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Thanks to Susan for beta-reading this, any remaining errors are mine. Story added to site 9/6/05 (order changed 11/8/05). Hopefully you will be hearing some music while you listen to this story. It was obtained from Chris Reed's Karaoke page. There is a link to a quiz at the bottom of this page, too! Try it out!
The ranch house's kitchen was slowly filling up with the group of friends and business partners, until only the blond resident was missing. The room was always the busiest first thing in the morning, when everyone was up and raring to go. The noise was reaching ear-splitting proportions as everyone talked at once.

Ezra and JD were deciding who was going to eat the last of the cereal. JD's shrill voice could be heard giving Ezra a long list of reasons why he should be the one. The youngster gesticulated wildly as he tried to put his views across. Ezra in turn kept calm, but was coming up with good excuses as to why he should have the meal instead. Their friends kept out of the debate, knowing that JD would eventually win. He had a nice line in whipped dog looks and whenever Ezra saw that expression, he would always give in. JD thought he had beaten the older man by his own skill, but Ezra, being the wily man he was, knew that JD was playing him. He just liked to let the youngster think he'd got one over on him.

The rest of the room's occupants ignored their two bickering friends and concentrated on their own tasks, or discussions. Nathan, the center's medic, had already eaten and was checking his first aid equipment thoroughly. Buck, who was tall and good-looking, and Vin, a young, long-haired guy, lounged at the kitchen table companionably. They were engaged in deep discussion about which stretch of river they'd use for their canoe session that morning. Last, but not least, Josiah, an ex-police academy instructor, was busy counting out packed lunches for the clients who were going on the day's trail ride.

Into all this activity stepped Chris, the previously absent slender blond, with another tall man in tow. Detecting the presence of an extra person, the six men stopped what they were doing and turned to face the door as one.

Chris smiled and indicated his companion. "Hey, guys. I want you all to meet Jed Burrows. I dare say you all recognize him, anyway, without me having to introduce him. He's a good friend of mine and he's gonna be in charge of the Sports' Academy training sessions, which, as you know, start next week."

Josiah moved to stand in front of the new arrival. "Hey, Jed. Nice to meet you in person. Seen you countless times on the track on TV, though."

The tall man smiled and nodded. "Nice to be here. I'm really looking forward to coaching all these up-and-coming young athletes. It's real exciting and an honor for me to be asked by the Sports' Academy to run the sessions."

The Sports' Academy always ran training camps at this time of year. Fall signaled the start of the indoor season, and during the colder seasons a lot of athletes took time out from competition to hone their skills at these types of event. Luckily for Chris and his friends, their recreation and sport center had been picked to host it this year.

Buck waved as he stepped forward and said, "Good to see you again, Jed."

"Hey, Willie!" Jed said loudly in delight. "Well, Chris never told me you were here. This is great!"

"Willie?" JD spluttered as he giggled.

"Shut up, kid," the mustached man said as he turned red in embarrassment at his old nickname. He'd known Jed for as long as Chris had, although neither of them had seen him for years. Buck had been totally surprised, and pleased, to have the man turn up on the doorstep.

Chris smiled and said, "Let me introduce everyone else. The big fella who shook your hand is Josiah Sanchez." Chris then put his hand on his youngest business partner's shoulder and drew him near. He could see that the youngster was slightly in awe. "This is John Dunne, but we all call him JD." The blond smiled as he then indicated his quiet, best friend who was hovering at the back of the group of men. "Vin Tanner is the young fella over there, and next to him is Nathan Jackson, our medic. Last, but certainly not least, the guy with the gold-tooth is Ezra Standish. He has a severe allergy to work," the blond finished with a grin.

"So kind, Mr. Larabee," Ezra complained as he studied the new arrival closely.

He wondered to himself in amusement if it was possible to dislike someone on sight just because they looked good. Jed would certainly put Adonis to shame in looks and body. Well, he definitely puts me to shame anyway, Ezra thought. Not that the former attorney really had much to complain about. He kept his own body well-muscled and toned and would no doubt be much admired by the opposite sex if he stripped off on a beach.

He sighed and smiled at Chris and Buck's old friend. "It will be a pleasure to have you here, Mr. Burrows," Ezra said as he stepped forward and shook the man's hand.

Jed Burrows was a world-class athlete at 100 meters, although he was reaching the end of his career now. He had a truly enviable physique, and good looks that matched, or maybe, surpassed Buck's. He would certainly eclipse the ladies' man in the race for a woman's attention. The black-haired, brown-eyed athlete knew the effect he had on the opposite sex. His animal-magnetism was ten-times more potent than Buck's and he used it to his advantage.

Ezra tightened his grip on the man's hand and winced when Jed did the same. Two men testing out the other's strength as had been done countless times down the ages. Ezra eventually smiled and let go. The man was very strong.

Jed nodded and grinned. "Thanks, Ezra." He then turned to look at all the men. "Maybe you can all join me in some of my personal training sessions. I work hard, so you'd have to be real fit to keep up with me. Don't want any of you dropping dead through a heart attack," he said with a laugh.

"That would be great, Jed," Josiah said. He ran every day anyway, but it would be good to have some competition. Not that the big man thought he could ever beat Jed, even in his wildest dreams.

"I might give it a miss, if you don't mind. I'm all for exercise, but not overexertion," Ezra said with a smile. "My body is my temple and I don't plan on demolishing it," he joked as he flexed his arms to show off his muscles like a bodybuilder.

"Yeah, well, we've had all the worry we can handle with your heart problems in the past, so maybe that's for the best, pard," Buck said as he patted Ezra's back gently. "You could say that your temple is built on poor foundations."

"I resent that, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said as he slapped his friend playfully.

The ladies' man saw the curious look on Jed's face and said, by way of explanation, "Ezra's got a pacemaker."

Ezra wasn't overly happy that his impairment had been divulged, but it was out now and there was nothing he could do about it. It wasn't something he talked about outside his circle of friends and he'd rather it had remained that way. He looked at Jed to see how he had taken the news, trying not to show that he was angry. Well, what harm can it do? he thought to himself philosophically. I'm not the only person to have one, so why worry?

"Sorry to hear that, Ezra," Jed said.

"I'm not. I couldn't live productively without it." Ezra looked at his watch and sighed when he saw the time. "Sorry to leave, but I have to start my duties. I'll have to catch up with breakfast later on, so you can finish the cereal if you so desire, Mr. Dunne. I'll see you around, I expect, Mr. Burrows," the former attorney said as he nodded and turned to leave the room.

"Take something with you, Ez. You should eat first thing in the morning," Nathan said as he stopped the man and handed over a banana.

"Thank you, Mr. Jackson. My stomach is very grateful."

"So you gonna stay in the house with Chris?" Josiah asked Jed once Ezra had gone.

"You can have my cabin, if you want," Buck offered generously. "Bet you'd like time to yerself."

Jed nodded and smiled after considering the proposal. "Thanks, Buck. That would be great. I spend quite a bit of time with my coach, so it would be good to have somewhere we can talk in private."

Chris smiled in satisfaction. "That's settled then. Come on, I'll show you around the rest of the center," the blond said as he indicated for Jed to go out ahead of him.

The two men spent a good two hours ambling round the whole facility and no corner of the complex went unvisited. Jed appeared to be highly impressed with what he was shown and that pleased Chris immensely. A lot of hard work had been spent on getting the center up to specifications, and getting a top athlete's seal of approval meant a lot.

"God, I can't wait to get cracking. You've done real well, Chris, to get this up and running in such a short time. It's got everything anyone could want," Jed said as he patted Chris's back in congratulations.

Credit where credit's due, Chris thought to himself. "Ezra did most of the hard graft on getting all the legal work done. I'd never have managed without him, so I owe him a lot. He was the one who put the idea in my head in the first place as well."

"Yeah, well, you seem to have picked a good lot of co-workers. That's half the battle."

Chris nodded emphatically as he yet again counted his blessings. "Couldn't agree with you more, Jed. I've been damned lucky. They're good business partners as well as friends."

********************************

Until the Sports' Academy people arrived the next week, Jed had agreed to help out with some sessions for the remaining vacation clientele. Once these clients had gone, the whole center would be accommodating nothing but budding athletes. It would mean less work for the seven business partners after what had been a very busy year for them. They certainly weren't going to complain about that, though. The venture had taken off unexpectedly fast in its first two years of life, and they were now forced to turn away bookings.

The day after his arrival, Jed was helping Ezra and Vin with a group of kids on the sports' field. They'd arranged some athletic activities, including running, hurdles, high-jump and the like. The youngsters had been split into three manageable groups and they were rotating round the sports, so that everyone had a turn. Each man took one sport, so when the kids moved to the next activity, they had a different teacher, too.

It was a beautiful day, blue skies and not too hot for the chosen activities. The sounds of shouting, screaming and laughter quickly filled the air and it was like being back in school for the three adults.

The kids really seemed to be enjoying themselves for the most part. Naturally, some of them were more athletically inclined than others, but one youngster stood out from all the rest. Not for his sporting aptitude unfortunately, either. He really struggled with each activity, although he tried hard to succeed. He lacked coordination and was the kind of kid who would always be picked last in any team event at school. He was tall and gangly and his limbs appeared to have a life of their own. He was yet to grow into his body and feel comfortable in it. He should have been well-suited to the high-jump, but more often than not, he got tangled up in the bar instead of clearing it. He was flat-footed and possessed no spring in his step whatever.

Jed was getting increasingly irritated with him, seeing his lack of success as not trying, rather than lack of sporting prowess. Eventually, he lost his temper and shouted at him in front of the rest of his group. The other youngsters had already been laughing and joking about Jeremy, the unfortunate boy, and this outburst did nothing to help the boy's confidence.

Jed strode to stand in front of Jeremy and leaned over him menacingly with hands on hips. "Come on, kid, lift your legs. My grandma's more athletic than you and she's nigh-on ninety. You won't achieve anything if you carry on the way you're going. It's like you've got lead-weights in yer boots," Jed pointed at the knocked-down high-jump pole. "That was a pathetic attempt that time. Try harder and stop wasting my time."

Vin, who had his long hair tied back for once, hadn't heard the outburst, having been on the other side of the sports field. Ezra, though, was close by and was mortified at the words.

"Master Jeremy? Join me, will you, please?" he called kindly as he beckoned to the embarrassed boy.

The youngster ran to stand beside him, feeling safer with the former attorney than Jed. Jeremy's pleasure at working with the athlete had been well and truly shattered. He would never support the man again after being spoken to in such a way.

Ezra put his arm round his shoulders in an attempt to comfort the upset child. He was always protective of children, maybe remembering his own, sometimes volatile, childhood. Maude, his mother, had a sharp tongue and had put him down on many occasions. When he saw others treated in the same way he quite often became their protector. "That was a valiant effort: much better than I could achieve," he said encouragingly as he gave the child a squeeze. "Is there another activity you would like to partake in? Anything at all you desire, son. Maybe something in the gym?"

"Rowing machine," Jeremy mumbled as he rubbed his nose on his arm and sniffed.

"Superb choice. I enjoy a bit of rowing myself."

"Ez? Everything okay?" Vin called as he strode to meet his friend. He'd noticed that something was going on and assumed that the youngster may have hurt himself in some way.

"Master Jeremy here would prefer a session on the rowing machine in the gym." Ezra smiled at the boy and then took Vin to one side. "He's rather unhappy, Vin. Mr. Burrows was rather harsh about his ability and his fellow team-mates are not helping his cause by belittling his efforts, either. I recommend a bit of TLC."

Vin nodded in understanding. He'd already had Jeremy in his session and had tried his best to encourage the lad as much as he could. He could now see that all his hard work had been destroyed. "I'll take him back, if you like. My lot have finished, I reckon. If you can take them home when you're done, I'll see to Jeremy."

"It's an accord, Mr. Tanner, thank you," Ezra said gratefully as he patted Vin's back in thanks.

"Hey, Jeremy," Vin said as he moved to join the youngster. He felt the need to relax so he took the restraint from his hair and let his shoulder-length hair fall free. The curly locks blew gently in the wind momentarily until settling. "What kind of sports do you like at school?" Vin asked as he ran his fingers through his hair to clear any knots.

Jeremy was shuffling from foot to foot anxiously as he waited to see what was going to happen to him. It was rather like waiting to hear if he'd been given the death penalty. Perhaps it wouldn't be too bad, though. Vin and Ezra had been nothing but kind to him so he slowly relaxed.

"Running, but I'm not much good at it. I never win," he said sadly.

"Winning isn't everything. It's the taking part that counts, so the saying goes. If you enjoy your chosen activity, that is all that matters," Ezra said as he smiled and patted the boy's shoulder in encouragement.

Vin nodded enthusiastically, trying to get a smile from the youngster. At the moment he looked as if he'd lost all his worldly goods. "I agree, Jeremy. Come on then. Let's jog back and you can have an extra session in the gym, one-to-one with me, okay?"

Jeremy nodded eagerly and set off with Vin happily enough.

"Christ," Jed said as he watched Vin herd Jeremy away. "Why in hell's name did he come on a sporting vacation? He's got two left feet and no competitive spirit. He'd never be much good at anything, I reckon. Waste of space."

Ezra didn't answer but quickly organized the rest of the youngsters and got them all doing an activity of some sort. He then turned back to Jed and took him to one side. "That was uncalled for, Mr. Burrows. Sport is not everyone's forte and I believe this vacation was more for his parent's benefit than his. At least he had the courage to try his best, despite the taunts from his fellow athletes, and you. There is more necessity for perseverance and valor in this life than running skills."

"Whatever, Jaws," Jed sneered, comparing Ezra's one gold incisor to the Bond character who had a full set of metal teeth. The athlete didn't like being brought to account about his behavior. He was used to getting his own way in everything in life and doing whatever he wanted. He scowled and snapped sulkily, "I still say he's a loser."

Ezra was angered by the man's uncaring attitude and he felt his temper slipping. It took a lot to rile Ezra but this was one of those times and his words came out very forcefully. "Well, with people demeaning him at every turn is it any wonder he has no confidence?" Ezra asked as he turned to keep an eye on his much larger group. "You should not have reprimanded him like that in front of everyone. It was embarrassing for him. In this occupation, it is up to us to recognize our clients' natures in an instant. We have to recognize those who are reticent and will require extra encouragement, or those who are too boisterous and will need a strong hand to control them. It is not in our remit to humiliate any of them. It is their vacation, not a prison camp."

"Jeez, don't you ever shut up? Yer beginning to irritate me with those stupid high-falutin' words you use. Can't think why Chris ever wanted to take you on as a business partner."

Ezra shook his head at the man's attitude and decided to end the conversation there. The last thing he wanted was a full-scale argument and that was the way it was heading. He wandered back to his group and joined in their activities, having as much fun as they did. The exercise certainly did wonders for his state of mind and he felt totally relaxed when he'd finished.

***********************************************

After reuniting the children with their parents, Ezra headed home. He got back to the ranch house and saw Chris beckon him over to the porch.

"How'd it go, Ez?" the blond asked eagerly.

The former attorney used the time while talking to Chris to do a few cooling down exercises. He didn't want to stand still and seize up. "Very well. Mr. Tanner brought Jeremy back early, though. He was trying his best, but he was not as proficient as some of his peers. They were not particularly kind to him, so I thought it best if he had some one-to-one tuition. Vin went to the gym with him and he seems happier now. I just met them and he can't stop talking about how far he'd theoretically rowed. Mr. Burrows didn't help matters with his attitude toward Jeremy, I'm afraid to say. He was rather scathing to the poor boy and made him feel inferior. His comments to me after Jeremy had left were not complimentary, either." Ezra explained exactly what had happened and been said. "Can you possibly say to him that it is not acceptable to speak to clients in such a way? I tried to explain, but my advice fell on deaf ears."

Chris nodded in agreement. "Yeah, sure, Ezra. Don't think he meant to hurt the boy's feelings, though. He's used to dealing with professionals and I guess it's hard to adjust to something totally different. Leave it with me."

Ezra nodded, letting the entire incident slip from his mind. Matters had been settled and no more action needed to be taken on his behalf. He set off across the yard, feeling in need of freshening up after all his exercise. He made his way back to his cabin and took pleasure in having a cool shower.

The blond, meanwhile, saw Jed heading toward the pool, so he hurried to catch up with him. "Hey, bud. Settling in okay?"

"Yeah, fine. I'm enjoying it. Good setup you've got here and great facilities, as I said before."

"Thanks, that's good to hear from someone like you." Chris paused as he studied the tall man. He felt slightly embarrassed at bringing the topic up, but he'd promised Ezra that he would. "Hate to mention this, but Ez happened to tell me that you mighta yelled at one of the kids earlier."

The athlete frowned and put his hands on his hips. "Well, I woulda said I gave him encouragement, rather than yelled at him. I didn't mean nothing by it, but I felt he coulda done better. I wasn't telling him off, just getting him to work harder," Jed lied.

"I understand, but just try and remember that they're here for fun. I don't want anyone leaving here with bad memories. We like to create a family atmosphere, you know?" the blond said with a smile.

"Sure, I'm sorry, Chris."

"No problem, and you don't need to apologize. Ez just has impeccable manners and is very fond of kids. He takes offense easily 'if his sensibilities are affronted', as he likes to put it." Chris smiled and raised his eyebrows questioningly. "I expect you've noticed how he speaks."

The athlete nodded. "Yeah, real weird, is what I call it. Think I need an interpreter for some of the words he uses," Jed said as he laughed. Inside he wasn't laughing, though. He was angry that Ezra had run to Chris and told tales. The man had a towering ego and he'd taken umbrage that Ezra actually had the gall to tell him off in the first place. Damned snitch, he thought to himself. He needs taking down a peg or two, and I'll see that he is. Thinks he's damned well better than me, does he? I'll show him.

********************************************

The eight men met up in the swimming pool that evening after it had been closed to clients. Vin and JD had got there first and were already frolicking in the water. The acoustics of the building made it sound as if the pool was full of school children rather than two grown men.

The others joined them in dribs and drabs, Ezra being the last to arrive. He dived straight into the deep end and did a couple of lengths before stopping for a rest in the shallow end. He brushed his hair away from his eyes and wiped the water from his face as he looked around at the rest of the group.

"How about a game of water polo?" Chris suggested to his friends. "Four-a-side?"

"Sounds good to me, pard," Buck agreed in anticipation. He enjoyed team sports and it wasn't often that they got the chance to enjoy any. Seven was rather an awkward number for team games.

JD climbed out of the pool and found a suitable ball to play with. He hurried down the side of the pool, his feet slapping noisily as he went.

"Don't run, kid. That's how accidents happen," Nathan chastized as he watched his friend's progress in alarm.

"Yeah, yeah, Dad," JD said with a grin. "I wasn't running properly, I was just walking quick."

"Same difference," the medic said as he shook his head in exasperation.

JD jumped back into the water with the ball tucked under his arm, splashing every man as a result. Once he'd resurfaced he threw the sphere to the blond so he could start the game.

The men divided into two teams: Chris, Buck, JD and Jed against the rest. The game got off to a frenetic start and the noise level grew as the men shouted to one another enthusiastically. The scoring remained pretty even, but Jed seemed particularly competitive. As in his normal sport, he wanted to win. He never did anything for fun; it was always for the glory. He realized, as well, that it was an ideal opportunity to get even with Ezra. He had been assigned the task of marking the man during the game, and the temptation to take matters further with him was too much to control.

Jed became increasingly aggressive against the smaller man and the game finally stopped when Ezra received an elbow full in the face.

Ezra saw flashing lights as he was knocked backward and consequentially under the water. He floundered helplessly for a few seconds, although it seemed much longer to him, before he finally got upright. He immediately raised a hand to his face, using his other limbs to try and stay afloat. He could see the water had swirls of red in it and he realized he was bleeding from his nose.

"Ez? Let me see," Nathan demanded as he swam toward the injured man quickly. He helped the man get to the shallower water so that he could put his feet on the floor.

"Sorry, he just got in the way," Jed said, not sounding too apologetic. He was secretly pleased that he'd done quite a bit of damage with his well-placed, innocent-looking, elbow. "I was going for the ball and just caught him."

The medic, meanwhile, peeled Ezra's hand from his nose and studied the bleeding area closely.

"It stings," Ezra mumbled, feeling as if his face had swollen to twice its size. His breathing sounded noisy as his nostrils continued streaming blood.

"Well, it will in this water, won't it? Come on, get out and I'll patch you up."

Ezra put his hand back on his nose and carried on with his attempts to stop it bleeding. He waded carefully to the ladder and Nathan kept a hand on his elbow to guide him along. The medic helped Ezra climb out and then took another look at his injuries.

The rest of the men stayed in the water and, now the excitement was over, began swimming up and down the pool together.

Nathan, meanwhile, found Ezra a towel, which he put round the man's shoulders before sitting him in one of the poolside chairs. He treated the man's tender nose efficiently and was glad to find that it wasn't broken.

"You don't feel dizzy or nothing?" he asked anxiously.

Ezra shook his head and immediately wished he hadn't. His head felt slightly heavy and it made him feel as if he was half asleep. "No, just numb at the moment. Thank you for your ministrations, Mr. Jackson. I think I'd better head to bed before something else happens," Ezra said half-jokingly.

"Okay, but give me a call if you start feeling sick later on. You took a hefty hit."

Vin saw Ezra get up from the chair gingerly and head to the changing rooms. "You okay, Ez?" he called in concern.

"Yes, thank you, Mr. Tanner. I'll bid you goodnight, gentlemen. It was very pleasant up to a point," Ezra said as he turned his gaze to Jed, suspicion tugging at his brain.

"Sorry," the athlete said again.

Ezra nodded curtly and disappeared. He had the feeling that Jed had deliberately targeted him, but he seemed apologetic enough to rule that theory out. Jed had pushed him around a lot in the water during the course of the game, so maybe it had been inevitable. Ezra still had a nagging doubt about it,though.

Jed turned to Chris again when Ezra had gone. It was as if he detected Ezra's thoughts. "It wasn't intentional, Chris," he said hastily.

"I know it was just an accident. All done in the heat of battle," the blond said with a grin. "Don't sweat it, Jed. Ezra's suffered worse things since he's been here."

"Yeah, so I understand. Tell me how he came to need a pacemaker," Jed said in seeming interest. "Surprised he works here if he ain't well."

"Oh, he's perfectly okay now, although that wasn't the case not so long ago. Just after we got together and began to set this place up, he kept feeling dizzy and sick. After a while he started passing out without warning, too. Turns out his heart suddenly slowed down and kept stopping altogether for a short time. Took the doctors some time to realize what was wrong, but since he's had the pacemaker he's been right as rain."

"Tough luck for him."

Chris nodded, as he thought back to the unsettling events of the past. "Yeah, it wasn't an easy time, but now we quite often forget he's got it. He can do everything we do, and sometimes do it much better."

Jed nodded and stored the information away. It might come in useful, although he didn't know how. He'd found that it always paid to know as much about your adversary, in sport and in life, as you could. He certainly didn't want to let the matter rest between him and Ezra, even though he'd just got even. Jed was a man who held grudges for life.

Josiah moved to the ladder, now that the game had stopped. "Well, I'm getting cold. See you tomorrow, guys."

"Yeah, reckon we'd better head to bed, too. It's getting late," Chris said as he followed his big friend, the incident with Ezra and Jed forgotten for the time being.

********************************************

The next day, early morning, Jed and Nathan were walking across the yard to go for breakfast when Ezra appeared from his cabin. The medic saw him and diverted to meet up with him.

"Hey, Ez. How's yer face?" he asked as he got close enough to speak.

"Yeah, I wanna apologize again. Feel bad about it," Jed piped up, seemingly eager to sound concerned.

Ezra nodded and turned to Nathan to answer his question. "Slightly bruised and sore, Mr. Jackson. I had a rather irritable headache during the hours of darkness, but it has cleared I'm glad to say. My proboscis feels slightly blocked, but I believe there's no long-term damage done. I am eternally grateful that I am not staffing the reception desk today. I don't look very wholesome, so I think I will lurk in the office instead."

Nathan reached out and probed the injured area gently. He nodded in satisfaction and smiled. "The bruising doesn't look as bad as I thought it would, Ez. I expected you to have a couple of lovely black eyes. You were lucky," the medic said as he patted Ezra's back and continued on his journey to the ranch house.

As soon as the medic was out of hearing, Jed rounded on Ezra, his concerned tone gone. "As I said, I wanted to apologize - for not hitting you harder." Jed took a threatening pace forward and looked down at Ezra in disgust. His face was screwed into a grotesque expression and he looked rather feral. "I don't like snitches. If you go running to Chris again over something stupid, I'll make sure you pay, you hear me, Jaws?"

Those comments at least confirmed Ezra's thoughts that Jed had hurt him on purpose. Ezra stood tall and stared back unblinkingly at his aggressor. "I don't appreciate being threatened, Mr. Burrows. If I feel that you are not behaving in an appropriate matter, I will make Mr. Larabee aware of it."

The athlete pointed a stabbing finger at Ezra's face fiercely. "You do, and you'll fucking regret it, Bionic," Jed snapped as he turned and hurried after Nathan.

Ezra stood still and watched him leave, glad that he'd already had breakfast. He didn't want to endure any more of the man's company right now. Ezra wasn't quite sure what to do because the threat sounded very real. Jed's reaction to his speaking to Chris seemed excessive and he fleetingly wondered if the man was mentally stable. He shrugged and decided to wait and see what else happened before acting further. It all seemed rather childish. Tit-for-tat, you hurt me so I'll hurt you, kind of thing.

***************************************

Jed obviously hadn't listened to a word Chris said about how to treat the clients. Whether he was testing Ezra's resolve, the former attorney didn't know, but he again found himself witness to some rather nasty behavior from the athlete.

Jed was taking a session in the gym and the class was full of women who seemed to adore him. Ezra watched the man work while he happened to be in the gym arranging a maintenance schedule for some of the equipment. He finished at the same time as the class and followed Jed out when he'd finished.

One of the ladies hurried to catch up with the athlete and asked a few questions about dieting. The lady, Mrs. Masson, was overweight, but was at least trying to do something about it. Jed was polite and gave her some advice and she went away looking very happy. Once she'd gone, though, Jed's attitude changed. Ezra heard him joking about Mrs. Masson with his coach, Paddy Capaldi, who had arrived the day after Jed. The coach had been sitting in on the gym session, too, just to make sure Jed didn't overdo things.

"Jeez, did you see the size of her ass? Like a damned elephant's. It's gonna need more than a diet to get that amount of blubber off. Imagine seeing her in the nude, or having to make love to her...God, I don't wanna think about it. Ugly as hell, too. How the hell did she get a husband?"

Ezra was rather fond of the woman concerned. She had a terrific sense of humor and had attacked, with gusto, all the exercises she had been given. She'd been staying at the center a month and was very popular with the other residents and staff. It would be a much duller place when she left the next day.

After listening to the insults, the green-eyed man frowned and approached the athlete. Paddy had already gone on to the guest accommodation so Jed was alone once more. "Mr. Burrows? I couldn't help but overhear your derogatory remarks and I can tell you that I am not impressed. These people are our livelihood, and I do not expect them to be spoken about in such a fashion, by someone like you."

"What do you mean 'someone like me'?"

"Someone who is two-faced. Mrs. Masson is a lovely lady, and beauty, as they say, is only skin deep. You are a case in point. You may consider that you have pleasant exterior, but I can tell you that you have a deeply unpleasant interior." Ezra shook his head in anger.

Jed took a stride forward and said, "You shouldn't have been listening to a private conversation. That's damned rude."

Ezra stood his ground and looked up at the bigger man. "It was hardly private if I could hear it from a distance away. Please treat Mrs. Masson with the respect she deserves. It isn't very nice to be complimentary to her face but make nasty jibes about her as soon as her back is turned. That is what I call rude, Mr. Burrows."

Jed's face twisted angrily and he put out a hand and pushed Ezra's shoulder forcefully. "Listen, Bionic, just shut yer face. You can't stand the fact that people fall over themselves just to talk to me. A no-hoper like you is nothing but jealous."

Ezra sighed at the way Jed was twisting things. "Fame doesn't interest me in the slightest. As for jealousy, whether you were a household name or not, I would not be tempted to emulate you in any way, especially after the behavior I have just witnessed."

Jed leered at Ezra, taking pleasure in the fact that he was rattling the man. "Don't give a shit about your opinion of me. If you don't like me then tough. The feeling's mutual."

Ezra was rapidly coming to conclusion that he really didn't like Jed, and after hearing his comments, he knew why. Chris and Buck were usually good judges of character and as they had known the man for years, he couldn't be that bad. Chris, in particular, didn't suffer fools gladly. What Ezra had seen so far, though, hadn't endeared him to Jed. Okay, it was only a couple of incidents, but that was two too many in his view. To carry on acting in the same way when you had been asked not to, just showed the sort of man Jed was. He would do what he wanted and damn everyone else.

Ezra turned around and walked away without further comment. He headed to the guest accommodation and sat down in the office out of the view of clients. He wasn't usually bothered about being called something other than his name, but he knew that Jed meant Jaws and Bionic in a nasty way.

He hesitated about whether to say anything to Chris about Jed's behavior toward Mrs. Masson, but in the end he decided against it. The situation was rather awkward because of the fact that Jed was Chris and Buck's friend. To bring up repeated problems about the man and to say that he didn't like him was also insulting them, and he didn't want to do that. After all, the man was only staying a month, so there was no point in making a lot of fuss at the moment. He probably wouldn't listen to what was said to him, anyway.

"Hey, Ez. Yer looking thoughtful," Vin observed as he walked into the room to collect a key.

Ezra shook himself out of his daze and smiled at the long-haired man. "Yes, I am. Nothing you need to concern yourself about, though. I just have a few things on my mind."

The ex-army man nodded. "Well, if you ever wanna share what's on yer mind, you know where I am."

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner. I may yet take you up on your offer. I'll see how things progress," the small man said gratefully. Vin was always a reasonable man and perhaps he would be a good sounding-board.

Vin frowned at the cryptic reply but didn't pursue the matter. He nodded and continued on his way to sort out a blocked toilet in one of the guest rooms.

Oh, these are the jobs that really made me wanna come and work here, he said to himself with a wry smile.

All the men had to multi-task and that meant that they didn't only get to do the glamorous jobs. Some tasks may not be very pleasant but it saved money if they didn't have to call in a professional to do simple maintenance.

Vin finished in about fifteen minutes and waved to Ezra on his way out and he noted that his friend still appeared to be rather preoccupied and worried. The long-haired man didn't want to pry so carried on with his journey and almost bumped into Jed on the porch because of his inattention. He smiled in greeting and stopped to talk.

"Hey, Jed. All set for tomorrow?"

Jed nodded and smiled. "Yeah, I reckon so. Can't wait to get started 'cause this is a great opportunity for me," the tall man said. In lots of unexpected ways, he thought to himself.

**************************************

JD and Ezra went for a horseback ride on their own the next morning. The rest of their friends were taking care of the influx of young athletes for the Sports' Academy sessions, so the two men took advantage of some personal time.

"Jed's terrific, ain't he?" the youngster enthused as soon as they'd ridden out of the yard.

"He's certainly a fine athlete," Ezra commented in a non-committal tone. He knew JD liked the man but he hoped the whole ride wasn't going to be filled with hearing about his virtues.

"He's funny and good company," the youngster continued.

Ezra didn't answer, but JD didn't seem to notice. He just kept raving on and on about his new-found friend.

Lord, give me strength, Ezra pleaded silently as he tried to filter out JD's shrill voice. My sanity cannot bear it.

After another fifteen minutes of non-stop chatter, Ezra interrupted. "Mr. Dunne? I get the distinct impression you are totally obsessed with Mr. Burrows. Not all obsessions are healthy, you know. Sometimes our heroes don't live up to our expectations in real life, and that leads to disappointment."

JD frowned as he pulled his horse to a halt. He waited until Ezra had also stopped and turned his mount to face the youngster's. "What do you mean?" the kid asked.

"Exactly what I said," Ezra replied as he reached down and stroked his mount's neck. "The packaging sometimes belies the contents. I don't want you to be disappointed."

JD waved a disparaging hand in the air. "Jeez, you talk crap sometimes. Anyway, there ain't nothing to be disappointed about. Jed's cool and I'm just real excited about meeting him," the youngster said, his face alight with joy.

Ezra shook his head in despair. "Well, try to curb your enthusiasm into reasonable proportions. It's truly excruciating watching you when you become 'excited', as you call it. Demented, would be a more appropriate description."

JD looked across at Ezra and asked curiously, "Haven't you ever been obsessed?"

Ezra's eyes got a faraway look and he sighed dreamily. "Only with Melanie Percy in high school, and that obsession, I'm ashamed to admit, reached near stalker-like proportions. She was heavenly, but she wasn't smitten with me, alas."

JD laughed and urged his horse onward again. He couldn't imagine Ezra ever drooling over some schoolgirl.

********************************

Ezra and Josiah went to the gym later that day to indulge in a bit of strenuous activity. Ezra wanted to burn off a bit of pent-up frustration, but Josiah was just going for his daily exercise. They entered the room to find Jed there, too.

Damn, Ezra thought to himself. Just the last person I desired setting eyes on.

"Hey, Jed," Josiah called as he moved to stand next to the man. "You here for a session?"

The athlete looked up from where he was putting on his trainers. He pushed a lock of errant hair out of his eyes irritably and then smiled. "Yes, I've got an hour's work ahead of me."

"You don't mind if we workout too, do you?" the big man asked anxiously as he indicated Ezra and himself. "Don't wanna intrude, son."

Jed shook his head as he finished tying his laces and stood up. He began stretching his limbs to warm up his body in readiness for the rigorous exercise ahead. He lifted his right leg behind him and grabbed the ankle, balancing precariously on one leg. "No, of course not. You can join me if you like."

"Thanks, that's real kind," Josiah said as he also started preparing his muscles.

"I'll sit and watch you while I row, I think," Ezra said as he moved away to his chosen machine.

The other two men headed to the running machines. They started off at walk and slowly moved up through jog to run. Josiah found the competition too hot long before Jed did. His whole body was bathed in sweat, dark patches showing on his shirt between his shoulder-blades and under his arms. He stepped off the machine and did a few cooling down exercises before sitting in a chair and recovering his breath. He sat and watched Jed's toned body as the man continued running for another half an hour at top speed.

"Couldn't handle it?" Jed asked as he finally halted, hardly sounding out of breath. He took the towel from around his neck and wiped the sweat from his face and body after moving to stand beside Josiah.

Josiah nodded as he grinned wryly. "Well, you are a trained professional. I just do it for a hobby. Jeez, my legs feel like they're made out of Jell-o."

Ezra clapped his hands together softly. "Well, I applaud your efforts anyway, Mr. Sanchez. I thought smoke was going to commence billowing from the machine because of the velocity you were achieving," Ezra said as he started rowing again feverishly.

Jed laughed. "Yeah, you did good. You too, Ezra. Think you musta rowed over the Atlantic the rate you've been going. Meet any pirates?"

Ezra gave a small smile as he came to a halt and shook his head. He put his arms across his knees and rested his forehead against them. He stayed quiet and took deep calming breaths.

Jed began jogging on the spot to keep his already well-worked muscles active. "Well, I'm gonna carry on for a bit longer on some of the other equipment. Care to stay, guys?"

"No, thanks. I'm worn out," Josiah said as he stood up stiffly and stretched.

"What about you, Ezra? I want to get to know you better. Any friend of Chris's is a friend of mine," Jed said, sounding totally sincere.

Ezra looked at the man and saw a glint in his eye that he didn't like at all. And if I believe that load of codswallop, I need my head read, Ezra thought to himself. Jed showed a totally different side to his character whenever one of the other men was around. Only when Ezra was alone did the man act in a nasty way.'s behaviour.

Ezra smiled sweetly and shook his head. "I think I am in need of a shower, thank you all the same, Mr. Burrows. I'm rather ripe."

"Whatever. See you later and thanks for keeping me company," the athlete said in a friendly and grateful tone.

****************************************

Jed changed the direction of his journey across the yard when he spotted JD lounging on the ranch house porch. He jogged up to him and smiled in greeting.

"Hey, kid. Something I've been meaning to ask you. Ever considered a career in sport?" he asked.

JD frowned, not quite sure what the tall athlete meant. "Well," he said hesitatingly, "I've got a sport degree and I'm working here, ain't I? This is what I want to do. I get to do lots of different sports and meet loads of interesting people. It's great."

Jed put out an apologetic hand. "Yeah, but what I meant was if you'd ever thought of becoming an athlete like me? I've been watching you and you've got real potential. You could pick any sport and excel at it, I reckon," the older man said earnestly.

"Yer kidding," JD replied, his chest puffing out proudly despite himself. He sat up in his chair and leaned toward the man with interest.

Jed shook his head and smiled at the youngster's reaction. "No, I'm not. You're young and have still got some useful sporting years ahead of you. It ain't too late to start and I could help you open a few doors, if you like," he offered as he leaned against one of the porch posts and relaxed.

JD frowned and thought deeply. It was definitely a tempting offer - the sort of offer that only comes along once in a lifetime. "I'll certainly consider it, Jed. Thanks, it sounds great."

"Okay, I'll leave you to it, but let me know what you decide." Jed smiled and wandered away, knowing what a tempting carrot he'd dangled in front of the youngster.

The kid sat daydreaming. He imagined winning a gold medal at the Olympics. He could picture himself stepping up onto the rostrum, receiving his medal, and hearing the adulation of the crowd. He then thought of all his experiences at the center. He smiled as he remembered the real pleasure he'd got from taking out clients. They gave him pleasure, he gave them pleasure. It was a symbiotic relationship and he really enjoyed that part of the job. That was all he wanted. Fame and fortune was all very well, but a sport's career only lasted a few years. The sports' center, on the other hand, was a lifetime of work.

JD nodded to himself and stood up. He looked round the yard and saw Jed heading back to Buck's cabin. "Jed?" he called as he ran toward him waving.

"Hey, kid. Made up yer mind?"

"Yes, I have. I'm happy as I am, thank you. I'm lucky to have found my perfect career at the first attempt, well second attempt, if you count my short-lived gym job."

Jed smiled in disappointment and patted JD's back. "Well, if you ever change your mind give me a call. Buck and Chris know where to find me."

"I admit it was a tempting offer. I would like to have said yes," the dark-haired youngster said, trying to soften his refusal. He hated saying no to his hero.

Jed shrugged. "Well, take a bit more time if you want. I'm here until the end of the month."

"Okay, I will, but I don't think I'll change my mind."

"I'll do my best to see that you do, kid," Jed said, his hopes rising again. "Come on, let's go swimming. Last one in the pool is a sissy."

JD grinned and ran after Jed like a maniac. He really liked the man and was glad that he could now maybe call him a friend.

*************************************************

Ezra went to the guest accommodation the following morning to take up his reception desk duties. There would still be plenty of work to occupy him, what with invoicing, phone calls and general paperwork. He first wandered through to the main living room just to check that everything was in order. At that time of day there were only a few people around - two young athletes and Jed. The older man was talking animatedly to the youngsters as one of them looked at something small that Jed passed over. Ezra couldn't see what it was, though. Jed must have detected Ezra's presence because he thrust something into his own pocket hastily and ushered his companions away.

"Hey, Jaws," the man said in his usual nasty tone once they were alone.

"Is everything all right? I hope you weren't being harassed during your personal time," Ezra said, trying to start afresh with the man. He certainly didn't want Jed to see that he was being affected by his demeanor.

"No, I was just arranging a session with those two gents for tomorrow. We're working on their sprinting technique," the muscular man replied quickly, seeming to want Ezra to go away.

His body posture was all wrong to Ezra's eyes but the Southerner narrowed his eyes and finally nodded. He didn't know what the man was up to, but he was even surer that it was something underhanded. The three men had been acting shiftily in his opinion, but then Ezra had always had a rather suspicious nature. It came with the territory as an attorney.

He stepped aside and let Jed leave the room, having no cause to keep the man further. He instead turned and watched his departure distractedly. Ezra saw Jed reach into his pocket and pull out a wad of money. It was in the same pocket that he'd put something into just as Ezra had arrived.

Ezra pursed his lips thoughtfully as he narrowed his eyes. There was no reason for any money to be involved between Jed and the athletes. The former attorney was now well and truly hooked on finding out what Jed was up to. Every encounter with the man set off more alarm bells in Ezra's brain.

He ignored his duties, wandered out into the yard and caught sight of Josiah. He hurried to meet up with him and smiled in greeting.

"Mr. Sanchez? Could I have a confidential word with you?"

The big man stopped and turned his full attention on the smaller man. "Of course, Ezra. What's on your mind? Is there something wrong?"

"I'm not sure. What are your impressions of our Mr. Burrows?" Ezra asked with interest. Josiah was an astute man and he hoped for some confirmation in his thoughts.

"Good for business," Josiah chuckled, his blue eyes twinkling.

"That's not what I meant."

The big man frowned and gave the question a bit of thought. He could see that Ezra was serious about his query and that it wasn't a casual inquiry. Finally, he said, "He's very nice and treated the clients well last week. Friendly and unpretentious, I guess, too. He'd be an asset if he worked here fulltime. He'd sure fit in well. Why?"

Ezra definitely didn't agree with the comment about treating the clients well. "I just have an odd feeling about him. Something doesn't feel right, but I don't know what."

Josiah didn't look best pleased at the comment as his eyes clouded with anger. "Ezra? I know you had a bit of a run-in with him, but you can't go round making statements like that. He was really friendly to you in the gym yesterday so he's trying to make up for his little mistake, I reckon. Give him a chance, will you?" The big man scowled. "He's a world-class athlete and we're lucky to have him here. Treat him with a bit of respect 'cause he's still our guest after all." Josiah pursed his lips and fixed Ezra with a penetrating stare. "Seems it's a bit of the pot calling the kettle black, to my eyes. You're treating him in the same way that he supposedly treated Jeremy."

"He was rude to a client, which is totally different. Anyway, does the fact that he is famous make him beyond reproach? Are you saying that he can do no wrong?" Ezra snapped. "He hit me deliberately in the pool the other day. He told me it was done on purpose."

Josiah shook his head in disagreement. He put his hands on his hips and stared down irritably at his smaller friend. "It was an accident, Ez. We were there and we saw it, remember? Grow up. For a lawyer you're acting in a very immature way."

"Damn you all. I am not lying." Ezra scowled as he walked away, deciding not to take the conversation further.

The big man was startled at Ezra's reaction and he stood with hands still resting on hips as he watched the younger man walk away. He sighed, letting his anger dissipate as he turned to go to the ranch house.

"Josiah? What's up with Ez?" Chris asked, having witnessed the altercation from the kitchen window.

"He's suspicious of Jed. He just seems to have taken against him for some reason."

"Did he say why he is suspicious of him?" the blond asked, his anger building. He didn't appreciate his friend being talked about in such a manner.

Josiah shook his head and sighed. "Not specifically. He said that he don't feel right about him, whatever that means. He got a bit angry with me when I defended Jed. He also says Jed hit him deliberately in the pool when we were playing water-polo, which as we all know isn't true."

The tall blond almost growled and strode off after the former attorney. An irate Chris was not what anyone would want bearing down on them at pace. Ezra heard the stomping footsteps approaching from behind, but he continued in his way, hoping that Chris didn't want to speak to him.

"Ezra? A word. What the hell do you mean by bad-mouthing my friend?" he asked as he grabbed the man's arm quite roughly and turned him round to face him.

Ezra looked furious at the question. "I thought I was your friend, too. If I have concerns about him, I, at least, expect someone to listen to me. Does my opinion count for nothing anymore?"

Chris waved a finger in Ezra's face, somehow resisting the urge to curl the hand into a fist instead. "Not when you're spouting comments like you just did to Josiah. He didn't hit you on purpose, so stop saying that he did. Jed is a good man and made one mistake with Jeremy. Don't turn this into a witch-hunt."

Ezra was wary of tackling Chris when he was in this sort of mood, but he felt that he had to defend himself. "Well, I'm not so sure about him being a good man and Jeremy wasn't his only error. I witnessed something... well, two or three things, which have unsettled me about him. Firstly, he was most rude about another of our clients, Mrs. Masson, despite you having talked to him. I reprimanded him again and received a lot of abuse in response. Then just now, money changed hands in suspicious circumstances, Mr. Larabee. He told me he was arranging a session with two of the young athletes, but money changed hands between them. I saw it. We've been paid for the hiring of the center, and Jed, as far as I am aware, is working voluntarily. No other extra charges were agreed, because I did all the paperwork for this venture myself. Is he taking money that we don't know about?"

Chris shook his head, at what he considered made up accusations. "Crap. He wouldn't do that sort of thing. I know him."

"I never thought I would have to defend myself to you of all people, Chris." Ezra was furious and he knew he was going to really lose his temper soon. "Are you saying that I am lying about what is going on?"

"You're an attorney. They damned well lie all the time," Chris snapped angrily.

Ezra stared at him in disbelief as he ground his teeth, not quite sure what to do next. He decided on retreat. It seemed that no one was willing to take on board what he was saying. It was becoming increasingly evident that Jed had everyone under his spell.

"Fine, I'll ask the people involved what was going on myself," he said as he turned and left.

Ezra set off to the guest accommodation and happened to find one of the men he'd seen with Jed. The young athlete, Stefan, was holding a small bottle tightly and was studying the label with great interest. He heard the sound of footsteps approaching and looked up to see Ezra heading toward him. He put the bottle in his pocket and smiled in greeting.

"Hello, how are you enjoying the camp?" Ezra asked, starting the conversation with pleasantries. The sight of the bottle in the man's hand had aroused his curiosity, but he pretended that he hadn't seen anything. It had been obvious that Stefan hadn't wanted it to be noticed.

"It's great and I'm learning a lot."

"I saw you with Mr. Burrows earlier. He's being helpful, I hope?"

"Yeah, he gives real good advice," Stefan replied eagerly.

The youngster kept one hand in the pocket where he'd put the bottle and Ezra could see the appendage was fidgeting restlessly in its prison. Stefan was obviously on edge and Ezra wanted to know why.

"What was he telling you today? Anything interesting?" he asked, just making it sound like a casual inquiry.

Stefan looked slightly uncomfortable and seemed to struggle for an answer for a while. He'd been caught off guard and his mind went blank for a short time.

Finally, sounding pleased with his explanation, he said, "It wasn't athletic advice. He asked if I wanted to donate some money to a charity that he runs. I was happy to do so. There isn't a problem, is there? I thought it would be okay."

"No, that's fine. I was unaware that he was involved in good works, or that he would be touting for donations. Sorry to pry." Ezra now knew that something was wrong. He'd been given two different explanations, and he would bet that neither was correct.

"That's all right then." Stefan looked relieved and turned to walk away.

Ezra watched him go and pursed his lips. He decided that he needed to tread carefully. He would continue to watch for the time being. He couldn't keep running to Chris every time he got a new suspicion. Why would the man listen to him after the way he'd brushed off his worries before? If the blond asked, then he would tell him, but he wasn't going to seek him out right now.

*********************************************

Chris saw the former attorney later that day. "Ezra? Did you find out about the money?" he asked sharply.

Right, deep breath, Ezra said to himself. He smiled at Chris and said, "Apparently Jed is involved in charity work and the athlete I talked to said he donated money to it. It was rather a large amount to be giving away in my opinion, though."

"Just 'cause you're not generous doesn't mean that others can't be. You'd better get your facts straight in future before making accusations," Chris snapped.

"Well, Jed gave me an entirely different explanation for the conversation when I asked him about it. He didn't even mention that he'd taken money from the young man. I also saw Stefan holding a bottle in his hand. It looked like a pill bottle and he could have had it when I saw him with Jed. He was definitely holding something, but I couldn't see what it was at that time," Ezra said, thinking that he'd done enough to get the blond to see things from his point of view. He was wrong.

"Jeez, you sound like a whining kid, Ezra. Just leave it alone. You were wrong, so just accept it. Jed probably was arranging a training session and forgot about the money he was given," Chris said, not even wanting to double-check what Jed had told Ezra. The blond was more likely to take Jed's side at the moment after what he saw as Ezra's petulant behavior. "The bottle probably just contained vitamins, or supplements or something. You've got no evidence that Jed gave it to him, either. Stop looking for criminals, Ezra. You ain't a lawyer anymore."

The younger man tried a different angle. "Do you not even care about him being rude about Mrs. Masson last week? You haven't even asked about that," Ezra continued.

"Was he rude to her?" Chris asked in exasperation, feeling that he was losing the very tenuous grip on his temper.

Ezra frowned, seeing that Chris was still not taking notice of what he was saying. "No, but I see no relevance in that. The fact that he was rude at all is not acceptable behavior. If I overheard him, so could others."

"He's got a weird sense of humor, Ez, and he's always poking fun at people. It's his nature. You can't tell me that you've never made a bad comment about anyone."

"We're not talking about me." The green-eyed man sighed loudly. "It is obviously a waste of time me even trying to broach this subject with you. You appear to value Mr. Burrow's word much more than mine. Good day, Mr. Larabee."

"Pompous ass," the black-clad man muttered as he pursed his lips angrily.

********************************

Ezra exited his cabin an hour later and was just in time to see Jed wander out of the gym after finishing another training session. The athlete stopped his journey, though, when he was met by two men. Ezra recognized them as Jed's coach, and Trevor Matcham, his nutritionist. The smallest man, Paddy Capaldi, handed over a parcel and patted Jed's arm. Jed tucked the box under his arm and went to his cabin after looking around in a suspicious fashion. Ezra was luckily not in clear sight so the man missed seeing him.

Jed re-emerged from Buck's cabin a few minutes later and headed back to join his two friends. He handed over an envelope and shook Paddy's hand, pumping the appendage enthusiastically. Trevor smiled and beckoned the other two men to follow him.

The group went into the nearby swimming pool, which was now closed for the day. None of the men had any business to be in there, so Ezra frowned and followed along behind. His own duties in the gym could wait a bit longer. He pushed quietly through the door, the damp, warm, chlorine pungent air hit him full-force in the face. He stood still for a minute and could hear voices nearby.

Jed was saying in a gloating tone, "This is going to be easy, guys. We'll make so much money outta this set-up."

Ezra was afflicted by a sudden tickle in his throat and he couldn't stop the cough that erupted. He had the feeling he'd interrupted what could have been a very telling conversation.

Jed appeared from the hallway to the right and stopped within inches of Ezra. The man's two companions came into sight behind him and Ezra suddenly found himself cornered.

Jed sneered, "Hey, it's the Bionic Man. You keep turning up like a bad smell. I reckon you're suffering from hero-worship. Rather pathetic for someone your age, ain't it?"

Ezra stood tall, although he still only came up to Jed's chest. "I'd find someone of better standing to adulate rather than a simple runner. I don't know what you are playing at, but I am watching you, Mr. Burrows."

The tall man looked at his friends and grinned cockily. "Jeez, well, I'd better watch my step, hadn't I? I'm so scared to think you might catch me skinny-dipping at night," the athlete snapped sarcastically. "Ain't you got nothing better to do?

"No, not when I have suspicions as to your integrity."

"You making an accusation? I'll sue you, you bastard," Jed said as he moved to stand even more threateningly over Ezra.

"Jed, leave it. Mr. Standish is just leaving," Paddy said as he took hold of Ezra's arm and led him out.

Ezra scowled as he was pulled away forcefully.

"Yeah, go away, little man. You've got nothing on me," Jed shouted after him.

Paddy smiled. "You know athletes. They're always highly strung individuals. Have to be if they want to be real competitive. Take no notice of Jed, Mr. Standish, he don't know what he's saying."

Ezra shrugged out of Paddy's grip irritably and brushed the creases out of his clothes with a slapping hand. He didn't answer Paddy, but left the pool and ambled back to the gym thoughtfully. Things seemed to be getting even more curious.

"You're late," Chris said, looking at his watch pointedly as soon as he set eyes on Ezra.

"I apologize. I was talking to Mr. Burrows," Ezra said in something close to contempt.

"Buried the hatchet then?" the blond asked hopefully as he wiped his hands on a cloth and stood with hands on hips.

"No, I'm afraid not. After my conversation with Mr. Burrows just now, I don't think we will ever see eye to eye," Ezra admitted.

The blond shook his head angrily, threw down the cloth and left the man to continue with the cleaning of the room. Ezra picked up the mop and started washing over the floor. It was a nice mind-numbing job and he used the time to think about his recent encounter with Jed. He wondered what the men had been going to discuss and he cursed the fact that he'd coughed. He could have had something really positive to pass on to Chris, but that chance had been lost. Events appeared to be working against him.

Vin ambled into the gym half an hour later to find Ezra still working hard.

"Hey, Ez. Everything alright?" he asked when he saw the preoccupied man.

The green-eyed man stopped and leaned on the mop as he looked at his friend. "I've just had a rather unpleasant encounter with our resident celebrity. The more I see him, the more I dislike him," Ezra said, taking up the previous offer to confide in Vin.

"That's a bit harsh. What happened?" the younger man asked. So far, he hadn't seen anything to dislike about the man.

Ezra explained what had taken place between him and Jed. He began to regret talking to his friend because he watched the expression on Vin's face and it didn't give him any hope. He carried on and prayed that he would convince the man in the end. It didn't happen.

The Texan shook his head and shrugged. "Maybe you went off half-cocked, Ez. You haven't got any evidence that he's doing wrong. You probably misread the situation 'cause anyone can receive a parcel, can't they? It don't mean it's a bomb or something. Maybe he had to pay customs on whatever it was and was paying Paddy back. Jed's bound to defend himself if you make accusations against him, ain't he? That's normal behavior for anyone. You might not like him, but that doesn't mean he's all bad."

Ezra shook his head vigorously. "We'll see. They were definitely behaving in a suspicious manner. I'm usually a good judge of character and I have a sixth sense which can identify a villain from a hundred yards. I was a lawyer remember, and I relied on gut instinct a lot. I was usually proved right in my feelings, too," Ezra said, disappointed that Vin didn't seem to want to believe him either.

"Maybe yer radar's off this time, bud. Don't push things or you could find yerself out in the cold."

"Already am," Ezra muttered once Vin had gone.

*****************************************

Chris, Buck and Jed met up in the ranch house's living room before the evening meal. They hadn't really had a chance to catch up since Jed had arrived. The three men had spent a couple of years living in the same house fifteen years before, which is how they'd come to know one another. Jed had been the youngest, just in his early twenties, whereas the other two had been in the latter half of the age at the time. Despite the time that had passed, they found they could just settle into their friendship as easily as a pair of favorite shoes.

"So, how's the training camp going? Is there a future medal winner amongst them?" Buck asked as he lounged in a soft chair. He sat sideways with his legs hanging over one arm and his back twisted against the rear of the seat. Nathan always nagged him about it if he caught him, and quite often made him sit with feet on the floor and bottom right back in the seat. He told Buck that he'd find himself with back problems if he continued lounging about. Buck took whatever opportunity he could, when Nathan wasn't around of course, to continue his bad habits.

Jed nodded. "One or two show real potential. They could go all the way to the top with a little more effort."

"Have you got everything you need?" Chris asked, his business head still working. He wanted the training camp to be a success so they'd come back for repeat business.

"Yeah, the facilities are great considering you aren't catering for this type of client. Hope this can be a regular event for you," Jed replied, echoing Chris's thoughts.

"That would be welcomed. Hell, any kind of business is welcome," Buck said. The ladies' man smiled as his mind drifted to the past. "Hey, tell me, Jed. Whatever happened to that girl...Linda Ballantine? The last I heard she was a teacher in Detroit."

Jed laughed as he thought back about the beautiful brunette who possessed legs that seemed to go on forever. "She ran off with a long-distance truck driver and is living in Michigan."

Buck sighed as he conjured up an image of the woman. "She sure was a pretty filly. Even though we were all after her we never fell out, did we?"

"No, but we had a lot of fun trying to outwit one another to get into her pants," Chris said with a snort.

"Remember when we went ice skating during that real cold winter? She brought along two friends as blind-dates. What were their names? Dinah?" Buck asked as he smiled at his blond friend.

"No, Della," Jed interrupted.

"And Molly," Chris said as he smiled in remembrance. "She was pretty enough, but she wasn't lovely Linda."

"No, but she had big breasts as I remember," Buck said with a laugh as he held out his hands as if he was holding the said items in his palms. "Could sure have lost myself in her chest."

"Seem to recall you did - for at least two days," Chris said disparagingly. "Never seen such a look of pure pleasure on anyone's face before."

Buck guffawed loudly and threw a cushion at his friend.

"Well, none of us won Linda's heart, did we?" Jed said sadly.

"Thought I'd died and gone to Heaven the first time I saw her," Buck said dreamily as he wolf-whistled.

"You say that about every woman you date," Chris said sarcastically as he looked up to Heaven.

"They're all special in their own way, but Linda was one I coulda settled down with for life. She was damned near perfect."

Jed shook his head emphatically. "Well, I don't ever wanna be tied down. The pickings are great in my profession. You get girls lining up to sleep with you and you can take as many as you like. There's a never ending supply of bed companions."

Buck waggled his eyebrows and smiled broadly. He kicked his legs up and down and said, "Sounds ideal, but I'm trying to be more selective these days."

Chris guffawed in disbelief. "What? Only picking those with breasts and a swinging butt?"

Buck ignored his friend's skepticism. "I guess I wanna settle down and I'm sure my soul-mate is just waiting round the corner."

The blond sighed and clenched his jaw at the unwanted memories that flooded into his mind. "I lost mine."

There was a minute of silence as the three men contemplated Chris's loss.

"I was sorry to hear about Sarah and Adam, Chris. Meant to write you, but I never did," Jed said, sounding somber.

The blond shrugged. "That's okay. Kinda lost my way after they died. Thanks to Buck I survived, though," Chris said as he smiled at his oldest friend. He was eternally grateful that he hadn't driven the ladies' man away at the time. Chris wouldn't have blamed the man if he'd walked away. The blond had treated him badly, but Buck had showed what true friendship and loyalty was all about.

"Hey, guys," JD greeted as he ambled into the room after hearing their voices.

"This is man's talk, kid," Buck warned in a mock-serious tone as he settled his gaze on the youngster.

"I'm a man," JD said forcefully.

"Yeah, but inexperienced in certain ways. Hell, you've only just started kissing Casey and you've never been with a girl before," the ladies' man retorted, who'd had plenty of practice at both activities.

"I don't believe in sex before marriage," JD said in all seriousness. His mother had raised him to strict moral standards and he stuck to them. He tolerated Buck's philandering ways, but didn't wish to follow them.

"Fair enough, kid," Chris said as he smiled. "Each to his own. Anyway, it would be a damned boring world if we were all alike."

"Jeez, yer missing out on a lot of fun," Jed said, unable to understand JD's restraint. "Handsome kid like you should be sowing yer wild oats. You shouldn't have any trouble reeling in a whole host of babes. I can get you a leggy blonde if you want."

JD shook his head. "I'm happy just getting to know Casey. She's the girl for me and I wanna treat her right."

"Yeah, well she's a handful and Miz. Nettie's brought her up properly too," Buck said as he slapped JD's ass as he wandered by. The older man just hadn't been able to resist. "Yer well suited, kid."

"I like to think so," JD said as he smiled and headed to the kitchen to start cooking.

"Is he serious about never having had sex?" Jed asked as he turned to look at Chris.

The blond nodded. "Yes. That's his choice and we respect it," he said as he stood up and headed off to the bathroom.

"Damn, I can't understand it," Jed said as he shook his head and sighed at the vagaries of life.

"You and me both," Buck said with a grin as he rose and headed out to join his young friend in the kitchen.

Half an hour later, the rest of the men turned up and enjoyed a companionable meal together. For his part, when the coffee was handed round, Ezra decided to start questioning Jed again. He hoped to get the man to trip up in some way now that he was relaxed. Maybe then Chris might believe him.

"Tell me, Mr. Burrows, what is the charity that you support?" the green-eyed man asked in a casual, interested tone.

"What?" Jed said in confusion, totally surprised by the unexpected question.

Ezra pounced, thinking he had the upper hand. "One of the athletes I saw you with informs me that he donated money to one of your worthy causes. I was just interested to find out what it was," he said as he studied the man closely. "I wondered if it is something we could support here on your behalf."

"It's an overseas fund for kids." Jed paused as if he was thinking on his feet, which of course he was. "UNICEF," he said, sounding slightly doubtful to Ezra's ears. "I donate part of any winnings I get, too," he continued, suddenly sounding more confident.

"How very noble," Ezra said, still not convinced.

"Ezra!" Chris said sharply. He glared at the man and made sure that Ezra dropped the subject.

The rest of the group looked at one another uncomfortably. Things were becoming strained between Ezra and the blond and it was beginning to rub off on the rest of them. They had seen nothing of the behavior that Ezra had told Chris about and they were wondering why Ezra seemed to be stirring and making matters worse.

His friends seemed to be divided in their opinions. Buck and Chris naturally defended Jed. JD had hero-worshipped the man for years and couldn't understand Ezra's animosity toward him. Josiah had made his feelings known on the subject already. Nathan, however, stayed neutral, not really expressing an opinion one way or the other, although Ezra guessed that he secretly sided with Chris. Vin couldn't think that Ezra would make up accusations and he kept an open mind.

"Maybe, as Ezra said, we can set something up here, using your name to encourage others to donate," Josiah said thoughtfully, trying to dispel the awkward air. "How do feel about that?"

"Sounds terrific. It's a worthwhile cause," the athlete said earnestly, seeing that Ezra was losing credibility with his friends.

Ezra looked disgusted and stayed silent.

Nathan, though, looked interested. "I worked alongside UNICEF when I was a doctor for the Red Cross. They do worthwhile work," the medic said.

"You'll have to tell me about it sometime. I like to hear first-hand accounts of what they do," Jed said enthusiastically. He was going to do everything in his power to alienate Ezra and, at the moment, it was working.

"Sure, I'd be pleased to," Nathan replied with a smile.

Ezra's attempts to catch Jed out had misfired spectacularly. The former attorney was the one looking bad instead of Jed, and right now he was helping to dig his own grave.

He stayed another ten minutes and then made his excuses and headed home. He had something he wanted to check. The southerner sat down at his computer as soon as he got back to his cabin. He checked the internet and found a page, done by Paddy Capaldi, dedicated to Jed. There was no mention whatsoever that he supported any charities, or that he gave away his prize money. If it had been true, surely they would have been preaching the word to everyone, for several reasons. One of those could be to encourage fans to follow in Jed's footsteps and donate to the charity. Another, maybe, to let people know what a good-hearted person Jed was and so increase his popularity.

The small man decided that he needed to gather evidence in a professional way. That appeared to be the only way he would be able to expose the truth about Jed.

"I am an attorney so I must act like one. Think of this unhappy situation as a case I am expected to appear in court for. My word is obviously not sufficient to convince my friends that Jed is a villain, so concrete proof will have to be gathered."

He stood up and moved to stare out the window at the ranch house. When he saw his business partners head to their own cabins, he went along to Vin's and knocked on the door. His call was answered quickly.

"Hey, Ez. You okay? You left a bit quick earlier," the younger man observed.

Ezra nodded, while at the same time refusing Vin's manual invitation to go inside the building. "Yes, thank you, I won't keep you. I just wondered if I could borrow that small tape recorder you have."

"Sure ya can. Taping anything interesting?"

"I hope so. I want it to be a surprise, so I won't tell you about it at the moment," Ezra replied cagily.

"Fair enough." Vin nodded and disappeared inside his home. He came back within minutes and handed over the requested piece of equipment. "Keep it as long as you want."

Ezra put it in his pocket and smiled gratefully. "Thank you, Mr. Tanner. I appreciate it."

The former attorney was very satisfied indeed. He could carry the palm-sized machine around with him and hopefully catch Jed on tape. He began to feel a bit more positive about life and his dark mood lifted.

****************************************

It was a beautiful day. It had rained overnight and there was a wonderful freshness in the air. The lovely, unsurpassable smell of rain-after-drought filled Ezra's nostrils as he opened the living room window. The season was changing from fall to winter and the weather was changing to match. Ezra knew that before long it would be snowing. The nights were fast becoming frosty, but the days could still be blessed by blue skies.

He went back to the bedroom and got dressed before enjoying a quick breakfast. He then stepped out onto the porch, where he took a minute to stand and breathe in the rainy aroma as he looked round the yard and surrounding area. He finally wandered across to the gym and arrived at the same time as his six colleagues. Ezra was there for his regular maintenance check, but the rest were there to exercise.

"Hey you guys. Coming for a five mile run?" Jed called as he jogged backward past the group, waving cheerily.

"Yeah, I'm up for it," Chris said. "Give us five minutes to get changed and warmed up. A run in the fresh air will be better than sitting in the gym."

"I'll give it a miss, as I said before. I'm here for my job, not pleasure, anyway," Ezra said, already heading toward the door of the gym. He really couldn't stand to be in Jed's company for too long. "Early mornings and strenuous exercise don't agree with me, as you all know."

"Yeah, well, reckon we'll manage just fine without you, Bionic," Jed retorted.

Vin frowned at the name, which to his ears sounded like an insult. None of the others seemed to have taken offence at the way it had been said, though. They seemed to think it was highly amusing, despite seeing the look it created on Ezra's face.

The Southerner shrugged and continued on his way without saying another word. The sound of his friends' laughter sounded sourly in his ears.

"Vin? You coming?" Chris called to the preoccupied man, while ignoring the retreating former attorney.

Vin watched Ezra walk away, wondering whether to go after him, but he shrugged and turned to face Chris. "Yeah, I'm coming, cowboy," he said, deciding he could talk to Ezra later. The man was an adult and could cope with a bit of name-calling after all, even if it wasn't meant in a friendly way, like 'cowboy' was between him and Chris. By the time Vin had returned after the run, he had forgotten about the incident.

**************************************

Ezra sat on the porch of his cabin one evening and watched the sun head toward the horizon. It was glowing a beautiful orange and it colored the mountains and land around with a tangerine hue. The center was set in superb surroundings and Ezra forever marveled at the scenery. No matter what the weather was like there was always something pleasant to see.

Buck wandered past on his way to the ranch house for the night. "Hey, Ez."

"Mr. Wilmington."

The ladies' man came to a halt and leaned his forearms on the hitching rail. "Ain't seen much of you lately, pard."

Ezra had his feet resting on the rail, too. He uncrossed his ankles and put his feet back on the ground when Buck settled nearby. "Thought you preferred it that way. You seem to have found a new best friend. I only manage to antagonize you all, so I thought I'd keep a low profile," he confessed.

The tall man was quiet for a minute and then pursed his lips in confusion. He waved one hand toward Ezra and said, "This ain't like you, Ez. What's eating you?"

"Nothing that any of you seem to care about. I'll keep close counsel for the time being, if you don't mind."

"Gee, you're exasperating sometimes. Don't know who you are any more," Buck snapped as he turned and wandered away.

"Seems none of you do," Ezra mumbled sadly, as he stood and went indoors, slamming the door after him.

********************************************

The following afternoon, Nathan ambled into the ranch house's living room. He looked at his watch and saw that he had half an hour before he needed to start preparing the evening meal for his friends. Each man took a turn to cook, although their efforts differed greatly in expertise. Josiah and Nathan were brilliant cooks and the other men always looked forward to when it was their turn to conjure up their meals. Buck and Chris were passable chefs, but mostly relied on barbecues. Ezra, Vin and JD were the least accomplished, but each had their own speciality, which they did very well indeed.

The medic sighed as he went over in his head the ingredients that he would need. He hoped they had everything, but if not he could always compromise. He took a seat on the couch and laid back his head as he yawned loudly. He was tired for some reason and couldn't help falling asleep within seconds.

"Hah! I remember that," a voice almost shouted in hysteria.

Nathan started awake and sat up, looking around in confusion.

"Jeez, sorry. Didn't see you there," Jed apologized as he strode in with Chris. "Did I wake you?"

"Musta nodded off," Nathan said with a grin and a nod.

"Bit of a rude awakening," Chris said with a broad smile. He put an arm round Jed's shoulder and looked down at the medic in amusement.

"Could say that," Nathan agreed as he rubbed his eyes and yawned.

"You getting old? Only elderly folks need an afternoon nap," Chris joked.

The medic snorted with laughter. "Reckon it's 'cause I'm so relaxed. Ain't used to all this inactivity." Nathan looked at his watch and saw that his half an hour had passed. "Gee, better get started on supper. That'll wake me up."

"I'll help if you like," Jed offered.

"Great. Cooking can be a bit of a challenge, especially when they all want something different."

"Well, tell me what you want me to do. I ain't no chef, but I can sure boil water," Jed said proudly as he laughed like a hyena.

"That'll sure help," Nathan replied with a grin as he patted the athlete's back boisterously.

The two men headed to the kitchen, leaving Chris to read the newspaper in peace.

Nathan and Jed worked steadily and the athlete asked about Nathan's work with the Red Cross and UNICEF. It was a pleasant relaxed atmosphere and the time passed quickly for them. They managed to create a feast of food between them and Jed looked at it with a grin.

"Hey, perhaps I can make it as a cook after all. There's a whole new career waiting for me when I retire."

Nathan shook his head in disagreement. "Well, I wouldn't get too excited about it yet. You still managed to burn the cabbage," the medic said. The smell from the overcooked vegetable still hung in the air despite the fact that the door had been opened to get rid of the stench.

"One mistake and you pension me off? Hell," Jed retorted in jest.

"Jeez, I hope the rest of the meal ain't in such a state," Buck said as he walked into the kitchen and saw the blackened pan in the sink. He sniffed the air and then moved forward to study the rest of the food.

"Only your portion," Jed said as he laughed and punched Buck's arm gently.

"Thanks, pard," the ladies' man said sarcastically. "I'll swap it for Ezra's. He won't notice."

Nathan began serving the meals as the rest of the men ambled into the room and took seats round the table. "He ain't coming. He's meeting up with Maude in town for a meal and a trip to the theater. I saw him earlier, just as he was heading off. He had the arsenic with him in case she gets too much of a handful," Nathan said as he smiled.

"Girlfriend?" Jed asked.

"No, mother. She's a real sparky lady, too," Buck said, as he waggled his eyebrows theatrically. "She'd give Attila the Hun a run for his money. Nice looking, but with a heart of steel and a tongue like a snake."

"See where Ezra gets some of his traits," the athlete muttered under his breath.

"What's that?" Vin said sharply, hearing Ezra's name mentioned.

"Nothing important. Just thinking about parents in general. Mine live in London so I don't get to see them much," Jed said, managing not to blush at his almost overheard words.

Vin studied the tall athlete suspiciously but let the remarks ride. The tone of Jed's voice earlier had suggested he hadn't been too complimentary about Ezra, but Vin hadn't actually heard what had been said.

"Bet Ezra wishes Maude lived there, too," JD said with a grin as he picked up his fork, interrupting Vin's thoughts.

The men laughed and settled down to enjoy their meal.

***********************************************

Two days later, Vin was witness to another encounter between Jed and Ezra and it finally convinced him that Ezra wasn't lying about Jed's behavior. Vin was with the athlete and five of his business partners on the porch of the ranch house, sharing a joke. Ezra was the absent man as had become his habit of late. The Texan kept his eye on Jed and he saw the man fix his gaze on something in the distance. Vin turned and saw that it was Ezra who had garnered his attention as he walked across the yard toward them. The long-haired man waved and his companions' turned to see who he was waving at. Vin's attention, by this time, had been returning to Jed, while the rest of the group's was moving toward Ezra. Vin was just in time to see the athlete's expression change to one of outright hate before settling back to his normal friendly countenance. Ezra had not done anything at all to warrant such a vicious response. The expression then changed once more to one of triumph as Ezra hovered uncomfortably, not wanting to join the group when seeing that Jed was there. He finally walked toward the guest accommodation instead. When Chris and the other turned to face Jed again, all they saw was a friendly smile on his face.

Vin broke away from the group and ran after the former attorney. "Ez? I saw how Jed looked at you just now. You okay?"

"No, as you warned me a while ago, I seem to be out in the cold," Ezra said as he sighed.

"Jed ain't gonna be here much longer, bud. Things'll settle down once he's gone," Vin assured as he patted the man's shoulder when he saw how downhearted he was.

Ezra looked down at the ground and scuffed a hole in the dirt with the toe on his right boot distractedly. He shook his head as he put his hands in his pockets. "I very much doubt that, Mr. Tanner. I have become a leper, an outcast, for daring to question that despicable man's motives. I don't intend to stay where I am not wanted."

"You don't mean that."

"I do," Ezra said with certainty as he turned and hurried away. As every day passed, his mind had been filled with thoughts of asking to be bought out by his partners. He couldn't bear to stay where he wasn't wanted. The bad atmosphere was getting to him and he felt tense and irritable. At least he had another profession to fall back on.

Vin frowned worriedly. He pursed his lips and went back to the group of men who were still on the porch.

"Chris? Can I have a word?"

The blond turned toward him and nodded. "Sure. What's on yer mind?"

"A word in private, cowboy," Vin said as he looked at Jed meaningfully.

The blond shrugged and took Vin into the kitchen. He sat on the edge of the table and crossed his arms. "Well? What's so secret?"

"Ez is thinking of leavin' on account of Jed. I saw the way Jed looked at him just now and it was real vicious."

Chris unfolded his arms and clutched the edge of the table instead as he swung his legs. "After the way Ez has treated him, is it any wonder? Jed's hardly gonna try to be best buddies with him. They're like a couple of tom cats - put them together and the fur flies."

Vin wasn't pleased about the lack of concern being displayed by his best friend. The younger man strode up and down in front of him a couple of times before stopping opposite him again. "I'm worried, pard. It ain't like Ez not to get on with anyone. Not to treat them this badly without reason anyway. Maybe..."

Chris held up his hand. "I don't wanna hear it, bud. Ez has gotta sort this out himself. I'm washing my hands of him."

"Chris."

The blond jumped down from his perch and headed out the door as he shouted back over his shoulder, "Just leave it."

Vin wasn't at all happy, but he decided to let things ride for the time being. He was starting to understand how alienated Ezra must be feeling, and he knew pushing the blond right now would only make matters worse. It wasn't a nice situation at all.

******************************************

The long-haired man was doing his regular patrol of the buildings and he saw Jed hanging around by the swimming pool door. He was about to go over and speak to him when a young javelin thrower, Paul, hurried toward him. Vin stopped and watched as Jed hustled the man in the space between the pool and the gym. Vin moved so that he could keep visual contact with them, his interest piqued. He saw Jed hand over something to the athlete and receive something in return. Paul shook Jed's hand and looked around before heading off quickly to the guest accommodation. Jed ambled out a few minutes later and headed to Buck's cabin.

Vin frowned as he wondered what Jed was really up to. He was acting very suspiciously and the Texan decided to approach Chris to voice his concerns again the next time he saw him. That proved to be way too late.

*****************************************

Ezra wandered past the window of Buck's cabin and heard voices inside. He stopped when he heard Jed laughing loudly. The biggest window in the living room was open and, as Ezra lingered, he heard part of the conversation. He'd already taped several telling conversations with Jed, but he switched on the tape recorder again in the hope of hearing something else to his advantage. The man was unguarded and obviously thought he was having a totally private conversation. Ezra didn't feel guilty about eavesdropping in the least, though.

"I want some more," a young, familiar voice stated.

"Look, Paul, I've gotta be careful. That damned Jaws character keeps trying to discredit me and I've seen him following me around recently. I can't afford to be caught doing anything like this. My career would go down the tubes if I get caught selling drugs. This is a lucrative setup I've got here and I'm not gonna lose it. I wanna try and get rid of Ezra and take over his share. I can use this as my base and carry on selling."

"What the hell you doin'?" a voice asked in Ezra's ear.

The former attorney felt the warm breath from the man blow against his ear as he spoke. He tried to remain calm and he managed to turn and remain looking completely innocent. He found himself face to face with Trevor Matcham. "Just passing by on the way to my cabin," Ezra replied with a smile as he secreted the tape recorded away so that the man couldn't see he had it. He kept it running, though. What he'd just taped was dynamite and he hoped to get some more.

"Crap. Get inside."

Ezra was grabbed roughly by his arm and herded into the cabin. He stumbled, but Trevor kept a firm grip on him and forced him onwards.

"Jed? Look who was snooping around outside. He heard every word you said."

"No, I didn't. I was just going home," Ezra disagreed as he tried to get out of the hold Trevor had on him. The man was squeezing him tight and it was beginning to hurt.

Jed stepped forward until he was almost nose to nose with Ezra. He smiled sadistically as he said, "Don't believe you, and we can't take the chance you heard anything. Sorry, Ezra, but you've become a liability."

Ezra didn't like the sound of that at all.

*****************************************

"Where's that skiving layabout now?" Chris asked his friends angrily as he hurried into the ranch house's kitchen. It was now mid-afternoon and Ezra was due to take over at the reception desk. He was half an hour late and the blond had been getting more irritable as each second passed.

He strode across to Ezra's cabin thinking that the man had forgotten the time, or fallen asleep. There was no reply to his urgent knock on the door and when he gained entry using his spare key, the cabin was empty.

Chris went back to the kitchen and found that the rest of his friends were still there. "He's damned well run out on us, I reckon."

"Chris? I wouldn't blame him if he had to be honest. We ain't exactly been nice to him lately, have we?" Vin said as he looked out the window. "His car's still here, so he's around somewhere. I'm afraid that I've come round to his way of thinking about Jed. He ain't the good guy you seem to think he is. He's been acting real weird, stealthy-like."

"Dammit, not you too," Chris almost spat as he rounded on his best friend. "I expected more from you."

The long-haired man shook his head and went off to search for Ezra. He checked the gym, the shooting range and the swimming pool first, concern growing when he didn't find his friend. He then stood in the yard with hands on hips, trying to decide where to check next. He pursed his lips and headed to Jed's cabin. Before he got there he saw Jed come across the yard from the direction of the pool. Vin wondered where'd he'd been, because the pool had been empty when he'd checked.

"You seen Ez?

"No, I've just been for a swim and he wasn't in there. Ain't seen him since this morning, I reckon."

"I've just been to the pool. I didn't see you in there," Vin contradicted.

"I went to the creek," Jed said quickly, seeing that he'd made an error.

"Bit cold for open air swimming," Vin commented suspiciously. He studied the man and saw that his hair was wet, but he still felt that he'd been lied to. At the moment, though, he couldn't prove it.

"It's refreshing. You should try it some time. Don't seem to hurt the Russians when they swim in the ice," Jed said sarcastically.

The younger man nodded and headed back into the yard. "Where are you, Ez?" he said to himself.

Vin set off round the surrounding area thinking that maybe Ezra had fallen and hurt himself. He couldn't think of any other explanation for his absence. As he was wandering round the back of the pool he stopped and, on a hunch, attempted to get into the equipment shed. It was locked, but his sixth-sense had kicked in and was niggling at him to check inside. He pulled back the two big bolts and opened the obstruction after finding that the main lock was not secured. The floor was wet and the walls weren't quite as air-tight as they could be, but it served its purpose for storage. Unfortunately, as Vin had sensed, it also seemed to have become Ezra's prison.

"Ez? Shit!" Vin cursed as he stepped inside and dropped to his knees beside the unconscious man.

He checked his friend over thoroughly and knew he was hypothermic. The temperature during the day had been anything but tropical and it seemed that Ezra had been in the shed for hours. He was only wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, he didn't even have shoes and socks, so was really suffering as a result. Vin knew the man would not have removed the extra layers of clothing that he'd had on earlier. No one in their right mind would have done so in such weather. Ezra always felt the cold badly and usually wrapped up warm during the winter. His friends quite often laughed at him because he would have twice as many layers on as they did.

Vin picked Ezra up and struggled out of the door with him. He ran back round the front of the building, and as soon as the ranch house came into view, he began yelling for help.

"Vin? What's the matter?" Nathan called, as he ran out of the house in alarm, with Chris trailing behind him.

"I found Ez. He's unconscious and freezing. Find some blankets, will ya? He£#8217;s damned near-on blue 'cause he ain't got many clothes on."

"I'll call the chopper," the medic said, while Chris went to get some blankets. Nathan called the emergency services, but he wasn't happy with the reply he received. "Shit, the chopper's out of action. They're gonna have to send a road vehicle."

Vin diverted and headed to his jeep. "Cancel it, I'll take him myself. We can get him to the hospital much quicker. Just call the hospital and tell them we're coming."

Chris came running out with an armful of blankets and Nathan's first aid box. He handed the stuff into the medic, who was already in the back of the jeep stripping the soaking clothes off Ezra.

"Where did you find him, Vin?"

"In the shed round the back of the pool. The door was locked, so he was put in there deliberately." Vin flicked a furious look at his friend and snapped. "Why don't you go and ask Jed about it? He came from that direction just before I found Ezra. He said he'd been swimming in the creek, but I think he was lying. No one but a damned fool would swim outside in this weather."

"Vin," Chris warned. "For all you know Ez locked himself in by accident."

"No way, Chris, the big bolts were closed on the outside, but the main lock was open. Hell, he was almost naked, too. You know Ez. He won't set foot out the door in this weather unless he's got his thermals on and six thick sweaters. Ask Jed about it, or I will when I get back. Yer taking yer loyalty to Jed too far, and I think you picked the wrong person to protect, cowboy," the ex-army man snarled as he started the motor and went speeding out of the yard.

Nathan had managed to get Ezra out of his sparse, wet clothes and he wrapped the freezing man in the blankets. He checked his overall condition and wasn't pleased with his findings. He moved to lay awkwardly beside his friend and pulled him into his arms.

"Turn up the heater a bit, Vin. Need to try and get him warmer."

"How is he?" the younger man asked as he flicked a quick look over his shoulder.

"Not good," Nathan said quietly as he met his friend's gaze sadly.

***********************************

Chris went to Jed's cabin, worry building with every step. What if Vin was right? How would he ever forgive himself? Yesterday he would have staked his life that Jed had done no wrong. Today, though, he was no longer sure.

"Hey, Chris. We're going out for a meal later. Do you wanna come? We're celebrating," the tall athlete said after answering the knock on his door. Jed didn't invite Chris in but stepped out to join the man on the porch instead. It seemed that he didn't want Chris inside the cabin for some reason, because he pulled the door closed behind him until it was only ajar.

"Celebrating what?" the blond asked.

Jed smiled and puffed out his chest proudly. "I've got a new sponsor. Gonna make a loada money."

"Congratulations," Chris said not sounding enthusiastic at all about his friend's news. He was still thinking about the way Vin had spoken to him. He'd never heard that particular tone in the man's voice before and it unsettled him. Vin was never rude to him and it showed just how convinced he was that Chris had read Jed wrong.

Jed scowled as he noticed Chris's preoccupation. "Jeez, what the hell's the matter with you? Someone put cement in yer swimming pool? You don't look too pleased at my news."

"Other things on my mind. Ezra's very sick and I'm worried about him. He's on the way to the hospital right this minute."

Jed turned white but tried to continue acting normally. "Thought you and he had a falling out?"

Chris nodded and shrugged. "We did, but that doesn't stop me caring about his welfare."

"Hey, Jed!" a voice called from inside the cabin. "Got some buyers in here."

The blond narrowed his eyes and pushed past the much bigger man and through the door. He stepped into the kitchen and saw various drugs on the table. He picked one of the bottles up and studied the label. He then hurried into the living room and saw more bottles there. He looked at the other occupants of the room and settled his eyes back on Jed.

"You selling fucking drugs on my ranch? Ezra knew something was wrong and he tried to warn me not to trust you, but I pushed him aside and stuck up for you. How could you do this to me? Did you have anything to do with Ezra being in the shed? You damned near killed him," Chris yelled furiously.

Jed didn't answer, but the blond could tell by his face that he was responsible. He pulled out his cell and called Buck's cell. "Get over to your cabin. There's something you should see, Stud."

The ladies' man appeared a few minutes later. "Chris? What's going on?" he asked curiously. He had recognized the snarling tone in his friend's voice on the phone and knew it meant trouble.

Chris turned to Buck with a haunted look on his face. "Jed's been dealing in drugs while he's been our guest. I reckon Ez found out and that's how he ended up in the state he's in now."

"Man, we defended you," Buck said in disbelief as he pointed to Jed. He felt the color drain out of his face when he realized that Ezra could have died, well, could still die, and all because they hadn't listened to him. "What sort of drugs?" he asked, shaking himself back to the moment. "Surely any substances are detected in tests."

Jed looked ashamed as he admitted, "These are new. They're undetectable."

Buck shook his head angrily and looked at Chris. His stomach was knotting with guilt and he could see that Chris was experiencing similar sensations. "What do ya wanna do, pard?" he asked through gritted teeth.

"Get him prosecuted, of course."

"My career," Jed protested weakly, knowing he stood no chance of saving himself.

"Fuck your career. You obviously wouldn't be any good without these," Chris said as he threw the bottles at the man who had once been a friend. "You've been cheating the public all these years, your fans, us. How could you?"

"Sorry."

Chris held out his hands and shook his head angrily. "Save yer breath. I ain't interested. I'll tell you this, though. You harm a friend of mine, and you harm me. You'd better pray that Ez survives or you'll regret it."

***********************************

On arrival at the hospital, Vin refused to be separated from Ezra. The doctor only allowed him into the ER room after the young man caused quite a scene in reception. Vin had yelled and become very aggressive and even Nathan couldn't calm him down. The long-haired man had eventually been taken through to where Ezra was, but he was warned to keep out of the way. He stood in the corner of the room like a naughty schoolboy, his anger now replaced by concern as he watched the medical staff work.

The blankets wrapped round Ezra were partially removed while Ezra's overall condition was checked. Dr. Scott, the man in charge, took Ezra's rectal temperature with a low reading thermometer. He then reached out and felt Ezra's stomach and the skin between his thighs.

"Damn, he's colder than clay. Get some bloods done, Polly," he ordered a blonde nurse. "Put a catheter in and monitor his urine output, and set up a couple of IVs. We need to start warming him up as soon as we can."

Another nurse, Marissa, hooked Ezra up to the heart monitor and Dr. Scott, a small, rotund, ruddy-faced man, studied the readouts closely. "His heartbeat's brachycardic and his blood pressure's quite high. Maybe he's taken something, or been given something against his will."

"Doc? He's got a pacemaker," Vin said worriedly from the sidelines. He couldn't understand how Ezra's heartbeat could be anything but normal because of that fact.

"Why does he need one?" Dr. Scott asked as he turned his attention to Ezra. He checked the area around Ezra's upper chest where the pacemaker was housed just under the skin.

"He suffered from Stokes-Adams attacks," Vin replied as he craned his neck to see what the doctor was doing. If he had his own way he'd be right up by the bed, but he knew he'd pushed his luck already so he didn't dare move closer.

Dr. Scott was frowning anxiously as he watched Polly give Ezra some medication to help support his blood pressure. The man then did a few tests on the pacemaker itself and he cursed and turned to look at Vin accusingly. "It's been turned off. Who would do such a thing?"

Before anything else could be said, or done, alarms from the heart monitor began sounding loudly.

"He's in V-Fib," a nurse shouted.

Dr. Scott put a finger to the pulse point in Ezra's neck while also checking his breathing. "No, carotid pulse and he isn't breathing. Code blue, he's in cardiac arrest. Can you leave the room, Mr. Tanner, now?"

Vin stumbled outside and turned to watch through the door. It had all happened so quickly and Vin's own heart was now racing as a result. He could hear it pounding in his ears and it made him feel faint. The only other sounds he would hear during the coming twenty minutes would be the continuous beep of the heart monitor, Dr. Scott's shouted instructions, and the noise of a defibrillator machine as it shocked his friend. Vin had never been so scared in all his life. He was terrified that he would lose someone he really cared about. He was maybe watching the last minutes of the man's life and that scared the hell out of him.

Back inside, Dr. Scott had taken charge of the situation as he stayed in position by Ezra's head and verified the exact time. He needed to keep a check on his watch so that he'd know how long his patient had been without a pulse. If Ezra didn't revive after a certain amount of time, Dr. Scott would be forced to concede defeat and stop their attempts to save him. At least they had the luxury, if it could be called that, that Ezra was very hypothermic. That meant that time was on their side. A cold brain was less likely to be damaged by hypoxia.

"Right, Dale, do chest compressions, Marissa, breathe for him. Sam, get the crash cart. Polly, sort out the adrenaline, bicarbonate and the other drugs that we'll need. You know the dosages required."

Dale started off by thumping Ezra's chest hard above his heart in an attempt to force the rhythm to stabilize of its own accord. It didn't work, so he began doing compressions. After his first batch of fifteen compressions, Marissa tilted Ezra's head back and pinched his nostrils closed before breathing into his mouth twice. That would be the pattern used throughout their attempts to save Ezra's life.

Dale began counting up to ten out loud, as if ticking away Ezra's life. He would never go past ten - he couldn't afford to. As soon as he reached double figures he would immediately start CPR again.

Dr. Scott rechecked Ezra's pulse as he flicked his eyes at the heart monitor machine. He had the distinct feeling that they had a real fight on their hands.

Dale said, "Nine, ten."

Dr. Scott scowled and nodded. "Still in V-Fib. Keep going with CPR."

The two medical staff continued with their hard work, compressions, breathing, counting, until Sam came barreling in the door with the crash cart. Dr. Scott rechecked Ezra again and shook his head.

"Shock him."

Marissa quickly put two, thin defibrillator pads, which were like square sheets of paper, in position on Ezra's chest. They would conduct the charge and prevent him receiving burns.

Sam stepped up to the bed once she'd moved away. He held one paddle in each hand and rubbed them together to spread jelly on them. "Charging to 200," he said as he waited for the machines to reach the joules - the electrical charge - he wanted. He looked around the bed and shouted, "Clear." He then placed the paddles on the papers on Ezra's chest and shocked him.

Vin was watching from outside, almost transfixed, and he saw Ezra's body arch off the bed slightly as the charge hit his body. The young man wrapped his arms round his stomach and hugged his midriff as if he had a stomachache. The muscles were feeling so tight that it was just the same kind of sensation.

Dr. Scott checked the machines and indicated for Dale and Marissa to start CPR again. "Shock him again when they've finished," he said.

"Charging, 360," Sam agreed as he waited for his colleagues to finish their set of compressions and breaths. "Clear."

Marissa and Dale stepped back and Sam again shocked Ezra. He seemed to arch higher off the bed with the bigger voltage. Still no change in his condition, though.

"His oxygen saturation levels are low. I need to intubate him." Dr. Scott was passed the equipment he needed and carefully, but quickly, fed the tube down Ezra's throat. He attached a bag device to the end of the tube when it was in place and began to pump air into Ezra's lungs.

Dale immediately began chest compressions again and alternated it with Marissa who had taken over the air bag device.

"Polly, give him 10ml of 1;10,000 adrenaline," Dr. Scott ordered as Dale did his counting routine. The doctor kept his finger on Ezra's neck pulse the whole time, adjusting his touch every so often so that he didn't miss anything important.

Polly found the appropriate syringe and injected it into Ezra's IV after verifying the amount. She raised his arm slightly and massaged the limb to help get the drug to Ezra's heart as soon as possible.

"Shock him again, but change the position of the paddles this time," Dr. Scott decided, knowing he was running out of options.

Marissa turned Ezra on his side and moved one of the defibrillator pads to the new anteroposterior position. Ezra now had one on his chest and one opposite its position on his back.

"Charging 360," Sam shouted. "Clear."

Once Ezra had been shocked, Dale turned Ezra onto this back and immediately began with the chest compressions again. He counted to ten when he'd finished as he looked across at Dr. Scott after checking the time quickly. The counting had begun to sound like a mantra.

"No rhythm," Dr. Scott said as he turned to Polly again. "100mg of Lignocaine."

Polly nodded, injected the correct dosage and again massaged Ezra's arm.

Dale and Marissa went back to CPR, but they were tiring. They swapped roles and the doctor nodded in approval at their decision.

"Right, bicarbonate, Polly, 50ml 8.4%. Come on, guys, times getting away from us. Sam, get another defibrillator."

"Dammit," Dale cursed. "Reckon I just broke his ribs," he said as he looked up after taking over compressions from Marissa again.

"Bound to happen, Dale," Dr Scott said. &#8220We'll just work with the defibrillator from now on."

Dale and Marissa kept doing their sets of compressions and breathing while Sam disappeared from the room. It was standard procedure to try two defibrillators if there was no response from the patient after a few shocks. The actual machine could be at fault rather than the patient, so no life-saving attempt was ever stopped until two machines had been tried.

Sam appeared seconds later with another crash cart and moved into position.

"Shock him again, Sam," Dr. Scott ordered, as he turned Ezra onto his side again.

The man did so after charging the new machine to 360 joules.

"Polly, bretylium tosylate, 500mg, quick as you can." Dr. Scott waited impatiently while that was done. "Shock him again."

Sam repeated his actions and Dr. Scott heard the sound from the machines change, and a steady beep-beep could be heard. He checked Ezra's breathing and pulse and sighed loudly in relief. He removed the defibrillator pads and settled Ezra back onto the bed properly, and then checked the machines once more.

"Thank God. Right, keep him intubated for the time being because his condition still isn't good enough for it to be removed. Set him up on a lignocaine infusion because we need to maintain therapy for the next twenty-four hours. You know the dosage required, Polly." Dr. Scott smiled and nodded in thanks. "Good work, everyone. Thought we were gonna lose him." The doctor's mind turned to the need to warm Ezra up. "Marissa? Can you start him on some medication to prevent pneumonia and make sure you monitor his BP every hour, okay? Start warming him up as well. He's still too damned cold for my liking."

"Yes, Dr. Scott."

The man nodded, safe in the knowledge that Ezra would be well cared for.

**************************************

Chris and his friends arrived while all this was going on, but were unaware of the dramatic change in Ezra's condition. They met up with Nathan in the ER and surrounded the man anxiously, wanting to hear some positive news.

"Nate? How is he?" the blond asked.

Nathan shook his head as he looked round the circle of men. "He was no better when I got here. His pulse and breathing were real faint. They're seeing to him now, but I haven't heard any news other than he's critical. Vin's with him. He's real upset, Chris. I don't think I've ever seen him in such a state."

"Fuck," Chris swore as he put the palm of his right hand against his brow. He wiped the hand down the entire length of his face as he groaned in frustration. Chris then clenched his jaw and did a circuit of the room before coming to a halt in front of the medic again. "I need to apologize to a lot of people," the blond admitted. He felt terrible about what had happened to Ezra.

"I was just going to get a drink. Does anyone else want one?" the medic asked as he squeezed Chris's shoulder in encouragement. Everyone was feeling the same as the blond and he hoped the liquid refreshment would help calm everyone's nerves. Nathan received positive answers from all his friends so he set off down the hallway to the drinks machine.

He stopped in his tracks when he saw Vin outside Ezra's ER room looking frantic. The man looked very upset and had one hand flat against the glass window in the door. Nathan watched as the hand balled into a tight, white-knuckled fist before flattening out again.

"Vin? What's happening?" he asked as he ran to meet up with the man. He took a quick look into the room and his heart seemed to freeze at the scene being played out before him.

"His heart, Nate, his heart," Vin stuttered, nearly in tears as he continued staring at the activity in the room. His voice was hoarse and kept breaking as he spoke. "His pacemaker had been switched off and he's in cardiac arrest. He's been down ages."

"Shit!"

Nathan pushed into the room just as Ezra was shocked for the last time. He then heard Dr. Scott say that his friend was back with them and he closed his eyes briefly as he took a deep calming breath. He sent a quiet prayer up to God by way of thanks and then opened his eyes again. The medic waited until Dr. Scott had finished talking to his own staff, and then asked for an update on Ezra's condition.

"Doc?"

"Well, he's back with us although he's obviously very sick. I want to get a new pacemaker inserted as soon as we can because I don't want to trust using the one he's already got again. We had to shock him quite a few times and it may have played havoc with it even though it was switched off at the time. We'll find a bed in ICU for him, 'cause I want him watched closely for the next day or so. Cardiac arrest can recur and we don't want that to happen; we only just got him back this time and we unfortunately broke some ribs during resuscitation. He'll be on medication for a while and I need to keep him intubated because his condition, as I said, isn't brilliant. He's very hypothermic, I'm afraid, and being a slender man didn't help his cause in that respect. We've still got to warm him up, so he's got a lot to cope with right now. We'll be checking his temperature every half an hour once we begin, but it will take quite a while until he's back up to normal temp. Why don't you come back a bit later? We could use the time to get him sorted."

"Sure, we'll be down the hallway. Thanks for saving him."

Dr. Scott nodded and patted Nathan's back.

Nathan went back outside and joined his shaking friend. He put a hand on his shoulder and gave it an encouraging squeeze before moving so that he could rub the man's back.

"What did he say? How's Ez? He's not d..?" the young man asked, feeling faint.

Nathan shook his head quickly and smiled reassuringly. "No, it's okay, Vin. They got his heartbeat back and he's on medication to make sure it stays that way."

"Jeez, I thought...I thought," Vin mumbled as he put a hand over his mouth, "he died."

"Well, he technically did, but he's alive, now." Nathan continued rubbing Vin's back with a gentle circular motion. "Come and sit with us while they finish treating Ezra. Don't reckon the nurses want to be disturbed right now."

Nathan escorted Vin to the waiting room, keeping a hand on the man's back all the way, his quest for drinks forgotten.

"Vin? You okay? You look kinda..." JD said, not finishing the sentence. He wondered whether there was bad news to come and he stood up in reflex.

Nathan looked at each of his friends in turn. "Ez just suffered a real bad crisis. It upset Vin so I brought him to sit with us until he's feeling better. The doctor's just gonna start warming Ezra up, so he asked if we'd leave them to it for a while. He's in a critical condition, though."

Vin sat down next to Josiah and shivered. He was still replaying images through his mind of Ezra being continually shocked. It was something he never wanted to witness again.

"What happened to Ezra, Nate?" the big man asked, knowing it must have been something pretty dramatic to get Vin into such a state.

"He went into cardiac arrest and we damned near lost him. Vin, unfortunately, saw it all happen. The medical staff broke some of Ezra's ribs during CPR, too, so he's gonna be sore."

"Damn." Josiah reached out his arm and put it round Vin's trembling shoulders. "It's all over, son," he said to his companion as he pulled him a bit closer for comfort.

"How could he have had a cardiac arrest? He's got a pacemaker," Chris said in confusion as he tried to take in what he'd been told.

"It had been tampered with and switched off. The doc don't wanna risk using it again in case it's been disrupted by the defibrillation. Ezra had to be shocked a lot and he was down for about twenty minutes in all. Good job he was hypothermic really," Nathan mused, "or else he would have been dead."

"Shit." Chris stared at the medic in disbelief and felt his skin drain of color at the news of how close they'd come to losing their friend. He'd never thought that what he'd seen at the beginning as a simple clash of personalities could have ended with such devastating consequences.

JD sat down hastily, just staring at Nathan as if he were a ghost. Buck took a seat beside the youngster and tried his best to console him. JD was a soft-hearted man and anything of this magnitude always shocked him badly.

"Why didn't we listen to Ezra about Jed?" the youngster asked quietly, as he looked at his companions with wild, frightened eyes.

"Hard to believe a friend would act in such a way, I s'pose," Buck said as he rubbed a hand over his face, his guilt nearly overwhelming him.

"Ez was, is, a friend, too. Got blinded by Jed's celebrity and maybe thought Ezra was jealous of him," Nathan said with an unhappy shrug.

Josiah, meanwhile, turned to Vin and gave him a brief hug. "How ya feeling, son? Any better?"

Vin shook his head as he first wiped his eyes and then clutched his stomach. "Kinda sick. It all happened so fast, and I thought that was gonna be it: that Ez was gonna leave this world without us ever being able to apologize. Never have lived with the guilt if he'd died."

"Well, there's no need for those kinda thoughts any more. He's back with us."

"Yeah, but for how long?" Vin asked as he looked up at the big man with haunted eyes.

"Don't think like that, son. He's been through much more than any man should have to suffer in one lifetime. He's shown us time and again that he's a tough son-of-a-bitch. He'll pull through," Josiah said, sounding more confident than he felt.

Vin shook his head as he leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees. He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair still feeling sick and shaky. Josiah moved his hand and put it on the middle of Vin's back and gave it a gentle rub. The men were a very tactile bunch, knowing hands could work wonders for comforting.

"Mr.Tanner?" a female voice called from the doorway. "You can sit with Mr. Standish again, if you want. He's still not awake yet, I'm afraid, but he'll be transferred to ICU very soon now that we've started the procedures to warm him up."

The young man looked up and nodded gratefully. "Thanks, ma'am, I'll be along in a minute."

***********************************

Vin stood beside Ezra's bed and stared down at him with bleary eyes. He looked at the strapping round his friend&#8217s injured ribs and sighed unhappily. "Sorry that I didn't help ya sooner, Ez. I had a bad feeling about Jed as time went by but I didn't act on it straightaway. You were the only one with the guts to investigate. I let ya down badly and I'm sorry."

Dr. Scott entered the room and checked the machines around Ezra's bed as Vin was talking. He tested the sick man's temperature and nodded in satisfaction as he wrote some notes on the chart.

"Doc?" Vin asked anxiously.

Dr. Scott looked up and tried to sound positive. "He's getting a little bit warmer. We can only heat him about a half a degree every hour because to warm him too quickly could be fatal. His heart's still under a bit of stress, although the pacemaker seems to be doing its job properly. I'd be a bit happier if he woke up, though. We wondered if he'd been given a narcotic of some sort, because of the state of his blood pressure on admission, but we couldn't find anything abnormal."

Unbeknownst to the medical staff, the cause of Ezra's raised blood pressure was a simple nasal spray. The attack on Ezra had been a joint effort by Jed and Paddy Capaldi, who was an ex-cardiologist. Paddy had the expertise to disable Ezra's pacemaker with a magnet, and also knew that the combined effect of raised blood pressure and no pacemaker would cause real problems for a man with a bad heart. It had been a deliberate and vicious attempt to kill the former attorney.

"Will he be all right, though?" Vin asked.

"Well, his blood pressure's better than it was, so he is improving," the doctor said cautiously, not committing himself to an outright affirmative answer.

Vin nodded and turned his concentration back to Ezra after Dr. Scott had gone. "Hear that, Ez? Yer gonna be home with us again in no time."

Vin sat down in the bedside chair but kept a hand on Ezra's arm. The sick man certainly felt warmer to him and Vin hoped that his own body heat, through his hand, would help his friend in some way. He tightened his grip slightly and bowed his head as he recriminated himself for not acting sooner.

If I'd gone straight to Chris, maybe Ezra would be home safe and sound, instead of being stuck in here for God knows how long. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Damned fool, he cursed. But he hadn't listened to Ezra before, or me, the one time I went to him. He has a lot to answer for, Vin thought, feeling his anger building toward the blond.

"Hey, cowboy, you okay?" Chris asked as he stepped into the room. He'd been worried about Vin ever since he'd left the waiting room. The older man had never seen his young friend react so badly to a situation before. It gave him some idea as to how bad the cardiac arrest had been, even if he hadn't heard that fact from Nathan.

Vin shrugged, looking unhappy.

"Have you seen the doctor again?" the blond asked, just trying to get the man to talk to him.

The long-haired man nodded. "Ez is warming up slowly. Feels warmer, anyhow."

"I know you're angry with me," Chris said quietly as he moved to stand beside Vin and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Yeah, I am," Vin snapped as he shrugged off the hand and looked up at the green-eyed man. "It wasn't easy for Ezra to tell us about his worries over Jed. He don't make things up, neither. You just ignored him and alienated him. So did I. Dammit, we all did. What kinda friends does that make us?"

A nurse interrupted the conversation with a polite cough. "Mr. Tanner? We've got a bed up in ICU now. I'll come and get you again when Mr. Standish had been settled in."

"Thanks."

Chris went out into the hallway with Vin, feeling his cheeks glow red at Vin's rebuke. He pulled the man to a halt and turned to face him. "I made a mistake..."

"Just leave it, Chris, I ain't in the mood. I can't think right now," Vin said as he slapped the man's hand away and hurried off to get some fresh air.

"Where's Vin goin'?" Buck asked as he watched his fast-departing friend.

"He's upset and mad at me," Chris informed his mustached colleague. "I could murder Jed for what he's done. It only takes one person to ruin something, doesn't it? Why did that person have to be an old friend of ours, though?"

The ladies' man shrugged in despair, having asked himself the same question earlier. "God only knows, pard. The good Lord and me ain't on speaking terms right now 'cause of what he allowed to happen to Ez, so I can't ask him for you. Maybe Josiah still has some faith and can get an answer from him."

"Doubt that, Buck. This is something we need to resolve ourselves, I reckon. God just don't seem to be on our side."

*******************************************

Vin returned looking no more happy than when he'd left, but he didn't turn down Chris's offer of company when they were called to go to Ezra's new room.

Dr. Scott followed them in and checked on Ezra once more. He wrote his findings on the chart and smiled at the two visitors.

"I thought you worked in the ER," Vin said curiously.

The man's smiled broadened. "I was just doing them a favor today because they were short of staff. This is my usual patch and it makes a nice change see a patient right from his admission up to his arrival here. Makes it more rewarding, if you understand."

Chris nodded, not really concentrating on what was being said.

The doctor became serious as he put his pen away in his pocket and made moves to leave the room. "I'd really rather there was only one person in here at a time. We're going to need to be in and out checking on your friend's condition. He needs close monitoring right now and a nurse will be in here all the time as well in case of problems."

The blond turned to Vin, knowing he'd want to be the one to stay at the moment. "Okay. You stay, Vin. We'll be down the hall in the waiting room if you need us at any time."

"Sure, cowboy."

Chris wandered back into the hallway and took a minute to calm his nerves. While he'd been in the room he'd been studying Ezra closely and it brought home what they'd done to him. He sighed, put his hands in his pockets and ambled along to join the rest of his friends. He almost felt as if it had been him that had harmed Ezra, not Jed. I had an awful lot to do with him ending up in here like this, he said to himself.

"Pard? What news?" Buck asked as soon as he entered the room.

Chris shook himself back to the moment and shrugged. "He's improving real slow. I've been thrown out, though, 'cause they only want one visitor at the moment. He looks real poorly, Buck."

The ladies' man walked to join the blond and he put an arm round the unsettled man's shoulder. He gave him an encouraging squeeze and said, "Well, he's improving and that's what we need to cling to right now, pard. Ez is a stubborn cuss, and he ain't gonna give up."

"Hope you're right."

"I'm always right," Buck said cockily before he realized he'd been mistaken about Jed, so that meant his statement was incorrect. He sighed and patted Chris's back in apology. "Sorry, I'll take the foot outta my mouth and use it to kick the crap outta Jed instead."

**************************************
helpingh2.jpg
Hand holding was an accepted part of all hospital stays whenever Ezra was the patient concerned. It was strange that such a simple gesture could achieve so much. It let him know that he had company and he found that very comforting. The former attorney abhorred hospitals and was liable to get agitated, which did no good for his already poor health. Having physical contact with someone did wonders for his state of mind, even if he wasn't awake.

Ezra could always tell who was with him, just by the way his visitor held his hand. His six friends all had their own unique way to maintain contact.

Nathan did it as if he was shaking hands, clutching palm to palm in a firm hold. Buck tended to only grasp Ezra's fingers, his own palm over the back of his friend's unmoving digits, fingers curled underneath. He would squeeze Ezra's fingers periodically just to emphasize the fact that he was there.

Chris, though, gripped Ezra's wrist rather than his hand. He'd place the palm of his hand over the back of Ezra's, his fingers pointing up Ezra's arm. He then curled his thumb round one side of his friend's wrist, the first two fingers laying on Ezra's arm, while the remaining digits gripped the other side of his wrist in a gentle clasp.

Josiah used both of his hands, one under and one over, liking the extra contact that two hands gave. He was so gentle that anyone would think he was cupping Ezra's very soul between the palms of his hands. But then, the hold had a slightly praying look to it as well, which suited Josiah's character well.

As for Vin, he always interlaced his fingers through Ezra's, his palm on the back of his friend's. Although it was a more intimate grip, it wasn't as intimate as if he'd done it palm to palm.

JD, meanwhile, usually just clung to the ring and smallest finger on Ezra's hand. Whether he thought holding his friend's hand properly was not macho enough for his image no one knew, but he only ever held those two fingers. Perhaps he was just embarrassed to be seen holding another man's hand.

The way his friends held his hand also had some bearing on the position they occupied by the bed. JD and Josiah could sit either way, looking up or down the bed, and still hold his hand in their preferred fashion. Vin, on the other hand, always had to face down the bed, whereas Nathan and Chris sat looking up toward Ezra's face.

Buck could sit either way, too, but he preferred to sit facing Ezra because he had a particular way of keeping his friend company. Whichever side he was sitting on, he would sit very close to the bed. He would then pull Ezra's arm to the side of the bed so that his hand hung well over the edge. He placed the appendage on his knee and held it, always using the hand furthest from the bed. He then leaned his other arm on the mattress for support, sometimes reaching out to pat Ezra's thigh as well. He felt comfortable and closer to Ezra that way.

Holding Ezra's hand meant that the men also knew when he was on the verge of waking up. Ezra tended to twitch and flex his fingers as he resurfaced from unconsciousness or sleep. When his friends felt any movement from the digits they were ready to greet and reassure him when he opened his eyes.

It was all very familiar, cozy and had become habit.

*******************************************

Nathan wandered in half an hour later. He looked down at Ezra and then turned to face Vin. "Vin? I know you wanna stay with Ez, but go and have a long break. Come back tomorrow when you're feeling better. Here's the key to Rain's house in town. She's away so you can get some sleep on her couch."

The younger man looked up at Nathan and flatly refused. "No."

Even though there was only supposed to be one visitor at a time, Josiah stepped into the room and moved to stand beside the man. "Come on, Vin. We'll be here with him and we'll call if anything happens. You look worn out and need some time to get over what you saw happen today. The rest of us would like some time with Ez right now, too. We're all feeling bad and being able to sit with him in turn would be helpful."

Vin saw the genuine sincerity on Josiah's face and knew he was selfish to hog all Ezra's time. He nodded and shrugged in defeat. "Okay, I'll be back in twelve hours, but promise me you'll call if he wakes."

"We will, son. Now off you go."

Vin rose and headed out into the hallway, where he met Chris. The blond had been hovering outside, trying to get the courage to go in and speak to his best friend.

The blond smiled. "He persuaded you to go then?"

"Yeah, I'm not tired, but I s'pose I could do with some time away from here," Vin said as he kept his eyes downcast.

"Glad you came round to our way of thinking. I'll speak to you when you get back. Gotta sort a few things out, bud, I reckon," Chris said as he patted Vin's back and then accompanied Nathan back to the waiting room.

Josiah took the seat by the bed and automatically reached out for Ezra's hand. He sat and stared at the younger man's face as he leaned his forearms on the mattress for comfort.

"You rest, and concentrate on recovering, son," he whispered as he squeezed the man's hands gently.

******************************************

Each friend had taken a turn to sit with Ezra when Vin arrived back after managing a few hours sleep. Chris was the person currently keeping Ezra company and he looked up and smiled when Vin stepped into the room.

"Hey, cowboy. Any change?" Vin asked as he ambled to the bed and ran his fingers through Ezra's hair gently. He couldn't see any outward sign that his friend was improving, though.

Chris stretched in the chair, his arms reaching up above his head, fingers out straight. "Well, he ain't woken yet. He's back to the right temperature now, and as you can see he no longer has the tube down his throat. They removed it just a little while ago, so he's getting there."

"That's gotta be good news."

"Yeah. You sleep okay?" the blond asked as he relaxed and studied Vin closely.

"Not really, but I did get a few hours." The younger man frowned. "Something I thought while I was away. What's happening at home? Who's seeing to the training?"

Chris scowled as he remembered Jed. "No-one. The center's empty, bud. I told them all to leave when Jed was arrested. I know it was only a few people involved, but I wanted to show that we wouldn't tolerate such behavior."

Vin nodded in agreement and indicated that he wanted to take over caring duties. Chris stood and the younger man sat down in his place and sighed. He quickly took hold of Ezra's hand when he saw the appendage move slightly. It seemed that Ezra had even missed that brief loss of contact.

"Okay, pard. I'm here," he said quietly as he reached out and patted Ezra's shoulder, wondering if the man was finally going to wake up.

"Look, I'm sorry, Vin. About everything."

"Forget about it, bud. Let's just concentrate on Ez. I ain't got no right to be mad with you when I'm just as much to blame for what happened. Let's start over," Vin said as he looked across at the black-clad man and smiled.

The blond nodded as he patted Vin's back gratefully. He didn't want to lose the young man's friendship, but he'd always been a very forgiving soul, for which Chris was eternally grateful. He knew he couldn't always expect Vin to be that way, though. "Right, I'll see ya later. You got Rain's keys? I could do with some sleep," Chris admitted as he yawned.

Vin patted his pockets with his free hand and finally pulled the bunch from his back pocket. He really ought to have realized they were there because he was sitting on them and they were uncomfortable. He handed them over and the blond waved good-bye.

Another two hours passed in silence before Ezra started to wake up. Vin stirred in the chair as he felt Ezra's hand move continually in his. The long-haired man sat up and leaned toward the bed as he studied his friend closely. He saw Ezra's eyes fluttering open and closed and heard a small moan escape his lips.

"Ez? It's Vin," he called, hoping to help Ezra surface faster. He reached out and stroked the sick man's cheek gently as he tried to get a reaction.

Ezra could hear his friend's voice, but as yet he couldn't persuade his eyes to open properly. He used the time to think back to discover what had happened. He tried hard, but details eluded him. All he remembered was being cold and wet.

He sighed and finally managed to open his eyes although it took a lot of effort. He squinted and blinked for several minutes, and slowly his vision cleared enough for him to realize that he was back in the hospital again.

"Hey, bud," Vin said as he leaned into Ezra's line of sight.

Nothing more could be said because the nurse had noticed that Ezra was waking and had gone to find the doctor. Dr. Scott came in and headed straight to the bed with a smile.

"Well, hello, Mr. Standish. Good to have you back with us," the small man greeted warmly as he patted Ezra's arm.

"Why am I here?" Ezra mumbled as he looked back and forth between the two men in confusion.

The doctor talked while examining Ezra thoroughly. "You had a pretty bad case of hypothermia for starters. Just rest for the time being, okay? You were very poorly and you need to take it easy. There will be plenty of time for questions when you're feeling a bit better," he said as he smiled encouragingly. He wasn't sure if his patient had actually heard a word he'd said because he was obviously still very drowsy.

Ezra sighed and closed his eyes. He really didn't feel well at all, so he took the doctor's advice.

Vin smiled in relief and hurried along to the waiting room to impart his news. "Hey, guys. Ez woke briefly. Only got the chance to say hello really, but he managed to ask what happened to him. I'll come and get you when he wakes again," he promised, unable to stifle the huge smile that was spreading across his face.

"Thanks for letting us know, Vin. That's real good news," Josiah said in pleasure. "I'll give Chris a call."

********************************************

Another three hours passed before Ezra woke properly. It still took him a few minutes to totally come to himself, but at least he remembered that he was in the hospital this time. He turned his head when feeling the pressure on his hand and he smiled weakly when he saw Vin by his side.

"Ezra? How do you feel?" the long-haired man asked sympathetically. He'd watched his friend wake and knew he was still a little groggy.

"Tired. What happened?"

Vin moved to sit on the bed, but continued clutching Ezra's hand tightly in both hands. "I found you in the shed by the pool. Did Jed put you in there? Can you remember?"

Ezra closed his eyes briefly and rubbed his eyes wearily. He stayed silent for a moment as he tried to kick-start his brain. Slowly, memories came back, but the picture was still incomplete. He would just have to hope they emerged later. "I think so. I overheard him and a few others talking in Buck's cabin. They were discussing drugs. I really can't recall what they did, or who did what, when they caught me listening, though. I was past caring at that point really."

His companion moved one hand to Ezra's arm and rubbed it in comfort. "I've been real worried about you, bud. You went into cardiac arrest, you know? Never been so scared," Vin admitted as he shivered. He didn't tell Ezra how he had come to suffer a cardiac arrest in the first place, though. He didn't think that his friend needed to know those details right now.

"All I remember is being cold," Ezra muttered.

Vin cleared his throat and blinked back the tears that had pricked his eyes at the horrible memories. He patted Ezra's hand and asked, "The guys are all here. You up to seeing them?"

"How long have I been here?" Ezra asked instead, as if he hadn't heard the question.

"Coupla days."

Ezra shifted on the bed and yawned as he lifted a hand to cover his gaping mouth. He rubbed his eyes again and tried to wake up a bit more, but he was sort of drifting between sleep and wakefulness and he couldn't concentrate for long. It was a strange disorienting sensation.

"Ez? You okay?" Vin asked, not sure what his friend was experiencing.

"My chest hurts."

"Well, you've got some broken ribs, bud, so just take it easy."

Ezra nodded. "Is Mr. Larabee here?" he asked quietly.

The younger man nodded patiently, noting that Ezra wasn't really alert. "Yeah, as I said, everyone's here. We've been here with you all the time 'cause we were so worried." Vin smiled. "Can I go and get them? They're dying to see ya."

Ezra shrugged as his eyes fluttered closed before opening wide again.

Vin wasn't sure what answer he'd been given but he stood and went down the hall to collect his business partners anyway. He stepped into the waiting room and smiled as he beckoned his friends forward. "He's awake again. You coming?"

The five men stood and followed their young friend back to Ezra's room.

Chris arrived first and went straight to the bed. "I need to apologize, Ez. I shoulda listened to what you said about Jed. I didn't know he was a cheat and I would never have believed him capable of hurting you. I was blind to what he was doing."

Ezra stayed silent as the final details began to come back to him. The betrayal stung his soul once more and he clenched his jaw angrily. He could understand Chris's loyalty to Jed because he'd known him for a long time. However, it was as if the blond hadn't held his new friendship with Ezra very highly at all. Chris hadn't seen Jed for years, but it was still him he'd sided with, instead of a man who had been trusted enough to be a business partner.

"Ez? Please say something," Chris pleaded.

"I thought we were friends," Ezra mumbled, not looking at anyone.

"Are, Ez. Or, I hope we still can be."

"After all we've been through, I thought my opinion would have counted for something," the sick man pointed out as he tried to stay awake. He could feel his emotions getting out of control, too, so he bit his lip and took a deep breath to try and subdue them.

"Look, I know it's going to take time for you to forgive me," Chris said in understanding.

"Forgive us, pard," Buck interrupted as he moved so that Ezra could see him. "None of us are blameless. We kinda betrayed Ez."

Vin looked at Ezra and saw that he was getting upset. "Guys? Leave it for now 'cause Ez needs to get some rest. He's been through enough and can't handle all this right now. Give him some time to come to terms with everything. By the look of him, he still ain't feeling too great."

"You staying?" Chris asked.

Vin nodded firmly and took the seat by the bed before anyone else could. "Yes."

"Okay, we'll head home and sort things out there. Glad you're on the mend, Ezra, and we'll be looking forward to when you're released."

Ezra nodded and closed his eyes. Fatigue had swept over his body like a wave and he couldn't resist its pull any more.

********************************************

Two days passed and Ezra's condition improved significantly. He was encouraged out of bed as soon as possible and he was allowed to wander the hospital hallways when he felt well enough. A nurse always went with him, leaving Vin to do as he pleased while they were gone. Although Vin would gladly have escorted his friend on his wanderings, Ezra enjoyed the change of company.

After one such expedition, Ezra returned to his room to find Vin waiting for him as usual.

"Hey, bud. Dr. Scott came in while you were gone and said you can go home tomorrow. He don't want you running a marathon in the near future, though. Just said to take things real easy."

For once Ezra didn't look too pleased at the news. He was usually begging to be released before he was ready, but not this time. He would happily have stayed a lot longer.

Vin noticed his friend's lack of enthusiasm. "Yer usually busting a gut to get outta here. Don't you want to go home?" he asked, mystified.

"I'm not sure where my home is anymore," Ezra admitted quietly as he sat on the bed, putting his hands between his knees uncomfortably.

The younger man moved to sit beside him. "Your home is with us, bud."

"I'm obviously not held in much regard," Ezra retorted as he kept his gaze focused on his lap.

"At least give us another chance. Chris is real sorry about what happened, hell, we all are. We don't wanna lose you and I'm sure we can work this out. There's gotta be concessions on both sides, though."

Ezra's head snapped up at that and he fixed Vin with a withering gaze. "I didn't do anything wrong."

"I know. What I meant was that if you're not even prepared to forgive us, then nothing's gonna heal. Chris has already apologized and is gonna do all he can to repair the damage done to your relationship. He can't do it if you won't listen, though. Does that make better sense?"

Ezra sighed. "I know what you mean, Vin."

Vin patted Ezra's hand. "You accused him of not listening to you, so it ain't right for you not to listen to him, either, is it?"

"No, and I've been accused of something similar before, Mr. Tanner. Hypocrisy, I think it is called. I have to admit that it's going to be hard to carry on as if nothing happened between us, though," Ezra said as he rubbed a hand over his face wearily.

Vin put his arm round Ezra's shoulder and pulled him close, being careful of his ribs. He could feel the man shaking beneath his hand and he hated knowing that they'd done this to him. "Hard, but worth it surely. I know you don't wanna leave, 'cause you love working at the center."

"Well, I'm willing to try building bridges, Mr. Tanner. Just don't expect it to happen overnight," Ezra warned.

"The fact that you'll try is all I ask," Vin replied as he patted Ezra's back gently before giving him another encouraging squeeze.

************************************

Chris arrived the next day to collect Ezra. Vin had gone on home the previous evening after the blond had said that he wanted to take Ezra home himself. It would give him a chance to chat to the man on his own.

"Hello, Ezra. How you feeling?" the blond asked as he ambled into Ezra's room with the requisite wheelchair. He parked it by the bed and looked toward his friend.

The small man stayed where he was, looking out the window. He didn't turn to face his visitor, but just looked at his reflection in the glass instead. "Much better, thank you."

"Well, we're gonna take good care of you. I don't want you doing anything but relax for the next week," Chris said as he moved to stand beside his friend and looked at the view of the parking lot outside.

Ezra nodded but remained silent as he went to sit in the wheelchair. He felt awkward in Chris's company and that was not something he was used to.

The blond pushed his friend out into the hallway and talked as he walked. "Can we talk before we leave? Vin's worried about you. We all are. I know you feel betrayed and other than apologizing, I don't know what else to do to make things right. I'd known Jed a long time and I couldn't believe he'd do any wrong. I felt between a rock and a hard place, but I didn't even give you a chance to give me your point of view. I regret that."

"I should hope so," Ezra said as he stood awkwardly and headed to the door now he'd reached freedom.

Chris watched Ezra walk away from him and felt his heart drop at the sight. Give him time, he thought to himself. That's all we can do.

***********************************

Chris pulled into the front yard in his Ram and stopped in front of the ranch house. "Okay, Ez?" he asked as he looked across at his morose companion.

Ezra looked out the side window at the place he had considered his one true home. He just had to get that feeling back again. At the moment he felt like a visitor. "Yes, thank you. Bit tired."

"Well, you've been told to take it easy and we're going to see that you do." Chris sighed when Ezra didn't answer. The blond raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Ready to go in?"

"Yes."

The two men climbed out and Chris escorted Ezra into the kitchen. He attempted to put a hand on the man's elbow to help him along but he was shrugged off in no uncertain terms. Ezra winced at the pain that the movement caused, but he just didn't want to be touched right now. Chris backed off and left Ezra to his own devices. It hurt the blond to see how badly their relationship had been broken. He sighed and followed Ezra indoors, not sure how to mend their special friendship.

Josiah was already in the room brewing a cup of tea, and he looked up and frowned when Chris went straight through to the living room without a word. The big man shrugged and turned his attention to Ezra. "Hello, Ezra. Good to have you home. Like some tea? Freshly made," he offered enticingly to the uncomfortable man who hovered just inside the door.

"That would be nice, Mr. Sanchez."

"Take a seat then. Have a good trip back? You made good time."

"It was fine. Tiring, but fine," Ezra said as he eased himself down and rubbed his eyes. He took a moment to collect his thoughts and then frowned. He'd hoped for a bigger welcoming committee than just one man. He wondered what that boded. "Where is everyone?"

The ex-academy instructor stirred the tea in the pot before pouring the brew out. "Well, we've got a few guests in to try and make up for the loss of the athletes. Vin and JD have taken about ten of our new arrivals out on a ride. They've been gone all day. Nathan's on the ski slope doing a private lesson with a seventy-year-old who's never skied in his life. Buck ain't feeling too well, so he's in his cabin in bed. I was just gonna go check on him to see how he is."

Ezra bit back a comment of 'Glad you care about somebody'.

Josiah placed a cup of tea on the table in front of Ezra and could read the man's thoughts just by looking at him. "Can we talk when I get back?"

Ezra scowled as he flicked a look up at his companion. "Talking is all very fine, Mr Sanchez. You can tell me how sorry you are a million times, but words can sometimes sound hollow, especially after what I've endured. It will take time for me to trust you all again, I'm afraid."

"I can understand that, son. We deserve a bit of the cold shoulder, I reckon. I'll be back in a minute," Josiah said as he patted Ezra's back and disappeared to see Buck.

The big man unlocked Buck's cabin door and headed straight upstairs.

"Is Ez home?" the ladies' man asked as soon as he saw his friend enter the bedroom. He sat up a bit in bed but pulled the covers up round his shoulders to keep warm.

"Yeah, but he's feeling pretty low. We've gotta lot of work to do to convince him that we really care about him and that he can rely on us in the future. We hurt him, Buck," the older man stated as he sat on the bed and studied the sick man intently.

"I know. I feel terrible about the way we treated him. He didn't deserve it after all the things he's done for us," Buck said as he shivered slightly.

Josiah nodded and reached out a hand to feel Buck's brow. "How ya feeling health-wise, anyway, son?"

"Bit better, but still sick," Buck admitted as he rubbed his stomach gingerly.

"Well, call on the cell if you need me, but I'll come back in an hour to check on you again, okay?" Josiah said as he stood up and headed to the door.

"Thanks, pard. Appreciate it. Send Ez my best, won't ya?" the mustached man asked as he lay down and snuggled under the comforter.

"Sure."

Josiah hurried back to the ranch house and stepped into the kitchen again. "Want another drink, Ez?" he asked after seeing the empty cup on the table.

"No, thank you."

"Buck sends his regards," the blue-eyed man said as he picked up the cup and took it to the sink for washing.

"How is he?" Ezra asked, trying to sound interested. All he really wanted to do was go to his cabin and get some peace and quiet. Maybe he could think things through and decide what he wanted to do with his life once he was on his own. At the moment he wasn't sure if he wanted to go or stay.

Josiah's voice cut through his thoughts when he answered his question. "Improving. His temperature's almost gone."

Ezra nodded.

The blue-eyed man took a seat next to Ezra and studied him for a few seconds. He sighed when Ezra wouldn't even look at him. "Where do you want to sleep? You can stay here with Chris, or go to your own cabin, as long as one of us is with you," Josiah said, getting down to business. "Don't want you heading back to the hospital because we haven't taken care of you properly."

Bit late for those sentiments, Ezra said to himself. He finally looked up at Josiah and said, "My cabin."

"Okay, let's get you settled in then." Josiah followed Ezra into the yard and they crossed to the wooden cabin right at the end of the row of similar buildings. "Vin's gonna stay with you tonight, but I'll keep you company until he returns."

Ezra headed to the living room without answering, sat on the couch and laid his head back with a sigh. He really didn't know how he was feeling right now. Anxious, upset, angry, and a whole lot more. He was getting more than a little fed up with all the apologies, too. There was only so much of the word sorry that he could take. Once you've heard it a few times, it tends to lose its impact.

"You warm enough?" Josiah asked when he saw the man shiver.

The tremor hadn't been as a result of the temperature, though. Ezra was just reliving memories. "Yes, thank you, anything is warmer than when I was admitted to the hospital. I'd never been so cold as then."

"Why were you suspicious of Jed?" Josiah asked as he leaned forward, elbows on wide-stretched knees, forearms horizontal with hands clasped together.

Ezra opened his eyes and sat up properly. He looked across at his friend and saw that he really wanted to know the answer. Ezra shrugged and sighed. "Gut reaction. It's funny how you can take an instant dislike to someone, isn't it? I thought after the one incident with Jeremy that that would be it, but as time went by, the feelings I'd had then were reinforced. I came to loathe the man when I saw how he acted. I was increasingly suspicious of his behavior. He seemed a very Machiavellian character and I wished to discover what his true motives were."

"We were all played for fools. All except you, Ezra," Josiah said with a despairing sigh.

Vin ambled in at that point, hands in pockets, shirtsleeves rolled up and smelling of horses. "Hey, Ez," he said, his face lighting up in genuine pleasure. "It's real good to see you, bud."

"And you, Mr. Tanner. How was your day's riding?"

"Great, but not as great as having you home. Been looking forward to it all day." The long-haired man turned to Josiah and smiled. "I'll take it from here, pard. Ez and I have a male bonding session happening in the near future, I reckon."

"Sounds disgusting. I hope it doesn't involve handcuffs," Ezra said with a grin. Vin could always make him smile when he felt in the depths of despair.

Josiah smiled and left the two men alone. He really hoped that Vin could help Ezra recover physically, as well as mentally. The quiet man had a relationship with Ezra that none of the rest of them could match.

Vin took a seat beside his friend and smiled as he patted Ezra's thigh in welcome.

The green-eyed man slid his eyes sideways and narrowed his gaze suspiciously. "If this is the start of male bonding, I'll give it a miss, if you don't mind. I've had enough talk and apology for one day," Ezra said as he yawned. He groaned at the stretching of his ribcage, and put a hand to the painful area carefully.

"Fair enough, bud. Looks like you need to be in bed, anyway, Ez." Vin yawned - seeing Ezra's gaping mouth had set him off, too.

"Yes, I'm rather fatigued."

The long-haired man yawned again and laughed. "Jeez, yer contagious. Thought the hospital had cured you of all yer complaints."

Ezra smiled and felt another yawn coming, which he tried to stifle by putting a hand over his mouth. It didn't work, and he let the yawn have free rein despite the pain it caused. "I'm sorry, I'd better depart to my bed with due haste."

"Come on, then. Do you want something to eat and drink first?" Vin said as he stood up and then pulled his friend gently to his feet.

"I don't think so, thank you."

Vin nodded and smiled. "Okay, well, give me a holler if you need anything. I'll be on the couch sound asleep thanks to you."

Ezra laughed carefully. "I should obviously be used as a treatment for insomniacs," he said as he patted Vin's back and headed upstairs.

*****************************************

Ezra woke to the smell of eggs and bacon. He sniffed expectantly and rolled out of bed, his mouth running water. He stopped for a minute, wondering if the food was actually for him. Maybe Vin was cooking for himself. After all, Ezra never usually crawled out of bed until mid-day when he wasn't working. He shrugged, got dressed and went down to the kitchen to find out who was the lucky recipient of the meal.

He stepped into the room, feeling like a stranger in his own home. "Good morning, Mr. Tanner."

The younger man turned round from the stove with a spatula in his hand. He waved the implement in the air to get Ezra to come in. "Hey, Ez, great timin'. Eggs are done sunny-side up, just as you like 'em."

"How kind, but you don't have to wait on me hand and foot. I am capable of cooking."

Vin nodded as he put the food on a plate and passed it to Ezra, indicating for him to sit down. "I know, bud. I was up and it weren't no trouble. Wanted to do it for you, anyway. Welcome home gift, if you like."

Ezra smiled gratefully as he nodded and started to eat. He savored every mouthful and smiled again when he'd finished. "That was delicious, Vin. Food tastes so much better when you haven't cooked it yourself."

"Yeah, I know." Vin sighed reluctantly, bringing the conversation round to the next task. "The boys are all waiting for you at the house. You feel up to a session with them?"

"I suppose I need to get it over and done with. Now is as good a time as any, I s'pose," the green-eye man agreed with a shrug. He wasn't looking forward to it, expecting an argument to ensue.

Vin cleared his throat and said, "Ez? Before we go, there's something I need to say. I didn't tell you before 'cause I didn't want to upset you while you were in the hospital. You know I said you had a cardiac arrest? Well, it happened because your pacemaker had been deliberately turned off. Jed meant to kill you, bud."

Ezra didn't seem particularly shocked by the news, which confused Vin momentarily. The smaller man shrugged and said, "That doesn't surprise me unfortunately, Mr. Tanner. Thank you for taking my sensibilities into account, though. That was very kind."

Vin didn't push Ezra for an explanation at that time. Maybe he'd ask what Ezra had meant when all the men were together. The younger man looked around him with a frown as he remembered something else he needed to ask his friend. He spotted what he wanted and rose to collect it. "By the way, I found my tape recorder in the pocket of the clothes we found you in. Didn't remember them until I happened to look in the back of the jeep yesterday. Good job it's waterproof. Do you still need it?"

Ezra sighed in relief. He thought he might have lost his vital evidence. He just hoped the tape inside hadn't been damaged, but as Vin had said, the machine was waterproof so it should be fine. "Yes, it has some important information on it."

"Do you want it now?"

"Yes, please," Ezra said as he reached out his hand.

Vin handed it over without question and then the two men wandered over to the ranch house to meet up with their friends.

Ezra took a seat on the couch in the living room and nodded at each of his business partners. "How are you feeling, Mr. Wilmington?" he asked as his gaze settled on the still pale-looking, dark-haired man.

Buck nodded and smiled weakly. "Okay, thanks, pard. All the better for seeing you here, I can tell you."

"Yes, it's real good to have you back with us, but we need to thrash things out between us, I reckon. Clear the air, so to speak," Chris said earnestly. "Why don't you start? You're the injured party in all of this, Ez."

"Fine," Ezra agreed. His eyes got a steely look in them and he scowled. "I resent the fact that no one, not one of you, believed me. I feel betrayed by the lack of support. After all that we've been through together, you chose to be loyal to a stranger. I do not like the fact that my own loyalty has been brought into question, either."

JD cleared his throat. "What I couldn't understand at the time was why you were so totally against Jed. He was my hero and you kinda told me not to get too friendly with him, do you remember?"

"Yes, and with good reason as it turns out, Mr. Dunne. As I warned you then, not all heroes live up to your expectations. I told you that the contents don't always match the packaging and I didn't want you to be disappointed." Ezra took a deep breath and almost snarled, "Are you disappointed in him, now?"

"Yes," the youngster whispered.

There was silence, none of the men knowing what to say. They exchanged nervous glances, each waiting for someone else to speak. It was an awkward moment indeed.

Ezra sighed and shook his head. "If you want evidence of how he spoke to me when we were alone, then listen to this." He pulled out Vin's small tape recorder and put it on the table. He exchanged glances with the long-haired man, who now realized why Ezra had wanted to borrow it. Ezra switched it on and Jed's voice sounded loud and clear.

"Hey, Bionic," Jed snarled with contempt. "Not dropped dead yet, then? Shame. I reckoned the power of prayer woulda been enough. Have to try something else to get rid of you instead, you bastard."

"Short of killing me yourself, I don't think you will succeed," Ezra said.

"That can be arranged."


Ezra exchanged glances with Vin again. The younger business partner understood why Ezra hadn't been affected too badly by knowing a murder attempt had been made against him. Ezra had already been told that it was a possibility. The two men turned their attention back to the tape recorder. There was a bit of clicking before the next conversation was heard.

"I'm gonna make sure your partnership is ended before I leave. Chris'll be only too pleased to have me replace you. You're a fucking loser."

"You may be right," Ezra's voice replied quietly.


The tape ran on and on, blurting out various other comments and insults about Ezra. It also had recorded vital evidence to prove that Paddy and Jed had been the ones to harm Ezra. The former attorney found it rather odd to have to listen to his own attempted murder.

"Why the hell didn't you tell me how badly he behaved with you?" Chris said before he realized what a stupid question that was. Ezra had and they'd ignored him. That's why he taken to taping conversations instead.

Ezra almost growled, shook his head and left the room.

Chris cursed foully and hurried out after the man. He caught him out on the porch and pulled him to a halt. He heard the man gasp in pain so let go quickly. "Ez? Shit, I'm sorry if I hurt you." He sighed. "What I said in there was really idiotic." The blond studied the understandably angry man for a while. "I'm also sorry that you had to resort to secretly taping Jed in order to convince us of what he was like with you. Try and see things from our point of view, though. Whenever we were all together he was nice to you. All we saw was you picking on him and we couldn't understand why. Now I see that we were being manipulated, but we had to go by what we witnessed."

Ezra clenched his jaw and tried to answer without shouting. He didn't succeed. It hurt him to talk loudly, but he had well and truly lost his temper. The resulting pain would have to be dealt with later when he'd calmed down. He was quite pleased to see Chris flinch at the loudness of his voice, though. "No, you didn't. You hadn't set eyes on him for nearly fifteen years. You've been acquainted with me for at least the last eight. You wanted me as a business partner, and I believe that I've never given you cause to doubt my integrity. Dammit, I did the vast majority of the work to get this enterprise up and legal. I thought that would have counted for something, but no, Jed arrives and I'm suddenly an outcast. People change and I think Jed has proved that beyond doubt. Fame has gone to his head and made him a deeply dislikeable man."

The black-clad man put a hand on Ezra's shoulder gently and felt him cringe under the touch. He removed the appendage and said, "Yeah, I know. I s'pose he took against you for standing up to him. I truly regret that he hurt you before we realized we'd been wrong about him. Vin was the only one of us to start seeing him for what he was, but it was too late, and I even disregarded his opinion. Come back inside, Ez. We need to sort things out before it destroys us. I, for one, don't want our partnership to break up over this."

Ezra turned a sarcastic look on the man and snapped, "No, I don't suppose you do, given that I still own a more substantial share."

"Ez, this ain't about money and I'm not talking about the business. That's the last thing on my mind. This is about friendship and forgiveness, and I'm telling you now that we wouldn't survive without you as our friend," Chris said seriously.

Ezra shook his head. "You didn't seem to care much about our friendship over the last few weeks," the younger man snapped as he turned and walked away. Despite his promise to try and mend bridges, the former attorney just couldn't do so at that precise moment. There was too much pent-up rage inside him.

"Ezra?" Chris called in anguish as he took a pace forward to go after him.

"Let him go, son," Josiah said quietly as he stepped out onto the porch. "We all need time to get over this, but Ezra needs to come to terms with a lot of things, too."

********************************************

Ezra just walked, not looking, or caring, where he was going. He only stopped an hour later when he realized he was tired. He sat down on the grass and looked around him. He recognized the area and knew he'd gone much further than he should. It was getting dark already and he didn't have the energy to go back just yet.

Vin, meanwhile, was waiting anxiously in Ezra's cabin. The more that time went by, the more worried he became. He eventually couldn't sit and wait any longer. He stood up and found a bag and began packing it with essential items. He found a flashlight and a first aid box and added those to the bulging bag. He went outside and began striding off across the yard.

"Vin?" Chris called from where he was sitting on the porch.

The long-haired man looked at the blond without breaking stride. "He ain't back yet. I'm gonna look for him. He shouldn't have gone off on his own. He should be resting, not getting himself all upset."

"We'll come as well. We can split up and cover much more ground," Chris said as he stood and moved to catch up with his friend.

"Well, I'm going to Falcon Pass. Can the rest of you head to the surrounding area near there? He was definitely going that way when he left but may have deviated."

The slender blond nodded. "Okay, I'll get the others together. Take a radio with you so you can tell us if you find him. We'll call in, too."

The six men set off to slightly different compass points. They all called Ezra's name every so often in the hope of getting an answer. It was now too dark to see anything nearby. The flashlights provided the only light and if Ezra had fallen and knocked himself out, they may well walk right by him without realizing.

"Ezra?" Vin yelled as he reached Falcon Pass. He looked round and stood still for a minute, listening intently for any reply. He frowned and turned his head to one side slightly when he thought he heard his name being called.

"Vin? Is that you?" the cry came again from the right.

Vin shone the flashlight around carefully until the beam illuminated his friend. "Shit, Ez. We've been so worried. Are you okay?" he asked as he hurried toward the man and squatted in front of him.

Ezra was still sitting where he'd first sunk to the ground. He was cross-legged and he sighed in relief as Vin emerged from the shadows. He'd expected to find himself sleeping under the stars that night.

"Just tired," he replied with a smile.

Vin studied him as best he could in the available light, but other than looking a bit pale, the man didn't seem to have hurt himself in any way. "Can you make it back home?"

Ezra nodded as he climbed stiffly to his feet with Vin's help. His legs were tingling and he seemed to have lost control of them at the moment. They felt as if they didn't belong to him. "I expect so now. I've just been sitting here doing nothing since I realized I'd come too far. I'll just wake my legs up a bit and then I'll be ready."

"Okay, just take yer time. Let me call the others to tell them that yer safe."

Vin pulled out his radio and notified his friends that he'd found Ezra. He then extracted a coat out of his bag and made Ezra put it on because he didn't want the recently hospitalized man getting cold. After making sure that Ezra was ready, the two men set off for home.

The seven men eventually reconvened in the ranch house an hour later. Nathan immediately took Ezra aside and checked him over thoroughly.

"Sure you feel okay, Ezra? You look kinda pale," he said gently as he reached out a hand to feel the man's brow. He then pointed to a comfy chair and made Ezra sit down.

"I'm fine, Mr. Jackson, if somewhat fatigued and in pain," the Southerner admitted as he sunk into the soft seat.

Nathan passed over a glass of water and some painkillers, which Ezra consumed gratefully.

"Jeez, we were worried," JD said. "It was like history repeating itself, except last time we didn't know you were missing." He sighed as he looked straight at Ezra. "My Ma always told me to treat others as you wish to be treated yourself. She would be real angry with me, because I let her down when we betrayed you. I'm so sorry, Ezra. I thought Jed was great but I see now that he was trying to get me to leave here, too, but in a more subtle way."

"What do you mean, kid?" Buck asked in confusion. "You never said anything."

The youngster shrugged. "He said I could make it as an athlete. Offered to help me get started and everything. I was real tempted and I accepted at first, but then I realized what I'd be missing out on here. I was flattered. Guess he knew I was gullible. He was real persuasive, but friendly about it, not like he was with Ez, but I reckon he was just trying to make a place for himself here."

"Damn. He obviously wanted to split up the partnership one way or another, pard," Buck said as he turned to Chris and raised his eyebrows.

The blond sighed. "I don't think he started out wanting to break us up. There's no doubt he intended to sell drugs here, though, but maybe he realized that his career was coming to an end and the rest fell into place. Once he started pulling in loads of money from the drugs, he got hooked and wanted to stay permanently."

Ezra frowned and turned his gaze to the youngest man before looking round the room at the other occupants. "It seems we all have some healing to do," he said.

"Yes, but you have the most," Chris admitted. "Please stay, Ez. Let us prove to you how much we care about you and how truly sorry we are about what happened. I really wish that I'd never met Jed."

Ezra looked thoughtful. He'd had a lot of time to think when he'd been out in the wilderness earlier and he'd come to a decision. He truly hoped it was the correct one. "We were all betrayed by Mr. Burrows. I suppose the ultimate insult to him would be for us to remain friends and business partners. As you say, he seemed determined to split us up, and it appeals to my sense of honor to see that he doesn't succeed," he said with a shrug.

"Do you mean that, Ez?" Buck asked as he leaned forward expectantly.

He looked round the group of men again and nodded. "Yes, I've become a great believer in second chances throughout my sorry existence. I've had more than my fair share, so I can't not give this venture a second chance, can I? That would be selfish. I know I'm not perfect so I would be a hypocrite not to forgive you. The Kiss of Judas is a terrible thing."

"We don't expect instant results. We know we need to earn your trust again. We're just so grateful that you'll give us the chance," Josiah said.

Ezra smiled. "Well, who else would keep the company accounts in such pristine order as me? I can't plunge you all into monetary mayhem. That would be too cruel a punishment."

"You're telling me, pard. I still need an abacus to calculate how many fingers and toes I've got," Buck said with a laugh, which all his friends joined in with.

The partnership was still intact, although admittedly in a slightly shaky condition. Over the coming weeks, the seven men prayed they would get back to how they'd once been. Seven true, loyal friends. Today, they had taken the first tentative step toward that goal.

The End.

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