The rose on my desk hadn't been there last night when I left at nine with my report safely written, printed and slipped into Mr. Larabee's in-basket. But there it stood in a small bud vase right by the phone where I'd be sure to see it. I cast a quick look around at the others but each was busy.
I shook out my coat and hung it neatly on the hanger I'd brought in to help the camel's hair keep its shape. The finicky neatness of my youth seemed deeply ingrained into my soul. When a single layer of cloth was all that stood between the elements and me I knew better than to take it for granted. The silk scarf that I unwound from around my neck and folded neatly had come from Mr. Tanner at Christmas time.
He'd gotten my name in the interoffice draw and I'd been greatly pleased by his obvious care in choosing the brilliant green scarf. He'd muttered something about my feeling the cold when I'd thanked him and blushed so red that I'd just nodded. He wasn't much of a talker, unlike myself and I didn't want to embarrass him with too profuse a thank you.
Sadly, it was the closest I was ever likely to be to him.
But I'd procrastinated enough and I turned to find the rose still there. Sitting down, I lifted the vase and brought the deep crimson bud to my nose. The deep rich scent filled my nostrils and I held it inside, remembering lazy summer afternoons in Georgia at my Grandmother's house. Maude had parked me there for the third time when I was eight and Grandmother Eugenia had let me tend her garden with her.
"That's quite a smile you have there, Ezra. Where'd you find a rose this time of year?" Buck's voice broke into my memories and I opened my eyes to find him perched on the corner of my desk. His blue eyes gleamed with the very thought of new gossip.
I placed it back on the desk and shook my head. "I have no idea, Mr. Wilmington. Was I the only one so favored this morning?"
"Yep, Chris said it was here when he arrived at seven."
Shuddering at the thought of getting up that early, I eyed him sternly. "Are you setting me up again, sir? Is there some poor young lady also the recipient of a rose bud this morning?"
He made a mock gesture of consternation, his hand over his heart. "You wound me, Ezra. I have no idea who did it. Maybe you have a secret admirer?"
"Yeah, Ezra, maybe some beautiful woman on one of the other teams wants to catch your attention." J. D. broke into the conversation with an excited aside from his desk next to mine. He didn't get out much and his reading tended to be on the sensational side.
"Then, she should have left me a note along with the rose." I stood up and automatically shook out my pants. "I will leave you two to speculate while I go and see what our fearless leader hates the most about my report."
"Ah, you're no fun, Ezra." J. D. sighed and Buck left my desk for his.
Tapping at Mr. Larabee's door, the quiet 'come in' took me into his office. Vin was already there, slouched in a chair in front of our chief's desk. His blue eyes met mine and his shy smile made my heart beat faster. "Good morning, gentlemen. I don't suppose that either of you know anything about the floral offering on my desk?"
Larabee's smile was more of a smirk. "We haven't had a good rumor in the office for weeks. I figured that someone decided to start one. Now, about the Munson case ..."
I took the chair next to Vin and breathed in his clean scent rather like I'd inhaled the rose's perfume. Keeping half my mind on the monologue across the desk, I let the other half catalog the sight of my deepest despair. The long blond hair cascaded over the blue shirt stretched across his broad shoulders. He'd washed it with something that smelled of 'spring' to me and my fingers itched to comb through it.
"Hell, Chris, we know all that." Vin's voice was irritated and the disgusted look he threw across the desk at his friend surprised me.
"I'm recapping, Vin." Larabee glared back but without the ice that he usually showed to everyone else. "If you've got another way of getting one of us into that gated community, I wish you'd tell me what it is."
"Gentlemen, if I may?" I interrupted the verbal duel and caught a twin glare. "Have you read the end of my report, Mr. Larabee?"
"Yes. And it's too dangerous, Ezra." The glare softened for the first time in my history with the ATF and I wondered why.
"Way too dangerous, Ez'." Vin was frowning now and I could hardly believe my ears. Larabee had shared my report with our marksman? "Vernon Munson doesn't take no for an answer."
The disgust in his voice almost overshadowed the fear in his eyes and I felt a flash of white-hot anger at the very thought that the playboy might have hurt him. My suggestion had been that I should go in as an innocent bystander with a starry-eyed view of the smuggling that Munson was involved in. I've been bi-sexual most of my life and acting the naïve for him would be child's play.
But I was wondering if Vin had been a true naïve when he'd met him.
Those clear blue eyes met mine and he tried to smile at the question in them. "Chris got there in time so all I had to show for it was some bruises and a strong desire to never be in that position again. I hear tell that he hasn't changed any."
"All the more reason for me to go in and make sure that he doesn't get away with this latest atrocity. Drugs are plentiful enough without him bringing more in for his playmates. I think you could trust me with this one, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Tanner." I smiled while my heart broke at the certainty in his voice. Male loving was obviously not an option for the sharpshooter and the little fantasy that had kept my hopes alive over the last year died a quiet death.
Friendship would have to be enough.
"Trust isn't the problem, Ezra." Larabee ran a hand through his hair, ruffling the short blond waves. "Vernon is growing unpredictable and I have my suspicions that he's begun using his own drugs to excess. To the best of my knowledge, he's already raped and killed two men. He bought another one off who belonged to a Family he didn't want to offend. The instability is dangerous."
"Drug taking is a fool's game. He's partial to blondes but he has a weakness for green eyes so he might let my dark hair slip by." I kept my attention on our leader so I wouldn't see the disgust in Vin's gaze when I offered to prostitute myself for the team. It wasn't like I hadn't done it before.
Although that was long ago and far from this little haven I'd found. A year had gone by, longer than I'd ever been in one place. Perhaps this would be the straw that broke the team's inclusion of me into their lives. I would miss the easy camaraderie that warmed my frozen soul. But if my mother had taught me anything, she'd taught me to keep a bag packed at all times.
"No!" Vin was sitting up and glaring at me ferociously. "He doesn't have a kind bone in his body and he likes to ... to hurt the person that he's with. You're good and fast with the martial arts, Ez', but he's so big and heavy that he could hurt you bad."
I was stunned at his appeal and his seeming desire to keep me in one piece. When I found out what Vernon had done to this gentle soul, I would take great pleasure in cutting off his cock and stuffing it down his throat. Vin deserved to be cherished for the beautiful person he was. His innocence shone from him and was one of the things I loved about him.
One of the many emotions that he'd freed in me.
"Mr. Tanner, I understand your concern," I didn't really but I wanted him to relax. "And I promise to take every precaution needed but unless you can come up with something else ..." I shrugged.
"I know, damn it!" Larabee was tapping his pencil on his desk, a sure sign that he was thoughtfully considering my request. "I just wish there was another route. Vernon is too dangerous to leave alone. Judge Travis wants to convict him in the worst possible way."
"Then I will get to work, gentlemen." I smiled and nodded to them both before escaping into the outer office. It was time to head down to the research library on fifth floor to do my homework.
The small office tucked into a corner of the ATF building housed a small collection of eclectic items, not least of which was the librarian. Miss Clover had a timeless quality about her. Rumor had it that she'd been here since the forties but to me she was ageless. With her short spiked gray hair, soft blue eyes and smiling lips, she reminded me of the Grandmother I'd been reminded of this morning.
"Miss Clover?" The outer office was empty but a muffled curse from behind the steel security door led me into her inner sanctum. She was tugging on a table, trying to move it from its current location to another.
"Mr. Standish, how fortunate." She stopped and leaned against the edge of the heavy table. "I would appreciate another hand, if you would be so kind."
Smiling, I stepped in and took hold of one end. A noise from behind startled me but the smile on her face told me it was someone she also considered a friend. "Miz Clover, you know I told you to give me a call when you wanted to move something."
I'd know that soft twang anywhere. Did I dare hope that Vin had followed me to speak more of his past?
"Mr. Tanner, how nice of you to give Mr. Standish a hand. I had this wonderful idea about space and what we do in here." She stepped aside and let Vin take her place. Directing us with a gentle hand, we moved every piece of furniture in the room. When we were done, the room looked much bigger and I wasn't quite sure why.
She smiled with great satisfaction and patted our shoulders. "Much better and you boys were so quick that I can still get the computers hooked back up before lunch. But right now, the two of you need to sit down here while I go make us a nice pot of tea. I'll knock on the door when it's ready."
Leaving us and shutting the door firmly behind her, I couldn't help but smile at Vin. He was already chuckling and the sound was tucked into my heart-memory.
"She's a real character. You got any idea what we just did to make the place look so big?" He was looking around and I split my attention between it and him.
He was so graceful while he prowled the room like a cougar I'd seen once in the Florida bayous. "I'm not sure but by rounding the corners with those two bookcases and setting this table in the center, she's created something like a formal herb garden knot."
Casting a startled look at me, he nodded slowly. "And turning this storage cabinet this way, lets her put the bulletin board on its back so that freed up the wall space to hold the two new computers back to back. Reminds me of a feng shui bagua."
I nodded at his comparison. "I expect that if she puts a wind chime over there so the breeze from the opening door moves it, she'll be inviting protection for her family."
"And that's us," Vin sighed and sat down at the table we'd first moved. "The teams of ATF agents are her family. She told me she don't have any others."
Joining him, I watched the sadness in his eyes. "You don't need to talk about the incident if it hurts. I won't take him less than seriously."
He traced a circle on the table in front of him, over and over. "I was 24 and still a virgin ... in all ways. Life was tough growing up and I kind of put all those feelings into a locked spot in my heart. Didn't figure that I was supposed to learn about love and such this life."
My heart ached at the shy confession and I spared a quick wondrous thought that our upbringings had been so similar in that respect.
"But Chris saw something in me that I didn't know was even there and added me to the team. One of the first cases was a drug murder and he put me into a kind of undercover spot on the University campus." Shy eyes met mine and he quirked a smile. "You probably figured out that reading and I don't get a long too well. Its called dyslexia and I was on campus to work with a tutor. The Munson clan was there and that's when Vernon saw me."
His slight shiver was almost unnoticeable. And once again, I felt that white-hot anger rise up at the man who'd tried to take advantage of his innocence. "You matched the profile of the murder victim, didn't you?"
He nodded. "At first, I remembered it was a job but he was real sympathetic and he even helped me with my reading. Real patient and kind, affectionate even like I was a favored younger brother. Something inside of me kept trying to tell me that he wasn't what he seemed but I was too caught up in the feelings."
I was going to castrate him with a dull knife, I decided. "But one night it changed and he attacked you?"
Those blue eyes held so much pain that it was all I could do to keep my hands in my lap to keep from reaching out to him.
"Yeah, we'd had a couple beers and were wrestling a mite when he made his move. At first, it was just a kiss and he was real patient with me. He was only the third person who'd ever wanted to. I reckon that he knew that and went real slow. I was walking on clouds when Chris decided that I needed to go to our next session wired. I fought it hard but he got that old black glare on his face and Buck like to matched it."
I thanked God again for the family spirit of this rare team. "And he tried to rape you."
His eyes went distant and his finger kept tracing that circle on the tabletop. "First, he wanted me to sniff some white powder to 'help me concentrate'. I remember feeling so cold whilst he was sniffing some to show me how harmless it was. I knew right there that he didn't really feel anything for me but by then he was tearing at my clothes and had me pinned to the floor when he discovered the wire under my shirt."
I held onto my hands to keep from reaching across the table. "But Chris and Buck appeared and pulled him off you. Why didn't he serve any time for attempted rape?"
The blush told its own story. "I was so ashamed at what I'd been feeling. His lawyer got him off pleading entrapment. Said that I lured him on."
"You had nothing to be ashamed of." I knew my voice was too intense but I couldn't bear to see him feeling guilty for something that wasn't his fault. "And I promise that I won't feel anything for him or let myself get taken in by spurious concern. I know full well that he wouldn't mean it."
No one had ever meant it including the woman who'd betrayed me and the man who'd fucked me. Maude was right when she shook her head and wondered aloud how she could have ever born such an un-loving child.
He smiled shyly. "I know that, Ezra. Chris took me out to the ranch and let me heal. Josiah came out and took me fishing. Buck went riding with me. J. D. brought out this computer game that helped with my reading problem while Nathan 'bout walked my legs off hiking over those hills of Chris'."
Thank God, they'd been there for him. I wished I had been but then I wouldn't have been very useful except for killing Mr. Munson slowly and painfully. But there was no time like the present to overcome that little oversight.
"I'm glad that your family was there for you." I tried out a smile and it must have passed because he smiled back. "Will it hurt for you to talk about him?"
"Nah, I mostly got over it when I met Charlotte. She took care of my virginity and when she left, at least it was with gentleness." He shrugged ruefully and I felt that twinge that reminded me of how much that hurt. Someday he'd find a woman who loved him and whom he could love.
It would hurt but I'd be happy for him. And the ice inside of me would grow a little thicker. Who ever said 'it was better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all' didn't know what the hell he was talking about. A knock at the door had me leaping to my feet to open it for Miss Clover. Her sharp glance told me that we'd be having a long talk in the near future.
Just like Grandmother Eugenia.
The golden brew was poured into delicate glass cups with handles so small that I could only get one finger through them. But the weight was negligible and we soon were sipping at the fragrant tea. She looked a question at me and I savored the taste of my first swallow.
"Chrysanthemum flowers." I said confidently.
Her eyes crinkled. "Quite right, Mr. Standish, how very discerning of you. Now, why did you come to the library?"
"I need some background information on Vernon Munson and his family." I told her and tried not to watch Vin turn his teacup around and around in his long, elegant fingers. He has such beautiful hands that I could watch them for hours. Wrenching my attention back to my favorite librarian, I surprised a sad look in her eyes.
"The Munsons were once the premier family of Denver but the line has dwindled to Vernon and his third cousin Michael. I'm afraid that Michael spends most of his time in the third world countries trying to make up for the appalling excesses of his cousin. Wait here while I bring up a file or two that might help you." She set down her cup and rose to leave.
I watched her closely without seeming to. Had she faltered a little when rising? I wasn't the only one watching because Vin spoke as soon as she was out of earshot. "She looked a little pale. Think maybe she was feeling light headed?"
"I don't know but maybe she knew Michael or his folks and it's painful to speak of them. Some background would be nice about the whole family." I chafed at the bit. I wanted the information now so I could go to work on taking Vernon down.
"How'd you know what kind of tea this was, Ez'?"
My attention came back to Vin and his puzzled look. "I spent some time in China working for another of the alphabet agencies and I enjoyed most their teas. One of my friends was an elderly apothecary named Li Soong and he taught me how to identify the different blends."
"It's real soft on the tongue but it smells like flowers." Vin took another drink and I had to drop my eyes to my cup to hide my reaction to the innocently erotic swallow.
I was a fool to keep tormenting myself thusly but I couldn't bring myself to stop. Mother always had despaired of my 'soft' longings. Someday I'd be the frozen son who would do her proud but not yet ... not just yet. I'd soak up these painful feelings to remind me on those cold, lonely nights when I'd moved on. This could be the case that did it ... the one that alienated me from the 'family' of Team Seven.
So I did what I always did and hid behind my words while telling him of some of the varieties of tea I'd drunk. He was laughing when Miss Clover returned with some yellowing files and her smile was soft as she shook her head at his antics. Then his cell phone went off and he left for a training session with some of team four at the shooting range.
"What a nice pair of boys you are, Mr. Standish." Miss Clover sat down where he'd been sitting and pushed the files to me. "It does my heart good to hear him laugh. Are you ever going to tell him of your feelings?"
My heart tried to crawl right out of my chest and lodge like a giant lump in my throat while I gazed horrified at her. She clucked and shook her head. "My dear Mr. Standish, it's quite evident to me that you love him not at all like a brother. Such love shouldn't be wasted or allowed to die just because of some outmoded belief in the mores of the times."
I gulped my tea and watched her pour me some more. "How?"
Her smile was tender while she patted my hand. "Those pretty green eyes of yours give away the secrets of your soul every time you look at him. I may be an old woman but those feelings don't ever go away. I was just remembering what I felt the moment I first saw young Michael Munson. He'd just turned 21 and was still the unspoiled seeker of truth. I was 31 and fell so helplessly in love that I never fell out."
The faint longing was still there in her voice. "But I was already set in my ways and had no desire to commit the sin of chaining him down. We were friends and that was all I could expect so he began his travels and soon we were down to a card at Christmas. After his parents death, he never once returned to the States except for the one day every three years that he came and spoke to the family trust lawyer. Vernon was already showing his true colors and Michael was so appalled that he simply couldn't cope with it. If there is anyway to bring Vernon to the punishment he so richly deserves, I will do everything in my power to help."
The steel of her gleamed brightly before me and I nodded slowly. "It's true that my assignment is to bring him down and stop the drug importation that is under his control. I would appreciate your help." I paused and looked down at our hands, turning mine slowly to clasp hers. "As to the other matter, I am ... not sure that anything can be done. He has no inclinations towards ... men and I must respect that."
"But it hurts like a sword through the heart." Her quiet words echoed those I couldn't bring myself to say. "I hope that you are wrong but whatever happens, please remember that I'm here and always ready to listen. There wasn't anyone I could share my sorrow with so many years ago. Oh, I had a fling or two and enjoyed the loving but it wasn't enough. No one but him will ever be enough."
Her words reverberated through out my entire body and I clutched her hand tightly while I concentrated on fighting back the tears that could never be allowed to fall. All I could manage was a slightly strangled, "Thank you."
She nodded sharply, letting me go and opening the files in front of her, giving me time to regain my composure and get back to the business at hand. We spent an hour going over the Munson family history. I had a much better grasp of the background that had shaped the young Vernon. I'd also seen a picture of the two cousins laughing at something beyond the camera range.
Michael was tall and slender with slightly shaggy blond hair and a pair of the greenest eyes that I'd ever seen. His entire body glowed with good health and vitality, completely eclipsing the younger Vernon. His hulking football build was such a contrast to his older cousin's quicksilver demeanor. At least to my eyes. Michael and Vin were like twins and I could see why the younger Miss Clover had fallen so hard.
We were more alike than I had imagined. Perhaps I would grow to accept my fate calmly the way she had. I'd been alone most of my life and looked to be alone for the rest as well. Perhaps I'd look back one day and find myself able to remember Vin with nostalgic tenderness, the way she seemed to remember Michael.
And if I were very lucky, I'd be able to take down Vernon and allow her Michael to return home safely for more than the occasional visit. Of course, any physical damage I could inflict on Vernon along the way would be one of those little perks that I found so satisfying. Standish's tended to become rather mean when their family was interfered with the way that Mr. Munson had interfered with mine.