MAIN CHARACTERS: Seven
Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #14, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Kacey Tucker and Nina Talbot were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-12-2010. Art by Shiloh.
The members of the highly trained ATF special reaction team sat scattered around their office, each deeply engaged not in one of the endless tasks that kept them razor sharp and ready to act on a moment's notice, but in paperwork. Or rather they would have been engaged in paperwork, if they had any left to do. They had run out about two days ago, and were now at their wits' end, looking for something to pass the time.
Their leader, Chris Larabee, was in his office, hunched over his desk. The intimidating piles of never-ending paperwork were nowhere in sight. He had conquered them over a week ago, which was downright unnatural as far as the ex-SEAL was concerned. He cast a furtive glance at the door and beyond. He didn't want any of the team to catch him. It had been ages since he'd been actually been able to indulge in this particular guilty pleasure.
He watched as Nathan passed by on his way to the break room. Probably getting some coffee, he told himself. But he decided to wait and see if the man stopped by on his way back to his desk. They were all still checking in on him rather regularly.
Not that he minded, really, it was nice to know they cared, but it did wear a little thin after a few weeks. After all, he'd been out of the hospital for almost a month now…
Almost a month since he'd helped to bring down the father and daughter team who had almost killed him. Almost a month of nothing but working out, physical therapy appointments, paperwork, and an endless series of checks and rechecks of their equipment…
Nathan passed by again, a coffee cup in his hand. He flashed him a smile. Chris responded with a brief, distracted grin, then looked back down to what his arms covered on his desktop. He hoped he looked busy.
Nathan kept on going and Chris sighed with relief. He was safe again… for a while.
He glanced back out at the bullpen, feeling a little guilty. Well, it wasn't exactly his fault, after all. He'd been in the hospital for months! He had to do something to pass the time, didn't he? Was it his fault if an old addiction had reared its ugly head? It wasn't like it was dangerous or anything.
Well, unless he got caught.
He moved his arms, glancing down at the desktop. So, how were G.I. Joe and his men going to get out of this one? He silently turned the page of the comic and kept reading…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sitting at his desk, Ezra reached for the book he'd been reading. With that balanced in his lap, he leaned over and picked up the CD player and headphones. He slipped the player down next to him, the headphones over his ears, then pressed "play" with a sigh. The annoying female voice filled his head again.
But he needed to work on his Russian, and since he didn't have anything better to do, he was stuck. He quietly repeated back the endless list of phrases, rolling his eyes over "Would you like to go out for dinner and dancing?"
Why doesn't someone ask me that? he wondered, but he already knew the answer.
Diane, his most recent dinner companion, had taken a walk after he had pulled a gun to stop the two teens who had tried to hold up the restaurant they were dining at.
And Kathleen had gotten upset when he'd had to leave her bed for a team meeting.
You would think a police officer – of all people – would understand, he groused silently.
And the list went on.
He was right: women did shy away too easily.
He repeated the next set of phrases, not really paying attention to them. Maybe he needed to get out more, meet more people…
He leaned over and slid the book onto his desk and turned to his computer. He glanced around at the other men. They all looked busy enough…
He tapped a key, the monitor blinking back to life. He sighed longingly at the image there – palm trees, white beach, blue ocean…
A trip might be just what he needed. Or, better yet, a cruise.
He smiled. A singles cruise… to the Bahamas.
His fingers tapped quietly across the keys and, a moment later, he was comparing prices.
Oh, most definitely doable. He glanced up again, his gaze wandering from one man to the next. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy their company, but another month with nothing to do? Well, nothing but train, and train, and train some more. Oh, yes, he needed a vacation. He deserved a vacation.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah tried to keep his attention from wandering, but he just couldn't do it. And he knew why, too. He'd been spending too much time meditating – too much while Chris had been in the hospital, too much since Larabee had gotten out and they had taken down the Herreras.
What he needed was some real action, not the endless exercises Chris insisted on. Oh, the exercises were fine, but after a month they got to be pretty dull.
He wanted something more challenging. And not the training scenarios they ran with the local SWAT guys, either, which were also useful, but they got to be too predictable.
What he needed was real action – get-down, get-dirty, kick ass and take names kind of action.
It was that or he needed to spend more time down at the church… The Purgatory house of worship was always an adventure. Maybe he could finally get that plumbing in the kitchen replaced…
Of course he could always volunteer to go along with Father Tim on the church's next Outward Bound trip…
A slight grin curled the corners of his mouth. Or maybe he should check to see if Dee was finally back in town. Keeping his eyes shut, he smiled, remembering the last time he had invited her to church…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin hid behind his computer monitor. Every few seconds he glanced up, checking on what the others were doing.
Ezra was still working on some foreign language. And he must not be very happy about his progress, not given the wistful expression on his face.
Oh well, Vin knew he'd master it – eventually.
He shifted his attention to Josiah. The profiler was meditating – again.
The sniper shook his head. Hell, if Josiah enjoyed it as much as he obviously did, maybe he should try it again himself…
Naw, it was too damn boring. Guess he'd just have to leave enlightenment for some other lifetime.
Buck was his next target of focus. The man was doing something in the far corner, but the sniper couldn't see what it was.
Whatever it was, Buck probably shouldn't be doing it, not if his nervous glances around the room were any indication.
Vin looked back at his monitor and he swore softly under his breath. He was a moment or two from getting killed – again. He shook his head. How the hell had he let that happen? How the hell had JD slipped that move in?
He groaned silently when he saw JD's message pop up on his screen: "Got you, Vin!"
This was the last time he played Commando Tactics online with their resident computer expert. He was sure that JD had found a way to cheat, he just couldn't prove it.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck's fingers moved swiftly as his gaze darted around the office. No one seemed to be paying any attention to him, at least not at the moment, although it sometimes felt like both Ezra and Vin were trying to see what it was he was doing.
And he would very much like not to get caught. It would be too humiliating.
There were just some things a man should never get caught doing, and this was one of them.
He could just imagine the reactions.
Vin would be disgusted.
Nathan would shake his head and walk away.
And JD would probably laugh at him. That would hurt.
He could not get caught. He looked around at the others again. So far, so good…
He was close, so close. Only a few more and he'd be there, and it would be good, so good. He was sure of that.
He glanced down. Oh, yeah, it was perfect.
He just hoped that no one ever found out he'd knitted it himself for Chris' upcoming birthday himself. But the colors were perfect – rich earth-tones instead of Larabee's usual black…
Why, he'd even made a secret trip into Larabee's bedroom to verify the size!
It had started out as a way to pass the time while Chris had been in the hospital, but now he was determined to actually finish the damn thing, which would be a first.
Besides, he could always say he found a knitted sweater on sale someplace…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A knock on the doorjamb caused five heads to jerk up, each man's face decorated with a guilty expression. In Larabee's office they heard a desk drawer slam shut.
Ezra's hand flew out and he clicked his mouse.
Vin and JD turned their computers off.
Buck shoved something into a gym bag sitting on the floor next to his chair.
Josiah sprang to his feet and immediately headed for the kitchen, his walk a little stiff.
Only Nathan, who had been diligently going through the filing cabinets, making sure everything was properly alphabetized, didn't respond, continuing to work.
"Are we expecting someone?" Ezra asked, his tone skillfully neutral.
Vin and JD both shrugged and shook their heads.
Chris stepped out into the room, clearing his throat and saying, "Well, it isn't Travis. He never knocks."
He walked to the closed door, Vin and Ezra moving to cover him, just in case.
Larabee opened the door, then said, "Mary, good to see you. Is something wrong?"
"Well, in a manner of speaking, yes," was the reply.
"Uh, come in," Chris said, stepping aside so the woman could enter.
"Mary," Buck greeted.
"Gentlemen," she said to them, smiling nervously.
"Did I hear you say there's something wrong?" Ezra asked her.
The journalist nodded as the men gathered around her. She shifted from foot to foot, looking almost embarrassed. Then she lifted her chin, glancing at each of them as she said, "I really hate to bother you, and if you're busy, just say so, but—"
"Oh, we're not busy," JD said quickly, then smiled.
The others nodded their agreement.
"Well," she said, nodding, "that's… great." Translation, she thought, they're bored. "I'm really sorry to ask you, but, well, I'm on a committee for Common Ground, the homeless youth facility in Purgatory, and we're having a fund-raiser Saturday at St. Philip's. I know you all volunteer there and—"
"Y' need some help, Mary?" Vin asked her. He was very familiar with Common Ground, having been a homeless youth himself.
Mary nodded, smiling her thanks at him. "Yes. A couple of my committee members were supposed to help, but they called to cancel. I'm a little… short-handed. I could definitely use a few more… bodies for this event."
Chris smiled. "Well, I'm sure we can lend you a hand."
"I really do appreciate it," she said, smiling widely. "Uh, can you meet me there around two, on Saturday?"
Chris nodded. "Sure, we'll be there." He glanced at the others, adding, "Right?"
"You can count on my presence."
"I'll be there."
She smiled again. "I don't know what to say… Thank you – all of you. Given the weather, shorts and tank-tops would probably be appropriate…"
The men nodded.
"Well, great then," she said, glancing around at them again, the speculative look she was giving them leaving them all a little baffled. "I'll see you then," she added, then turned and left.
Chris closed the door behind her.
"Sounds like they're doing some repair work outside," Josiah said.
The others nodded.
"Well, guess I better get back to work," Chris said, the others nodding and heading back to whatever it was they had been doing.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
On Saturday Team Seven arrived at the large Purgatory church and went inside. They glanced around. Several rows of folding chairs had set up in the fellowship hall, and, at the far end a raised platform had been set up. There were a few other men standing near one end of the stage.
The seven agents headed over to join them.
Father Tim and Mary walked up to join them a few moments later. "Gentlemen," the Episcopal priest said, "I can't thank you enough for helping us out today." He handed each of them a piece of paper with a number printed on it. "If you'll just pin these on the fronts of your shirts, we'll get started."
Chris glanced down at the sheet of paper in his hands. "What's this for?" he asked.
Father Tim checked his watch. "No time. Just pin it on and have a seat in the front row. We're already running late. Oh, and keep in mind this is going to help us help a lot of homeless kids," he added.
With perplexed expressions the seven agents did as they had been instructed, as did the other four men, most of who looked resigned to their fate, whatever that was.
Chris and the others sat down together at the far end of the first row. The blond craned his neck, trying to spot Mary in the gathering crowd. A middle-aged woman walked past and smiled at him. He smiled back, a little uncomfortable with the appraising once over she gave him, especially in a church. He turned to the others. "Anyone see Mary?"
"Nope," Vin said, moving his feet as another woman walked by, her gaze wandering over the men as she passed.
"Me, either," Josiah added, grinning slightly. He hadn't been looked at like that in a few years.
Buck grunted, his attention on a beautiful, long-legged blonde who strolled by, looking them over. He smiled, but she ignored him. He scowled after her, then realized that Chris had asked a question. "What?" he questioned.
"Never mind," Nathan said, grinning and shaking his head.
A moment later, Father Tim was standing at a podium at the far end of the stage. He tapped the mike, making it whine. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said, then smiled nervously. "Ladies, why don't you all find yourselves a seat… Yes, thank you, that's wonderful. Thank you." He waited until the women had all found seats, then continued, saying, "I wanted to thank everyone for coming today. And I guess we all know who it is we have to thank for this amazing September weather…"
A wave of soft laughter passed through the ladies.
"I'm hoping that, with your help, we'll be able to raise enough money to finally complete the computer room at our outreach center, Common Ground. That will allow us to extend our late-night safe house program for homeless youth. But without your generosity none of what we do would be possible. So, please, keep the kids you'll be helping in mind this afternoon."
The priest took a deep breath and then continued, saying, "I'd now like to introduce our hostess for this afternoon's event – Ms. Mary Travis, investigative reporter for the Denver Post. She has her own blog, The Clarion."
Mary joined him on stage and Father Tim reached out, giving her a hug. He stepped back and she took his place at the mike.
Mary smiled out at the crowd, then perused the first row, carefully avoiding the questioning gazes of the seven ATF agents. "Good morning, ladies," she said. "It looks like we have an excellent crop today, don't we? I'm sure you ladies are anxious to get started, so, without further ado, let's get this show on the road!"
A wild cheer went up behind the men and the seven agents turned to see what was so interesting. It was then that they realized they were the only men present, and they were all sitting in the front row.
Chris turned back, glancing at the others. "What do you think this is?" he asked.
"Hell if I know," Vin said, looking nervous. "But if these ladies stampede, we're gonna get trampled for sure."
"We could, as they say, 'make a break for it,'" Ezra suggested.
Josiah, noting the predatory expressions on some of the ladies' faces, shook his head. "You wouldn't get more ten feet, brother."
Mary took the mike off its stand and walked out to the center of the stage. She smiled down at Chris, then motioned for him come up and join her. His eyes widened and he glanced back at the women, then at Mary again. He smiled thinly and shook his head.
Her smiled widened and her eyes danced dangerously. "Well, look here, ladies, we have a shy one! I think he needs some encouragement."
An enthusiastic cheer went up, accompanied by clapping and even a little foot stamping.
"Come on now," she coaxed, her eyes narrowing to let him know he'd better get his ass in gear and move.
Chris stood and walked stiffly to the edge of the stage. Looking up at her, he hissed, "Mary, what's going on?"
"Get up here," she replied in kind, the mike down at her side so no one would hear.
Chris stepped onto the stage and turned toward the crowd, suddenly feeling like he was facing a firing squad. He smiled nervously at the sea of feminine faces.
"So, ladies, I'd like to start the bidding at three hundred, do I hear three hundred for this magnificent specimen of manhood?" She walked behind Chris, giving him a swat on the butt as she passed.
He jumped forward and the crowd laughed.
"The perfect generic jock, wouldn't you say?" she asked the ladies.
Chris' head jerked to the side, his mouth falling open, his eyes going wide. He was being sold?
"Three hundred!" some one yelled.
"We have four hundred," Mary continued, ignoring the indignation in Chris' eyes. "Do I hear four-fifty? I have it on very good authority that number…" She checked his chest for the number. "…seventy-nine is an excellent handyman. Just think, ladies, you can have him make a few repairs around the house, then take you out for an exciting evening of dinner and dancing… or maybe a moonlit drive in the mountains in his big Dodge Ram!"
"Four-fifty," someone called.
"He's also a skilled horseman…" Mary added.
"Now that's what we want to hear," Mary encouraged, smiling.
The crowd cheered.
"We have seven-fifty. Do I hear eight hundred?" Mary asked, scanning the crowd. When no one replied, she continued, "I have seven-fifty… going once… going twice… and sold for seven-fifty to the lady in red!"
The crowd cheered again.
Father Tim appeared, motioning for Chris to step down off the stage.
Chris did, his cheeks bright red, his expression dazed. The woman rushed up to join them, grabbing Chris' arm. They headed toward the back of the crowd.
"And now… for our next offering…" Mary pointed to Buck.
The ladies' man's eyes rounded and he pointed to himself.
"Better get up there," Nathan said and swallowed nervously. "She'll come get you if you don't."
The ladies' man pushed to his feet. Swallowing hard, he walked over and stepped up onto the stage. He shot Mary a nervous look, then turned and flashed a cocky smile at the crowd.
A few scattered cheers were the only response.
"All right, ladies," Mary announced, "we have a real ladies' man here. That's right, number 103 just loves the ladies." She shoved the mike in front of Buck's face. "Don't you, 103?"
"Ya darn right I do," Buck said, grinning, the women in the audience cheering more enthusiastically this time.
"Let's start the bidding at three hundred. Do I hear more?"
"Three hundred," someone near the back called out.
"We have three hundred," Mary echoed. "103 is very good with his hands," she added. "Any one need a man to check under their hood?"
Buck shot her a glance, clearly delighted by the comment.
"Three-ten," a timid voice called, just loudly enough to be heard.
"Three-ten," Mary repeated. "Do I hear three-fifty? Oh, I should also tell you that 103 also knows his way around explosives!"
"Three seventy-five," the timid voice returned.
"Four hundred," a woman in the back called.
"Now that's more like it!" Mary said. "Remember, it's all for a good cause!"
"Four-ten," the timid voice called out, sounding a little nervous.
"I have four-ten," Mary said. "Oh, and did I tell you, 103 was once a Navy SEAL!"
"Four-fifty!" the voice in back barked.
"Four-sixty," the timid voice squeaked desperately.
"Four-sixty," Mary echoed, hoping no one would bid against the tiny woman in the third row. "Four-sixty going once… going twice, sold!" she said, rushing to the end. "103 goes to the lady in the third row!"
"That's it?" Buck questioned, pouting at her. "Ya didn't give anyone else a chance to bid, darlin'! I'm worth twice that!"
"Oh, hush up," Mary said.
Father Tim walked up to escort him off the stage.
"Who bought me?" Buck asked.
"Her," Mary said, nodding to the young woman who had stood up.
"Her?" Buck echoed, his expression falling slightly. She looked like a grade school teacher. He jumped down, shaking his head and mumbling to himself.
Mary pointed to Josiah, who glanced heavenward for a moment, his lips moving in swift if reverent prayer before he walk to the stage and stepped up. "All right, ladies, I'm starting the bidding at four hundred for 97!"
"Four-fifty!" someone immediately called.
Buck turned, shooting a nasty glare at the older man before he headed off behind Father Tim.
"Let me tell you a little about number 97, he's traveled all over the world and knows a great deal about spirituality—"
"Six hundred, that's the way!" Mary encouraged. "He spends a great deal of his free time right here, helping the poor."
"And, if you like a man with a more sensitive side, why not ask 97 to show you how he meditates?"
"Intelligent, well-traveled, spiritual… what more could a woman ask for?"
The crowd fell silent. "Eight-fifty for this… amazing man's company. Eight hundred and fifty, going once… eight-fifty going twice… and… anyone? Sold for eight-fifty to the lucky lady in the blue top!"
Josiah's smile widened when he saw the woman stand up. She was beautiful. "What do you know, there is a God," he said quietly.
Josiah headed off the stage as Father Bob approached. "Father, introduce me to that lovely lady," he instructed.
Nathan was Mary's next victim.
Mary smiled. "Now we have 400, who has some real medical expertise. Do I hear four hundred for 400?"
"Four hundred!" a woman in the back called.
"Four-fifty," someone else called.
Nathan, who had looked more than a little unsure when he'd stepped onto the stage now smiled, his shoulders squaring.
That brought a smile to the man's lips.
"Five-fifty!" the woman in back called out.
"Well, I can see you all appreciate quality when you see it," Mary said, grinning. "I have five-fifty, do I hear six hundred?"
Nathan glanced over the crowd, looking hopeful.
"Five-fifty, going once… going twice… sold!"
Nathan's eyes rounded with surprise when he saw Rain stand up and wave excitedly at him. He frowned slightly and she shot him a hot look that had him looking more than a little grateful it had been his wife who'd purchased him.
Mary pointed at Vin, who had slumped down in his chair, looking for all the world like someone had just pole-axed him. "And next we have number 313!"
Vin stood and climbed mechanically onto the stage, his cheeks already sporting a rosy glow. He took up a stance somewhere between "attention" and "at ease," looking anything but the latter.
"313 is an interesting offering, ladies," Mary announced, walking around the sniper. "An unusual combination of pure masculinity and playful little boy—"
She watched Vin's blush deepen to scarlet as someone called out, "Four-fifty!"
"This is a man who I know would be more than happy to take you for a ride on his motorcycle, or maybe to a drive-in movie in his Jeep… Do they still have those?"
"Or, if you prefer, an evening of country music and a little country swing dancing?"
"Ladies, do you like a mystery? Well then, this is the man for you – quiet, gentle, but – and you'll have to trust me on this – he's always… armed. You couldn't ask for a better man to take you out for a walk in the woods…"
Mary stepped up to Vin, trying not to laugh at the scandalized expression he was trying hard to hide. "Say good morning to the ladies, 313."
"Good mornin', " Tanner complied in his soft Texas drawl, blue eyes rounded and looking a little frightened.
"Oh, nine hundred!" a woman roared.
"Nine-fifty! Oh please, please, please!" someone else cried.
The audience laughed.
Mary waited a moment. "I have nine-fifty, do I hear a thousand? Nine-fifty, going once… going twice… sold for nine-fifty to the polite lady in the middle!"
The crowd cheered.
Vin, rolled his shoulders and jerked his neck to the side before he looked at Mary. "I won't forget this," he promised her.
Mary blinked innocently.
"Vin," Father Tim called, trying not to smile.
The sniper stepped down and the priest patted him on the back as they walked off. Vin winced, but he didn't look back. At least he'd been able to keep all his clothes on…
Mary picked her next victim: JD.
"14, you're next! Now, ladies, get a good look at this adorable young man!"
"Why don't you give these wonderful ladies a smile, 14… That's the way…"
"14 here is a wiz on the computer… any gamers out there?"
"He also has a sleek motorcycle…"
"Youth, computer savvy… anyone need their remote programmed?" Mary asked.
"I have six-fifty," Mary said. "Six-fifty going once… going twice… and sold to the gray-haired lady in the second row!"
"Gray?" JD squeaked as Mary rushed him off the stage.
"And now, for our last offering… 66, come on up!"
Ezra huffed out a small breath and stood, trying to hold on to his dignity as he climbed the step and joined Mary.
"This, ladies, is an authentic southern gentleman…"
"As you can see, 66 has excellent taste in clothing, and in everything else…"
"He prefers gourmet restaurants and drives… a Jag…"
"Any of you enjoy games of chance?"
"Imagine it… five star restaurant, dinner, dancing, a moonlit drive in that big purring machine…"
"That's what I want to hear!" Mary said. "I have nine-hundred… going once… going twice… sold, for nine hundred dollars!"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday morning found two of the men from Team Seven sitting at their desks, trying to look busy. They both glanced up when Chris walked in, coming to a halt halfway to his office when he saw them staring at him. His eyes narrowed.
"Good morning," Nathan greeted him, forcing himself not to smile.
"That's your opinion," the blond grumbled, turning and crossing to the break room, the pair trailing along after him.
Chris went straight to the coffee maker. "Do you have any idea how long it takes to retile a whole damned bathroom?" he asked them.
Buck's eyes rounded and he forced back a laugh so he wouldn't choke on his own coffee. As soon as he swallowed he asked, "You mean to tell me someone paid seven hundred and fifty dollars to get you to retile their bathroom?"
Chris grunted an affirmative as he fixed his coffee, then reached around and rubbed his back. "I think I'm going to have to get some therapy on my still-aching back."
Nathan chuckled. "It was for a good cause, Chris, admit it."
Larabee tried to scowl, but he couldn't quite pull it off. "Yeah, I know…" He took a sip of the hot coffee, then lifted his head and grinned. "Besides, she was a great cook; fixed me a wonderful dinner."
"Just dinner?" Buck asked innocently, but his eyebrows were starting to dance on his brow.
Chris almost lied, but he nodded. "Yes, Buck, just dinner. A very late dinner. Anybody else here?"
"Not yet," Buck replied, looking disappointed.
They all heard two sets of foot steps entering the office and waited to see who it was. A moment later Josiah and Vin arrived to attack the coffee maker.
"Morning," Nathan said greeted, smiling.
Josiah glanced over his shoulder, flashing a toothy grin at the man. "It certainly is, brother."
Nathan's expression shifted to one of surprise.
"Hmm," Buck mused, "now, how should we interpret that you reckon?"
"He didn't get lucky, if that's what y' mean," Vin told the ladies' man.
Josiah chuckled. "She just wanted to get to know me first."
"Oh, I see," Nathan replied, trying not to laugh.
"I take it you had a good day with your, uh, buyer?" Chris asked the profiler, sounding a little annoyed.
Josiah took his cup and leaned back against the counter. "In fact, I did," he said. "Dr. Christine Fromm. She's a successful neurologist. We had a pleasant day. I took her out to the monastery to do some meditation, then we had dinner and went to a lecture by Tabassi Endo, an African spiritual philosopher—"
"And she wants to see you again?" Buck interrupted.
Josiah grinned. "Tomorrow night," he replied, looking entirely too pleased with himself. "She and her husband are going to join Dee and I at a—"
"She's married?" Buck shook his head and shifted his attention to Vin. "How about you, Junior? What did your lady pay – what was it? – nine-fifty for?"
Chris choked on his coffee and coughed, then looked up. "Nine-fifty?"
Vin nodded, cheeks and ears already turning red.
"Nine-fifty?" Larabee repeated. "That's two hundred m—" He stopped and huffed.
Vin looked up from his coffee, meeting his friend's gaze. "It's the accent," he said and sighed, resigned.
"Yes, I do believe that was the deciding factor," Ezra said as he and JD entered the break room to join the others. JD was carrying a box from their favorite bagel place.
"And what did you go for?" Chris asked Josiah.
The older man grinned. "Eight-fifty."
Chris looked hurt.
"That's all right, stud," Buck said. "Mary just wasn't warmed up yet, that's all."
"Yeah, but I went for six-fifty, and I was second to the last," JD argued.
Buck looked down at the younger man. "Well, of course you did, kid – ain't as much of you to enjoy!"
JD rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I'll have you know that Mrs. McCreedy was a really nice lady. I helped her get her new entertainment system set up and showed her how to increase the filters on her spam guard."
"Now that sounds like a real interesting evening," Nathan said, trying to keep a straight face.
"Hey, it was… nice. She fixed me dinner and I called Casey and she came over." The young man grinned. "Casey thought what I'd done was nice, too." His grin got bigger, letting them know that he had been amply rewarded for his community service.
"Did Rain think it was 'nice,' too?" Buck asked, wagging his eyebrows at the former medic.
"Something like that," Nathan replied, ducking his head, his blush making it clear that he'd been treated to his wife's appreciation in some spectacular fashion.
"How much was Rain willing to pay for you?" Josiah asked the Black man.
"Five-fifty," he replied.
"That's all?" Buck asked.
"Hey, that's money that came out of my deck fund!" Nathan snapped. "It's gonna take me three months to make that up…"
"What?" Ezra asked when the men's attention shifted to him.
"Well, what'd ya sell for?" Buck asked.
The southerner sighed dramatically, but stated with more than a little satisfaction, "Nine hundred."
"Wow," JD replied, looking from Ezra to Vin and back again. "Guess it really is an accent thing."
"So, how was your, uh, bidder?" Nathan questioned.
"Like a breath of fresh night air blowing off the jasmine…"
"That mean ya got lucky or not?" Buck demanded.
Ezra rolled his eyes. "The culmination of an enjoyable evening with a delightful woman does not need to result in fornication, Mr. Wilmington."
"He struck out," Chris translated.
Ezra sighed again. "She was from Mobile. We had a wonderful time talking about—"
"That just leaves you, Vin," JD said, turning to the sniper.
The blush on the sniper's face said it all.
"Damn," Buck hooted, slapping his leg. "How'd that happen?"
"I ain't talkin' about it," Vin said, turning and heading out of the room, the others trailing after him.
"Oh, come on, Vin," Buck wheedled. "Give us something here."
Vin huffed out a breath, but he knew he wasn't going to escape without telling them something. "I took her ridin' 'n' her horse spooked… She landed in the creek…"
"And?" Buck asked.
"Hell, Bucklin, I couldn't let her ride back like that!"
"What'd you do?" JD asked innocently.
Vin sighed, loudly. "I had her take her clothes off so's we could drape 'em over some bushes and—"
"She fell for that?" Buck interrupted.
"I wasn't plannin' on anything happenin'!" Vin snapped back, his ears burning with embarrassment. "Things just… kind 'a happened… And that's all I got t' say about it!"
Chris grinned, turning to his oldest friend. "You haven't told us about your, uh, buyer, Buck."
"She was…" He grinned, his chest puffing out, "better than I expected."
"You got lucky, too?" JD asked, sighing and rolling his eyes.
"Kid, I'm always lucky!"
"I knew that was going to happen," Nathan said matter-of-factly.
Buck looked at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Vin turned his best innocent expression on the ladies' man. "Well, y' gotta admit, Buck, she sounded kind 'a… desperate. How long had it been?"
Buck looked a little confused. "Well, a while. She's shy."
"School teacher?" Josiah asked knowingly.
"Secretary," Buck countered.
The profiler nodded. "Ah."
"What? Ah, what?" Buck demanded.
"Nothing," Josiah replied.
"And she got you for such a bargain…" JD added.
"Bargain?" Chris asked.
"Four-sixty," Ezra supplied.
"Four-sixty?" Larabee echoed, finally grinning.
Buck drew himself up. "She said I was irresistible… at any price," he defended himself.
"Well, Buck, Vin," Chris said a moment later. "Since you're the only two who got lucky, you're buyin' the rest of us a real breakfast."
"Hey, I got lucky, too!" Nathan and JD declared at the same time.
They blushed. The others laughed.
"Fine, you four can split the check," Chris told them.
Buck smiled. "Well, I'd be delighted to, boys… Now, let me tell you, that little lady just needed a little nudge in the right direction to boost her self-esteem…"
The men started for the door, all smiles and boisterous camaraderie.