“I threw up.”
The quavering voice brought Corbin jackknifing up out of a sound sleep, struggling to get his bearings.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” This in a disgruntled, groaning whisper from Ken on the other side of the bed.
Well, that helped settle who the participants were. And apparently something was going to have to be done about Ken—soon—but first things first. He pulled Bailey into a sour-smelling and unfortunately damp hug, resting his cheek against her extremely hot temple. Oh man.
“Where’s your mom?”
“Don’t know. I threw up on my bed.” The tears were starting, and God knew that wouldn’t help matters any.
“Do you want to sleep with the throw up or should I change your sheets?”
A watery giggle. “Change them.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! Uncle Corrrry….”
“Okay, okay.” He stood, glad that he’d had the foresight to put on his pajama pants after he’d fielded the booty call-turned-sleepover Ken probably now wished he hadn’t insisted on. Picking Bailey up—man she was scorching all over—he walked her into the hall bathroom, trying to remember what his mom had done for them when they were sick.
He flipped on the light, and then turned it back off again when Bailey winced and cried out. Turning the hall light on instead, he saw that there would definitely need to be a wardrobe change. He grimaced at the damp spot on his shirt. For both of us. He carefully pulled the nightie over her head backwards, taking care not to get any throw-up from the nightie into her hair or anything and tossed it in the sink for lack of a better plan.
“Do you think you could take a bath?”
“Don’t know. I’m cold.”
She was anything but cold, but she was shivering, so he wrapped a towel around her. “You sit here on the rug.” He sat her on the floor in front of the toilet. “I’m going to change your bed and get another nightie, okay? I’ll be right back.”
Becky was nowhere to be seen. Must’ve gotten a phone call of her own, he thought, and then cringed. He so did not want to think of his little sister in drunk dial terms. He hustled to strip the bed and remade it with the last sheet. Looking at it dubiously, he added a few beach towels for layers. At least if she continued to throw up, she wouldn’t get to the sheet until—he counted—the fourth time.
Arms bundled full of the abused bedding, a clean nightie dangling from his one clean finger, he almost ran into Ken coming down the hall. Fully dressed and apparently fleeing the scene.
Cory felt a swell of anger, even as he recognized it was unrealistic—after all, why would Ken stick around? Sex was obviously out for the rest of the night, and that was the sum total of their relationship to date. He ruthlessly suppressed the vulnerable twinge at being abandoned and kept walking. Good riddance. Guess now that Bailey was living here, he was going to have to add “Likes Kids” to The List.
Ken reared back to avoid the collision. “Whoa.”
Cory didn’t even stop, just veered around him. “See ya.”
“Hey! What’s your problem?” Ken actually sounded like he believed he was the injured party. Amazing.
“Just a puking kid in my bathroom, and an asshole in my hallway.”
He caught snippets of the defensive response but tuned it out, dumping his armload in the laundry room sink. A thought occurred to him, and he went back out to the hallway.
“Hey, can you go to the all-night drugstore for me?”
Ken’s jaw dropped. “Are you joking? You just called me an asshole.”
Cory ignored the hint of hurt in the other man’s eyes, defiantly covering his guilt with bravado and purpose. “What can I say? You’re acting like one. I need ginger ale and some kinda sports drink. And crackers, the soup kind. And, uh, kids’ Ibuprofen, fever reducer—whatever kind they have for a five-year old.”
Ken was just staring at him and Cory stared back for the count of three before throwing his hands up in disgust. “Fine. Would you rather stay here with her while I go?”
That jolted his guest out of his trance. “What? No. I’ll go.” He looked a bit surprised at his own response, and Cory helpfully steered him toward the front door.
“Keep your cell phone on in case I think of anything else I need. Oh, and popsicles. Hurry back.” He turned on his heel and headed back to the ominously quiet bathroom.
Poor Bailey was curled up in a ball on the bathmat, shivering under the towel. Wetting a washcloth, he gently bathed her, trying to simultaneously clean her up and cool her down. An unmistakable rumble preceded a violent heaving, and he neatly turned and supported her, holding her hair back while she emptied the contents of her stomach into the toilet.
Once she quieted, tears streaking down her face, eyes glassy with fever, he sponge-bathed her once again and helped her into the sleep shirt. His phone rang in the other room. He propped a quiescent Bailey against the tub and hurried to grab it. Ken.
“I’m about at the checkout. Did you think of anything else?” At this point, the concern in his voice, while a little late in coming, was much appreciated.
“No, but thanks. Just come in when you get back, I’ll be up in Bailey’s room.”
“Okay.” There was a pause as if Ken wanted to say more, but then he said goodbye and hung up.
While he had the phone in his hand, he dialed Becky’s cell. The Black Eyed Peas started singing about tonight being a good night down the hall. Shit, why did he even pay for her cell phone? She never took it with her when it counted.
A few minutes later, he had his niece tucked back in, a big bowl by her bed—although he wasn’t sure she was of an age yet where she could reliably use it. The front door opened and closed in a hurry, followed by steps thumping quickly up the stairs.
“Hey there, sorry it took so long.” Ken was slightly out of breath and carrying two paper grocery sacks. He put them down and started rummaging. “Here’s the Tylenol. There’s some weight chart on it. Very important. Do you know how much she weighs?”
“Crap. No.” He turned to Bailey. “Honey, how much do you weigh?”
“Don’t know.” Popular response tonight.
“Okay, babe, we’re going for a short ride to my bathroom. Upsy-daisy.” Cory picked her up and amused himself trying to mentally guess her weight—how much did a bag of concrete weigh?—while he walked into his bathroom, kicking the button to turn on his digital scale with his foot.
When it zeroed itself, he stepped on, holding her and waited for it to beep.
“Two hundred and thirty two,” Ken read helpfully.
“Ack! Oh well. At least I get to lose the baby weight instantly. Here you go.” He placed Bailey into Ken’s arms, disregarding his look of alarm, and reset the scale. A bit of mental math later, and Bailey was proclaimed to be “about fifty.” Which of course was what he’d thought she’d be. Really.
Cory led the way back to Bailey’s room, leaving the tall, well-muscled Ken to carry her back in while he smoothed out the towels. Division of labor. “Hold her up for a sec while I read this.”
“See, there on the side.”
He frowned, squinting at the box in an effort to read the tiny instructions. “What if the age and weight don’t match?”
“The guy said to go by weight. Well, first he said call her doctor. But I wasn’t sure if you knew who it was, so I made him tell me the secret.” Ken sounded very proud of himself, and Cory felt himself thawing a bit toward him. He was redeeming himself nicely so far tonight, and really, who likes getting woken up by a sick kid? Ken’s reaction hadn’t been that bad.
Cory shifted uncomfortably. Truth be told, it was Cory who had overreacted. He had Ken mentally classified as an occasional, casual fuck-buddy. Yeah, a smoking hot one, and nicer about it than most, but he wasn’t really partner material—which is what Cory really wanted. It was probably past time to cut this fling off, something he’d been telling himself ever since the girls had moved in, but it was hard to walk away from the amazing sexual chemistry they shared.
Cory squared his shoulders resolutely. Sure, right now Ken was looking less like a fuck and more like a… boyfriend? But in the light of day, well, he’d be like Scarlett and think about that tomorrow.
Speaking of tomorrow, he was going to chew his sister a new one for leaving for God-knows-where without a word and putting them all through this.
Bailey swallowed the grape medicine without complaint and then just sat there, sagging.
“Alright, Bails, tuck-a-muck time.”
“Okay,” came the dispirited response, so unlike her usual begging for a game or a story or a drink. Cory’s heart flopped over, and he gave her a light hug and kissed her heated forehead, laying the damp washcloth across it as a last measure. Standing to go, he was surprised to see Ken moving to kiss her cheek.
In the hallway, Ken gave him an uncertain look. Cory shrugged in response to the unvoiced question and led the way back to his bedroom, trying not to care whether Ken stayed or went. The door closed and Ken hovered by the bed.
“Do you have some extra pajama bottoms I could borrow? In case we have to get up with her again.”
Cory’s heart did that floppy thing again at the “we.” Ugh. Just when he’d gone and crossed Ken off the roster, he had to go and get all chivalrous. There were no easy decisions in life. Especially when people were inconsistent.
A thought hit him, and he perked up as he tossed Ken his largest sweats. None of Cory’s pajamas would have fit his athletic ass and legs, never mind without looking like high waters.
Consistent. Another thing to add to the list. Cory smiled to himself. He’d get the qualifiers honed in on sooner or later, and then the man who met all the criteria? Viola. His perfect match.