Gone to breakfast with M & J
That was all it said.
Sitting at the kitchen table, JD read the note over for the tenth or maybe the thousandth time. He'd lost track.
It had been hastily scrawled on a napkin and left to find in their nearly empty refrigerator next to a quart of milk inscribed with a large black magic-markered "JD" on each side. The tagging of his name on the carton was a humorous concession the roommates had made for visitors--Buck drank directly from that carton as easily as JD did. But there would've been no better place to leave the note. JD started each day with a glass of milk. Buck knew his habits better than anyone.
The penciled words were starting to fade from handling as he flipped it over and back again to re-read it. His stomach turned over with each turn of the note. He knew he must have missed something in between the words. A location An invitation An explanation.
He envisioned various scenarios to understand why Buck couldn't find the time to wake him or hadn't had the voice to yell out an invitation or didn't have the strength to knock on his door. He hadn't heard the phone, which meant if the inviting call was incoming, it came into Buck's cell, and if it was outgoing well, there was that lack of invitation again.
Had they dropped by unexpectedly? He always had trouble hearing anything from the living room when he was in his bedroom with the door closed and the radio on. Which is why Buck would always barge in when he had something to say.
Had their plans been made the night before? Buck had been pretty drunk when he came in. So to avoid possible mishaps when there was the slightest chance that alcohol would scramble his brain cells, he would always scribble a note on the back of his hand to remind himself of something, especially if he needed to tell his roommate. JD didn't remember seeing anything there. Bfast MJ he might have written. Maybe Buck hadn't had a pen.
But he always carried a pen. He always wrote on his hand. He always went running in the morning with his friend unless someone was sick or undercover or it was a holiday. JD smiled grudgingly. Or if they could find another, viable excuse.
Buck was always there.
But not today.
The summer morning's early heat was stifling. He blinked painfully, the sun's rays blinding him as they bounced off the white linoleum floor. The absolute quiet of the house reverberated louder than a screaming alarm in his ears.
He gulped hard, trying to force back a wave of uneasiness that surged up from his stomach. He knew this sight this sound this feeling. He dropped his head into his hands and wiped the cold sweat from his forehead, remembering the last time he'd felt this way. Sitting in a barren kitchen deafening silence a glaring Sun.
Boston. Four years earlier. The morning after his mother died.
The melodrama of the association embarrassed him, and mocked the sentimental thoughts he'd had the previous evening. How could he have let himself become so vulnerable? He wasn't a kid anymore. He was a man, wasn't he? He'd been the man of his house growing up. Now he had a man's job. A dangerous job, complete with gunfights, car chases, and hazards too numerous to list. Not to mention the extreme sports he participated in. Or the temperamental motorcycle he rode daily. He'd faced a lot worse than missing a morning jog with a friend.
Then how come he'd prefer to deal with bullets right now instead of this?
Josiah jumped in his seat for the fourth time that morning, startled by the earsplitting sound of his youngest teammate slamming a desk drawer shut. Having shrewdly determined the circumstance that precipitated JD's noisome actions, he glanced towards the door. Previously he'd been shocked to attention by a dropped stapler at Chris's arrival, a kicked garbage pail announcing Nathan, and, finally, the buzzing rustle of a file folder and all its contents fluttering down like a ticker-tape parade after it was flung across the room at Vin's entrance.
Now Ezra sauntered into the office, covering his ears in protest at the noise. Stopping at the perpetrator's desk, he slowly removed his sunglasses and glowered. "Was that really necessary? Or were you just attemptin' to best the Thunderbirds' sonic tests?"
"Sorry," JD muttered.
"What did I ever do to you to elicit such an opprobrious greetin'?"
"You're not Buck," Josiah piped up from across the room.
The Southerner swung his head around towards the speaker. "And for that I get down on my knees every blessed day and sing Hosannas of exaltation." He raised his hands in testifying glory. "Can I get an Amen, Brother?"
Josiah bit back a laugh. "Amen!"
"Shut up, Ezra." JD banged the drawer again in punctuation.
Ezra set a large Starbuck's iced Frappuccino on his desk blotter and gracefully shrugged off his coat. "My, my, my, is the puppy teethin'?" He took in the nearly vacant room and whistled under his breath. "And the rest of our motley crew are where?"
"Out getting rabies shots, I hope. This dog has very sharp teeth." JD stood abruptly, extending himself to his full height. Stomping around the bullpen of desks, he was forced to pause when Ezra deliberately crossed his path.
"Linen wrinkles so in the humidity," the Southerner drawled despondently, holding his jacket up for JD's assessment.
The glare he received in response was so hot that Josiah unconsciously glanced at the coat to make sure it hadn't burned.
"Shut up, Ezra."
Quickly yielded passage, JD continued on to the bank of file cabinets in the corner and proceeded to open and shut the drawers with a pounding ferocity.
Sitting down, Ezra sipped at his coffee, then rolled his chair over next to Josiah. He bent his head in and addressed him in a low tone. "Somethin' happen in the Batcave this mornin' to set off the Boy Wonder?"
Josiah meditated on the callous appraisal as Ezra took another sip, then whispered sympathetically. "I'm not sure. Hard to get an answer when his mouth's shut tighter than your asshole."
A spray of Frappuccino burst from Ezra's lips, sprinkling his pristine cotton shirt with mocha polka dots. He regarded his friend with a scornful green-eyed gaze. "You will pay for the dry-cleanin'."
"Compassion doesn't come cheap, does it, brother?" Josiah strode to the file area, and placed a kind hand on the young man's shoulder to get his attention. JD jerked away from the touch, slamming his back against the cabinets, then regretted his defensive action when he recognized the company.
"How about you and I take a stroll and get a cup of coffee." Josiah calmly removed the stack of files JD clutched in his hand and laid them on a nearby desk.
Ezra gazed disconsolately at the stains on his shirt. "Decaf, I'd suggest."
"Shut up, Ezra," both JD and Josiah snapped.
Josiah wheeled the youth around and pushed him gently towards the doorway.
JD sagged against the wall of the break room, jiggling his leg impatiently as Josiah scanned the selections of the room's snack-vending machine. The Brobdingnagian man had already inserted a dollar but every time he went to press the buttons for his preference, he'd step back and rethink his options.
"C'mon, Josiah. The expiration date on those Twinkies might actually pass before you make a decision."
"It's my breakfast. Most important meal--"
"I know, I know." JD drained the last of his coffee and tossed the cup into the wastebasket. "I hate breakfast."
Finally the older man made his choice. Taking the bag of Jalapeno cheese-filled pretzel logs from the machine's well, he offered some to this companion, who declined. "Sounds to me like you haven't eaten anything this morning."
"No, no one invited me," JD replied in a childish singsong.
Eyebrows pressed together in confusion, Josiah held out the bag again. "I just did."
JD dug in and extracted a handful of pretzels. "Okay?" He shoved them into his mouth and grumbled around the crumbs. "At least someone thinks of me."
"Someone else didn't, eh?" Josiah chewed thoughtfully. "Someone who hasn't shown up yet this morning? Someone with whom you usually have breakfast?" He placed his index finger against the side of his nose as Sherlock Holmes did when announcing the perpetrator of a crime. "Someone whose initials wouldn't happen to be 'B' 'W'?"
JD grunted his assent. "Keep it up, Josiah. You'll make a detective yet."
"Thanks for the support, kid." He proffered the bag again. "What happened?"
"Nothing." The offering was waved away.
"You're not mad because Buck missed your run." Josiah crunched. "I'm sure he's missed other morning runs because of his dalliances with the opposite sex."
"Aw, it's not so much what happened this morning, but what's happened in general. I--"
He ceased talking as several agents from Team Four entered the small room. Although they might be comrades in arms, the iconoclastic reputation of Team Seven hadn't endeared them to the ATF agency's other members.
"Hey, Sanchez! You baby-sitting this week?"
The older man cringed. JD's youthful visage had been an especially favorite target of their animosity and the profiler of the team knew that if the young agent could barely tolerate it at the best of times, he wouldn't be in any mood to deal with it this morning. But to his surprise, JD didn't respond, a glum frown glued on his face.
Josiah blithely opened the refrigerator, disguising concern that the gauntlet hadn't been picked up. He grabbed a handful of small cream containers, then turned towards the other team's members. "Just your sister," the huge man countered. "Tell her she can pick up her bra anytime."
JD hustled him out into the hallway just as Team Four's agents began to swarm around them with an angry buzz that ended with "Asshole!"
Their final challenge echoed out of the break room and Josiah rose to the occasion, yelling back over his shoulder. "So she's talked to you about our evening together?"
JD smiled for the first time that day.
Peeling back the tops of several vials of Half & Half, Josiah lined them up on the concrete of the parking garage as its resident cat butted his head against the man's massive shins. "There you go, Cuervo, my friend." Looking up, he found JD pacing around his black Kawasaki Ninja. "You still riding that rice rocket?"
"You still pedaling through the bottom of your antique Suburban like Fred Flintstone?"
"You still want to reach your next birthday?"
JD leaned against the seat of his motorcycle. "Josiah? If I tell you something, can you promise to keep it confidential? Like if I confess something to you, you can't tell anyone?"
"Like a priest?"
"I can do that." He waited patiently, allowing the young man to collect his thoughts. "You want me to look away from you or something?"
JD started to shake his head, then stopped. "Is that what your father did?"
Josiah smiled benevolently. "My father was a missionary, not a cleric. That means a lot of talking and not a lot of listening."
"Did you love him?"
The senior agent pursed his lips in thought, trying to follow the conversational maze JD was constructing. "He was my father. The love of a child and parent is unconditional."
"Yeah." The young man walked over to Chris's dirt-encrusted Dodge Ram and kicked a back tire. "I never did understand that 'unconditional love' stuff."
"Well, it means--"
"I know what it means." He leaned over the flatbed and traced a square on the Ram's dusty rear window with his index finger. "I just don't think I ever saw it in action."
Josiah watched as his teammate distractedly sketched more shapes onto the glass. "What does this have to do with Buck?"
JD smiled at the older agent's uncanny perception. "It's not like this is going to be kept a secret for very much longer, knowing him." He turned around to face his teammate. "But I don't want him to know I had any concerns."
"I believe the privacy of a garage confessional is sacrosanct, John." Josiah winked.
The young man cleared his throat, and then rushed through the words. "Remember that old girlfriend of his we met the other day? And her son?" He continued at his friend's nod. "Well, she told Buck that her son may be his son."
Josiah's eyes widened in surprise.
"And I think that's great, don't get me wrong. If it turns out to be true I'm, I'm going to be the happiest for him. It's great it's really great."
"Then what are your concerns?"
"It's just that he's been I was. " JD sputtered to a stop and hung his head.
Josiah walked forward and curled his large hand around the back of JD's neck. "You're afraid Buck's love for you is conditional?"
JD raised his eyes, then shrugged. "Well, he doesn't need--"
A grinding screech of tires cut off the young man's words. Cuervo dove for safety as Buck's Chevy shot around the corner, barely squeaking by JD's motorcycle before it slid into the assigned parking space. Tumbling out of his seat, Buck greeted his fellow agents with a big grin on his face.
"Howdy, pards. What the hell're ya doing here?"
Josiah watched as JD's mouth assembled itself into a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Well, before you scared the cat out of one of his nine lives, we were feeding him breakfast."
Buck shrugged it off and slammed his door shut. "Oh, breakfast! You shoulda been there, JD. We went to this place, ya know, the new place you've been saying for weeks you wanted to go to? It's fantastic. We had a really wonderful time." He held one large hand over his stomach in mock agony. "I'm stuffed. You tell Josiah what's happened?"
"The subject came up," the older agent replied.
"Oh, I gotta tell Chris." He reached back into his truck and grabbed a paper bag, then headed for the elevator, pressing the button with his elbow. "I gotta tell everyone." He dug into the bag and brought out a handful of cigars. "Here."
Taking one, JD narrowed his eyes at the "Congratulations It's A Boy" inscription.
Buck held the elevator doors open when it arrived, motioning for JD to precede him in. "I knew I couldn't have been shooting blanks all these years."
JD walked inside, the painfully artificial smile never leaving his lips.
Joining them, Josiah passed by the window of Chris's Ram, his long stride halted momentarily as he caught the images etched into the dust. Drawn there was a row of three stick figures, in gradually decreasing sizes.
The middle figure had been crossed out with a large "X."
JD quickly hid the site he was browsing and whirled around to find his team leader approaching. "Huh?"
Chris leaned in, confused at the Buffy the Vampire Slayer screen saver on the computer's desktop instead of the database he expected to find. "The clinic bombing. Have you got a list yet?"
"Uh, no." He clicked on the EXIS icon and brought up the query page. "I'm still waiting on a few reports."
The black-clad man narrowed his eyes. "Which?"
JD bit his lip nervously. "Well, we're still waiting on forensics. Igniter, fuses, stuff like that. And I need a better review of the, uh, blast pattern and an evidence summary."
"Uh huh." Chris glanced over at the unoccupied desk across from the computer expert. "Those'd be Buck's reports, wouldn't they?"
"And mine, pard." Vin lazily stood up from his desk and strolled over to join them. "Y'all know how bad I am at gettin' things written up fast enough fer ya."
Chris tried unsuccessfully to suppress a grin at this obvious effort to divert attention from Buck's absence. When the lean Texan was covering for someone, his accent always became thicker than flies at a molasses convention. "Buck still out?"
"Nice schedule." Chris pointedly checked his watch. "Came back from breakfast just in time to leave for lunch."
"He had unexpected business."
"Don't defend him, son. Why don't you go down to forensics and pick up what they've got while we wait for the great patriarch to return."
The two youngest agents watched as Chris headed back to his office, blithely advising over his shoulder, "Ya'll keep writin' now, Tanner, y'hear?" Chuckling, he closed his office door behind him.
Vin grinned at his co-conspirator. "Where is he?"
JD returned the smile with a frown. "He didn't tell me."
"So? I thought you exchanged thoughts psychically or somethin'."
A smirk swept over JD's face, and he tilted his head toward Chris's door. "No, that's your carnival act."
The sharpshooter beamed back a similar smirk and ambled towards his desk. "Well, let me see what I can put together." He picked up a stack of files. "At least you can input some better options."
"Thanks." JD clicked a few icons off with his mouse and stood, pushing his chair into the desk well. He stared at the screen for a moment, then rested his elbows on the seatback, wrestling a thought in his head. "Vin?"
"Yeah?" Vin looked up when the question took a long time forthcoming. He was surprised to see the sober expression on JD's face. Normally the youth was so bubbly it gave him gas. "Y'okay?"
"Sure." JD picked up some paperwork but didn't leave. "That sure is something, about Buck and Jake, huh? Maybe being his son and all."
"I'm amazed there ain't an army of Bucklins out there, even if I don't believe a third of his stories." Vin winked at his teammate. "I mean, ya gotta eat and sleep sometime!"
"You ever think about your father?"
The abruptness of the question amazed him and Vin almost didn't make it onto the cushion of his chair as he sat down. His eyes whirled at the thought of even alluding to the man who had abandoned him and his mother when he was born. "No."
"I mean," the youth persisted, "you ever wonder if he's even alive?"
"He'd wish to Hell he wasn't, if I found out he was," was the cold reply. "And you're treading on real thin ground right now yourself." What right did this kid have to ask him something like that?
But when he looked back, the dark cast in the young man's eyes reminded him that JD had every right. They each walked on their own fragile ground.
"Maybe you had a picture," JD spit out. "At least you had his name."
Vin knew that much about his father. It was enough that he could have traced him on the government's copious databases. It was also enough to know he didn't want to.
"Seeing the picture didn't tell me a thing about the man. Just told me we had the same hair color." Vin crossed his arms over his chest. He watched the challenge in JD's eyes fade to a dull acceptance, his body stiffen in capitulation. The youth turned to leave.
Vin knew his teammate was plenty tough when he needed to be. He had more grit and gravity than most men twice his age. Going to school, holding down a job, and taking care of a terminally ill parent for as many years as he did, had given JD a backbone forged out of nothing less than thick steel.
But just as thick was the wall he would have had to erect around his heart to buttress the fragile emotions that must have roiled around inside him like the steam inside a pressure cooker. With these six other men, JD had finally been given an opportunity to work on tearing down that wall.
Vin scolded himself. How could he refuse the youth when he was working on his own emotional renovation as well?
Collecting his resolve, he stood and offered a tight-lipped smile. "We keep this conversation in this room, all right?"
The young man nodded in agreement. Then he asked hesitantly, "How did what was it like, having to tell people your father left you?"
Vin shrugged. "Growing up in orphanages and foster homes, pretty much everyone was in the same boat, so it wasn't so noticeable. The other kids never asked. The social workers asked too much."
"Did did you. " he faltered.
"It's okay." Vin could see the toll it was taking on JD to ask these questions, as well as to hear the answers. The youth was folding in on himself, clenching his fists until his knuckles were white, nearly drawing blood as he bit his lip. "It won't hurt me to talk about it."
"Were you angry with him?"
"Did you curse him?"
"Did you think it was your fault?"
The sharpshooter flinched. This answer didn't come as quickly as the others, though it was the same word. "Yup." He toyed with the rowel of the spur on his desk, avoiding his teammate's eyes. "Thought I must have done something just not been good enough for him to stay around. Don't think you can't help feeling that way."
Vin swallowed thickly. "When I was on the streets," he gestured towards the windows where the streets of Denver had served as his home during his teenage years after he got fed up with years of abusive foster homes, "I met a lotta guys who'd left their families. Did some talking on it." Crossing his arms again, he looked up. "But I never met anyone who said they left 'cause of their kid."
He hoped his words had been a consolation and thought he saw a flicker of peace in his friend's eyes. "You thinking on your father?"
"My father?" JD looked at him blankly. "No, not at all."
The abrupt change of mood was a surprise to Vin. Then JD glanced at the desk he shared with his roommate and the Texan knit his eyebrows. "You're talking about Buck?"
"Sure, what'd you think?"
"But your father--"
"I'm sure Buck have stayed with them if he'd known," JD continued, not paying attention to Vin. "And certainly we can both imagine just how Jake must feel."
The Texan leaned back against the desk. Was he supposed to believe all this time that JD hadn't been asking on his own behalf? Did he really think he could have fooled the best tracker east and west of the Mississippi? Did he really think he could have fooled anyone who gave a damn about the boy?
But giving a damn, Vin knew that now was not the time to confront JD about his lie.
"I guess I can imagine how Jake would feel," he considered gravely, "if my father turned out to be Buck." He pondered on it for a moment for JD's benefit, and then beamed happily at his conclusion. "I'd shoot him."
JD slipped his key card into the back stairs' access and pounded his way to the third floor, leaping over banisters and jumping down several steps at a time. A potential explosion had been smoldering in his gut since getting up that morning and the physical activity proved an effective release, discharging some of the frustration he'd been feeling. If he had time later, he considered that a few hours at the gym might help take the edge off his nervous energy. Or maybe a run.
His frustration returned full-fold at the thought of a run.
He knew it hadn't been fair to ask Vin about his father, and he felt guilty at raising the issue. He wondered why he'd been running off at the mouth with his friends about his feelings at the arrival of Buck's potential son, when he knew it should be an issue best kept private. No, he corrected himself. He knew exactly why he'd been revealing his thoughts to his teammates.
Because the one person he would normally go to when he was upset or confused or angry was the one person he couldn't talk to this time.
He hoped Vin had been thrown off the trail when he repositioned his questions to sound as if he were concerned about Jake. He really couldn't give a shit about the arrogant boy, then chided himself for the uncharitable thought.
Maybe it had been a shock to Jake. How would anyone react to discovering their father was a licentious, emotionally immature, commitment-phobic government agent who never cleaned the bathroom sink?
Vin might have had the right idea.
Keying back in, JD entered the busy forensics area, but instead of going directly to the explosives lab, he headed for further distraction. If Buck could take his time getting work done then so could he, he reasoned to himself. Rounding a corner, he stopped at the entrance to the DNA lab.
Ming Yu Chan, assistant technician, turned at the sound of the young agent's voice and fought a losing battle to control the blush that pinked her cheeks. "Why, Shang Li!" she responded in kind and bowed. "What an honor to find you in my humble abode." She removed her latex gloves and rinsed her hands before meeting JD as he lingered in the doorway.
After passing each other in the hallways for a year, he had finally found occasion to introduce himself to the pretty Chinese American. Her kick-boxing maneuvers to extract a stuck package of Chuckles from the vending machine on the ninth floor had endeared her to him and earned her the nickname of her ancestor's champion warrior. The Chuckles were stale, but the friendship had blossomed. They'd seen that movie plus a few others over time, but he hadn't allowed it to develop into anything, in spite of her obvious crush on him.
"Didn't see you in the coffee room this morning." She leaned against the doorjamb, twirling a long lock of black hair through supple fingers.
"Nah, I had a I had coffee with a different friend. Earlier." He amended his answer to remove the disappointed expression from her face. "One of my team."
JD reluctantly struggled to keep thoughts of exclusivity in his head as he contemplated the jet-black shine of her eyes. "What're you working on?"
Ming tsked her disgust. "Oh, they've got me doing the hair count on six feet of duct tape used in a package wrap. Whoever the perp was, they could've spent a little more time with a bottle of Nair, know what I mean? Then I move on to cell scrapings."
"Sounds like your week's set."
Another of the lab's technicians sidestepped through the doorway, pressing them together in the narrow entrance. Ming giggled as JD inhaled her perfume and then blushed at the gesture. He stepped back into the hallway, self-consciously running a hand through the long bangs that draped over his eyes.
She smiled coyly. "Unless there's anything you need me to do for you."
JD cleared his throat. "Uh, no, I've already got plans I mean, someone else here's working on our case, so I don't speaking of which " he gestured down the hallway. "I've got to go pick up some reports, so--"
"I've got your reports right here, kid."
He turned around quickly at the low voice.
"Buck! What're you doing here?"
"Last I looked, I worked here." The older agent swept a flirtatious glance up and down his teammate's companion. "I thought you did, too, but perhaps you have better things to pursue."
Ming rolled her eyes and escaped back into the lab as JD fumed at the inference. Here he was, doing Buck's work as well as his own, and he gets treated like he was the one playing hooky.
And his frustration tripled when he noticed that Melinda and Jake were standing right behind Buck.
Grabbing the files, he kept his voice soft-spoken, imitating the same subdued tone his friend used when pissed. "I came down here to pick up the reports you were supposed to get this morning."
Buck responded back in kind. "Well, I had something else to take care of this morning and I have the files now."
"How thoughtful." He waited to see how Buck reacted to his provocation.
But his roommate refused to take up the challenge, changing the subject deftly.
"JD, you remember Melinda and Jake?"
Gone to breakfast with M & J JD flashed on an image of the note and attempted to disguise a scowl. "Yeah."
"Good to see you again, JD." Melinda took his limp hand in hers, squeezing it gently.
"Uh huh." JD swallowed dryly, knowing full well he was acting as childishly as the teenager beside her, who returned his scowl without any effort to conceal it. They didn't shake hands, Jake keeping a tight hold on his laptop.
"I was giving them the nickel tour," Buck said. "When we didn't find you upstairs, I figured I could kill two birds with one stone down here."
JD unwittingly found himself in a staring contest as Jake's eyes locked onto his own. He couldn't explain why, but he felt as if the boy was thinking about what size stone he'd select to finish him off.
The standoff reminded him of all the bullies who'd challenged him as a child, until he learned that a course of patience and study would eventually reveal his opposition's exploitable weakness. He smiled at the relieving insight. It now became an easy decision to blink first. This time. "You have a good lunch?"
Melinda slipped her arm through the senior agent's. "He took us to the Buckhorn Exchange. What a strange place! So Wild Western! Animal heads on the walls, sitting at old poker tables."
"It's one of my and JD's favorite's." Buck pointed for them to head towards a bank of elevators down the hall. "When he first moved here, he couldn't get enough of it." He touched JD on the back lightly and propelled him forward. "Always has to sit near the lawmen memorabilia. We go there for buffalo burgers at least once a month."
"You liked it, Jake, didn't you?" his mother asked.
"Kitsch at its finest," the teenager intoned, his lips barely moving. "The Beverly Hillbillies would have been right at home."
"It's a shame you couldn't join us, JD." Melinda said sympathetically.
JD fought to respond with a light, steady voice. "You only had to ask."
"Well, I thought, ya know, we'd keep it a family thing." Buck's eyes shifted uncomfortably.
"You don't mind, do ya, Junior?" Jake asserted, a self-satisfied smirk on his lips.
"Nah," JD said coolly. His eyes rose towards Buck's. "I know how important family is."
Walking down the narrow, crowded hallway, the quartet slipped into two rows of duets, JD falling in step beside Melinda. Ahead of them, Buck pointed out the various departments to Jake, whose responses were either a shrug or rolling of his neck.
JD knew he should be talking to Melinda. It was only good manners to start a social conversation with someone you were walking next to, and he'd been raised with impeccable manners. He knew he was well regarded for being polite, respectful, and civil.
He just couldn't think of anything to say without sounding insincere.
And it wasn't as if he hadn't had enough practice talking to Buck's girlfriends, which were plentiful. And his former girlfriends. Which were as equally plentiful.
He'd always enjoyed talking to them before.
And it wasn't as if there weren't things to talk about. The work he did. The people he knew. The weather. He'd always been teased about not being at a loss for something to say.
He couldn't think of a damn thing now.
"What does JD stand for?" Melinda asked.
Without a beat, he replied with an answer Ezra had provided him for an occasion such as this. "Why, I'm just deciding , Ma'am."
"I--" JD almost melted under her withering stare. "I'm sorry," he lowered his head. "It's something I like only God and my mom to know."
"I'll bet Buck knows." Her eyes crinkled into what JD could only assume was meant to be a flirtatious gesture. "Isn't that funny how I thought he was your father," she chattered on. "I mean, you do look so much alike at first glance. But he doesn't have any children, does he?"
JD shrugged at the question noncommittally. Percentages wouldn't seem to be in the ladies' man's favor, but then he knew that Buck had always done his best to beat the house.
"I don't have any children," he replied quickly.
Melinda giggled through her nose. "No, I was asking about your father. Where is he?"
The youth shook his head. "He left before I was born." Which wasn't exactly the truth, for he knew that his mother was the one who'd left first, but in twenty-four years it was the only answer he was able to give that didn't encourage further questions.
Fortunately, Melinda seemed to sense his reluctance and steered the conversation onto smoother ground. "Well, Buck's a wonderful man. I bet you can talk to him about just everything."
"I guess," he answered slowly.
"I mean," she continued, "about your hopes. And your dreams. And your work, the cases you're working on." She swept a hand up casually, as if it didn't even need mentioning. "Though I'm sure you talk about that way too much."
"Yeah, we probably do."
"Are you getting anywhere on this case? The bombing, I mean." She shuddered dramatically. "It's just frightening."
JD recalled the way Ezra once described his mother--the irrepressible Maude Vanderbilt Standish Windsor Simpson Talesian Rosenbaum Von Hauken--as not being frightened by anything less than an angry mother bear sitting on the cow-catcher of a speeding train as it barreled towards her bound-and-gagged body in the middle of a raging fire during drought season.
That woman was a pansy compared to the steely look he saw in Melinda's eyes.
"I can't talk about that, Ma'am."
"Oh, of course. It's terrible," she said. "These bombings are not helping my cause. You really have to make them stop. And it's Melinda, not Ma'am."
The quartet clustered together again as the elevator chimed its arrival and Melinda took JD's hand. "You must join us next time." She turned and looked up at Buck with a besotted gaze. "I may have to spend all afternoon with the division heads but I'll be thinking of you."
Kissing her lightly on the cheek, Buck escorted Melinda and her son inside and pressed the button for the lobby, gesturing for JD to wait for the next ascending car.
As the doors began to close, Jake called out to him, "Real good to see you again, Jed."
"It's JD, not Jed," Buck said with a laugh. JD watched as the older man affectionately squeezed Jake on the back of his neck.
He knew his own hands wouldn't have been so gentle.