Act One, Scene Two

"She laughed."

Frank's head whipped up from the spreadsheet, startled by the sudden noise breaking his concentration. "What?" He squeezed his eyes shut then opened them again, forcing them to shift their focus to his brother's face. "Oh, good, you're off the phone." He turned his laptop towards Joe. "Look at this. I need you to explain why we're spending this much on..."

"She laughed."

A puzzled look flashed across Frank's face, then cleared. "Oh, yeah. The article. So what? So did I." He shrugged. "At least she didn't try to kill you. Or break up with you." He grinned briefly. "You're always saying how similar we are. Consider it just one more piece of evidence." The smile faded, and he gestured to Joe to come closer. "Now take a look at this..."

"Frank. She laughed." Joe's voice sounded truly annoyed.

Frank raised an eyebrow. "So you said. Three times now." He abandoned the laptop, stood and walked to the front of the desk, then leaned against it. "A half hour ago you were worried she was going to kill you. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't laughter a preferable response?" he asked, his voice dry as sandpaper. "I mean, you didn't really want Kara to shoot you, did you?"

Joe sighed and slumped against the door frame. "Of course not. What kind of an idiot do you take me for?" He straightened for a moment, pointing his finger at his brother. "Don't answer that." He leaned back again. "I guess I was just expecting – I don't know – something... that wasn't... that." He waved his hands in the air, punctuating the final word, and sighed again.

Frank's eyes widened, and he shook his head in disbelief. "I don't believe you. You're actually upset that she's not angry. You're nuts. You realize this, yes?" Joe rolled his eyes, and Frank turned back towards his desk, grabbing the laptop. "Great, now that we've worked through that..."

"I mean, couldn't she have at least acted possessive? Or a little jealous?" Joe's right foot started bouncing up and down on the floor.

"Why? To soothe the savage ego?" Frank shot back. "If that's what you're looking for, Joe, you're dating the wrong woman."

Joe put his hands up in surrender. "I know, and I don't want her to be different." He sighed. "The whole thing's just weird, and it's got me on edge. Forget I said anything." He ambled over to one of Frank's chairs and sprawled out. "So, spreadsheet. Lay it on me. I'll try not to fall asleep."

"Thanks." Sarcasm dripped from Frank's voice. "I'm so glad you appreciate my attempts to keep us solvent." He pointed to the computer screen. "Here's what I need to know..."

"Oh, wait. Before I forget." Joe sat bolt upright. "Kara wanted me to remind you about the scholarship presentation. It's on... um... Crap, I know this..."

"It's the twenty-third. I've got it written down." Frank's eyes softened. "It was really nice of the family to set up a scholarship in Lynne's memory. Tell her I'll be there. I wouldn't miss it. That night's going to be hard for her." Joe nodded, and Frank gestured to the laptop, his expression shifting from understanding friend to annoyed older brother. "Can we go over this now?" Without waiting for another interruption, he launched into an explanation of the spreadsheet's contents.

After ten minutes of listening to Frank drone on about expenses and revenues and pencils, Joe felt his eyes start to glaze over. After twenty, he was so bored he thought he might kill himself. After thirty, he changed his mind and decided to kill Frank instead. Maybe not kill, he amended, maybe just maim a little. He sighed loudly.

Deliverance came in the form of Chet. As Joe was busily considering the many ways he could incapacitate his brother enough to get him to stop droning on about their expenses without seriously injuring him, Chet leaned in Frank's doorway, his phone headset dangling around his shoulders. "Guys? Call for Joe on line one."

Frank raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You planned this, didn't you?"

Joe opened his hands in front of him and put on an expression of mock sorrow. "Sorry, 'bro, but it's probably important. I should take it in my office, so you can get more work done on your spreadsheet." Then he turned and fled, almost overturning the chair in his haste to leave.

Once in his office, Joe shut the door and let out a sigh of relief as he reached for the phone, ready to kiss whoever it was on the other end. The minutiae of running the agency bored him to tears, and he was pleased – no, make that relieved – that Frank generally handled it all. Any time Frank went undercover for the FBI for any length of time, the details of running the agency – getting bills paid on time, filing forms with the police or district attorney's office, and making sure clients received invoices – all fell on Joe's shoulders, and each time Frank came back, Joe breathed a sigh of relief and sent a prayer of thanks that there was still an agency for Frank to come back to. Frank's somewhat anal approach to running the business end of things meant he could concentrate on the cases, and he was grateful for it. As much as Frank complained about having control of the agency's finances, Joe knew that some small, twisted part of his brother's psyche actually enjoyed worrying about them.

He breathed out, shook his head in disbelief, and pressed the blinking button on the multi-line phone. "Hardy Investigations, can I help you?"

"Mr. Joseph Hardy?" The voice coming through the phone was young, female, and British. Joe smiled, picturing to himself a blonde in her early twenties with blue eyes and a bright smile. It was an attractive image.

"This is Joe," he said, force of habit smoothing out his deep voice. "What can I do for you?"

"Oh, good. I was afraid you wouldn't be in. My name is Penelope Smith-Harrington, and I work with the New York Cancer Research Association." The words were spoken in a sing-song manner, as if they she said them often, but the accent was charming. Joe would have been happy to listen to her read the phone book.

"My brother and I will be happy to make a donation, if that's why you're calling, but you'll need to talk to him about it. He's the financial wizard..."

A bubbling laugh interrupted Joe's words. "Oh, no, Mr. Hardy. You misunderstand. We run charity auctions and were wondering if you might be able to help us out."

Joe's voice mirrored his confusion. "You think someone might be interested in bidding on investigative services?" He could just imagine trying to convince someone to bid on a cheating spouse stakeout. He shook his head, not able to wrap his mind around the concept.

The laugh rang through the phone line again. "The article didn't do justice to your sense of humor." She paused. "Our auctions are... different. We auction off dates with well-known New Yorkers."

"Dates?" Joe's mouth dropped open. "Like an 'evening out' kind of date?"

She made an 'um-hum' noise. "We have an event set up for this Wednesday, and one of the men who agreed to be on the auction block seems to have injured himself at work last night. I realize this is extremely short notice, but we were wondering if you might be available to substitute for him." Joe could hear her put a hand over the receiver, then say something unintelligible to someone standing nearby. "Sorry about that. They want me to ask if you own a tuxedo, or if we'll need to rent one for you."

"A tuxedo?"

"Anyway," she continued, "the weekend magazine article came out at the absolute perfect time. We were going spare trying to figure out where to find someone to step in for Warren."

Joe's head snapped up. Their drop-out had been injured at work last night... "Warren Chadwick? The NBA star?" His voice cracked.

"Oh, you've heard of him?" Penelope asked brightly. "Lovely. So can we count you in?"

"Wait." Joe's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Frank put you up to this, didn't he?"

Penelope sighed. "Why is that always people's first reaction? Are you near a computer?" She waited until he murmured an assent. "Our web address is www dot dateoutcancer dot org."

Joe typed awkwardly, his shoulder keeping the receiver up by his ear. "Got it." He scrolled down the page, looking at the information on the screen in front of him. There were some pretty famous people on the 'auction' list. He whistled, then sighed. "Look, Miss Smit..."

"Call me Pen," she said, laughing. "My last name's a bit of a mouthful."

"Pen," Joe corrected. "I'm flattered that you contacted me..."

"Oh, dear," Pen said. "I hear a 'but' coming. You're not seeing someone, are you? The article listed you as a bachelor." She sounded crestfallen.

Joe stopped and thought. He and Kara had been together for a few months, but outside of Frank, Chet, her partner Travis, and their parents, no one else was in on the secret. Due to the nature of Kara's work, she liked to keep her private life as private as possible, and having lost Iola so many years ago, Joe respected and understood that need. He decided subterfuge was his best bet. "No," he lied. "It's just not something I feel comfortable with. We'll be happy to make a donation, but..."

Pen sighed. "I understand. From the article, you seemed just the type who would enjoy it, but I suppose we'll have to look somewhere else. I'm sorry to have taken up so much of your time. Have a nice day." The connection cut out.

Joe shook his head as Chet stuck his head in the room. "Dude," Joe said to his friend, "you will not believe what that was about. This is turning into the weirdest day of my life."

Chet chuckled. "You'll have to tell me about it later. Marisol is here, and I'm heading to lunch." He paused and opened the door the rest of the way. Joe could see Chet's girlfriend in the outer office – her hair currently dyed a copper color that went well with her dark-toned skin – and waved. She waved back, grinning widely at him. "I saw the line light go off. Kara called while you were on the phone."

Joe started and looked at his watch. He was late for their lunch date. "Great," he groaned. "Now she's going to rag on me for being late again. Like she needed more ammunition."

Chet shook his head. "Something came up. She and Travis got sent out somewhere. She said she'd call when she could, but it might be a couple of days." He shrugged an apology. "Oh, she said to tell you she liked the picture of you they got to go with the article. Someone in the office brought it in 'cause they know you're Frank's brother. The general consensus was it made you look 'distinguished'. Or at least not as air-headed as usual." Joe's eyebrows went up. "That was Travis talking in the background. You know how he is." Chet shook his head. "I still can't believe she's not mad about it. I thought for sure..."

"Chet? Are you ready to go? I have a client at one." Joe could see Marisol looking at her watch.

"Yeah," Joe's voice was flat. "Well, what can I say? I'm lucky." He paused and nodded at Marisol. "You better go." Chet nodded and turned back towards his girlfriend, shutting the door as he walked away.

Joe slouched back in his chair and sighed. He wasn't sure whether to be upset or pleased that his lunch date with Kara had been canceled. It's not like I really wanted her to be upset. Or jealous, he thought, but laughter? And now she's on assignment with Travis. He grunted in disapproval. He knew Kara worked in a male-dominated profession, which made the rise to her current position as team leader even more impressive. But Travis. Ugh. It couldn't have been anyone else? Joe was fairly sure that most of her team members realized he was around a lot for someone who wasn't called in on cases all that often – unlike Frank, who spent a good amount of time actually working with Kara – but none of them had said anything. None except Travis, who made snide comments about Joe – generally in Joe's presence – on a regular basis. He could only imagine what Travis said when he wasn't around.

He let out an unhappy breath. If only Kara wasn't so stubborn about things. She was so different from the girls he usually dated – smart, driven, intense, and able to hold her own in a fight. His previous girlfriends had shouted from the rooftops that they were involved with him, hung on his arm when they went out, and didn't seem to want much from him other than his charm and good looks. Kara wouldn't accept anything but his best, whether it was related to work or to their relationship. She came off as tough and sharp, but over the past few months he had discovered a softer side that she hid from the rest of the world. She does a damn good job hiding it. It took me forever to find it. And she's gorgeous. How did it take me so long to see that?

The problem was that Travis saw it, too. And now they were off on assignment together.

Jealousy flared up in Joe's chest, and his memory replayed Kara's laughter about the article again. Fine, he thought, if that didn't bother her, then I guess a little charity work won't either.

He moved the computer mouse, bringing the screen back to life again, clicked on the 'contact us' link of the website on the screen, and called the number he found on the page. "Pen? It's Joe Hardy. I checked my calendar. It turns out I am available Wednesday night, and you don't need to worry about the tux. I own one. So where do you need me to be when?"

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