Authors: Shauna Allen
“But, Mom,” Tristan moaned, “he’s here
Why not let him look at it so we don’t melt in the next couple days?”
She furrowed her brows. “You don’t mind?”
Michael smiled. “Not at all.”
“Okay,” she relented. “Thank you.”
She watched as he and Tristan disappeared out the back door. She hoped whatever was wrong with it wouldn’t cost her an arm and a leg to fix.
Just as she was setting dinner on the table, the boys came back inside. Michael offered her a lopsided smile. “Well, ma’am. I think I know what’s wrong with your air conditioning.”
“Yeah. I don’t think it’ll be too expensive, either.”
She sighed with relief. “That’s wonderful! If you’ll just tell me what’s wrong, I’ll call someone out as soon as possible.”
He waved her suggestion away with a beefy hand. “Nonsense. I can do it for you and save you labor costs.” He thought a moment. “I will probably need a little help though. Do you mind if I bring someone along?”
Braelyn could hardly believe her luck. She didn’t care if he brought the Michelin Man. “Of course not. Thank you so much.”
“Perfect.” He smiled like he was the one who’d just been given a gift. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Noble groaned and yanked the pillow over his head to block out the incessant banging. He was really going to have to talk to Sweet Cheeks about her kid and his racket. He glanced at his clock. 9:38 a.m. Way too early on a Saturday morning for all that nonsense. Especially after the hellacious night he’d had at work. Fridays were always busy, but last night had been a killer.
He rolled over and squeezed his eyes shut even tighter as he practically suffocated himself with the pillow. But the banging continued. Then there was a ringing. He sat up. It was his damn doorbell. The banging had been on his door all along?
He debated whether to answer or not, but the knocking just became more insistent. Maybe something was wrong. He threw on his jeans and made his way to the living room.
He opened the door, expecting to see Sweet Cheeks’ face, or at least her kid’s. But no. His shocked gaze traveled up until he met smiling eyes. What the hell?
His big, lovable, if a bit clueless, coworker grinned at him. “Noble. I’m glad you’re up. I need your help.” He glanced to the house next door. “Well, actually, the pretty lady over there does.”
Again. What the hell? “Mike,
are you talking about? And what are you doing here?” He scratched his bare chest and tried to understand why his goofy friend was spouting nonsense about his neighbor at nine-something on a Saturday morning when they should both be home sleeping.
Mike just stared at him for a moment. “Oh, right. I guess I hadn’t told you yet.”
“Told me what?”
“Remember when I mentioned signing up to be a Big Buddy?”
Noble yawned and shrugged. He didn’t.
“Well, I did. And it just so happens that my Little Bud is Tristan next door.” He smiled like he’d won the lottery. “Cool, huh?”
“So what’s this got to do with me and why you’re banging on my door on a Saturday morning? You realize I worked late last night? We both did.” He raised a brow accusingly.
Michael shuffled on his feet. “Yeah. Sorry, Noble. It’s just I wanted to get an early start before it gets too hot. You see, Miss Braelyn’s air conditioner went out and I promised I’d help because she can’t afford another repair guy.” He leaned in a fraction. “The last guy ripped her off, you know. It’s a shame what these guys’ll do to a single lady.”
Noble waited. “And?”
Michael glanced down, chagrined. “Well, I probably bit off more than I can chew, you see.” He looked back up. “I know a little about air conditioners. But probably not enough to fix it for her. But I know you do.” His eyes were pleading. “Please help me fix it for her. Please.”
Noble felt his mood souring as his Saturday morning sleep slipped through his fingers. How could he say no? He scrubbed a hand down his face and studied Michael’s earnest expression. “This’ll cost you, Mike,” he warned.
Mike’s cheeks split into a gigantic grin. “Name it.”
He turned to grab a shirt and his shoes. As he slid on his T-shirt, it occurred to him that only one thing would make Mike get outta bed this early on a Saturday morning to try and fix an AC at Sweet Cheeks’ house. It wasn’t the charity work. And it wasn’t her kid.
It had to be hubba hubba Mommy.
The thought made him grimace, though he didn’t stop to think about why. He just knew he’d have to think of something good to make Mike’s sorry ass pay for waking him up.
A few minutes later, he followed Michael through his neighbor’s garage and up to the door. Mike passed slowly by a workbench and a pile of motor parts, pointing out the frame of a dirt bike.
“Tristan’s trying to build his own bike,” Mike said proudly. “I’m trying to help him, but we’re only so good,” he shot a meaningful glance to Noble. “He could sure use someone who knows something about bikes to give him a hand.”
Noble grunted and ignored the parts as he stifled another yawn and hefted his own toolbox.
Michael turned and knocked on the door to the house. Sweet Cheeks answered and did a double-take when she noticed him there behind Mike.
“Hi,” she said, all smiles for the big guy. She opened the door wider. “Come on in.”
Mike inclined his head to indicate Noble behind him. “Miss Campbell, this is my friend, Noble. How convenient and coincidental that he also happens to be your neighbor.” He laughed as if he was in on some private joke.
She gave a tight smile as both men entered the kitchen. “Yes, we’ve met.” She shut the door. “Thank you for coming to help.”
Noble nodded and glanced briefly around her homey kitchen as he set down his toolbox. Obviously decorated by a woman with its bright, sunny colors and delicate touches. The windows were propped open, and even though it was early, it was already beginning to get warm. He turned back at her. She’d dressed for the weather. A yellow cotton sundress barely skimmed her mid-thighs and she was barefoot, her toenails painted a bright pink with dainty rhinestone designs on her big toes.
When his perusal reached her face again, he noticed her cheeks were slightly flushed. Whether from the heat or his stare, he wasn’t sure, but he liked it on her. But she maintained eye contact and didn’t flinch. “Have you gentleman had breakfast yet?”
“No, ma’am,” Michael answered for them. Noble remained silent, leaning against a wall. Honestly, he was more interested in sleep than food at this point.
She nodded. “Well, Tristan is still sleeping, but I was going to start some bacon and make breakfast tacos. If you want to get started on the air conditioner I’ll call you in when they’re ready. Tristan should be up by then.” She smiled softly. “The smell of bacon usually wakes him up.”
Smart kid. Noble pushed away from the wall without a word. Michael smiled, seemed he had plenty of those to go around, and headed with Noble out the back door. “Yes, ma’am. We’ll just be outside.”
It only took about three minutes to figure out whoever the schmuck was she’d paid to come service her AC before didn’t know a compressor from his ass. He’d totally ripped her off. Her Freon was about out and her unit was making a strange knocking sound.
Noble glanced at Michael as he set about opening his box of tools and getting started. Mike stood there like he hadn’t a clue. Noble rolled his eyes. “Do you know what any of this is?” He pointed at the condenser unit as he rifled around for his AC gauges.
“Uh . . .”
Yeah, he didn’t think so. “Just stay out of my way then and hand me tools when I need ‘em, okay?”
Mike heaved a sigh of relief. “Sure. I can do that.” He plopped down in the sliver of shade to watch.
It didn’t take long for sweat to start dripping down Noble’s back, making his shirt cling to his skin, as the sun started its merciless greeting along with some off the charts humidity. He swiped at his brow and threw down the screwdriver.
“Wire cutter,” he called to Mike, who looked like he’d dozed off.
Mike straightened and rifled through the toolbox. He pulled out a wrench. Noble just tilted his head.
“Oh, right. Sorry.” He tossed it back in and shuffled around some more, finally coming up with the rusted wire cutter.
Noble glanced up when the backdoor tapped open. Sweet Cheeks appeared, sparkly flip flops on her feet as she sashayed over to them. She smiled brightly. “Breakfast is ready if y’all wanna take a break.” She glanced at Michael, but her gaze locked on Noble’s and he was suddenly transported back to his dream from two nights ago when he was literally drowning in those liquid amber eyes.
He turned back to the air conditioning unit with the wire cutter. “Not hungry,” he mumbled, hoping to erase visions of what else he had drowned in besides her eyes in that dream.
Mike hopped up. “Well, I’m starved.” He followed her inside.
Noble was thankful for the silence as he continued with his work and ignored the reaction of his body to Sweet Cheeks.
All too soon, the back door opened again, but he didn’t turn around. He threw down the wire cutter and reached for his set of AC gauges. He’d have to make a run for Freon soon to juice her up.
“Mom said to bring you this.”
He turned, startled. The kid was holding out a bottle of water, its sides already dripping condensation. He reached for it, surprised when the kid flinched. “Thanks.”
He twisted off the top and took a big gulp.
The kid stood there watching him. “You almost done?” he finally asked.
Noble glanced toward the unit and shrugged. “Hope so.” The kid shuffled back and forth on his feet like he was hesitant to go back inside. Noble took another swallow of water. He didn’t know what to say to him. “You know anything about air conditioners?” He’d probably be more help than Mike.
The kid shrugged. “Not really.”
The kid smiled a little. “Yeah.”
He inclined his head. “Wanna gimme a hand?”
The kid took a step in his direction. “Okay.”
Noble nodded. “Cool.” They both turned toward the unit and Noble showed him the gauges in his hand and how to adjust them. “So, kid,” he glanced at him. “Sorry, it’s Tristan?”
“Tristan, I’m Noble.” He turned back to their work. “You put the gauges here,” he pointed, “and here.”
Tristan nodded and they got to it like men. No words, no messin’ about. He liked the kid.
An hour or so later, Noble stretched his neck and realized Mike had never come back outside. He glanced questioningly to Tristan. “Dude, where’s Mike?”
Tristan rolled his eyes. “He’s probably hanging out with my mom. People like to
The numbskull was supposed to be out here helping and he’d talked Noble into doing all the work. That shifty little weasel! “You think he’s sitting in there talking while we’re out here sweating, doing all the work, huh?”
Tristan laughed. “Yeah. But he’s cool, though. He helps me on my bike ‘n stuff. And he doesn’t try to be my dad or anything. He’s just my friend.” He bit his lip like he realized he’d said too much.
Noble stood and stretched. “So what would they have to
“I dunno. Her work, his work, boring stuff.”
Noble tilted his head. How could Mike’s work be boring? Unless he lied about what he did. “What is Michael’s job?”
Tristan’s eyes lit up. “He does
Noble couldn’t help it—he smiled. “Really?” He bent over and closed his toolbox.
“Yeah. Pretty sweet, huh?”
“I guess. And what does your mom do?” He was suddenly very curious what Sweet Cheeks did for a living. Nothing seemed to suit her.
Tristan started toward the backdoor. “She’s a teacher at the middle school. She used to teach regular kids back home in Indiana, but now she teaches special ed kids.” He chanced a glance over his shoulder just before he opened the door. “I think she’s trying to save every kid she can since she can’t save me.”
Something dropped like a boulder in Noble’s stomach as Tristan disappeared inside. He picked up his tools and rushed around to the side fence toward home. He’d finish later. He had to get out of there. He couldn’t breathe.
He’d shut out so much—allowed so much to die within him—all those years ago. And now, as he saw the pain in that boy’s eyes, it was as if the wounds were fresh again. But was it his own pain or Tristan’s pain that made him ache so badly? Was he seeing a kindred spirit?
Braelyn rose early Sunday morning to attend the church services at the nursing home and to help with the ice-cream social afterward. She’d left Tristan happily tinkering on his bike with Michael while Noble finished up on the air conditioner out back. It wasn’t as humid this morning, so Noble appeared more comfortable as he worked. She didn’t normally volunteer on Sunday mornings, but she had to be merciful with herself and give her hormones a much-needed break from the sweaty beefcake.
Too bad the man hardly spoke to her.
She smiled at the preacher as the service ended then helped push the endless stream of wheelchairs into the dining area for the social hour.
“Good morning, Braelyn!” Ariel skipped up like she was floating on air and helped settle Mrs. Roth into her place with a napkin.
Braelyn grinned at her. She was wearing another of her eclectic fashion choices today, a gypsy skirt of gauzy white and a tie-dye peasant shirt with gold sandals. “Hello, Ariel. How are you?”
They ushered in all the residents and hurried to serve up the ice cream to those that wanted some.
“How’s Tristan?” Ariel asked once everyone had their snack.
“He’s fine.” Braelyn smiled. He was better than fine. “He’s getting along wonderfully with his new Big Buddy. I’m happy for him.”
For both of us.
“That’s good to hear.” Ariel glanced down and wiped up a gooey mess from the table before they made their way out to the lobby to search for stragglers. “And your husband? I don’t think you’ve ever mentioned him.” She turned to her with an eerie, icy-blue stare.
Braelyn sucked in a quick breath. “I’m not married. I never have been.” She glanced around. No takers left for the ice cream. She shifted her gaze back to Ariel. “Tristan’s father and I were a brief high school romance gone bad. My son is the only good thing to come of it.”
“Oh.” Ariel touched her arm as if to comfort her. “Are they close? Does he see him often?”
Braelyn rolled her eyes as she perched on the floral-print loveseat in the lobby. That was a joke. “Uh, no. Rory signed over his parental rights last year so he didn’t have to pay any more child support. Now he’s having a new baby with a girl just a few years older than our son.” She couldn’t believe she’d divulged so much to a total stranger. Something about Ariel just made her comfortable. And the whole thing with Tristan’s father still stuck in her craw, but she knew it had to hurt Tristan ten times worse. Rory had never been candidate for father of the year, but to write off your own flesh and blood so easily?
Ariel’s mouth fell open.
Yeah, shocking. Men could be such pigs. “Poor baby,” Ariel whispered.
“Yeah, I know. But I try my best to take care of him. That’s pretty much why I moved us away. New scenery. A fresh start. And now he’s got a Big Buddy to hopefully give him a positive male role model to make up for his jerk of a father.” She smiled ruefully. She wasn’t ready to divulge the real reason she’d left. It was embarrassing how she’d let Julian threaten them both and suck the backbone from her. Luckily it was coming back, one confident vertebrae at a time. Each step she took toward her own emotional freedom and Tristan’s happiness, made her more sure she’d done the right thing.
“Well, I’m sure having a buddy helps.” Ariel offered a supportive smile. “At least until God sends him a
A real father? She didn’t want another man in her life, much less Tristan’s. She couldn’t say a word. She could only stare at the strange pixie of a woman as if she’d lost her ever-lovin’ mind.
Tristan rolled his neck to ease the stiffness as he watched Michael lift the motor of his dirt bike like it weighed nothing. They’d made some real progress and excitement was buzzing through his system like a swarm of honeybees. The motor wasn’t running yet, but he was stoked.
Michael turned to him and swiped his sweaty brow. “Hand me that rag, will ya?”
Tristan picked up the greasy cloth and dropped it into Michael’s outstretched hand. “Thanks for helping me, man. I wouldn’t have gotten this much done without you.”
“Yeah.” Michael wiped his fingers. “No problem. It’s fun.” He tossed down the rag.
They admired their work in silence for a while, sipping cold sodas as they circled the frame, deciding what to do next. Tristan couldn’t freakin’ wait until his baby was running and all that was left was learning to ride. He stifled a belch and glanced at Michael. “So, do you ride motorcycles?” He’d only ever seen him in the Bug.
Michael grinned. “Well, yeah.”
“Cool.” He paused and leaned against the bench. Could he ask him? Should he? “You think you might teach me? Someday? I don’t have anyone around to teach me this stuff.” He turned away and rubbed at a grease stain with the toe of his sneaker.
“Can I ask you something?” Michael said after a moment of silence.
Tristan looked up and nodded. “Sure.”
“Well, as much as I’m enjoying being here for you and all, I can’t help wonderin’ about your dad.” He glanced around the garage at nothing in particular. “Is he around? Do you ever see him?” He turned back to Tristan. “I’m curious what he’s like.”
Sudden anger snaked up through Tristan like wildfire. He pushed away from the workbench and felt the darkness descend upon him like night. Tears pricked his eyes as he spun away and faced the street from the open garage door. “He’s a dick is what he’s like.”
Michael stayed quiet, his steady, rhythmic breathing filling the gas-scented air in the still garage. Finally, Tristan heard his shuffling steps as he moved. A big hand clamped down on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, man. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Tristan couldn’t meet his gaze. He knew his eyes would give too much away. Instead, he stared at the street and Michael’s sky-blue Volkswagen Bug. He still couldn’t believe the big guy drove such a dorky car.
They both glanced over at the sound of a motor turning over. A few seconds later it died. Michael gave a small laugh. “That Noble. Always fiddlin’ with his bikes.” He peered down into Tristan’s face. “He’s kinda like you that way.” He pivoted and moved back to the workbench.
Tristan watched as he started putting the tools away neatly. It was almost time for Michael to go home. He hated for him to leave with things so awkward between them. He took a small step in his direction—literally and figuratively. “I don’t see my dad anymore.” He heaved a deep breath and looked in Michael’s eyes. There was true caring there and it gave him the strength to keep talking. “He signed over all his rights to my mom last year because he doesn’t want me anymore. He’s got a new family now.” He glanced away, then back. “Guess I’m old news.”
Michael carefully set down the tool in his hand and shut the lid on the box with a metallic clang. He got that weird thoughtful expression on his face that sorta freaked Tristan out, but sorta calmed him, too. He rubbed a hand across his big, bald head. “You know, Tristan, my friend. I’ve learned a few things in my life. And there’s something I want you to know.”
Tristan listened carefully, his heart racing, wondering if whatever Michael had to say could hold the key to his totally jacked up world.
Michael continued. “A father’s love and acceptance
important. But you have more than one father, child.” He glanced up at the ceiling. “And, sometimes, a family is the one we make with the people we are gifted with.”
Tristan stared at him, dumbfounded by his words. He didn’t understand them, nor could he believe they’d come from this guy’s mouth. “Whaaa?” he sputtered.
Michael’s face split into a smile. “Enough of that serious stuff. Can I use your bathroom?”
Tristan’s brow furrowed. “Um, yeah, sure.”
He watched as Michael disappeared inside, even more confused than he was before.
More than one father?
What the . . .?
Several minutes later, Michael ducked back out. “Hey, dude. It’s gettin’ late. It’s about time for me to be hittin’ the road.” He made a beeline for the open garage door. “I’ll see you later?”
Tristan watched him lope toward his Bug. “Okay.” He raised his hand in a half-hearted wave. “Bye.”
Michael turned back to him just as he was about to drop into his little blue getaway car. “Don’t forget what I said,” he called. “Our family is the one we make.”
Tristan bit his lip and didn’t acknowledge him as the big guy drove off. He let the silence of the empty garage fill him as he slumped against the workbench.
Michael couldn’t have made it to the end of the street before his mom pulled up the driveway in her little silver SUV. She cut the engine and hopped out with a little smile just for him.
“Hey, sweetie. Where’s Michael?” She looked around the room as she approached.
He ducked his head, avoiding her kiss. “He just left.”
“Oh. I’m sorry I missed him.” She glanced at the newly assembled parts of his bike. “Wow! You guys did all this today?” She grinned at him, sparking newfound pride in their accomplishments. “Impressive!”
“Yeah.” He tried to be nonchalant and not show how totally stoked he was.
She ruffled his hair. “Very, very cool, baby.” She brushed past him into the house. “I’m cooking steaks for dinner,” she said before she shut the door.
He smiled to himself. His favorite. Well, besides pizza.
” she hollered not one minute later, making him jump clear outta his skin.
He hurried into the house. “Mom?”
He followed the sound of her panicked voice to the bathroom and found her ankle-deep in water, her face awash in alarm. Water was spewing from the back of the toilet at a furious rate, drenching his mom’s legs as she fumbled behind the bowl reaching for something.
“Come here, Tristan, and help me look for the shut-off thingy to get this water stopped!”
He waded in and the cold water drenched his jeans. He sucked in a surprised breath and bent over the toilet to look. He reached in and fumbled a bit, his hand brushing his mother’s as they both felt around for a stop valve of some sort. Too bad he had no idea what he was searching for.
“I think that’s it,” she said, grabbing onto something metal. He felt her hand and gripped it as well. “Oh, jeez, this is a mess.” She sounded like she was on the verge of tears.
She turned the knob. The valve didn’t budge. She twisted the other way. Nothing. “Help me!” she cried.
He tightened his hold and they both yanked on the thing as hard as they could. It was like the darn thing was superglued in place. He knelt down and peered closer. “I think it’s rusted,” he said, peering up into her frustrated eyes.
“Shit!” she said, her voice cracking. “Sorry. I meant
He rolled his eyes and cocked his head toward the water. “No, Mom. You meant
A short laugh burst from her lips. “You’re right. I meant
” She pressed him aside and bent over. “Here, let me see. Maybe I can get it. We’ve got to get this shut off or we are
He moved toward the door and watched, wishing for once that he was bigger and stronger and able to help his mom with more things around the house. She squatted and peeked under the commode.
“Sweetie, go get a, uh . . .” She looked at him with a confused, girly expression, “tool thingy for me to grab this with. Whatever you’ve got.”
He smiled. He could do that. He rushed off and grabbed a wrench from his toolbox and returned it to her.
She turned and worked it around the shut-off valve behind the toilet. She twisted herself at an awkward angle, trying to force the knob with all her might. But his mom was pretty itty-bitty. She adjusted her grip and tried again, blowing the hair from her face. He silently willed the rusty thing to give way. Instead, she lost her foothold on the slick tile and slid backward, slamming her back into the corner of the sink.
Her head snapped back then forward as the wind was knocked from her and an
rushed from her lips. Her legs buckled beneath her, her ankle twisting at an unnatural angle. Her final sound was an agonized scream as her eyes glazed over with pain.
Tristan’s heart knocked against his ribcage. He knew he wasn’t strong enough to do much for her. “Mom, Mom,” he panted, backing away from the door. “I’ll . . . don’t . . . I’ll get help,” he said as he rushed outside and sprinted like a madman to the first place he thought to go.