four corners pd
By: Cin and Heidi
Day Three: Saturday (cont)
Ezra headed for the kitchen door – the preferred place of entry – and admitted Chris. “Hello, Sgt. Larabee.”
“Take these off the top,” Chris growled, handing off a stack of plates and cups. Whenever someone hosted a gathering, everyone brought something to make it easier for the person having the group over. Since they knew Nina got tied up on a long, involved call the night before, the group split everything they could amongst themselves. This way all she would have to clean up was a couple platters and maybe a few drink glasses.
“Certainly. And where shall I put them?”
“At the present time, Mr. Wilmington is attempting to calm Ms. Caswell down.”
“Nina’s mother came to visit.”
Larabee’s response was short, sweet, to the point, and highly derogatory.
“I take it you are familiar with the woman in question?” Ezra rarely heard of a woman referred to in that manner in a long time.
Incredulous green eyes bored into his. “You’ve never met her?”
“I have not made her acquaintance.”
“Count yourself lucky.” As Chris finished putting things away in the refrigerator, he saw the beer she kept for guests, it looked damn tempting. With a sense of responsibility and no small amount of regret, he remembered he had to work later and closed the door to keep from taking one. It always amused him that his friend, who did not drink, kept a fully stocked bar.
“Mr. Wilmington seems to share your low opinion of her.” The Southerner subtly fished for information.
Chris snorted. “He and Bethany hate each other, and that’s putting it mildly.”
“May I inquire the reason?”
“Let’s just say Nina never did what Bethany wanted, and Buck’s not the type Bethany would pick for a significant other. Buck doesn’t have a purebred pedigree.”
“Exactly how long have Nina and Buck been seeing each other?”
Larabee eyed the Southerner speculatively. Thinking back to recent talks with Buck, he found this interest by Ezra intriguing and worth exploring. Chris tried recalling when they first met Nina; he was bad at dates as Buck loudly and often attested. “Roughly, we’ve known her for about ten or twelve years, I guess. They went on their first date not too long after she hired on. Things didn’t work out for awhile.” He stopped and considered his own part in that fiasco, before things straightened out between all of them. He cleared his throat and continued, “They got serious about year or so into it and it all fell apart around…” Chris's voice faded off again as he paused and swallowed hard.
The Southerner sensed his discomfort. “Around the loss of your family?” Ezra finished gently.
Larabee nodded, pleased Ezra understood and did not make him say it.
“I thank you for the information. I’m assuming they picked back up when he moved into the area?”
Chris smirked at that. “Nope. Fact was we never saw her the first few months. Only found out later that she’d been hired before us when she came back full-time. Hell, we didn’t find out about her major role in the formation of the police department until we saw her and Travis told us.”
All this was news to Ezra; he never saw them act anything less than friends, but he was also hired long after they’d formed back into a cohesive unit.
Chris gazed at him directly. “Ezra, I always prided myself on knowing who was in town, and no one breathed a word that she lived here.” He shrugged. “Not that anyone in this town has ever been on the talkative side on anything that happened before we got here, so it’s not surprising I didn’t know.” Chris referred to the tumultuous first six months of the new police force trying to earn the trust of the citizens in the wake of a betrayal.
The Southerner found all of this interesting. It also pleased him that for once, Chris was sharing information regarding things Ezra wondered about, but never had the opportunity to ask. “When it comes to Ms. Caswell, tightlipped barely begins describing her.”
Larabee snorted. “Ain’t that the truth.” He’d hit the Caswell wall of silence and bloodied his head enough times to stop trying unless it was urgent.
“So she and Buck were serious for a number of years?”
Chris did not mind answering the questions for once. He figured Ezra deserved answers and he knew he could trust him with the information, along with keeping his own counsel. Besides, if Ezra was interested, he needed to be prepared. Life as Nina’s friend was rarely boring, and he shuddered imagining what it was like as her love interest. “Yeah…never got engaged or married…and not from Buck’s lack of trying.”
“Mr. Wilmington proposed?” Ezra’s eyebrows nearly met his hairline. “As in marriage, until death do you part?”
once but Nina’s family’s pretty fucked up. They never gave her a positive view
of marriage and she refused to commit because of it. Drove Sarah nuts because
she wanted her best friend married and happy.” He chuckled at the memory of all
the bedtime conversations the Larabees held about their closest friends. Nina
served as matchmaker for Sarah, and Sarah felt it her duty to return the favor
for her friend. Mrs. Larabee knew and encouraged a willing, loving man yet
still failed to convince Nina to get married…hell, even engaged for that
matter. “Didn’t help the one time Buck did manage to drag her into a chapel in
Vegas to wed things went bad.”
“What happened?” This tale sounded fascinating; neither Buck nor Nina ever breathed a word about this.
Chris chose his words carefully, concerned about how much he should reveal. “Ezra, it’s hard to share this because it’s painful for both of them… but I find it damn funny.”
“I’ll respect your confidence.”
Larabee considered for a minute then went on. “The chapel burned down.”
“I beg your pardon?” Ezra’s eyebrow shot skyward.
The chuckles started every time Chris thought about the events of that night. “Buck and Nina managed to get a night off alone together, a damn near impossible feat, and he convinced her to elope in one of the chapels. They got halfway through the service when smoke filled the chapel from an electrical fire. Spent the next few minutes getting everyone out.”
“Good Lord,” exclaimed Ezra. He could not imagine that situation. First going through the supposed joyous moment of saying marriage vows with that one special person. . .to fleeing for your life and carrying people out of a smoke-filled room.
“It gets better. The minister had a heart attack from the smoke inhalation. Just as they finished doing CPR and brought him back, the fire truck ran into Buck’s truck and totaled it.” Chris enjoyed the wide-as-saucers eyes on the normally unflappable canine handler and started laughing. “After that, no amount of charm on this earth could convince her to marry. Nina saw it as a sign…three bad omens in a row…and she said no way. Wait . . .I think her exact words were 'No way in hell!'”
Ezra digested this information, but was saved from commenting further by the doorbell. “Must be JD,” Chris reasoned. Everyone knew to use the kitchen door unless he or she was a new visitor or it was Bethany, who refused to use the side entrance.
“I wonder if Mr. Wilmington and Ms. Caswell have finished their conversation.”
“Doubtful. Bethany usually screws Nina up for the day if not longer.” He scowled as he headed upstairs. He also knew his way around Nina’s house well enough to know she would expect him to answer the door. Chris opened it to find a very nervous JD shifting from foot to foot with a folded over brown grocery bag in his hand.
“Sergeant, sir, hello.”
“Chris, son, we’re off-duty.” The sergeant told him with a smile. He looked forward to learning more about this young man away from the job. “Come on in.” He held it open and JD entered, the rookie looking around at the large foyer located at the base of the stairs.
“Whoa. This place is nice,” he gaped, peering into the formal living room off the right side of the foyer, briefly noticing stairs on the left, and a straight hallway heading farther into the house.
“Nina likes it,” Chris cracked, enjoying the startled look on JD’s face as he spun around and nearly dropped the bag. “What’s that?”
“Oh. Ice cream…I couldn’t think of anything else to bring and I figured everyone likes ice cream.”
“What kind?” asked Ezra.
“Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.”
The Southerner smiled and relieved the rookie of the bag. “I do believe that is an excellent choice, my boy.” He carried the treat to the freezer downstairs, leaving Chris to give the tour.
JD looked around nervously a little intimidated by his surroundings. When he turned in the drive, he thought he was at the wrong address. A simple mailbox marked the black topped driveway a good half mile from the road, leading back through stands of thick, well-tended evergreens and enormous oaks lining the drive. Somehow, the owner managed to have them grow and prosper in the dry, arid climate.
When he reached the driveway, it led to a stand-alone garage with a few vehicles parked out front. The first was the canine truck, followed by the unmarked sergeant’s car, and finally the patrol car he was resigned to riding in for the next several weeks. It was parked at a rakish angle, and it looked like the Sergeant squeezed his car between the truck and Buck’s patrol car.
He noticed that the house possessed two entrances, one on the side and one in the front, both leading into a large, screened-in wraparound porch. There was a set of stairs from the garage side to a single, plain screen door, crossing the porch to a door on the side of the house. From where he stopped his bike, he could see that the porch ended at the back of the house, opening into a large deck overlooking a spacious yard.
When he went to the front door, he noticed the sidewalk formed a ramp, leading up to a wide landing. A set of ornate, overlarge French doors opened to the screened in porch. Once he passed through the French doors, there was comfortable furniture tucked against the walls in neat groups. At the front double doors, he rang the bell, surprised to have Chris open the door for him.
Now that he was standing in the foyer and looking around, he saw a set of stairs leading to the second floor on his left side. Under the stairs, he noticed a coat closet and a table sat ready for keys or whatever beside the coat closet door. To his right, a formal living room waited for people through an open archway ten feet across. He could not help but gape.
“Um…where should I go?” asked JD, unsure of walking through this house alone. After his first impression of the outside, he really did not want to explore on his own, or offend his hostess.
“I’ll show you around.”
He felt even more like a bumpkin when Chris led him forward through the house. His feet thumped across the polished hard wood floors, the sounds only broken by the different area rugs and runners in muted colors.
Just past the living room, straight down the hall, the house split in two directions – straight and left. To the left, he saw several doorways down a short hallway. They went straight, directly into a formal dining room. JD passed a server and matching hutch, the hutch filled with beautiful crystal and china. The size of the dining room amazed him; a table capable of seating twelve rested to his right in a fifteen-foot space, and in the far-left corner, a smaller matching table held four chairs. Against the wall, a large slider led out to the open-air deck, the wooden structure running the length of the back of the house to meet up with the wraparound porch along the back wall.
Turning away from the breathtaking view of the back yard, complete with pool and open fields, JD found himself entering the kitchen through another ten-foot archway, stopping by a table in the corner. This table sat five, two on one side, and three on the other, the rest of it pushed against the wall. The appliances ran opposite the side of the door, tucked into little nooks with glass cabinets revealing the contents within.
“When Nina has us over we usually spend most of our time downstairs, but we’ve had a few dinners here.” Chris explained. “You ready to see the rest of the house?”
“Sure.” JD nodded, a little overwhelmed by the house itself and what it probably cost.
Larabee led him back through the dining room into a hallway. The hallway led to the left side of the house, and on the right side were two guest bedrooms, one of which having a bag lying on the bed. On the other side of the furthest guest bedroom was the entrance to a den/office. Two walls of the office were windows, looking out on the wraparound porch to the front and left side of the house.
Chris said, “Those are the guest bedrooms, and she usually lets us change or stay when she has parties or get-togethers. You can toss your uniform in here, but I don’t know if we’re staying late tonight. Maybe keeping it where it is would be a good idea. Over there’s her office, and you can use the phone in there if you need it.”
“This is pretty impressive.”
“Come on, I’ll show you downstairs.” As they left the office, they reached the far-left wall and the doorway set slightly out from the wall. Chris opened it, revealing a set of stairs leading down. Beside the door on the wall was a table. The antique table had a shelf above it, and pictures covered both surfaces.
JD stopped to examine them, and Chris figured he’d let the kid look. If he worked out, he’d get to know most of the people in those shots, or about them anyway.
A lace tablecloth covered the top of the table, providing a rich base for all the various frames. The first picture JD saw brought a smile to his face – it was all of the squad making a pyramid, Josiah, Buck, and Nathan on the bottom, Chris and someone he didn't know on the second level, and Nina on the top. Ace lay in front of the pyramid, staring at the camera with his mouth hanging open. In the frame on the other side was the same pyramid falling in on itself, body parts everywhere.
The one beside it was an obvious innocent-acting Josiah shoving Nathan into the pool. The photographer captured the expression on Nathan’s face perfectly, as well as the feigned angelic face of Josiah. Beside it was Buck just releasing Nina from over his head to flail in the air, obviously heading for the water of the pool.
A man that looked remarkably like Nina was standing beside her in the back of a bright red 1970 El Camino, his arm around her waist, with her head resting on his shoulder. Both leaned against each other and against the top of the cab.
Still in the front row was a shot of his sergeant in a tuxedo, holding a laughing woman dressed in white in his arms. The look of love between the two jumped from the eight by ten frame, and the next picture was of a formally attired Buck and Nina standing on either side of the happy couple.
The next two frame combinations showed Nina holding a small boy in her arms while he tugged the sunglasses off her face while he held a cherubic smile. The second one in that frame was of Buck holding the same boy, only older this time, in front of him on a horse.
JD nearly laughed at the sight of Buck and Nina standing together at some type of dance, both dressed in formal clothes, and both looking very much in love with each other. Beside that was the last picture of the front row, a shot of Chris and the woman arm-in-arm with Buck and Nina, all four in formal clothes.
The second row, starting from the right and looking left, showed Buck, Nina, Chris, and the woman all wearing conical birthday hats, laughing at the antics of the one-year-old wearing a matching hat, his face, body, and hands smeared with chocolate cake. Beside it, JD saw a professional picture of Chris, the woman, and the child, posed when the boy was a bit older, maybe four. Again, the love was obvious in his sergeant’s eyes as his arms encircled his wife and child as they sat in front of him.
Beside that, JD found a shot of father and son dressed as cowboys for Halloween, and when he looked at Chris, the forbidding expression made him drop his eyes back to the table and the pictures. He saw a different person, someone he didn’t recognize.
This man wore an Army dress uniform, standing beside an American flag with Nina, Casey, and Nettie beside him. All of them smiled at the camera, and the shot next to it was the same man in a police uniform, standing again in front of the American flag.
Beside it, Nina was being carried by someone with light brown hair, but she was slung over his shoulder with a football cradled in her arms. The man holding her had one hand free, straight out in front of him, and the uprights were in view. Both were laughing, and the next shot came from the same game. This one was of the same unknown man struggling for the end zone with the football, Nina with her hands around his waist, being dragged behind him. The next was a rather artful shot taken at sunset. Two men sat side-by-side almost in silhouette and JD could barely determine one was the sergeant and the person he didn’t know.
There was another shot holding that same man in police uniform again. Once more this one was a shot of the entire squad at attention, looking straight down the row. All of them wore the dress uniform, straight expressions, and the amount of pins and medals visible staggered JD. He realized that most of them declined to wear all their decorations on their daily uniform. The next less formal shot again showed the squad together all smiling. Chris was in the middle flanked by Buck on one side, the light brown haired man on the other. Josiah and Nathan were to the side of Buck and Ezra stood on the other of the unknown person. They all had their arms over each other’s shoulders and JD almost laughed at the ‘v’ sign being held over Standish’s head without his knowledge.
In the end of this row, there were three more pictures. He saw Ezra playing with Ace – Ace pinning the smooth-talking Southerner down, and beside it was a picture of Nina and two older gentlemen. The two were obviously father and son, and the resemblance to Nina showed that maybe it was her grandfather and another relative. JD had to study the last one in order to make sure he was seeing what was on the picture. He looked hard at it, and then groaned. Followed by laughter. He recognized the setting as the training facility, and the clothing the two people wore as the ‘training uniform’. What he saw was Nina sporting an evil grin while spraying Ezra in the face with pepper spray. His features were contorted, his eyes bright red, and his nose running like a fountain. In the background, several of the squad members were laughing hysterically.
JD’s eyes went to the shelf above, and in the center of the shelf was a white pillar candle, the bottom draped in black. The single flame burned brightly, and was obviously lovingly tended. All the photos on this shelf bore black drapes across the top and hung down to the base of the frames.
Chris cleared his throat. “That’s her memorial. Most of those people passed away, and this is Nina’s way of remembering them. I wouldn’t ask her any questions today, or ask me, because some of those people are very special to all of us.”
“Okay. Is it all right if I look?”
“Sure, Kid.” Chris leaned against the wall, not wanting to see those images. He tried not to look at the table at all whenever he passed it.
JD noticed the man that was leaning on the El Camino with her was prominently displayed in the center, and the side of the El Camino in this shot had the name ‘Rory’ written in script below the driver’s window. The man was in the next shot standing beside Nina and the two older gentlemen from the shot below. A different version of the father, aged with gray hair, was in the next shot, holding the arm of a much younger Nina dressed all in white. Both smiled, and it looked like they shared a secret joke.
A very young Nina stood behind a rocker, her hands on the shoulders of an elderly woman, both giving genuine smiles to each other.
Beside this picture was a shot of Nina standing next to his sergeant’s wife. They had their arms wrapped around each other, smiling into the camera, while they held bunny ears over the other’s head. The next shot was a shot of the sergeant’s wife by herself on the porch of a house. Her face showed contentment, and she seemed unaware of the photographer. Looking closer, JD saw where she looked – and he saw the sergeant and his son in the corral. It made him smile.
The last picture was of the little boy, his cheeky grin shining out from the frame. He was seated on a horse, and he wore a pair of chaps and cowboy hat. A shiny star was pinned to his vest.
JD heard the pain-filled, whispered two words beside him.
“He’s adorable.” The rookie did not look at the sergeant, knowing to give him a little bit of time to recover his composure.
“He was.” Chris cleared his throat. “The woman, that’s Sarah, my wife.”
A smile crossed the sergeant’s face. “I was the luckiest man on earth.”
“You still are, brother. You have us now.” Josiah’s voice came from the hallway, his arms laden with a crockpot and supplies. “And you can hold the door open so I don’t drop our dinner.”
“You know it. JD, son, grab the spoon off the top before it falls.”
JD rushed over to perform the task as instructed.
“JD, head on downstairs, and make yourself comfortable. Ezra will take care of you. We’ll be down in a second.” Chris motioned him in the correct direction.
“Okay.” JD made his way downstairs.
Chris relieved Josiah of the crockpot. “Nina’s mother was here. Figured you should know.”
“How’s she doing?”
“Haven’t seen her; she’s upstairs with Buck.”
“She get any sleep?”
“I checked the logs before I came over. She got off near eleven.”
“We’ll see if she can sleep; she’ll need it before going in tonight.”
“Hope she can get some rest.”
They turned around to find Nathan had joined them.
Josiah said, “Yep. She didn’t get home until eleven or so.”
“Ouch. Why didn’t she call this off?”
“You know Nina. If she says she’ll do something, she’ll do it.”
“Even if it kills her,” Nathan muttered.
“That’s why you’re here, Nate, to keep her in line.” Chris smiled, heading downstairs.
“Great.” Nathan followed, carrying the platter Rain sent over of vegetables and dip. Josiah walked behind him.
When they reached the bottom, they found Ezra holding court with JD at the antique poker table in the corner of the room.
“What do you think, JD? Think she got the flavor of the Old West down?” Josiah nodded to the furnishings, all designed to make the person feel transported to a late nineteenth century saloon. The bar was decorated with a mirror running from one end to the other, and wooden, polished stools sat on the other side. Behind the bar, JD saw a full-sized refrigerator, ice machine, and several bottles of alcohol. Above his head was a rack of glasses, all of them good quality crystal.
A server held all the food, spread out buffet style, and it was tucked neatly in the corner, away from the traffic pattern.
In addition to the poker table, a very old, well-maintained billiards table sat off in a large alcove, giving the players privacy if they wanted, and the ability to close the heavy hunter green drapes if they chose. Golden ties held the drapes back, and the hunter green pattern carried throughout the room.
The modern came into play in the far side of the basement, a large sunken area with a huge sectional sofa facing a big-screen television. A DVD player, CD player, stereo and WebTV hookup sat in the glass cabinets built around the television. JD could see the speakers placed to give surround sound, and again his mind wondered at the amount of money it took to maintain this house.
Ezra had already shown him where the full bathroom was, and also the spare room tucked away. The only part he did not have access to was the locked room, which Ezra informed him was the mudroom and laundry area.
A pair of French doors opened out to the back yard, and JD saw the stairs leading up to the deck on one side, a ramp on the others. A barbecue pit was dug just beyond the reach of the deck, giving her somewhere to grill for these parties.
“Well, Mr. Dunne, you still have not answered my question. Are you familiar with the game of poker?”
“Yes, sir, I am. I can’t wait to play, actually.”
“Excellent. You may have the seat beside me.”
“Ezra, it’s his first time with you. Go easy on him.” Nathan warned with a smile.
“I am always gentle with my players, or they would not play with me again.”
“Yeah, right.” Chris snorted, taking a seat with a heaping plate. “Let’s eat before we get started.”
“Where’s Nina and Buck, or should I ask?” Nathan glanced from one to the other.
Ezra answered, “Upstairs, talking.”
The EMT read something more into that, and stopped himself from making a comment. “Something happen?”
“Lack of sleep. He’s trying to tame the raging, exhausted beast so she doesn’t eat us,” said Chris. When he met Ezra’s eyes, he saw a flash of understanding. Now you get it, Ezra, he thought, and now you see how well Buck and I snowed you and everyone else about Nina’s mother and the devastation.
“Hmm. When he gets her down here, she’s curling up on that sofa and going to sleep, and that’s final. I’m not scraping her off a tree tonight when she loses control because she’s sleeping at the wheel.”
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate that sentiment, Nathan.” Josiah smiled, heaping his own plate full of food.
Buck sighed outside the closed bedroom door. Resignation filled him as the honor – duty – of bringing her out of the horrendous mood fell to him because Ezra weaseled out of this. Ezra. He considered the developing closeness between Nina and the Southerner, and then thought about that dance with Inez on Thursday night. Hell, he was confused, and he realized his own confusion brought him no closer to being able to help cheer Nina up. He shook his head as he thought to himself ‘if you keep this up, you will have to cheer yourself up too’. Mentally preparing himself, he knocked once.
“Go away, Buck.”
He laughed at the irony of it. After all these years, she knew it would be him and gave him the stock answer. That and they went through this particular dance every single time he knew her mother messed with her head. The dark thoughts he harbored for her mother he shoved into a far corner to be dealt with later, because he knew Nina hated when he got mad about her mother’s behavior. The woman still pissed him off, though. Woman, hell, she was a bonafide ‘bitch’. With a capital “B”. He finally answered with, “You know I’m not doing that.”
“Then quit cluttering my hall and get in here.”
Almost smiling, he opened the door and found her in the center of her bed curled up with Ace doing his best impression of a body pillow. The canine’s soulful brown eyes looked up at Buck and his massive head tilted before the lab turned and licked her face, temporarily removing the lost look from her visage. Was that a ghost of a smile he saw?
Buck took a step in and closed the door quietly. He moved further into the room to lean against the bedpost on the canopy bed, crossing his arms as he studied her. He figured the best way to start was to make her either mad or laugh. “You want to lead or shall I, because darlin’, we can do this dance with our eyes closed.” It was always the same – he’d ask, she’d talk a little, he’d hound her for more information, and finally she would break down after a lengthy battle for composure. Then he’d start putting the pieces back together. Usually she found comfort in his arms in many ways, but since they stopped truly seeing each other, having sexual relations happened less and less frequently.
Those startling ice blue eyes that drew him to her in the first place turned up to meet his. Instead of the usual sparking fire, all he saw was the shattered, haunted look deep inside them. It was bad this time, worse than the normal ‘You’re not meeting my expectations’ talks Bethany gave her.
“Let me tell you now. I don’t want to fight, Buck. I’m too tired, and I don’t have the energy to fight with you.”
“Thought that’s what you lived for.”
Nina let out a frustrated scream. “Dammit, Buck, contrary to your arrogant opinion, I don’t like fighting with you. We only end up hurting each other worse, and right now, I’m in enough pain. I don’t need to add to it.”
Buck gave her a searching look. “Then talk to me. Let me take away some of that pain.”
“It’s never going to go away. For as long as Bethany and I share air, she’s going to hurt me. It will only stop when I’m dead.”
“Don’t talk like that, Nina.”
“Why not?” She shrugged. “It’s the truth. Some days, I wonder why I even bother.”
His grip tightened on the bedpost. “Bethany doesn’t deserve to share air with anyone; she’s a selfish, jealous BITCH. With one HELL of a daughter. She has no idea what she’s thrown away all these years.”
“Thrown away? Oh, am I disposable now? Hey, your daughter’s flawed and imperfect. Toss her away like the rubbish. You know what, that about fits my mood today.”
“What? Why bother to try, when even someone you care about refers to you as something to be thrown away?”
“You can’t believe that.” He felt the hard wooden bedpost against his tightly clenched fingers, and would not be surprised to see the white knuckles.
“I don’t know what to believe anymore, Buck. It’s all confusing as hell, my head hurts, my heart hurts, and damn it, I want to stop hurting. I’ve been hurting like this for years, and it’s not getting better.”
“Baby, it’s not that bad.” Buck tried using the endearment he reserved only for her.
“Yes, it is. You have no idea.”
“I want to help.”
“Good. Shoot me, and end this crap.”
Buck’s stomach clinched at the finality of her statement, he’d never heard her this bad before and it scared him. He dropped onto the bed, letting one hand fall on her side. “No.”
“Then go away.”
“Not doing that either.”
She smacked his hand away. “I told you I don’t want to fight.”
“Then let it out, and we’ll go from there.”
“I don’t want to. I’ve been through worse. I can handle this.” She paused for a second. When she continued, her voice was softer. “If I want to.”
Buck thought this was one of the most depressed states he’d seen her in and silently wondered what she considered ‘worse’. This time his hands grabbed her with a bit more force as he stared deep into her eyes. “I’m not going anywhere until we sort this out, so I hope you’re comfortable.”
“You’ll have a long wait. You wanna help me? Fine. Just shoot me and get it over with.”
He shook his head knowing that wasn’t going to happen. “No.”
“Then there’s the door. Get out.”
Her words stung, as he figured they were meant to do. “Wrong again. I’m not leaving.”
“Dammit, I’m not strong enough to fight this and you at the same time. What will it take for you to get it through your head that I’m not fit company for anyone, now or ever?”
“A whole lot more than the venom you’re spewing like a striking cobra. Hit the nearest target, and see what happens.”
“I’m not a cobra. You know, first you say I can be thrown away, and now you’re comparing me to snakes.”
“No, you’re not a snake or disposable, Baby. You’re Nina, and you’re someone very special to me. I want to help. You just have to let me in. What happened with Bethany?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She tossed her head side-to-side.
“That’s my girl. Stubborn as the day is long.”
“But I’m worse, baby. Bring it on.”
“She may be stubborn, but you know I got one thing for sure from her. Something you’ve told me often enough – I’m a bitch.”
Buck smiled. “You’re a NICE bitch.”
She swallowed once at the unusual compliment. His tenacity and what he said started to break through the fragile wall holding back her emotions. How he could still sit there and take insults, and keep offering his support blew through her will, and right past her reserves to her weakened, damaged heart. She whispered, “Hold me.”
His mind let a few more nasty thoughts fly at her mother for whatever that bitch said this time while he embraced her. Buck lay down beside her on the bed and wrapped himself around Nina, her back to his front, and held on tightly while she wept. He murmured assurances in her ear and knew any lengthy discussions would have to be held later. As they stayed wrapped in their own world of hurt and comfort, he heard the doorbell sound, telling him the rest of the squad was arriving. With any luck, he could convince the others to leave early and give them some private time. He didn’t think Nina would be up to their usual afternoon of fun and games anyway.
Once the worst passed, he received a sympathetic look from Ace who licked her face. The lab never moved during the worst of her sobs, staying to offer her his own brand of support. The licking continued until she started giggling and finally nudged him away so she could breathe.
“That’s my good boy, you stayed with me and cheered me up, didn’t you? You and Buck; that’s right.” She scratched him behind the ears and then moved to his belly, making his legs flay in the air. He let his tongue hang out and his head flopped from side to side. His comical reaction evoked more giggles through the tears.
After a minute of this attention, Ace finally had enough and leapt off the bed, going to the door and waiting to be let out. Chuckling, Buck got up and opened the door and the lab disappeared. The rogue shut the portal and returned to the bed, pulling her back into a hug. She used the opportunity to wipe away the tears with tissues before rolling into his embrace and snuggling up against him. She needed comfort and validation now in order to deal with her guests.
His hand brushed her hair smooth down her back as he invited, “You want to talk about it?”
Nina shook her head. “Not yet.”
“All right. Later?”
“You can’t keep everything inside,” he warned. “It will come out when you least expect it.” He knew she never talked about any of the horrible things that happened to her before they met or in the long interim after their breakup but he kept trying. Buck still held hopes she might actually confide more than she already did in him as a friend, and not a lover. No matter what they were to each other in the past, he held her as a special part of his life and knew she always would be. No matter what, he wanted to be there for her, and hopefully she would come to realize she could always trust him.
“I know. And it always seems like whenever Bethany comes around, you’re there to try and pick up the pieces. Did I ever mention I appreciate that, no matter how much of a bitch I am?”
Buck kissed her temple. “You’re special to me, baby, and I want to be there for you.”
“Kind of like a co-dependency? Maybe we should start a support group.”
He laughed. “I just hope you know that you can always come to me.” He thought about her, and about the young girl she was when she started at Nevada Highway Patrol. So innocent, and so naïve, and yet refreshingly free of pretense and deception.
Her spark and zest for life drew his attention immediately, and his best pick-up lines failed miserably. He got nowhere fast. It took some time to charm her, and once he did, they finally went out on a date. A date that was an absolute disaster and steamrolled into something worse.
But he was a man falling for a woman. Not for the casual fling he was use to, which was a surprise, and he reluctantly admitted scared him for awhile, but for the first time, he saw himself actually contemplating a future with one woman. Confounding him even more was that when he was ready to give himself totally, that woman wasn’t even falling for his usual bag of tricks. She challenged him to do better, be more original, and for a man used to having his way with the ladies, it whet his appetite even more. Her continued refusal to date, followed by her firm stand against commitment, made him work harder.
He eventually realized that the attraction might have been because of the challenge and backed off, trying to figure out how he really felt. He wondered if once he managed to overcome her objections, would he lose interest? That wouldn’t be fair to either of them. So he thought long and hard about his feelings, and shared more than a few nights with Chris and several beers trying to work his situation through. What surprised him was no matter how hard he tried, his feelings never changed, and he concluded that what he felt was genuine love for her. He was in LOVE with her. He found ‘The One’ for him. After satisfying himself with his self-discovery he continued to pursue her relentlessly, finally winning her over. Then there was the day they nearly married…and it was supposed to be the happiest day of his life. It was surely one of the more interesting days he had ever had, but once again Fate stepped in and he was denied his life’s wish.
He gave up on the marriage aspect for a while, giving her time to cool down, but her feelings never changed. She refused to commit, and he refused to let things stand. Their impasse created many arguments, most of which end up inflicting some sort of pain on the other, mostly emotional, but sometimes physical. For as deep as their love was for each other, the intensity of their feelings matched, and when the negative emotions flared, it was almost as if two forces collided, both fighting to keep the other submissive. Though neither would ever intentionally hurt the other the emotions overrode and took over. It was a time both equated to riding a never-ending roller coaster ride. One minute intense heated arguments, sometimes complete with flying objects, to unbridled heated passion at the end. Even he admitted their make-up sessions usually held as much, if not more, intensity than the original argument.
He remembered Chris and Sarah usually smiling whenever the pair made up, because he and Nina became oblivious to the outside world. Neither was any good to anyone during or after the fights. And the fights often revolved around family.
Her family was another sore topic, and any mention or dealings with Bethany equated to an instant fight. He hated the way the woman treated her daughter, even confronting the Bitch about it. The confrontation went badly, putting Nina smack in the middle, and it made the love of his life act like a wounded, cornered animal, uncertain which way to turn. Much like she was now. Wounded, and licking her injuries. Right now, though, he didn’t think of her as cornered…more like resigned and giving up. And that scared him. Nina never gave up.
Buck learned to care for her and understand her a bit. He knew he needed to use patience to get her emotional equilibrium balanced enough to function. He’d rather have her call off work tonight, and stay home. But that was not possible with the shift the way it was. The department was already paying overtime for sector augmentation, so being this short handed meant personal leave would not be approved with last-minute notice. With everyone here, calling out sick was not an option, and he knew Nina hated using her sick leave.
“I know, Buck, but sometimes I have to deal with things alone. Circumstances made it happen that way a couple of times.”
“Baby, I just want you to know I’m here now.”
“You ever wonder if we’d still be married?”
Her question surprised him, more for the fact it was said aloud, because they rarely talked about ‘what ifs’. Maybe it was time. Buck shrugged against her back and gave her honesty. “Probably not…we would have killed each other before now.”
“At least we agree on something.”
Buck chuckled, “There’s always a first time for everything.”
Nina laughed. “As far as firsts, it was pretty special.”
Buck’s grin broadened, and he rolled her on her back, covering her, so she could see his wagging eyebrows. “Of course. You had the master.”
Nina thought of a song lyric from “Master of the House”, part of the Broadway musical Les Miserables, and sang. “Thinks he’s quite a lover, and there’s not much there.”
Buck removed his hands from around her body and covered his ears. “I’m wounded. In more ways than one.”
“Oh, come on. I know I can’t sing, but do you think I’d keep coming back if I hated it, and hated you?”
He traced a finger down her cheek. “Same here. What we had…and somewhat have now…is very special.”
“So how do we keep ending up like this? It’s like we know we can’t be together without killing each other, but we’re afraid to be apart.”
Buck kissed her temple again. “We realized a long time ago we make better friends. It’s a crutch I just can’t let go of.”
“You know, I think you were meant for the white picket fence, but I don’t think I ever was. What took us so long to realize it?”
Buck frowned. He knew most people saw him as a ‘Don Juan’ type, love ‘em and leave ‘em. Chris was the first to point out to him that he it was his opinion Buck was just desperately looking for the perfect woman to settle down with, and couldn’t wait to find her. Now here was Nina hitting on his secret wish and taking the majority of the blame for their failure as a couple on herself. It was time to remind her he made mistakes too, and he was just as wild as she was at times. “Don’t know. I thought my theme song was, ‘Don’t fence me in’.”
“Hey, if remember correctly, *you* were the one that wanted to get hitched and attach me as your bail and chain.”
“Must have been delusional…right?”
“Sure, Buck. That’s why we were in the middle of our vows when the chapel burned down.”
“Guess someone was trying to tell us something. We really weren’t meant to be…were we?”
She slowly shook her head, voicing the truth that neither of them wanted to say. It made all those years together seem longer than they were, and neither wanted to admit that it might have been a waste. “I guess not. But things would have been so different if we were married.”
Buck got a dreamy look in his eyes. “Yeah, we might have had a couple kids by now.”
“Kids.” Nina swallowed hard.
“With your spirit and my charm, they would have been beautiful.” He grinned at her. “Not to mention my outstanding, handsome looks, and your coloring. Damn. We’d have heartbreakers for sure.”
His mind filled with the long-forgotten images of dark haired, bright blue-eyed children laughing and carrying on, tall like him, with her spunk and tenacity. He could see them on the porch swing when they were old, sitting side-by-side as their grandchildren played around them.
Her voice adopted a far away quality and she focused on a point over his shoulder, not daring to look him in the face. “If we’d been married, a lot of bad things might not have happened. It would have been different. Better. So much less pain…and hurt…more like...”
“I wouldn’t have been alone when…” She trailed off, wiping her eyes again.
“When what, baby?” He held his breath hoping she might actually tell him some of the things that happened. The things that sucked the joy and energy out of her, leaving this living shadow behind. Buck believed they were pretty bad, considering how little he could find out about before there was a Four Corners Police Department. He’d notice all the pain in the faces whenever it was brought up, and unlike Chris, he let it go. He figured someone would eventually tell him what happened.
Vin and Nina were central to whatever it was, because a look, something he couldn’t define, always passed through the eyes of the people he talked to about the not-so-distant past. Something bound those two together, and if Vin helped her through whatever, more power to him. The obvious affection between them showed in their relationship, making this undercover assignment hard.
He hoped – no, he prayed – that Vin made it today, because Nina needed him to lift her up. Buck knew he was only putting a temporary bandage on a gaping wound, and the wound would overwhelm the bandage soon enough. It felt like a piece of his soul bled for her whenever he saw her in pain.
He loved seeing her like she was yesterday, and he wanted to see her that way more often. All these comments about her not caring about living upset him more than he wanted her to see.
He ached for her, wanting to know what could have been so bad, and wanting to help. But circumstances and fate kept them apart during those times. Now, he regretted the fact he never tried to look her up – not once – after she moved away from Nevada and out of his life. They'd been so close, he should have checked on her. But he didn’t, too wrapped up in saving Chris from himself, to give her more than a passing thought. He packed all the memories away, denying his own grief and not allowing himself to resolve his own issues.
He shoved his own feelings down deep where his best friend could not see them, because Nina always reminded Chris of Sarah, and that would set the grieving husband and father off on another binge. It had torn his heart in two having to choose between the two but he had. Only recently, did he begin to hope he might be able to repair the damage.
And there was considerable damage to repair. He remembered the way she treated him and Chris as strangers when they first saw her here, not even acknowledging their previous relationship. It hurt him deeply, and cut Chris to the quick, and he hated her for that.
Until he realized he deserved it, and Chris did too. They didn’t do anything to check on her, and she knew that. They let her go with anger and grief between all of them, and it hardened in her heart. For them, it was a betrayal on her part to leave when she did, right after Sarah and Adam died. But Josiah made him see that she felt betrayed too, because she lost more than her best friend and godson; she lost her beloved brother and father at the same time, and grief overwhelmed her.
Josiah gently pointed out that she needed them, but they let her go. She came back, but their own pain inflicted more grief and hurt on her for leaving in the first place, so she couldn’t stay. But what they couldn’t see, or refused to at the time, was that they had each other to lean on, and Nina had no one. Josiah explained that one of the major people that could have helped her was no longer there, and that created another void in her life. An empty void that could only be filled with friendship, time, mutual trust, and patience.
Buck realized Josiah was right, and after that, he did his best to work himself back into her good graces. He also noticed Josiah having quiet talks with Chris, and Chris taking the first steps toward rebuilding the friendships. It took a long time to regain her trust, for both of them, and some days, he wondered if he ever had it to begin with. All this flashed through his mind as he waited for her to answer his question.
Her next words thrust the Caswell wall of silence back in his face, shutting him out again. “It doesn’t matter now. It’s in the past, and it can stay buried there.” Nina sighed, wishing she could share some of the pain with him. Most of it was hers alone to bear, mistakes she made and tragedies too far in the past to relate now. “Buck, honey, some things I can’t share as much as I want to and others, well, we both have things we don’t talk about. Right now, I really, really don’t want to talk about it, especially with everyone just getting here.”
He understood. “I can wait, but we’re going to talk about this.”
“I know. It’s okay, right, because we’re friends.”
“The best.” He agreed as he tightened his grip around her.
“You know what?”
“I love you. It’s taken me awhile to realize that I’ll always love you. Some part of you will always be in my heart. No matter what happens. I want you to remember that.”
“I love you too, baby. Now, stop talking like that.”
“Answer me a question, honey.”
“If you found someone else, would you tell me?”
“Would you want me to?” He studied her.
“Yes. I’m just afraid we’re both going to get stuck in this rut. But I know we’re not going to be happy until we wean ourselves from the crutches.”
Buck sighed. “What about you? If you found someone else, would you tell me?”
“Yes. I don’t think it would be fair if we didn’t tell each other. I mean, we’ve always had an unspoken thing, but I don’t think we ever gave those other people a real chance. We knew we could fall back on each other if it didn’t work out.”
“So now we lose the crutches. What if we fall again?”
“I’ve picked myself up before. How about you?”
“With the help of a friend.” Buck held out his hands in self-defense at her look, a look quickly sliding into an enraged visage thinking he had not been listening. “Ears and shoulders only.”
“Okay, okay. Chris does have some nice shoulders.”
Buck laughed. “Don’t tell him, because he might get a big head.”
Nina snorted. “I’ve seen his head, and I don’t think that’s a problem.”
“Maybe not. He keeps it evened out with all that hot air he blows around.”
“That wasn’t what I meant, but okay. Sometimes I wonder how Sarah put up with him.”
“Because she loved him.”
“Yeah. Did it ever make you jealous watching them?”
“Yeah.” Buck admitted sadly. “Maybe that’s why I tried so hard.”
“I tried, Buck. My best…just wasn’t good enough. It never is.”
“Baby, I’m gonna hurt you if you keep talking like that. Even when everything goes right, things still don’t work out. But Fate’s put us back together again, and I’m counting on Fate and Lady Luck to keep us close friends.”
“I want to stay friends, Buck. I just don’t know what else I want in my life right now. If anything, or this…this…life after all. I’m unhappy, and I need to find some way to fix it. I’m getting pretty tired of being comfortable and just existing, if that makes any sense. Yesterday reminded me of how much I missed myself. I need to find that person again. If she’s still around. I don’t even know if that’s possible, but I have to try . . .maybe . . .when I get the energy. Way I feel right now, I could sleep for days.”
Buck was quiet for a moment before he answered. “I think we both need to do some hard thinking.”
“I know.” The small voice murmured against his chest. “But not right now.” Her head lifted and her body shifted against his in the old familiar pattern. “Right now I want…”
Buck played along. “You want what?”
The request surprised him, yet showed him again how much distance developed between them. Usually she asked for a kiss, not a hug. He knew that recently both of them started growing even further apart and kept more to themselves. He was not about to discuss how much and often Inez occupied his thoughts and daydreams, even when he was spending time with Nina. He wondered if she started feeling something for someone else, but was not sure what to do either.
Pushing all that to the side, his hand slid up her sides into her hair while his fingers curled around her neck and pulled her close. He gave her that smile. It was the smile that melted her heart the first time she saw it, but she would never let him know that. “Whenever you want to talk, let me know.” His hand tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
“At my service, huh?”
His head dipped a little and his smile brightened even further. “Always.”
Her answering smile gave him hope they might be able to talk it out later. Now, if she could keep smiling and not think…Buck knew one of her strengths and her biggest weakness was that she constantly analyzed everything, working through possibilities in her mind. Especially when it concerned her self-esteem. When she thought, she depressed herself, and then everything he did to cheer her up went to the wayside. “Ready to face the masses?”
Buck helped her to her feet and wrapped her in one last hug before leading her out of the bedroom. He let go of her hand at the top of the stairs and she gave him an unreadable look. Due to the nature of their jobs, they maintained the appearance they were not dating or sleeping together. In order to stay on the same squad, neither could acknowledge more than their past relationship and current friendship. Only Chris knew some of the truth. That occasionally they actually slept together, finding comfort in the other’s presence without sex. Sex rarely occurred anymore. Especially when they both realized it was more for the comfort that came in the familiarity. Just to have someone sleeping beside them to satisfy that need not to feel alone. The romantic feelings were nowhere near as strong as they needed to be to sustain a relationship. Even when the feelings were that strong, Fate stepped in.
She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and turned to give him a small sad smile. Reaching out she took his hand in hers and gave it a small squeeze. Looking into his eyes she took a deep breath, seeming to draw strength from what she saw there. Smiling, he tapped her nose and crooking his finger, clucked her under the chin. She laughed, leading him into the kitchen as she remembered how he used that action to silently tell her to keep her chin up. He was her good ol’ Buck, always there with just what she needed.