The two young agents grinned as they watched their two self-appointed watchdogs leave the table. They were surprised to find themselves enjoying the party despite the fact they had been ordered to attend.
Ever since Vin had changed into his suit he had been counting the hours until he could get back out of it. Never being one to stick with convention, he was wearing the typical tuxedo pants and jacket but had paired a black silk tie to complete the ensemble instead of the traditional bow tie. In his effort to try to remain as inconspicuous as possible, he had pulled his long brown hair back into a tight ponytail at the base of his neck. In between bites from his overflowing plate, Vin was self-consciously fidgeting with the black mask that covered the upper half of his head. Had he taken time to survey the room, he would have been aware of the attention he had drawn of the many ladies in the room.
JD's natural exuberance, on the other hand, had helped him to push aside any misgivings he initially had about wearing his mask. It wasn't often that the agents were invited to such a gathering and he was having a great time. The only down spot to the entire affair was the fact that his girlfriend, Casey, couldn't be there with him. He was enjoying just sitting with one of his best friends, eating some really great food and watching the diverse people in the room.
Just as Vin had finished his last crab cake, he noticed two women who were staring at him from the tables near the buffet table. Not sure why he was the object of their scrutiny, he shyly smiled at them before ducking his head back down to inspect the label on his beer bottle. He shoved the glass cocktail plate towards the centerpiece, closed his eyes and lifted the bottle to his lips to finish off the amber liquid. With a sigh, his eyes opened to find that the two women he had noticed earlier had moved over and were standing across the table from him and JD.
"Are these chairs taken, boys?" the brunette asked from behind the gold and silver mask that hid her features.
"Naw," JD mumbled in between bites of his stuffed mushrooms. "Our friends are sitting there but won't care if you want to join us. Right, Vin?"
"Sure," Vin agreed quietly. The sharpshooter was feeling even more rattled as the two women dropped into the seats and continued to stare at him.
"I'm Suzanne and this is my friend Janet," the brunette said, breaking the silence a few minutes later.
"Vin. This here is JD."
"Yes, we know," Janet said, reaching across the table to run a finger across one of the centerpiece's flowers.
Startled, Vin straightened in his chair and searched his mind for any clue as to who these two women were. He was baffled, sure that he did not recognize them. He shot a quick glance in JD's direction but could see by his friend's expression that JD didn't know the women either. "Um, if you don't mind me askin', what do ya mean, 'you know'?"
"Well, Agent Tanner, you are hardly an unforgettable man," Suzanne purred as she shifted her chair closer to Vin's. "I would know you anywhere!"
"Have we met?" Vin asked, his voice growing quieter. "Cause I hate to tell ya this but I don't remember meetin' you."
JD knew that his friend was uncomfortable so he jumped in, "Where do you know Vin from?"
Janet, who had moved from her chair and re-deposited herself in the chair at Vin's right leaned over and whispered, "I see you did not bring your bull whip with you this evening, Senor."
'Aw, hell!' Vin squirmed in his seat, silently cursing the Judge and all the unseen forces of the universe.
Suzanne's husky laughter drifted across the table as she caught his eye and gave him a suggestive wink. "I was wondering, Agent," Suzanne purred, "if I were to ask really nicely, could I interest you in a dance?"
Roughly shoving his chair back away from the table, the normally calm federal agent grabbed his empty beer bottle and beat a hasty retreat to the nearest bar leaving JD to contend with his friend's new admirers.
Across the room, Josiah and Nathan watched their teammate practically leap across the table in his haste to get to the bar. Laughing softly, the two shook their heads before scanning the room in search of their other friends. Josiah spotted Ezra on the dance floor with a very tall redhead, leading her through a complicated tango. With his usual flourish, the two quickly cleared the dance floor and entertained their audience with their sharp turns and crisp steps. Josiah tapped Nathan on the shoulder to direct his attention to the dance partners. The two men moved closer just in time to see the half-masked Phantom lower his Christine in a final dip as the music hit its finale. Amid loud applause, Ezra swept his lady friend into a deep bow as they accepted the appreciation of their audience.
Leaving the dance floor, Ezra escorted his partner in the direction of his two friends. Josiah and Nathan greeted the two and complimented them on their performance.
"It was our pleasure, Mr. Jackson," Ezra stated with a grin. "May I have the pleasure in introducing you to... " Ezra paused, with a slightly quizzical look, he turned to the woman and asked, "Please forgive me but I am unaware of your name, dear lady."
The lady in question smiled into his vibrant green eyes and, with a small curtsy in his direction, held out her hand to introduce herself. "My name is Katerina Michaelson."
Ezra reached out and captured the lady's hand, raising it to his lips. "The pleasure is surely mine, Ms. Michaelson."
Hearing Josiah's slight cough behind him, Ezra broke his gaze with Katerina and turned to complete the introductions. Nathan offered his hand with a smile, "I am pleased to meet you, ma'am."
"Well, since the obligatory etiquette has been completed," Katerina said, "how about we all chase down some of that champagne and get to know one another better?"
Buck had decided that Chris needed to loosen up and have some fun, just like they used to have back in the old days. After the two of them had reached the bar and placed their orders, Buck idly glanced around the room before turning his complete attention to his old friend. He knew that Chris didn't enjoy coming to functions like this anymore but he could remember a time when the two of them would have been tearing up the room.
Sensing the scrutiny from his right, Chris picked up the glass of whiskey and raised it in a silent salute before throwing it back. A slight tightening of his lips were the only indication of the burn that he felt as the liquor raced down his dry throat.
"Hey Chris, do you remember when we used to come to these things while we were on the force?"
"Yeah." Chris smiled, turning to face his old friend. "Damn, we used to really tear the place up back then, didn't we?"
"Yep. Those were the days!" Buck nodded with a grin. "Two single, good lookin' guys making all the women hot and bothered!"
Chris laughed as he signaled the bartender for another whiskey. "Man, it's hard to believe that we did half of what we did. The boys would never believe it."
"Believe what? That you were the guy with the most girls hangin' off of him? Even with my legendary animal magnetism, I got tired watchin' you hook up with a different bombshell every week," Buck said, clapping Larabee on his shoulder. "Don't you ever miss the hunt?"
"Naw. These past few years ... " Chris began.
Buck, seeing his friend sliding back into his dark memories, softly interrupted, "Chris, you know that she would have expected you to have gotten back to living again. You aren't being unfaithful to her by moving on with your life, you know." Buck picked up both of their refilled glasses, handing Chris one, raised his in a toast. "To life and not wasting what it has to offer us!"
After a slight hesitation, Chris clinked the edge of his glass against his oldest friend's with a thoughtful look. "To life and living it."
"Speaking of living it, take a look over there!" Buck exclaimed, pointing at the Team's table.
Chris looked over in the direction of Buck's finger and smiled as his eyes alighted on the rest of his team. Ezra, Josiah and Nathan had rejoined JD right as the apple-bobbing contest had been announced. They were lounging in their chairs watching JD make his way through his second dessert plate. It always amazed Chris as to the amount of food the youngest member of their team could put away at one sitting. If he didn't know better, he would have thought that JD hadn't had anything to eat during the past week.
"I guess Junior got brave enough to reclaim his chair," Buck laughed in his ear.
"I knew that Vin could move fast, just never expected to see him move that fast outside of a bust." Chris added dryly. "Come to think if it, he's never moved that fast at a bust."
"Well, I guess I could be persuaded to ask those two pretty young things to be available for our next bust, if you wanted to time him," Buck offered.
Chuckling, Larabee lifted his glass and drained the contents before replacing it on the bar. The bartender threw his damp rag over his shoulder and reached to replenish the whiskey in the tumbler. Seeing the refilled glass, Chris nodded his thanks to the man as he deposited a tip in the large brandy snifter that sat at the end of the bar.
Turning his attention back to his old friend, Buck studied the relaxed expression that had been missing from his friend's face. As he watched his friend trace designs in the condensation left from where the glass's had been sitting, Buck came up with an idea of how he could help Chris rejoin the land of the living. As he plotted out his new strategy, his eyes began to twinkle.
"Hey, Chris," Buck said, interrupting the would-be Picasso.
"Did you really mean that toast you just made?" Buck inquired.
"Sure I did. It's bad luck to toast and not be willing to stand behind the words."
Buck shook his head sadly and looked down at the half-empty glass in his hands. "I don't know if I really believe you."
"Listen," Chris said firmly, "if I said it, I meant it."
"Then prove it!"
Chris cocked his head slightly as he stared into his old friend's face, searching for some sign as to where this conversation was going. He finally detected the mischievous look that was lurking in Buck's eyes and grinned. "What do you propose, Bucklin?"
Buck slowly placed his glass on the soggy cocktail napkin and turned to fully face his friend. "A bet."
"A bet?" Chris echoed in disbelief. "You've been hanging out too much with Ezra lately, Buck," he said shaking his head.
"What?" Buck pressed. "Are you worried that you can't win a simple wager against me, Chris?"
"Come on, Buck. Remember the last time you and I made a bet? It took you a month to pay off your debt!" Chris said grinning from the memory of the ladies man standing in the middle of Chris' unfinished barn covered in sweat and paint.
"Aw, damn Chris. How was I to know you go over and toss that little lady over your shoulder and leave the room without saying a single word to her? Hell, even I have never had the nerve to do that to someone I didn't know!" Buck sputtered.
With a deep laugh, Chris' mind took him back to the exact moment that had changed his life forever. He and Buck had been representing the Denver Police Department at an event much like the one they were at this evening when they had begun to play their private game. The two of them always surveyed the room and would bet the other that he couldn't charm a particular lady into a future date. Buck had selected a pretty little lady with long curly brown hair who had kept spurning the advances of several men as they attempted to ask her to dance for Chris to work his magic on. Chris had agreed to the stakes and settled in to watch the lady in action. Buck knew that he had been plotting his strategy, looking for a chink in her armor. Suddenly, he had stood up, drained the whiskey from his glass and made his way over to where the lady in question had been all evening. The two of them stared at one another for what had to have seemed an eternity. With a brief nod, Chris' arms snaked out and grabbed her by her small waist and flung her over his shoulder in a fireman's hold. Laughing, she snatched her evening bag from the table and the two of them quickly left the party. His eyes softened as they always did when he thought of her. Who could have known that a harmless bet would have led him to meet the love of his life, his wife Sarah.
Feeling lucky and the warmth from the whiskey he had been indulging in, Chris looked over at Buck with a gleam in his eyes. "You're on! What's at stake this time?"
Momentarily stunned, Buck hastily recovered and exclaimed, "Well now, we have to find us a couple of lucky ladies then."
With the details set and the quarries selected, the two men set about on their self-appointed tasks. Chris had chosen a slight redhead for his buddy to test his world-famous charms on while Buck's eyes had been caught on a gorgeous head of blonde hair in the far recesses of the ballroom. The two men shook hands solemnly to seal their bargain and moved closer to their targets.
Vin had been keeping an eye on the two men ever since they had left the others and took up residence at the bar. His eyebrows furrowed as he tried to figure out just what was going on when the two shook hands and moved off in opposite directions. Since the first time he met Chris, he had felt that it was his unspoken responsibility to keep an eye on Chris and make sure that he didn't get into any tight spot.
Ezra had been idly flipping a quarter over his knuckles as his gaze passed over the crowd, constantly searching for a new source of amusement. The southerner had seen a lithe blonde woman enter the ballroom who seemed familiar to him but, with the mask that covered her face, he could not know for sure. He slowly perused the woman in question, noting the expensive gown and glittering jewels that adorned her neck. His knowledgeable eyes examined the unique setting with a sense of satisfaction. Rarely did he see a piece of jewelry of that caliber. A little feeling continued to tickle the back of his mind as he tried to place exactly where he recognized the lady from. As he continued to stare at the woman, he noticed his Team Leader make his way to the mystery woman's side and say something quietly in her ear. His eyes widened slightly as he watched the two of them make their way to the crowded dance floor.
Glancing at his fellow team members, he saw Vin covertly watching the couple as they began to sway in time with the soothing orchestra music. Feeling the gaze that had settled on him, Vin looked over and threw the gambler a quick grin. Ezra sat back into the cushioned seat and began to move the quarter across the top of his hand again. The two men silently agreed to keep an eye on their friend as he got to know the lady.
Meanwhile, Buck had moved to the opposite side of the ballroom, confidently closing in on his quarry. He stopped within five feet of the woman in question and, with an air of nonchalance, Buck took a few moments to check out Chris' progress with the blonde. A smile crept out from beneath his full moustache when he saw that not only had Chris gotten the woman to acknowledge him, he had actually talked her out onto the dance floor. Chuckling, he ran his right hand lightly over the back of his head, preparing to launch his special brand of charm on the gorgeous woman his old friend had selected for him. The ladies man knew that no matter what happened from here on out, Buck had won the greater prize. It had been years since he had seen the interest that had flared in Larabee's eyes as they were discussing the terms of the wager. Buck released a deep sigh of contentment, reveling in the success that he had achieved in nudging his friend back into the land of the living. 'Yes siree, this was going to be one hell of an evening!'
Evie Travis quietly tapped her husband on the arm to gain his attention before directing it to the center of the room. Both the Judge and his wife smiled as they watched Chris and the mystery lady make their way around the dance floor. The orchestra had finished playing Moonlight Serenade before launching into the standard Tennessee Waltz. While a number of couples had changed partners, Chris and his lady remained united, quietly whispering in one another's ear.
Evie leaned close into her husband and murmured, "Orin, isn't that a lovely sight that is long overdue."
With a faint smile, the Judge nodded his agreement. "Now Evie, you know how I don't like getting involved in my men's private lives but I must say that I am glad that Chris is beginning to enjoy what life has to offer again."
Evie gently laid her hand on her husband's coat sleeve and gave his arm a slight squeeze. Looking out over the room, she watched as Buck introduced himself to a dark-haired woman across the way. "I wonder just how much Mr. Wilmington had to do with this change," Evie said quietly. "I know that he fancies himself to be something of a rogue, but I believe that he may just be the most romantic man here."
Orin looked at his wife's tranquil expression, spying the matchmaker lurking in her eyes. "Evie," Judge Travis said warningly, "remember what happened the last time you tried to assist in bringing two people together."
"I'm not going to do anything, Orin," Evie assured her husband. "I'm merely enjoying the floor show." With that said, the couple leaned back in the comfortable chairs and watched as the elusive Chris Larabee led his partner easily through a waltz.
"What do you say about getting out of here and going someplace where we can relax?" Chris breathed in the blonde's ear.
The lady in question smiled brilliantly up at Chris and nodded her assent to the plan. The moment the song ended, Chris tucked her small hand into the crook of his arm and led her off the dance floor. He briefly caught Buck's eyes, tossing a smug smile over his shoulder as the pair made their way towards the exit.
"I'll be damned!"
"Excuse me, Buck?" Andrea asked, cocking her head slightly. "What did you say?"
"Nothin' darlin'. Just talking to myself," Buck assured the intriguing woman as he slid his arm around her, pulling her close. "Now, where were we?" He asked as he dipped down to steal a brief kiss from her lush lips.
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