Ride Wild(4)

By: Laura Kaye

“Little man,” Slider said, giving him a squeeze when the boy’s body hit him at full speed. “Sleep okay?”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “We saved you ice cream.”

“Hey, Dad,” Sam said, taking his bowl to the sink and cleaning up his brother’s mess—without having to be asked. Sometimes Slider had to wonder which of them was the adult around here anymore, and didn’t that make him feel like fucking Dad of the Year.

“Ice cream?” he asked, eyeing the babysitter where she stood at the sink rinsing the breakfast dishes.

She threw a tentative smile over her shoulder. “I promised them a party, so I texted Phoenix and asked him to bring over a couple half gallons and all the fixings for a sundae-building party.”

“Phoenix taught me how to make a banana split,” Ben said, talking a mile a minute. “Except marshmallow goop is gross. And cherries stain the ice cream and make everything red which is even grosser.”

Cora chuckled. “I didn’t see any ice cream left in your bowl, Bean.”

The boy turned a smile on her that was gonna break hearts one day. “Well, no . . .”

“Go brush your teeth and put on your shoes,” she said, shaking her head with an indulgent smile. “Bus will be here in ten minutes.”

Slider watched the series of exchanges like he was merely an observer. Like he was on the outside looking in. And it was an apt description, wasn’t it? The babysitter was the one giving his kids a reason to smile and be happy. And his club brother, Phoenix Creed, had apparently had a hand in that, too.

It should’ve all struck him as completely normal. A happy, functional family. But normal . . . Jesus, normal killed him these days. It really did. He was glad for it, for Ben’s and Sam’s sakes. But otherwise, normal felt a whole lot like trying to swallow crushed glass. It’d been like that ever since Kim had told him what had been going on with her . . .

Cora’s voice forced away the thoughts. “Can I make you something to eat?”

He slanted a glance at her, studiously ignoring the little intimacies of her appearance—like that her makeup-free face and cute pigtails revealed that she’d woken up in his house, like that the oversized sweatshirt she wore over a pair of boxers likely covered the clothes in which she’d slept, like that she’d painted the second toenail on each foot a different color from the rest.

None of which he had any business noticing. “I’m good,” he said, the lie obvious to both of them, but what the hell did that really matter? “Thanks,” he forced himself to add.

Sam returned first to the kitchen, and Slider was grateful for the interference.

“Finish your homework?” he asked his boy.

“Yeah,” Sam said, throwing a shy smile at Cora—who was suddenly blushing a beautiful, brilliant cherry red that made Slider pull a double take. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask, but then the whirlwind that was his six-year-old came into the kitchen, and, after a couple of quick good-byes, Cora was bustling them both out the front door for the bus.

The house resoundingly quiet now, he glanced out the front door. And found Cora walking up the driveway while holding the boys’ hands—both of them, even Sam, who hadn’t offered or sought a hug in . . . well, just over two years. The kids’ laughter reached him even from this distance, their body language relaxed, happy, and open despite the fact that the gray morning had turned drizzly.

Damn, there was no denying this woman was good with them. Even more, she was good for them. Much better than the older neighbor lady had been, with her smoking and bad knees and dislike of noise.

Slider had gotten lucky finding Cora. Once, he might’ve thought that she’d come along right when they needed her, as if the universe had personally done him a solid by dropping Cora Campbell in the Ravens’ lap. But Slider didn’t believe in luck or fate or divine providence, and he knew one day, Cora would leave him, too.

Everybody did.

They were just using each other in the meantime.

Been there, done that, got the motherfucking T-shirt.

When Cora returned five minutes later, he stood at the kitchen counter chugging a glass of water.

“So, I’ll get changed,” she said, thumbing over her shoulder. He gave her a nod and tried not to let his gaze connect the rain droplets that darkened her sweatshirt and slicked the exposed skin of her legs. “But I wanted to mention that we need to go grocery shopping.”

We. The word was a total sucker punch.

And it made him need to get her the hell out of his house. At least for a few hours. Because the only we Slider did now was the kind he’d created with his own blood. “I’ll get on it.”