"Show me the heat!"
Chris raised his eyebrows but took another swallow of water before he considered the request. Throwing a few baseballs around with Vin had developed into a practice pitching session after the Texan wanted to don the full catcher padding and mask. Even then Chris barely extended himself and he had been able to land all his pitches directly into Vins mitt.
"Think you can handle it?" Chris smirked.
"I can handle it," Vin replied confidently.
The senior cast him a doubtful look. "Oh come on, Chris! Im done up like the Michelin Man here!" Vin pleaded, gesturing to all the catchers gear he wore, including the chest protector, chin guards, and face mask that Chris had insisted on.
"Alright," Chris agreed after a few seconds.
"Yes!" the sophomore replied eagerly as he ran awkwardly back to home plate.
Chris returned to the pitchers mound and warmed up with a few arm swings before he concentrated on where he wanted the ball to end up. Calling to Vin to see if he was ready and hearing a succinct affirmative, he went into his wind up.
Vin held his breath as the ball left Chris hand. He could already hear the different air sound as this pitch traveled so much faster that the earlier ones. He blinked once before he felt the incredible impact as the ball smashed into his glove knocking him backwards. He rolled and got to his feet at once a little dazed. Then he felt pain. An ache spread through his hand and he pulled the glove off and instinctively began shaking it.
Chris watched Vin jump to feet and he jogged over to him. "You ok?"
"Yep, Im ok," Vin lied as he rubbed his hand.
"That enough for today?" Chris asked him.
"Yeah," the Texan replied a little sheepishly.
Chris chuckled. "Lets find you some ice."
Later as they walked back towards the dorms after they had iced Vins hand for a few minutes and then stowed the baseball gear, Chris decided he had cured the Texans desire to learn some baseball techniques, at least for a short time. In a way he was moved the sophomore wanted to learn and share in his own love for the game. He just hoped Vin didnt expect him to go early morning running with him anytime soon. The truth was he enjoyed spending time with Vin. He was drawn to the younger boys ability to accept whatever life threw at him and to move on. His mother would have called him an old soul and in many ways that description suited the Texan yet there were those moments where his youthful exuberance kind of spilled out and mischief and trouble reigned. Especially if you added Ezra or J.D. into the mix as well.
Understanding Vin as well as he did he knew his friend was worried about what costume he would have to wear for Halloween despite his denial when teased about it. Impulsively Chris decided to end his suffering.
"I got you. What do you wanna be?"
Vin paused in his steps. Blue eyes regarded him intently realizing immediately what he was talking about. "You drew my name?" Vin questioned referring to the Halloween costume draw they had all agreed to.
"Dont be pulling any crap on me, Larabee!" Vin warned.
"Im not," the senior replied seriously. "I drew your name. Now do you want to choose something or not?" he added with a faint smile. Vins face registered relief as his fears subsided and his agile mind digested the new information and formulated ideas.
"Were not supposed to tell until everyone knows," Vin squirmed guiltily.
"Yeah but its been bothering you," Chris stated.
"Has not!" the sophomore retorted hotly.
Cool green eyes gazed at him in disbelief.
"You mean it aint bothering you what costume gets picked for you?" Vin asked defensively.
"Nope. None of you would pick anything that bad... well except Buck and he hasnt drawn me," Chris explained.
"How do you know that?"
"Ive known Buck a long time. Id know."
"What if Ezra has drawn your name?" Vin teased.
Chris shot him an unimpressed glare before he smiled complacently. "Ezra has natural survival instincts. Im not worried."
"You should be," Vin teased.
Larabee laughed. "Maybe," he admitted.
Vin looked thoughtful and began walking again and Chris moved alongside him.
"I know who got you," Vin admitted.
"I thought we werent supposed to tell," Chris teased.
"I havent... I mean not til now," Vin explained quickly. "I know because I got you," he added.
"And I thought for sure it was Nate," Chris admitted.
Vin shook his head.
"We should go as cowboys," Vin blurted.
"Cowboys?" Chris questioned hesitant to show any enthusiasm for the idea.
"Well youd be gunslinger. Youre not exactly the cowboy type I guess. But see I was gonna choose Johnny Ringo for you," Vin explained looking up at Chris carefully.
Chris laughed then. He should have known. Vin had watched the movie, Tombstone, countless times and often likened him to Johnny Ringo. As Vin continued to watch him for a reaction to the idea, Chris thought quickly. Black jeans and shirt, some cowboy boots and hat. He could live with that. Some of the other alternatives were too embarrassing to consider.
"Alright," he agreed and the Texan grinned at him. "And which cowboy do you want to be?" he asked.
"Bill Cody," Vin replied immediately.
Chris looked at him quizzically. "Buffalo Bill?"
"Yeah," Vin replied. "Henrys got all these books on the Wild West at home and Bill Cody always wore these cool jackets."
Chris nodded but inwardly he couldnt really understand why anyone would want to wear a fringed coat but he wasnt about to disappoint the eager young face before him.
"Okay," he agreed.
+ + + + + + +
He had been following her from the moment she left her home driving her distinctive Alabaster White Mercedes SLK320 convertible. He followed at a safe distance, always keeping her car and the colorful scarf she wore firmly in sight. When she pulled up at a popular and stylish downtown restaurant, he watched her hand her keys to the valet and walk inside. Parking nearby, he smoothed his smart yet casual clothing and entered the same restaurant. He scanned the partially full restaurant, finding her seated alone in one of the rooms cozy alcoves. Moving to the bar, he seated himself so he could continue to watch her. He ordered a drink and as he sipped slowly he contemplated impulsively going over and speaking with her then immediately dismissed it. It wasnt the time. It had to be planned carefully. Precisely. Exactly in a way she would like.
She radiated a presence. Even without her celebrity status she would have drawn the same admiring looks that she was already receiving from around the room; from both men and women alike. Her attire was a simple yet elegant lemon skirt and jacket. She had added her own touches. A gold rope belt, matching jewelry and the same vibrant scarf was now around her neck trailing down her back. She rummaged in her purse and flicked back her hair as she dialed numbers on her cell phone. She turned slightly in the chair, crossing her long legs daintily.
As she spoke on the phone he noticed her left heel tap the floor softly yet continuously. He frowned slightly. He knew she did that when she was nervous and he immediately wanted to know who she was phoning to evoke such a response. Any more thoughts about who was on the other end of her phone disappeared when she waved to a man entering the restaurant and quickly ended her call. His stomach knotted as he watched her smile delightedly as the handsome man reached her table and bent and softly kissed her lips.
Gage Morrissey. Her publicist and quite obviously more than the "just friends" category she used to describe him in the press. As they talked and laughed, then ordered food, he fidgeted in his chair until he could remain still no longer. Striding quickly he left the restaurant and once outside took in gulps of air in an effort to control his rampant feelings. Gage Morrissey did not deserve a woman like Montana Fontaine. He was not what she needed. Why did she allow herself to be used by him? He had no choice left. He had to protect her from him. He would have to be taken care of. There was no other way. There could be only one. He was that one.
Coming to a decision he went to his car and waited until they exited the restaurant arm in arm until they reached her car. He growled out in raw pain as they kissed again, this time more deeply and without haste. His hands gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles were white. Using his familiar exercises he controlled his breathing. He returned his gaze to the restaurant parking area. As she got into her car, he kissed her once more on the cheek before moving to his own car. As both cars left the restaurant they went in separate directions. He faced an instant of indecision, then decided she was heading in her homeward route. He needed to follow the publicist. He needed to know where he was going, what he was doing, establish a schedule.
Half an hour later it was obvious they were heading for the airport, but he still kept following until they reached the car rental parking spaces. Keeping his car running, he waited until Gage Morrissey grabbed his bag from the trunk and walked into the airport terminal. He then put his car back into gear and slowly left the airport, his mind already plotting. He would find out when the publicist was returning and then he would deal with him.
+ + + + + + +
Clint finished reading the box of letters and glanced from his kitchen into the living room where Beatrice sat watching television. He had to do a double take as he looked at the woman on his couch. He was so used to seeing her casual, in jeans and t-shirts, but today she was dressed up stylishly. Beatrice claimed that she had come from a business meeting and Clint had been about to tease her about what kind of business meeting could she have on a Saturday when his eyes met hers and knew that something was bothering her deeply. And now she seemed to sense his gaze as she turned to look at him. Seeing that he was finished, she stood up and strode over to join him. "What do you think?" she asked quickly.
Clint eyed Beatrice carefully, noting the tension in her posture and expression. The unease that he had seen in her eyes had grown as she sat and waited for him to read the letters. And now that he had, he could understand why.
"I think you've got a stalker, Beatrice. Or at least someone who is working up to that level," he stated knowing that she was not the type who wanted to be coddled. And he believed the situation was serious enough that he was not going to lie to her or hide anything from her.
She sank down in a chair across from him and ran a hand through the thick waves of her dark hair and released a heavy sigh. "Does he sound dangerous to you?"
"I'm not an expert on these kinds of things, Beatrice. But I think this Jake Ballinger guy's a little unbalanced so, yeah, that makes him dangerous." There was no hint of teasing or joking in his cool, green eyes. "And thats not even his real name. It says here that hes taken this name from your first protagonist, the first hero in your first romance novel. That he's read in your interviews that Jake was always your ideal man and that's what he wants to be."
She nodded wearily, not really wanting to get into all of this, but knowing that she would have to. "So what do you think I should do?"
"You're gonna have to go to the station and make a statement. I'm still out until November but I'll go in with you, if you want."
Beatrice nodded quickly. "Yes, I'd appreciate that, Clint."
"First thing they're gonna want to look at are the men in your life. Do you think it could be any of them, either current or ex-boyfriends?" he asked.
She stood up from the table and refreshed her drink from the refrigerator. Despite the current topic of conversation she still felt comfortable in this kitchen, in this house. There were still touches of Sarah around; small things like refrigerator magnets or towels in the bathroom. There were enough that the gentle woman's presence was still felt in the house, not enough to be overwhelming but enough to be comforting. And she really needed that right now. She missed Sarah, missed their talks and their laughter, now more than ever.
"I wouldn't go out with a guy like that, Clint," she pointed out.
Clint tossed her a half smile. "I know you wouldn't. Not if you could see it." He sobered, "But that's the thing about people, Bea, they can hide a lot about their true selves from everyone else. Sometimes until it's too late."
Sitting back down quickly as if her legs could no longer support her weight, she asked, "So you really think it could be someone I know?"
The cop caught the new edge of concern in her voice and studied her again. "You got someone you suspect?"
Her hand ran through the hair at the back of her head as she turned away from him for a moment, considering what all she wanted to tell him. "Not really a suspect. Just more of a coincidence. I think." Her eyes met Clint's again and she winced slightly as she added softly, "I hope."
"Buck's dad wrote me on Monday. He wants to meet him after all this time."
Clint sat back in his chair, the surprise obviously washing over him. "He's never contacted you at all, after all these years?"
She shook her head, "Not once. I sent him pictures of Buck only once, when he was first born. But when Rick did not respond to those, I never made any other attempt to keep in touch. And he certainly never showed any interest."
"Except now," Clint clarified. "You tell Buck about all this?"
"No, I know I've always told you that there aren't any secrets between me and Buck and I think that's been the worst part of all this for me. I just don't want to worry him," Beatrice admitted unable to look Clint in the eyes.
"Do you think he's got something to do with these letters? Is that why you don't want Buck to meet him?" Clint watched Beatrice and could almost physically feel her pain. He knew that her relationship with Buck was the most important thing to her. He could not deny that she had valid fears regarding the letters she was receiving from this so-called Jake Ballinger, but he had to wonder why she was reacting so out of character about the letter from Richard Simon. Clint did not know much about the man who had fathered Buck. He had always thought that he knew enough when he learned that the boy had turned away the young girl he had gotten pregnant even after her family threw her out. Clint could not fathom someone not taking responsibility for that and had always thought that Buck was probably better off by never knowing him. But Beatrice had always stated that she would never stand in his way if he wanted to see Buck.
Her words, which oddly mirrored his thoughts, interrupted them. "It's not that I don't want Buck to meet Rick. I've always told Buck that whenever he wants to meet his dad or is ready to talk to him that I would help make that happen."
"But you've never really been faced with that possibility," he stated. His tone softened somewhat as he continued, "Look, Beatrice, these letters here are a real cause for concern. There's no denying that. But do you think that you could possibly be using them as an excuse to not tell Buck that his dad wants to see him?"
Beatrice gaped at Clint, unable to believe what he had just suggested to her. Anger flashed in her eyes, but before she could respond to him, she felt doubt touch her and she lapsed into silence as she considered his words. "I'm not afraid of losing him, if that's what you mean," she finally said, though the words were spoken quietly.
"It's just been you and Buck for so long, Beatrice. It would be natural for you to be afraid of losing him to Richard." Clint tried to sound reasonable and not accusatory.
"So you're thinking that I'm just being selfish?" she demanded.
The cop shook his head. "No, not at all. I'm just saying that you need to be sure that you are keeping this from Buck for the right reasons. That way, when you do tell him, and I know you will, he'll understand. I've told you before that you have raised a really fine young man there. What you and he have is really special. I just don't want you risking it without good cause."
Beatrice knew that there was more to what Clint was saying. She had never thought too much about it, but she could tell from his tone that there was a touch of envy in the cop; envy at the easy and open relationship that she shared with her son while he seemed to be constantly attempting to find ways to reconnect to Chris. And so she truly appreciated his desire that she not jeopardize it. He had made her doubt her intentions for a moment, and she was actually grateful that he had.
Because now she could look at everything with fresh eyes and see that she was not overreacting. She honestly wanted Buck to meet Richard, get to know the man who was his father and make his own decisions on whether he wanted the man in his life or not. Her fear was not that she would have to share Buck with Rick, but that she might lose him if his fathers intentions were found to be more sinister.
"I do think I have good reason to be cautious, Clint. And you see how in that last letter, this guy mentions Buck and being proud of him and claiming him as his son. And he's got that newspaper picture of him. Well in Rick's letter he had the same picture." She kept her gaze unwavering. "And as a cop youve got to know that my money makes me a target. I dont want to think that Ricks motives are money, that he would use Buck that way. But Im not willing to take anything for granted. Not when it comes to Buck. And not with these other letters out there."
Clint nodded and remained quiet. He was not foolish enough to question a mothers instinct to protect her children. He had seen it often enough in his line of work, even in the mothers who knew in their hearts that their sons or daughters had committed a crime. And he had seen it in Sarah. She had been a soft-spoken woman more often than not, except when she thought anyone threatened Chris or Eve. Clint had even been at the receiving end of her protectiveness when she thought he was being too hard on their kids.
"When did he say that he wanted to see Buck?" Clint asked suddenly.
"He said he had a seminar coming up in our area running Thursday the 31st through Sunday the 3rd," she answered dispassionately, simply wishing that none of this had ever happened.
"So we've got almost two weeks before he wants to meet Buck. That gives us some time to learn a thing or two about his motives. And maybe learn a little more about this other guy." Clint shifted back through the letters, getting back to the main focus of concern. "Do you know if there were any more, before you started saving them? It looks like the oldest one here is back from March."
"I think there were one or two from the beginning of the year." She noticed how Clint kept thumbing through the letters and asked, "Why? What do you see?"
"Well he never puts a return address on any of them," he answered in that slightly detached and distracted tone that policemen could get when they were on the trail of a clue. "The postmarks are different though."
Clint looked up at her then and seemed to wish to take back what he had just said. "Different how?" she prompted again, folding her arms and letting him know that she was going to get an answer. When he still hesitated to answer, she reached out to look at the postmarks herself, cursing that she had not thought to look at those details before.
"They started out in San Diego. Stayed out there for quiet some time. But in late August it looks like he moved out to Louisville, Kentucky." He held her gaze wanting to reassure her even as he knew that the news would frighten her. Louisville was less than a two-hour drive from where they were. He simply did not know the full extent.
Beatrice covered her mouth with her hand as shock filled her eyes. It took her only a second or two to gather herself together and explain. "Rick wants to meet Buck in Louisville, thats where he said his seminar was. This is just too much, isn't it?"
He nodded reluctantly. "But again, Bea it could just be coincidence. You said he's coming for a seminar. We can check that out. Have you talked to Rick since you got the letter?"
She sighed heavily. "No. But I had decided today that I'd try to give him a call and see why he wanted to see Buck so suddenly."
"That's a good idea. After all he's coming back into your lives after sixteen years of having nothing to do with you. He's got to expect that you would question it. So call him up, be a mom and find out what he's up to," Clint instructed.
Beatrice smiled at Clint telling her to be a mom, even though she knew what he meant. It did not stop her from teasing, "I am a mom."
"Well I know that. You just ain't anyone's typical idea of a mom, now are you?" he laughed back at her.
She gave a mock shudder. "And I certainly wouldn't want to be!"
"So how many times have you tried to pass yourself off as Buck's sister?" he asked wanting to lighten the mood.
Tossing her hair, she sat straight in her chair, "I've never had to try. People simply make that mistake all on their own."
Clint rolled his eyes. "Right." Beatrice only tossed him her most charming, crooked smile.
"Before we head out to the station, you might want to make a list of your ex-boyfriends," he stated suddenly getting back on topic.
"Are you saying that you want a copy of my little black book?" she asked, not wanting to let go of the levity so soon.
Clint smirked at her. "Well let's start with volume one. I don't want to overwhelm our small police force."
She rolled her eyes at him, which only made his grin grow wider. "And don't forget those two guys you were boasting about the other day."
"I don't boast," she asserted.
Clint actually snorted at that. "Buck's got to get it from somewhere."
She rolled her eyes again but did not respond. She was really beginning to feel better about having come to see Clint. He could be quite the curmudgeon at times, but every once in a while the man that Sarah had fallen in love with would shine through.
"Seriously, Beatrice, how long have you known these guys?"
She took a drink of her soda before replying. "Antonio Ive known longer, but hes in Italy, never been in the States. I dont see him often and neither of us are looking for anything serious or any commitments. We both like it that way. I last saw him about five months ago. And Gage is a publicist, hes from New York. He was in town this week, but he " she checked her watch, "flew out about an hour ago."
"A publicist?" Clint questioned. Even as those words escaped his lips, Clint put two and two together. He grinned at her, "So he was the business meeting! Mixing a little pleasure with business?"
"Look whos talking!" she shot back. "Youre the one who has friends at work! Im still waiting to learn more about this redhead."
"Well youre gonna keep on waiting," he grunted. "Now how long have you and Gage been seeing each other?"
"Since May. But I think we should go into the station now if you want to ask me some more questions about my love life. Maybe that redhead will be at the office and I can ask her some questions of my own," she teased.
Clint shook his head. One thing about Beatrice was that she was tenacious. He knew she wanted him to be happy, wanted him to find a new life, and simply wanted to be reassured that he was making strides in that direction. He also knew that Sarah would want the same thing. And he was slowly finding his way to that new life. Fortunately he had found someone who had been a friend first, someone who was understanding and did not want to push him. He just was not ready to share all this with Beatrice. She and he were developing a friendship of their own, but he was still, as she often teased him, from the old school. And he was not comfortable sharing his feelings with her. And despite all her teasing, he knew that she respected that as well.
"Fine, you want to go to the station? Lets go. Ive got nothing to hide," he stated self assuredly. After all, he knew that today was Cynthias day off.
Beatrice stood up and started for the door but paused as she saw Clint pick up the box of letters. She had allowed herself to be distracted from her concerns for a few brief moments and she silently thanked Clint for that. But she had the sudden feeling that she would not have very many more moments of relaxation in the near future.
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