Lancer ANC AU
Disclaimer: We did have the papers that proved we owned them but during a PJPM bash in which the horse ended up sitting in the sink, the cat had kittens in the oven, the dog took over the remote and accessed an adult channel, the blasted Billy goat jimmied the lock on the file cabinet and ate all the papers.
And that was before we drank all the tequila.
Author’s note: In honor of James Stacy and the day of his birth.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Dad.” Johnny called, sniffling as the shower steam in the bathroom opened his sinus passages. Then, realizing his father couldn’t hear him over the running water, he spoke louder, “DAD!”
Peering over the frosted glass shower door, Murdoch failed to hide his surprise at seeing his youngest standing in his master bathroom. “What is it, Johnny?” he asked; wiping the water from his eyes. Johnny’s cheeks were flushed; from something more than the California sun. He studied the boy’s face with the critical eye of a concerned parent.
Johnny was at his whiny best; not caring how he sounded. “Why are you taking a shower this early? We aren’t goin’ out for supper again?” he asked, secretly hoping not as he wasn’t feeling his best. He had awoken this morning with a stuffy nose, and now his head was feeling cotton packed and his ears weren’t doing much better.
Murdoch shook his head. “No, we are not.” Used to multi-tasking, he resumed soaping himself. “Aggie and I are going out tonight. You boys are not invited and I will be out very…” he stressed the word, “…late. With Maria having the evening off, I thought you and Scott…” he cast an amused glance at his son when he heard the prolonged sigh at the news of the housekeeper’s absence “…could manage to liberate some of that pizza you’re so fond of from the freezer and throw it in the oven. You can handle putting something in Maria’s oven without burning down the house?” he teased. Growing concerned when -- instead of complaining -- Johnny brushed his sweaty bangs out of his eyes and heaved yet another long sigh, the tall Scot turned off the water.
“I don’t think I’m gonna be wantin’ any supper,” Johnny muttered. The vise gripping his head seemed to tighten; causing it to ache even more. The news his father was going out and had announced he was going to be ‘very’ late -- as in probably making a booty call -- didn’t help.
Not liking the subdued mood of his youngest or the signs of impending illness, Murdoch debated cutting his shower short. He changed his mind. “Wait in my room, Johnny. I’ll be finished in just a minute, and then we’ll talk.”
Watching as Johnny shuffled out of the bathroom; Murdoch cranked the water back up and resumed his chore. Quickly, he shampooed and shaved. Then, the steam beginning to dissipate, he shut the water off and stepped out onto the thick plush rug. Donning his robe, he paused just long enough to comb his wet hair into place.
Marching out into his room, Murdoch’s quick pace stalled when he failed to see Johnny in either of the chairs in front of the small fireplace. A sniffle drew his attention to the custom-made bed. Johnny had crawled into the center of the over sized bed and was stretched out with his head buried in the pillows, sound asleep. The boy -- who had an annoying habit of sleeping in the raw no matter the weather -- had shed his Levis and boxers before drifting off, his bare behind and white socks a stark contrast against the dark spread.
Shaking his head at his son’s lack of modesty, Murdoch strode quietly to the bedside; resisting the urge to smack the boy’s behind. Instead, he perched on the edge of the mattress and reached across to tenderly feel Johnny’s forehead. His fingers drifted down to the youth’s cheek, a frown coming at the warmth he detected. Ever since Johnny’s abduction and subsequent hospital stay due to the injection of unknown drugs into his system, they had -- in spite of the youth’s loud and continuous objections -- been very cautious at the slightest hint of sickness. Thoughts of canceling his plans and staying home had the big man grimacing in indecision.
Johnny’s eyes fluttered opened as he became aware of a hand cupping his cheek. “What’re you doin’, Dad?” he rasped, sniffing as he felt drainage seeping down the back of his throat. Tugging at the hem of his shirt, he tried to wriggle free of his father’s grasp and turned over.
Murdoch stubbornly held on. “You’re warm and your face is flushed. Now how are you really feeling?” he asked.
The youth debated how much of a lie he was going to tell. He felt like shit, but knew he wasn’t dying; and while he craved his father’s touch and attention, there was a part of him that often rebelled. Still, if bein’ sick could keep the Old Man from hookin’ up with Aggie… “I think I’m getting’ a head cold,” he whimpered. “My nose and ears are clogged; my throat feels like it’s on fire, and my mouth tastes like it’s full of sh… crap.” He faked a cough.
“Wait right here,” Murdoch instructed. He rose up from the bed and headed back to the bathroom. When he returned, he was carrying a tympanic thermometer and a bottle of liquid green medicine. He set the cough syrup on the night table and popped the cover from the thermometer; gently pulling the shell of Johnny’s ear to get the right placement. Clicking the button to activate the device, he couldn’t resist scolding his son. “I think your swim in the cattle pond the other day is catching up with you.” He frowned when he removed the thermometer and saw the 100.1 displayed on the read out.
Reaching for the bottle of Nyquil, Murdoch picked it up and raised it to read the instructions. Because of his weight and height, the normal dose didn’t work for him; and he always took two capfuls of the medication. Johnny, however, was much smaller in stature and around seventy pounds lighter. He decided the recommended thirty ml dose would be more than adequate for his son. Measuring out the correct amount into the provided cup, Murdoch handed it over. “Sit up and drink this. If you take some now you can have more in six hours.” He checked the clock on the far mantle. “That would be ten tonight. I think it would be a good idea for you to rest this evening, and then turn in early. Hopefully a couple of doses of this will knock that head cold out before it can travels to your chest.”
Dropping his chin, Johnny peered up through his long lashes at his father; his expression much the same as a puppy that knew it was about to be abandoned. “You aren’t goin’ to stay home with me?” Seeing the slight frown that suddenly appeared on his father’s face, he obediently swallowed the medicine, gagging and sticking his tongue out over the taste. There was no way in hell he was going to be taking this shit again come ten o’clock!
Shaking his head in at his son’s much exaggerated ploy for attention; Murdoch chose to ignore the question. “Son, you have got to get over this tendency of jealousy towards anyone that garners mine or Gramp’s attention,” he chided.
Johnny’s mouth quirked in a petulant frown, and he began toying with the edge of the pillow slip. “I’m not jealous,” he huffed. “I’m just tryin’ to keep you two old goats from bein’ led off by a couple’a gold diggers.” Glaring up at his father, he thrust the medicine cup back; then retreated into a tight self hug, his chin once again resting against his chest; his eyes hidden.
Biting his tongue and trying to exercise patience he didn’t really have, Murdoch took a deep breath. “Aggie is not a gold digger,” he ground out. “She doesn’t need a man to support her. Not only is she very independent, she is also quite wealthy.”
Yawning and stretching, Johnny’s face puckered with yet another pout as he flipped onto his left side and snuggled down into the pillow. “If you say so…” he snorted, the words trailing off as he fell asleep midsentence.
Chuckling at the speed at which Johnny could fall asleep, Murdoch rose and grabbed the quilt from the foot of the bed and spread it over his slumbering son; tucking the blanket around the boy’s bare behind. Deciding he better discuss this evening’s plans with Scott, he headed down the hall to his older son’s room. Knocking, he waited until he heard a response before opening the door.
“Come in,” Scott called. Seated at his desk, he looked up; surprised when he saw his father was in his robe. “Are you turning in for the night already?” he grinned.
“No,” Murdoch chuckled. “I was getting ready for an evening out with Aggie. What are your plans for the evening?”
Scott leaned back in his chair; his long arms lifting above his head as he stretched, an audible pop coming as he flexed his fingers. “Nothing much.” He nodded at his laptop. “I thought I would catch up on some emails with my friends in D.C. With the time difference between here and the east coast, it’s easier to answer an email at my leisure than to try and time a phone call.”
Murdoch nodded. “Good. I’m glad you’re staying in tonight.” He contemplated his next words, and then decided to simply lay it on the table. “I need you to keep an eye on your brother. He’s running a slight temp, and it appears he’s getting a head cold. I gave him some Nyquil and he can have another dose at ten. I want you to make sure he gets it; and that he makes it to his bed.”
A quizzical look passed over Scott’s face. “Make sure he makes it to his bed. May I ask where he is now?”
There was a sudden guffaw from the older man. “He’s tucked into my bed. Surprisingly, he sought me out while I was in the shower. “I don’t doubt he’s not feeling well, Scott; but he certainly isn’t as sick as he’s pretending to be.” A wry smile touched the older man’s lips. “Your brother had the gall to actually attempt to use the situation to keep me from seeing Aggie tonight.”
Scott snorted. Johnny wasn’t above trying the same trick with him when he was feeling slighted; and the boy was an expert at laying it on when he felt the need. He rubbed at his tanned chin with his slender fingers, a slow smile coming as he addressed his father. “You know, sir, it’s quite amazing that -- for someone who expects us to open our hearts to every stray that crosses his path or he manages to drag home -- Johnny’s biggest character flaw is his unwillingness to share with anyone else those he considers his very own.”
There was a brief moment of reflective silence as Murdoch second-guessed years of decisions he now regretted. “I suppose there are a lot worse flaws a person can have.” The big man took a deep breath, the next words coming softly. “He’s just not used to sharing, Scott. As the center of Jelly’s universe for so many years, he was the only chick being watched over by one very extreme mother hen. In a way we did him a big disservice, though with the best of intentions.”
Scott had turned his attention back to the laptop; ashamed at the ‘I told you so’ that momentarily crossed his mind. As much as he wished that he and Johnny’s life had been different, it was not within his power -- or his father’s -- to change the past. His mood lightening, he smiled up at his sire. “I’ll keep an eye on him, sir,” he promised. “Any special instructions?”
For some reason, Murdoch felt a sense of pleasure as he issued the baby-sitting instructions. “Just don’t let him decide he’s feeling fine, or let him get some wild hair about staying up and playing all night on that damned game of his.” He took a breath. “I suggested the two of you could manage to heat up some frozen pizza without burning down the hacienda.” The next came as a warning; based on past experiences. “No carbonated drinks,” he cautioned. “He doesn’t need the sugar or the caffeine. There are plenty of fruit juices and milk in the refrigerator, and Sam said it was better to get his vitamins and minerals through food sources than supplements.” He turned to leave, reaching out to pat his son’s back; stopping when another thought occurred to him. “I will of course have my cell; if you need me.” It was clear from his tone and his demeanor he hoped that wouldn’t happen.
Amusement lit Scott’s eyes as he watched his father march out of his room, thick terry robe flapping about his long legs. He thought it quite laughable that his dad had called Jelly an extreme mother hen. If Jelly was extreme, Scott mused, then his father was an oversized mother hen. Chuckling to himself, the blond Lancer went back to review his emails, deleting the ones that were spam or didn’t need responses, and replying to the ones that required answering. One hour later he was interrupted when his personal ringtone, Anchors Aweigh began to play on his cell.
“Hello,” Scott answered distractedly; continuing to type one handed as spoke into the phone.
“Hi, Scott,” purred a teasing voice filled with innuendo, “can you guess who this is?”
“Julie,” Scott answered immediately. A picture formed in his mind; a female cougar lounging on a bed of scarlet satin, and he shifted in his chair as the seductive voice woke his groin. Visions of the dark haired beauty curled up in his bed, nude, her pale alabaster skin peeking out of the sheet draped over strategic areas of her body flooded his thoughts. He had once fancied himself married to the young woman; but both of them had come to their senses. The parting had been mutual, and reasonably friendly.
Julie’s tinkling laugh drew his mind back to the present. “Scott, did you hear a word I just said?”
Oh, he’d heard her alright. His entire body had heard her. “I’m sorry. I was trying to answer emails. Let me save this one I was working on and logoff so I can give you my full attention,” he said; quickly maneuvering his finger over the mouse pad to do just that. “Now to what do I owe the pleasure of your call?” he asked as the laptop began to shutdown.
“I’m visiting my cousin in Morro Coyo and it got me to thinking about you because I recalled this is where your father’s ranch is. So tell me what little corner of the world are you in right now? I hope it’s not in a time zone that makes this call come at an inappropriate hour,” Julie replied.
Scott’s face brightened and a lustful smile bloomed on his mouth at the close proximity of his former lover. “You’re not going to believe it but I am right here in Morro Coyo, in fact I’m in my room at the ranch. What do you say we meet for drinks and dinner, catch up on each other’s lives and perhaps discuss old times?”
Julie sighed, disappointment shading her voice. “Oh, Scott, I wish I could but I promised to spend the evening with my cousin, Marilyn. I’m just on a layover here. I leave in the morning for a modeling assignment in the Orient. Isn’t this just the story of our lives, lately, two ships passing in the night?”
Seeing all chances of a romantic encounter with an ex-flame flying out the window, Scott decided some contact was better than none, so he offered an alternative solution. “Bring her with you.”
A long, quavering sigh came from the other end of the ‘phone. “I would, but she’s just broken up with her boyfriend. I don’t want her to feel like a fifth wheel. You don’t understand, Scott; what it’s like to be a twenty year old girl pining to be noticed by the opposite sex,” the woman sighed. Not that she, herself, had ever had that problem.
Slumping dejectedly for a moment, the urgent desire for the company of an obviously willing member of the gentler sex spurred Scott’s naturally conniving mind. “How about if I bring a companion for Marilyn? Would you be willing to meet then?” Scott inquired.
“Who would you get?” Julie purred, warming to the thoughts of spending the evening with the handsome Navy SEAL.
Grinning widely as he sensed victory, a bright smile bloomed on Scott’s face. “Julie,” he teased, shifting in his seat slightly to ease the beginnings of an erection, “do I detect doubt in your voice that I can pull this off? My dear, you’re forgetting in the military we come in groups, squads, platoons, battalions. Don’t worry. I will appear on your doorstep with a handsome escort for your cousin, and he will be an officer and a gentleman.”
Lounging in her own bed at the other end of the line, Julie clicked a red painted nail against her front teeth, a wicked smile crossing her equally red lips as she indulged in some carnal fantasies of her own. “Scott, why don’t we meet at Gigolos Italian Bistro at seven o’clock? That way we’ll have two cars in case we decide to continue our evening after we have dinner,” she murmured, the seductive tone of her voice making her intent plain.
Glancing at his watch and noting the time was five o’clock, Scott realized he had around two hours to round up another male, get ready, and then make it to the restaurant. “I like the way you think, Julie. It’s a date,” he stated, confident he’d be able to talk one of the able bodied soldiers currently residing at the ranch for training into an all expense paid night out. So certain was he that his plan would work out, the assigning of someone to keep Johnny company didn’t even warrant as much as an afterthought.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Forty-five minutes after speaking with Julie, an agitated Scott Lancer marched down the hall towards his father’s bedroom. He couldn’t believe what he was about to do but he was desperate. How was he to know when he promised a date for Julie’s cousin that the entire contingent of military personnel on TDY at the ranch was confined to quarters after a spectacular foul-up? He cursed his bad luck. If there was a God in Heaven, he mused, Julie’s visit would have coincided with Larabee and his Mag-7 team’s scheduled field training, still a week away. Vin would have been the perfect age to pair up with Julie’s cousin; and J.D. would have been just right to keep Johnny entertained.
Slowing his steps, Scott quietly entered his father’s inner sanctum and soft-footed it across the room, straight to the large bed. He snickered silently as he gazed down at his little brother. Johnny was sprawled flat on his belly across the middle of the over-sized bed, looking for all the world like a toddler adrift in a vast sea. His hair was tousled and tangled about his face and drool was running down his chin as he breathed through his mouth due to his stuffy nose; a slight whistle sounding every time he took a breath. He looked so young and so vulnerable.
Amused, Scott watched as his baby brother shifted position on the bed; Johnny’s socked left foot suddenly poking out from beneath the quilt, as if he was preparing to run. Still deeply asleep, the boy kicked out again, exposing his tanned leg. The struggle with the blanket continued until not only his thigh was exposed, but also a portion of his bare backside; before the youth finally settled in.
Scott felt a momentary twinge of conscience, and he reached out to rearrange the quilt. But then the devil on his left shoulder bitch slapped the angel on his right; before the celestial being could even get out a single word of warning. Wickedness in full bloom, the little Lucifer talked Scott into using his cell phone camera to snap a few shots of the incriminating scene for future ‘persuasion’.
Pocketing his phone, Scott sat on the edge of the bed and gently shook his little brother’s shoulder. He snickered at the disgruntled contortions of the youth’s face as the boy struggled to wake from his medicinal induced slumber. Johnny had always been the cranky type if awakened before he was well rested.
“Leave me alone, Scott,” Johnny grumbled, bordering on whining as he burrowed his face into the pillows in effort to ignore his big brother.
“Come on, Johnny, wake up and talk to me,” Scott encouraged, using his best cajoling voice.
“NO!” Johnny exclaimed as he snuggled deeper into the bed and slid his head under the pillow. Pressing his white sock clad foot against his brother’s thigh, he tried to push the older man off the bed.
“All right be that way,” Scott taunted. “If you’d rather spend the evening snoozing in your Daddy’s bed instead of going out for Italian food with two lovely ladies…well, be my guest.” Silently, he counted to five, lifting a finger in cadence as he ticked the numbers off.
By the time Scott raised his pinky on the count of five, Johnny had flipped over and was sitting up, eyeing his brother suspiciously. Wiping his chin on the shoulder of his shirt, and then raising his hand and scratching at his head, Johnny asked, “What are you ramblin’ on about?” He glared at his brother, and then yawned so wide his eyes watered.
Smiling like he was about to do Johnny the biggest favor of his young life, Scott leaned in and shared his secret as he whispered in his brother’s ear. “I have arranged for us to meet two very lovely young ladies at Gigolo’s Italian Bistro for a delightful evening of titillating conversation and the best pizza -- not frozen -- this side of the Mississippi River.”
Scrubbing at his face with sleep jerky hands, and then poking a finger in his ear as though trying to clear it out, Johnny perked right up. “What was that about ladies and tits?”
“Titillating conversation,” Scott corrected, scowling at his brother’s coarse language.
“Oh…so we’re just gonna talk about tits…talk and look but don’t touch,” Johnny inquired innocently, taking delight in watching his older brother’s ears wiggle as he clenched his teeth and jaw tightly.
Scott made a move to get up from the bed. “All right, all right,” he said, shaking his head. He timbre of his voice was changing, his tone now similar to the one he used when he was playing the older, wiser brother; as if he were addressing a five-year-old. “Since you don’t think you’re mature or suave enough to entertain a twenty year old beauty; I’ll just cancel the plans…”
Johnny wasn’t entirely convinced his brother was serious about cancelling; in fact he had a growing suspicion Scott was actually a tad desperate. He decided to string him along, just for the hell of it. “I promised Dad I would rest and turn in early,” he said solemnly. He waited a beat, grinning in smug satisfaction when he saw the blond’s sudden frown. Sure of the game, he kept playing. “’Course, I have rested and I did turn in early. I don’t recall me or him mentionin’ a specific time that I would get up,” he grinned wickedly. Seeing the look of relief lighting Scott’s face, the little snot-puppy couldn’t resist dashing his brother’s hopes just one more time. “Oops. Sorry, brother,” he shrugged, “…but I did promise the Old Man I’d take another cup of this Nyquil crap at ten.” If he was guilty for the lie, it didn’t show.
Cuffing his now smirking brother up side his tousled head, Scott snatched the medicine bottle up and shook it in Johnny’s face. “This bottle is portable. We can take it with us and you won’t have to miss a single dose.”
Snickering, Johnny looked at his brother. “Well, that has me followin’ the instructions, I guess. Now what did you promise him? And don’t tell me nothin’ ‘cause I know the old man told you to look out for me.” Shaking his head, Johnny continued. “He thinks I don’t know he’s got people watchin’ out for me all the time, like I’m some fuc… freakin’ baby, or somethin’.” Scooting forward on the bed, Johnny got right in Scott’s face and declared with self-righteous indignation, “The other day he actually grabbed the power cord for my laptop out of my hand and plugged it in for me because -- accordin’ to him -- the electrical outlet could bite me!” He snorted. “Like I was gonna wet my finger and stick it in the outlet or somethin’ stupid like that!”
Scott’s right eyebrow arched, almost disappearing into his hair line as he recalled his little brother’s all-too-recent prank involving Teresa during her brief visit after her father’s death. Johnny had actually talked the girl into holding his hand as he stuck a horseshoe nail into one side of a GFI outlet in the kitchen; kicking the main circuit breaker and plunging the entire house into utter darkness.
But not before the hair on Teresa’s head and arms stood on end and her bladder let loose on the tiled floor: giving the bare-footed girl an even bigger zap. “Teresa?” Scott reminded sarcastically. It had been two hours before the damned girl had finally quit crying and shut up.
Weaving to the side to miss the mock punch Johnny threw at his head, Scott stood up. He reached out, pulling his brother off the bed. “I promised to keep an eye on you, which will be easy since you will be with me,” he said. Holding up the medicine, he continued the list. “I told him I would make sure you got another dose of this at ten, which is why we will take it with us. I promised I would make sure you made it to your own bed, but he, nor I, specified a time. I also agreed I would feed you pizza for supper, which I will at the restaurant.” His brow furrowed as if he were trying to remember. “I also promised not to let you have any sugary or carbonated drinks.”
Johnny was grinning ear to ear. “Fine by me! Ain’t nothin’ better with pizza than an ice cold beer,” he exclaimed, cutting his eyes around to gauge his brother’s reaction.
Vigorously shaking his head in a General Lancer fashion, Scott disagreed. “Uh un… there’s no way I will buy alcohol for a minor. Not only could I get in trouble with the law but our father would pull rank and torture me in ways that would make guard duty at the gates of Hell seem like a vacation.” Just the thought of it had Scott paling as he dragged his brother towards the door.
Johnny tried to dig his heels in but his white socks slid across the polished wood floor as Scott continued to haul him along. Johnny protested, ‘Shit, Scott, if you go orderin’ me a fuckin’ glass of milk with my pizza the girls are gonna know I’m a minor.”
Scott kept tugging. “First of all, little brother, they are ladies, not girls. I don’t think they would appreciate being addressed as such,” he warned, raising his eyebrows for emphasis. Then, with one hand still firmly holding Johnny’s arm, he poked his brother in the chest with a rigid finger. “Second, there is such a thing as non-alcoholic beer…which we will both drink, using the excuse we have field maneuvers tomorrow and therefore cannot consume alcohol.”
The disgust and disappointment immediately marred Johnny’s otherwise perfect face; the corners of his mouth turning down in the all too familiar pout that made him look even younger. “Jeez, Scott. You and the old man sure know how to suck the joy right out of life.” His outburst totally ignored, he was abruptly pulled forward as Scott resumed their trek out of the room. “Where are we goin’ now?” he groused, a hint of the bored rebellious teenager surfacing. “I didn’t agree to nothin’ yet.”
Scott, his physical needs overriding his better sense, pulled out the big guns. “We are going to your room to find something appropriate for you to wear tonight; because you are going. Don’t make me pull out a little sibling blackmail,” he threatened.
Johnny pulled up short; wrestling away from his brother’s grasp and holding out his arms as he did a slow turn. “What the hell’s wrong with what I have on,” he demanded.
The blond snorted. “Aside from the fact you seemed to have lost your pants somewhere, and there is nothing covering the family jewels except a fire red t-shirt with a picture of a monkey slipping on a banana peel and the caption ‘I do all my own stunts’? What is it with you and monkeys anyway?” Scott asked, throwing up his hands; recalling his brother’s tattoo. He resumed his spiel before Johnny could answer. “Plus a severe case of bed head that only serves to make you look even more like a teenager.”
If Johnny was bothered by his partial nudity, it didn’t show. “I am a teenager,” he protested as he found himself being pulled along again by his highly impatient older brother.
“Not tonight you aren’t! Tonight you are a young officer and a gentleman,” Scott announced as he once again jabbed his little brother in the chest with a slender finger to emphasis his point.
“Hot damn,” Johnny exclaimed warming to the idea. “Can I be a general? I been on the other side of Dad’s commands enough I could bark out orders in my sleep.”
Rolling his eyes at Johnny’s pie in the sky dreams, Scott snorted. It didn’t help that a flash of memory -- a scene from The Dirty Dozen with Donald Sutherland’s simpleton character reviewing the troops -- came back to haunt him. “You’re too young to be a general! You’re going to have to settle for a lieutenant…that is if we can find a way to make you look older. If not we’ll make you a non-com.” The petulant pout reappeared on Johnny’s face, prompting Scott to grab his arm and begin pulling him along again even more determinedly. “Come on, we don’t have all day. We’re meeting the ladies at seven.”
The brothers stumbled down the hall as they worked against each other, pushing and pulling and exchanging half-hearted punches. Upon entering Johnny’s room Scott skidded to a shocked stop. The bed was unmade, drawers were open with clothes hanging out, sneakers and boots littered the floor, dirty dishes sat on the dresser, desk and night table, and a single sock was caught on the slowly rotating blade of the ceiling fan. To Scott’s meticulous eye, it looked like the contents of the room had been thrown into a blender on high speed without bothering to secure the lid.
“Dad will kill you if he sees this room like this,” the blond observed sagely, shaking his head as he kicked shoes and boots out of the way and cleared a path to the bed. He plopped down but jumped right back up at the strange crinkling sound coming from the rumpled sheets. Pulling back the covers, Scott snorted at the discovery of the latest issue of Playboy, opened to the centerfold. “I see you’ve been expanding your mind…as well as other parts of your anatomy,” he scolded.
Snatching the magazine and secretly grateful it wasn’t his prized back issue of Hustler, Johnny flung the monthly rag so it hit the wall above the headboard, and then slid behind it to fall to the floor. He shrugged. “I don’t read the shitty articles, or them stupid letters to the editor; I just look at the naked women.”
Grabbing Johnny in a headlock, Scott pulled him to the closet and pushed him against the wall. “Stand right there while I attempt to find something…” he grimaced at the sparse collection of clothing that was still actually on the hangers, “…reasonably appropriate for this evening’s outing,” he ordered.
“Dang, Scott…I’m beginning to think you’ve been watchin’ that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy show. You sure there ain’t somethin’ you need to be confessin’,” Johnny teased wagging an accusing finger at his sibling, knowing full well what a ladies’ man his brother was.
“I confess I’m going to fubar you, if you don’t get it in gear,” Scott replied, his voice muffled as he sorted through the clothes. “Ah hah,” Scott exclaimed as turned from the closet holding three items: a pair of grey dress pants, an oxford shirt in a shade of electric blue and a black leather blazer. “This will be perfect,” Scott crowed, delighted his plan seemed to finally be coming together.
Stubbornly shaking his head, Johnny held up his right hand in protest. “Uh-uh. No way. Those are church pants. They’ll look stupid with that leather coat; which you know damned well I don’t like ‘cause it’s too long. Hell, I can’t even get to my pockets without movin’ it out of the way! Shirt’s okay, I guess. I like the color… it’s just kind of plain.” Crossing his arms, Johnny glared defiantly at his brother.
Aggravated, the blond let out a long breath. The clock was ticking, and he didn’t have time to indulge his little brother’s belligerent mood. Whipping out his cell phone, he quickly emailed some of his saved pictures to his computer. Then, turning the phone for Johnny to view the screen, he announced, “Resistance is futile, little brother. Unless you want these pictures posted on your Facebook page.” To reinforce his argument, he manipulated the zoom bar on the LG Triton touch screen, enlarging the picture to zero in on his brother’s bare posterior. “You will go with the flow.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped opened when he saw a picture of himself snuggled down in his father’s bed; drool on his face, his hair raked at wild angles, and his buck-naked left buttock sticking out before God and everybody. Still not willing to give in so fast, even though secretly he was looking forward to a night away from the ranch, he laughed. “You don’t know my password.”
Laughing derisively as his golden brows arched up into his hairline Scott scoffed. “Oh, please. That’s a mere technicality. You’re forgetting I worked in Naval Intelligence in encryption and code cracking. Besides, you’re not fooling me! I know you’re as anxious for some fun time as I am.” Stubbornly, Scott deftly guided Johnny towards their shared bathroom.
“Where are we goin’ now?” Johnny questioned as he realized they were once again on the move.
“You’re going to get a quick shower while I go dress. I’ll be back to help you tame that mop you call hair,” Scott announced, ruffling Johnny’s sweat-damp curls and pushing him into the bathroom. He hung his brother’s clothes on the brass hook on the back of the door, and then turned towards his own room.
A ripple of excitement coursed through Johnny as he stepped towards the shower. Cranking up the control, he pulled the knob full out to allow the water to heat up; and shrugged out of his shirt. Goose bumps popped out on his skin from the chill in the tiled bathroom and his low grade fever, causing him to shiver as he stepped in the shower. The hot water eased the slight febrile aches of his body and opened his clogged sinus passages, and the anticipation of a nice evening had him immediately feeling better. He swiftly soaped up and rinsed. He started to reach for Scott’s expensive Aveda shampoo but changed his mind. He snickered when he realized the bottle was as full as the day it was put in the shower while his Johnson’s Baby shampoo and Tame conditioner and detangler was over half gone. He had stuck with the baby shampoo all these years because he didn’t like to chance his eyes being irritated by anything during competition season…not to mention the fact the girls at school loved the smell of his hair.
Scott returned while Johnny was still standing under the shower letting the hot water beat down on him to rinse the conditioner from his hair and the last of the congestion from his head. The youth was startled and almost lost his footing when the shower door opened, the water ceased and a towel was tossed over his head.
“Let’s move it, little brother,” Scott ordered as he drew Johnny from the stall.
Briskly rubbing the thick terry cloth over his hair, Johnny’s muffled voice rumbled into the steamy silence. “You ain’t got to be so bossy. I’m the one doin’ you a favor by goin’. I don’t need your help to sneak out for a night on the town.” Pulling the towel down and wrapping it around his slender waist, he added, “I slipped out on Gramps plenty of times.” He wisely stopped short of boasting about his trip down the hacienda’s laundry chute.
Knowing full well what his brother was thinking and choosing to ignore it, Scott maneuvered Johnny over to the toilet. “Sit,” he ordered. “I need to do something with this hair. It’s a bit long for regulation, but if we use some mousse in it and brush it away from your face it might pass muster; as well as make you look a bit older.” Scott turned to the medicine cabinet and began to sort through the hygiene products.
A sharp whistle rent the air as Johnny commented on Scott’s attire of tan dress slacks, navy blue oxford shirt and a brown leather blazer. “Lookin’ sharp, Boston. I guess what you’re wearin’ and what you picked out for me is the standard off duty uniform of officers.”
Cuffing his baby brother on the ear with the can of mousse, Scott nodded. “Only officers with good taste and a sense of personal savoir faire,” he bragged. “Sit still,” he ordered as he sprayed a dollop of the foam in his palm and began to work it through Johnny’s thick silky strands. Grabbing the hair dryer and choosing a low and warm setting, he pointed at Johnny’s head and continuously finger brushed his hair back until it was dry.
The drone of the dryer ended and Johnny jumped up, anxious to see his ‘older’ look in the mirror. His mouth dropped open and a look of disgust flashed in his blue eyes. “I don’t like it,” he grumbled, running his fingers through the stubborn waves. “It looks like the wind is holdin’ it back.
“I’m not finished,” Scott snapped, picking up a tube of hair gel, squeezing a bit out he smeared it over his fingers and then worked it into Johnny’s scalp. Finally the fly away strands were tamed into place.
Turning his head from side to side and jutting his chin out, Johnny admired the new style. “Well…how do I look?” he asked as his eyes connected with Scott’s in the mirror.
Snickering at his brother’s posturing, Scott retorted, “Like a teenager with a really nice hair style. It’s too bad you can’t grow a mustache or at least some hint of a five o’clock shadow.
Indignant, Johnny pulled himself erect; only to feel the usual frustration of knowing he was still shorter than his older brother and probably always would be. “Hey, don’t be blaming me for not having facial hair! You barely got any peach fuzz yourself,” Johnny exclaimed in his defense. “Besides, even if I had facial hair, I couldn’t grow a mustache in the next hour.”
Scott reached out, tugging the curls on the nape of this brother’s neck. “You could if it would grow as fast as this hair on your head.” As soon as the words left his mouth Scott’s eyes lit with unholy glee.
“Oh…no,” Johnny protested when he saw the metamorphosis of his brother’s face in the mirror, whirling around he raised his arms and pressed his palms against the blond’s chest, pushing him away. “Why is it, Dad never catches you when you get in one of these moods to bend the rules? I get in enough trouble of my own without you leadin’ me into more.”
Rubbing his hands together in happy anticipation, Scott crowed, “You worry too much,” he mocked. “Dad doesn’t catch me because I know how to plan out a mission. I have strategy skills. Now back to our problem, do you have any glue?”
“I got a glue stick in my desk drawer,” Johnny replied, confusion wrinkling his brow as Scott dashed from the bathroom.
From the hallway Scott shouted, “You get dressed while I get the glue and your belt, socks and boots.”
“I can’t,” Johnny hollered back. “I need some shorts unless you expect me to go commando!” Stepping in front of the full length mirror, he continued to admire his reflection. “You look marvelous, darlin’,” he complimented himself, snickering as he dropped the towel from his waist and retrieved his shirt from the hanger and put it on.
Rushing back in, Scott did a double take at the sight of his brother clad in only an oxford shirt, his family jewel peeking out from beneath the tail of the shirt. Shaking his head at his baby brother’s total lack of decorum, Scott tossed him his shorts. “Here,” he said, laying the belt and a pair of socks -- black dress socks -- on the vanity top. Holding his breath, he waited.
Surprisingly, instead of arguing, Johnny only frowned at the socks, and then slipped them on. While Johnny finished dressed, Scott rummaged through the drawer until he found the Wahl hair clipping kit. Chortling in delight over the discovery he popped the kit open and removed the scissors. Maneuvering the scissors open and shut so they made a metallic snip snap sound, Scott turned to his brother and grinned.
Johnny looked up from threading his belt through the loops of his waistband and spied the cutting implement in his brother’s hand. The sight of the scissors and the annoying snip-snip prompted an immediate protest. “Just what the hell do you think you’re goin’ to do with those?” he demanded, pointing a nervous finger.
“I’m going to take a lock of hair from the nape of your neck,” Scott replied calmly, raising his hand to forestall the inevitable argument about to burst forth from Johnny’s mouth. “Just enough to fashion you a mustache. I’ll take it from the underside, and you’ll never know it was cut.” Johnny was really touchy about his hair. Scott grinned across at his brother, and then in his best ‘I’m the older and wiser brother’ voice’, he began to bargain. “Come on, Johnny,” he cajoled, “the ladies will be left all alone if we don’t hurry...”
Eyes wide and breathing deep, Johnny pursed his lips and watched Scott’s reflection in the mirror as his brother approached with the scissors. The second the blond touched his neck, he reflexively scrunched up his shoulders in a subconscious effort to protect his hair.
Scott’s right hand smacked against his brother’s shoulder. “Stop wiggling! You’re making this harder than getting a hold of a greased worm,” he ordered. Then, during Johnny’s momentary stillness as he was thinking up a smart-assed retort, Scott quickly clipped a lock.
“HEY!” Johnny shouted; desperately feeling the back of his head to make sure he had not been scalped. He could swear he actually felt a breeze just above his collar; something entirely foreign to his being. “Watch it, brother!” Before he could voice another objection, Scott pushed him down onto the closed toilet lid, carefully holding the snippet of hair caught between the index and middle finger of his left hand.
“Sit still,” Scott commanded for what seemed the hundredth time. Picking up the glue stick, he palmed it and used his slender fingers to force the cap up and off. “Shit…it’s purple!” he exclaimed.
“It’s purple so you can see where you’re putting it,” Johnny informed his brother; wondering how a Harvard graduate could be so stupid sometimes, “but it dries clear.”
Wielding the glue like a tube of lipstick, Scott painted a thin but dense purple line beneath Johnny’s nose; to both corners of the boy’s mouth. Then, carefully, he pressed the strands of dark hair against his brother’s upper lip. “Close your mouth and eyes so I can blow the excess hair out the way.”
Several puffs of air buffeted Johnny’s face as he clamped his lips together and his eyes shut. Too late he realized he should have pinched his nostrils closed as some of the fine hairs went up his nose and caused a sneezing attack. On the first sneeze his and Scott’s heads collided causing the brothers to shout in unison, “Ouch…damn!”
Powering to his feet, Johnny pushed Scott to the side and turned to look in the mirror. “It looks like a hairy purple bruise,” he complained. “This doesn’t make me look older; it makes me look like a freakin’ idiot!”
Scott hid the smile with a not-so-subtle brush his hand against his own mouth. “Let’s turn the hair dryer on it and sees how it looks with the glue dried,” he suggested. Grabbing the dryer, he flipped the switch on.
A blast of hot air hit Johnny in the face causing him to gasp as his breath was snatched from him. The warm forceful current dislodged several shafts of clipped hair, blowing them into his mouth. Johnny’s reaction was the same as it had been all his life upon finding a hair in his mouth; he began to gag, wiping frantically at his tongue. His face took on a sickly white and color and the next thing he knew, Scott had pushed his face down into the sink and was ladling water into his mouth with his hand. Rinsing and spitting, the hairs were finally expelled.
Scott watched as Johnny collapsed back down onto the toilet seat. When the youth began to scrub his hands through his hair; Scott grabbed his wrist and stopped him. “Little brother, I will never understand how you can consume food so spicy it would eat a hole in a cast iron pot; but when you get a hair in your mouth you just about turn yourself inside out gagging and throwing up.”
Recovered, Johnny brushed the stay hairs from his clothes. “Oh man…I don’t think I’m cut out for this undercover work,” he breathed.
“AH HAH!” Scott shouted, startling Johnny. “Undercover…they teach disguising skills to the men who do undercover work. There’s a professional kit for that sole purpose in the classroom inside the old Chapel building.” Quickly grabbing a washcloth, he wet and soaped it and slapped it into Johnny’s hand. “Here. Wipe your lips clean while I put your boots on you,” he instructed, dropping down and slipping the boy’s feet into his boots.
“I’m done,” Johnny announced, tired of all the fussing.
Scott snatched the wet cloth from his brother’s hand and tossed it in the sink; grabbing Johnny by the elbow and pulling him up and guiding him out into the hall. “We have to hurry if we want to make it in time,” he groused; glancing at his watch as they rushed down the hall to the staircase.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Twenty minutes later, Scott’s Porsche was roaring under the Lancer arch. Seeing the main road was clear, he never even stopped at the end of the drive. Turning the wheel sharply, he negotiated the turn and immediately accelerated; slinging the speeding convertible out on to the highway.
Johnny, buckled in the harness style seat belt, was straining forward as he inspected his pencil thin mustache in the mirror attached to the backside of the sun visor. He thought he looked dashing and dangerous, the dark facial hair making him look at least twenty-one.
Smoothly shifting gears as he picked up speed, Scott glanced towards his brother. “Don’t be touching it so much,” he admonished; “the oil in your fingers might compromise the adhesive.”
The brunet stopped admiring himself in the mirror and shot a worried glance at his older brother. “This thing ain’t goin’ to fall off in my food is it?” he cringed. The mental image of a dark mass of hair in the middle of his slice of pizza was enough to make his stomach roll.
Scott shook his head. “No, it is not going to just fall off. What I really meant is, don’t keep touching it because you might draw attention to it,” he explained, again shifting gears as they roared down the asphalt. He was just as adept at changing the subject. “Brief version of your life. You are twenty-one year old John Hoskins from Texas. You’re on extended leave and you can’t talk about past missions due to national security concerns.”
Already, Johnny was getting restless. “Why can’t I be Johnny Madrid?” he asked, fidgeting about and popping the glove compartment open. “Oh snap, these are bad,” he exclaimed pulling Scott’s aviator sunglasses out and putting them on.
Scott caught the move out of the side of his eye. “NO WAY! You take those off right now, little brother. Those are Ray Ban’s; not those cheap throw away kind you pick up from Dollar Tree and lose before you even get back to the car,” he muttered.
Dodging Scott’s hand as his brother tried to retrieve his glasses, Johnny laughed. “You just don’t like it because they look better on me; makes me look dark and mysterious.” Admiring his reflection in the small mirror, Johnny missed seeing Scott’s hand as it advanced, and then ripped the spectacles from his face.
“To answer your question, you can’t be Johnny Madrid because everyone knows the name, and knows Johnny Madrid is only eighteen,” Scott explained, donning his sunglasses. When Johnny continued to fidget, he reached across and smacked his knee. “Would you sit still?” he scolded, exasperation putting a low growl in his voice.
Struggling against the harness straps, Johnny answered back; his tone much the same as his brother’s. “I can’t be still! These shoulder belts are too tight.” His hand snaked towards the release.
Scott slammed on the brakes, the Porsche trembling and swerving slightly left to right as the asphalt bit into the tires, leaving an impressive set of skid marks. Johnny threw his hands forward, bracing himself on the dash as the car stopped. “Don’t you dare undo that harness!” Scott admonished.
“SHIT! Are you tryin’ to kill me? I could have been thrown through the damn windshield!” Johnny groused, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring at his brother.
“Damn straight you could have; if you hadn’t been wearing the safety belt,” Scott snapped. Shaking his head as Johnny rolled his eyes, Scott continued the lecture. “You never learn do you? Do you remember the time you slipped out of the seat belt after Dad told you not to?” Putting up a hand to stall a smart retort, Scott carried on. “I remember! You were ten and obsessed with photography. We were on the Blue Ridge Parkway and a semi came around a hairpin turn on our side of the road. Dad slammed on the brakes and took the shoulder, and you almost fell out of your open window because you wouldn’t turn loose of your camera. If I hadn’t grabbed your ankles, you would have,” Scott ranted.
Johnny blew out a long breath. “God damn, you sound more like Dad every day,” he snorted. He noted the pressed white lines of his brother’s mouth and the way Scott’s chest heaved even after he finished his tirade and he realized his brother’s anger was born of fear for his safety. He felt a moment of remorse for the angst he caused him until the invincible teenager in him copped an attitude and smarted off. “Are we goin’ sit here all night or are we goin’ to eat pizza, talk tits and swill imitation piss poor beer?” He ducked and laughed as Scott snorted and swung his fist like he was going to pole-axe him.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The ambiance of the Bistro was private and romantic. At the center of the room there were a multitude of round tables clad in white linen cloths and set with glassware and dishes that sparkled and gleamed under a massive, three-tiered chandelier. The perimeter of the restaurant was a series of high backed booths in a low light setting, enhanced with the glow of candles. For additional privacy, the tops of the bench-type seats were capped by rectangular planters; a lush tangle of ferns and fronds spilling over the edges.
The hostess escorted the Lancer boys to a booth, which had just been vacated and cleaned. They slid in from the same side because the bus boy’s cart blocked the other end. Scott chuckled as he caught a brief glimpse out of the corner of his eye of the couple in the next booth, shoulders touching and hands obviously entwined, oblivious to the world around them.
“What’s so funny,” Johnny inquired, preparing to peek over the top of the booth until Scott grabbed his arm and pulled him down.
“Nothing,” Scott answered, his voice whisper soft. “I believe our neighbors are about to enjoy something not offered on the menu, and I think we should respect their privacy.” The knowledge of what was going on in the adjoining booth caused his cheeks to flush; the memory of his last encounter with Julie causing a familiar stirring in his groin.
Scott’s cell phone vibrated in his jacket pocket; and he withdrew the unit. A smile came as he recognized the number. “Julie,” he answered, the grin curling the corners of his mouth. He winked at his brother, giving him the thumbs up as he continued speaking. “We’re here, and we’ve already been seated.” Cupping his other ear against the noisy hustle and bustle, he concentrated on the silky voice of his old flame, occasionally nodding his head. “Right. I’ll go ahead and place the pizza order. House Supreme for you and me,” he gave another thumbs up to his sibling, “and a medium Beef and Cheese with extra sauce and jalapeños for my friend, John, and your cousin, Marilyn.”
While Scott talked, Johnny amused himself by listening to the sounds of whispered conversation coming from the adjoining booth. He snickered and inched closer to the opening in an attempt to peer around the side when he heard a husky feminine laugh, followed by a growl and a soft, suggestive chuckle. Before he could get a clear view, he heard Scott snap his phone closed, and then felt the hair at the nape of his neck tugged, pulling him back.
“That was the ladies. They want us to go ahead and place the order,” Scott announced, motioning for the waiter.
“Are you sure I can’t have a real beer?” Johnny asked, chewing his bottom lip as he watched the aproned waiter approach. Why, he wondered, do these guys always look like such freakin’ dorks?
“It’s non-alcoholic or milk,” Scott stated firmly. Thoughts of Christmas and Johnny’s agitation when his coke and imitation rum drink came decorated with a hot pink paper umbrella caused him to snicker and grin.
As though he could read his blond brother’s mind, Johnny glared at his sibling and snarled, “If my drink comes with one of them paper umbrellas in it, I’m gonna shove a full sized one up your ass and open it,” he threatened.
“That Nyquil certainly seems to have put you in a peevish mood,” Scott observed, placing a finger against Johnny’s lip before he could respond.
The waiter was standing at the ready, his pencil poised. “May I help you?” he asked.
Ignoring his brother, who was now embarking on a major sulk over the beer, Scott got right down to business. “Yes,” he answered. “There will be two other people joining us, and I would like to place our order now.” Holding out his hand to take the offered menu, he opened the stylish placard and briefly looked it over. “I’d like four house salads, a medium House Supreme pizza, a medium Beef and Cheese with extra sauce and jalapeños, a pitcher of sweet tea and two non-alcoholic Coors in pilsner glasses,” he ordered.
“And would you like to pre-order dessert as well, sir?” the waiter inquired, already anticipating the healthy tip he envisioned receiving.
Scott shook his head. “No, thank you. We’ll let the ladies decide on that after we eat.” He smiled. Julie, he knew, would pass on dessert in favor of a Brandy Alexander. Or two, he hoped.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
From across the table, the blond heard an audible gasp as his younger brother breathed a soft ‘whoa!’ Looking up, he waved as Julie and her cousin entered the dining room. Rising from his seat, he greeted the dark-haired woman, bending to kiss her lightly on her right cheek. “John,” he announced, pulling himself erect, “this is Julie. And this,” he gestured to the curvy blond, “is her cousin, Marilyn.”
Johnny eased himself up, and leaned over the table, taking the young woman’s right hand. “Marilyn,” he greeted. And then, just for fun, he kissed the back of her hand.
Scott rolled his eyes at his brother’s audacity, resisting the urge to smack him on the back of his head. He canted his head towards the two women. “He’s originally from Texas,” he laughed. “What can I say?”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The waiter had just delivered the fake beer and a basket of soft, hot breadsticks when the activity in the small Bistro became rushed and frantic. Streaming through the double, multi-paned doors, a group of twenty people entered; intent on celebrating the hour-old nuptials of a beaming couple who had just been before the justice of the peace. In the ensuing madness, Scott’s cell phone vibrated a second time. Seeing it was his former CO, he signaled to Johnny over the din; pointing to the front foyer. Excusing himself, he headed outside to take the call.
Grinning devilishly at the departure of his watch dog brother, Johnny motioned for one of the harried food service staff to come over. As the waitress approached the table, Johnny drained his glass; holding it out in anticipation. “Could you refill this for me, please?” he drawled.
The tiny waitress blew a stray curl away from her forehead. “Right away, sir. I don’t have your ticket. Could you tell me what you were drinking?”
Realizing the young woman had no idea he had been drinking non-alcoholic beer, Johnny took advantage of her ignorance. “Michelob. And could you also bring me a double shot of Tequila?” he requested, his fake moustache twitching as he fought the urge to scratch at his itching upper lip. Looking at Marilyn and Julie, he turned on his most brilliant smile and -- in a shameless mockery of his brother’s tone and vocabulary -- announced, “I’m not the designated driver; and I hardly think a little tequila will hinder my abilities tomorrow.”
Marilyn was duly impressed. “Where are you stationed, John?” she asked, hoping the handsome man now lived here in California and would be available for more dates.
Caught unprepared for the question, Johnny hemmed and hawed and finally answered with a twisted version of the truth. “My longest assignment was in Texas, but my life is such now I just go where the General tells me,” he replied cavalierly. Then, leaning in and winking wickedly, he whispered, “I could tell you more, but then I would have to kill you.”
The blond giggled, leaning into her cousin’s shoulder as Johnny pantomimed shooting them. Johnny couldn’t help but notice Marilyn was eying him up and down like the centerfold from Playgirl, and he flashed her an even bigger smile. Julie, however, was studying him in a totally different way; as if she wasn’t quite sure if he was what she had envisioned as the proper date for her obviously smitten, much younger cousin. He decided to ignore her.
Sliding closer to the younger woman, Johnny lifted her hand and clutched it to his chest, gazing tenderly into her face. “I think there’s somethin’ wrong with my eyes, because I can’t take them off of you,” he crooned. His grin widened as her pupils dilated and a nervous giggle slipped passed her ruby-bright lips.
Rolling her eyes in disbelief, Julie muttered to herself, “You can take the man out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the man.” Looking back over her shoulder, she spied Scott leaning against a wall in the lobby as he continued to talk on his phone. Sighing, she silently wished he would terminate the call and rejoin them. Soon. Impatient and bored almost to tears, she drummed her fingers on the table top; barely maintaining a fake smile as she watched her companions continue their display of mawkish infatuation. It was all she could do not to beat her head against the wood table when Johnny cooed his next cheesy line.
“You must have eaten Lucky Charms for breakfast, because you look magically delicious,” he drawled, flashing a coy smile that had the young blond squirming in obvious anticipation. Reaching out, he plucked a breadstick from the basket, offering it to the girl before chowing down on one of his own. Entranced, he watched as Marilyn licked the seasoned butter from the hot-dog sized bread roll.
The petite waitress that had taken Johnny’s drink order approached the table at a fast clip; the serving tray balanced on her right hand and held up close to her face. Her curly hair had a sassy bounce to it as she halted. She eyed Johnny like the love struck teenager she was as she placed his beer and double shot of tequila before him. “Here you go, sir. I’m sorry you had to wait. My name is Amber, if you need anything else, please let me know.” She blushed as she stared at the dark and handsome man, thinking he would look just like that gorgeous Olympian Johnny Madrid if he didn’t have that silly mustache. “Anything,” she sighed.
“Thank ya’, kindly, ya’ sweet thang,” Johnny replied, turning up his Texas twang to full blown. He picked up yet another garlic flavored bread stick and flourished it like a cigar before devouring it in two bites.
Turning his attention to his dinner companions as the waitress rushed off, Johnny pointed to the double shot of tequila. “You ladies know about tequila shooters,” he asked, his eyes twinkling with mischief. Without waiting for an answer, he took a long drink from the tall pilsner glass; put it down, and promptly picked up the shot glass, twirling it once between his thumb and forefinger before dropping the glass into the half-empty beer. The results were spectacular: the brew seemed to simmer, a growing fluff of foam rising and threatening to spill over the rim.
“I know you shouldn’t use a double measure of tequila,” Julie muttered, her perfectly shaped eyebrow arching. Confusion darkened her eyes as she took a long second look at young man; his bravado making him look less like a young officer and more like a nit-witted teenager.
“I don’t drink,” Marilyn stuttered, suddenly nervous the handsome man would think her too immature since she wasn’t old enough to drink anything more potent than 3/2 beer. “I’m just twenty,” she murmured; too star-struck to realize her date was actually two years younger.
Johnny picked up the glass and chugged the contents. Gingerly, he dabbed at the foam on his upper lip with his right forefinger; his lips a tight line as he held back the burp. He was smiling as he returned the empty glass to the table. Before he could posture proudly over his accomplishment the waiter appeared with their order.
The smell of the onions and other strangely odiferous toppings on the House Supreme pizza assaulted his nose; the same time the tequila shooter made its presence known in his stomach. Johnny’s mouth watered and he swallowed convulsively when his stomach cramped, feeling like there was a molten hot lead ball bouncing around and expanding in his belly. It didn’t help that the two bread rolls he had scarfed were suddenly feeling like they had just turned into the Goodyear Blimps. Sweat began to bead on his forehead and trickle down his hairline; his face turning a sick shade of pale white; his cheeks puffing in and out as he fought to control the growing sensation of gas and nausea.
Clueless to the fact her date was feeling quite ill, Marilyn tried to entice him to eat. Grabbing the serving knife she scooped up a thick wedge of beef and cheese pizza loaded with extra jalapeños; passing it right under his nose as she placed it on his plate. “You’re looking a little peaked, Johnny,” she crooned. “I think you should put something in your stomach.”
“No…no,” Johnny protested, pressing back against the upholstered seatback to put some distance between the smells and his nose. He swallowed. “Ahhhh…you ladies go ahead. I’ll just wait for Scott.” He fought the urge to rub at his belly, which was really beginning to feel pressurized. He was sure that at any second it was going to violently spew its contents, like a sixteen ounce Dr. Pepper dropped on concrete just before the lid was twisted off.
Concentrating so hard on keeping his stomach from rebelling and embarrassing the hell out of him, Johnny was startled when the perky little waitress suddenly reappeared at the table with a full tray.
“May I get you anything else,” Amber asked, batting her green eyes at the young man she found so irresistible.
Biting back the moan that was clawing its way up his throat, Johnny plastered on a good ol’ boy smirk and motioned at the beers on her tray. “You sure can, darlin’. How about you hand over another one of those Michelobs?” His hand trembled slightly as he reached to take it from her hand. He hoped it was cold enough to put out the fire burning deep in his belly. Eyes closed, he consumed the beer slowly, hoping the cool liquid would tame the raging inferno in his gut.
Her eyes narrowing in suspicion, Julie studied her cousin’s date as she forked a portion of salad into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. She looked at Marilyn; shrugging when the other girl mouthed silently that she didn’t think her date was feeling well. Duh.
Johnny remained still as the girls ate. He cracked his eyes open and peered at them, and then squeezed them shut as the explosion of colors in their salads caused a curious buzz to echo in his ears. Feeling lightheaded, he tossed back the last swallow of beer; immediately questioning the wisdom of consuming so much alcohol so fast; seriously wishing he had asked for a glass of ice water. Without warning, his pained moan joined the passionate sounds drifting over the top of the adjoining booth; and he managed to fake a smile he didn’t feel.
“Are you all right?” Marilyn questioned; her eyes widening in alarm as Johnny fumbled with his glass. Gently, she took the fragile pilsner glass from his hand and placed it carefully on the table.
Turning dazed eyes on the curvy blonde, Johnny forced an even broader grin; not the easiest thing to do when his lips were numb. “Sure I am!” he laughed; pulling himself erect. “I drank a potion and now I’m sexy!” Impressed at his own cleverness over having quoted his favorite line from Shrek II, he actually giggled; the sound ending with a wet burp that morphed into a half gag. Johnny’s hands shot to his mouth, and he turned an incredible shade of Shrek green.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch Lancer had just begun a well-planned covert action; his right hand positioned gently at the small of Aggie Conway’s back. Leaning forward, he planted his lips firmly against her mouth, relishing the taste of the red wine she had just consumed and inwardly pleased when he felt her respond.
An audible sigh escaped the woman’s lips and she pulled away slightly, blushing like a school girl at the totally unexpected display of not only passion, but tender and near-public affection. “Murdoch,” she exhaled breathlessly.
The big Scot was about to kiss the woman a second time; his brow furrowing as recognition fired his eyes and the pucker disappeared. Aggie could almost see his ears come to attention. “I’d know that laugh anywhere,” Murdoch growled, his voice rising ominously. “And that line is from Johnny’s favorite part of Shrek!!”
On the opposite side of the booth, Johnny’s eyes widened to the size of silver dollars, his gaze suddenly lifting towards the ceiling; as if he were hearing the very voice of God. He could actually feel the back of the bench begin to rumble. Decidedly tipsy, he awkwardly shifted in his seat and rose up on to his knees; swallowing hard as he snake-crawled up the back. Using both hands, he reached into the jungle of potted plants, wedging the dense greens apart to peer over the top. From the opposite side of the conjoined booths Murdoch Lancer mirrored his movements. Suddenly, father and son met nose to nose, and eye to eye.
Murdoch’s mouth dropped open in shock to find his youngest son staring back at him through the foliage. Taking a deep breath and preparing to rant at full bellow, his nostrils flared in anger. Johnny had just exhaled; the sudden gush of warm air ripe with the stench of tequila and beer.
Totally in shock, Johnny slumped back down onto his knees; his mouth suddenly dry. He licked his top lip apprehensively; that one nervous action the catalyst for the ensuing chaos and disorder that would make the evening news. When Johnny drew his tongue back into his mouth the left half of his mustache came with it.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott Lancer had just snagged a glass of wine from the tray a sweet young thing had just shoved in his direction. His back to the full dining room, he winked at the girl, taking a small sip of red before answering the voice at the other end of the ‘phone. “Well,” he laughed, “it was a bit of a surprise when he announced he had just arranged for my reassignment as his aide.” He nodded his head, as if his former CO could actually see him. “No, sir,” he continued good-naturedly. “I’m not quite sure a ‘thank you’ is order yet. However, as Generals go, Murdoch Lancer is not a problem. However, sometimes, as my father…”
A sudden quiet had descended on the large dining room, and -- curious -- the blond half-turned. The patrons in the large room seemed to be leaving en masse, some of them actually carrying their plates.
And then he saw it. Them. “Sorry, sir,” he said curtly. “I have to go.” He snapped the cell closed and pulled himself to attention. Sucking in, he debated his options; strategic withdrawal or full out retreat. Briefly closing his eyes and then reopening them, he stepped into Hell.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch straightened to his full height and bellowed, “JOHNNY!” Reaching across the top of the booth, he grabbed his son by the collar and pulled him upright as he turned the boy completely around. Once again, they were nose to nose.
Caught in his father’s iron grip, Johnny found himself pinned in place. Gagging, he opened his mouth to plead to be turned loose and instead of words, tequila, beer, Nyquil and liquor puffed bread rolls shot from his mouth in a violent projectile explosion. The churned alcohol and food splattered his father’s chest and arm and what didn’t hit the older man plopped down across Aggie Conway’s shoulder and right into her brand new eight hundred dollar Coach handbag.
Instinctively, Murdoch let go of his son; his mouth agape as Johnny slid down the seat and onto the floor. Johnny had snagged the tablecloth with his right hand as he fell, the white linen snaking across the formica-topped table. The two young women watched in stark horror as food, glasses, and plates began tumbling to the floor. At last, only the wicker-based wine bottle candle holder remained, until -- still alight -- it, too, crashed onto the ceramic tiles. Immediately, the dried ferns in the floor level planters next to the window sparked and caught fire. The quick ignition generated a dense and foul layer of smoke that was immediately drawn up towards the ceiling.
It was just enough smoke to activate the fire sprinklers.
Scott Lancer stood in the center of the nearly deserted dining room. Thoroughly drenched, head bowed, he raked both hands through his hair. It was true, he thought. You are about to die and your entire life -- brief though it may be -- flashes right before your eyes.
His life, he realized, was now circling the drain. Arms flailing, he was swimming in the center of a gigantic toilet bowl, trying desperately to reach the slick rim; and his brother -- his idiot baby brother -- was about to flush.
“Scott…Garrett…Lancer!!!” Teeth clenched, Murdoch roared his son’s name.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Aggie Conway was livid. Unmindful of her soaked dress and her now ruined sixty dollar hairdo, she was perched on the edge of the still wet-slick booth, Johnny’s head cradled in her lap. In spite of the anger, she was showing remarkable restraint; her voice whisper soft. “I can not believe this,” she rasped, her green eyes boring into both Lancer men. She hesitated just long enough to tenderly wipe Johnny’s face. “You knew this boy was ill,” she accused, spearing Murdoch with a severe look that dared the man to contradict her. “And as for you, Scott Lancer!” The green eyes swung to the younger man, narrowing as the young man intuitively backed up a full pace.
The fire sprinklers hand been manually turned off, but the lights from the single fire engine that had responded to the automatic alarm were still flashing on and off just beyond the large windows; giving the dining room a strange, surreal glow.
Discretely, the restaurant personnel were busy cleaning up the soggy tables; the only sound the rumble of a wet/dry vac that was sucking up the water from the carpeted floor. In a corner of the room, the manager was standing, pad in hand, tallying up the damages. For the third time, he flicked to a fresh page and continued to write. Julie and her cousin, Marilyn, were long gone.
Whatever Aggie was about to say was interrupted by a long and protracted moan coming from the youngest Lancer boy…a moan Scott felt certain was over played for the woman’s benefit; as much as for their father’s. His irritation increased as Mrs. Conway -- Johnny’s newly found angel of mercy -- was sucked even further in by the boy’s act. In between her rants at Murdoch, she was gently brushing Johnny’s wet hair back from his face and cooing words of comfort and sympathy to him.
Scott could see it now. The woman was as much a sucker as his father was for the blue-eyed Lancer baby boy: the two of them a pair of giant sized Blow-Pops. If this act of Johnny’s was allowed to continue, the Old Man would be melting like sugar in hot water: especially after being chastised by Aggie for having left ‘this poor boy’; seemingly at death’s door. And the woman…The woman could earn a Congressional Medal of Honor for her ability to lay on the guilt.
And as for Johnny… Scott took a deep breath and momentarily closed his eyes, knowing damned good and well what was coming next.
“Scott made me come,” Johnny rasped weakly. He raised a limp hand to stifle the cough, and looked the woman directly in the eye before swinging his gaze to his father. “Woke me up out of a dead sleep,” he continued; sniffling a bit as the now ragged fake mustache flapped against his upper lip. Touching the coarse hairs, he gagged for maximum effect and sympathy; hiding the grin with the back of his hand when he saw it was working.
Scott had seen the smirk. Feeling somewhat vindictive that Johnny had ruined his perfectly laid plan for getting …laid, and was now pinning the blame for this whole fiasco on him spurred the blond forward. His eyes narrowed as they shot daggers at his unrepentant sibling, who was still lying with his head cradled in Aggie’s soft lap. Reaching out, Scott grabbed the fluttering left side of the mustache, well aware the other side was still firmly attached. With a single, vicious yank he ripped it away, taking a bit of skin with it and causing Johnny to howl. “May I remind you, little brother, I did not hold a gun to your head,” he growled through clenched teeth, his furious eyes commanding his brother to shut the hell up and let him do the talking.
Feeling not the least bit disposed towards helping Scott diplomatically worm his way out of the unusual circumstance of finally being number one on their father’s shit list, Johnny’s eyes narrowed and he pulled out the big guns. “No, you didn’t point a gun at my head, you pointed your cell phone camera at my nekkid butt and took pictures,” he muttered. Lifting his hand to his mouth as he faked yet another gag and barely suppressing yet another moan, Johnny finished his damning statement: “And then you threatened to hack into my Facebook account and post the pictures there. All the pictures,” he accused. Biting his lower lip to stop the grin, and ignoring the murderous look on Scott’s face, Johnny drove the final nail into his brother’s pine box: “It was either me comin’ with you, or havin’ pictures of…” his face radiating pure innocence and his cheeks actually coloring, he lifted his head slightly to smile shyly at Aggie “…sorry, ma’am…my Mr. Winky showin’ up all over the internet.”
Battling the urge to strangle the shit out his baby brother, Scott’s body went rigid with rage. It was obvious this night out had officially moved into an every man for himself mission. Grinding his teeth to the point he thought he could actually hear the enamel cracking, he faced the bitter truth: he was so thoroughly fucked; and by his brother instead of sweet, sensual, cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof Julie.
“Scott Lancer,” Aggie hissed, her eyes widening in horror, “Have you lost your mind? That’s child pornography!” Bending over Johnny, the woman wrapped her arms around him as though protecting him from a predatory pedophile.
Realizing Aggie Conway was now completely under Johnny’s spell, Scott seriously wished her full bosom would smother the brat as she safeguarded him against her breast. He figured that beneath the mounds of flesh hiding his brother’s head, Johnny’s eyes were probably dancing and his laugh was fully being muffled.
All of a sudden, Scott’s feet almost went out from under him as Murdoch grabbed his arm and spun him completely around. He struggled to keep his balance, watching in morbid fascination as his father’s face loomed ominously above him and then tilted straight towards him. He had to fight the nervous laughter that wanted to erupt as he realized there were lipstick smudges all around his Dad’s mouth…the same color smeared on and around Aggie’s lips.
When their noses were touching, his father finally spoke; the words coming from between clenched teeth, more rumble than soft whisper. “Scott Garrett Lancer, did you threaten to post nude photos of your brother on the God damn internet?”
Scott debated answering his father. He was, he knew, between the proverbial rock and a hard place: smack dab in the middle of one of Murdoch’s legendary tears where the questions would flow fast and furious. If he attempted to respond, he knew his Dad would bellow for him to shut up when he was speaking; and if he didn’t reply, his father would become even more incensed and demand to know if he was even listening. Sighing heavily as he waited for the reprimand to end, Scott made the mistake of rolling his eyes, something he hadn’t done since he was a teenager.
“Don’t you dare roll your eyes at me, young man!” Murdoch snapped, his own sexual frustration putting a vicious bite to his tone.
Aggie was having none of it. “Oh for heaven’s sake will you two stop posturing like roosters guarding their hens.” She got right to the point, not giving a damned if the remaining staff -- the manager and two waiters -- might hear. “You both might as well accept that neither one of you are getting any tonight!” Her gaze shifted from Murdoch to Scott. “Your date has had the good sense to get out of here,” her green eyes swung back to the older man, “and as for you…” She watched as the big man flinched beneath her harsh glare, “…you left a sick child under the care of someone mentally impaired by a high testosterone level.” Gently, she patted Johnny’s right cheek as she once again cradled him to her chest. Then, still in her mother-hen mode, she covered his right ear with her hand; as if he were too young to hear the next. “What is it about you men that your brains cease to function when your pheromones are on the scent trail to a good time?”
Johnny shifted slightly in the woman’s lap, canting his head in an effort to hear her final words. Opening one eye, he squinted and stared up at his father and his brother. Aggie was doing one hell of a job hanging his Old Man and his smart-ass big brother out to dry. That thought was enough to cause an unbidden fit of repressed giggles that made his ribs hurt.
Aggie was suddenly aware of a series of shudders that were coursing through Johnny’s wiry frame, and her focus immediately shifted. “Johnny?” She patted the boy’s face again, with a bit more vigor. “Are you all right?”
The youth had to think about it for awhile. “C-c-cold,” he breathed, snuggling in. Man, it felt fine; all that softness. And she smelled good, too! Damned good.
Still clutching the youth to her breasts, Aggie called out to the manager. “We’re going to need some blankets over here,” she ordered. Without even giving it a second thought as to where the man might find them, she turned her attention to the eldest Lancer. “Johnny will be riding with us in the Jeep,” she announced. Her eyes narrowed and turned towards Scott. “And you will be following us home!”
Scott simply nodded. He was not about to argue with a woman who -- somehow -- had managed to finagle, not one, but two blankets from the restaurant manager.
Aggie shook out one of the heavy coverlets, wrapping the dark blue blanket tenderly around Johnny’s shoulders. “We’ll be going home now, Johnny. And once we’re there, we’ll get that cold taken care of. Hot chocolate, I think…”
Johnny was on his feet; pulling the blanket tight around his torso, going so far as to pull it over his head -- Indian style -- and making a hood. But not before he turned back just long enough to stick his tongue out at his at his elder brother.
Scott threw up his hands in utter disgust. Helped along by his father’s firm hand on his shoulder, the blond simply marched out behind the woman and his brother. But in his mind, he was planning murder most foul.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They were in the Great Room. Murdoch had cranked up the gas-fed fireplace; the ceramic logs radiating a comfortable amount of heat, the soft hum of the circulating fan spreading the warmth throughout the room. Johnny was settled in on the couch, a steaming mug of hot cocoa in his hand and still wrapped in the blanket Aggie had placed around his shoulders. Scott was perched on the back of the couch. His drink of choice was a large tumbler of much needed scotch. The drive home had pretty much dried out his clothing; but he still felt the chill.
“Give me your cell,” Murdoch growled, waggling his fingers at his elder son. His clothing was still damp; but it wasn’t the first time he’d carried out an interrogation in less than desirable circumstances.
Reluctantly, Scott gave up the ‘phone. Sucking in, he watched out of the corner of his eye as his father and Aggie concentrated on the screen. They were standing shoulder to shoulder, scrolling through the pictures; a soft gasp coming as Aggie spied the blond’s handiwork.
Surprisingly, the woman’s sharp intake of breath was followed by the sound of soft laughter. There were only three pictures of Johnny; and none of them were that incriminating. Still… “Shame on you, Scott,” she scolded.
“Yeah, Scott,” Johnny echoed, frowning at his brother. “Shame on you…”
The tall blond shot his brother a dark look. “I plead guilty to the snapshots,” he murmured. Turning, he faced his father fully. “My apologies, sir. It was…” he shrugged.
Aggie sensed it was time for her to leave. Crossing the room, she hesitated at the doorway just long enough to pick up the overnight bag she had brought in from Murdoch’s car. “I’m going to take a shower,” she said. When she saw the spark of hope in Murdoch’s eye, she canted her head. “In the guest room,” she announced. Satisfied he clearly understood her meaning, she headed for the stairs.
Murdoch was at the drink table. “I should wring both of your necks,” he muttered. He poured himself a tumbler of scotch and tossed it back in a single swallow. Then, purposefully, he tipped the glass upside down and put it back on the serving tray.
Scott visibly winced. He had the distinct feeling it would have been a better thing if his father had poured himself a second -- perhaps even a third -- drink. “Dad,” he began.
The general raised his right hand, effectively stopping his son mid sentence. “What on God’s green earth ever possessed you to take your brother,” he gestured towards his younger son, “on a date? Let alone on a date with Julie?” Murdoch had never liked the Dennison woman: she had been much too possessive of Scott during their time together, and he -- and Harlan -- had questioned her motives. He shook the thought away, but it didn’t take the edge from his voice. Deciding he wasn’t going to mince words, he plowed on. “I realize, Scott, you are a young man and that you have a need for…
Johnny thrust up his right hand, waving it hard; as if he were in a classroom and volunteering to answer a question. “…a piece of ass?” he crowed.
Murdoch’s brow furrowed as he shot a harsh glare at his youngest. “…the companionship of people your own age,” he continued. “However, when I spoke to you earlier this evening, you assured me you were going to be staying home; and that you would be taking care of your brother. The next thing I know, you’re at the Bistro, acting like…”
“…like his brains had just dropped to his balls?” Johnny interrupted. He was on a roll; and really enjoying seeing his older brother squirm.
This time, Murdoch Lancer did more than glare at his younger son. “That’s enough,” he barked. He turned back to Scott. “You bought him alcohol,” he intoned. He patted the front of his shirt, his nose wrinkling. “Beer, and tequila.” There was more disappointment in his voice than anger.
Scott’s mouth was shut in a grim line but he said nothing. He turned slightly to look at his younger brother, still remaining silent. As angry as he was at his younger brother, he wasn’t about to spill the beans. Although he didn’t completely understand why.
“Well?” Murdoch ground out. Exasperated when Scott didn’t respond, he pressed on. “It’s against the law, Scott, to buy alcohol for a minor. You know that.”
The blond inhaled. “Yes, sir,” he agreed. He faced his father fully. “I’m aware of the law,” he said, the words coming softly; “just as I’m aware of the consequences.”
Johnny was staring hard at his brother’s profile. It was bad enough for a civilian to buy booze for a minor, but Scott was military -- career military… What had seemed funny only moments before suddenly wasn’t so funny anymore. “Uh, Dad?” he murmured.
“I’m speaking with your brother, John. Don’t interrupt again.”
The youth rose to his feet. He shrugged the blanket away from his shoulders and headed for the warmth of the fireplace. Without turning around, he addressed his father. “Scott didn’t buy me no drinks,” he said. Wrapping his arms around his upper body, he stared into the firebox. “Scott ordered non-alcoholic beer for both of us.” He shrugged, hoping to shake away the sensation that his father had just grabbed him by the nape of his neck. “He was on the ‘phone with his CO when the waitress came back to the table. I ordered the beer.” He sucked in. “And the tequila.”
Murdoch’s right eye was twitching. “You ordered the alcohol?”
Johnny swallowed. He could feel his father’s eyes on him; willing him to turn around. Resigned, he made an about face. “Yeah,” he answered. He was staring hard at the floor. His father, he knew, was still looking at him. “Yes, sir,” he murmured, finally able to look up.
It was Scott’s face he saw first. Big brother was actually smiling at him. He shrugged. “Shoulda stuck to the phony stuff, huh, Boston?” he muttered.
Murdoch’s hands were clasped behind his back, his fingers flexing; as if he were consciously refraining from strangling both of his sons. “John,” he said, his hands finally dropping to his sides. “Come here. Right here.” With his right index finger, he pointed to a spot on the floor directly in front of himself. “Now.”
Johnny inhaled, deeply. Somehow, standing directly in front of his father within the man’s reach, didn’t seem like such a good idea. The alternative, however, staying right where he was, didn’t seem too smart, either. Reluctantly, he did as he was told.
“So,” the older man began, “just how much did you have to drink, John?”
At least he ain’t shoutin’, the boy thought. He debated lying; changing his mind when Scott -- who was now standing behind their father -- shook his head a single time. “Two beers,” he answered. The next words, he knew, were the ones that were going to hang him. “And a double shot of tequila.”
Murdoch was nodding. “Well then, I guess that explains this,” he said, lifting his shirt away from his chest, the words coming almost whisper soft. His next words were somewhat harsher. “And Aggie’s new purse.”
Johnny’s bottom lip trembled a bit, the pout forming. His father had asked Aggie about the bag when they were in the car coming back from the restaurant, and Johnny had thought his father was going to have a stroke when the woman told him what she had paid for bag. Eight hundred fuckin’ dollars, he thought. “Hey,” he said, sounding more than a bit piqued; “it ain’t my fault she’s dumb enough to pay that much for some butt-ugly purse; just like it ain’t my fault she wasn’t smart enough to move it when she saw I was gonna get sick!”
Scott immediately covered his eyes with both hands, and then changed his mind; deciding they could be put to better use covering his ears when he caught a glimpse of his father’s mouth opening. The expected explosion did not occur; at least not from the expected source.
“Is that right, Johnny?” Aggie Conway had just entered the room; her footsteps a mere whisper across the tiled floor. She had showered, and was now wearing a long, forest green robe; neatly secured at her narrow waist.
Johnny spun around so quickly he almost lost his balance. He fell back only to find himself being righted by his father and then held in place. “Uh, Ma’am,” he began, his eyes wide.
Aggie’s cheeks were flushed; and it was obvious she was not a happy woman. A myriad of emotions swept across her handsome features, ending with a smile that could mean nothing but trouble. When she reached out towards the young man, he instinctively backed away, only to know the frustration of backing into the brick wall that was his father. He strained to pull his head back farther, dead certain the woman was going to smack him senseless.
Instead, her touch was quite gentle. “You still have a fever, dear,” she crooned, feeling his forehead with the back of her hand. “Of course, we won’t know how much of a temperature until we get you upstairs to bed.” Still smiling, she turned to Scott. “I believe Maria has some herbal teas in the kitchen, Scott, if you don’t mind. She was showing me some things the other day: the first aid kit she kept for Johnny when he just a baby?”
The woman smiled broadly at Murdoch. “Do you know that she’s kept that kit just exactly like it was when he was little?” she chattered on. Already, she was pulling Johnny towards the stairway. “Of course, she updates the medicines, keeps them current…”
Scott exchanged a long look with his father. Murdoch simply shrugged and fell in behind Johnny and the woman. When Scott started to follow, Murdoch shook his head and pointed to the kitchen. “She wants the tea and Maria’s medical kit…”
Aggie was still talking to Johnny. “The very first thing you’re going to do, Johnny, is take a nice warm bath. And then we’ll get some tea into you; get the vaporizer going in your room. Why, in a day or two…
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott didn’t have as much trouble locating Maria’s stash as he thought he was going to have. The housekeeper had always been an orderly woman, and -- after the fire that had killed Johnny’s mother -- she had restored the kitchen to the same efficient heart of the home that it had been in the beginning. The medical kit she had kept for tending both Lancer sons was where it had always been: top shelf, first cabinet on the left, just inside the pantry door.
The vaporizer and the bottles of especially blended mentholated oils were on the shelf below. Scott gathered up the supplies and headed up the stairs.
Aggie Conway was in full maternal mode as she busied herself around Johnny’s room. The bathroom door was open, and Scott could hear the water running. Johnny was standing half-in, half-out, the bathroom door; looking reasonably contrite but unhappy.
“Tub,” Aggie ordered. She pointed to the bathroom, and when Johnny didn’t move, she crossed the room; her hand going to the youth’s shoulders. “Do you need some help, dear?” she asked solicitously.
Johnny’s eyes opened wide, and he was sputtering. “Uh…no, ma’am,” he answered quickly. Without any further prodding, Johnny disappeared into the bathroom’s bright interior, and quickly shut the door.
Scott cast a quizzical look at his father, surprised when his sire simply shrugged. Not sure of what to do next, the blond stood for a long moment, and then -- almost tip-toeing -- crossed the room and deposited the supplies he had been carrying on top of Johnny’s desk.
Aggie was tidying up the room with her usual efficiency; picking up Johnny’s discarded clothing, pairing up his shoes and boots. For a time, the only sound in the room was the gentle swishing of the long gown the woman was wearing. Finally satisfied, she turned her gaze towards Murdoch. “Does Johnny have any pajamas?” she asked.
Murdoch snorted; a similar sound coming from his elder son. “Johnny usually sleeps…” the big man hesitated as he reconsidered his words.
“Johnny sleeps in his birthday suit,” Scott finished for his father.
“Really?” Aggie asked; as if she were actually surprised.
Scott’s eyes narrowed. He knew from the expression on the woman’s face she knew damned good and well about Johnny’s sleeping habits; sure and certain that his father had discussed his brother’s little quirks with his long -time friend. A sobering thought occurred to him then; and he found himself wondering how many times his father had also discussed the more personal details his life as well.
Aggie’s eyes were dancing. “But he does have pajamas,” she pressed.
Murdoch studied the woman with a new found respect. He knew her well enough to know she was planning something. Curiosity prompted him to play along. “In the bottom drawer of his dresser, Scott. The ones Maria is always threatening to make him wear when he’s sick and he isn’t behaving.”
Scott wasn’t sure he was going to like what might be occurring. He knew that Aggie was upset about what Johnny had said in the Great Room; in fact, he had been quite surprised when she hadn’t called him out. And then it hit him. She was going to kill the boy with kindness; lots and lots of unwanted kindness. Shaking his head, he went to Johnny’s dresser and dug out the p.j’s.
Johnny had finished his bath. He had opened the bathroom door, just a crack; just enough to stick out his head.
Aggie reached out, taking the cotton pajamas from Scott’s less than willing fingers. “Johnny,” she called sweetly. She turned, offering the p.j.’s to the youth.
Johnny’s head disappeared back into the bathroom and the door slammed shut.
Giving up to the inevitable, Scott gingerly retrieved the pajamas from Aggie’s right hand and headed for the closed bathroom door.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Just put them on, brother,” Scott breathed.
Johnny was actually holding the pajamas in his right hand. He shook out the bottoms, staring hard at the fabric. They were not only dead dog ugly, they were plaid. “No fuckin’ way,” he ground out.
Scott nodded at the clothing in his brother’s hands. “At least they aren’t flannel, and they don’t have feet,” he observed; biting his lower lip to stop the smile.
“You think it’s so fuckin’ funny, you put ‘em on!” Johnny snarled.
“I’m not the one that threw up in Aggie’s bag,” Scott countered.
Johnny tossed the pajamas at his brother’s head. “I’m…not…fuckin’…puttin’ them on!”
The bathroom door opened, and Murdoch stepped into the room. He caught the garments midair before they hit their intended target. “Oh, yes, you are,” he declared.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was firmly tucked into his bed, medicated with a dose of Tylenol and Dimetapp. He could already feel the goddamned pajamas creeping up his butt crack. Even worse was the smell. Aggie Conway had just finished coating his back and his chest with a thick layer of Vick’s Vapor Rub, and the damned vaporizer was already chugging bursts of steam right next to his bed.
“Now, let’s see what else Maria has in her bag of tricks,” Aggie was saying. “Ahah!” She finished digging around in the medical kit, and was withdrawing a slim plastic tube. “Just what we need,” she crowed. “A thermometer.”
Scott fairly choked as he recognized the Johnson & Johnson logo. He stared up at his father, immediately shutting his mouth as he saw the bemused smile tugging at the corners of Murdoch’s mouth.
Johnny leaned forward in the bed; looking around Aggie’s shoulder as he desperately sought out his father, and clearly pissed when he saw that his Old Man -- who was standing just across the room with his arms folded at his chest -- seemed quite content to let Aggie continue her hovering. The next thing he knew, Aggie’s hand was firmly pressed against his forehead. She tisked. “You do have a fever,” she observed. “We’ll just have to find out how much.” She snapped open the plastic container and made a big production of shaking the thermometer before checking the reading.
Resigned, and sensing there was no alternative but to do what the woman wanted, Johnny closed his eyes and opened his mouth.
This time, Scott lost it. He turned completely around, his shoulders shaking in unrestrained laughter. When he was actually able to regain some modicum of control, he turned back to his brother. “That’s an infant thermometer, Johnny,” he snorted, watching as his brother opened one eye. Secretly, he was wondering if Maria ever threw anything away. “It’s a rectal thermometer.”
Johnny’s eyes flew open in alarm at Scott’s statement, and then he felt Aggie’s hand tugging at the covers. He yanked the blanket up to his chest, scooting backward until his escape was stymied and he hit the headboard. Just thinking about where the woman wanted to stick that thermometer -- where the damned thing had probably already been when he was a baby -- caused his nausea to return and he swallowed convulsively. Apprehension and embarrassment caused his voice to squeak in a high pitch as he protested, “No fuckin’ way! Dad has one of those ear thermometers. And besides, I ain’t no baby!”
“Well you could have fooled me,” Aggie declared, the pinched look on her face making it crystal clear she was still perturbed about the events at the Bistro. Glancing towards Scott, she skewered him with a displeased glare, letting him know she was none too happy with him either. “Scott, you used a total lack of judgment when you took this child out,” she stated. Turning back to the boy, she shook a finger beneath his nose; immediately stilling his attempted protests. “And as for you, Johnny. I don’t want to hear one more word about how you are not a child, because you certainly didn’t rise above the cognitive abilities of a five year old with your choices tonight.”
A wet sniffle from Johnny broke the moment of silence after Aggie’s speech. With his lips protruding in a petulant pout and the slight blush of fever in his cheeks, Johnny put on his best vulnerable, little boy lost expression. “I’m sorry, Ag…” he immediately corrected himself, “…Mrs. Conway...” sniffle “…ma’am,” he whispered.
A sarcastic chuckle slipped past Aggie’s lips. “Oh, you’re sorry all right. You’re sorry you got caught! Well, let me tell you something, Johnny Lancer. I’m going to extract eight hundred dollars worth of slave labor out of you for using my Coach purse as a barf bag. I think this situation calls for some good old-fashion western punishment.”
“Dad,” Johnny called plaintively to his father, anxiety shading his face and voice at the look of unholy glee coming from the woman.
“Oh, no…don’t you Dad me. You brought this on yourself, young man, and you will make restitution to Aggie in whatever form she decides.” A suppressed snort of laughter coming from his oldest son caused the big man to switch his ire to the blond. “I’m glad you find this amusing, Scott. I hope your good humor will see you through your assigned penance.”
Recognizing the stiff timbre of the General’s statement, Scott’s lax body immediately transformed to one at attention. Clicking his feet together so the soles of his shoes connected, he redistributed his weight to his heels, his ankles and hips aligned, as well as ears and shoulders, and then he lifted his chin and fixed his eyes straight ahead. “Sir, if I may, Johnny confessed he bought the alcohol…” the blond’s explanation was cut short as his father drew himself up to his full height.
Stepping forward, the tall officer glared down upon his offspring, “I’m well aware of who did what. Johnny will pay Aggie for his transgressions since they directly affected her, however, the fact remains it was your total lack of judgment and failure to do as I instructed that was the catalyst for this entire fiasco. Succinctly put, what we have here is a complete and utter failure to follow orders,” pausing to let his words sink in, General Lancer’s face hardened with evil retribution. “Therefore, I think a two week stint of boot camp will be most effective in refreshing your skill in following orders, as given.”
Suppressing the groan at the dressing down, as well as the inclination to snap off a smart salute, Scott replied, “Yes, sir. I can assure you, we won’t have this problem again. Ever.” If there was one thing his service had taught him, it was to not ever argue with an officer; and to agree with whatever punishment they deemed necessary.
“Damn,” drawled Johnny from the comfort of his bed, slightly worried about what his big brother might to do him later to get even with him…because soon or later he always did. As nervous giggle over the thoughts of it slipped past his lips.
“Laugh it up, my slave child,” Aggie commented tersely. “I hope you find humor in your situation when you are clearing my creek beds by hand, no backhoes or other farm machinery to help you. You will also be cleaning every tractor, bull dozer, backhoe, cultivator, stock trailer and truck used on the ranch…under the very capable supervision of one of my hands.” She grinned as Johnny sighed and seemed to deflate before her eyes.
Between the earlier bout of sickness and the doses of medicine, all the sass and fight seeped from Johnny, forcing him to slowly melt down in the bed in a loose limbed hunch. Yawning, he fought to keep his eyes open as he glared at the pretty blonde woman. “It ain’t fair,” he slurred sleepily, “I wasn’t aiming for your pocketbook, it just happened to be in the way.”
Johnny’s eyes fluttered closed as Aggie’s bemused face approached his. He was asleep before her lips touched his forehead in a tender kiss. He wasn’t even aware of her standing and moving aside so his father could position his limp body into a more comfortable position.
The three adults filed out of the room and Murdoch softly clicked the door closed.
“Don’t you think you should leave the door open in case Johnny should wake up sick again,” inquired Aggie, concern furrowing her brow.
“I’ll know if he wakes up,” Murdoch replied with an indulgent smile. “Johnny doesn’t remember, but this was his nursery as an infant. It’s wired with a baby monitor that sends a signal to my room, the kitchen and the Great Room.”
Scott’s double-time march to his own room instantly stalled and he turned back to his father. “You don’t use it every night, do you?” he asked hopefully. Memories of the nocturnal activities he had indulged in as a teen assaulted his brain and he shuddered.
“No,” Murdoch replied, shaking his head. “I only turn it on when he’s sick and I’m worried about him possibly needing me during the night. Contrary to what Johnny thinks, Scott, I am not a dictator constantly spying on him,” the big man stated as he moved down the hall towards his room.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Four hours later the soft whisper of Aggie Conway’s voice roused Murdoch from his slumber. Without opening his eyes, he grinned, his teeth shining in the deep purple half-dark of the moonlit room, thinking she had changed her mind about sharing his bed for the night. The noise came again and he realized the soft shush was coming from the monitor to Johnny’s room. A concerned frown furrowed his brow and set his lips in a grim line when he became aware she was trying to comfort his restless son.
Throwing back the covers and swinging his feet to the floor, the worried father stood and pulled on his robe. Grabbing the tympanic thermometer from the night table where he had left it earlier, he slipped it into his pocket. The thick woolen carpet runner muffled his determined march down the hall to Johnny’s room, the slightly panicked rush halted at the open door as his eyes took in the tender scene.
Bathed in low lamp light, Aggie sat on the side of the bed, cooing words of comfort as she mopped Johnny’s sweaty face with a cool cloth. The youth tossed his head back and forth on the pillow; caught in the grip of some fever induced dream. All of a sudden, he sat up, his eyes open but unseeing.
“Mama,” Johnny choked out as he fell into Aggie’s waiting arms.
Startled by Johnny’s reaction, Murdoch rushed forward, his breath stalling as Aggie turned to face him; her eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, Murdoch, what has this child been through?” she whispered as she bore Johnny’s weight, rubbing soothing circles on his damp pajama clad back.
Intending to relieve Aggie of her burden, Murdoch slid in behind Johnny and tried to pull him from her arms; visibly shaken when his son refused to let go. Johnny’s arms wrapped even tighter around the woman’s neck, the word Mama coming a second time as the boy’s fevered mind saw not Aggie, but the image of his dark-haired mother.
Aggie had regained her composure, but the tears were still wet against her pale cheeks. “Let him be, Murdoch,” she whispered. “Right now, he needs a woman’s touch.” Long buried grief for the child she had lost shortly after its birth prompted her next, instinctive gesture: she cuddled the boy closer and gently kissed the crown of his head, smiling sadly at the satisfied sigh the action drew from the youth.
Coughing lightly to clear the lump from his throat, Murdoch pulled the thermometer from his robe pocket, popped the cover off, placed the tip in Johnny’s ear and quickly clicked to get a reading. Holding the device closer to the lamp, he announced, “It’s a hundred and one, just enough to make him restless and uncomfortable.”
“It’s been four hours,” Aggie murmured. “He can have another dose of Tylenol.” Her hands never ceased the gentle contact Johnny was craving.
“Actually, he needs a dose of Advil now,” Murdoch announced. Like the woman, he was also whispering. “He’s always been prone to fever, and Sam told us a long time ago that alternating doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen was the most effective way to battle the problem.”
Reaching for the first aid kit that had been left on Johnny’s bedside table, Murdoch unlatched the box and pulled out a bottle of liquid Advil. Before pouring it in the dosing cup he swiftly read the directions. Smiling as the thick purple suspension chugged into the cup, he commented, “Johnny never has been able to swallow a pill; no matter how small, even his antibiotics are still prescribed in liquid form.”
“Give it to me,” Aggie instructed as Johnny refused to leave her arms or even turn his head to his father’s bidding to turn around and take the medicine. Taking the cup from Murdoch, she nudged the youth’s face up. “Here, darling, take this for me,” Aggie cooed, smiling in triumph when Johnny sleepily complied with her request.
A few minutes later, Aggie swayed under the weight of Johnny’s body as he slipped into a completely relaxed state. Neither she nor the boy protested as Murdoch stood and motioned for her to move as he resituated his son on the bed. Tenderly, he brushed the damp bangs from his boy’s eyes. Satisfied Johnny had settled and was fine, Murdoch turned and placed his hand in the small of Aggie’s back and guided her towards the door.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They stood together in the hallway, ears canted towards Johnny’s bedroom door. Murdoch was the first to speak. “You know, Aggie,” he was still speaking very softly, but there was more humor than concern in his voice. “You had that boy scared to death earlier when you pulled out that rectal thermometer.”
Aggie was rearranging her robe, pulling the soft fabric tighter around her small frame; her fingers busy with the long sash. “It served him right,” she murmured. She was smiling when she looked up at the man. “He’s going to be working very hard to pay for that bag, Murdoch.” Then, suddenly, her face clouded a bit. “I was hoping that Scott would be joining him,” she said. “Won’t you reconsider, Murdoch? About Scott and the boot training? He shares the responsibility with Johnny over what occurred, and it only seems right that he should share in Johnny’s chores.”
Murdoch considered the woman’s words. Stretching at the fatigue that was threatening to overtake him, he rubbed at the back of his neck with his right hand. “Those boys need some time apart,” he said finally, shaking his head. The smile came then. “I need for those boys to have some time apart,” he chuckled.
Aggie had turned to face the man, and was standing with her back pressed firmly against the wall. She, too, was beginning to feel same weariness as her companion; that sense of exhaustion that came when the worry faded and the body and mind were no longer on alert. “I seem to remember someone,” she stressed the word, “complaining, not that long ago, that his sons needed to come home; to be together,” she scolded.
There was a sound of joints popping as Murdoch stretched for a second time. “Yes,” he muttered. “But that someone,” he looked down at the woman and pretended to frown, “had forgotten just how much trouble his sons can get into when they aren’t being supervised and they go out to play.”
The woman laughed, softly. “It’s good for you that they are both finally here, Murdoch, finally home. You need them. And Scott and Johnny…”
“You were just what Johnny needed tonight,” Murdoch whispered as he leaned forward and rested his chin atop the woman’s head. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, and pulled her close to his chest. “Perhaps, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to make a legal arrangement so you could be here all the time as well.”
Aggie stiffened briefly in his embrace, turning her head up and arching her eyebrow suspiciously as she stared up into his eyes. “After twenty years of friendship and over ten as occasional lovers, you’re offering me ready-made motherhood?”
Realizing the error at the less-than-romantic formation of his request, Murdoch attempted to rectify his blunder. “No, Aggie,” he breathed. “What I’m offering is my love and my desire for you to be my wife; to be Mrs. Murdoch Lancer.” Embarrassed at the awkwardness of such a forthright declaration of his innermost feelings, he made a stab at humor. “Of course, the opportunity to be a mother is merely a bonus; or at least I hope you think it is.”
Slowly raising her arms and sliding her hands into his robe so that her fingers could caress and play with the wiry hairs on his chest, Aggie carefully considered her reply. “You know I have always been a very independent woman. I’ve never felt the need to be bound by convention or to conform for conformities’ sake. And I hope you don’t take this the wrong way; but I don’t need to be Mrs. Murdoch Lancer to love you…or your boys.” Pausing to stare into the eyes of the one man who had been there any time she called, her pink tongue peeked out far enough to moisten her lips, “I am Agatha Conway, friend, neighbor and lover. I need my own personal space.” She tilted her head a bit to one side; mischief firing her green eyes. “Let’s not ruin the great sex by constricting our unique relationship with the bonds of matrimony,” she smiled.
Her words didn’t hurt…not at all, they just confirmed what Murdoch had always felt for her; a love unfettered…a boundless love. His eyes were twinkling as his face neared hers; and he smiled briefly before opening his mouth and devouring hers in a soul stealing kiss. He groaned in pleasure as her tongue artfully danced with his; his groin roaring to life.
Aggie chuckled as she felt the evidence of the man’s ardor. Coyly, she reached up and patted the tall man’s cheek. “And you’re still not getting any, Murdoch Lancer! Scott and Johnny are being punished for their lack of judgment and so are you.” She wagged a long finger beneath his nose. “Maybe next time you’ll think twice about leaving your sick child in someone else’s care.” Untangling herself from his arms, she quickly dodged away from him and stepped into her room. The door closed, the soft click of the lock joining the provocative sound of her laughter.
Murdoch Lancer stood open-mouthed in the hallway, staring hard at the solid oak door that had been shut in his face; thoughts of a medieval draw bridge being slammed closed at the gates of a great, impenetrable fortress. Damned woman, he thought ruefully; feeling himself wilt. He shook his head at the irony of the situation: best laid plans of mice and men… Resigned to a long, sleepless night, he retreated to his room.
Standing behind his slightly open bedroom door, Scott Lancer watched as his father trudged down the hallway. He should, he supposed, be ashamed of his covert observation of his father and Aggie Conway; but he wasn’t. Stifling his laughter, he shut the door.
Tomorrow, when Johnny was awake and in need of some diversion -- there wasn’t a chance in Hell Maria or Aggie would allow him out of bed -- he would share what he had seen with his baby brother. This was way too good to pass up. General Murdoch Lancer, outgunned, outflanked, and -- he grinned -- out of luck.
Southernfrau and Kit