"It never fails," Nathan declared, as he entered their office's war room several hours later to review the day's events. "No matter where we go, Buck always ends up bumping into a woman he knows." He set his cup of coffee on the oval table's shiny surface and eased himself into one of the oversized black leather chairs. Insomuch as the average height of the team was six feet and change, and the average time spent in the conference room going over information and constructing battle plans was endless, Chris had made damn sure that the room's chairs were comfortable and accommodating.
"Thank you, thank you very much." Buck swiveled his hips like Elvis Presley. "I know it's a hard task, but someone's gotta carry the baton." He gestured to his crotch.
"He's already called her and set up a date," JD chirped with admiration.
"Idle hands being the Devil's work?"
"Something like that, Josiah." Buck grinned. "I got a reservation at La Coupole, thanks to Ezra, then maybe some dancing at the I-Beam and a nightcap at Vartan's."
Vin snickered. "Beats Bucklin's usual date of the Stampede Grill and Dance Emporium."
"At least I have a usual date, Tanner, while you have, what, the most organized closets in the greater Denver area?"
"Speaking of what's in a closet, surprising that you couldn't remember the amazin' Melinda June this morning. You must be getting old, pard."
Buck closed in, nose to nose with his teammate, as Vin stretched his more compact frame to its full height, as if they were two bantam cocks strutting towards a barnyard brawl. "Just have a lot of information to process, pard."
"Maybe you could get JD ta put together a database fer you. Cross-profile by hair color, height, bra size. "
"That's not fair, Vin," Nathan defended. "Not even the FBI's computers have enough memory for that!"
Buck shrugged his shoulders. "You, Tanner, on the other hand, could use your hands for counting your women and still have digits left over." He dismissed him with a wave. "Though I'd bet that's not all you use your hands for. "
Vin began to reply but was restrained by five well-manicured fingers on his arm.
"Gentlemen, I entreat you to save the pissin' contest for the privy." Ezra urged their attention. "As our fearless leader arrives."
Chris entered the room. "Let's get started." He dropped a stack of folders on the table, topped by a yellow pad. "Buck, Vin? What've you got?"
Vin indicated for his teammate to start. Buck flipped open his notepad and attempted to read his scrawled notes.
"Three pipe bombs went off at eight seventeen this morning. Propane igniters, timing mechanism was connected to one of the clinic's computers. No secondaries."
"Why eight seventeen? Is that a significant time or date?"
"Not that we've found so far. Oklahoma and Waco were April nineteenth, and Columbine was four years later on the twentieth." Buck lowered his head. "World Trade started at eight forty-five."
"And all the Atlanta clinic bombings were in the wintertime," Ezra added.
"Actually," Vin interjected, "the time might've been because of a computer malfunction. Something the bomber didn't know about." He looked over toward the computer authority on the team.
JD cleared his throat. "The clinic uses a fairly antiquated system and it's barely maintained," he informed them. "The receptionist told me the battery of her computer was dying. Whichever way they connected the mechanism to the computer, I don't think they realized what a drain it would be, in addition to the battery problem. It could have been an hour off, or three hours. We can't know for sure."
"Wait a minute," Josiah interrupted. "I may be as antiquated as the system, but since when do computers use batteries?" He waved off JD's quick start at an answer. "I know we're not talking laptops, son, so please enlighten me."
"Think of it as an internal power source," he responded. "You know the clock icon on the taskbar? It's what keeps that going, even when the computer's not turned on. That's what I mean by battery." His hands fluttered in explanation. "So when it finally starts failing, which it does eventually, it affects things."
"Regardless, someone had to get in there and play with the wires," Chris said. "Do they have security tapes?"
Nathan picked up the narrative. "No, only a sign-in log for outside services. I'll verify all the entrants for the last two weeks to start."
"Good. And you and Ezra interview the staff." Chris checked off two items on his list. "We need background checks on the doctors."
Ezra looked up from his own notepad. "I can do that once we acquire a full list of personnel. Query if there have been any past threats. And if the clinic or the doctors have a financial reason for this wretchedness."
Another item was checked off. Chris turned back to their youngest member, anxious to find out what their computer expert had learned from the bureau's Explosives Incidents System. "Have you checked the EXIS database yet? Since no one's claimed this, I'd like to get a profile match ASAP."
"I e-mailed the request." The agent squirmed in his seat. "But you know how it works. It'll come back when it comes back."
Nathan tsked his disgust. "Reminds me of the old Army expression. You know, hurry up and wait."
Nudging JD, Buck nodded knowingly at their leader. "Then it's a good thing the kid knows how to hack into it."
A protest on their specialist's lips quickly died as he could tell by their faces they all knew his little secret. He shot a withering look back as Buck innocently returned the stare. "I'll see what I can do to get an answer soon, Chris."
"Thanks. What else?"
Josiah continued. "The shrapnel they used. It's an obvious clue to finding the responsible party."
"Jacks." The profiler paused at Chris's confused look. "You know, those little metal things in the kid's game."
"I know what they are, Josiah. But you're right, it is an unusual choice."
Buck cleared his throat. "Forensics is checking for prints. Would've been pretty nasty if there'd been people there."
"There's an understatement," Chris spit out bitterly. "Are you saying that getting punctured by a kid's toy would make getting killed by an explosion that much worse?"
"That's not what I meant," Buck replied, his voice a controlled rasp. "And if you'd let me finish, we're pretty sure the blast wasn't intended to kill."
Chris shot a seething glare in his direction. "I could swear you were at the same site I was this morning. Appeared pretty deadly to me."
Buck closed his notepad slowly and took a deep breath.
JD marveled at the thick skin his best friend displayed when it came to their supervisor's insults, but reminded himself that Buck had once stood in the direct firing line of Chris's pain after the death of his wife and son. The way Chris treated Buck now was probably inconsequential compared to that dark time in their lives.
As if unaware of their leader's rage, the seasoned agent continued, sealing his eyes to those of his former partner. The unruffled susurration of his voice when he spoke worked to lessen the tension in the room.
"Blast site trajectory reveals that shrapnel was placed at only one end of the bombs facing into the room," Buck said. "It was obviously a shape charge, positioned to blow outwards, through the entrance. And the accelerant was pretty weak. That's why I think more'n likely there would've been more injury from the jacks than from the blast."
"Then why was the damage to the clinic so severe?" Chris asked petulantly.
"Cheap construction materials in the place," Vin answered. "Went up like a two month-old Christmas tree. 'Sides, you know how nasty things look after the fire crews have hacked their way in and drowned everything."
"They wanted it closed," Buck added. "But I think they were just making a point."
A calmer Chris checked off a few more items on his pad, then put the pen down and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "Do you think the point was made?"
A strained silence filled the room, no one wanting to answer, until Josiah finally spoke.
"For whoever did this? No, not until the last clinic closes."
Chris gathered his paperwork slowly. A shadow crossed his face as he glanced out through the conference room's windows, as if he could see the smoking wreckage of the clinic though it was well across town. "In spite of any moral conflicts anyone may have about the incident, the clinic provides services that are a constitutional right. I can't stress that enough." He stood up, looking back at his team, searching out Buck's eyes in the group. "First forty-eight hours are the most important, gentlemen. Let's get on it."
After a hastily assembled lunch of sandwiches and sodas, the team dispersed to their various assignments. Ezra and Nathan headed out to interview clinic personnel. Josiah, the team's profiler, secreted himself in the files archive, searching for cases with similar MO's. Vin was supervising the arrival of evidence to the forensics lab; no one expected to see him for the rest of the day. Buck and JD worked together at the latter's computer, entering what information had already been compiled for a more specific search on the government's extensive databases.
Chris paused in the shadow of his office doorway, his eyes sweeping over the vacant desks. The home of Team Seven was a large, open "bullpen" bordered by file cabinets and punctuated by three pairs of old wooden partner's desks, unlike the impersonal, cubicle-divided rat's maze of desks the other REMTEF team's offices supported. In fact, one of the first activities Team Seven accomplished together was to dismantle the gray steel walls of their cubicle dividers, only to reassemble them on the lawn nine floors below, spelling out a familiar two-word phrase quite visible to all the offices on the west side of the building.
Vin and Ezra's desks were set at an angle in the corner farthest from the door. Ezra had insisted the arrangement was based on the principles of fung shui and power positioning and other nonsense, but Chris knew it was really because both of the extremely wary men needed to work with their backs to the wall. And just as both men were spare in frame and lifestyle, there wasn't much on the desks' surfaces beyond two lamps and two computers. An antique silver spur leaned precariously against Vin's battered PC; its partner was on Chris's desk. A small cactus and an Erté print encased in a small gold frame sat beside Ezra's laptop.
In contrast, Nathan and Josiah's desks were both piled high with books, files, journals, pamphlets, periodicals, and treatises, in addition to various and sundry equipment including a blood pressure monitor on Nathan's side and a collection of rosary beads hanging from the banker's lamp on Josiah's side. They were positioned as close to center as possible in the room, calm anchors in a stormy sea.
The décor of Buck and JD's arrangement could only be described as "circus acid trip." Their computers were barely visible amid the morass of action figures, tacky trip souvenirs, Nerf footballs, assorted framed photos, pizza-stained paper plates, and a large rubber chicken that sat beside the Hawaiian hula dancer lamp Buck insisted was the best light anyone could work by.
Somehow Buck had found a clear spot on the desk to settle his long frame as he leaned over the young man working on his G5 computer. Picking up a file folder from one haphazard stack before placing it onto a similarly precarious perch, he would read out the pertinent information and JD would enter it. Every so often, JD would hold up a hand for Buck to pause while he saved or searched for something in the database. Buck would occasionally interrupt with a correction, or to add in something he remembered from a previous file. Their close proximity, and the way they finished each other's sentences or communicated at times without even a word, made it clear they were extremely comfortable working with each other.
Chris watched the quiet exchange between the two men and a small smile bent his lips.
Three years ago, he had been actively looking for a communications and software expert as the last member for the team but no one he interviewed had impressed him. Then some kid from Boston submitted his request to join the team. And Chris dismissed it without a second thought.
Oh, John Dunne was more than qualified, regardless of being a month shy of the ATF's age requirement. He'd graduated first in his class at the police academy at the age of nineteen, after graduating summa cum laude from college the year before with a major in computer science and a minor in pre-law. But with only two years on a street beat, and a face that had all the sophistication of Opie Taylor from Mayberry RFD, Chris felt that the young man was just too plain full of innocence and heart to be able to handle the job. No amount of hero worship and gung ho idealism displayed by the youth could replace the possibility of his name being carved on a tombstone while under Chris's watch.
But JD had persisted, moving West with only a pair of guns and a dream. He cornered Chris at government functions, shadowed the team on a small but vital mission, and endlessly e-mailed his range stats and record on the Boston Police Department as well as the merit awards he'd received as consultant on several Federal computer task forces. He wasn't looking for glory, he told him, he just wanted the opportunity to prove that he could be part of the company of respected, dedicated agents Chris was assembling.
But the deciding factor wasn't his various degrees or awards or even the doughnuts and coffee he sent to their office every morning for two weeks. It was when JD saved the supervisor's ass by recovering a detailed internal report Chris accidentally sent out on a global address list.
"Project Cowboy" was a request by acting director Orin Travis for Chris to analyze and list the other REMTEF teams' shortcomings. Not only would Chris had made several enemies if his opinions had been discovered, the report could have led to serious consideration by the Federal government to withdraw funding from the project entirely.
After Chris realized his mistake, it took only one call to the computer genius and JD had not only wiped out any unread messages from the incorrect mailboxes in a matter of seconds, he had also overwritten the mail logs and sender identification, made any already-read messages disappear, and set up Chris's e-mail system so that something like that could never happen again. And without asking, made sure that the other team members' e-mail was similarly secure.
He also installed an anti-spam program on Chris's home computer.
JD was officially invited to join the team.
Okay, the doughnuts might have influenced his decision, too.
Chris had assumed that he would have taken up the role of teacher and guardian when he brought the green but capable policeman into the fold, but it was his former partner who took the boy under his wing.
It hadn't been love at first sight, both being singularly turned off by bad first impressions. JD was too inexperienced, Buck had protested, and Buck was too undisciplined for JD's tastes. Yet by the end of their first case together, they had formed a bond of friendship, enhanced by an unexpected but welcome awareness that they filled an empty place in each other's lives.
Chris tried to remember if he and Buck had been so compatible when they first partnered up in Homicide. If it seemed so, it was only because they'd been the same age and shared similar work experiences up to that point. Both spent time in the Navy, entered their respective police academies at about the same time, and landed on the Denver PD within weeks of each other. Their skills grew in tandem, their friendship grew from respect and true affection. Buck had been a devoted "uncle" to Chris's son, and a saving grace after his family was murdered. It had been an embittered Chris who had redefined their relationship then, pushing him away, in spite of Buck's faithfulness.
It occurred to him, regardless of the highs and lows they'd endured together, how little Buck had changed in all the years he'd known him. Loyal yet independent solid and trustworthy, yet a free spirit self-reliant, yet needing to be needed. Buck's humility and graciousness had carried him from poverty to plenty, through the tragedies of his own and his friends' lives, and above shattering heartaches of his own design. Chris was among the very few who knew why Buck had avoided settling down with a wife and creating his own family, and was grateful that the selfless man now seemed to have found a peace from his ordeals with his connection to JD.
An unexpected twinge pinched his heart as he regarded the pair. They were laughing at something, and JD was looking up at his friend with an expression usually reserved by small children opening their gifts on Christmas and discovering the first item on their list to Santa was inside. Chris knew that look, and because of that, he had to look away.
It was the look on his son Adam's face when he first taught him to tie his shoes.
It was the look he had received after kissing away Adam's bruises, or putting him to sleep at night.
It was a look he would never see again.
Buck glanced up as Chris shut the door to his office with a soft thud.
"Well, kid, what'd'ya think?"
Buck pounded down the stairs of their duplex apartment and vaulted over the living room couch, coming to a halt in front of the large TV.
He'd bought the condominium seven years earlier, his first permanent home. Located on the southeastern edge of downtown Denver, it was convenient to his office, two hospitals, and several popular singles bars and dance clubs. Chris had wondered why Buck felt the need to purchase an apartment with two bedrooms--the man had no family nor out-of-town friends to visit him. He would be reluctant to let his then two year-old son stay there, with the certain possibility of women parading in and out, but Buck was adamant that he needed a second bedroom. Until JD's arrival, the only person who'd stayed in it had been Chris, either drunk or drying out after his family's death.
The layout was simple, the décor simpler. Other than JD's small and cluttered bedroom, the first floor consisted of a bathroom to its side, a kitchen at the opposite end, and a large living space in between, containing several beaten-up plump armchairs, an even more beaten-up sectional couch, oak cocktail table, work desk, large screen TV, and the "Wall of Sound" Buck had hauled and enhanced upon since his college days. A small terrace backed the area. Upstairs was a carpeted master bedroom, complete with a California King-sized brass bed and its own bathroom. A switchback of stairs connected the levels. The muted browns of the floor and furniture gave the living room an almost sepia-type coloration.
His view on the television now obscured, JD obligingly scrutinized his roommate's attire and wrinkled his nose.
"The tie has got to go."
"I thought the design added a bit of color."
"Looks more like the test for colorblindness."
Buck checked himself out in the entranceway mirror, then reluctantly removed the tie. "Only one that matched that didn't have a stain."
"You can borrow one of mine."
"No thanks, Junior. I don't think a Tasmanian Devil clip-on is the solution." He straightened his shoulders, buttoning and unbuttoning the jacket several times.
"Lucky for you then that the tieless look is in."
"Oh, I could go out in a barrel and stiletto heels and still look good."
JD laughed. "Even you'd look awful in that."
"That's damn near impossible, kid."
He picked up his keys and change and joined JD on the couch, rechecking the condoms in the zippered pocket of his wallet. He held out a string of connected packages to the younger man, offering him some of his stash for the evening.
"No, thanks." JD blushed. "I'm covered."
"Literally, my friend," chided Buck. "Remember that." He stuck the wallet in his inside coat pocket, then dropped his robin's egg blue-socked feet on the coffee table. "You know where they are in my bedroom if ya need more."
JD rolled his eyes, an embarrassed response that Buck didn't fail to notice. The older man leaned in and whispered close to his ear. "And even though I normally only have extra large around, I added in a stock of cadet size just for you." He quickly pulled away from the sharp elbow heading in his direction that threatened to ruin the line of his suit.
"Shoes," was JD's indignant response. "And not the glow-in-the-dark sneakers!" he called out, after his friend headed back up the stairs.
He switched off the television and set out to pick up the normal detritus of two bachelors living in one apartment.
Thinking about it, JD was astounded at the intimacy of their relationship. He couldn't name a single person he'd ever been so close to, nor anyone who had treated him with such unreserved honesty. Not even his mother when she was alive. In fact, he couldn't remember ever having a friend like Buck Wilmington, in the truest sense of the word.
Growing up poor, growing up short, growing up smart, he always justified his solitary lifestyle with the fact that he was either too far behind or too far ahead of his peers to make any deep connections. He'd had volumes of acquaintances. He'd been popular and well-liked throughout school, all the way until the police academy. But there hadn't been anyone he felt remorse at leaving when he made the decision to move from the place where he'd lived for the first twenty-one years of his life.
And the issue wasn't as simple as just being about friendship.
His father had abandoned him before he was even born, as had his mother's family. There were no brothers nor cousins around to help him find his way. In a household consisting of only him and his mother, he had struggled through the milestones that marked a growing adolescent male's life. In spite of her beauty, his mother had hardly dated at all, too weary after a hard day's work to worry about a social life, so he found no alliances there. Trying to appear indifferent on the outside, deep inside he envied his friends who had fathers and brothers to teach them to shave or talk about girls or just tell them once in a while that they were proud of them.
All that had changed when he traveled west from Boston, determined to prove himself worthy of working with Chris Larabee's ATF Team. He received not only their professional respect but, unexpectedly, found himself embraced with a familial love that defined the strength of the group.
These were the older brothers he had always longed for. Patient and instructive, supportive and inspiring, balanced with a dose of brotherly teasing and torment.
But somehow, Buck had become something more.
It wasn't just their similarities, he mused. Each had grown up under the similar circumstance of an unmarried mother raising an illegitimate son. Each had chosen law enforcement as a career without influence of family history. Each had a propensity for bad jokes, good times, and a recognized apathy towards housecleaning.
And it wasn't because they couldn't be more complete opposites. Physically, they were the shortest and tallest of the team. JD grew up in the frigid climes of New England; Buck in the laconic humidity of the Deep South. JD had school-sense, while Buck had the just-as-important street smarts, which circumvented any shortfall in his schooling. JD was the only one besides Nathan to maintain a steady relationship with a woman. Buck was the consummate ladies' man--flirtatious, promiscuous, and outgoing to a fault.
But inexplicably, the two men had formed a bond that went beyond brotherhood and blood that was now unbreakable. JD couldn't imagine how he would survive without it. He felt he was finally growing into the man he wanted to be, backed by the unflagging guidance of his friend and guardian.
Straightening a pile of office files Buck had brought home, JD's thoughts wandered back to comments made earlier in the day.
" Your kid doesn't look too good. "
" I'd swear he was your son. "
" Close enough. "
If they had never recognized the truth of their relationship, it seemed others had.
JD looked up towards Buck's bedroom. He could hear drawers being opened and closed, banging counterpoint against an off-key rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel."
He decided he had to let the older man know how he felt about him.
Pondering the issue for a split second, he realized the upcoming holiday would be the perfect opportunity. Father's Day was only six days away and made coming up with the perfect gift too easy. In addition to the recently made obvious necessity, nothing said "dad" better than a tie.
His sentimental thoughts were interrupted by the loud clacking of boot heels on the hardwood floor as Buck made final preparations before leaving for his date. A dab of Ralph Lauren's Chaps and a peppermint Mentos, if JD remembered correctly.
"Okay, kid, I'm heading out. Don't do anything I haven't thought of yet."
"Have a good time, Buck." JD offered a smiling salute in approval.
"Now, I expect to be out quite late so you and Casey have free reign over the house."
"Get out of here, Buck."
"Just don't use up all the whipped cream and remember to use the 100% cotton scarves, the knots come undone faster."
"Get out of here, Buck!" A tossed pillow hit the rapidly closing front door. JD did a final scan of the living room and decided to take a cold shower before his own date. Like an annoying show tune, he just couldn't get the thought of the scarves out of his mind.
Buck smoothed down the place where his tie would have been and stepped lightly through the elaborate entranceway of Denver's fanciest French restaurant. He swept past the maitre d', indicating his destination of where Melinda Gardner now waited at a corner table, one hand holding a glass of wine, while the other slowly tapped on a laptop.
"Sorry I'm late, darlin'." He lifted her hand off the keys and brushed his lips across it gently, before sitting down. "I had to finish off a little discussion with the valet about where to park the truck. It's amazing what a shiny metal badge can do for location." He picked up the bottle and refilled her wine glass, then filled his own, taking a big gulp.
"I still can't believe it, Buck. You're really a Federal Agent?" Melinda deftly shut down the computer and slid it into a black case leaning against the rungs of her chair.
He bobbed his head, his eyes shining proudly. "Bonded an' everything," he teased.
"I'd've thought you'd end up breaking laws, not keeping them." She smiled and winked.
"And I'd've thought you would have given me your number when you moved away."
Her smile never wavered though her eyes widened in surprise. "Ah ha! And now to the entertainment portion of our evening."
He regarded her with a fierce intensity, then softened and hung his head in mock shame. "Sorry. I suppose it's wrong to think we could just pick up where we left off." He finished his first glass and poured another.
"Why are you so nervous, Buck?"
His fingers traced the tablecloth. "You always made me nervous, Mel. Never felt good enough for you."
Melinda stopped his restless hand with hers. "I never felt that. Did I ever say that?"
"Then why'd ya disappear on me?"
She slipped her hand from under his, and placed her napkin on the table. "Maybe this was a bad idea."
Buck made to stand, but instead leaned back in his chair. "No, wait." He pushed his wine glass into the center of the table. "I'll behave." He winked at her. "Unless it really was just about that bad boy thing."
Melinda's reply was interrupted by the waiter's approach. "Monsieur, Madame. Would you like to start with an appetizer?"
Buck looked to his dinner companion for direction.
"We should, we've got eighteen years to catch up on," she decreed.
"You don't suppose they have Buffalo Wings here," he whispered dramatically.
She thought for a moment, then ordered. "Poulez grilles et, uh, pommes de terre feuille de parchemins."
"Merci bien, Madame. I'll be back to take your order presently." The waiter departed.
"What was all that?"
"Closest we could get to chicken fingers and potato skins here."
He smiled wistfully. "I'm impressed. Not surprised, but impressed. You kept up with the French lessons."
"Only because I lived there for a while." Melinda fluttered her eyelashes. "Jake was born there," she added, shrugging her shoulders.
Buck clinked his wineglass with hers and took a slower sip. "Farthest I've been is Florida on a fishing trip."
The ATF agent unconsciously rubbed the raised notch below his rib cage that reminded him of a well-placed crowbar and the dissolution of one of the biggest sources of illegal gun-running in the south. "Yeah, but it weren't no fish."
"You look happy, Buck."
"I am, I truly am. Now, tell me all about your work and tell me about Jake." Once again he took a deep pull on his glass. "Where's his dad?"
"Lower, Casey, just a little lower. Aah, that's it! Oh, God! Don't stop!" JD groaned with release as his girlfriend found just the right spot on his shirtless back to relieve the annoying itch that had been bothering him all evening.
"It's a good thing I trimmed my nails today." The veterinary student continued her tender ministrations, stretching her legs towards the coffee table while holding a perilous perch on the couch beside him. "Stop squirming or I'm going to--" She slid off ungracefully, bumping onto the floor. "Too late."
Turning onto his side, he held out a hand to pull her up, then suddenly began to tickle the sensitive sides of her waist. She quickly counterattacked and JD curled in defense as her fingers jumped back and forth to tease around his armpits and stomach.
"Truce! Truce!" he cried out with a laugh, pulling his hands away and making a T-sign for time out. He stretched out lazily, draping his arms over the couch end.
Casey stood up. "There's no room for me there."
"Mmmn? I think, if you try real hard, you can find a place." He winked and closed his eyes. Moments later he felt her position herself over his thighs, her legs astride his. A chill played up his spine and he wriggled in delight. Raising his knees, he bumped her forward until the crotch of her jeans straddled his own.
Her hands ran up his smooth chest, her fingertips pausing momentarily over the dimple of a bullet scar before lightly tracing designs around his nipples. JD's eyes fluttered open at the gentle touch. His own hands slid up her arms until they cradled her neck and he brought her face to his, capturing her mouth in a deep, exploring kiss. Casey tasted like fresh mountain air to him and he only reluctantly broke the embrace as she shifted to find a better position over him.
Turning her deftly, he maneuvered them into reversed positions, Casey's arms were now captured and outstretched under his own as he strung a necklace of kisses along the pulse-points of her neck. His hands released hers, skimming down her hot skin. She gasped and he felt her shudder slightly beneath him.
"You all right?"
She smiled coyly and combed her fingers through the thick black bangs that fell over his forehead. "I'm just fine."
A flush of heat suffused his chest, igniting into a blaze as she leaned up and caught his lower lip in her teeth, pulling him into another fiery kiss. Then she slid one of her legs between his and rubbed it slowly against his crotch.
He groaned and unconsciously released one hand to check for the condom in his jeans pocket. After two years of dating, he recognized Casey's action as a signal that it would soon be time to move to his bedroom. He never wanted to be caught without as they were in several unfulfilled first times together. Even though he knew she was on the Pill, unprotected sex was simply not a consideration for either of them.
Abruptly, an unwelcome image of that morning's clinic bombing appeared in his mind. he raised up and gazed at her soberly.
"Whatever you're thinking," she murmured, "it's all right."
"I love you, Casey. You know that."
The young woman nodded. "I know it every time you look at me. Every time you touch me." She took his hands in hers. "Don't stop touching me, JD."
Struggling to control trembling fingers, he carefully opened the tiny pearl buttons on her cotton shirt and pushed the material away. He bent his head and enveloped one peach-soft breast with his mouth, feeling it slowly grow in arousal.
Casey arched her back, fanning her fingers through his long hair as he shifted to place the same tender attention to her other breast, encouraged by her low purring rumbles of pleasure. Her leg continued its dangerous movements and he rhythmically lifted with each impact, only breaking syncopation for a moment when he thought he heard a slamming sound.
Blood thundering in his ears, it wasn't until he heard the sound of boot heels clacking across the wooden floor that he realized his roommate had returned early. JD fell on top of his girlfriend, covering her chest with his. Twisting his head around, he peered over the couch back. "Buck?"
"Sorry, kid." Buck raced up the stairs, discreetly averting his gaze from the couple.
"Ohmigod!" Casey shrieked, pushing JD away and pulling her shirt tightly around her.
JD tried to help her fasten the buttons but she slapped his hands away. He grabbed his watch off the coffee table. "Jeez, it's only ten-thirty."
"I'd better go." She wiggled out from under his weight and collected her shoes and jacket from the floor.
JD rose from the couch and struggled to hold back a laugh as he watched her place her shoes on the wrong feet in her haste, clomping towards the front door with awkward steps. "C'mon, Case, it's all right." Closing the distance between them, he placed his hands on her shoulders to calm her. "Besides, he couldn't have seen anything that would surprise him."
Casey kicked off the shoes to start over and looked up at him sharply. "That's not comforting me!"
"Hey, it was my ass in the air!"
Thrusting her arms into her light summer jacket, she grabbed the front door handle, swinging it open with a bang. "Don't say anything more. Just make sure I never see him again in my life!" She leaned up on her toes and kissed him hard. "And call me!"
He smiled as she stormed down the hallway, and blew her a kiss as she waved back at him before disappearing outside.
Grabbing his tee-shirt off the floor, JD wiped away the chilly sweat of interrupted passion and headed into the kitchen for a glass of milk.
Returning to the living room, he discovered his roommate at the wet bar, rummaging around in the back for the good liquor. Buck pulled out a bottle of whiskey, twisted the cap off and flipped it onto the bartop. Filling a large shot glass, he drank it quickly.
"You're home early."
Buck spun around, a look of confusion on his face.
His usually bright eyes seemed distant and dull though the young man sensed it wasn't from drinking. Something had happened at dinner but JD knew better than to ask directly. Through their years together, he'd learned his friend would reveal his troubles in his own time, as much as the young man would wish otherwise. Patience was a virtue, he reminded himself. It was also a pain in the ass.
"Well, you just interrupted one of the grandstand plays of the season," JD began. "I was rounding second and heading to third, bases loaded." He pointed to an invisible spectator and batted an imaginary ball out of the park. "Could've been a home run if the game hadn't been called on account of roommate."
"I was trying to sneak past ya, kid."
"I know. S'okay." He watched with dismay as Buck poured himself another shot and downed it as hastily as the first.
Taking the bottle with him, Buck sprawled over the couch, his fingers massaging his temple. "Solved your little exclusivity problem with Casey, did ya?"
"I'm not sure. You kinda interrupted the negotiations." JD perched on the couch arm, his arms wrapped around his knees, waiting for his friend to start. He wondered how bad it could be if the normally effusive man could barely bring himself to speak. If he'd been rejected outright by the woman, JD knew the account of it would have been loud and self-deprecating, that was his way. If he'd rejected her, his disenchantment would have been expressed with a smirking charm. If they'd clicked, he wouldn't be here.
"Seems both our evenings turned out differently than expected."
"I never told you 'bout her, did I, kid?"
JD began to answer with a teasing retort along the lines of "With all the women you've dated, how could I remember?" but bit his lip against the wisecrack. "I don't think so."
Buck's words came softly, as if he was afraid to hear them. "We met in our junior year of college. I had a language requirement to fulfill and figured since French was the language of love, it only made sense." He poured a third drink and settled the bottle on the floor. "But then, nothing made sense after I met her. " After taking a series of ever-larger sips, he continued.
"I'd like to say it was instant, but it wasn't. We were complete opposites. She'd been raised in the Garden District with a rich daddy and a mouthful of silver. I was strictly Storyville. Had to work at the dorm cafeteria just to get meals. But we linked up and I she had such a passionate view on everything. She made me feel that I could run faster than a speeding bullet. Jump over tall buildings. That sort of thing." He knocked back a finishing swallow and wiped at the sides of his moustache with the pad of his thumb.
"And there were the other types of passion, too."
If JD didn't know his friend better, he would have sworn the normally uninhibited man was blushing.
"We were together for maybe seven, eight months. Then she went away to some family resort for the summer and I went down to Lafayette to work in the sugar mills to make senior year's tuition." Buck fingered the empty glass. "She didn't show up in the Fall. Her dorm manager said she'd moved away, was probably finishing out at another school. I couldn't find her, and now I know why."
JD almost flinched. He knew there was a punch line coming and it was going to hit hard.
Buck turned to his friend, regarding him with an alcohol-induced calm. "There's a good chance that Jake is my son."
He picked up the bottle and waggled it. "Ya want some?"
"No." JD felt a tingling in his throat and his chest. "Is she sure?"
"No." Buck said with a laugh. "It seems Mel had her own exclusivity issues at college. But you've seen him. Has the Wilmington height and chin, don't he?" He stared at the floor and murmured, "Congratulations, it's an eighteen year-old boy."
JD laid a tender hand on his friend's shoulder. "How do you feel about it?"
"Truth be told, the more I think about it, I'm actually happy and scared."
"Just like any new dad."
A soft smile crinkled the sides of Buck's eyes, then he blinked owlishly. "At least I got out of the diaper and toilet-training parts, huh?" He stood up on unsteady legs and pressed the whiskey bottle into JD's chest. "Put this away. I've got me some responsibilities now!" With a guttural laugh, he staggered to the stairs, climbing them heavily.
"You gonna be able to make our run tomorrow morning?"
Buck groaned. "I'd better if I'm gonna keep up with a goddamn teenager. Just need some sleep." He hoisted himself up the flight of stairs, gripping the banister tightly. "What a helluva long day! G'night, kid."
"'Night, Buck." He watched as his roommate bumped lightly against the entrance to his bedroom on his way inside. After the door closed, he heard the springs of the bed screech under the man's weight, then all was silent.
Waving the bottle under his nose, JD inhaled deeply. His eyes began to water and he held onto the lie that it was the strong liquor's fault. Then he pressed the top to his lips and forced himself to take a good swallow. Buck was right. It had been a long day. And he wouldn't admit why, but for him it was going to be a long night