“DEL, we want to stop to get a book to read in the park,” a voice piped behind him.
Dillard Jenkins looked briefly in the rearview mirror at the twins—his little brothers Humphrey and Darwin. Their faces were excited, for which Del was grateful. The last few weeks, with their parents’ arrival in Mapson, the boys had become once again solemn and afraid. When their parents came to town, Del had made sure to sit them down and let them know what was going on. He was not about to keep anything from them. When he had become their legal guardian last year on June 22, which was also their birthday, he’d made a promise to always tell them the truth about things that concerned them. That was a promise he’d kept, and although telling them about their parents being here in their new hometown had been hard, he’d done it. Then he’d handled the way the boys clung to him and the nightmares they had. Del clenched the steering wheel, staring out the windshield.
That’s over. They’re dead. Burnt to ashes. Good riddance. Del relaxed as he remembered seeing the report on the news. Later, he had tracked down an unedited version of the tape for them to watch. When his brothers Bur and Bernie, and the men in their lives, had come to see it, he’d told them the twins would also be in on the viewing. His brothers had disagreed with him about showing it to the twins, but he’d overridden their objections. Because of FCC regulations, the news report had cut out the scenes of their parents being engulfed in flames, but the unedited tape he had obtained from the television station showed all that. Seeing their parents actually die, and not just being told they were dead, had eased him.
The twins had taken the graphic nature of the tape well, but for a moment, Del wondered if it had been a good idea after all. Humphrey and Darwin were so mature for being only six years old. He knew it was because the boys had lived with constant abuse from their parents. Del and his brothers had experienced the same and had become mature because of it. Del had carefully observed them, and when they went back to the curious, rambunctious kids he’d come to love, he’d been relieved. They had all been through hell and survived. Now, with their parents no longer a specter of hate and fear in their lives, they could move on. He and his brothers would ensure the twins didn’t have to live in fear as they had.
“Sure, Dar.” Del addressed the twin who had spoken. “I’ll check the GPS to find a place—”
“We want to go to the one on Paget Street,” Humphrey interjected.
Del glanced in the mirror again and noted the twins exchanging looks. Del stifled a smile at their expressions. They were up to something, and having been around them for almost ten months, he knew better than to try to prod to find out what. The twins were like Bur when it came to grand schemes, and you could never get them to reveal it until they were good and ready.
“Really? I didn’t know there was a bookstore so close to Paget Park, where we’re going. From what I remember of the Paget Street area, there are lots of stores there, but I don’t know if there’s a bookstore.” Del checked the traffic before changing lanes.
Before focusing back on the road, Del glanced in the mirror in time to see the twins frowning.
“We can walk around and look for it,” Humphrey said.
“Yeah. Rey and I love to explore. Please, Del? Can we go get a book?” Dar asked.
Liking the way he and his brothers had shortened their names, the twins had decided to do the same. Humphrey preferred Rey, and Darwin liked Dar. They refused to answer to anything else.
“Please, Del?” Rey echoed.
Del’s lips twitched as he heard them pleading, and he nodded. They cheered, making him chuckle. The twins were definitely up to something, and now he just had to wait to see what. Stopping at Paget Street before going on to the park wasn’t a problem. Del was glad to be out of the house after being practically kept hostage when the news had initially broken about their parents. Between Bur—who was a famous, retired singer—and Del’s own wealth, the media had already been in a frenzy to get near them. With their parents’ recent deaths, the media had become even more crazed with getting the scoop on them—at least until Bur and his bandmates had pulled a switcheroo, making it look as if they had left California and headed back to England. Del had also made it seem as if he had left town. None of the media knew he lived in Mapson with the boys, thankfully. All the years of being reclusive and fiercely private had made him hard to find, unless he wanted to be found. Most photos of him were in full, coldhearted-bastard business mode, and the media didn’t recognize him when he was going about his daily life. With Bur and Del’s supposed departures from town, the news of a scandalous divorce had taken the media’s attention instead. Since it had been a few days, Del and his brothers had decided it was safe to go about their regular lives. They would be careful, but wouldn’t stay holed up in Bur’s house any longer.
He and the boys had been glad to go back to their home; although now they had more security at their house. Del had installed a full gate and system similar to Bur’s but more scaled down. It was for the boys’ safety.
“Are we still going to spend the night at Uncle Ramirez and Bur’s later?” Dar asked.
“Then to Uncle Tomas and Bernie’s tomorrow night?” Rey added.
“Yep.” Del slowed, then stopped, waiting for the light to change.
“And you’ll let us walk to each of their houses by ourselves,” Rey said.
Del glanced at them and noted their determined faces. The only reason Del had agreed to even think about it was because they had recently moved across the street from where he and the twins lived. After the media found out where Tomas and Bernie lived, they had camped out at their house. Seeing their home all over the news in living color, Tomas and Bernie had both agreed it would not be safe to return there. Del hated the need for it, but they were right. It was then Del admitted he’d bought homes for Bernie and Bur close to where his house was. If Bernie and Tomas wanted it, the house was theirs for them to create a new home together. When Del explained which house it was, Tomas had been excited because that was another house he had wanted to do the landscaping for. Both Tomas and Bernie had insisted they would not take the house, but pay him for it. Del had refused. Convincing them to accept it as his gift had been hell, but he had. Instead of their paying for the house, he had agreed they could pay toward the trust fund he’d set up for Dar and Rey.
Bur, of course, wanted the house Del had gotten for him, since, after all, Del had bought it for him. Although Bur had a beautiful home of his own in the Westlake area of Mapson, he said he and Ramirez should have a house in town, too, for those times Ramirez worked late and was too tired to make the drive to their home. Ramirez had pointed out that he’d had a house until Bur sold it. Bur had ignored him and stated maybe he and Del should combine trust funds so the boys had the money all in one place. Until that moment, Del hadn’t known Bur had set one up, although he should have expected it, since Bur was a planner like the twins. Thus the predicament he was in.
He sighed, before saying grudgingly, “I promised you could. Although you tricked me.”
“And you always keep your promises. You lost the game, Del,” Dar said.
“I did. Bested at Uno by two six-year-olds.” Del joined them in laughter, shaking his head.
He still didn’t know how the boys had beaten him in Uno. A few days ago, they’d claimed they wanted to play. Del warned them he was an Uno master, and then played with them. He’d beaten them a few hands, before they had asked if they could beat him, would he allow them to walk by themselves to spend the nights they had already set up with Bur and Bernie. Del agreed, because they would not be able to beat him. But damned if they hadn’t, and he knew he had been outsmarted somehow. Del made the turn into the quaint shopping area of Paget Street. For an early Friday morning, it had a lot of people. Del drove on, passing the area, and continued to Paget Park.
“You said we could go to the bookstore,” Rey spoke.
“We are. Since they’re so close, we’re going to park here and then go back to Paget Street to look for the bookstore.” Del pulled into a parking space and turned off the vehicle before turning to look at the boys. “Do you even know the name of the place we’re looking for?”
“2H Book Nook,” they said together.
Del frowned. The name sounded familiar.
“Come on, Del. Let’s go.” Rey unlocked his seat belt and slid out of his booster.
Del exited the vehicle and went to the door on his side, opening it. Dar was already waiting. Del helped him down, then Rey. He straightened Dar’s booster seat, then shut the door before pushing closed the driver’s side door. He clicked the alarm button to arm the Black Ice Escalade Platinum AWD.
“We’ll get your things when we come back to go to the park.” Del gripped each of their hands as they walked across the street.
The boys glanced around, studying the people and stores as they went.
“How did you all know how to play Uno?” Del asked for what seemed like the millionth time.
“Bur and Bernie taught us,” Rey replied absently.
“I knew it. They were in on you tricking me,” Del said.
The boys stopped and looked up at him, their expressions unsure. Seeing it, Del glanced around, then moved them out of the flow of traffic to a small alcove area between stores. He knelt in front of them, watching them. Rey bit his lip, partially lowering his lids over his pale-green eyes that were so much like Del’s. Dar shuffled his feet and also lowered his lids.
“What’s wrong, Darwin and Humphrey?” Del used their full names to let them know he was serious.
It was a signal between them, and the boys called him by his full name too when it was something serious.
“Are you mad at us?” Dar whispered.
“You won’t send us away, will you?” Rey stepped back.
Del reached for him, knowing he was about to run. When Rey got upset, he ran and hid, whereas Dar got so quiet it was as if he became part of the scenery. Del hadn’t seen them do that in a while.
“No. Of course not.”
“But we tricked you. Planned it with Bur and Bernie.” Rey struggled to get out of his hold.
Del sat on the ground and pulled him into his lap, then Dar, and held them both. He ignored the looks they were getting and focused on the boys.
“You did that because you wanted to show me you were getting big. In just a little over two months, you will both be seven. I know you want some independence, and walking to the sleepovers is that. But I’ll be right there watching you as you cross the street, and the others will be on the other side looking for you to come to them. And remember your promise to never go anywhere without a trusted adult with you.” Del brushed back their brown curls. “We’re all worrywarts, and we want you safe.”
“And we are, because of you,” Dar said solemnly.
“Thank you for saving us.” Rey blinked, his eyes looking glassy.
Del hugged them tight, whispering, “I’m your brother, and there is no reason to thank me. You are both with me now. And Bur and Bernie. There are a lot of people who love and care about you.”
“But who you nee—Ow! What did you do that for?” Rey asked.
“No pinching,” Del admonished Dar.
Dar looked contrite, but stubborn as he glared at his twin. “You were going to blab.”
“I wasn’t. I can keep a secret,” Rey defended.
“What secret?” Del interjected.
The boys glanced at each other, then gave him their best innocent expressions. Del didn’t believe it for a minute.
“It’s a secret,” they said together.
Del didn’t push, just hugged them again. “Okay. Now, can we find this store, then go have some fun in the park?”
The boys kissed his cheek, and Del theirs, and then they all stood. He held their hands and led them out of the alcove. Del paused before the plate glass window and smiled as he saw the stylized design of books on a table with “2H Book Nook” stretched across it. He glanced down at the boys.
“Looks like we’re here.” Del led them inside.
HARPER Hillman walked slowly on his way back to work. Ahead, he noted the tall, lanky man who strolled lazily in front of him. Although the gait of the casually-dressed man seemed relaxed, from his back view, Harper got a feeling he was anything but. The man exuded confidence and authority, and people moved out of his way, Harper noticed. Lowering his head, Harper saw he was holding the hands of two boys, one on each side of him, as he walked. Harper focused on the back of the man’s head, curiosity filling him. There was something familiar about the man, but he couldn’t place what. Brown hair with various shades of gold fell to rest just below his broad shoulders. His lanky form seemed muscular beneath a pale-green T-shirt, and black jeans hugged an ass that looked surprisingly firm. Harper jerked his gaze away from the man’s butt.
Shocked, he stopped in disbelief that he had noticed another man’s ass. Unable to take his gaze away from the man, Harper also noted he wore sandals. Harper glanced up his body again, taking in his walk, which made Harper think of coiled power, as if he were a tiger ready to pounce. Harper wet his lips as he viewed the firm ass again, then that narrow waist and broad back and shoulders. The sun made the man’s hair shine, bringing out the golden colors that reminded Harper of a Bengal tiger. In that moment, Harper realized the man’s movements reminded him of one too.
Harper shifted his view to the kids, who were dressed similarly to the man. The boys’ shirts were dark green, and they were in black jeans, also wearing sandals. Their hair was the same color as the man’s. Harper’s view was blocked as a fellow pedestrian came between them. Harper moved to the side to again see the Bengal tiger man, but he was gone. Harper smiled as he thought of what he had called him.
“Bengal tiger man. You really need to stop watching so much Discovery Channel.” Harper chuckled and continued to his store.
At the alcove before it, he paused, glancing in and spotting the man. Harper couldn’t hear what they were saying; they were too far away. Suddenly, one of the boys stepped back, looking like he was ready to bolt. Harper moved closer to catch him if he did, but stayed far enough away not to interrupt what looked to be a serious discussion. The man caught the boy, sat, and pulled both boys into his lap. At the sight, Harper smiled. The man had to be the boys’ father. Their hair and body shape looked very alike. The man’s face was averted, and Harper couldn’t quite make it out. The boys had their backs to him. Harper moved on and entered his store. Once inside, he glanced around the busy space filled with his customers. Pride in his shop, 2H Book Nook, filled him as he walked deeper into the store. Harper greeted regular clients and helped some who were just browsing.
Entering the café part of the store, he headed to the counter, waving at people he knew as he went. Harper went behind the counter and to the man leaning against the edge closest to the archway that connected to the book part of the store, where the main entrance was. There were various doors to enter or leave the bookstore or café.
“Have a nice lunch?” Kenton Provenza continued to gaze toward the store.
“There’s nothing like April in Mapson. The park was nice with all the people around and flowers starting to come out. You should have come with me.” Harper leaned next to him, glancing in the same direction. He was curious about what had Kenton’s attention.
Harper was surprised to see the same man he had been watching earlier. The man turned, and shock filled Harper as he recognized him.
“That’s him,” a voice whispered below where Harper stood.
Harper peeked over the counter and saw the two little boys who had been with the man earlier. Whispering to each other, they were crouched below where he and Kenton stood. Harper didn’t think they realized he or Kenton could hear them.
“You don’t know that,” the one on the right said to the other.
“He looks like the pictures,” the one on the left insisted.
“I wonder what has him so agitated,” Kenton said loudly.
Harper glanced at Kenton, noting the playful grin on his craggy face and the crinkles around his blue-gray eyes. Kenton gestured with his head to below the counter.
“He must have misplaced something,” Harper said.
The whispering came again. “Who are they talking about?”
“I don’t know. But it is him. That’s Harper. Let’s just ask him,” the other voice said.
Harper frowned, wondering why they were looking for him. He braced his hands on the counter and leaned over.
“Humphrey and Darwin, does Del know where you are?”
The boys glanced up at him, startled, then scrambled to their feet. They looked guilty, then lowered their lids partially over their eyes. Harper stifled a laugh at the look. It was the same one Bur and Bernie had. The boys had the same features, eyes, and hair as their brothers. Although the older Jenkins brothers were identical triplets, Harper had no problem telling them apart because they dressed differently and had different ways they acted. But the twins, whom he had only met once, briefly—he didn’t know how to tell them apart yet. They were dressed alike, and he hadn’t gotten to observe them long enough to see if their behavior and mannerisms differed.
“We don’t like to be called by our full names unless it’s something serious. And only with Del, because that’s our signal. I’m Rey, and he’s Dar.” The one on the right pointed to the other.
“Fine, Rey and Dar. Why is your brother looking for you out there?” Harper gestured to where Del was looking around, getting agitated.
Harper made note that Rey was the more outspoken. The boys looked at each other, then behind them. Harper thought they were about to run to Del. He opened his mouth to tell them to wait because the store was filled with people, and a child alone was not a good thing in a crowd. The boys turned to him, their faces solemn, stopping his words before he could speak.
“We want you to come to the park with us,” Dar said.
“Why?” Harper was confused that they had sought him out. He’d only met them once and hadn’t even talked to them much.
“So you can be Del’s friend.” Rey’s tone was serious.
Harper glanced between the boys, then at Kenton. Kenton shrugged but looked intrigued. Harper lifted the countertop and went out to them. He knelt before them, giving his complete attention.
“You want me to be Del’s friend.” Harper reached for them, then stopped, remembering how Bur shied away from touching.
The boys came closer and reached for him. They each put a hand on his shoulders and stared at him. Harper swallowed, looking into their solemn pale-green gazes. It was disconcerting being studied by them.
“Yes. He needs a friend. He’s so lonely,” Dar whispered.
“But why me?” Harper stuttered.
“You’re Bernie and Bur’s friend. Can’t you be Del’s friend too?” Rey said.
Harper studied each child, wondering what to say. “I—”
“He’s lonely,” Dar said again.
“But he’s loads of fun. Once you get to know him, he’ll take you places like he does with us. Although he doesn’t say it much, we know he loves us. He shows us he does,” Rey said.
“Yeah. Like when we can’t sleep, and he lets us go to bed with him and watch late movies until we fall asleep. Then Del makes us a special breakfast. Pancakes with smiley faces, eggs, and sausage friends. Be his friend, and I’m sure he’ll make it for you too,” Dar said excitedly.
Harper watched their earnest faces, then glanced up at Kenton behind the counter. He didn’t know what to say.
“He’s lonely.” Rey put his hand on Harper’s cheek, capturing his attention again.
Dar mirrored him, putting his hand on Harper’s other cheek. “Bernie and Bur said you were a good friend… the best… and that you were a man who anyone would be privileged to know.”
Harper refused to blush in front of six-year-olds. Kenton laughed above him.
“Hush, you.” Harper glared up at him.
“Go on now and make friends with Del. You know you can’t resist these boys.” Kenton winked.
Harper scowled because Kenton was right. Harper would try to make friends with the pigheaded Del. Bur had been trying for months to get the man to come over to dinner so they could get to know each other, but Del kept refusing. Hell, unless it was Bur or Bernie and those they were involved with, Del wasn’t interacting with any of their circle of friends. Harper’s friends were more family than his own, and it pissed him off that Del was such a standoffish bastard. Harper breathed out, trying not to get angry.
Be nice to the man, Harper. You like Bur and Bernie. Del can’t be so bad. Harper glanced at the boys.
“Okay. I’ll talk with your brother.” The boys hugged him, and Harper returned it, but cautioned, “I’m not promising anything.”
“Del is hardheaded,” Dar said.
“He is.” Harper chuckled.
“Even the youngsters know it.” Kenton snorted above him.
“Now stay here a moment with Kenton, and I’ll get Del,” Harper said.
He rose and lifted the counter. Kenton beckoned the boys in. They glanced at him and clutched at Harper.
“I’m Kenton. Dar and Rey, it’s okay,” Kenton said gently.
They glanced at each other, then at Kenton.
“Are you the one who makes pastries? Uncle Tomas says you’re almost as good as he is,” Dar said.
“Humph. Tomas is a liar. I’m better,” Kenton said.
“He says you think you are, but he lets you believe it because you’re sensitive.” Rey smiled a wicked grin.
Harper blinked at the expression. It was so much like Bernie when he was getting ready for mischief. Harper stifled a smile and looked at Kenton.
“He did, did he? Big fat liar pants. Call him that next time you see him. Tomas told me you like apples. Come let me get you each an apple turnover so you can take them to the park with you. When you eat them later, you can decide who makes the better one.” Kenton was frowning playfully at the boys.
They went behind the counter, and Kenton lifted them onto the stools there.
“Get going before he loses his mind.” Kenton pointed.
Harper turned, seeing Del still searching for the boys. Harper hurried over into the bookstore and stopped before him. Del glared at him impatiently, then went to go around him. Harper gripped his arm. Del glanced at the hand on his arm, then lifted his head. Harper stifled a gasp at the cold expression in his eyes and on his face.
“I don’t like being touched,” Del stated in a quiet tone.
The threat was very clear, and Harper released him. There went his assumption that Del couldn’t be so bad. This cold man was nothing like his brothers. The memory of Del sitting on the ground holding the boys filled Harper, and then their request to be Del’s friend.
Be nice. Harper crossed his arms over his chest and stated, “The boys are over there in the café.”
Del glanced toward the café, then relaxed as he spotted them. Harper softened as he saw the relief on his face. Del stiffened, then glanced at him.
“What the hell are you doing? Trying to kidnap them? I—”
“Shut up. Those boys over there are fine. And I would never take them, or anyone else’s child. Now, we’re going to the park, because they asked me to come,” Harper snapped, turning on his heels.
Del gripped his arm, and Harper glanced pointedly at Del’s hand, then at his face. Del released him, a slight smile on his lips.
“I didn’t recognize you. You’re Harper, right? You’re friends with my brothers.” Del studied him.
Harper wasn’t sure what the expression on Del’s face was, but it made him uncomfortable. He clenched his fist, wanting to hit Del to get that look off his face. The reaction surprised Harper. He wasn’t usually so violent. For a moment, he thought of asking Del what his problem was, but dismissed the notion because frankly, he didn’t really care.
“Are you coming? I don’t have all day.” Harper looked at his watch.
“They never said you were so prickly.”
“They never mentioned you were such an asshole,” Harper retorted.
Del blinked, a slow sweep of his lashes over his pale-green eyes, and then he grinned. “It’s a gift.”
“That’s nothing to be proud of. You have two boys who will emulate you, and you need to be better.” Harper poked him in the chest.
“It’s not good to poke a bear.” Del’s face blanked, and he caught Harper’s finger, holding it gently. “Don’t tell me how to raise my brothers.”
“You’re a Bengal tiger, not a bear,” Harper blurted out, then realized what he had done. “Ummm… sorry. I’m not trying to tell you how to raise them. But they are worried about you.”
“They want me to be your friend. Said you were lonely, and invited me to the park with you so we can try to be friends. I don’t want to disappoint them.” Harper glanced at the two boys in the café, laughing with Kenton.
“Harper,” Del said softly.
Harper looked over at him. Del studied him with that intense stare that made Harper want to smack him.
“I don’t want to be your friend.”
Harper narrowed his eyes, then gritted out, “And I don’t want to be yours either. You’re as rude and arrogant as I thought you were. To think, I was going to invite you and the boys to dinner so we could try to be friends. That’s not going to happen now. You’ll have to explain to the boys about the park. And since you are so adept at avoiding, after today you can go back to it and doing the same to everyone else who is important in your brothers’ lives.” Harper turned away, then back to him. “You’re a selfish bastard, Del.” Harper faced the café and walked off.
As he got close to the counter, he tried to compose his face. Kenton glanced at him curiously, then grinned, focusing on the boys. Harper didn’t know what the smile was for. Kenton knew him well enough to know he was annoyed. Suspicious, he looked behind him and stifled a gasp as he realized Del had followed him. The aggravating man smiled. Harper ignored him and went to the counter. He didn’t pay attention as Kenton and Del conversed, still out of sorts over Del. No one got under his skin like that.
“Come on, Harper. Let’s go.”
“Go where?” Harper looked down at the little boy who had spoken. He didn’t have a clue which one it was.
“The park. Del said you had to work but would come with us for a little while,” another voice said.
Harper glanced between the two boys. He really needed to figure out which was which.
“The one with the freckles on his nose and cheeks is Dar. Rey only has them on his cheeks,” Del said beside him.
Harper glared at him, and all Del did was smile wider. Harper returned his attention to the twins and saw that the one who had spoken did indeed have freckles. He hadn’t noticed them before they were pointed out. The boys looked so happy that Harper was loath to disappoint them, but the idea of spending time with Del in the park aggravated him more.
“Can’t stay long. So let’s get a move on. Dar, you hold Harper’s hand. I’ve got you, Rey. Thanks for the pastries, Kenton,” Del said as he strode toward the café exit.
Harper glared at the back of his departing head. A small hand touched his, and instinctively he held it. Harper glanced down at Dar, who smiled at him widely.
“You’ve been outmaneuvered,” Kenton said.
“Ah, shut up,” Harper said.
Harper followed behind the departing duo. In moments, they met Del and Rey on the sidewalk, then ambled toward the park. Harper had spotted the bag Del carried with the store logo. Knowing Kenton, there were more than apple turnovers in the bag. He could bet Kenton had found out from the boys what Del liked, flavor-wise. They strolled in companionable silence until they came to a black Escalade. Del disarmed the SUV and opened the back hatch. He lifted the boys and sat them down to take off their sandals. He handed them skates and stood back. Harper watched as they struggled with them. He glared at Del and went to help.
“No. Let them do it. They’ll get annoyed if you interfere. They’ll ask if they want help. Why am I a Bengal tiger, not a bear?” Del whispered.
“The way you move reminds me of one, and your hair,” Harper answered, then realized what he’d said.
“I bet you watch a lot of Discovery Channel. The boys love it. Especially anything to do with sharks.” Del sounded amused.
Harper glanced at him, noting his expression was also amused. “You’re a really annoying man.”
“I grow on you.” Del rocked back on his heels.
“Like a wart on a hedgehog’s backside,” the boys said.
They laughed, and so did Del. Harper couldn’t help it; he joined in.
When they calmed, he asked, “Where did you hear that?”
“Gerald,” Del and the boys all said.
Harper chuckled. It was exactly the sort of thing would say. Gerald had recently moved in with Bur, and while Harper missed Bur living with him, he didn’t need Bur there anymore. Harper sobered as he thought of why Bur had been there. The familiar pain of losing Karl, his partner of almost eleven years, filled Harper. They had been only one week shy of being together eleven years. Ten years and three months of that, they had been married. Then Karl had been shot in the line of duty.
“Harper, are you okay?” Del asked, capturing his attention.
Harper swallowed, pushing back the pain. He focused on Del and realized how handsome he was. Del was identical to Bernie and Bur, yet there was something about him that was different. Immediately, Harper averted his gaze to the twins. They had donned their skates. There was a look of pride on their faces.
“Can you help me tie my skates, Harper?”
Harper looked at his face and saw it was Rey. He stepped forward and did as Rey asked, then fixed the top Velcro. From the corner of his eye, he saw Del tying Dar’s. Harper studied the skates.
“These are awesome.”
“Red and black are my favorite colors.” Rey smiled.
“Mine are orange and blue,” Dar piped in.
“I’m partial to red, gold, and black.” Del lifted Dar, setting him on the ground, waiting until he was stable on the skates before letting him go.
Harper did the same with Rey. Rey held his hand, then Dar. Del reached in the back and pulled out his own skates. Involuntarily, Harper’s gaze lowered, and he had a good view of Del’s jeans pulled tight over his butt. Harper lifted his head and was startled as Del turned and met his gaze. Harper glanced away, watching as people passed them. He returned the greetings of people he knew.
“What’re your favorite colors?” Del asked.
“Any shade of brown or orange,” Harper said absently.
“Like a Bengal tiger.”
Harper focused back on Del. He stood next to them. Harper glanced down and noticed Del’s Rollerblades were the colors he’d said earlier were his favorite. Harper met his gaze, and again noticed an intensity in Del’s eyes that made him tempted to hit him. Harper marked where he would land the punch, right on his nose, so he wouldn’t be so attractive.
Jesus Christ, Harper. The man looks just like two of your good friends. No different. What is wrong with me? Maybe I had too much sun.
“Next time, you should bring your skates so you can rollerblade with us.” Del took Dar’s and Rey’s hands, and they started skating slowly toward the park.
Harper walked beside them.
“Yeah. That’s what friends do,” Rey said.
“Boys, Harper and I aren’t going to be friends,” Del stated firmly.
Harper glanced at the boys, and they looked crestfallen. Harper glared at Del. His expression was unrepentant.
“Such an asshole,” Harper mouthed to Del.
Del laughed, and they skated faster. Harper walked behind them, studying the man who had such a mercurial manner. One moment, he seemed approachable, the next standoffish and saying something rude. It was baffling, and Harper was curious about who was the real Dillard Jenkins. The time he spent with Del and the boys didn’t make it any clearer.
Much later, he returned to the bookstore, leaving them still skating and having fun in the park. As he worked, Harper figured he wouldn’t see Del again. The man wasn’t about to change and become Mr. Sociable overnight. Harper paused from putting the new releases on the shelf. He wasn’t sure if he was glad he wouldn’t see Del and the boys again or not. Harper went back to stacking the books.
Later, he pulled into his driveway and frowned when he spotted a familiar SUV already there. Harper parked next to the vehicle and got out of his gray Equinox, hefting his bag filled with books. Shipment day usually meant he brought home the latest books from some of his favorite authors. Harper stopped at the bottom of the steps, looking up at the man sitting there.
“What are you doing here, Del?” Harper asked.
He didn’t even wonder how Del knew where he lived. Del might not have visited Bur while he lived here, but Harper figured he knew where he lived. From what his brothers said, Del knew a lot of things and was bossy.
“You invited us to dinner.” He shrugged.
“I did no such thing.” Harper scowled.
Del’s smile was sly as he stood and came down the steps. Del took the bag Harper was holding before he could protest. He turned and went back up the stairs.
“Grab the bags. The boys and I brought things to make dinner.” Del motioned with his chin.
“Harper, you have a cool swing!” Rey called, followed by the sound of running feet.
Harper watched as the boys raced toward them from the other end of the porch. They tromped down the stairs to stand beside him.
“There’s a bigger one around the back,” Harper said.
“Can we see?” Dar asked, jumping excitedly.
“Are you going to let us in, Harper?” Del spoke at the top of the steps.
The challenge in his tone confused Harper. He lifted his gaze to meet Del’s. There was something in his eyes Harper couldn’t identify. Del’s expression reminded him of one he had seen on TV, when the Bengal tiger got ready to pounce on unsuspecting prey. Harper touched his chest over his pounding heart and clenched his fist, suddenly feeling as if he was in danger.