Handle with Care--Chapters One and Two

Handle with Care by Marie Harte

Chapter 1

The sight that met Evan’s eyes had him staring, unsure of what to do. Though he owned part of his and his cousins’ local moving company, he’d only been doing the grunt work of actually moving people for the past two weeks. With one of his cousins temporarily out due to an injury, Evan had willingly stepped in to take up the slack.

At first, being able to get out from behind a desk, away from a past life of accounting, had seemed a blessing. Sure, he was still sore, taxing his muscles on a daily basis doing manual labor, but he considered the physical exertion to be just the thing to kick-start his new life.

No one had mentioned what to do when the client got into a free-for-all in the middle of the living room.

The client, Rachel Kim, a petite Korean woman with a soft demeanor and a cute dimple, was wrapped around a tall, statuesque black woman. Rachel had her in a headlock, clinging to her like a koala on a tree.

“I’m taking it!” she shrieked and refused to let go. “It’s a memory, and it’s mine!”

“Idiot, it’s not yours,” the other woman managed, gripping at the forearm across her neck. “It’s ours! Ask Kenzie. Rachel, get off!” She swung around, and the two did an odd dance as the poor woman tried to shake her human burr. “Besides, you don’t deserve it! Leaving me for a man? Way to idolize a penis, love slave.”

O-kay. That was more than he wanted to hear. Evan had been hired to move Rachel’s things, not involve himself in her private life.

“Shut up, Lila. You’re just jealous! Backstabbing bitch.” Rachel started going off in what sounded like Korean.

Lila choked, and Evan stepped forward. Then he realized she was laughing. Well, as much as one could laugh while gasping for oxygen. She continued to struggle for freedom, to no avail.

Evan decided he should probably get involved before Lila passed out. But just as he took another step to separate the two women, sunlight beamed through the front windows, illuminating the avenging angel who stormed through the front door, her brown eyes blazing.

His world stopped. As if the woman had been bathed in radiance, she made everything around her pale in comparison. He found it difficult to breathe.

Long, light-brown hair floated around her shoulders, framing an attractive face full of life and emotion. She looked to be about his age, and she moved with grace and energy. “You two are being ridiculous,” she huffed as she tried to pull Rachel and Lila apart. Dressed in ripped khaki shorts, a Drink Local T-shirt, and flip-flops, she shouldn’t have appeared so impressive. But she did.

Evan just stood there, staring, trying to figure out what the hell was happening as his heart raced, his focus narrowed to this one incredibly arresting woman.

“Well?” the angel snapped at him. “You going to help me with these two or what?”

He started. “Oh, right.” But he hadn’t taken a breath before Rachel shifted to the new arrival, latching onto her and including her in the weird three-person tango.

“Nooo,” Rachel moaned. “Everything is changing too fast.”

Evan blinked, and the three women dissolved into tears, crumpled to the floor, and hugged one another. No one made any sense as emotions and a jumble of words, everyone talking over everyone, filled the air.

He cleared his throat. “Ah, you guys need help?”

They continued to wail, ignoring him, so he left them to their emotional crisis while he tried to figure out why he’d…panicked? Frozen? Lost his mind?

He’d once done the Heimlich on a choking man in a crowded restaurant while everyone else watched in shock. He’d prevented a young lance corporal from shooting his instructor at the rifle range during training back in his Marine Corps days. And he’d more than once talked down his oldest cousin from a fight, saving him from jail time and accompanying fines. Evan didn’t panic, and he always knew what to do.

So why the hell had the sight of that woman frazzled him?

He walked out to the moving van, grabbed his water, and guzzled it. August in Seattle typically proved to be hot, but temps had been higher than normal, and the current heat wave had his shirt plastered to his back. The sun continued to blaze overhead, spotlighting the charming home he’d parked in front of. A small Craftsman-style cottage with a surprisingly wide doorway, thank God. Getting furniture through some of the older homes in the city took real work, and Evan always wondered how the people had gotten their furniture in to begin with because not everything came in pieces from IKEA.

He held the cold bottle against the back of his neck and studied the front walkway. The front door remained open, and he could see and hear the three women crying, laughing, and talking together.

Talk about weird.

“Yeah, they can be a bit much to take.”

Evan spun around to see a lanky teenager approach. “Huh?”

The boy nodded to the home. “Chicks. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.”

“Wise words from one so young.” Evan grinned.

The boy smiled back. “I live down the block, but this area is usually pretty loud. I think the women who live here had some kind of party pad. Lots of guys coming over, to both places.” The boy nodded to the home next door as well. “My mom told me to steer clear, but maybe now that the crazy lady is moving soon too, I can swing by more.”

“Crazy lady?”

“Yeah.” The boy peered at the doorway. “See that woman with the long brown hair? Not Lila, the African goddess—she makes everyone call her that. She’s kind of mean. I’m talking about the crazy one.”

“Rachel?”

“Nah, she’s just hyper. The other one is batshit nuts.”

His angel. “Ah. How crazy, exactly?”

The boy sighed. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone because my mom says it’s bad to spread gossip, but I’d be careful if I were you. She tried to stab some guy who broke up with her a month ago. At least I saw her screaming and waving a knife at some dude. Then another guy calmed her down, and her wacko friends stepped in.” He shrugged. “I don’t know, but it was a mess. Had the cops down here.”

Considering what Evan had just witnessed, the scene didn’t seem so far-fetched. “Thanks.”

“Sure. Just like to help.” The boy looked at the truck. “Vets on the Go!? You some kind of animal doctor or the military kind of vet?”

“Military kind. Our company employs veterans to help people move.”

The boy glanced around. “Just you?”

“Yeah. I’m helping one of the ladies move out. And she mostly only has smaller stuff. Though I’m supposed to have some help on the larger furniture. But her boyfriend hasn’t arrived yet.”

“Well, if you need help, let me know. Got a phone?”

Evan frowned, wondering if this was part of a scam to steal cell phones, which had become a citywide problem recently.

“Whoa.” The boy raised his hands, appearing harmless. “Easy. I’m not gonna take it or anything. I’m just gonna give you my number. You can text me if the boyfriend doesn’t show.”

Not that Evan would. He could just see the boy getting hurt and the company being liable for a lawsuit. “I’m good, kid. But thanks anyway.”

“Your loss.” The boy smiled to take the sting out of his words. More shouting from inside the house turned them both in that direction once more. “Well, I’d better leave. If my mom catches me around here, she’ll ground me.” The boy turned and tripped, and Evan caught him before he hit the pavement.

The kid quickly righted himself, a flush on his cheeks. “Nice catch.”

“Thanks.”

“Well, if you change your mind, I’m the red two-story four houses down. Good luck with the crazy ladies.” The boy waved goodbye.

Evan waved then turned to the job at hand. He’d given the women enough time to get it together. He had a schedule to keep, and this house had to be moved today. Time to load the rest of the boxes from the bedroom.

Skirting the drama in the living room, he emptied what remained into the truck, leaving room for a few larger pieces, like an armoire, desk, chair, and bed. Rachel didn’t actually have that much to move, so she’d only requested one mover and a smaller truck.

He stared at the armoire and frowned, wondering how he might heft it out himself. Even with the dolly, it would take some doing. Fortunately, Rachel’s boyfriend arrived, and they muscled it and the other big pieces into the truck. The women had vanished. Though Evan would have liked to have seen the “batshit nuts” looker again, he thought it for the best that he didn’t.

“Thanks, man.” Will, Rachel’s boyfriend, tried to tip him as he locked up the back of the vehicle.

“Nah. This is such a small move. It’s no biggie.” It wasn’t as if Evan needed the money. And Will had been a big help; he had a good amount of strength behind those wide shoulders.

“Take it,” Will insisted, and Evan reluctantly pocketed twenty bucks. “Trust me. You doing this saved me a lot of hassle.” Will wiped a hand over his face and asked in a lower voice after glancing around, “Did she freak out?”

“Uh, yeah. You could say that. Wrapped herself around her friend Lila like a boa constrictor and was choking her over something she insisted on taking with her. Apparently they disagreed over the thing.”

Will sighed. “That stupid trophy.”

“I don’t know what the fight was about. I just know it got a little ugly. Then some other woman arrived, got sucked into the group brawl, and they collapsed into tears. Then laughter, then tears again. It was scary.”

Will laughed. “Better you than me.”

Evan wanted to ask about the sexy chick, but he stopped himself. “I’d better get going. Got to get this unloaded before traffic gets too bad.” Traffic was always bad in the city, but there were degrees of road rage Evan could handle.

“Gotcha. My brother’s waiting for you at my place, and you can just unload it all into my garage. He’ll help with the bigger things.”

“Great.” Evan reached into his back pocket to verify the address on his phone. And found it empty. “Shit.” He double-checked the vehicle to make sure he hadn’t left it inside. Nope. Not there either.

“What’s up?”

“My phone’s missing.” The same phone he’d had in his back pocket when he’d helped the boy who’d tripped over his own feet.

That freakin’ kid.

“What color is it? I’ll check the house.”

“It’s a red iPhone.” Evan went with him. Nothing turned up.

“Man. That sucks.” Will shook his head.

Evan would strangle the boy when he found him. “You ever see a tall teenager hanging around here? Light-brown hair, brown—maybe hazel—eyes?” He frowned. “Good-looking kid, seems friendly. Lives a few blocks down in a red house.”

Will shook his head. “Red house? Never seen him.”

“Well, he apparently knows all about the crazy lady who lives next door.”

“Kenzie?”

“I don’t know, but I need my phone. My life is on that thing.” At least he’d password-protected it.

“I know what you mean.” Will shrugged. “Might as well see.”

They walked next door and knocked at the back entrance. Will shouted to be heard over raised voices, “Yo, Kenzie. I got a problem.”

The door opened, and Evan’s angel appeared…holding a knife.

Evan gaped. “Holy shit. The kid wasn’t kidding.”

She stared from them to the knife in her hand and blushed. “I was just making a salad. Cutting vegetables.”

“With a butcher knife?” Evan had a tough time believing that. Then he met her striking gaze, that color in her eyes an intriguing mix of green and brown that seemed to change as he watched her. All thought left his mind.

Her blush intensified. “All the other knives are dirty…” She threw over her shoulder, “Since someone hasn’t done the dishes like he was supposed to!”

No one answered, though Evan heard Rachel and Lila talking in another room.

Kenzie stepped back. “Come on in.”

Evan knew it wasn’t smart, but drawn to Kenzie and needing his phone, he followed her into the kitchen, Will behind him. Rachel and Lila joined them.

“Hey, babe.” Rachel gave Will a kiss, the petite woman comfortably enfolded by the larger man hugging her so tightly.

“Lunatic.” Will grinned. “Oh, and Lila. Didn’t see you there, Lunatic Junior.”

Lila flipped him off.

“What’s going on?” Kenzie asked Will while studying Evan with an odd look on her face. He couldn’t tell if it was fear, disdain, or curiosity because the expressions flashed by so fast and she refused to meet his gaze. Probably a good thing, considering a smart guy shouldn’t want to be on this woman’s radar. No matter how fine she might be.

He couldn’t help noticing her long, slender legs or the curves under the thin cotton of her T-shirt. Or that she must be reacting to the cool breeze that suddenly blew through the room because her nipples had turned to hard little points.

Forcing himself to glance away before he embarrassed himself by leering, Evan saw a surprisingly neat and orderly kitchen, something he wouldn’t have expected of the supposedly unstable woman.

Will explained, “Someone took Evan’s cell phone. Some teenager who lives a few doors down in the red house.”

Rachel frowned. “Red house? That’s Tom McCall’s place, and he’s eighty-four. His grandkids live in Vegas, and they’re in their thirties.”

Kenzie’s eyes widened. “He did not.”

Lila blew out a breath. “Oh boy.”

“What’s going on?” Evan had a schedule these people were destroying minute by minute. “Look, I really have to get going. And I need my phone. So if you have any idea where this kid is, I’d appreciate you telling me.”

Kenzie gripped the knife in her hand even tighter, Evan noticed. “Ah, maybe you should put down the weapon, Kenzie.” Saying her name gave him an odd thrill, and he chalked it up to adrenaline.

“Knife? What?” She looked confused.

Lila answered, “I think he means the potential murder weapon in your hand. Put it down before you stab someone.”

Will took a step back, and Rachel planted herself in front of him. “Not the face, Kenzie. You can stab him anywhere else, but I like my men pretty.”

“Jesus, Rachel, it was one time and an accident,” Kenzie snapped.

“That I’ll never forget.” Will showed Evan his forearm, where a large scar bisected his arm. “Almost took my arm off.”

Lila and Rachel erupted into laughter.

“If you could see your face.” Will grinned. “Kidding, man. This is from a car accident years ago. Kenzie only stabbed me with a paring knife when I got too close to her cucumbers.”

Kenzie chimed in, looking furious, “That I was in the middle of cutting. Daniel,” she shouted. “Get your ass down here!”

“We can never be truly sure it was an accident,” Rachel added in a loud whisper.

Will nodded. “I still have the emotional scars.”

Evan felt as if he’d fallen down the rabbit hole. “You people are giving me a headache. Do you or do you not know where my phone is?” He stared at the knife still clutched in Kenzie’s hand.

She dropped it in the sink and stomped into the living room.

Everyone followed her, so Evan did as well. He couldn’t help seeing a fairly neat and eclectically decorated house full of color. Rich hardwoods and handcrafted moldings gave the house an upscale feel, but the furniture appeared worn and comfortable. No sign of clutter except for some gaming magazines, a pair of large sneakers by the couch, and an opened bag of chips on the coffee table.

They continued up the stairs and passed two bedrooms and a bathroom then paused at the doorway to the last bedroom down the hall.

“He’s not here,” Kenzie fumed. She spun around and moved so quickly she knocked into Evan.

He gripped her shoulders to stop her from moving through him. The contact startled him, once more shocking him into immobility.

Kenzie stared back, her lips full, rosy, and begging for a kiss.

Someone cleared her throat.

Evan immediately dropped his hands and stepped back. “Sorry.” Shit. His voice sounded thick, gravelly.

“S-sure. I just… It’s my…”

“Mom! I’m home,” a familiar voice called from downstairs.

Evan stared into Kenzie’s face, putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Now that he thought about it, the boy did look a lot like his mother. Yet their ages seemed a little close for her to be a mom. Unless she’d had him as a teenager herself.

Her eyes darkened. “Mom?” She stormed past Evan.

He noted the caution on the others’ faces. “This can’t be good.”

Rachel sighed. “You got that right.”

Then he followed the group once more, aware he was losing time, his focus, his phone…and wondered when crazy had become contagious.

Chapter 2

Kenzie Sykes rushed downstairs to see her “son” smiling like an angel.

Ha. More like the devil in disguise. She must have been very bad in a past life to be saddled with such a little punk. One not so little anymore. The boy had surpassed her own five-seven frame years ago and now took great delight in looking down on her. Literally.

“What’s up, Mom?”

“Look, bozo, we’re not doing this again. Give him back his phone.”

“What? Whose phone?”

“And quit calling me Mom.” Her cheeks blazed, and she wondered why today of all days she had to meet Evan—Adonis personified.

When she’d spied the hottie moving Rachel’s things, she’d peered through the window, catching every glimpse she could. Tall, muscular, great cheekbones. And that ass… She sighed.

So of course Daniel had to ruin it for her. Because no way sexy mover guy would want to go out with a woman surrounded by so much nuttiness. Not that she’d ask him out or anything, but a girl could dream.

First, he’d seen her break down with her best friends. Then her thief of a brother had stolen his cell phone. And Daniel had been doing so well lately.

Mr. Not-So-Innocent blinked. “Why are you so mad?”

She knew that look, the one that said Daniel had done exactly what he’d been accused of.

“Buddy, where’s my phone?” Evan’s deep voice sounded calm, but she knew he had to be furious.

“Buddy?” Daniel raised a brow and in a lofty tone added, “My name is—”

“Daniel. Thomas. Sykes,” she answered for him in precise, clipped words. “You give the man his phone back right now.

“But Mom…”

“And quit calling me Mom!”

Behind her, Rachel snickered. Will coughed to stifle a laugh.

“It’s not funny.”

“It kind of is,” Lila muttered.

“Hey, I don’t have his phone. Frisk me.” Daniel held up his hands.

Evan sighed. “I’m so behind.” She noticed him glancing at the clock on the wall. “Look, kid, I have a job to do. Just give me the phone, and I’ll let this go.”

Daniel shrugged. “I saw it on the ground, so I picked it up and put it on the hood of your truck. If it’s not there now, it’s not my fault.”

Evan stormed out the door, and Kenzie rushed past her brother with the others. She saw Evan reach for a phone on the hood of his truck.

Suddenly she felt bad, that she might have accused her brother of something he for once hadn’t done.

“Told you,” Daniel said.

Evan glared at him. “Neat trick. Especially because it was in my back pocket until you bumped into me. But whatever.” He turned, speared Kenzie with a frustrated expression—how is this my fault?—then got into the truck and left.

“Well, that’s a potential love slave down the drain,” Lila said. “Too bad. He had a nice ass.”

“True.” Rachel and Lila bumped knuckles.

Will rolled his eyes.

Daniel gagged.

Kenzie turned and yanked her brother into the house. She didn’t yell at him, just stared, giving him her guilt-heavy “I’m so disappointed” look because she knew how much he hated it.

He tried to outlast her, but as usual, he failed. “I hate my life!” He rushed away, heading upstairs. A door slammed.

She turned to see her friends pitying her. “Oh, screw off.”

They started laughing, and she couldn’t help a sigh. “That was terrible, wasn’t it? That guy is never going to help any of us move ever again.” Sad, but since a relationship didn’t seem to be in the cards for her anyway, losing the moving god before she’d had a chance to screw up their first date could only be expected.

“That poor guy. A twenty-buck tip wasn’t enough.” Will shook his head. “Daniel is such an ass.” He chuckled. “I love that kid.”

“Shh. Don’t let him hear you,” Rachel admonished, and in a lower voice added, “Not in front of Kenzie.”

She wished her friends would discourage her brother from his illegal antics. But since Daniel had been banished from anything computer-related for the next few weeks until school started, he’d taken to “acquiring” electronic devices from friends to reach the internet. Now, how to make him stop behaving like a jackass and turn back into the responsible teenager he’d once been, back before the evil entity called puberty had entered his body and turned him into a conniving monster?

“Still, too bad you didn’t get a shot at being Moving Man’s love slave,” Lila said. “Because he was giving you the eye. We all saw it.”

“I did,” Will agreed.

“And he was sex-eee. With three e’s.” Trust Lila not to let it go.

“So you date him.” Kenzie shrugged, pretending the potential loss didn’t annoy her. Which told her she’d better start putting in overtime at the job. If she had time to think about dating, she had enough time to take on that pain-in-the-ass client she’d told herself not to take.

“I’m not into white guys.” Lila grinned, lying through her teeth.

Even Rachel snorted at that.

Lila frowned. “And you hush. You got your own white guy.”

“I’m a quarter Hispanic, actually,” Will cut in. “And my uncle is—”

“Besides, Moving Man wasn’t looking at me like he wanted to do me. Which is too bad because I could teach him some things…”

Kenzie groaned. “Can we please not talk about him anymore? Why don’t we focus on what’s really bothering all of us?”

“The fact that no one has commented about how fine I am?” Will asked. “Because I’m much better looking than Evan.”

Rachel nodded solemnly and patted Will on the arm.

“No, what’s really bothering us is the fact that you’re stealing Rachel,” Lila answered. “I mean, I know you’re not. Not really. You’re all in love and stuff, but I’m going to miss my roomie.” Lila teared up.

Damn it. Kenzie thought she’d expended enough tears for the day. “I’m going to miss you too.”

“I feel it, right here.” Rachel put a hand over her heart. “But we’ll always be sisters from other misters.”

“Oh my God.” Will let out a loud breath. “We’re just moving eight blocks over. You still work together all the time, and we’re within walking distance.”

“I feel it,” Rachel repeated. “Not the same.”

Will groaned. “I need a drink. I’ll talk to you drama queens later.” He gave Rachel a peck on the lips. “I’ve gotta get back to work. See you soon, Meryl Streep.”

They watched him leave.

“Yep. Thrown over for a penis.” Lila shook her head.

Daniel froze behind her, having come into the kitchen. He turned around and stomped back the way he’d come, throwing over his shoulder, “Have I mentioned how much I hate my life?”

* * *

Evan dropped off the furniture with some help from Will’s brother and returned to the office three hours later. A traffic accident, combined with the five o’clock rush, had pushed him into a bad time to be on the road.

He checked the truck back in to the large warehouse space they shared with a local bakery’s delivery vehicles. The original office, which used to exist on the ground floor near the front of the building, had been under repair since Vets on the Go! had opened. It was supposed to be fixed at some point, but his cousins had decided to make the upstairs space the central point of the company. With all the business they’d had recently, no one had the time or energy to redo what had already been done.

Taking the stairs to the second floor, Evan walked down the long hallway, passing a watch repair shop and phone/computer repair store on his right and a clothing boutique on the left. “Clothing boutique” was being kind. Miriam, an older woman who equated female empowerment with sexual awareness, sold clothes when not running her workshops where women got naked and explored themselves.

As the new guy, he’d been pranked not long ago into dealing with her on behalf of his poor, beleaguered cousin Reid.

Evan still couldn’t believe he’d fallen for it. Especially since Reid had claimed not to be able to handle the woman himself. As if. Reid could and did handle everything that came at him. He’d been the one to come up with the idea of tailoring a moving company to employ veterans, making a future for his rough-talking older brother, Cash.

Added to that, they now employed more than a dozen veterans and had made a name for themselves as trustworthy and professional. Being a part of Vets on the Go! with his family made Evan proud and helped him feel included. As part of a larger family.

Too bad that like all families, this one had its share of dysfunction.

And speaking of which…

“Oh, there you are, Mr. Suave,” a deep voice growled from the main office at the end of the hall. “Reid was looking for you.” A large man with large muscles and an even bigger mouth stood in the doorway, looking like a mountain of irritability under that scowl.

“And now my day is complete.” Evan glared at Smith, the old new guy. Smith had only been with the company for a few weeks longer than Evan.

Smith Ramsey—Cash and Reid’s secret brother, who wasn’t so secret considering Smith and Cash resembled each other way too much to be a coincidence. But only family and Cash’s girlfriend knew the truth. Evan still wondered if Smith knew of the connection, but he’d leave that to his cousins to sort out.

“What’s wrong, Griffith? Not used to working up a sweat?” Smith smirked.

Evan resisted the urge to wipe that smirk off his face because one, the guy was huge, and two, the punch might be satisfying but the resultant mess they’d make of the office would be a nightmare. Evan preferred a peaceful resolution over a physical one, and he really didn’t want Smith rearranging his face. Ever.

Evan ignored him, not giving Smith the reaction he wanted, and stepped past him toward Reid’s office.

Vets on the Go! was situated at the end of the long hallway, a suite of four rooms, the main lobby being the largest. Behind the welcome desk sat Finley, a prior Navy guy, typing into a computer. No one waited in the seating area, and the other two offices looked dark behind the glass doors. Beyond the desk, Reid’s voice carried past his open door.

Finley glanced up from the computer, stopped typing, and picked up the quarter lying next to the keyboard. “Reid wants you.”

“I heard.”

Finley flipped the coin over his knuckles with a dexterity best left to thieves and magicians. He said he had magic in his blood, but Evan wouldn’t put it past the guy to also have a shady history. Like most of the colorful staff at Vets on the Go!, Finley had served his country and had an entertaining past. Because God forbid his cousins hire normal people.

The thought popped into his head: As if you’re normal? He had adjusted to the motley crew pretty fast.

He walked into Reid’s office and was waved into a seat. As usual, his cousin had a full cup of coffee by a stack of invoices and paper piles neatly organized on his desk. The demand for their services continued to skyrocket, and Evan couldn’t be happier. He usually downplayed his excitement, though he watched every single Vets on the Go! commercial on TV, getting a huge kick out of seeing his and his cousins’ faces flashing across the screen.

Reid hung up the phone and groaned. “Man, I need a break. Is it Friday yet?”

“Try Tuesday, five-ish. Want to go grab a cold one while we chat?”

“Hell yeah.” They left Reid’s office after Reid had gathered his things. “Finley, lock up and go home.”

“Roger that.”

Smith must have already left because Evan saw no sign of the gruff man. As he and Reid walked down the stairs and made small talk, Evan filled him in on his day and had Reid in tears by the time they reached their cars.

“Seriously? You got taken by a teenager?”

“Laugh it up. The kid was good. Smoother than Finley, and I—” His phone buzzed in his back pocket, and unfortunately his ring tone…was not what it should have been.

Reid blinked. “Your ring tone is ‘Dancing Queen’? ABBA, Evan? Really?”

Evan flushed. “That freakin’ kid.”

Reid burst into more laughter. Great. Evan would be hearing about this for days.

They planned to meet at their usual hangout, a bar a short drive away. Ringo’s Bar had great appetizers and killer dark ales. More than ready to sit down and eat, Evan entered and found Cash and his girlfriend, Jordan, sitting at a table, arguing over something.

“Man, he and Smith really do look alike,” Evan said once Reid had joined him by the entrance.

Reid nodded. “We’re still not sure how to handle it. I mean, it’s weird enough Smith is my half brother. But to know Cash is too? That Dad wasn’t Cash’s dad? Weird. Weirder to think Smith and Cash are actually full-on siblings.”

Evan had learned, along with his cousins, that his aunt Angela had been unfaithful. So while Uncle Charles was Reid’s dad, the man didn’t have any blood relation to Cash, which would explain the ugly family dynamics from years past.

“Sometimes it’s good to be an only child,” Evan said, meaning it, wondering if that was why Daniel, the phone thief, had acted out. Evan had done his share of rebellion growing up, though never to the extent of thievery. Or breaking the law. Or getting a detention. Man, I guess I am as boring as Sheila accused me of being.

But what could he do? Evan had responsibilities, a mother who needed him, and a career he cared about. Blowing it all off to spend a spur-of-the-moment getaway in Hawaii with Sheila, on his tab, didn’t make much sense. The sex would have been nice, but not when it came with so much attached. Ending it with her months ago had been a no-brainer, but now he had to consider her insults might have had merit.

Cash looked up and waved them over.

Reid tugged Evan with him. “No talking about Smith, okay?”

“You don’t have to tell me twice. Guy gets on my last damn nerve.”

Reid chuckled. “Yeah, he’s just like Cash.”

They reached the table, and Jordan scooted over in the booth. Before Reid could sit with her, Evan nudged him out of the way. “Let me sit next to the hot chick. You sit next to Conan.”

“Funny guy.” Cash grinned. He smiled a lot more now that he’d hooked up with Jordan, another veteran and fellow Vets on the Go! employee. With Cash and Jordan now living and working together, the jokes at work had been flying fast and free. And mostly by Smith, come to think of it.

Evan asked, “So when are you coming back to work? The cast comes off, what, in four more weeks?”

Cash nodded and held up his left arm, still in a cast.

Jordan frowned. “No, the doctor said eight weeks.”

“Actually, he said six to eight weeks. It’s been two weeks since I got the cast. So doing the math,” Cash said slowly, as if speaking to someone not so bright, “that’s four more weeks.”

Jordan’s scowl spoke volumes.

Evan and Reid shared a grin. Cash had a habit of trying to boss everyone around. At six foot four and armed with muscles and the know-how to use them, he normally won. But with Jordan, the outcome of any argument was sixty–forty…in her favor. An Army vet and prior military police, Jordan didn’t take crap. From anyone.

“So before you two get into a slapfest, how about pretzel bites on me?” The frowns Evan received for “slapfest” disappeared at the mention of free food.

“Fine.” Jordan huffed.

“Good.” Cash nodded.

Evan left to order and returned to his seat to hear Cash ask Reid, “Where’s Naomi?”

“Had a late meeting with a new client. And no, I’m not worried. I trust her,” Reid said before Cash could tease him. “Naomi’s doing some PR work for Jennings Tech. You remember Chris Jennings, Evan?”

“Chris Jennings. That geek who’s now a millionaire? Man, I knew Chris’s brother in the Corps. Hell, I set up logistics for his platoon for a few exercises. He’s a good guy and still in that I know of.” Out in the field, Marines needed supplies, and Evan’s job had been to coordinate and oversee logistical support. “I remember Matt talking about Chris, surprised his little brother had joined.”

Reid smiled. “I know. Small world. Cash and I both knew him overseas, and we’re still renting his house.”

“You mean you’re renting until you officially move in with Naomi,” Jordan cut in, “and Cash moves the rest of his stuff into your mom’s house. I mean, your house.”

Our house,” Cash corrected her, warmth in his eyes.

Wow. Had his oldest cousin changed. Still a hard-ass, but now Cash showed his affection. Funny what love could do to a guy. “Speaking of moms,” Evan said, “my mother is demanding a family dinner. So don’t even think of putting her off again.”

Reid flinched. “I know, I know. I’m sorry. I’ve just been so busy…”

“She wants you two over for dinner this Friday. No more excuses.” He glared at Cash, who raised his hands in surrender.

“Fine by me. I love to eat, and Aunt Jane can cook.” He took Jordan’s hand across the table and kissed the back of it. “But not better than you, honey.”

“Because I was so worried.” Jordan rolled her eyes.

“Not to exclude you or Naomi, Jordan,” Evan hurried to say, “but Mom has some things to tell these two she doesn’t want to share outside of family just yet.”

“Oh, sounds like you two are in for it.” Jordan’s eyes brightened. “No problem.”

Cash groaned. “Aunt Jane always had a way of making you feel two inches tall. But only when you did something bad.”

“Which for Cash was about all the time,” Evan said.

Reid nodded. “I was the good one. But not as good as Evan.”

Evan ignored the knowing smirks they shot him. “Not my fault I can do no wrong.”

Cash and Reid shared a glance.

Jordan patted his shoulder. “Ignore them, Evan. They just wish they could pull off manly, handsome, and sophisticated like you do.”

He beamed. “For that, I forgive you for setting me up with Miriam.” Because Reid and Cash had definitely been behind it, but Jordan had suckered him into that awful prank.

Jordan laughed. “Thanks. But you know, I’d do it again. So worth it to hear the horror in your voice when you saw what the ladies in her self-awareness class were up to.”

He felt himself blushing. They laughed, and talk turned to the varied personalities in the Vets on the Go! building.

After Evan and the others had eaten and drunk their fill, Reid explained his original reason for their meeting. Budget concerns.

Evan and Reid, once again, argued over where to direct their funds. Marketing and publicity continued to take priority in Evan’s eyes. But Reid thought they’d done enough, even though his girlfriend was their PR liaison.

Reid frowned. “I’m not saying fire her or anything. I just want to keep our amount the same. Let’s funnel our increased revenue into more trucks.”

“And maintenance?” Evan knew all about the headaches associated with keeping an organization running. “No. We have a set amount put aside for this. I told you that already.”

“Here we go.” Cash sighed. “The eggheads talk money and tax breaks. My head hurts.”

“Neanderthal,” Evan said in as insulting a tone as he could manage.

“He got you on that one.” Jordan nudged at Evan to move, so he slid out of the booth. To Cash she said, “Come on, love muffin. Let’s let the big kids talk while you and I take a hike. This is beyond my pay grade.”

“Mine too.” Cash shoved Reid, who almost fell onto the floor, and stepped around him.

Reid caught himself and muttered under his breath.

Once Cash and Jordan had left, Evan turned to Reid. “Okay, we hashed this out days ago. Why did you want them gone?”

Reid sighed. “I thought you should know.”

“Know what?”

“Your mom.”

“What about her?” Evan had been making up any time away from work on those days he had to take his mom to the doctor. Or grocery shopping, or to anywhere she needed to go. Several months ago they’d learned she might be sick. Now Evan needed to spend as much time as he could with her.

Reid cringed. “I, ah, saw her kissing some guy at the market a few days ago. Thought you might want to know.”

Evan blinked. “My mother? My seventy-one-year-old does crochet and has bingo night with her friends every Thursday mother? That mother? Jane Griffith?”

“Yeah. Her. She looked happy, though.”

“Mom was kissing some guy.” Evan couldn’t believe it. Mom, with a guy? And she hadn’t told him? They told each other everything.

“Hey, I think it’s great she’s dating again. I mean, your dad’s been gone for six years. She should live a little.”

“She’ll have a coronary if he goes for second base,” Evan growled, uncomfortable just thinking about it. “I mean, Mom’s older. She should be—”

“Cuddling her grandchildren?” Reid raised a brow. “Spending her golden years smiling and laughing instead of trying to match up her socially awkward, annoyingly clever only son?”

Most of that sounds like it came from her mouth.”

“Well, I added the socially awkward and annoyingly clever parts myself.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“Hey, I told her I’d mention it.” Reid pointed a finger at him. “Get married and give her grandkids because she’s not getting any younger. Those are her exact words, by the way. And she’d already called me to remind me about dinner this Friday, but thanks for nagging us about it.”

“If she talked to you, why did she tell me to tell you?”

“Covering all her bases, most likely.” Reid put down some money for the bill. “Now I have a date with a beautiful redhead, and you can bet your ass I’ll be talking about her at our dinner Friday. Get a life, Evan. You’re no longer working all the time, so you have no excuse.”

An image of the knife-wielding angel from earlier in the day surfaced. “I’m not interested in dating. Besides, my last girlfriend called me boring.”

“You are boring. But I hear desperate single women aren’t so choosy.”

Evan flipped him off.

Reid laughed. “Right. And have I mentioned that Smith will be your moving partner for the next two weeks? The Hillford job starts tomorrow. Magnolia, big project. Don’t be late.”

Evan’s phone rang, and ABBA sounded loud and proud from his back pocket.

Reid laughed his ass off. Evan plunked his head down on the table and groaned.

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