EVAN FINISHED loading the dishwasher, one ear tuned to the Rangers game on the television and the other on the hushed conversation between his youngest daughter and his boyfriend.
Rangers were up a goal in the first period. Matt was nodding a lot, covertly looking over his shoulder at Evan.
Elizabeth—his baby, his preteen, oh God—did her own recon of Evan’s activities, so he drew out the fiddling of the controls, took his time as he wiped off the countertop. Matt had cooked, and this was Evan’s way of showing he was still a contributing member of the household, particularly when he was home before midnight.
“Hey, done in here,” he called. “Anyone need anything?”
“Yes,” Matt answered, his voice flat and faintly exasperated. That clearly meant beer. Evan grabbed two out of the fridge, then shut off the small television over the dishwasher. He ambled into the adjoining dining room, where Matt and Elizabeth were holding their top-secret conference.
“Okay, time to let Dad in on things,” Matt said sternly, reaching for the bottle in Evan’s hand.
“Maaaatt.” Elizabeth’s sweet face twisted into a put-upon pout, one Evan was very well acquainted with, having witnessed the joy of puberty via his children twice before, with Miranda, which was hell, and Kathleen, which was slightly easier. Hoping that Elizabeth did her transitioning without drama was obviously a pipe dream.
Evan settled into the chair beside Matt, pressing their knees together once he got settled.
“I never took a sacred oath.” Matt opened the beer, nudging back against Evan’s leg. “Talk to your father.”
It no longer bothered Evan that the kids went to Matt—he was their friend and caretaker first and foremost, and while his allegiance was to his relationship with Evan, he always treated the kids with the utmost fairness. And love.
Elizabeth squirmed a bit in her chair, biting her lip. She tugged on her hair, the sheet of brown falling down nearly to her waist. Sometimes Evan suspected she wore it long so she could hide behind it when things got a little overwhelming.
“Is it a problem at school?”
Elizabeth shook her head.
“Here at home?”
She paused, then nodded.
“One of your siblings?” He suspected it was her twin brother, Danny, because they were really the only two still home full-time. Katie had shipped off to Boston University in late July, and Miranda still lived in the city, doing her senior year at NYU. Neither seemed inclined to hassle a twelve-year-old.
“Spill.” Matt gave her the stink eye.
That was a surprise. Evan tried not to choke midswallow as he sipped his beer.
“Yeah. Um.” Elizabeth’s face was rapidly disappearing behind her fawn brown hair. “She… okay, so last weekend when I was at her apartment with Aunt Elena? They were arguing about something after I went to bed.”
Evan gave Matt a sidelong glance, rapidly becoming alarmed with the conversation and particularly the grimace his boyfriend was sporting. “Okay, that’s technically a conversation between two adults, and I’m not sure you should be telling me what they said,” Evan said diplomatically, ignoring Matt’s raised eyebrows and his own gut-churning need to know. “Unless of course you’re concerned about someone’s safety.”
“Shut up,” Evan whispered without moving his lips.
“Well, then.” Elizabeth sighed dramatically. “Then I don’t know. If I should say.”
“But I know, and I have absolutely no problem repeating it.” Matt broke into the conversation, indignation flaring. “Elena told Miranda she was too young to get married.”
Evan’s chair squeaked as he rocked back in surprise. “What?”
“Aunt Elena told Miranda she was too young to get married, especially because they had just met, and she was being hasty.” Now freed from her indecision, Elizabeth rattled off what she had heard with enthusiasm. “Miranda said maybe she would just get pregnant, and then they’d have to get married, and Aunt Elena said this isn’t 1950, don’t be stupid.”
“Oh my God.” Evan was already out of his seat, heading for the kitchen and the phone and his late wife’s sister, who was going to get a thorough review of every curse word Evan had learned in the Marines and on the force.
“Dismissed. Don’t tell anyone else about this and I’ll bring you up dessert later.” Evan could hear Matt comforting Elizabeth, as he walked away, which made him feel crappy on top of being so fucking furious his temples were pounding.
“Why didn’t Elena call me and tell me this? Better yet—what boy?”
Matt followed Evan into the kitchen, snapping on lights as he went along. “Elena probably doesn’t think there’s anything to it,” Matt started, but Evan waved him off, phone already in hand.
“No, sorry. She doesn’t get to make that call.” Evan stabbed the numbers, pacing in circles. “That’s my decision.”
“Miranda’s over twenty-one.” Matt didn’t even flinch at the eye daggers Evan threw his way.
“True. She’s also living in an apartment I pay for, going to school on my dime.” The line was ringing. Evan honestly thought he would explode if it went to voice mail. “Oh right, and she’s my kid. End of story.”
“Okay, then.” Matt pulled out a stool from the breakfast nook, his beer still in hand.
“What? You think… Elena?” His sister-in-law’s voice came on the line, and by her timid tone, he knew she knew exactly why he was calling.
MATT FINISHED his beer and then another one, all while watching Evan turn an interesting shade of magenta as he wore a hole in the floor. The fight between Evan and Elena included a great deal of cursing, a segue into the number of hours he worked—which was only going to get higher when his promotion went through—and Miranda’s lingering grief over her mother’s death. All through it, Matt saw Evan grappling with each one of those issues coupled with his own guilt. They’d come a long way over the past few years, but every once in a while, Evan backslid.
He’d failed Sherri. Her memory. The kids. He’d nearly failed Matt a few years ago, when their relationship stalled amid the confusion of his nearly redefined sexuality.
But they were fine. Solid. The kids were amazing—when they weren’t being angst-ridden preteens or sassy teenagers or impossible-to-decipher young adults.
Matt, as captain of this crazy ship, kept the rudder straight, the laundry done, and his boyfriend well fucked enough to carry on another day.
“Fine, fine. But I’m serious—you have to tell her to talk to me immediately, Elena. Immediately.” Evan was winding down, his voice rough around the edges, sweat curling along the razor-sharp line of his cropped military haircut. The T-shirt he’d changed into after work was soaked through as if he’d been running a marathon. Matt made a mental note to put on the air-conditioning in the bedroom before they went to bed.
Evan hung up, still enthusiastically cursing under his breath. Matt held out a cold open bottle of beer without commentary.
He could wait. It wouldn’t take long.
“His name is Kent and he’s in her business class and they met in July. July! How can you make that sort of decision in that short amount of time? Not to mention, not to mention—she’s twenty-one!”
Matt wisely chose not to point out how young Evan and Sherri had been when they met and fell in love and married, and hell, they had two kids by twenty-two. He imagined it was going to be brought to Evan’s attention later, when he and Miranda entered the steel cage match of their conversation.
Evan didn’t wait for a response and clearly didn’t need one. He drank half the beer, still walking circles around the kitchen as he wound down.
“She’s crazy—crazy—if she thinks I’m going to support this. She hasn’t even introduced him to me! To us. What kind of person is he? Is she hiding something? Is he? Do you know why she hasn’t introduced us?”
“Because she knows the second you have his name, you’re going to make me run a background check on him?” Matt asked dryly.
Evan leaned against the counter next to Matt’s seat with a dramatic sigh. “Yes.”
“It’s okay, baby,” Matt soothed, rubbing his hand up and down Evan’s back. “I was going to do it anyway. She knows that too.”
With a snort, Evan rested his head on his folded arms. His voice was muffled, but the rage had clearly died down. “I blame myself.”
“Of course you do.” Matt pushed Evan’s shirt up with one hand, pressing his palm against Evan’s overly warm flesh. “Because you love her and you’re scared you won’t be able to protect her.”
“She’s afraid to talk to me.”
“Only because she clearly doesn’t have a good argument to go up against you yet.”
They shared a knowing laugh at that. Miranda looked like Sherri, but she had Evan’s temper and personality. She wasn’t going to fight Evan until she thought she could win.
“I’m scared.” Evan lifted his head to look at Matt.
“Understandable. I was hoping for the nunnery, for all three girls. But the fact is, she’s smart and beautiful and an adult. It’s going to happen.”
With that, Matt wrapped his arm around Evan’s trim waist and hauled him onto his lap. Evan squirmed for a second. Matt knew stuff like this made Evan uncomfortable, but there was no one around, and damn it, he was going to get cuddled.
“So you think the nunnery is entirely off the table?” Evan sighed, leaning back against Matt’s broad chest.
“Pretty sure. And just think—you just have to get through this time and then Katie and then Elizabeth. Plus, you know, Danny and his future parade of pink-haired girls who ride motorcycles.”
“Wanna go to bed and fuck your problems away?”
Evan gave him an elbow, but he didn’t get up. “Yeah, but first I need to talk to Elizabeth. I don’t want her to feel bad about this.”
Matt kissed the side of Evan’s neck. “Bring her a brownie—I promised.”
“You’re a nice man.”
Evan turned. The chair beneath them creaked a bit, but Evan wasn’t deterred, apparently. He twisted until their mouths pressed together.
A flood of warmth flowed through Matt’s body, and it wasn’t entirely composed of lust.
Just another day of family drama and taking the recycling out and loving Evan with every fiber of his being.