Authors: Alexis Morgan
Marlene chuckled, as he'd intended, and the sound of her laughter washed away the last bit of sadness they'd shared over his visit to the cemetery. Having honored his past, it was time to focus on his future.
Ricky plowed into them at full speed, with Tino's quick reflexes the only thing keeping them all upright. He reached out to cuff his nephew on the head. “Slow down, kid.”
The teenager ducked the half-hearted blow. At least he had the good sense to apologize to Marlene for nearly knocking her down. “Sorry about that, Grandma. Are you okay?”
He'd only recently started calling her that instead of using her first name, and the change clearly pleased her. She gave the teenager a quick hug. “I'm fine, kiddo, and we're having lasagna, salad, and apple pie.”
The boy whooped and spun back to face his adoptive parents. “Did you hear that? Lasagna and pie!”
The adults all exchanged eye rolls and then smiles. Jack pushed past his son to punch Tino on the arm. “Are you going to tell us what's going on before or after we eat Sunday dinner?”
When he winked and glanced toward Ricky, Tino immediately changed what he was going to say. “I'd rather get it over with, so we can eat in peace. It shouldn't take more than an hour, maybe two, to go over everything. You'll all need to take notes.”
One look at Ricky's crestfallen face and both Jack and Tino lost it. The boy's expression went from disappointed to pissed in a heartbeat. “Did I ever tell you two what jerks you both are?”
Jack was the first to regain some control. “Several times. We wouldn't mess with you so much if you weren't so gullible.”
Tino ruffled his nephew's hair. “And we wouldn't bother if we didn't like you.”
Ricky threw his hands up. “So, what you're saying is either way, it's my fault.”
Jack met Tino's gaze before nodding. “Yep, pretty much.”
“Okay, that's enough.” Caitlyn stepped into the fray and gave both her husband and Tino a hard look. “You two would do better to set a good example for Ricky.”
Jack only grinned and kissed his wife soundly. “Sorry, honey, but we have to uphold years of tradition.”
Marlene sighed. “Caitlyn, I swear I tried hard to civilize them, but there was only so much I could do considering what I had to work with.”
Even though he'd just been insulted, Tino couldn't help but laugh. “Nice one, Mom.”
“Nice had nothing to do with it. Now, help me get dinner on the table. I want to hear this big news you have.”
They'd consumed Marlene's excellent lasagna like a swarm of locusts. After making quick work of the dishes, they decided to hold off on the pie until their dinners settled a bit. This time, they gathered around the kitchen table with cups of coffee and tea and waited impatiently for Tino to get to the point. Now that the moment had arrived, the words wouldn't come.
Jack leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “So, Runt, you called this meeting. Why don't you get with the program so we can go watch the game?”
Caitlyn raised an eyebrow. “What game is that?”
Ricky answered for his dad. “Doesn't matter. If there's a game on, we want to watch it.”
Before the conversation could deteriorate even more, Tino started talking. “It has been suggested that I need to find something to do with my time.”
He couldn't help but notice his mother looked hopeful, but it was Jack who responded. “It's about damn time you quit spinning your wheels.”
“Glad you feel that way, Jack, because this involves you, too.”
His brother immediately leaned forward, elbows on the table, to glare across at Tino. “I'm not the one who needs something to do. You might have noticed that I have a job, a wife, and a kid that I need to ride herd on.”
Ricky almost spewed his tea in protest. “Hey, leave me out of this!”
Great, Tino hadn't even told them what his project involved, and he'd already pissed off the two whose help he needed the most. “Look, let me start again. Yesterday at the center I met a former Navy Seal who is coaching a basketball team of twelve-year-olds, and he needs an assistant. He asked if I'd give him a hand at least until he has a chance to find someone else.”
“You'd be good at that.” Marlene gave him an encouraging smile. “However, I sense there's more than you spending time with the kids.”
He opened the folder that he'd set on the table and started passing out the pictures he'd taken of the outside basketball court as well as the one inside the gym. Once the photos had made the rounds, he pointed to the one that showed how dilapidated the hoops were. “I want to replace these with new ones. These kids might be the only organized team to use them for now, but lots of others shoot hoops there. They deserve better.”
Jack reached for the picture and studied it closely. “Painting new lines won't be a problem, and the poles look sound enough. Wouldn't take much to reset them. The hoops are shot all to heck, though. Have you priced out new ones?”
“Yeah, I have. The ones in the gym need work, too. I can pay for the replacements, but I can't do all the work myself.”
His nephew was the first to volunteer. “We'll help.”
Jack met Tino's gaze and slowly nodded. “Order whatever is needed, and let me know when it all comes in. Like the kid said, we'll help.”
Nothing like having family he could count on. Tino set the file aside and stood up. “Great. Now who wants pie?”
Natalie dropped into the wingback chair and kicked off her heels. A day full of meetings forced the delay of her weekly visit with her grandfather until late afternoon. The temperature had dropped enough to make it too chilly for him to sit outside, so they'd moved their chat into his library.
Her grandfather frowned at her. “You look tired, girl. What have I told you about working too hard? At your age, you should be taking more time for yourself.”
Natalie wrapped her hands around her mug and drew comfort from its warmth. “I do take time for myself, but some days start off bad and only get worse. This was one of those.”
How much to share with her grandfather was always a problem. He liked to be kept in the loop, but she didn't like to burden him with minor problems. On the other hand, he always knew when she was trying to hold back on him.
She mustered the best smile she could. “It was what I think of as a domino day. I start off with everything lined up in good order. Then one little thing goes wrong, and it all goes downhill from there.”
Instead of pressing her for more details, the sneaky man changed tactics. “Which brings me back to you taking more time for yourself. How did the art show go the other night? The gallery delivered the painting you bought for me as well as the one you bought with the foundation's money.”
Again, how much to share? She settled for the truth. “I really liked Julie as a person as well as admiring her work. From what Mom has said, the showing was a huge success. Almost every painting sold.”
“Good for her. I really like the floral painting, but I actually prefer the darker one you bought for the foundation.”
His reaction to her choices pleased her. “I suspected you'd feel that way. Not everyone saw or understood the raw power in that picture.”
Never let it be said that her grandfather was slow on the uptake. “Everyone being Benton.”
“Yeah, he couldn't believe I liked it.” She took a calming sip of her tea. “He also made it clear that he hasn't given up on us getting back together. I swear that man only hears what he wants to hear.”
Her grandfather's laugh sounded rusty. “That's because the only voice he listens to is his own. Did you tell him where to get off?”
“Not in so many words, but I did make it clear that I haven't changed my mind. Dad picked up on the tension between us and asked if there was a problem. I informed him the sooner everyone accepted that I've moved on the better off we'll all be.”
“Good for you.” He held out his glass, asking without words for a refill. While she topped it off, he gave her a sly look. “So, how did the date go with that young man you met at the community center?”
For the first time all day, her smile felt genuine rather than pasted on. “We had a nice time.”
Cyrus set his glass down a shade harder than was necessary. “Young lady, don't play games with me. I want details. Where did you go?”
She relented. “Tino took me out for dinner. Purely by accident, he picked that restaurant that Mom and Dad like so much. At least the maÃ®tre d' was smart enough not to seat us at their table. That would've been awkward.”
Her grandfather snorted. “How did your young man feel when he found out?”
“It made for a bit of tension when we first got there, but we got past it. Afterward we were supposed to go to a movie, but we ended up going for a walk along the waterfront instead.”
“At least tell me the movie he'd picked out was some action flick filled with lots of gratuitous violence and sex.” He grinned and offered her a hopeful look.
Her face flushed hot. Cyrus's sense of humor ran to the earthy end of the scale, but the last thing she wanted to do was discuss anything pertaining to sex with him. “I'll have you know he'd planned on us seeing a French movie with subtitles.”
There was no mistaking her grandfather's disappointment. “So he's another Benton.”
She couldn't help but laugh. “No, actually he's not like that at all. I suspect Tino chose both the restaurant and the movie because he'd figured out who I was and thought that's what I'd want. Points to him for trying, but I hope he knows me better now.”
Cyrus perked up. “So you've seen him again since the big date?”
“Yep. Tino came back to the center to help on Saturday. He helped me unpack all the new computers. We ate lunch together, and then he stuck around to help with more of the work on the gym while I helped the IT people set up the computer lab.”
“Have you made plans to spend more time together?” Cyrus gave her a hard look. “And I mean for something a helluva lot more fun than unpacking a bunch of computers.”
She nodded as she picked up one of the chocolate chip cookies Esther had brought with her tea. “This week was already pretty booked up for me, but we're going on a picnic on Sunday and then having dinner later in the week.”
For the first time all evening, her grandfather looked pleased by her answer. “That's a start, but you've been having far too many of these busy weeks. If the job is getting to be too much for you, hire someone to shoulder part of the workload. You know I'll adjust the budget if that's what it takes.”
“I'll keep that in mind.”
She checked the time. “I hate to eat and run, but I need to get back to the center. I'm teaching a class in the new computer lab.”
Cyrus sat up straighter and glared at her. “Damn it, Natalie. We talked about that. You shouldn't be teaching them yourself.”
They'd already covered this ground several times before. “I know, but I've actually been looking forward to doing this. I did find a volunteer for the day classes. He's a great guy, and we're sharing the workload for coming up with lesson plans. Once we've had a chance to go through this first session, I'll definitely look for a graduate student or two to take on the evening classes.”
Actually, she'd planned to keep teaching the classes. However, since she'd met Tino, she found herself wanting to free up more of her time. So, she held up her hand to make a sincere vow to both herself and her grandfather. “I promise. Now, I've got to get moving or I'll be late.”
After picking up her purse and briefcase, she kissed her grandfather on the cheek. “You take care, and I'll be back next week.”
“Bring your young man with you. I want to meet him.”
No way was she going to commit to that quite yet. “I will when the time seems right.”
She should have known a vague answer wouldn't satisfy the wily old man. “Not good enough, Natalie. I want him here in the next couple of weeks or I will hire someone to track him down and drag him back here to meet me. In fact, it might just be better to have him come by without you. I'll get more out of him that way. I want to know if he's good enough for you.”
That idea was a disaster waiting to happen. Better to introduce the two men when she could be there to monitor the conversation.
“Fine, I'll ask him when he's got time to come with me.”
“Do you need anything before I go?”
“No, I'm fine. Besides, that woman will be in here to fuss at me about something soon enough.”
“Be nice to Esther.” Natalie picked up the last two cookies to take with her. “You'd miss her if she ever left.”
Her grandfather only harrumphed, but he didn't deny she was right. “Take care, little girl, and watch yourself when you leave the center after your class. It's not the safest place in town.”
“I'm always careful. I'll see you next week.”
Feeling much better than when she arrived, she let herself out and headed for the center. Despite how her day had started, she was excited about the challenges ahead in teaching the class. The chance to help other people was the reason she'd gotten involved in the foundation in the first place, and she preferred a hands-on approach.
Twenty minutes later, she was walking into the building when she heard a familiar voice coming from down the hall. What was Tino doing there? As far as she knew, there wasn't any work scheduled to be done that night. Had he left some tools behind or something?
Only one way to find out. She followed the sound of his voice down the hall toward the gym. Sure enough, there he was, standing in the center of the basketball court facing a ragged line of boys holding basketballs. Even though she'd come in mid-conversation, it was clear that he was lecturing the kids on the finer points of dribbling. He'd never said anything about coaching basketball.
More important, didn't he look seriously hot in those gym shorts and army T-shirt?
She spotted Jay Tobin sitting on the front edge of the stage at the near end of the gym with several other adults. She didn't recognize all of them but suspected they belonged to the kids out on the court. When the boys started bouncing the balls and walking across the floor toward Tino, she sidled around the edge of the room until she reached Jay.
The former Seal kept his eye on the action in the center of the gym even as he said, “Hey, Natalie. What brings you here this evening?”
She perched on the edge of the stage beside him. “I've got my first computer class starting in half an hour. I was walking by when I heard the kids. Looks like you've got enough of them to form your team.”
He gave her a sideways glance that made it clear that he suspected it wasn't the kids who'd drawn her into the gym. At least he didn't call her on it. “I actually had to put some on a waiting list in case any of this bunch have to drop out or if we get enough to start a second squad.”
“Any luck finding a sponsor?”
She'd asked him to look outside of the foundation for funding first. If necessary, she might be able to help out a little, but her budget would stretch only so far.
“Not yet, but I've got some feelers out in the community.”
“I'll keep my fingers crossed that someone steps forward.”
Then Jay volunteered the information she really wanted to know. “As you can see, I did find someone to assist me with the team. Tino agreed to help out at least until I can find someone else. I'm hoping he'll actually stick around, though. He's been great with the kids.”
She watched as Tino stopped two of the boys and demonstrated what he wanted them to do. Thanks to the racket all the bouncing balls made, it was impossible to hear what he'd said to them. Whatever it was, they both grinned and took off dribbling again. When Tino glanced toward Jay, he looked surprised to see that she'd joined the audience. He nodded before turning his attention back to the kids.
“Okay, guys, freeze!”
Once he had their attention, he continued, “Put the balls away and then run four laps. When you're done, we'll break for snacks.”
Then he clapped his hands. “Go!”
After some good-natured grumbling, the boys headed over to the rack and set the basketballs down before taking off at a run. Jay pushed himself up to his feet. “Hey, Mitchell, no cutting corners.”
The boy in question laughed and veered back toward the edge of the gym. Jay shook his head and turned his back to hide his grin. “The rascal tries that every time to see if I'm paying attention. He's one of my most promising players, but he's on the lazy side.”
He winked at Natalie. “Reminds me of myself back in the day. My coach didn't cut me any slack, either. I figure this is the universe's way of getting even with me for all the grief I gave that man.”
Tino stopped to make a layup before joining her and Jay as the boys pounded their way around the gym.
The two men looked impressive as they stood shoulder to shoulder watching their team. Despite the differences in their builds and coloring, there were definite similarities. Both were physically fit, but it was more than that. Something about the way their eyes constantly scanned their surroundings as if hyperaware of everything going on around them. Jay and Tino also shared the same air of confidence she found so sexy.
Meanwhile, Tino looked down at her. “Your first class is tonight, isn't it?”
She glanced at the clock on the wall. “Yes, it is. In fact, I should go get everything set up.”
“Give me a yell if you need any help. Jay can handle the kids by himself for a few moments.” Tino followed her over to where she'd left her things. “When your class lets out, I'll walk you to your car.”
If she didn't know better, she would've sworn her grandfather and Tino had been talking. “You don't need to hang around that long. Clarence can always see me out.”
He stopped by a cooler she hadn't noticed before. “It's not a problem. After the snack break is over, we still have another thirty minutes of practice. By the time all the kids get picked up and we get the equipment put away, it will be about the time your class ends. I'll wait for you by the door. If you don't see me there, text me.”
She surrendered to the inevitable. “Fine. I'll see you when I'm done.”
“It's a deal.” He picked up the cooler. “Now I'd better go feed the kids before things get ugly.”
One look at the boys watching the cooler with greedy expressions on their faces and she realized Tino wasn't kidding. “Good idea.”
She started for the door but turned back. “Hey, Tino.”
He glanced back over his shoulder. “Yeah?”
“It was nice of you to offer to help Jay with the team.”
“Who offered? The jerk ambushed me when I wasn't looking.”
His partner in crime heard what he'd said and laughed. Jay waited until Tino was within reach and slapped him on the shoulder. “Navy Seals are crafty that way.”
Tino snorted. “Sneaky and underhanded is more like it.”
As tempting as it was to hang around and watch the two men giving each other a hard time, she headed for the computer lab. Time to get her head in her own game, which meant forgetting all about the image of Tino moving with such grace to shoot that basket and focusing on her lesson plans.