Authors: Jennifer Bernard
“His name is Hagrid,” said an angry young voice. Kirk jumped up and whirled around. He squinted at the figure silhouetted in the doorway. A boy, wheeling a blue bicycle through the door. Kirk relaxed.
“I don’t think so,” said Kirk. “I would have remembered that.”
The boy came closer. Now Kirk could make out his features. A jolt of recognition shot through him, and his gut tightened. This was Pete. Maribel’s kid. He quickly searched the shadows behind Pete but saw no sign of his mother.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked the boy.
“Checking on Hagrid. No one’s taking care of him, so I have to.”
“The guy who used to own this place must have left him behind.”
Kirk couldn’t argue with that. He looked down at the dog, who was finishing up the nuts. After he’d gobbled down the last one, he trotted over to Pete and sat on his haunches, licking his chops.
Pete swung a small pack off his back and dug inside it. “If you’re going to give him all that salty stuff, you should give him water too.” He pulled out a water bottle and a bowl. He knelt down and filled the bowl. The dog eagerly lapped at it.
“Good point. Looks like you’re taking good care of . . . um, Hagrid.”
Pete flashed him a pleased smile. He had his mother’s coloring but had missed out on her milky skin. Instead, freckles spangled his face. Kirk ought to warn him to stay out of the sun. Instead, he asked, “Does your mother know you’re here?”
Pete gave him a startled glance. “You know my mother?”
“Yeah, from the coffee shop. I’m one of the firemen who come in there.”
“Oh. Cool.” He seemed to be attempting an unimpressed attitude, but he didn’t quite achieve it.
“So, back to my question. Does your mother know you’re here?”
Pete looked down at Hagrid—fine, if it made the boy happy—and shook his head. “She doesn’t know I come here, but she wouldn’t care. She’s too busy Skyping her dumbhead fiancé about her stupid wedding.”
Ouch. Kirk felt that one like a kick in the gut. “So they’re actually doing it, huh?”
“I guess.” Pete shrugged.
Kirk felt for him. He recognized that helpless feeling, that knowledge that you had no control over a sudden, huge upheaval in your life. “If it makes her happy, that’s a good thing, right?”
“But it—” Pete cut himself off, biting his lip. Damn, Kirk would give a lot to know what he was about to say. But getting inside information on Maribel from her kid seemed kind of low.
He also didn’t like the idea of Pete being out here alone. Well, except for the dog, who might be some help if a shady character happened to wander through. Still, he couldn’t, in good conscience, leave the boy alone here. Hands in his pockets, he pondered the best way to handle the situation.
“Hey, you want to help me with something?”
“I want to see if either of these big doors are working.” He indicated the two garage doors installed along one wall. “It might take two of us.”
Pete jumped to his feet. “Sure. But what for?”
Kirk didn’t answer. He bent to the handle at the lower edge of the door, waited for Pete to grab hold as well, then gave the signal to heave. The door resisted at first, then creaked upward with a rusty shriek. Sunlight poured in.
“It opened! But why? What do you need it open for?” Pete’s sullenness had vanished in a blaze of nine-year-old curiosity.
Kirk pointed to his Harley, just visible at the edge of the lot. It glinted cobalt in the late-afternoon sun. “Work on my bike, of course.”
Pete’s mouth flew open. “That’s yours?”
The kid looked from the bike to him, back and forth, over and over. Kirk didn’t understand why he should be so amazed. Lots of guys had Harleys. But an expression of wonder passed over the boy’s face. He must really love motorcycles. A sudden impulse took hold of Kirk. “Wanna help?”
“You’re here. Bike’s here. Why not? As long as you call your mother first and let her know where you are.”
He handed over his cell phone. Pete, with a sulky glance, dialed a number and left a grumbling message.
The next couple hours passed in peaceful male harmony. Kirk brought his bike into the warehouse, they closed the door back up, and they turned their attention to the magnificent piece of equipment that somehow brought the warehouse back to life with its presence. Hagrid the Dog dozed nearby, occasionally opening one eye to check on their progress. Kirk didn’t do much; he needed more tools. But he walked Pete through the basic mechanics of the Harley. The kid ate it up. He chattered a mile a minute the entire time. He talked about his love for Harry Potter, his strong objections to soccer practice, his passionate arguments for more leniency from his mother.
Kirk wished he’d mention his mother a little more.
One thing became pretty clear. Pete really, really didn’t like Duncan, a celebrity photographer who had met Maribel at a gallery opening and been a pest ever since.
Kirk didn’t like him either. But he liked Pete, who learned quickly, liked to laugh, and had a firecracker temper.
Neither realized how quickly time was passing until they lifted the door again and discovered night had fallen, or nearly so. The sky held deep sapphire shadows and the first twinkling of evening stars.
Pete looked stricken. “Mom’s going to kill me. I’m not supposed to ride my bike after dark. Is this dark? It’s not completely dark, right? Still kind of light?”
Kirk squinted at the sky. It looked pretty dark to him. “Do you have any lights on your bike?”
“No. Just a reflector.”
“I’ll take you home.”
“What about my bike?”
“I’ll bring it by later in my truck. Your mom will never know.”
But Maribel was waiting on the front stoop when they roared up. A shiver of anticipation made Kirk’s throat go dry. He’d never seen Maribel outside of the café. It always felt as if he was walking into some magical otherworld when they stopped by. Now here she was, on the front porch of an ordinary, rundown, suburban tract house, with the sort of stunned expression any mother would have at the sight of her son on the back of a motorcycle.
Kirk put his feet on the pavement and waited for Pete to dismount. The kid hesitated, muttering “uh-oh” under his breath.
“It’s okay,” Kirk called to Maribel, only then realizing he still had his helmet on. He pulled off his riding gloves and struggled with the strap, while Maribel dashed down the porch and strode toward them. Her hair swished around her shoulders, the light from the porch making it gleam like a molten waterfall. Hypnotized, he stood stock-still. He’d never seen her with her hair loose before. Sparks seemed to fly off her.
“How dare you put my son on your motorcycle? Do you know how dangerous that is? And Pete, where have you been? I called all your friends and—”
“I’m sorry, Mom!” Pete looked wretched. “Didn’t you get my message at the café?”
“You know I didn’t. I never get those messages. That’s why you’re supposed to use my cell phone.”
Kirk shot Pete a sharp glance.
He’d let the kid get away with deceiving his mother. Maribel was going to hate him now.
“I forgot. Besides, I didn’t mean to stay that long. I didn’t see how late it was. I’m really sorry. I didn’t want to ride my bike after dark, and he offered me a ride and—”
“You’re not supposed to take rides from strangers! It’s like candy! Same thing! You know better, Pete.”
“But he’s not—”
“And you!” She whirled on Kirk again, who took a step back, holding up his hands to show he meant no harm and in the process nearly knocking over his bike. “I ought to call the police. Giving a kid a ride on a motorcycle. What were you thinking? What’s next? You’re going to buy him a beer? Take him club-hopping?”
If Kirk could only explain, set her mind at ease, but the strap of his helmet refused to come off. He must look terrifying to her, hiding behind his helmet and black leather jacket.
“Pete, get in the house. Now.” She gave Kirk one last, scathing look and turned away. His eyes swept across her pert little rear, encased in a pair of shorts, and her long, deliciously sleek legs. She was barefoot. Her feet were . . . well, kind of big and clunky. For some reason that flaw clutched at his heart. She couldn’t leave. Not until he’d explained himself.
He gave the helmet strap one last yank. This time the buckle finally burst open. The helmet bounced to the ground, but he barely noticed, thanks to the pain shooting through his head and the stars dancing in his vision. Had he just punched himself in the face? He had. He felt his jaw, working it to make sure it wasn’t broken. He packed a hell of a punch, if he did say so himself.
“Mom! Kirk’s hurt.”
“Kirk! The fireman. The man with the bike.”
ARIBEL FROZE, THEN
slowly turned. Sure enough, the tough-looking man in the motorcycle helmet was no longer an intimidating stranger, but a wincing silver-eyed Kirk. He seemed to be weaving a little on his feet. “Sorry to scare you,” he said. “Pete didn’t have any lights on his bike, and it didn’t seem safe for him to ride home like that. I’m a very experienced rider. There was never any danger. But I’m real sorry to worry you.”
She stared. Was this really the strong, silent Kirk? She’d never heard so many words out of him at once. Maybe that bonk on the head, or whatever had happened, knocked the quiet out of him.
“Are you all right?”
“Oh, yeah. I just . . . had some trouble with my strap.” He moved his jaw from side to side.
“You should put some ice on that. Why don’t you come in?”
He didn’t seem to grasp her meaning, gaping at her blank-faced. Poor guy must have really done a number on himself. She went to him and took his hand, which felt very warm and big. At his touch, a little sunburst seemed to light up her insides. “You’d better come in and sit down. You shouldn’t get back on that bike yet. And you definitely need ice. Pete, run ahead and get a pack of frozen corn.”
“Peas,” Kirk said.
Had he said something about having to pee? Unusual thing to mention. He must really be out of it. She paused and looked back at him curiously. But he was looking ahead at Pete—who had just zipped in the doorway—or maybe at her house, or maybe he was just seeing stars. Who knew? At any rate, he didn’t notice that she’d stopped walking. He plowed right into her.
As she started to fall backward, he caught her by the shoulders. She clutched at his upper arms, which felt hard as rocks under his black jacket. The smell of pure, manly male—car grease and leather and open road and something else, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on—went straight to her head. A liquid thrill shot through the rest of her body.
Oh my! Duncan’s presence never made her lightheaded like this. She inhaled a deep breath, her eyes closing partway so she could savor the scent.
“Sorry,” he murmured. But he didn’t look sorry. He looked . . . hungry. His head dipped lower, so she got a good, close look at his eyes. They . . . well, they smoldered, there was no other word for it. The intensity in his expression sent another shock of heat blasting through her system. She felt her lips part as she swayed toward him. What would it be like to feel his mouth on hers, taste the essence of Kirk, the power of him? She caught her breath, her lips tingling in anticipation, her body vibrating with one thought, one urge . . . and then . . .
She sneezed. Repeatedly. Helplessly.
Suddenly she realized what that other smell was, the one she couldn’t quite identify.
ETE COULDN’T BELIEVE
his luck. Good and bad. First there was the good luck of finding Hagrid and the warehouse he called home. Then there was the bad luck that poor Hagrid was starving, so that meant Pete had to keep riding out there and giving him food. Then the good luck of the motorcycle. A motorcycle! If that didn’t prove that some magic was working—Hagrid, plus a
—what would? Even better luck, the motorcycle came attached to a really cool guy who let him work on the bike. Even ride it. But that was part of the terrible luck of forgetting to pay attention to the time. That wasn’t luck, exactly, but still.
And now, the ultimate bad luck. His mother’s sneezing fit meant that Kirk had taken off in a hurry, Pete had been plunged into a long, soapy bath, and he’d now been banned from ever going near Hagrid again.
Right. As if that would fly. Hagrid needed him.
The next day, his mother drove him to school, shooting him stern glances every couple minutes. Generally speaking, his mom was pretty cool. She was fun and listened to him and didn’t get too cuddly at embarrassing moments. If not for Duncan and her dog allergy, she’d be perfect.
“I expect you at the café right after school today.”
“Yes, Mom,” he said dutifully. No problem. He could leave school early and ride out to feed Hagrid. Besides, his mother had a shaky concept of time. She’d never notice if he was a little late.
“Do you think he likes banana bread better or brownies?”
“Huh?” Pete was used to his mother’s random changes of subject, but he couldn’t follow this one.
“Kirk. The fireman.” He peered up at her, noticing the pink tint of her cheeks. “I feel bad for yelling at him like that. I should apologize.”
“Oh, that’s okay. Kirk’s cool.”
“He is?” Her voice sounded odd. He didn’t want her to think anything bad about Kirk, so he rushed on.
“He’s the coolest guy I ever met. His favorite Harry Potter character is Hagrid too. And he thinks soccer is boring compared to rugby. He played rugby in college and broke his nose three times. And his arm. Next year I’m going to sign up for rugby.”
His mother seemed to choke.
“I mean, if that’s okay with you,” he added hastily, remembering she had some say in the matter as well.
“Do they even have rugby for fifth graders?”
“Huh? I’ll ask Kirk. He’d know. He knows a lot.”
“That’s funny. He’s always so quiet.”
Pete blinked in amazement. He and Kirk had talked the entire time they’d hung out together. Or at least, he had. He shrugged it off. “Nah, he’s cool. Fun to talk to. Not like Dumbo Duncan. You would’ve seen if only you weren’t sneezing so much.”