the sandwich down when Ezra showed no sign of leaving. "Okay, Ezra. What’s the real cost of this here sandwich?"

Ezra had thought he’d detected a lightening of Buck’s gloom when he’d first given the delicatessen sack to his partner. Obviously, he’d been mistaken. "I hope you don’t consider what I’m about to ask as being a ‘cost.’ I’d like to think that it’s a reward for all of your hard work."

His appetite having thoroughly vanished, Buck snapped, "Out with it Ezra. Just say what you gotta say."

"All right, then. Miss Heather Lyn cordially requests the honor of your presence tomorrow evening at the opera."

Buck felt the nervous sweat of panic dripping down his spine. "Tomorrow evening? I thought that we still had two more days?" Hell, he didn’t think he could learn everything in those books in two more weeks, let alone two more days. No way was he ready to do this tomorrow night.

Ezra attempted to reassure his friend. "We have two more days until the Governor’s Ball, at which time the wager will commence. You may consider the opera date as a chance to work out all the bugs, so to speak."

Buck was seriously wondering if Ezra had placed another wager on the side. He decided to test the waters. "What if I say ‘No’ to the opera?"

Ezra seemed unruffled as he replied, "If you wish to turn down a date with one of the most beautiful women in the world, that is your prerogative. However, I thought that you might enjoy the chance for a real date in a less stressful environment than that of the Governor’s Ball in which to make the acquaintance of Ms. Lyn. If I am mistaken, then you may feel free to decline the invitation."

Buck sighed. "Normally, I’d say that sounds like a good plan. However, I don’t think you’ve ever heard my opinion of opera music. It’s something along the lines of what you get when you take a mess of cats, throw ‘em together, and step on various parts of their anatomy. You end up with a bunch of unintelligible screeching."

Buck surprised a snort of laughter from Ezra with his colorful description. Buck had not yet said "no." Ezra ventured a question: "Have you ever actually seen an opera?"

Buck freely confessed, "To tell you the truth, my ears start to bleed about two minutes into the yodeling. I can’t say I’ve ever had to sit through an entire song, let alone a full fledged opera."

Ezra laughed outright and the tension between the two men dropped down a notch. He stated, "Point taken: You are definitely not enamored of opera music." He paused a moment, considering Buck’s words.

A smile brightened his face as the right words to say suddenly occurred to him. "Let me ask you to consider my proposal in a different light. Do you think it would be possible for the charms of Miss Heather Lyn to distract you enough to put up with sitting through an entire opera performance?"

Ezra silently cheered the effect of his words as a smile gradually appeared on Buck’s face. After a moment, he replied, "Yeah, I reckon that might be do-able."

Ezra did not wish to give Buck a chance to reconsider. "Splendid! Let me call Edward, and get the particulars."

The particulars consisted of a matinee performance of "La Boheme," followed by a cocktail reception.

Ezra decided to brief Buck with an abbreviated description of the opera. "This way, you can devote more of your attention to the lovely Miss Lyn. You’ll already know the libretto, and will be able to respond appropriately to any questions that may be asked in regards to the opera."

Buck raised a hand, as if he were a student in school. "’Ey, Ezra, what’s a libretto?"

Ezra sighed, then began his lecture on opera with an emphasis on "La Boheme."

Part 3

The next day, Buck dressed carefully for his date with the lovely Miss Lyn. He checked himself in the mirror for the tenth time. To his eyes, not a hair was out of place. His suit was neatly pressed. The one thing Ezra suggested Buck change about his appearance, he adamantly refused. "How could you even suggest that I shave off my mustache? It’s like asking Samson to cut his hair. You just don’t change something that basic about a man and not have it affect his power over women."

Ezra raised his hands in surrender. "Please, forget that I mentioned it. Forget the fact that multiple reference books on appearance recommend the absence of facial hair to increase one’s chances of making a favorable impression on others. Had I known that you so closely associated such an obvious outward sign as being necessary to your virility, I would never have said anything."

Buck was not quite certain what all Ezra had said. However, he decided that it was an apology, of sorts. "Well, all right, then."

Ezra was also attending the opera with his friend, Mr. Harrison. Both Buck and Ezra were ready a good hour before the limousine conveying Edward and Ms. Lyn was due to arrive. Ezra watched as Buck nervously paced the room. He’d asked Ezra to drill him on their etiquette lessons.

Ezra had refused. "You need to relax, not tie yourself up in knots about rules that you know by heart, even if you should fail to verbalize each and every one."

Buck ignored Ezra’s advice, repeating the lessons over to himself. He stopped in his pacing. "Ezra, about that Governor’s dinner thing. I finally got it figured. The easiest way not to do anything wrong is to just not eat anything at all."

Ezra sighed. "Buck, you have another day yet before you need to be worrying about the Governor’s Ball. Besides, if you refuse to eat, you’ll still be managing to cause offense to whoever prepared the food."

Buck suddenly sat down. "Damn! Maybe we should just call the whole thing off."

Ezra was alarmed at Buck’s lack of self confidence. He took the seat across from him, close enough to reach a hand across to his shoulder. He gripped his friend tightly, trying to instill some of the confidence he felt in Buck’s ability into the man himself. "Buck. I know that you can do this. Aside from myself, you’re the best undercover man I know. You may not be a quick study, but once you’ve learned something, it’s there. You can invariably recall it with little to no prompting."

Trying to ease the tension in the room, he added, "Besides, you clean up quite presentably. As far as the women are concerned, you have nothing to worry about."

Buck wrung his hands, ignoring the compliment. "What about the men? There’s gonna be all these high and mighty mucky-mucks there. What the hell am I supposed to say to them?"

Ezra replied, "You’ll be in the presence of Miss Heather Lyn. Trust me, none of the men are going to want to talk to you. And, on the off chance that they should, as long as you avoid politics and religion, you should be able to talk about anything else."

Buck did not seem to believe Ezra’s words. "Oh, yeah? And what am I supposed to talk about?"

Frustrated, Ezra replied, "I don’t know. Play it by ear. If all else fails, talk about the weather." Ezra almost laughed at the visual image which suddenly sprang to mind. He could see Buck talking to some foreign dignitary about the rain in Spain. Fortunately, he was able to conceal any signs of mirth from his panicky partner.

Buck didn’t say another word. He just stood up and resumed his pacing until the ringing of the bell announced that his date had arrived. Buck had the feeling that he was heading for his doom. Before heading out the door, he hinted as much to Ezra. "How’s that saying go? ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for me.’"

Ezra shook his head, patting Buck’s shoulder as he responded. "Buck, trust me. You’ll do fine."

The limousine was quite spacious. Miss Lyn and Edward were already comfortably ensconced in the back as Buck and Ezra joined them. Buck had to make a conscious effort not to outright stare at Miss Lyn while the introductions were being made. Although he’d seen plenty of pictures of her, in person she was downright awe inspiring. Her attributes were well displayed in a form-fitting black dress. The skirt was slit high enough to give him an unobstructed view of her stocking clad legs. He stifled an impulse to place his hand on the shapely thigh which was tantalizingly close enough to touch.

When Edward introduced him to the young lady, it was show time. He took her hand in his, bowing his head low enough to brush a kiss feather light against her cool hand. He smiled. "Buck Wilmington, at your service, dear lady."

Instead of immediately pulling back, she placed her other hand over his. Her return smile was dazzling. Buck tried to remind himself that it probably represented thousands of dollars worth of dental work, trying to bring her back to the level of a mere mortal and not a goddess in his mind. Her voice was low and seductive, with a British accent adding to her allure. ‘Please, call me Heather. It’s a pleasure to meet you."

The drive to the theater seemed to take forever. Buck was extremely glad of Ezra’s coaching when the talk turned to the subject of the upcoming performance. He was able to answer halfway intelligently when a question or two was thrown his way and had no difficulty remembering Ezra’s lessons.

Upon their arrival at the theater, Buck was also happy to find out that Ezra’s prediction that he would be ignored in the presence of Miss Lyn proved to be accurate. It didn’t stop him from feeling as if he were on display; especially as the paparazzi took their fill of pictures of Heather Lyn and her escort.

He stumbled slightly as the implications of this situation suddenly occurred to him. Shit! Ezra had been complimenting him on his skills as an undercover agent. He could kiss that role goodbye once his name and face ended up in the paper. He wanted to shout so that his voice could be heard over the crowd surrounding them. "Don’t tell anyone who I am!" He didn’t bother, knowing that it was already too late. Yelling out his request would just make the newshounds that much more eager to find out who he was. His feeling of nauseous terror eased somewhat when Miss Lyn simply smiled and waved, declining to speak to any of them.

They were escorted to a private box. Along the way, Miss Lyn exchanged greetings with damn near everybody in the place. Buck silently urged her along. "C’mon, c’mon, shut up, shut up!" To Buck’s great relief, he himself was ignored. Once they reached the relative isolation of their box, Buck turned to his companions. "We’ve got a problem. I’m real sorry I didn’t think of this before, but please, you can’t tell anyone my name."

Edward and Miss Lyn looked puzzled, while Ezra immediately realized the problem. He turned to Buck, a thousand apologies needing to be said. "I’m sorry Buck, I didn’t think."

Buck ignored Ezra, focusing on their guests, desperate to convey the seriousness of the situation. "Look, I do undercover work. If my name and face end up on the front page of every newspaper, I’m dead."

Edward paled at the implications. He knew that Ezra, too, did undercover work. "I’m so sorry. We can’t do anything about the damage that’s already been done. Fortunately, Heather has had an endless supply of bodyguards over the years. For the most part, they’re totally ignored, and end up edited out of any of her pictures. We’ll just convey the impression that Mr. Wilmington is merely another member of the hired help."

Miss Lyn’s picture-perfect face was creased by an unattractive frown. She stared accusingly at Edward. "You didn’t tell me he was a cop."

Edward frowned. "I informed you that Mr. Wilmington was a federal agent."

Miss Lyn crossed her arms, her high-heeled shoe tapping out an angry tattoo. "Yes, an agent. Like James Bond. Not like some public servant." The tone of her voice made the words "public servant" sound like something she’d scrape off the bottom of her shoe.

Although he was ready to walk out then and there, Buck had learned his lessons well. He bowed toward Miss Lyn. "I regret that we’ve had to meet under these circumstances but I think it’d be better if I just left."

Miss Lyn did not so much as twitch to indicate that she’d heard anything he’d said. She continued to talk to Edward. "Help you to win a bet, you said, by going out with some oikey American. If it weren’t for his looks, I would’ve turned you down right off. How stupid of me that I didn’t do so."

Ezra was more than ready to leave, himself, etiquette be damned. He bowed to Miss Lyn. "I agree; it was stupid of you." Ignoring her expression of outraged indignation, he turned to Edward. "Good day, Sir. My friend and I will be leaving now."

He and Buck quickly exited, Miss Lyn’s less than ladylike language fading out behind them. "Of all the ignorant, loutish American. . ."

Buck took a deep breath as they exited the theater. He’d felt the walls of the place closing in on him. He began to walk, feeling an urgent need to put as much distance between himself and the scene he’d left behind.

After a momentary hesitation, Ezra followed. "Mr. Wilmington. . . Buck, don’t you think we ought to call for a ride?"

Buck kept up his slow measured pace, eyes facing forward, as he replied. "Nope. Think I’ll stretch my legs a bit." Ezra followed along, nervously twisting his hands, tucking them in his pockets, pulling them out again. Buck added, "You don’t have to come with me."

Ezra agreed. "I don’t have to; but, I want to. This is all my fault." He waited for Buck to verbally skewer him, to offer his unique point of view regarding the ill manners of the rich and famous. However, he merely continued to walk. Ezra’s dismay increased. Usually when Buck was troubled, he was like the weather. He’d rise up in a towering storm, release some thunder and lightning, and the storm would pass. A silent Buck Wilmington was so unusual as to cause Ezra a great deal of concern.

He tried again. "Buck, I truly regret that I did not consider all of the implications in regards to Miss Lyn’s notoriety. That you proved to have more class than anyone present today should be obvious to you, but perhaps I need to point out that fact to you. You have been wronged."

Buck stopped abruptly blocking Ezra’s forward progress. Ezra faced the anger he knew had been simmering in his friend’s silence. "You think I don’t know that? I know it. I’ve known it all along. This isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last." His snort of laughter was entirely without humor. "You’d think I’d be used to it by now."

Ezra remained silent, disturbed by the bitterness of Buck’s tone.

"All my life, people have been trying to tell me that I’m nothing but poor white trash. All my life, I been trying to prove ‘em wrong. Just when I think I got ‘em all fooled, someone like you comes along, and starts it all over again. I ain’t like you, and that ain’t good enough. Well, Goddamn you to hell, Ezra Standish! I’m a hell of a lot better ‘n you, and them, and I know it." He began to walk away, with one last shouted, "I know it!"

Ezra stood in appalled silence. He made as if to follow; then thought better of it. No, he wanted to be very sure that this particular storm had passed before trying to mend the friendship that may have just been irreparably broken.

He pulled out his cell phone, giving his location to the taxicab dispatcher. While he waited, he reflected on Buck’s words. As much as his friend had tried to say that he was not "poor white trash," Ezra felt that his words were more a case of "Methinks he doth protest too much." Buck’s demeanor suggested that he did not believe his own words. Ezra did not have a clue as to what he could do to rectify the situation. He only knew he had to try.

+ + + + + + +

The next day at work, Buck was polite but coolly distant; not only toward Ezra, but toward the rest of the members of Team Seven. Midway through the day, JD approached Ezra’s desk. He stood, glaring down at him accusingly. "What did you do to Buck?"

Ezra folded his hands and calmly replied. "I didn’t do anything."

"He was fine before he went out with you and that model. Since he’s come back, he hasn’t been the same. All he’d tell me is that he won a bet. Well, for somebody who won a bet, he sure don’t seem happy."

Ezra sighed. "He did, indeed, win the bet. Mr. Wilmington comported himself with class and dignity. Unfortunately, I do not believe he sees it that way."

JD was not appeased. "Well then, make him see it." JD was interrupted by Chris, who carried the receiver from his phone in one hand, the microphone which should have been in the receiver in the other.

"JD, you got little fingers. You think you can get this thing back where it belongs for me?" JD shook his head, but grabbed the battered equipment anyway as he walked back to his desk.

JD had given Ezra something to think about. Perhaps he could do something to help Buck to improve his outlook. He approached Buck’s desk. "Mr. Wilmington. Edward would like to include you in his arrangements to make good on our wager. Would you be so kind as to accompany us to dinner this evening at the Broker?" He added, "Formal attire would be required."

Buck looked up from his work. "You payin’?"

Ezra smiled. "No. Edward is."

Buck responded, "Too bad. I was figurin’ on ordering the most expensive thing on the menu." He gave a small smile. "Maybe I will anyway."

Ezra suddenly realized that Buck had accepted his invitation. "Oh, good. We’ll pick you up at seven thirty."

Ezra had no trouble convincing Edward to pay for Buck’s dinner. Edward made certain that his first words to Buck that evening were "I’m sorry. Miss Lyn does not have the good manners to offer the apology which she owes you, so I hope that you’ll accept my apology on her behalf."

Buck politely extended his hand. "Apology accepted." This time, Edward took his hand with no hesitation.

The three men enjoyed an excellent dinner. Thanks to Ezra’s lessons, Buck had no difficulty with the many and varied courses and utensils. The three of them also found some common ground for discussion when they began to talk about rude people they had known. As the evening progressed, Buck visibly relaxed. He had both Edward and Ezra laughing heartily at some of the stories he related. He was unsurprised to find that he’d been exposed to a much broader range of bad behavior than either of his two dinner companions. He reflected that he’d been on the receiving end more times than he cared to remember. At least he could joke about it, now.

After Edward dropped them off at Ezra’s place, Buck accepted Ezra’s invitation for a nightcap. Ezra offered him brandy. "I know you enjoyed this when I brought it to Mr. Larabee’s little get together."

Buck remembered Ezra’s lesson on how to drink brandy. He copied Ezra’s motions exactly, and received a nod from Ezra in silent approval. Buck sipped, smiling. "I still say this is some damn fine hooch."

Ezra laughed, upending his glass. "That it is." Ezra became serious. "Buck, I want to apologize again."

Buck cut him off. "No, Ezra, don’t worry about it. There ain’t no call for that. I was just a little upset the other day, is all. It’s just, social-wise, I didn’t grow up in what you’d call your upper class-type surroundings. Over the years, there’s more than one time folks have tried to make me feel bad about that. Generally, I try not to let ‘em get to me."

He took another sip of his drink, then continued. "I just temporarily forgot one of the first lessons I ever learned."

"My Ma, she always told me, ‘Buck, a man is as good as a man does. Don’t pay no nevermind to what kind of words folks might be tossing your way. As long as you are the best Buck you can be, that’s plenty good enough.’"

"Your mother was a very wise woman."

Buck nodded in agreement. "Yep, that she was."

They sipped a few minutes in companionable silence, before Ezra decided to put his thoughts into words. "I envy you your mother." He toyed with his brandy glass, running a fingertip along the rim. "I, too, did not enjoy the advantage of having been born into society’s upper class. However, my mother’s lessons were quite different from yours. She taught me that what I was, was not good enough. She encouraged me to act as if I were something other than I was, to aspire to better my station in life. If I carried myself as if I were better than anyone else, if I could live the role until I believed it myself, others would also believe."

His half-smile was twisted, his eyes bitterly remote. "Why do you think I am so very good at undercover work?"

Buck could think of nothing to say other than "I’m sorry." He remained silent, thinking the Ezra wouldn’t take too kindly to the words and the pity behind them. After all, the man’s mother was still alive.

Finally, Ezra raised his glass. "A toast: To thine own self be true."

Buck copied his actions as their glasses clinked together, a note of perfect harmony.

Both men silently reflected upon the lessons they had learned, and the friends they had made along the way.


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