I was a little nervous but I'd gathered up my courage after a night of tossing and turning and decided that I was going to ask Ezra some questions. He was the one I needed to know about. Part of me realized that I would be changing our friendship but something deep inside of me had to know.
I've always gone with my gut instincts because they never lie to you. There's a hidden core inside of everyone that keeps you alive and breathing. Some people call it intuition or their sixth sense, I just knew that I trusted it. Listening and following its advice had kept me alive my whole life and right now it was telling me to ask Ezra about his past.
And it knew that his eyes were on me the whole way up the stairs.
I unlocked the door and wondered with a panicked thought about the contents of my fridge and cupboards. Did I have anything to cook for dinner? "Um, Ezra, is spaghetti okay with you?"
"I'll let you know when I've seen the ingredients." That rich voice had a hint of laughter in it and that relaxed me.
Leading the way into the tiny kitchen, I reached for the upper door only to watch it come off in my hand. Luckily, I caught it before it hit one of us. "Uh, well I can see I need to do a little work in here." I could feel the red creeping up my neck but then Ezra's hand covered mine and I forgot all about everything else.
"Might I suggest we call out for pizza?" His voice was so gentle and when I met his eyes, they were filled with laughter but not the hurtful kind.
That relaxed me again. "They don't deliver around here. You want we should walk over to the Beanery?"
"Ah ... no, I don't think so. About half a mile from here is a more than adequate restaurant that I think you might like?" He half-suggested as if afraid that I'd turn him down.
"Nothing fancy?" I didn't want to have to get dressed up.
"I promise it's a rather plain eatery that I must admit reminds me of my Grandmother's cooking." He explained a little hesitantly.
"Grandmother Eugenia? That means Southern cooking and I like that." I took a guess and he smiled.
"Then let's be off. I'm feeling a little peckish." Ezra picked up his bag of old clothes and stopped. "I shall have to continue to wear your clothes if that's all right?"
"Sure, Ezra, like I said, they look better on you then on me. If'n you want, you can wear them when you go undercover."
"I appreciate that, Vin." He nodded and led the way out of my apartment while I was still smiling about his use of my first name when we weren't in public.
Following him down the stairs, I found myself admiring his graceful walk and his posture. He reminded me of my mother and her insistence on standing up straight. I learned to slump early to keep out of the way of whatever authority had me in their line of sight. But I was part of a proud team now so I made myself a promise that I'd work on keeping my chin up and my shoulders back.
Getting in the Jag reminded me of the Jeep's breakdown and I worried about what could be wrong with her. She'd been fine that morning and the new spark plugs had seemed to give her some pep. Maybe the damp had crept in? I noticed that fog was beginning to curl around the lampposts that were still working.
"Is there perhaps something that I can help you with ... Vin?" The slight hesitation at my name told me that he was struggling with what he probably thought of as informality.
"Sorry, Ezra, I was thinking about Betsy." I looked at him and saw his jaw clench. "The new spark plugs were working this morning so why wouldn't she start tonight?"
He pulled the Jag to the curb about fifty yards down from a brightly-lit restaurant before turning to me. "You've named your Jeep ... Betsy?"
"Sure, doesn't the Jag have a name?" I wondered what was going through his mind while his eyes warmed from their normal shuttered state.
"I must admit that there are times when I've called him a name or two," his smile was beautiful. "But no, I have no official name for him although it is an intriguing thought."
"When this case is over, we can get together and see what name would work for him. It's important to name something that works so hard for you." I hoped he didn't think I was being silly but I had strong feelings about this. Kind of a hold over from the days of the old West when your horse had a name, I was pretty sure that a car was the same.
"Very well, we shall name him when I return. I'll be thinking of some names while I'm undercover. Does the restaurant look all right to you?" He spoke kind of shyly and I nodded vigorously.
"Sure does, Ezra, it looks real clean and bright. I'm kind of hungry."
"Then let us disembark from my trusty steed and partake of a hearty meal." He opened his door and got out while I sat there and watched. His coat was too good to take on this assignment and I wondered if he had a jacket. Maybe a black leather jacket to go with his dark hair.
"Vin, something wrong?" He'd bent over to look back in the car and I realized that I was mooning over the thought of him in leather.
I scrambled out of my door, blushing all the way. "Sorry, Ezra, I was thinking about your coat and all."
"I see," his eyes danced a little, the way they did when someone amused him. "Never fear, Vin, I have a very scruffy leather jacket that will replace my nice camel hair coat for this charade."
We walked side by side down the sidewalk to the restaurant. I looked around the big square room at the tables full of people eating and liked what I saw. Everything from the oak chairs to the posters on the wall was clean and happy. The elderly black woman at the cash register smiled and came around to greet us.
"Land sakes, child, it's been way too long since you came in for some of my cornbread." To my amazement, she went up on her tippy-toes and kissed Ezra's cheek. "You're skinny as a rail and your friend is wasting away to skin and bone. We'll have to feed you up before we let you go."
"Miss Daisy, I promise that I will come in more frequently once my job lets up a little." Ezra smiled down at her and kissed her hand. "And you are quite right, my friend is tragically thin and only your cooking will put some meat on his bones."
I couldn't help but smile at his description and she beamed at me. "Yes, indeed, child, we'll make sure you leave here at least two pounds heavier then when you came. Right this way, children."
She bustled between tables to a booth at the back of the restaurant, stopping once to coax a little boy into finishing his cornbread and once to chastise an older woman who was playing with her pasta instead of eating it. All the food that I saw on the way back to the table looked great and I was already beginning to think about what to order. Miss Daisy waited while we took off our coats and hung them on the hooks by the table then sat us down and handed us a couple of menus, looking expectantly between the two of us.
"Vin, do you mind if I order for us?" Ezra hadn't even opened his menu.
"Sure, Ezra, you know what's good here. I don't reckon that Miss Daisy serves anything that I wouldn't like."
She patted my cheek and crooned 'sweet child' to me while Ezra smiled that open smile that I don't get to see very often. "Very well, Miss Daisy, we'll start with a basket of your cornbread with butter and honey. Then we'll try the black bean soup and your fried chicken with all the fixings."
"Good, good, that will put a little meat on your bones." She patted both of us and left through the swinging doors to the kitchen.
"This place is real nice, Ezra. I didn't see a name out front though."
"It's simply known as Daisy's. She's been here for over thirty years and she has yet to do any advertising." He leaned back against the high oak paneling of the booth and I noticed how his eyes searched the room before coming back to me.
I'd already done my reconnaissance and seen nobody that I needed to worry about. Funny how the whole team did that now instead of just a few of us. A little care ahead of time could save a world of hurt later. But I think Ezra and I do it so automatically because of our vulnerability to the past and our current job descriptions.
Miss Daisy was back with a basket of steaming cornbread, a little porcelain beehive and two small plates. "Now, I don't want to see any leftovers here, boys. Enjoy yourselves." Then she bustled away and Ezra pulled back the linen napkin to reveal the moist yellow bread.
We were too busy eating to say anything for the next few moments. The cornbread was just like my mother used to make and after I drizzled honey on it, I felt like nothing had ever tasted so good. I could hear myself humming in appreciation and Ezra's chuckle brought my eyes over to his.
He was licking his lips and for a moment I froze, feeling a flash of heat in my stomach that spread throughout my whole body. Whoa! What was that? I dropped my eyes to the plate trying to understand what I was feeling. Buck had said that Ezra and I was both lusted after by the other teams of ATF members but I hadn't expected to do any lusting of my own.
But then I'd never really looked at Ezra ... at least not that way. I'd only felt that kind of heat once before and that was with Charlotte. It had been wrong then with her being married and all. And part of me thought that maybe this was wrong too. But the part that Buck and Chris had talked to was feeling real okay with the searing heat that warmed me from head to toe.
"Vin, is there something wrong with the cornbread?" Ezra's voice broke into my thoughts and I looked at the pile of crumbs that had been my appetizer.
"Um, I got to thinking about something." I dusted my hands off and picked up a spoon to scoop up the crumbs. They were too good to go to waste.
"Those questions that you had earlier?" Now it was his turn to draw patterns in the crumbs on his plate.
"Yeah, did Buck say anything to you at lunch about last night?" I'd seen them go off together and felt kind of funny.
He hesitated then those green eyes of his met mine. "He might have mentioned that he and our esteemed leader had once been more than friends. He said that friends make the best lovers." His gaze went beyond me, maybe back in time. A hurtful time if the bleakness was any indication. "I've never experienced that so am unable to back up his assertion."
Never? I almost said it out loud but stopped myself in time. It didn't look to me like he'd ever enjoyed his relationships and that was a shame. At least I'd liked all the parts of making love to Charlotte. And now I was beginning to wonder what it would be like to lie with a man.
"I think he's right, Ezra although I ain't ever felt that either. Charlotte was married and even though I didn't know that at first, we weren't ever really friends. Now, I got to admit that I'm a mite curious about what it's like the other way around."
His eyes came back to me and for some reason I thought I saw fear there. "I have experienced both sides of the equation but am unable to help you with your curiosity. Neither of my ... affairs lasted very long nor did they leave me feeling anything but ... used."
Suddenly I was madder than I'd ever been in my life. How could somebody ever take advantage of this man? How dare they hurt him? "That wasn't your fault, Ezra. They must have been pretty stupid to treat you less then tenderly. 'Cause I know that's how you loved them."
A little warmth came back into the tired eyes. "Thank you, Vin. I thought at the time that I was fulfilling my part but later events proved me wrong. And you know how much I hate being wrong." His smile wasn't the one I wanted, the one that made him look younger and more carefree. "But for the nonce, we'd better finish our cornbread or Miss Daisy will read us a lecture."
"Can't have that, Ezra, it's too good to waste." Just like you're too good to waste, my friend. I dug in and happily finished another slab of cornbread. I wasn't quite sure what had happened in the last few moments but I was real sure that I'd figure it out in time to surprise Ezra one of these days.
He nodded and went back to eating. I was kind of looking around for something to drink when Miss Daisy bustled up with two big glasses of iced tea. "Now, I poured the sweet tea for you two boys but if you want the northern kind I can bring you some."
She was looking right at me so I knew that Ezra liked the sweet kind. It had been awhile since I'd had really good Southern tea so I just smiled and thanked her. She patted my shoulder and her sharp gaze saw the mess we'd made while we were talking. But she didn't say anything just hared off to check on another customer. The tea was almost exactly the kind of tea my ma had given me when I graduated from breast milk.
Cold, sweet and strong. I closed my eyes to savor the taste, remembering the heat of a Texas noon and an impromptu picnic Ma and I had had in the back yard. Without opening my eyes, I shared that memory with Ezra. When I finished, I opened them in time to catch a real sad look cross his face. I'd met Maude and I was willing to bet that she'd never done anything that simple with her son.
"I think my Grandmother Eugenia would have enjoyed meeting your mother, Vin. I'm glad that you have such a happy memory of your time together." He spoke softly and sat back to let Miss Daisy remove our basket and plates before setting down our small bowls of black bean soup.
It was so thick that I tried standing my spoon up in it and it did. Chuckling, I took my first taste and thought that nothing had ever tasted so good before. An echo of my chuckle came from Ezra's side of the table and I looked up to find him watching me with a small smile on his face. He'd gotten over his bad memories and was enjoying my reaction, I thought hopefully.
Didn't take us long at all to finish off the soup and Miss Daisy swooped down on us again just about the second we laid our spoons down. The basket of fried chicken was plunked right in the middle of the table and the bowl of creamy slaw joined it along with a bowl of pickled okra. Suddenly I was so hungry that I had to eat now.
I kept an eye on Ezra and his appetite seemed to have come back. The strong white teeth bit into one of the meaty chicken thighs and when his tongue came back out to lick his lips, my pants started getting tight for absolutely no reason what so ever. I had to quit watching him or disgrace myself right there at the table.
Everything was good and we kept eating until there was nothing left but bones. Miss Daisy beamed at us both and whisked away the dirty dishes before coming back with two slabs of some kind of pie with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream melting on top. She watched us while we took our first bite and the taste of boysenberry filled my mouth.
"Miss Daisy, this is pie fit for the very gods." Ezra's voice was a bit husky and I could only nod in agreement while I put the memory of that drawl into the new part of my mind that was named 'Ezra'. She laughed and patted us both before leaving to coax some poor guy who hadn't been able to finish his dinner.
We ate the pie real slow and I know that I was wishing the evening wouldn't end. But eventually we finished the pie and drank our tea down to the ice cubes in the bottom of the glasses. He was turning his glass in those long graceful fingers of his with a kind of abstracted look on his face.
"Ezra, are you worried about Munson?"
He looked up quickly, his expression startled. "Why no, Vin, I'm not. He's such a coward and a bully that it will be a positive delight to take him down. I was just ... pondering the coming weeks of not being able to interact with the team."
"We're going to miss you, Ezra. And we're going to be worrying about you too. I don't like it when we're apart instead of together. You got to promise that you'll get a hold of us if there's trouble." I leaned a little closer and watched him carefully.
"I shall take every precaution, Vin. I promise." He was struggling with something and I wondered if I knew what it was. "I have lived my life mostly alone." He paused again then took a deep breath and brought his eyes to mine. "But over the last year I have come to ... appreciate being part of a team. You have all become ... friends and I shall ... miss you. I mean, all of you."
That warmth was back, the one that made me feel like taking a chance or two.
"I'm glad to hear it, Ezra. I think of you as a friend, too, and so do all the others in Team Seven. But if there's even a hint of danger, I want you to call me. Vernon took something from me when he attacked me." Now it was my turn to twirl my glass while I thought about what I wanted to say. "I don't like being thought of as a no-account and that's what he thought when he messed with my head."
"Vin, I think there's something you need to know about Vernon." He interrupted me with a fleeting touch to my hand. "Do you remember Miss Clover talking about Michael, his cousin?"
I nodded, not sure what he meant.
"You and Michael look very much a alike. From my reading of the files, I think it very likely that Vernon loved his cousin very much but Michael never realized. So, all along he's been searching for a substitute, some one to take the place of the man he could never have." His eyes were real earnest and I thought about what he said.
A substitute. Somebody who kind of looked like Michael but couldn't be no matter how much Vernon tried to pretend. That made sense to me and when I smiled, I could see Ezra relax and smile too.
"That does help, Ez'. I thought there was something wrong with me. That maybe I had led him on because I had let myself feel something that wasn't right?" I knew I hadn't said it right when his gaze dropped again. "But the only thing wrong was that I was the wrong man for him. You think maybe Michael knew that deep inside and that's one of the reasons he took off?"
"Perhaps." He shrugged that shrug that always made me think of a French lady who'd helped us on one of our cases. Real elegant-like, what Buck would call a Gaelic shrug. "That in combination with his rough tactics in sports and business may have been enough to send him running. My research on Michael shows a man with a strong penchant for doing good. He's a man who believes in leaving the world a better place than he found it. I must admit that I admire him."
"Yeah, he sounds like a nice guy." Part of me took against that feeling of ... jealousy? "It would be great if we could get him back here for Miss Clover."
He smiled suddenly, just like the sun coming out on a cloudy day. "I must admit that I would not mind playing matchmaker for my favorite librarian. She is a true lady and deserves only the very best. Perhaps those ten years between them won't matter so much now that she is 51 and he is soon to be 41."
I chuckled. "That's nothing when it comes to the heart, Ezra. Kind of like Miz Nettie and I when I ask her out to help me with shopping and the like, the years just don't matter none at all."
"Exactly, Vin." His fingers fiddled with his silverware. "That reminds me of my secret admirer. I wonder what ... she will do when I don't turn up on Monday morning?"
I didn't want to think about the person who had targeted Ezra but I could see that it worried him some. "We'll keep trying to find out for you while you're away. If'n you're not there, maybe she'll find someone else to play games with. Don't you worry none. We'll watch your back for you."
He smiled again, the one that I'd been waiting for. "I have no fear that backup will not be there when I need it. And if there should be trouble then I shall immediately apprise the Team of it."
"See that you do, Ezra. You know, we might want to think about heading home. There's only four of us left." I'd been watching without realizing it and the exodus of customers had finally caught my attention. The waitresses had been cleaning up as the people left and now there was only a young couple holding hands in the booth across the room and us two. "Miss Daisy would probably like our table back."
"Goodness yes, look at the time." Ezra looked at the elegant gold watch on his wrist and slid out of the booth to put on his coat. I did as well and we walked to the register where Miss Daisy was waiting with a smile.
"Now children, don't let yourselves become strangers. I expect you back here when catfish season comes if not before." She took our money and made change real quick. "And I want you to remember that I'm always here in case you need me."
"We won't forget, ma'am." I shook her hand and felt the strength behind her grip. Somehow, I just knew that I'd found another friend.
Ezra and I were real quiet on the drive home. I wasn't sure what I wanted to say but I felt anxious at the thought that it might be weeks before I saw him again. He pulled into the alley near the side door that I usually used. "Vin, I thank you for your company tonight. And I promise to return your clothes as soon as this charade is over."
"Don't you worry about the clothes, Ezra. Just take good care of yourself and keep your back to the wall at all times." I unbuckled my seatbelt but didn't get out yet. "When this case is over, can we sit down together and have another talk?"
He looked at me with that little tilt to his head that told me he was thinking real hard. "Yes, of course we can, Vin. Anything in particular?"
And that's when I knew that I had to show him instead of talk to him. Words were his stock in trade, actions were mine. So, I leaned over and kissed him ... right on those beautiful lips of his. He gasped, I think but I was too busy memorizing what he tasted like, the smell of his aftershave lotion and how his breath warmed me through and through.
I pulled away slowly. "Come back in one piece, Ezra."
Then I got out of the Jag and hurried inside, half afraid that he might follow me and demand an explanation. But the engine purred a little louder before disappearing into the night and I relaxed. Shutting my door behind me and not even turning on any lights, I sat in the rocker to watch the night sky. The stars twinkled outside the frosty window and I wished on one the way I had when I was little. "Keep him safe, Star, and bring him home to me."
End part four