by Helen Adams

Everyone agreed; the mistletoe had been a great idea. Vin had come in for some serious teasing when he had shown up after his last patrol with a bunch of the stuff balanced on his saddlehorn but had shrugged off the hoots and jibes about going hunting for a sweetheart with a grin. It was tradition, he had said, a pretty little something to add to the Christmas party Inez was throwing at the tavern.

Buck, of course, had applauded the idea to anyone who would listen. What better excuse could anyone have, he'd said, to steal a kiss from all the lovely ladies attending the festivities?

Josiah, Vin and Ezra, lounging at a corner table of the saloon sharing stories and glasses of Christmas cheer, had been keeping a running tally of all those who had made use of the innocent looking little plant and taking bets on who would be next. With grand amusement they had watched Casey Wells 'accidentally' bump into JD beneath one bough. They had then offered approving grins and tips of the hat to Chris Larabee after their leader had danced Mary Travis underneath another. Nathan Jackson had invited his beloved Rain to town for the celebration and despite all his serious talk about the medicinal properties inherent in mistletoe, he, too, had been spied stealing a few playful smooches beneath its leaves.

Josiah had excused himself from the conversation long enough to wish Mrs. Potter and her children a merry Christmas and had not hesitated to plant friendly kisses on the rosy cheeks of both Gloria and her daughter. Vin had gone for drink refills once and had come back to the table covered in blushes and lipstick when two saloon girls had cornered him and used the plant to their advantage. Buck had attached a sprig to the front of his hat to better increase his odds and had managed to steal a kiss from nearly every lady in the room with the exception of Inez. Try as he might, he could not seem to trick the wily and unexpectedly agile Senorita Recillos into standing in one spot long enough to get his arms around her.

"So, my friend, you feeling like joining the fun?" Josiah asked Ezra, tipping a bit more 'seasoning' into the glass of eggnog in front of him. "Seems to me you're the only one of our little company not to have been graced by a kiss tonight. Better get out there before Buck claims 'em all for himself."

Snickering as he observed the persistent man making another failed pass at Inez, Ezra shook his head. "And what would you estimate my chances of success to be were I to follow in the footsteps of the amorous Mr. Wilmington?"

A sly look entered the older man's blue eyes. "Pretty good, I'd say. This is just a guess, mind you, but I think our pretty young senorita might just be waiting for someone to approach her with a little more subtlety. Maybe you should ask her to dance."

Vin agreed. "Yeah, pard. The instruments them fellas brought are sounding mighty good tonight. Why don't you give it a whirl; maybe dance her under the mistletoe the way Chris did Mary."

"Seems to me you owe our resident playboy a little payback after that joke he played on you last week," Josiah reminded, bringing a scowl to Ezra's face. Buck had snuck into Ezra's room and substituted a noxiously strong floral perfume for his bay rum after-shave. Hard as he had tried to wash it off, he had still wound up wafting a magnolia-scented cloud toward everyone he had met for the next two days. "What do you think would be a more fitting reprisal than you sailing in there and stealing the kiss Buck's been angling for all night, and doing it in front of half the town?"

A wicked grin spread across the gambler's handsome face. His eyes gleamed and one could almost imagine that they saw two pointy horns pushing up through his dark hair as he considered the idea. He certainly had no objection to the thought of kissing Inez, had occasionally allowed himself to daydream about it, in fact, but the thought of revenge; of publicly outshining the ladies' man; suddenly made the idea even sweeter.

Rising gracefully from his seat, Ezra headed straight over to Buck and gestured back in the direction of the table, evidently convincing the man that Vin and Josiah had a sudden desire for his company.

"Reckon we're supposed to keep him busy long enough for Ezra to make his move," Vin surmised with a grin. "Wonder if Ez knows what he's gettin' himself in for."

"A real fine evening if I've been reading the situation right," Josiah said smugly.

Vin's eyebrows rose. "You know something I don't?"

Buck reached the table just as he asked the question. "What do you not know?"

"That our hostess might be in favor of dancing with a gentleman," Sanchez told him innocently. "If said gentleman employs a certain degree of tact and diplomacy."

Recognizing the phrasing instantly, Buck's head snapped back in the other direction, eyes narrowing as he observed Ezra leaning against the edge of the bar, head bent close to Inez who leaned in from the other side. Both of them were smiling as they carried on what looked like a very private conversation. "Why that sneaky little Reb!" he exclaimed, admiration mixing with the indignation in his voice as he saw the southerner hold out his left hand and draw the pretty tavern manager out to join him just as the band of amateur musicians struck up a lively tune. Buck chuckled then, sounding both rueful and amused as he added, "Boy works fast when he's got a mind to, don't he?"

A snort of surprise was heard from Vin as he watched the couple prance and swirl in the motions of a spirited reel, both of them laughing as they danced. "Right lively, too. Never would've figured Ezra knew how to do any of them 'unsophisticated country dances'."

As the song neared its end Ezra moved closer to the woman in his arms and whispered something in her ear. She smiled and tilted her head, whispering something back. The observers all sat up straighter as they noticed their friend's green eyes flick towards one of the hanging sprigs of mistletoe, obviously choosing his target.

"Got a dollar says Inez turns him down flat, then gives him the slip before he can try anything," Vin offered, nudging Josiah.

"I'll take that bet," Sanchez agreed placidly. "Got another dollar says she kisses him."

"No way that's gonna happen. What do you say, Buck?" the long haired man prompted, grinning as he watched Buck's eyes trailing every move the couple made. "Care to put some money down?"

"Huh?" the man said, dragging his attention back to his friends. "Oh. No, I'm a little tapped out at the moment. Besides, after all the trouble I've gone to lately there's only one possible way this is gonna turn out."

The final note died out and Ezra brought the pretty Mexican woman to a graceful stop directly under the branch of mistletoe he had sighted earlier. A strange look stole over his features as he glanced up then looked deeply into the eyes of his partner; a look of uncertainty mixed with hope. Inez also gave the twig a glance, then slid both arms around Ezra's neck and smiled tenderly.

A wondering expression dawned upon the gambler's face as he leaned forward, meeting Inez halfway. Their lips touched lightly and softly, then Ezra's eyes drifted shut and his arms slid around the woman's body as their kiss became deeper and more passionate. Finally, they parted, and a grinning Inez pulled the dazed-looking southerner back onto the dance floor as the musicians began another song. The music was slower than before and the young woman wore an expression of sweet contentment as she moved back into Ezra's arms. He had taken on the look of a man who had been given a precious gift he hadn't even known he wanted.

From his place in the corner, Vin let go a long appreciative whistle and passed two silver dollars over to Josiah. "I sure as hell lost that bet. Much more a that and them two'd have had to go find someplace more private!" Suddenly realizing that he was possibly being a bit insensitive, the young man gave Buck a consoling pat on the shoulder. "Sorry, pard."

Buck heaved a long sigh and raised his drink to the others. His eyes were unexpectedly shining as he said, "A toast. To good friends who need a kick in the pants to see what's right in front of 'em."

A deep chuckle was Josiah's answer as he too raised a glass. "And to sneaky friends who know a lot more about subtlety than they're given credit for."

Vin grinned as he caught the gist of the others' self-congratulation. "Y'know, for a couple of fellers who make their living reading other people, Ezra and me sure have been blind. I should've seen that you were luring him into a trap, Bucklin. That what you meant a minute ago about going to a lot of trouble?"

A smug grin met the question. "I knew there had to be a reason the Wilmington magnetism wasn't workin' with Inez. Couldn't make it out at first but once I caught onto all them calf-eyed looks she was shootin' at Ezra when he wasn't looking, I figured I'd better light a fire under his ass before it was too late."

"We thought a little Christmas gift might be in order," Josiah explained. "I came up with the perfume idea. Figured Ezra would be so set on getting revenge on Buck that it'd make perfect bait."

"Why you crafty ol' dog," Tanner said admiringly. "Buck's a born matchmaker but I never would've figured you for bein' one."

The older man raised a pale eyebrow and gestured again with his glass, this time in a salute to Vin. "And I say it takes one to know one."

For a moment, Buck looked puzzled then his hearty laughter rang out as he followed Josiah's example. Vin raised his own glass, his grin bright and mischievous as he clinked it against the drinks of his unknown helpers. "Here's to good friends, mistletoe and folks that know that know how to bring 'em together."

The End

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