The Book Of Counted Sorrows, by VampyrAlex. Graphic by PattRose

The Book Of Counted Sorrows
Part II - Blast From The Past

by VampyrAlex

Artwork: by the amazing PattRose
Pairing: Ezra/Chris
Rating: NC-17
Feedback: Crave it. :-)
Summary: A ghost from Ezra's past comes back into his life, leading the team into a tangle of murder and corruption that may cost Ezra's life and his future relationship with Chris.

Back to: Part I - Full Circle

At the point where hope and reason part, lies the spot where madness gets a start


Barcelona, Spain
July 5th, 1999

Goyo Hernardez looked out the French windows, absently watching his dogs frolicking in the gardens. His mood was a dark one. One of his drug deals had gone bad. The police had shown up and arrested most of his men, including his second-in-command. He was not worried they might disclose his name; the men would rather die than betray him, but the whole affair had set him back a few thousand dollars.

He suddenly became aware of his reflection in the glass. In his late thirties, tall and athletic, with wide, almond eyes, and wavy brown hair, he had been quite the ladies man until recently. But the horrid scar now adorning his features had changed all that.

And all because of a woman.

He shook his head firmly. No, not just any woman – Maude Standish. A conniving, headstrong, beautiful, aggravating woman, who had stormed into his life, changing it forever. And he had been content with the change, content to wrap his life around her, to give her the world on a plate should she wish it. Because despite their completely opposite personalities, life styles and even the age difference, he had fallen deeply in love with her.

And for all he had done, for all the things he had given her – the luxury, the fancy cars, the furs, the jewels, the dream life she was accustomed to, she had repaid him by disappearing one morning, the money he kept in the safe for an important deal gone with her.

The German he was supposed to do business with had been quite displeased with the fact that he had failed to meet the previously agreed amount, thus the scar running across his left cheek.

All that had been over a year earlier and he still couldn't forget. He wanted Maude back. For what purpose exactly he wasn't certain. But the obsessive love he had felt for her still burned in his veins, along with the desperate need to get even for losing his money, his looks, and his reputation on the streets. Especially because nobody betrayed him and got away with it.

The door to his den opened and his twin sister Damita, a female version of himself, walked in. She was holding a newspaper in her hand, a wide smile gracing her blood-red lips.

"I found her, Goyo," she said.

He didn't have to ask to whom she was referring. "Where is she?"

"In France. She's getting married next week to Philippe Fontaine."

"The millionaire? Well, well, well," Goyo murmured ruefully. "Seems dear Maude hasn't lost her taste for the good life. You know where this wedding is supposed to take place?"

"Yes. It's going to be held in one of Fontaine's hotels in the small town of Cavalaire-Sur-Mer," Damita answered, showing him the newspaper, where a full page was dedicated to Fontaine and his future bride. "I already got us on a flight to Toulon. It departs early in the morning."

"Well done, Damita. Since Maude apparently forgot to invite us to her wedding, I guess we'll just have to invite ourselves. And I'll make sure to make it a day she will never forget."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~


Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean

Josiah leaned back in the comfortable airplane seat, enjoying the rare opportunity to stretch at will, a nearly impossible feat for someone his size in the compact planes most airlines used these days.

"So Maude's goin' to do it, huh?" Buck asked from beside him. "She's really goin' to get hitched again? How many times does this make, anyway?"

"Six," Ezra replied, as he sipped a drink at the small bar. "And yes, it seems Mother is ready to join with another soul in the sacred union of matrimony once again. Of course, considering the husband-to-be is filthy, stinking, rich probably has something to do with her choice."

"That's an awful way to look at it," Nathan commented as he sat on a leather couch with Vin.

"The only one, however, when it comes to Mother. None of her previous husbands were exactly poor. Coincidence? I think not," Ezra remarked dryly.

"Still, it was mighty nice of 'im to let you use his jet to fly over for the weddin', Ez," Vin drawled. "And even nicer of AD Travis to give us two weeks off so we could join ya."

"We deserved it," Chris said. "We've been workin' almost nonstop for months now, with hardly a break between cases. We'd burn out soon and he knows it."

"Where are we going exactly, Ez?" JD asked, squirming in his seat as he obviously tried to restrain his excess energy.

"Cavalaire-Sur-Mer, not far from Toulon. It's in the South of France, in the beautiful Côte d'Azur area. Monsieur Fontaine will allow us to remain the two weeks at his establishment, the Hotel Fontaine, at no charge."

"The place any good?" Chris joked, and Josiah grinned as Ezra cuffed him on the head lightly.

"Chris, the man is a millionaire; of course the place is good. It used to be a chateau, but Fontaine remodeled it and turned it into one of the most prestigious establishments in the whole of Europe. According to Mother, it's divine. There's a beach a few yards away, you can rent a yacht, go horse riding, play golf, and whatever else you can think of. It has a spa, and several bars – which I'm sure you gentlemen will appreciate immensely," Ezra quipped with a grin. "The gardens are supposed to be fabulous and there's a forest and park not too far from the property. And we will be able to make full use of all this without having to spend a dime."

"Talk about your dream vacation. I might never want to leave!" Nathan said. "Too bad Rain couldn't come with us."

"Or Casey," JD added mournfully. "It won't be the same without her."

"Since we're on the subject of love lives, when are you goin' to tell Maude about us?" Chris asked Ezra.

"As soon as we arrive. Mother told me she made arrangements for the six of you to be housed in twin rooms; Buck and JD, Josiah and Nathan, you and Vin. I have no wish to sleep alone for the next fortnight," Ezra said, surprising Josiah with his willingness to speak so openly in front of them. "So, I'm going to suggest Vin should take the single room I was supposed to stay in, and that you and I get a double instead."

"Think she'll take it well?" Buck asked cautiously.

Josiah watched concerned as Ezra looked down at his glass. "No," the Southerner replied, after a while. "But she will have to be told. I have no wish to ruin her wedding, but I'm not going to hide what I feel for Chris. If she accepts it, excellent. If not.... It wouldn't be the first time I would be a disappointment to her."

Josiah refrained from making any comments. He knew Ezra and Maude's relationship was difficult at best, but he felt a sense of pride at the thought the other man was ready to face his mother, to fight for his love. It was further proof that since joining the team Ezra had begun to change, to open up and strengthen a wounded soul he kept hidden all too often. A little love and understanding went a long way indeed. Hopefully that would be true for Maude as well.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

When they landed at the Toulon airport, and after collecting their bags, they discovered they had a limousine waiting to take them to Cavalaire-Sur-Mer.

"Hot dang!" Buck exclaimed as he climbed inside the vehicle. "This thing's big enough to throw a party in!"

"Seems nothin' is too much for Maude's darling boy," Chris quipped, earning himself a mock glare from the 'darling boy' in question.

The chauffeur closed the door after they were all settled in and then they were on their way, talking excitedly as they took in the beautiful scenery around them. Chris knew it was the first time abroad for most of his team, so he simply sat back, occasionally throwing in a comment, content to see his men finally relaxing after the last grueling months.

The wedding invitation, and the knowledge they would finally be having a real vacation, had been the only thing keeping them going during the most difficult cases. They had spent whatever little time they had had in the last three months getting their passports done, packing or simply taking care of personal matters.

He exchanged an amused glance with Ezra, who seemed to have been put in the position of guide for the trip as everyone kept asking him questions about this and that, to which his lover replied to the best of his knowledge.

Half an hour later, they reached a provincial looking town, with its chalk colored villas surrounded by white fences, floral gardens, vineyards, clean lanes with no cars or traffic, and a general feeling of tranquility about it which was completely alien to Chris. Used to the buzz of a place like Denver, Cavalaire-Sur-Mer seemed like something out of a fantasy.

They drove along what looked like a private lane, past majestic iron gates before finally pulling up in front of a wide building. Like most of the town, it was startlingly white. It was four stories high, and its walls were covered with lush green vines.

The limousine door was opened by a concierge and the men piled up by the porch, enjoying the late afternoon breeze as it flowed over them, watching as two young men in uniform took their luggage from the trunk and disappeared inside.

Not two seconds later Maude walked out, smiling as she made her way to her son. "Ezra," she said with obvious – if restrained – delight. She took hold of his hands and kissed him briefly on the cheek. "Gentlemen, I trust you had a safe journey?"

"Yes. We must thank Mr. Fontaine for the use of his jet. And how are you, Maude?" Chris asked, remembering to be polite for Ezra's sake. His previous meetings with the woman hadn't exactly left him with a good impression of her.

"Fine, fine," she replied absently, her mind clearly already on something else. "Well, I'm certain you gentlemen wish to adjourn to your accommodations to freshen up after such a long journey, so –"

"Mother," Ezra interrupted softly. "I need to speak with you. It's important."

Maude blinked. "Can't it wait, darling? Your friends –"

"My friends can wait at the bar," Ezra interrupted again, and Chris kept from smirking at Maude's unhappy pout. "Or you can have someone show them up to the rooms, but since what I have to tell you will imply a few changes in the accommodations, it would simply be a waste of time and effort," Ezra said.

"Why? Are you not satisfied with the arrangements?" Maude asked, an unreadable expression settling over her face.

"Nothing like that, Mother. Please?"

Maude exhaled softly. "Very well. Henri," she called to one of the bellboys. "Please, show these gentlemen to the bar. Ezra, come with me."

Chris exchanged a last supportive glance with Ezra before following the boy to the bar with the others. He had asked Ezra earlier if he wanted him there for the conversation, but Ezra had refused. It was a mother and son talk and it would go better that way. But Chris still wished he could be by Ezra's side.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Ezra hardly noticed the tile floors, the high ceilings, or the exquisitely decorated walls as he followed his mother into a private office. He kept going over what he would say, damning himself for still wanting his mother's approval, even after all these years and all the disappointments.

"This is Philippe's office. He's in Paris for a meeting and will only return tomorrow. We won't be disturbed," Maude explained as she sat on the sofa.

Ezra nodded, choosing to stand, his eyes roaming over the room absently. "You look good," he finally said. "Happy."

"I am. Philippe is a good man, probably the best I ever met," Maude replied calmly.

Something in her voice, though, betrayed an emotion Ezra had never heard her express before. "It's more than that, isn't it? You really love him."

She smiled slightly, acknowledging the truth of his statement. "Yes, I admit this time is different. Philippe is.... I met him six months ago in Monaco, while gambling in a casino. I... care for him. I have only felt this way once before, with your father," she said, surprising Ezra with the admission. Even with him, it was a rare thing for her to open up about her inner thoughts or emotions. "So, what did you wish to tell me that was so urgent?" she asked.

Ezra cleared his throat, bracing himself. "I have fallen in love as well," he began. "In fact, I'm practically living with that person as it is. We have separate homes, but I spend most of my time at that person's home."

"And that 'person' is?" Maude queried, obviously having picked up on the way he avoided mentioning gender.

"A man," he confessed. "Chris Larabee."

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room as his mother digested his words. "A man?" she finally said. "Chris Larabee? Are you out of your mind, Ezra?" she snapped, as she rose from the sofa. "Do you have any idea what will happen if this gets out, what people will say? Philippe is constantly under the media's scrutiny. And my Lord, Ezra.... A man! What were you thinking? And did it have to be Larabee? The man's a rogue, a simpleton, a –"

"Enough!" Ezra interrupted roughly. "I can't believe you, Mother! I finally found someone who loves me, and all you care about is about what other people will say? Dammit! Can't you, just for once in your life, be happy for me, support me in any way? Is it really such a difficult thing to do?" He took a deep breath, steadying himself. "I'm not going to leave Chris or hide what I feel, although you won't have to worry about any public displays of affection. You should know me well enough to know I would never act in such a way. But it's my life and I will choose who I spend it with."

"Ezra –"

"No, let me finish. I told you this because you are my mother and you deserved to know. I actually hoped you'd share my happiness, but I guess that was too much to ask. Now, if you wish us to stay for your wedding, we will. If not, I am certain we will find some way to return to the States."

"No, please! I.... Ezra, I'm trying...." She seemed shaken by his vehemence. "I didn't realize.... You love him that much?"

"About as much as you love Philippe, I suspect," Ezra said ruefully, all fight gone out of him.

"I will make arrangements so you and Mr. Larabee can be given a double room. Will Mr. Tanner be all right on his own?"

"Yes, he will be fine. In fact, I think he would prefer to stay in a single room."

Maude nodded. "I will see to it immediately, and have your luggage taken up as well. As for what you just told me...." She brushed her hand over his arm lightly. "Give me time, darling. It was... unexpected."

Ezra sighed. "I know. I'm sorry, Mother. Maybe I should have told you before that I am gay, but it's one of those things that never gets easier to confess. Not even at this age," he joked weakly, glad when his mother smiled.

"Go join your friends at the bar while I see to the accommodations. Dinner will be served in two hours."

He kissed her on the cheek, then left the office, making his way to the bar. He took a deep breath, relieved the secret was finally out. His mother might still be adjusting to the idea that he was in love with Chris, but considering her unpredictable nature, she had taken the news rather well. Maybe it really was going to be all right.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Dinner was an awkward event to say the least. The seven men joined Maude at the hotel's restaurant, choosing a table at the far wall so they would have a maximum of privacy. Ezra kept to himself, speaking only when spoken to. His mother's covert glances at both him and Chris left him feeling uncomfortable. The cuisine, however, was divine. They made sure to thank the chef personally. He turned out to be a small, rowdy Frenchman, who babbled so rapidly even Ezra could hardly understand a word.

When the meal was finally over, Maude looked at him. "Darling, I know you are still on American time, but I find myself quite fatigued, so I'm going to retire for the night. The staff has orders to see to your every need, so please enjoy yourselves."

She said her goodbyes and left the restaurant, finally allowing Ezra to relax. "What now?" he asked the others.

His mother was right; they were still on American time, even if it was midnight already in France. None of them would be able to get any sleep at that hour.

"JD and I are goin' to play some pool. I saw a table at the bar earlier," Buck said.

"I'm goin' to the stables to check the horses. I want ta go horse riding tomorrow," Vin said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

"Nathan, Josiah? What 'bout you?" Chris asked.

"The concierge told us the hotel has a well stocked library of books and DVDs in many languages. We thought we'd check it out. What are you two going to do?" Josiah asked, although his knowing grin told Ezra he had a very good idea already.

"I was thinkin' of taking a stroll down the beach," Chris replied. "Ezra, wanna come?"

Ezra chuckled at Chris' attempt at nonchalance. "Certainly, Mr. Larabee, it will be my pleasure."

"All right, in that case let's go. See ya all tomorrow, boys."

Ezra and Chris left the hotel, walking the short distance to the beach silently, enjoying the warm night and the opportunity to spend some time together without anyone around.

When they were by the water's edge, Chris turned to face him. "Are you okay?" he asked.

Ezra smiled as Chris wrapped his arms around his waist, embracing him gently, taking advantage of the fact the beach was deserted. "Yes. I know Mother is merely curious, but her surveillance was beginning to drive me insane."

Chris laughed quietly, his breath caressing Ezra's cheek. "I felt like stickin' out my tongue at her every time I caught her staring." Ezra moaned as Chris nuzzled his neck lightly. He tilted his head back as Chris' teeth grazed over his skin playfully. "You know what you need?" Chris asked suddenly.

Ezra stepped back only enough to see Chris' face. "No, what?"

"This," Chris breathed out.

Their mouths met and opened, the sensation of Chris' tongue, his soft lips, his hands roaming over Ezra's body releasing the last of Ezra's tension and making him melt. When they finally broke the kiss, he rested his head against Chris' shoulder.

"Hmmmm," he sighed softly. "I needed that."

"Good, was it?" Chris purred, amusement coloring his voice.

"More than good, cowboy," Ezra drawled.

"Did you just call me cowboy?" Chris gave him a feigned glare.

Ezra tapped a finger over his lips, pretending to give the question serious consideration. "At least once..." he finally acknowledged. "...cowboy."

Chuckling loudly he made a break for it, hearing Chris growl as he took off after him. He knew Chris was right behind him, but didn't dare look back for fear of losing ground. He didn't make it very far. Chris was too fast and Ezra was laughing too hard to really be able to run properly.

Chris tackled him and they fell down on the soft sand. Chris stretched out full-length on top of Ezra, straddling his hips and effortlessly holding him captive. Then he put his hands on the ground on either side of Ezra's head, leaning forward and looked Ezra directly in the eye.

"I really hate that, you know? When people call me cowboy."

"You let Vin do it," Ezra said with a pout.

"Ezra?" Chris' eyes were warm and affectionate.

"Yes, Chris?" Ezra whispered, going for a completely unconvincing meek look.

"Shut up," Chris leered, lowering his mouth to Ezra's again.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Maude had been on her way to her room when she noticed her son and Chris Larabee on their way to the hotel's front entrance. Curious as to where they were going at that hour, she followed them at a safe distance as they headed for the beach.

She stayed in the shadows under the trees and watched as Larabee and Ezra walked to the water's edge, then gasped as Larabee suddenly embraced her son, holding him close. She saw them kiss, their hands traveling avidly over each other's bodies, caressing as they went. She heard her usually reserved son laugh joyfully before running away from Larabee, who was following right behind, until they finally disappeared over the sandy dunes.

She knew they were lovers. She had heard Ezra say the words just a few hours earlier. But it was one thing to be told something and another to actually witness it. Everything in her said she should feel disgusted. Homosexuality was supposed to be a sin. It was supposed to be against God's laws.

But she didn't feel anything of the sort. Somehow, seeing the two men together felt right. And she finally understood what Ezra had been trying to tell her. What he felt for Larabee was pure, undeniable love, the kind that with any luck would last a lifetime. And what was the saying; 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone'? She herself had broken most of God's laws willingly, with full knowledge of what she was doing.

She knew in her heart she had always been a terrible mother. Never there for her son, never being able to love him as he had deserved. Now he had someone who did love him and she wasn't going to ruin his life for it. For the first time since she'd had Ezra she was going to do the right thing and support her son. If that meant accepting Chris Larabee into the family, then so be it.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~


Feeling suddenly at peace with her decision, Maude walked back to the hotel. Philippe had been gone for a week now and she couldn't wait for morning to come and her lover to return.

She smiled ruefully; she was getting mellow in her golden years. Maybe it was true that with age came wisdom, although she suspected some part of her new view on life was due to Philippe's inherent goodness. Perhaps it was rubbing off on her; she certainly wouldn't have accepted her son's choice in partners so easily in the not so distant past.

She climbed up the stairs to the first floor, making her way through the deserted corridors, when someone suddenly leapt out of the shadows, blocking her way. She took a step back, startled. Her breath caught as she recognized the man standing before her.

"Hello, Maude," he said in a near purr.

"Goyo!" she gasped, horrified at seeing him again and at what had become of his once handsome face.

"What's the matter, cariño? You don't look happy to see me," Goyo said. Despite the endearment, his eyes were dark and forbidding. "Do you have any idea how long it took me to find you, Maude? You certainly move around a lot. Paris, New York, Denver...."

"If this is about your money –" Maude began, desperate to find a way out of her plight. Goyo was a dangerous man and the fact that he had managed to track her down, and at the very moment she was about to wed, didn't bode well for her.

Goyo waved a hand in the air, dismissively. "Would I search the world for you simply because of a few miserable dollars?" He shook his head slowly. "Oh, no. This isn't about the money, cariño. This is about love and commitment. I warned you once. Nobody leaves me. Nobody!"

"Goyo, please.... What I felt for you ended a long time ago, long before I ever left. I tried to explain, to make you see, but you refused to listen. I...." she trailed off as Goyo moved closer, a hunter stalking its prey, until they were sharing the same breath. "All I have to do is shout and the security guards will be here in seconds, Goyo," She told him, successfully concealing her fear. "If you try to hurt me –"

"Hurt you?" he exclaimed, placing a hand on his heart dramatically, pretend hurt shining in his eyes. "I have no wish to hurt you, cariño. One should never destroy that which one wishes to possess. But when I woke up that morning, without your warm, fragrant body next to me, when I found the money gone – my life ended, my heart was broken. Damita, however, wanted to find you right away and slit your treacherous throat."

He gestured towards the shadows and Maude noticed Damita for the first time. Goyo's sister was leaning against the wall, listening silently to their conversation with an unreadable expression on her face. Forcing herself to ignore the other woman, Maude turned her attention back to the man before her.

"It's over between us, Goyo. I am with someone else now."

"Ah, yes! Monsieur Fontaine. Tell me, cariño, does he make you feel the way I did? Does he kiss you the way I did? Does he love you the way I did?"

Before Maude could so much as open her mouth to reply, Goyo seized her roughly, holding her painfully and capturing her lips with savage intensity. She fought fiercely, finally managing to push him away from her.

"I will return the money to you, but you will leave me alone or I will call the police," she gritted out, feeling an angry flush steal over her features. "I would never have gotten involved with someone like you if I had known what you were like, what you did for a living. It's over, Goyo. Leave me alone."

And with that she turned and walked away, refusing to give in to the urge to simply run and hide in her room. She could never allow him to see her fear or she would be lost.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Chris looked down at the man beneath him, suddenly realizing they had found paradise. They were lying on the soft sand, in a pleasant little hollow between the dunes, there was a full moon shining over them, and the peaceful sound of the waves as they reached the shore made for the perfect background music to their unexpected haven.

Ezra had his arms around him, and Chris could feel his lover's hard cock pressing against his stomach unashamedly. He reached out and gently touched the tip of one finger to Ezra's cheek, a feather-light brush that made the other man gasp.

Their lips met yet again, slowly and lingeringly, one of Ezra's hands clutching at his hair, the other caressing his back. One moment they were teasing each other playfully, the next they were wrapped in each other's arms, writhing together, lost in passion.

Chris broke the kiss, pressing his lips to Ezra's throat and flicking the tip of his tongue against the silken skin. A shudder ran through Ezra, and he pressed himself even more tightly against Chris.

Craving the feel of Ezra's bare skin against his own, Chris shed their clothes, throwing them carelessly to the wind, leaving them where they fell, and focused on the other man with hot intensity.

He nibbled at Ezra's earlobe, grinning at the guttural moan the action engendered, then bent forward and kissed one shoulder, after that the hollow above Ezra's collar bone. He planted little kisses along Ezra's chest, nipping and pinching at his nipples until they were sensitive to the slightest of touches.

"Chris," Ezra breathed pleadingly, grabbing handfulls of sand in helpless pleasure.

"Yes, love?" Chris chuckled, knowing he had to be driving Ezra crazy.

"Stop torturing me... please!" Ezra moaned, breathing in short shallow gasps, his whole body trembling with need.

"You know, you really shouldn't have called me cowboy," Chris said conversationally. "I'll have to punish you for that. Can't have my men showing me any disrespect."

And Chris went back to kissing and licking and sucking, his hands mapping the heated body beneath his, caressing the spots he knew would call forth a soft gasp or a whimper. He could feel Ezra shake and shiver in his arms, soft tremors signaling his surrender as he writhed shamelessly, encouraging Chris with incoherent words.

One of Chris' hands moved to Ezra's thigh, squeezing it gently, moving upwards until he found his lover's erection and began to stroke it. Ezra bucked violently against him, throwing his head back and groaning Chris' name.

Chris suddenly felt Ezra wrap a strong hand around his own hardness, pumping him in the same rhythm, sending waves of pleasure along all his nerves. He dove for Ezra's mouth, kissing him urgently, frantically, knowing he wouldn't be able to hold on much longer. His shudder echoed Ezra's as he felt himself begin to lose control. Moaning soundlessly into Ezra's mouth, Chris let it happen, let himself let go.

He lost himself in Ezra's eyes as he came, drowning in the green depths as his seed spilled forth onto Ezra's hand and stomach, leaving him gasping for air. Realizing Ezra was still hard in his hand, Chris slid down quickly to take Ezra's cock in his mouth, caressing Ezra's inner thighs lightly at the same time.

Ezra groaned helplessly, and then he was thrusting his hips wildly and arching up, clutching at Chris' shoulders as his orgasm filled Chris' mouth. Chris swallowed the offering greedily, until the very last drop. He allowed the softening organ to slip from his mouth, placing gentle kisses on Ezra's stomach before moving to blanket his body with his own.

They remained silent for a long time, snuggled close, wrapped securely around each other. It was the sound of the slowly rolling waves that finally roused Chris.



"Can I ask you somethin'?"

"Of course!" There was surprise in Ezra's voice.

"It's about Maude. I was just wonderin'.... I know it's none of my business, but what's with her and all these rich husbands? I mean, I know most people dream of havin' money and bein' able to live in luxury, but your mother seems to go to extremes to get those things."

He felt Ezra sigh. "I have a feeling this time is different, that she genuinely cares for Fontaine. Maybe this will be her last marriage. I don't know. But you are correct; she is ruthless when it comes to money. I.... She doesn't speak of her past often, not even with me, but she tried to explain it to me once. It doesn't make up for some of the things she has done, or for the excessive greediness, but it did help me to understand her better."

"You mean there's a reason?"

"You can call it that, yes. From what she told me, she was born to an extremely poor family. My grandfather was a farmer and my grandmother was ill a lot and couldn't work at all. From the moment she was born, Mother had to deal with not having enough to eat, with not having any proper clothes, with having to work from dusk until dawn. At some point, she had a younger sister who ended up dying due to lack of nourishment. They didn't have enough to feed the infant. And later on she had to beg on the streets just so she could have at least enough money for a daily meal. I guess.... I guess such a life toughens one up, it becomes a necessity in order to survive."

"Yeah," Chris whispered, finally getting a glimpse of the mystery that was Maude Standish.

"She ran away from home when she was very young, and worked like mad to support herself. Then she met my father and I believe it was love at first sight."

"What happened?" Chris asked curiously.

"He was a ruffian. Gambled all day long, didn't work, not at anything legal at any length, and his associates were shady at best. But I guess love is blind. I have made a similar mistake with Matt, as you may recall."

Chris nuzzled Ezra's neck gently, silently comforting him. Matthew Ralston was still a difficult issue for them both, although for different reasons. Ezra had taken Ralston's death hard, spending a long time mourning the passing of a former friend and lover, and regretting not having been there for the other man when needed. For Chris it was simply the fact that he felt incredibly jealous and possessive whenever he thought about Matt having been Ezra's first long term lover. Irrational, but unavoidable.

"I take it your father didn't stay around?" he asked, wanting to take both of their minds off Ralston.

"Disappeared as soon as Mother told him she was pregnant. I don't even know if he's still alive. Mother never told me his name. Sometimes I wonder if one of the men we are supposed to arrest could be him." Ezra sighed sorrowfully. "And unfortunately I seem to have picked up most of their faults. I'm greedy, my ethics are questionable, I gamble, I enjoy conning the miscreants we are ordered to apprehend...."

Chris lifted his head from Ezra's chest. "You may like doin' those things, but they're not you, Ezra. You are a good man. Trust me on this, I know. In the end, you always do the right thing and that's what really matters."

"You're biased," Ezra half-quipped.

Chris nipped at Ezra's bottom lip. "Definitely. But there are five men in that hotel who would tell you exactly the same thing, and none of them are in love with you. I hope," he quipped, then sobered. "Everyone has faults, Ezra. The trick is not lettin' them overcome us."

Ezra's eyes lit up as they looked at Chris. "Have I told you lately that I love you?" he whispered warmly.

"Isn't that the name of a song?" Chris deadpanned.


"Yes, Ez?"

"Shut up."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

July 7th, 1999

Ezra, Chris and their friends finally met the elusive Philippe Fontaine the next day at lunch. He was a tall, redheaded man in his late fifties, with sparkling green eyes and a freckled face, which, combined with his laid-back, easy-going manner, won the Americans over immediately.

He played the charming host throughout the meal, spinning wild tales about his misguided youth, his voice heavy with a French accent and loud enough to capture the attention of most of the clientele in the restaurant, which listened enthralled to the millionaire.

When the meal was over, Fontaine invited Ezra for a drink in his office, and the two men made their way through the corridors slowly, talking quietly about the weather and what Ezra thought of Cavalaire-Sur-Mer so far.

"Please, come in," Philippe invited Ezra, as they arrived at the office. "I always prefer to engage in friendly conversation over a glass of fine brandy. I must apologize for not having been here yesterday, but I had pressing matters to attend to in Paris. Now that they are out of the way, I want us to get to know each other better." He smiled at Ezra. "I do hope you don't mind my forwardness. I have always been this way. But I believe since I'm about to marry your mother, we should talk."

Ezra shared his smile. "I agree, Monsieur Fontaine. I –"

"Oh, non, non, non!" Philippe interrupted playfully, with a wave of his hand. "Philippe, please, mon ami. As you Americans say, Monsieur Fontaine is my father. Let's leave formalities behind. You don't mind if I call you Ezra, do you?"

"No, I don't mind." Ezra accepted a glass of brandy and watched as Philippe walked over to his desk.

"Good, good," Philippe replied, looking at the wooden box on his desk. "I better see what this is," he muttered as he reached for it.

Ezra could see a note attached to the lid, and saw the Frenchman frowning at whatever it was written there.

"What's wrong?" Ezra asked.

"I don't understand," Philippe answered him, the confusion clear in his tone. "This note says; 'So you know I'm serious'."

Ezra moved closer, curious, as Philippe opened the box. His breath caught as his eyes fell on the contents; a small, homemade bomb. And with less than thirty seconds to go on its timer.

Acting on pure instinct, Ezra snatched the box from Philippe's hands. Looking outside and seeing that the gardens were deserted, he threw the box out the window as hard as he could. Ignoring the shattering glass, Ezra then pushed Philippe down on the floor behind the desk, covering his body with his own.

The explosion rumbled very close to the building. Its vibrations caused some of the paintings in the office to fall from the walls.

Once he was certain it was safe, Ezra stood up, helping the other man to rise as well. Both of them moved as if in slow motion, while their heartbeats slowly returned to normal.

It was easy to see the bomb had been meant for efficiency, not show. Ezra had managed to throw it far enough that the only real damage to the office was the broken window, and that had been Ezra's doing. The gardens, however, showed a large hole not far from the building, and there were chunks of grass and flowers spread throughout the grounds, as well as a few broken bushes.

Philippe turned shattered eyes to Ezra. His breath was harsh from shock. "Thank you, my friend. It seems I owe you my life."

Before Ezra could reply, the door burst open and his teammates and his mother came rushing in. "Are you okay?" Chris asked hoarsely, fear visible in his eyes.

Ezra smiled gently, wanting to reassure his lover. "I'm fine. We are both fine," he added for his mother's benefit. "But you need to call the police, Philippe," he said, turning to him. "Seems someone is trying to kill you."

"Kill...." his mother repeated, her voice strangely faint.

"It's the only explanation, Mother. There was a bomb in Philippe's desk, so it was obviously meant for him, as I assume very few people are allowed in here. Plus, considering who Philippe is and with his being in the public eye constantly, it is possible some madman is behind this. And then there's the note."

"Note?" Buck, this time.

"Oui," Philippe replied, slowly returning to his old self. "It was written in English, and said 'So you know I'm serious'."

Ezra was the only one to notice his mother's reaction, to notice the abrupt paleness, the fear in her eyes. Maybe there was more to this than an attempt on Philippe's life. And he intended to find out what.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Ezra stood by the front porch, watching as the last of the police cars drove away, his mind going over the last few hours. The local law had treated the whole affair as he knew they would; by assuming it was merely a nutcase out to gain publicity by killing a famous millionaire.

But some things simply didn't add up. First, there was the fact that while the bomb had been obviously homemade and rudimentary, it had also been made by someone who knew what they were doing.

Then there was the fact that it had been on a timer. Philippe didn't exactly keep steady hours. There was no way of predicting when he would be at his office. If they had taken five more minutes at the restaurant, the bomb would have gone off before they even made it into the room.

But what if it was some sort of a warning, not really an attempt on Philippe's life? The note certainly gave that theory credence.

And his mother's reaction to the whole thing was puzzling. Obviously she had been worried about Philippe, but there had been more than that as well. She had been off kilter, her emotions for once visible in her eyes, and what Ezra had seen there left him unsettled. Trouble was brewing and it seemed his mother was right in the middle of it.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~



Ezra turned to see Philippe emerging from the hotel and walking over to join him at the porch. "Philippe, how are you faring?" he asked kindly.

Philippe met his gaze openly. "Better. But I believe my heart actually stopped beating when I saw that bomb. I wish to thank you again for saving my life. If it hadn't been for your quick thinking...."

Ezra dismissed it with a quick shake of his head. "It was more a case of survival instinct," he confessed with a smile.

Philippe sighed wearily. "This comes at such a bad time.... My security chief is on holiday in South America and will only be able to return in three days time. I have four security guards working in shifts, but they stay mostly in the basement, guarding the safe where we keep the daily earnings and the guests' valuables. We never had any major problems – this is a peaceful region, so there was never any need for extra security. "

"Perhaps you should have accepted the inspector's offer to keep some of his men in the hotel," Ezra suggested.

"Bah! They are hardly equipped to deal with something of this magnitude, and two extra men wouldn't make much of a difference in a place as big as this hotel. I accepted his offer to keep an eye on the grounds and that will be enough. Besides, if this person is really out to get me, I doubt an army would be able to stop him. You think they'll be able to make something of the fingerprints they found in my office?"

"I doubt it. They are probably yours, Mother's, or from your staff members. Whoever did this wouldn't leave any prints. And you are correct, extra security won't make much of a difference. Anyone could have planted that bomb. The restaurant, for instance, is within the hotel itself and the clientele doesn't necessarily have to be hotel guests. The public restrooms are on the same floor as your office. Even if security had seen someone in the corridor, they wouldn't have given it a second thought."

"What do you suggest then?" Philippe asked.

"Searching for who is behind this. You won't mind if my associates and I do a little... snooping around, will you?" Ezra asked with a wicked grin.

He had a good idea where to start looking, or better yet, where to start asking questions, but he wouldn't tell Philippe that. If his mother was involved with the bomber in some way, Philippe might not accept it. Until he knew exactly what was going on, and what part his mother played in all of this, it would be better to keep Philippe in the dark.

"Mind?" Philippe's eyebrows rose to his hairline. "You jest, surely, mon ami! Of course I won't mind. Maude told me all about you and your friends, 'Les Sept Magnifiques'. It would be.... How do you say it? A load off my shoulders? I would be able to rest easier knowing you were looking for this madman."

Ezra hid his surprise at the fact that his mother spoke of him and his team to her fiancι and apparently in such glowing terms. He was even more surprised by the fact that she knew the nickname given to them by the other ATF teams. Considering how she was always putting his career choices down, saying how demeaning it was, he hadn't expected it. But then again, Maude Standish never did do what one would expect of her, he mused ruefully.

"In that case, we will look into it, see what we can find," Ezra promised.

"Merci, I do appreciate it," Philippe said gratefully. "It is a shame it is not winter; Cavalaire-Sur-Mer and the surrounding towns are nearly deserted then, it would be much easier to search for a stranger. But in the summer.... I won't even suggest it, since it would be a waste of time. Especially without any physical description of this person."

"I agree," Ezra said, then decided to venture into something which had been on his mind since Fontaine had returned from Paris. "There is something I wished to discuss with you. I was going to bring it up during our conversation, but.... You are aware there have been some changes made in our accommodations upon our arrival?"

Philippe smiled. "Oui, I am aware. Maude has told me why."

"And it does not offend you?" Ezra asked cautiously, not wanting to lose Philippe's respect when they were just starting to get to know each other.

"Mon ami, love couldn't possibly offend me. As I said today at lunch, I was not always rich, and I traveled all over the world as I was making my fortune. During this arduous journey I found that the one true thing in the world, the one that truly matters, is love. I told Maude she should be proud of her son. Not many people, even in this day and age, would stand up for what they feel. And I want you to know that you and Monsieur Larabee, and also your friends, will always be welcome here with open arms."

Ezra nodded, for once incapable of speech. Philippe Fontaine was showing him more kindness in that one moment than most people had in his whole life.

"Thank you," he finally managed. "Do you know where I can find Mother?"

Philippe smiled again, apparently understanding Ezra's need to change the subject, to lighten the mood. "She went out as soon as the inspector finished questioning her. Said something about needing some accessories to go with a new dress I brought her from Paris. You know women. There's always a final detail that needs taken care of. She shouldn't be long."

Ezra watched Philippe go back inside, knowing his mother had probably lied. He doubted Cavalaire-Sur-Mer had the kind of store that supplied the expensive 'accessories' his mother was accustomed to. No matter. He would wait until she returned and then he would do some questioning of his own.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

It didn't take Maude very long to find Goyo and Damita; all she had to do was go through every tourist swamped bar in town until she finally found the right one. The twins were sitting at a table in the back, facing the entrance.

Maude stormed over and threw an envelope full of money on the table. "This is all the money I possess at the moment. If you ever try to hurt Philippe again, I swear I will kill you myself," she hissed angrily.

"I was only trying to get your attention, cariño," Goyo answered calmly.

"By planting a bomb in the hotel?" she said incredulously. "You have gone mad. Anyone could have been killed, Goyo. Philippe and my son escaped by a near miracle."

"You really think this will pay for all of your sins?" Damita gestured towards the envelope with an ugly sneer.

"I need time to collect the rest. After I am married, I can –"

"No," Goyo interrupted, never raising his voice. "I have a better idea. Take your money back, I don't want it."

Maude narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What do you want, then?"

Goyo smiled slowly. "Fontaine owns a classy, expensive, five star hotel," he said.

Maude felt her stomach roll as she realized where he was getting at. "No," she whispered. "I won't do it."

"Don't be that way, cariño," Goyo chided mockingly. "Think about it; I will even let you keep a share of the money. All you have to do is find out where Philippe keeps the money, the combination, since it will most likely be in a safe, what kind of security he has and their schedule. I will handle the rest."

"No," Maude insisted stubbornly. Philippe had showed her nothing but kindness and love since the moment they had met, she would never betray him in such a way.

Goyo grabbed her wrist painfully, pushing her down towards him until she was sitting beside him, their faces inches apart. "You want him to have another... accident, cariño? Fatal, this time? This is the perfect solution for the both of us, my love. I will get my money, with interest, of course, and you will be rid of me forever. I will even give you some time to think it over. Damita and I will be having dinner at the hotel tonight. You can give me your answer then. Maude?" he called out as she made to leave. "Don't disappoint me."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Ezra made his way to the restaurant, spotting Chris, JD, Nathan and Josiah already occupying a table. He sat by Chris' side, who immediately noticed his annoyance.

"Didn't manage to speak with Maude?" Chris guessed correctly.

"No. She returned by the kitchen entrance, so I missed it when she went up to her room, and she refused to see me, saying she had a 'terrible headache'. Mother's hiding from me, Chris. I just know it. I doubt she will even come down for dinner."

Nathan frowned. "You really think she knows somethin' about this mad bomber?"

"Yes. I'm not sure what yet, but I know Mother; her face when she heard what happened and when Philippe said what was on that missive.... Hopefully, I'm wrong, but I seriously doubt it."

"So, what do we do now?" JD asked.

"We can't do anything until Ezra speaks with Maude. We have no leads and we can't ask the local police too many questions or they will get suspicious," Josiah said. "We will have to handle this ourselves."

"I can get us some extra surveillance if you want," JD suggested. "I always bring a few gadgets with me. Maybe a couple of hidden cameras strategically placed in Philippe's office, the corridors, in front of his room.... It might help if someone tries to break in again."

Ezra nodded. "It's an excellent idea, JD. Maybe you can implement it tonight when most of the guests are asleep. I will inform Philippe."

Philippe made his way over to them at that moment, sitting beside Nathan. "Where are your friends? And Maude?"

"The others should be here soon. They went horseback riding after the police left, so they wanted to freshen up. Mother refused to come down. She says she has a headache."

"Oh, non, that can not be!" Philippe exclaimed. "You are only going to stay here for two weeks, you should spend as much time together as possible. I'm sure one of the staff can get her something for the pain. Bernard," he called out to one of the waiters.

"Oui, Monsieur Fontaine?"

"Please, be so kind as to call Madame Standish in her room and ask her to come down and join us for dinner. Oh, and find something suitable for a headache, a painkiller, perhaps."

"Oui, Monsieur," Bernard bowed slightly before walking away.

Ezra exchanged an amused glance with Chris. Now Maude would have to come down and eventually he would corner her into having their conversation. Philippe had unwillingly provided him with the solution for a most annoying problem – Maude Standish at her most aggravating.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Maude walked furiously out of her room, knowing there was no way to escape her son's inquiry now. She had seen his calculating glances while they were waiting for the police, knew he was getting suspicious. Of what exactly she did not know, but she hoped to postpone their inevitable verbal battle until she was rid of Goyo and his damn sister.

It would be impossible now. She knew Ezra would remain silent throughout dinner, but that as soon as it was over, he would try to catch her alone. And she had no idea what to tell him, or how much to tell him. She was used to dealing with her plights in her own way, alone, and her son's silent, but persistent support was both exasperating and warming.

And then there was Goyo. Dinnertime was almost over, but she knew the other man would not go away until he had his answer. And the only answer she had for him was no. She truly loved Philippe; she refused to do anything to hurt him. Besides, no matter how unscrupulous she was regarding certain matters, she was not about to break the law in such a fashion.

She had almost reached the restaurant when she saw Goyo and Damita walking out, both their faces showing their thunderous moods. Before she could turn around and hide, they saw her as well and Goyo stalked over to her.

"Where the hell have you been, Maude? I am growing tired of warning you to watch your step with me! I want your answer, cariño, and it better be yes," he spat, gripping her arms tightly.

"Excuse me, is there a problem?" a new voice asked, and Maude nearly fainted with relief as she witnessed Buck Wilmington walking over to them.

"None of your business, gringo," Goyo snarled. "Get lost."

"I don't think so," Buck said dryly. "Let go of the lady."

Maude had been expecting Goyo to attack Wilmington; she had seen him fight before and the man was ruthless, always resorting to treachery to win against his opponents, but she had forgotten Damita. Maude had only enough time to cry a warning and then Wilmington was jumping back as Damita pulled a bowie knife on him, grinning widely as she tossed the blade from one hand to the other.

If the woman had been expecting the agent to be intimidated she must have been sorely disappointed, for Wilmington simply grinned back, completely ignoring the knife and focusing on his attacker, easily parrying her thrusts.

The fight didn't last long.

Maude knew Damita and Goyo had learned to fight on the streets, both orphans at an early age and having to fend for themselves. But Wilmington had years of practice as well, plus the height advantage and he was fighting without the emotional anger clouding Damita's mind.

Wilmington managed to deflect a direct attack on his heart, the knife still slashing his shirt and brushing his skin, then bypassed the blade and moved to Damita's side. He kept the knife as far away from his body as possible, and before his opponent could recover her balance, he hit her on the arm, then kicked her in the leg, making Damita fall and drop the knife.

Two security guards arrived at that moment – probably warned by one of the few guests who had been privy to the fight – but in a lightening swift move, Goyo reached for his gun and grabbed Maude, holding her in front of his body as a shield. He gestured towards the guards, forcing them to back away until they were standing together with Wilmington.

"One move from you and I will kill her. Understand?" he threatened. "Damita?"

"I'm fine," she panted, jumping to her feet. "Let's get out of here."

Maude tried to break free, but Goyo's hold on her was as strong as steel and she was roughly dragged to the hotel's entrance. Wilmington and the guards were close behind. Some part of her was relieved it was rather late and there weren't many people still around. The other desperately wanted someone to warn Philippe and Ezra of what was happening. Someone had to come to her rescue. She didn't want to go anywhere with Goyo. She wouldn't be able to stand it.

They left the building, still at a standoff, until suddenly Goyo threw her against the three men standing a few feet away. She felt Wilmington's surprisingly gentle hands steadying her while the two guards chased after the running twins. She heard shots, the sound getting further and further away, but she didn't pay it much attention. It was taking all of her strength to pull herself back together.

She allowed herself to be taken inside, and then Philippe's arms were going around her, embracing her, making her feel safe again. She could also feel her son's presence hovering close by, and hear voices, probably explaining what had happened. Philippe's calm and peacefulness finally seeped into her and she broke reluctantly free from her future husband's embrace.

"I'm all right," she assured, somewhat surprised at how level her voice sounded.

"Are you sure?" Ezra asked her, his eyes showing the worry he was feeling.

"I'm fine, darling. It takes more than a miscreant to throw me off course." She sighed tiredly. "But I believe it is time for you, Philippe and I to have a long talk. I should have never kept this hidden for so long. It was a miscalculation on my part."

One of the security guards returned then, panting with exertion. "Monsieur Fontaine, we took care of one of them. They started to shoot at us, so we had to return fire. Charles killed the man. He has stayed behind with the body. The woman got away."

Maude felt something ease in her heart at the man's words. Goyo was dead. She was free. Damita would still be a problem. Maude had always thought the younger woman to be somewhat unbalanced, but the worst was over.

"Well done, Daniel," Philippe said. "Call the police, ask to speak with Inspector Michel, and tell him what happened. And we need to provide a doctor for Buck."

"No need," Nathan told him. "It's not serious. I can take care of it myself. Just show me where to find a medical kit."

"Daniel, can you see to that as well?"

"Oui, Monsieur Fontaine, right away."

"Very well, then. Maude, Ezra, let's go to my office and talk."

Maude followed the two most important men in her life, wondering how they were going to react to her words. Ezra might be able to understand, but she wasn't so certain about Philippe. And that filled her heart with dread.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~


There was a long awkward moment as Ezra and his mother watched Philippe pace in his office, a deep frown marring the usually relaxed features as he obviously went over what had happened during the last hour.

"I take it the man Charles shot and the woman who got away were the ones responsible for the bomb?" Philippe finally asked.

"Yes," Maude replied in a low tone of voice.

"And I take it you were acquainted with them?"

"Yes," she repeated and Ezra spared her a concerned glance.

His mother had to be worried about Philippe's reaction to the whole affair. She didn't take well to being questioned and under different circumstances, she would be giving him hell by now.

"I see." Philippe stopped pacing, looking out the recently replaced window, his back to them. "Care to explain your relationship with them? Who are they?"

"His name was Goyo Hernandez. The woman is his twin sister, Damita. I met Goyo approximately two years ago. I had been divorced for some years and was sorely lacking in funds, so I was trying my luck in a casino in Barcelona. We met by the roulette table and he immediately began to woo me. He was charming, sophisticated, amusing.... I was lonely and he was looking for company, so we had dinner that night and during the following weeks we went out together frequently. I realized he was quite wealthy. He told me he worked for a software company and, like a fool, I believed him."

"It was not so?" Philippe asked flatly.

"No. About four months into our relationship he asked me to go live with him." Ezra could hear his mother's weary sigh. "I accepted. I had no plans for the future, and in some ways Goyo was every woman's dream. He showered me with gifts; he was considerate to my every need. I felt like a queen every time we were together. I soon found out what a disastrous mistake I had made, but by then it was too late. A few weeks after I joined him at his mansion, he began to change. He became possessive to the point of madness, wanting to know where I was at all times. He even had one of his men follow me everywhere. It came to a point where I was practically a prisoner, as I couldn't go anywhere unless he or Damita were accompanying me."

"What happened?" Ezra asked. His heart went out to his mother. Goyo Hernardez seemed a true psychopath and his actions upon arriving at Cavalaire-Sur-Mer only reinforced that idea.

"I began to notice some unusual things. Goyo didn't keep the office hours one would expect from an executive working at a software company. The men who came to visit were dangerous looking, and some of them carried weapons. And then one day I overheard Goyo and Damita talking about a drug deal which was very important to them, and a certain German gentleman who was supposed to arrive in two days time to meet with them. I knew then that Goyo had lied and that I was in trouble of unimaginable proportions."

"What did you do?" Philippe was obviously curious in spite of everything.

"I tried to convince Goyo that I didn't love him any longer, that I wanted to leave him, that it was over. He...." She hesitated, then exhaled softly. "He hit me. Said he would kill me if I ever tried to leave him. So I had to find some way of escaping his clutches."

"How?" Ezra knew it couldn't have been simple. His mother had a tortuous mind and her plans were often flawed to say the least.

"Goyo suffered from insomnia so he took a sleeping pill every night before retiring. I waited until he fell asleep, donned some dark clothes and made my way to his den. I had discovered the combination to his safe, so I took all the money there and using the codes I had also stumbled upon, deactivated the alarms. Going past the guards was easy and I left Spain that same night. The following months I never stayed long in the same place, afraid he might find me. And then I met you, Philippe."

"So you stole his money?" Philippe surmised, the disappointment clear in his voice.

"Yes. But Philippe, I also left everything I owned behind in order to escape. What was I supposed to do? Warn the police? Goyo would have killed me. You have seen what he is capable of."

"So why was he here?"

"He claimed he wanted his money back, and that he wished to have me back as well. I'm not privy to what happened to leave him scarred, but somehow it made him even worse. I believe he was quite mad."

"Why didn't you simply return his money? Perhaps he would have left you alone," Ezra ventured.

"I doubt it. But, in any case, I didn't have it any longer. I invested it, expecting to make a considerable profit, but I lost it all on the market. I offered to give him what little I had and then come up with the rest, but he refused. He came up with this insane idea of robbing the hotel, wanted me to provide him with information about the location of the safe and what kind of security you used," she said, her eyes never leaving Philippe. "When I refused to do it, he threatened to kill you. They came here tonight to get my final answer."

"Which would have been?" Philippe asked in the same unemotional tone.

Maude rose from the sofa. "My answer would have been the same one I gave him before. No. I might not be the most ethical person on Earth, I am fully aware of that, but I would never betray you. I do love you, Philippe. I was trying to come up with some way to get rid of them both without having to hurt you."

"Too late for that now, is it not?" Philippe retorted sadly.

"Philippe...." she whispered brokenly.

"What am I supposed to do now, Maude? I had an image of you and it seems it does not hold true. You know, I can even understand you stealing his money, but the rest.... You could have asked for help, for my help. Instead you allowed this Goyo to place everyone in the hotel at risk. That bomb could have killed someone, Maude, and Monsieur Wilmington might have died tonight because of you." He shook his head. "What should I do now? Marry you and forget everything that happened? Forget how you lied and deceived everyone, including your own son?" He walked stiffly to the door, his slumped posture painful to watch. "I need to think," he murmured, then left the office.

Ezra went over to his mother, and kissed her on the cheek. "I understand why you did it," he said. "Let me talk to him, perhaps it will help."

She lifted tear-filled eyes to him. "You really think so?"

Ezra gave her a half-hearted shrug. "No harm in trying. Don't lose faith yet, Mother."

He went to find Philippe sitting on a bench in the gardens, looking up dejectedly at the starry sky. Ezra sat beside him, remaining silent for a while, allowing Philippe a moment of peace.

"She does love you, you know?" Ezra finally said. "I will not make excuses for her, but she does have her reasons for acting in such a way. She watched a younger sister slowly starving to death, and I get the feeling my grandparents were completely clueless when it came to parenting or loving a child. She spent most of her life having to depend only on herself, without anyone to lean on, to stand by her side. Some habits are hard to break."

"And that makes everything all right? Excuses everything she could have said and done, and failed to?"

"No, it doesn't. But I can tell you one thing for certain. If she didn't love you, she would have disappeared the moment Goyo showed up. Instead she stayed and tried to make the best of a dreadful situation. And I can tell you something else. I have never seen her the way she is with you. She is happy and relaxed. She practically glows when you are together."

"Really?" Philippe asked, apparently willing to listen.

"Really. The Maude Standish you have been with these last months is the real woman – the one she keeps hidden from everyone else – even if she is not the perfect angel you made her out to be. But that is your own fault up to a point. You should have realized that no one is perfect and that everyone makes mistakes. She was bound to have her skeletons in the closet, just as everyone has things in their past they'd rather forget. Besides, you said it yourself, love is the only thing which truly matters."

Philippe smiled weakly. "You should have been a lawyer, mon ami."

Ezra laughed silently. "All I'm asking is for you to give it some thought. We are all human and we all make mistakes. And since we are being honest here, Mother does make more than her due share," he quipped. "Everyone needs a second chance in life, Philippe. I am the living proof." Seeing Philippe's curious expression, he added, "I will tell you all about it at another time. Suffice to say, Chris and I wouldn't have been together and I would probably be miserable at this moment."

Philippe nodded. "All right, I promise to give the whole situation serious thought. Now, we better get back inside. It's nearly two in the morning and Inspector Michel must be looking for me."

Both men rose and walked back to the hotel in companionable silence. Philippe murmured something about going to his office to think. Ezra surveyed the lobby and grinned as he realized his lover had taken over, ordering the team to stay on the alert and help the police in any way they could. He couldn't see Nathan anywhere, but the others were spread throughout the hotel's lobby, with the exception of Buck, who was settled on a large chair near the reception area. Since Chris was speaking with the inspector at that moment, Ezra went over to join Buck.

"Buck, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Ez," Buck said. "That was one wild filly, but I could take her on."

"I'm glad you are all right, and… thank you for rescuing Mother. Things could have taken a turn for the worst, if not for you."

"No problem, Ez. How is she?" Buck asked, all amusement gone from his eyes.

"Shaken, afraid to lose Philippe. Still wearing the 'I don't care' mask for all the world to see."

"Where have I heard that before?" Chris drawled sarcastically, moving to stand beside him. "You okay, Ez?" he asked, gentling his voice.

Ezra sent him a glare without any real heat in it. "I'm fine. How is everything going with the police?"

"They are leavin' now, thank God," Chris answered tiredly. "They already questioned the security guards, Buck and Maude. The rest of us didn't really see anythin', so we are off the hook this time. They've taken care of Goyo's body and there's an APB out for Damita. How's Philippe doin'?"

"Like someone pulled the rug right from under him," Ezra said. "I tried to make him see Mother's reasons for keeping silent, but I'm not certain it worked."

Chris looked at him. "We were present for the questionings, so we heard the whole story. You can't blame the guy for bein' shocked."

"Think he'll go through with the wedding?" JD asked as he joined them.

Ezra shrugged slightly. "It's anyone's guess at the moment. I certainly hope so."

"Okay, people, I suggest we all get some rest," Chris said, once again taking over. "I don't know about you, but I'm dead on my feet."

"I should check on Mother first."

"I had Nathan take her up to her room and give her a sedative. She's probably sleepin' by now," Chris told him.

Ezra nodded. "Well thought of, thank you. Gentlemen, I bid you a goodnight."

The others said their goodbyes, but Ezra hardly heard them as he followed Chris to their room, feeling the weight of the day catching up to him. They quickly undressed, climbed into bed, snuggled closer and immediately fell asleep in each other's arms.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

In some distant corner of his mind, Chris heard the toilet flushing and knew he was alone under the covers, but couldn't make himself open his eyes. He felt Ezra return to the bed, spooning against his back and wrapping an arm around Chris' waist carefully so as not to wake him.

He smiled sleepily as Ezra slipped his left arm between Chris' neck and the pillow, cradling his head on his bicep. Then he heard his lover sigh contentedly and felt the gentlest of kisses at the back of his neck.

"Hm?" Chris murmured softly.

"Go back to sleep," Ezra whispered. "It's still early."

Chris snuggled back into his lover's warmth, moaning as he felt Ezra's hardening cock brush against his buttocks. Unable to resist the urge, he wiggled his backside, feeling the shaft rub against him, grinning at the gasp his move wrung from his lover.

"You want to play, Larabee?" Ezra purred teasingly in his ear, the hand previously resting at Chris' waist wandering down until it was caressing his erection lightly. "Then let's play."

Chris was pulled back against his lover roughly, and Ezra took hold of his cock in a strong, purposeful grip. Ezra began to grind against him, while his fist pumped Chris slowly, playfully, until Chris was sure he was going to growl out his frustration.

Before he could protest, one of Ezra's fingers brushed against the slit, spreading the first drops of pre-come over the head of his cock, then continuing with the maddeningly slow rhythm. Chris bucked wildly, his breathing harsh and loud as he moved into the hand driving him crazy and the cock grazing over his cleft.

"Yes...." he moaned breathlessly, his whole body alight with pleasure.

He reached back, grabbing Ezra's hip in a bruising grip and holding him more firmly against his own body as they established a tempo to their lovemaking. He heard Ezra moan and then his lover was biting down hard on his shoulder, his seed spurting over Chris' lower back as Chris' own orgasm overtook him.

They lay gasping in each other's arms for a long moment. Ezra relaxed his tight hold on Chris, before letting go altogether. Chris felt a cloth brush gently over his slick skin, cleaning him and then Ezra was back behind him, snuggling as close as was humanly possible.

"Love you," Chris heard whispered in his ear, feeling Ezra plant a kiss where he'd bitten him earlier.

"You too," he mumbled, and promptly fell asleep.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

July 8th, 1999

Damita looked down at her breakfast, not feeling hungry in the least, but knowing she had to keep her strength up. The coffee shop she had chosen was virtually empty, since it was still very early in the morning, and she took the opportunity to finally let her guard down for a while.

She had managed to escape the security guards and later on the police searching for her during most of the night. The local law presented no real danger for her. They were amateurs, used to handle drunken brawls, not people with her experience. Evading them had been easy.

Purchasing a man's suit in a nearby town had been even easier. They were looking for a woman, not a man, and after a drastic self-made haircut, she looked the part. No one would be able to recognize her. Not until it was too late anyway, she mused with a grim smile.

Now all she needed was to come up with a good plan and return to Cavalaire-Sur-Mer. Maude Standish had stolen the one person in her life she had ever loved; her brother, the other half of her soul. They had been so close, she was certain she had felt the exact moment when Goyo's heart had stopped beating.

She couldn't remember a moment in her life when Goyo hadn't been by her side, supporting her, sharing his life with her. They had survived their parents' death when they were only four, they had gone through orphanage after orphanage, foster family after foster family, and had never lost contact with the other.

They had smoked their first joint together, shot heroin for the first time together, robbed their first store together. They had even shared their first kill; some asshole kid who thought she would be an easy lay, but had forgotten to ask her permission first.

But now.... Now she was all alone in the world. No more Goyo. It was impossible to envision her life, her future, without him. She didn't even want to try.

There was only one solution. She would take her revenge on the woman responsible for her pain. She would get even with Maude Standish.

Damita felt a smile slowly blossom on her face as she realized what she could do. It was perfect. Maude had destroyed blood of her blood, so Damita would just have to do the same. She wouldn't go for the millionaire, for Fontaine, that would be too easy.

No. She would hit Maude where it would hurt the most, she was going to kill blood of her blood; Maude Standish's son would not live to see the next sunset.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~


Chris looked up at the clear blue sky, wondering if this would be the day they would finally be allowed to start their vacation. Between having to deal with Maude upon their arrival, telling her about his and Ezra's relationship, and then having to handle Goyo and his sister the previous day, none of them had had any real time to relax.

This morning had started differently. They had gotten up deliciously late, enjoyed a hearty breakfast – or as Nathan called it, a heart attack waiting to happen – and then each man had gone his separate way, going off in search of something pleasant to immerse himself in.

In his and Ezra's case, horseback riding. They had spent the last few minutes getting acquainted with their mounts, learning the animals' quirks, allowing them to lead at a gentle canter. When he felt confident they could master the horses easily, Chris turned to his lover.

"Up for a race?" he asked.

"Up for a bet?" Ezra smirked.

"Name your game," Chris challenged.

"The first one to reach the rocks at the far end of the beach gets to top tonight," Ezra said with a wicked grin.

"Cocky, aren't you?" Chris remarked. "What makes you think you'll win?"

"My horse is better suited for racing than yours," Ezra said.

"We'll see about that. Ready?" When Ezra nodded, he shouted, "Go!"

Chris spurred his horse into a fast gallop, feeling as if they were flying across the amazing expanse of the beautiful beach, kicking up the sands and splashing through the surf's edge. He urged his mount to go even faster, the salty water spraying against his face like tears, the wind brushing over his skin with a lover's touch.

He closed his eyes for a moment, becoming one with the horse. Something inside him broke free, making it feel as if he had been born in a saddle. He heard laughter and opened his eyes to see Ezra closing in on him, then riding past him with a cheeky wave. He growled in mock anger, ready to spur the horse even harder when tragedy happened.

A gunshot blasted suddenly, and Ezra cried out, his horse rearing up as its rider fell in a heap on the sand.

"Ezra! God, no!"

Chris leapt from the saddle, dropping to his knees beside Ezra, not even noticing when both horses galloped away. Ezra was bleeding profusely from the left temple. Blood ran down his face, dripping onto the sand. Chris knew he should be doing something. Trying to staunch the flow of crimson, trying to catch whoever had shot his lover, anything but remaining frozen in despair.

But his whole being was shutting down. All he could see in his mind's eye was his burnt out car, past and present merging as he recalled that Sarah and Adam had died because he had been unable to protect them. And now it was happening all over again. He should have been able to protect Ezra. He should have been able to keep him safe. But because he had been careless, because he had failed to consider Damita's thirst for revenge, he had lost the most important person in his life.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Maude walked down the stairs feeling like a brand new woman. The sedative provided by Nathan Jackson had allowed her to rest peacefully throughout the night and most of the morning, and after a delightful breakfast in bed she felt ready once again to face the world. And Philippe.

When she had first agreed to marry Philippe and move into the hotel, she had disagreed with his suggestion to have separate rooms until after the wedding. Now she could understand his reasoning.

Like any other couple they still spent most nights together, but having two rooms gave them the chance to be apart occasionally. She had needed it desperately the previous night and couldn't help wondering if Philippe hadn't felt the same.

As she made her way to the reception to check for messages, she couldn't prevent an amused smile from escaping as she watched Buck Wilmington flirting with one of the receptionists. She had to give the man credit. He was good. His handsome face, charming ways and beautiful smile made it difficult to say no, and she could certainly understand why the others referred to him as a ladies man.

"Mr. Wilmington," she said as a way of greeting.

"Maude," he smiled. "How are you doin'?"

"Very well, thank you. I...." She regarded the man before her, taking in the warmth-filled eyes and deciding she could allow herself a moment's weakness. "I wish to thank you for what you did last night. I've forgotten the last time someone rushed to my rescue, especially at the risk of their own life. I trust your injury is not serious?"

"Nah, just a scratch. And I only did what I felt was right. You're Ezra's mother, so you're family. Besides, I can't stand to see men roughin' up women, it's about as cowardly as you can get. I'm just sorry I couldn't get my hands on that Goyo fella myself."

She nodded, hearing the honesty in his voice and appreciating the sentiment. Her first impressions of Ezra's associates were admittedly faulty; there was more to them than met the eye. She was beginning to understand why they were all so important to her son.

"Any messages for me, Gisele?" Maude asked the flushed receptionist. Apparently the young woman wasn't immune to Wilmington's advances.

"Oui, Madame. A young man left a note for you early this morning," Gisele replied, handing her a small sheet of paper.

"Merci." Maude reached for it, opened it and felt her heart miss a beat as she read the careful handwriting.

"Maude? What's wrong?" Wilmington had obviously picked up on her reaction to the missive.

"Where are Ezra and Philippe?" she asked him frantically.

"Philippe is in his office with Nathan and Vin. They're plannin' on goin' to the police station, see if there's any news on the APB out for Damita Hernandez. Ezra went horseback riding with Chris. Why?"

Unable to say a word for the fear holding her captive, she gave him the note.

"'You stole something from me, so I will have to pay you back in kind. Which one do you love the most? The millionaire or your son'?" Wilmington read aloud. "Shit! Maude, see if you can find Josiah and JD. I'm goin' to get Nathan and Vin."

She didn't waste any time in obeying. Philippe was safe, at least for the moment, but Ezra was out there, unprotected and unaware of the danger he was in. And these men were the last barrier between her son and a deranged woman.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

As the horses thundered across the sand, Vin leaned closer to his mount's outstretched neck and encouraged it to greater efforts by whispering soft words into its ear. He cursed their stupidity for dismissing Damita's wish for vengeance after her brother's death. They had been dealing with criminal minds for what felt like forever. They should have expected something like this.

His keen eyesight spotted Chris and Ezra racing further ahead and he rejoiced as he realized his friend was safe and sound. Then his worse fear materialized as a gunshot suddenly echoed across the beach and he cried out in denial as Ezra fell from his horse.

Wanting desperately to make sure Ezra was alive, but knowing they had to catch the Hernandez woman, Vin gestured towards Josiah and JD and the three men turned their horses in the direction the shot had come from. The beach was beginning to fill with tourists and they lost precious time trying to avoid the people blocking their path.

Their ride took them to the concrete road leading to the sand dunes. Vin tugged at the reins, a subtle pressure of his knees gentling the horse's frenzied pace. His mount slowed reluctantly, tossing its head to show its irritation at the abrupt command.

He heard Josiah echoing his silent curse. Except for a few scattered groups of tourists, the road was deserted. They were too late. Damita had escaped yet again.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Nathan leapt from his mount and knelt beside Ezra, carefully examining the bleeding wound.

"Buck, give me your bandanna," he ordered immediately. When he was obeyed, he pressed it to the Ezra's temple, never looking up as he continued to give out orders. "Go back to the hotel and call an ambulance. Tell them to hurry. Chris, I –" He suddenly realized Chris wasn't listening to him. Chris' pain-filled eyes were glued to Ezra's pale, bloodied face. "Snap out of it, man!" Nathan snapped hoarsely.

Chris looked up, eyes beginning to clear as they focused on Nathan. "He's alive?" he whispered softly.

Nathan blinked at the vulnerability their usually fierce leader was showing. "Yes, he is, Chris," he answered, gentling his voice. "But he has a concussion and we won't know about any possible damage to his skull, or brain damage, until we get him to the hospital. I need you here with me, okay?"

Chris seemed to shake himself and then Nathan could tell he was back, mind once again sharp and alert. "Sorry. It's just...." Chris trailed off, a hopeless expression on his face.

Nathan touched Chris' shoulder gently. "I know, I understand. Everythin' will be okay, Chris," he added, not really certain who he was trying to convince, Chris or himself.

He heard the familiar sound of hooves on the sand and glanced up. JD, Josiah and Vin were back, making their way through the small gathering of curious tourists surrounding them.

"How is he, Nate?" Josiah's voice was rough with worry as he looked down at Ezra.

"I'm not sure. He has a concussion; other than that...." Nathan shrugged helplessly.

"Did you catch the bitch?" Chris growled.

JD swallowed visibly. "No. She was gone by the time we managed to reach the road. I'm sorry."

Chris sighed wearily. "Not your fault, JD. She won't get far," he vowed, something in his voice causing Nathan to shudder.

Nathan continued to apply pressure to the wound even after he was certain it had stopped bleeding. All five of them were silent as they watched over their fallen comrade. The minutes ticked away as if in slow motion.

"Out of the way, people!" Buck's voice shouted suddenly. "Let the paramedics through."

Nathan had never been so relieved to see anybody in his life. He stepped back, allowing the two paramedics to take over. A cursory examination was made and then Ezra was carefully placed onto a stretcher. The medics rushed to the ambulance, which was parked by the side of the road. Chris followed close behind, unwilling to leave Ezra's side.

Nathan stood by the water's edge for a long time after the ambulance left. He couldn't help wondering what would happen if Ezra didn't make it. Would they be able to survive the loss of one of their own? Would they end up going their separate ways? And more importantly, would Chris be able to handle Ezra's death without losing his mind?

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Buck watched with a wary eye as his oldest friend paced the hospital's waiting room restlessly. Ezra had been taken inside a little over an hour earlier and there hadn't been any news since. Chris' patience was at its limit. A volcano erupting couldn't do as much damage as Chris when he was in one of his darker moods. And not knowing what was happening with Ezra was reason enough for him to explode.

He looked around the small, crowded room. All the others were there, their faces clearly showing what he himself was feeling: fear, anxiety, guilt, anger. Maude and Philippe were there as well, apparently having put their differences aside for the moment, as he had an arm wrapped firmly around her shoulders.

Maude, of course, looked composed and calm, but knowing the son meant you knew the mother as well. As with Ezra, once you got to know the person inside, it was easy to see the cracks in the armor. Her mouth was pressed into a thin line, her hands were laced together in a white knuckled grip, and the lines around her eyes more pronounced. She was hurting and worried and desperate and no amount of hiding would shield her emotions at that moment.

The doors to the ER opened wide and a tall, bearded man walked over to them. "Good afternoon, Messieurs. I'm Doctor Van Damme. No relation to the actor," he joked.

"How's Ezra?" Chris asked roughly, some of the fear he was feeling coloring his voice.

"He has a severe concussion. We did a CAT scan. There seems to be no damage to his skull, and I believe there will also be no brain damage. However, as you well know, with head injuries one should always be very cautious. We will have to wait until he wakes up."

"When will that be?" Chris asked.

The doctor exhaled slowly. "There is no way to say for certain. He could regain consciousness in the next few hours or in a couple of days. I can assure you all that his injury is not life threatening and as I have said, I seriously doubt there will be any brain damage."

"So, Ezra will be okay?" JD asked hesitantly.

The doctor smiled. "I believe so, yes. He is being taken to a private room. I will have a nurse let you know when he has been settled in. I will allow you all to see him, but I would appreciate it if you went in two at a time and didn't stay long, at least until he wakes up. I believe you are Mrs. Standish?" He turned to Maude, who nodded. "I will let you stay for as long as you wish, Madame. Talk to him, sometimes it helps. I must tend to my other patients, but I will come back to see him later. If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to ask."

Buck felt like collapsing with relief and knew the others were feeling the same, although Chris still didn't stop his pacing. Buck knew his friend wouldn't rest until he made sure for himself that Ezra was still alive and well.

A new arrival made everyone tense, but it was only Inspector Michel, who Buck had called right after the ambulance. He liked the French cop. Considering the limited resources he worked with, the inspector was a damn good lawman.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen," the inspector greeted them, his eyes scanning the room with a sympathetic expression. "I know this is not the best of times, but I thought perhaps you would like to be told what my men have discovered so far."

"Which is?" Chris demanded.

"One of my agents spoke with the receptionist, Gisele Merchand. She described the young man who delivered the note for Madame Standish as having short, brown hair, wide, almond eyes, medium build and an athletic look."

"You know, that sounds just like Goyo Hernardez without the scar," JD remarked from his seat beside Buck.

"That's what I thought as well," the inspector agreed. "I had some of my men question the people on the beach, and they found a young couple who saw the whole thing. Their description of the shooter matches the one Mademoiselle Merchand gave us. I think we can safely say the young man was none other than Damita Hernandez dressed up as a man. They said the 'man' drove away in a Mini and even gave us the license plate, so we're looking for it now. The APB is still out on the Hernandez woman, but we updated all this information. We have the bus terminals and train stations on alert, and we are in constant contact with the police in Toulon as well as the airport there."

Chris rubbed his eyes tiredly. "Thank you, inspector."

The inspector cleared his throat. "I do believe, however, that she will remain here, especially if she hears Monsieur Standish is still alive. Until she is caught, Monsieur Standish's life is still in danger. It would be best to keep your friend under surveillance."

"We can handle that ourselves," Chris told him. "But if you could spare us some men to cover the grounds...."

"Consider it done. If there's anything else I can do to help…?"

Buck watched a familiar expression settle over Chris' features. "I believe there is somethin' you can help us with. It's time to set a trap for the Hernardez woman," Chris gritted out. "Buck, I want to be notified as soon as Ezra is in the room. Inspector, come with me. I have a plan."

Buck nodded, watching Chris and the inspector disappear from the room. He couldn't wait to hear about the plan to trap Damita Hernandez. No matter the cost, he was certain they would succeed and make the woman sorry she had ever set foot in Cavalaire-Sur-Mer, and especially for messing with their family.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Chris walked slowly over to the bed, feeling some of his tension and fear vanishing as he was finally allowed to see his lover. He held a warm hand between his own, desperately needing the contact. He let his eyes roam over the pale face, committing the beloved features again to memory, his fingers reaching out to brush the few strands of unruly hair covering up the white bandage around Ezra's head.

He closed his eyes, exhaling slowly, trying to control his wayward emotions. For one long, painful moment on that beach, he had been certain Ezra had died, that he had lost everything he held dear in his life. He didn't know whatever deities he had to thank for the miracle resting on that hospital bed, but he was sure to do so as soon as the beautiful green eyes he loved so much opened up, and the conniving mind behind them shone through without the slightest hint of brain damage.

"You really do love him, don't you?" a voice broke through his reverie, startling him. He had forgotten Maude was also in the room.

He looked up at her, their eyes locking, his showing his defiance. "Yes. Yes, I do."

He controled the urge to say more, to snap at her. What right did she have to question his feelings for Ezra, when her behavior had gotten her own son shot? Logically, he knew Damita had been the one to pull the trigger, but there was still a part of him that blamed Maude for what had happened. If she hadn't gotten involved with the Hernandez twins, if for once in her life she had thought about the consequences of her actions before embarking on yet another foolhardy scheme....

His answer seemed to please her, though, for she nodded slightly. "Very well," was all she said for a while. Then, "I was wrong about you, Mr. Larabee. You are good for my son."

It was then, without any further words passing between them, that Chris knew the two of them had reached an unspoken understanding, a truce of sorts. They would always dislike each other, but for Ezra's sake he was being accepted into the Standish family. Whether he liked it or not.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~


July 9th, 1999

Damita felt her anger rise to new levels as she read the front page of the local newspaper. Maude's son was still alive. He was currently at the Cavalaire-Sur-Mer hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound.

She had failed.

No matter. She wasn't going anywhere. She would just have to find a new disguise and stake out the hospital until the time was right for her to act. One way or another Ezra Standish would meet his end; she would make sure of that. Even if she had to die in the process. After all, she had nothing left to lose.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Maude wiped at her eyes with a shaky hand as she heard footsteps leading to the room. Seconds later the door opened and Philippe walked in. He moved closer to the bed, his hand resting gently on Ezra's leg for a moment.

"How is he?"

"The same. Still hasn't regained consciousness. Lord, Philippe, it's been over twenty-four hours! What if the doctor was wrong, what if Ezra.... What if he doesn't survive?" She could hear the despair in her own voice, but for once she didn't care. "This is my fault. Damita might have been the one to squeeze the trigger, but I am the one responsible for my son being in this hospital bed."

Philippe reached up to her, embracing her tightly. "Shh. Don't say that, cherie. You know Ezra would never blame you for this unfortunate incident. As he told me himself, we are only human. We can not foresee the consequences our past actions will bring forth in the future." He nuzzled her hair tenderly. "This may be a provincial hospital, but the staff is the best. I saw to it myself. If the doctor believes Ezra is going to be fine, then you have to believe it as well."

She exhaled deeply. "I want to. I made so many mistakes with him, Philippe. I never wanted him to rely on anyone else for his happiness, I wanted him to be self-sufficient, self-contained. I didn't want him to suffer throughout his life as I had, to be hurt as I had been hurt, so I tried to mold him into what I envisioned he should be. I never realized I was doing the exact same thing my parents had done to me – pushing him away, failing to provide him with the love and affection he so desperately needed. I haven't even told him how much I love him or how proud I am of the man he has become in spite of my 'teachings'," she said bitterly, her voice breaking.

She remained within the circle of Philippe's arms, slowly regaining control over her emotions. Finally, with a reluctant sigh, she broke away from his hold.

"Better?" he asked with a gentle smile.

She smiled slightly. "Yes. Thank you, Philippe."

He nodded, looking around the room. "Where is Monsieur Larabee? I didn't think anyone would be able to drag him out of this room."

"Mr. Tanner and Mr. Wilmington convinced him to return to the hotel for a shower and a shave, as well as for something to eat. He hadn't left the room since Ezra was settled in yesterday."

"It was gracious of you to allow him to stay for as long as he wished."

"They love each other," Maude replied with a self-derogatory shrug. "I believe it will help if Mr. Larabee is here. I am certain, on some level, Ezra will feel his presence."

Philippe cleared his throat and she glanced suspiciously at him. "Maude, there's something I have to tell you."

"What?" she asked, concealing her uneasiness at his tone.

"I cancelled the wedding."

It took all of her strength not to give in to the urge to cry. "Oh. I see. I understand, Philippe. Considering this revolting affair with Goyo and Damita, I can –"

"I don't think you understand at all," Philippe interrupted, giving her a warmth-filled smile.

"I don't?" she frowned, confused.

"No. Maybe cancel was the wrong word, it's more like postponed. Everything is on standby. I have every confidence Ezra will wake up soon, but our wedding was supposed to be in two days time. I wasn't certain if he would be up in time for it, and I knew you would want him to attend." He touched her cheek softly, the feather-like touch making her tremble. "I love you, Maude Standish. I won't deny I was disappointed you didn't come to me for help, and I wish none of this had happened. But I'm hopelessly addicted to you and I don't think I can live without you any longer. I have a feeling life with you will never be boring," he finished with a chuckle.

Philippe leaned over and captured her lips passionately. She gave herself over to the kiss, realizing how much she had missed him. Apparently he was not the only one addicted.

"You rascal," she whispered breathlessly once the kiss was over.

He raised an eyebrow in mock surprise. "Moi? You must be mistaken, Madame. Now, I believe you should follow Monsieur Larabee's example and leave this room for a while. I will drive you back to the hotel, we will share a nice, warm shower, a much needed meal, and then we will come back here. Yes?"

She looked back at the bed, her worry returning tenfold. "But Philippe, what if he wakes up?"

"Monsieur Sanchez is outside waiting for us to leave. He will stay here with Ezra, and I have asked him to let us know immediately should any change occur."

She glared at him. "You planned this."

He smiled unrepentantly. "Guilty as charged. Shall we go?" He gestured towards the door.

She found herself relenting. Although she would never say it aloud she was exhausted, and a shower would help release some of her tension. Besides, she knew she could trust her son's care to his friends, and she wouldn't be gone long.

They left the room together and found Josiah Sanchez was indeed waiting for them to exit the room, along with Chris Larabee, who looked considerably better than he had hours earlier. He was undoubtedly more relaxed. The fear and desperation lurking in his eyes ever since her son had been shot, were gone for the moment.

She nodded to the two men, watching as they made their way into the room, then followed Philippe out of the building and into the sunny afternoon. She had forgotten how to pray - or maybe she had never learned, she wasn't sure which - but as they made their way to the car, Maude found herself begging a God she had ceased believing in long ago, that by the time she returned to the hospital, Ezra would be awake.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Chris sat back in the uncomfortable hospital chair, and stretched his legs out in front of him. Holding Ezra's hand, he watched the steady rise and fall of his breathing. It was nearly dinnertime. Ezra had been unconscious for almost thirty hours now.

Chris shivered as he remembered the absolute fear he had felt at seeing Ezra fall from the horse, at seeing the blood pouring into the sand. What if the doctor was wrong and there was brain damage? How would he be able to forgive himself? Ezra was not only one of his men. He was his friend, his lover, his mate.

"Stop that," a deep voice ordered calmly and Chris looked up at Josiah, who was leaning against the wall.

"Stop what?"

"Blaming yourself. Unless I'm missing something, you're not Superman, nor can you outrun speeding bullets. Not to mention blue tights are not really your thing. Guilt is a waste of time, Chris. Ezra would be kicking your skinny ass right about now if he knew what you were doing to yourself."

Chris exhaled slowly. "I know. Half of me knows how insane it is to think I could've done somethin' to prevent what happened. But after losing Sarah and Adam the way I did, knowing that bomb was meant for me, that I couldn't do anythin' to protect them.... Something like this happening again is... terrifying," he admitted.

Josiah nodded his understanding. "I know. But at least he is safe now. Think your plan will work?"

"I doubt it, but we gotta try. Is everyone in place?"

"Yes," Josiah replied. "And Nathan and I spoke with all the staff as well. Everyone is on the lookout for a stranger, man or woman. We'll get her this time."

"Good." A sudden groan from the bed caught Chris' attention and he jumped to his feet. "Ezra? Ezra, open your eyes for me."

Chris held his breath as Ezra's eyes fluttered open, only to fall closed again with a whimper. Examining the pained look on Ezra's face, he realized the problem. "Head hurts?" he asked softly.

"Yes," Ezra croaked weakly, pulling his hand away from Chris' and running it over his forehead.

Chris batted the hand away gently, reaching out to massage his temples lightly. "Better?"

"Hmmm," Ezra replied, sipping a little water from the cup Josiah was holding.

"Ezra, do you know where you are?" Chris asked, still half-afraid there might be some damage to his lover's mind.

"'Ospital," was the whispered reply.

"In what town?" Chris insisted.


"What's your name?"

There was obvious annoyance in his voice now as Ezra glared feebly at him. "Ezra Standish. And before you ask, yours is Chris Larabee."

Chris smiled at the peeved tone, watching as Ezra's eyelids grew heavy with sleep. "What am I to you?" he asked as a final question.

"Pain in the ass," was the mumbled reply, almost drowned out by Josiah's booming laughter.

Chris chuckled himself. "Josiah, you better warn the doc his patient regained consciousness, even if only for a few minutes, and that there's no brain damage. And call Maude."

"On my way, brother."

After Josiah left and he was alone in the room, Chris brushed his fingers over his lover's chestnut hair, finally able to believe Ezra was going to make a full recovery. He had received the miracle he had prayed for. He had his lover back.

"Thank you," he whispered to the universe in general, knowing whoever was responsible would listen. And understand.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

July 10th, 1999

Damita had to give the Americans credit. They were good.

She knew it would be risky venturing inside the hospital. It was a small facility and the staff would undoubtedly know each other well. Strangers would be spotted immediately, especially now that one of the patients was under police protection and everyone was on the alert. But she needed to know the location of Ezra Standish's room, and she needed to know what kind of surveillance he was under.

She had thought of going in dressed as a nurse, taking advantage of the usual chaos during shift change, a wig and colored lenses adding to her disguise.

She never made it inside.

She had seen the policemen patrolling the grounds and a new idea had come to her. Why not go in as an officer of the law instead? The staff wouldn't question her presence there and she would even be able to snoop around without anyone getting suspicious. Besides, it would be beyond ironic.

Subduing one of the uniformed agents had been as easy as taking candy from a baby. She had picked the one closest to her size, then donned his uniform and gathering her courage, had marched right into the hospital.

Half an hour later she was on her way out, having learned about the trap set for her. There was an empty room ostensibly being guarded by two of the American agents, obviously to bait her, while on another wing of the hospital Ezra Standish was safely hidden from her, his mother and his lover watching over him.

They had obviously expected her to charge blindly into the empty room, only to find out too late she had been set up. It might have worked too, if she hadn't decided to change her disguise.

So, now she would have to review her plan again. Killing Ezra Standish while he was still in the hospital was out. She would have to be patient and wait for the right moment. She knew just when and where to try again. And how. Ezra Standish, and anyone standing close enough to him, would leave this world... with a bang.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Chris was about ready to throttle his lover, head injury or not, when the door opened and Doctor Van Damme walked in, a slight scowl on his face.

"Monsieur Standish, you have been conscious for only a little over fifteen hours and already two of the nurses have complained about you. What is this nonsense about not wishing to take the medication?"

Chris watched amused as Ezra crossed his arms defensively, his eyes narrowing to slits. "I detest hospitals, I detest doctors, and I detest taking medication."

The doctor's eyebrows rose almost to his hairline. "You prefer to keep the brutal headache I'm sure you are feeling at the moment? Not to mention I was told you are also feeling nauseous and have vomited twice already. The medication will help with both the headache and the nausea."

"I don't want it," Ezra said through gritted teeth.

"That's too bad, because you have no real choice in the matter. For as long as you remain here as my patient, you will take whatever medication I prescribe. Now, since the tests we ran last night didn't show any sign of bruising or bleeding of the brain, I will have the nurse administer Toradol through the IV for the headache. For the nausea you will be given Compazine, which will also help with the headache. Now, Monsieur Standish, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. You either accept the medication, or I will have two male nurses administer the Compazine... rectally."

It took all of Chris' power not to laugh at Ezra's scandalized expression. "You are not going to shove anything up my... my...." Ezra sputtered furiously. "Very well, I will allow a nurse to administer the medication." He turned to Chris, fire flashing in his eyes. "And if by any chance this conversation reaches the ears of any of our associates I will make your life miserable for the next twenty years! Understand?"

"Promise?" Chris asked sweetly, figuring it would be worth it.

The doctor left and a nurse walked in minutes later, watching Ezra warily as she injected the medication into the IV. Apparently satisfied Ezra wasn't going to make a fuss – again – she relaxed and even managed a tight smile before leaving the room.

"Now isn't that better?" Chris asked when they were alone, having noticed the slight relaxation in Ezra's wired frame. "Why do you always have to fight it?"

Ezra snuggled back down on the bed, the medication obviously making him drowsy. "Don't trust doctors. They act as if they believe themselves to be gods with the power of healing," Ezra muttered, eyes closing sleepily. "Chris?"

"Yes, love?" Chris asked softly.

"When can I depart from this dreadful place?"

Chris sighed, having heard the same question at least five times in the previous hours. "I'll talk to the doctor as soon as Maude gets back, okay?"


The door opened and Maude and Philippe made their way into the room. "How is he?" she asked softly.

"Better; asleep. The doctor made him take the medication. I'm goin' to see if there's any prediction for when he can be discharged."

"Tomorrow," Maude told him. "I already spoke with Doctor Van Damme. Philippe wanted to have a full medical staff take care of Ezra at the hotel, but it seems you and Mr. Jackson have already volunteered?"

"Yep. He would only give the medical staff hell. Nathan and I know how to handle him. Sort of," Chris admitted at Maude's dubious expression.

"By the way, Chris, Inspector Michel is waiting outside to have a word with you. Sounded urgent. Also, we have rescheduled the wedding," Philippe said, a wide smile lighting up his face. "Since you will be leaving in a little over a week's time, next Sunday in fact, we have set it for the Saturday before. It will give us about a week to reorganize everything and Ezra will have a chance to heal."

"I'm glad the wedding's back on," Chris said.

And he was. Maude still managed to drive him crazy, but he had seen a new side to her in the last few days. In spite of their estranged past and their difficult relationship, it was obvious she did love Ezra in her own way. And he could see she truly did care for Philippe as well. Maybe he could bring her the joy and happiness her son had brought into Chris' own life.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~


"You wanted to see me?" Chris asked the inspector.

Michel nodded grimly. "Oui. I'm afraid your plan to catch Damita Hernandez is not going to work. One of my men was found unconscious in the gardens surrounding the hospital. He was...." The inspector cleared his throat awkwardly. "Dressed as a nurse. A female nurse. And his uniform is gone."

"He all right?"

"Thankfully. He's being treated in the ER even as we speak. He was hit on the back of the head, so he never saw his attacker. But it's obvious it was the Hernandez woman. And if she came in here masquerading as one of my men...."

"She probably heard about the plan," Chris finished for him, running a hand wearily over his face. "Very well. It was too much to ask for it to work anyway. She's a cunning one."

"What now?" the inspector queried softly.

"Keep up the surveillance just the same. She is psychotic enough to try somethin' even knowin' of the trap. Ezra will be released tomorrow. I would appreciate it if your men kept patrolling the hotel grounds."

"That shouldn't be a problem. Just let me know exactly what time you need them there."

Chris nodded. "Will do. And thank you for all your help, inspector."

"Don't mention it, Monsieur Larabee. We officers of the law have to stick together." Michel shook Chris' hand. "I must see to my man. If you require any further help, please, don't hesitate to ask."

Chris watched the inspector leave, feeling a deep sense of disappointment, even though he had been expecting this outcome. Damita was giving them all a run for their money and he knew it was far from over. Somewhere, somehow, in the near future, they would hear from the woman again. He just hoped he would be able to prevent Ezra from getting hurt again.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

July 14th, 1999

Ezra sat at a table by the pool, watching a group of young tourists splashing happily in the water and wishing he could join them.

Four days out of the hospital and he was ready to murder someone. Preferably Chris or Nathan. Both men hovered constantly, making sure he had plenty of rest, took his medication on time, ate well, drank plenty of fluids and, following doctor's orders, didn't engage in any strenuous activity for at least a week.

Unfortunately, sex seemed to fall into the strenuous category and Chris had refused to do more than kiss him in the last few days, and even so, only the occasional peck. It was pushing Ezra's patience to its limits. He might still suffer from headaches, but there was nothing wrong with the rest of his body.

But every time he opened his mouth to complain, the haunted look in Chris' eyes stopped him. Nathan had told him about Chris' reaction back on the beach, how he had believed Ezra to be dead. That bullet hadn't wounded only Ezra, but Chris as well. He had lost Sarah, Adam, and just when he was settling down again, giving love a second try, he had nearly lost Ezra too.

So Ezra put up with the pampering, albeit reluctantly, knowing Chris was also healing along with him. But a part of him needed Chris desperately, needed to reconnect with him, to reaffirm their love for each other. And he couldn't think of a better way of doing that, than by making love, by expressing all he was feeling by touch alone. Words could be fabricated, but to give yourself wholeheartedly to someone else's touch, to have that trust given back to you.... Ezra had never experienced anything quite like it.

He would give Chris until the wedding day to make a move. If nothing had changed between them by then, then Ezra would take matters into his own hands. And he would stop at nothing until he got what he wanted.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Damita smiled politely as she looked up at her new boss. It was all a matter of the right connections, really. A call home to one of her brother's associates, and twenty-four hours later she had a brand new identity, fake references, and she was the newest acquisition to the catering service hired to provide the food and beverages for the Standish-Fontaine wedding.

Of course, it had been pure 'chance' that one of their employees had suffered a fatal accident just two days earlier, leaving a much needed vacancy. Pure chance indeed.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

July 17th, 1999

Chris sighed contentedly as he watched the newlyweds waltzing on the dance floor. It had been a nice wedding. The weather had helped set the right mood for the whole event.

It was a beautiful summer day, the sun was high in the sky, and a soft breeze flowed through the hotel's lush-green gardens where the party was being held, making the heat bearable. The couple had exchanged vows under a huge leafy tree, surrounded by family and a few close friends, keeping it surprisingly simple.

White tents spread throughout the grounds, there were bubbling fountains everywhere, a small pond with exotic fish, mountains of food and beverages, waiters moving restlessly about, and live music.

He made his way to the tent where the drinks were being served, choosing a beer for himself and grinning wickedly as he picked a gin and tonic for Ezra, imagining the dirty look that would bring him. He could tell his lover was at the end of his tether with the mother-hen routine, but Chris had been unable to tone it down. He had needed to be certain Ezra was going to be okay.

He watched as Maude threw the bouquet to the anxious group of women gathered behind her, chuckling as the young receptionist Buck had been flirting with for the past weeks caught it with a happy squeal. He allowed his eyes to glance over the grounds, taking in the extra security and Inspector Michel's men.

It had been a calm week, no trace of Damita Hernandez anywhere. He knew she was still out there, but the fact that she had allowed them a whole week to breathe, had helped them all to relax and at least enjoy some of their vacation time.

His eyes caught sight of one of the waiters, standing by the side, nearly hidden by the pines surrounding the gardens. The man didn't seem to be doing anything, merely watching the party, but that in itself was unusual. He should be serving the guests, doing his job, not hovering on the outskirts of the party.

Feeling his breath catch as he realized who that could be, he walked slowly over to the main table, relieved when he noticed it was mostly empty, with the exception of his men and a few last minute guests. Most of the others were already saying goodbye to the couple, who would be leaving for Hawaii in less than an hour.

"Chris, what's wrong?" Vin asked as soon as he saw him approach the table.

"I think Damita is here," he replied, somewhat breathlessly. "Remember the first time she and her brother made themselves known? The bomb? I just had this sudden feelin'...." he fell silent as he saw understanding dawn on the others. "I need you to leave the table as normally as you can make it look, get everyone away as well. I'm goin' after her."

"I'm going with you," Josiah said, already beginning to rise.

"No. She'll suspect somethin' if she sees the two of us disappearin' suddenly. I better go alone."


He looked back at Ezra. "Yeah?"

"Be careful," Ezra whispered, eyes showing his concern.

Chris smiled. "Always."

He pretended to go back to the hotel, but as soon as he was certain he was out of the woman's visual range, he made his way into the woods. He circled around, trying to come up behind her, but just as he was about to reach her, he accidentally stepped on a twig. The snap sounded loud in the oppressive silence.

The waiter whirled around to face him and even with the wig and the contact lenses Chris knew he had been right. It was Damita.

"Larabee," she spat angrily.

"Couldn't resist watchin' your own handiwork, huh? Is that why you're still here?" he taunted. "It's a bomb, isn't it? Where is it? Under the bride and groom's table?" He could see he had hit the jackpot by her sour expression. "Why hasn't it gone off yet?"

"Remote detonator," she answered, showing him the small device. "I wanted to wait until that bitch was on her way to the honeymoon. What better gift to receive on your wedding day than to find out your son was blown to pieces? Hey, gringo?" She grinned evilly. "Always hated that American idiot. Goyo wouldn't give me the time of day whenever she was around. He only had eyes for her. I was glad when she disappeared, but he wanted her found, so I did it for him. Now he's dead because of her."

"Don't you even care about the people who will get caught in the blast?" He tried to keep his voice calm and steady.

She shrugged. "Casualties of war, you might say. All I care about is getting even with Maude Standish, as for the rest...." She shrugged again. "Who cares?"

"I'm not goin' to let you do this, Damita. Give me the detonator." He took a step towards her.

"Get back!" she shouted, brushing her finger over the button on the detonator.

Chris raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay! I'll keep back, promise."

As soon as the woman relaxed her stance, he made his move. He rushed towards her, body-checking her with his full weight to restrain her. She managed to break free from his grasp and suddenly they were both on the ground, struggling for possession of the detonator.

It was like being caught in the middle of a catfight. Her lithe frame made it difficult for him to subdue her, and she fought like a demon, biting and kicking and scratching. Finally he managed to straddle her hips, punching her hard and grinning as he heard bone cracking.

"Serves you right, you little bitch," he panted, reaching for the detonator and switching it off.

He got to his feet, taking a couple of deep breaths, then reached for the unconscious woman and threw her over his shoulder, slowly heading back to the gardens.

It was over.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Ezra watched with Maude and Philippe as an ambulance drove Damita Hernandez away, a police escort following right behind.

"I hope Doctor Van Damme will be the one to treat her," he muttered spitefully, before turning to the newlyweds. "Ready for the honeymoon?" he asked with a smile.

"More than ready," Philippe echoed his smile. "After these last weeks, I want nothing more than a vacation."

"Vacation?" his mother rolled her eyes at her new husband. "If your idea of a honeymoon is a vacation, you are sadly mistaken, Monsieur Fontaine. I will just have to set you straight."

Philippe laughed. "Looking forward to it, Madame Fontaine. Ezra, it has been a pleasure to meet you. I hope you and your friends return soon."

"We would love to return," Ezra said cheerfully. "Perhaps on our next vacation. Can't really say we had much of a rest on this one." Seeing the limousine that was to take the couple to the airport in Toulon had arrived and parked next to them, he extended his hand to Philippe. "The pleasure was mutual," he said.

"Bah!" Philippe shook his head with a wicked grin. "We're family now, Ezra. We don't shake hands, we hug." Before Ezra could say a word, he was pulled into a tight hug, Philippe patting his back companionably. "There, that's better. Make sure to keep in touch."

"I will." Ezra watched Philippe disappear inside the limo, then looked at his mother with a wide grin. "I like him."

"I'm glad, darling. He cares for you as well." She took a deep breath. "Ezra, about our conversation.... What you confided upon your arrival...." Maude seemed to be searching for the right words.

"Yes?" he prompted softly.

"I won't deny I would prefer it if you would find a nice, young woman to wed. But it is your life and... I admit there's more to Mr. Larabee than meets the eye. You look right together somehow." She kissed his cheek. "And I'm proud of you."

He stood speechless on the porch, long after the limousine drove away. His mother's words lingered in his mind and warmed his heart. Finally coming back to his senses, he made his way back to the hotel. Now that the wedding was over and the Hernandez twins were out of their lives, it was time to set a trap of his own for one Chris Larabee.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Chris made sure to say his goodbyes to Maude and Philippe before going back to the gardens to speak with Inspector Michel. The grounds were nearly deserted by the time they were done. Only his team, Michel's men, and the cleaning crew remained behind. The bomb had been defused; Damita Hernandez was on her way to the hospital with a broken jaw – all was well with the world.


"Where's Ezra?" he asked Vin, who came to stand beside him.

Vin shrugged. "Haven't seen 'im in a while. Must be sayin' goodbye to the newlyweds."

"They're supposed to have left over twenty minutes ago. Take over for me here, will ya? See if the inspector needs anythin'."

"Will do."

Chris went to the front desk, receiving confirmation that Maude and Philippe had indeed left already, and that Monsieur Standish had been seen going up to his room.

Suddenly worried that the day had been too much for his still convalescing lover, Chris went up to check on him. But nothing had prepared him for what he found waiting for him.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Ezra chuckled at the expression on Chris' face as he walked in the room. He watched Chris take in the champagne and dish of strawberries resting on the nightstand, the lube peeking from beneath the pillows, the decadent satin sheets adorning the bed... and Ezra's own nakedness as he lay sprawled wantonly on the covers.

"Ezra, wh...." Ezra hid his amusement as Chris cleared his throat twice before speaking again. "What are you doin'?"

"Trying to seduce you, Monsieur Larabee," Ezra purred, one hand traveling leisurely down his own chest until it reached his groin. He began to stroke himself, slowly, his grip light, meant to arouse Chris, not to bring himself off. "Is it working?" he asked, his voice coming out somewhat breathless.

"Ezra, we shouldn't.... I mean.... You –"

"I am fully healed," Ezra interrupted softly. "It's been two days since I've had a headache, and the ones before were mild nuisances, nothing serious. I need you," he added honestly. "Don't make me beg you, Chris."

"God, you're not playin' fair," Chris whispered, but Ezra could see he was already faltering.

"I never said I would. I have been waiting for you, giving you time to sort through your emotional turmoil. You may not want to acknowledge it, but you need this as well. Please?" Ezra held out his hand to Chris.

Chris' answer was to undress slowly, a trace of mischief finally shining in his eyes. "How long have you been plannin' this?" he asked when he stood naked by the bed.

"Not long. You haven't given me much choice," Ezra stated wryly.

He moaned as Chris crawled on top of him, one leg pressing itself between Ezra's thighs, hip grinding against his erection. His mouth was taken in a possessive kiss and he wrapped his arms around Chris' back, pulling him closer, every nerve ending crying out for more contact.

Chris' mouth released his, moving to his neck to lap at his skin, while his hands kneaded Ezra's his flesh, driving him crazy. He had no idea when they both lost control, only that suddenly they were both frantic with need, almost desperate, thrashing and rubbing against each other in frenzied intensity.

He hardly felt Chris reach for the lube, but whimpered shamelessly as a slick finger brushed over his opening. Chris' middle finger penetrated him, and Ezra squeezed his eyes closed at the sensation, never having really realized how much he had missed the intimate touch until that moment.

The finger left, leaving him bereft, but he relaxed as another finger joined the first, then a third, massaging him, stretching him sensually. He pushed against Chris' digits, crying out as they brushed over his prostate, nearly jumping off the bed as Chris did it again and again.

"Chris, stop...." he panted. "I'll come...."

"Isn't that the idea? Wasn't this what you wanted?" There was amusement in Chris' husky voice.

"You," Ezra managed to breathe out. "I want you...."

Their eyes met and held as Chris brought Ezra's legs up to rest on his shoulders and leaned forward. He felt Chris' cock at his entrance, already slick with lube, and then groaned as Chris started to push in carefully.

Ezra breathed deeply, unable to look away from Chris' eyes as he kept sliding in, making languid movements with his hips that were driving Ezra mad. Deciding enough was enough, he brought a hand to the back of Chris' head and drew his lover down for a kiss, rocking his hips teasingly, and grinning into the kiss as Chris gasped into his mouth.

His grin turned into a moan as Chris pulled almost entirely out and thrust back in. Hard. His lover began to move, deep, powerful thrusts turning faster and harder, driving into him, cock raking across Ezra's prostate with every stroke. Chris' hand found its way between them, taking his shaft, pumping him expertly.

It was too much. He had been wanting this for far too long. Four more thrusts and he was coming, crying out Chris' name over and over again, voice hoarse and breathless all at once. A deep, hard thrust and Chris was following behind, groaning as he came deep inside Ezra's body.

When they had recovered a little, Chris pulled out gently, then helped Ezra lower his legs on the bed before lying down to cover his body. He shuddered slightly, his breath still out of control.

"You were right; I needed this," Chris finally told him, nose nuzzling Ezra's neck tenderly.

"We both did," Ezra said with a contented sigh.

He watched bemused as Chris lifted his head to look down at him. "Don't ever leave me alone, Ezra," Chris whispered suddenly, brushing his fingers over Ezra's cheek.

Understanding what Chris was really asking, Ezra nodded solemnly. "I won't," he breathed.

That was a promise he could make with a clear conscience. He had no way of controlling fate, or from preventing the Hernandez' of this world from creating havoc in their lives. But what depended upon him, he would make sure they would never part. And as Chris kissed him tenderly, he felt certain they would have a long future ahead of them, filled with hardship, heartache, and struggle. But also with laughter, happiness, and friendship. And most importantly, love.


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