"Now don't get me wrong, McCormick. I'm not looking for us to be buddies." Judge Milton C. Hardcastle, Rolling Thunder

~0~

Hardcastle laid his toothbrush on the sink's edge and switched off the bathroom light, making his way across the darkened room by memory. He sat on the bed, removing his slippers and sliding his legs under the quilt. He was more tired than he could remember being in quite a while, but it was a good tired. Sore too, though he might not be as willing to admit that.

That had been . . . unexpected.

He honestly hadn't given it a thought, the fact that the kid's bedroom was behind the basketball hoop. Not that it would have mattered if it had occurred to him – he meant it when he said he didn't give a damn. He was shooting his nightly baskets, and that was that.

But when the ex-con had come outside, trying to reason with him, only to follow that up with an offer to 'teach him a lesson'; well, it had amused the hell out of him. He couldn't picture old J. J. Beale coming out and holding his own in a game of guerrilla basketball, at least, not without actual weaponry being involved. Of course, Beale's bedroom had never been anywhere near the basketball hoop – the gardener's trailer was on the other side of the lot. And he wasn't about to examine his reasoning for putting his latest rehabilitation project in the gatehouse instead. Nobody's damn business but his own.

He laid back against the pillows, wincing slightly at the soreness across his abdomen, compliments of a recent elbow to the gut. Most guys probably would have been a bit more bureaucratic in their retribution than to simply send the kid sprawling. Most guys might have sent him packing, instead, or at the very least given him a firm lecture about certain rules that were not meant to be broken.

Most guys wouldn't be playing basketball at two-thirty in the morning with a convicted felon.

Hah. Most guys wouldn't have brought the convicted felon home to begin with.

Well, it was a good thing he wasn't 'most guys'. Besides, he'd been down this road a few times already, and he thought he had a pretty good handle on things. The ones who'd been here before knew the rules. Keep 'em on a short leash, let 'em know where they stood and things would be fine. That's all some of these kids needed – a little discipline, someone around to point out what they were doing wrong, and some good, honest hard labor. He had plenty of that in mind for the newest resident of Gull's Way.

The basketball though – that had been a pleasant surprise. The kid could play. Gave him more of a workout than his free throws and layups ever had. Not only that, it had been . . . fun. Even when McCormick had threatened him, the judge had found himself grinning like the devil. The kid's threat sounded more like that of a growling puppy, all bark and no bite. Not a lot of danger there.

He gave as much as he took, and Hardcastle had found himself enjoying the action. Betting on his pulse rate had been an impulse, but the jurist found he missed having someone around to compete with. And that's all it was – just some good, honest competition.

They weren't going to be friends.

No, there was no point to that, and he was glad he'd made that abundantly clear right at the start. This plan of his would never work if he allowed friendship into the mix. There had to be that distance, otherwise things could get tricky. A working relationship was the best thing for both of them - one where the kid knew who was in charge, and knew where he stood. Hardcastle already had plenty of friends, even if he didn't spend a whole lot of time being social. But there were people he could count on in a pinch. A few, anyway. There was no need to allow a fast-talking, smart-mouthed ex-con into that circle.

Even if the kid did make him laugh.

Maybe it would be best to lay it all out for McCormick again. Go over the rules once more, so there wouldn't be any doubt. Put the kid back in his place. It wouldn't do any good to let the ex-con think he could be anything more than what he'd been brought here to be. Hardcastle would remind the young man of what he'd agreed to – life as a fast-gun in exchange for freedom. Relative freedom. And chores. Plenty of those.

He rolled over onto his side, scrunching up the pillow beneath his head. Yeah, that's what he'd do. In the morning, he'd lay it all out for the young man. Make sure he toed the line. Hardcastle hadn't had the best of luck with some of his rehabilitation projects. Most of them, really, though Beale had been the worst by far. But he learned from his mistakes, and he'd keep this one in line.

This one would be different.

This one had what it took.

This one would make it.

Hardcastle sighed contentedly as he felt sleep pulling at him, and he found himself looking forward to the morning for the first time in quite a while.

Maybe, just maybe, his luck was about to change.