“They’re my keys. Blue rig, right over there,” he told me, nodding toward a large SUV across the street. “Car. Now. Horse is gonna drive yours back to Coeur d’Alene.”
I opened my mouth to argue, just on general principle. Then I caught Horse’s eyes, which held a silent warning. He glanced toward Noah, then toward the strangers. That’s when I finally caught the tension in the air—their body language was far from friendly.
Oops. This wasn’t a happy visit.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, taking Noah’s hand. I dragged him across the street and climbed into the big SUV waiting for us. Ruger had already installed a booster seat in the back. Noah’s backpack sat next to it. I leaned over and stuck the keys in the ignition, then switched on the AC.
Ten minutes later, Ruger came over and climbed into the driver’s seat.
“You buckled in, little man?” he asked as he popped the SUV into reverse.
“Uh-huh,” Noah replied. “Thanks for grabbing my backpack. I’m excited to see your house. Do you have Skylanders?”
“Got no idea what a Skylander is, kid,” he replied. “But I’m sure we can get some.”
“Ruger—” I started, but he cut me off.
“Jesus, Sophie,” he said, glaring at me. “Now I can’t buy the kid a present? Shit, he’s had a rough night. If I wanna buy him something, I will.”
“Actually, I was going to ask if I could take him upstairs to the bathroom before we leave,” I replied, smiling sweetly. “He drank a big glass of juice at breakfast. We aren’t going to get far without a pit stop.”
Ruger’s glare faded.
“That’s totally reasonable.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m a reasonable person.”
“We’ll stop at a restaurant or something,” he said, pulling out. “I don’t want you going back upstairs. Hunter and Skid are up there now.”
“Hunter and Skid?” I asked. “Those the guys you were talking to on the sidewalk? Things seemed a little tense. What was that all about?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Club business. I’ll pull off when I see a good place to stop.”
Predictably, Noah started begging for a kid’s meal when we stopped at a fast-food place, especially when he saw they were Skylander-themed. He couldn’t possibly be hungry, but Ruger ordered two of the overpriced little boxes.
“That’s ridiculous,” I told him as he carried them back to the car. “The food will go to waste. Noah is stuffed. Not to mention he already ate out earlier. He doesn’t need unhealthy junk like that.”
“They’re for me,” Ruger replied. “He can have the toys, I’ll take the food. I’m starving.”
As we pulled out and onto the freeway, Noah started telling Ruger all about the Skylanders. By now he was totally wired and it was a damned good thing he was belted in—otherwise he might have jumped around until we crashed the car. He talked Skylanders as we cleared the city. He talked Skylanders as we passed North Bend. He talked Skylanders as we started up Snoqualmie Pass.
Poor Ruger. He had no idea how much conversational stamina Noah had …
“I’m taking a nap,” I said, raising my arms and stretching, chest thrust out. I saw Ruger’s eyes flick toward me, and they weren’t looking at my face. Good. I wanted his balls so blue they stayed that way, because maybe that would teach him a lesson about changing the rules of our relationship without warning. I still had a crush on him, but he wasn’t crushing on me at all.
Ruger was just horny.
“Sure,” he grunted. Noah rattled on in the background as I leaned my seat back and closed my eyes.
I woke slowly, feeling myself in motion and trying to remember where I was. I heard Noah talking and it came back to me. Ruger. Coeur d’Alene. Packing. Miranda.
“Then the Skylanders realized they needed the Giants if they wanted to defeat Kaos,” Noah said to Ruger, his voice earnest.
“You still talking about Skylanders?” I asked sleepily, turning to look at Noah. He was all smiles, clearly excited to have a captive audience.
“Yup. Still talkin’ about Skylanders,” Ruger said, his voice strained and his expression dark. I bit back a laugh. “Been talkin’ about Skylanders nonstop. I think we ran out of new material a while ago, because now he’s tellin’ me the same shit over again. We’re almost to Ellensburg. I want to pull off and buy one of those little DVD players for him to hold on his lap, and some headphones. We got almost three and half more hours. This might kill me.”
“Will I get to have it in my room?” Noah asked, his excitement kicking up a notch, voice growing shrill. “I want lots of movies. I want to watch it every night. Mom doesn’t let me watch very much TV and—”
“Just for the car,” Ruger snapped. Noah’s face fell. Ruger glanced back in the mirror and grimaced. “Sorry, little man. Didn’t mean to yell at you … Uncle Ruger is kinda tired. Think we could keep it quiet until we get to the store? Please?”
The poor man was clearly desperate. I bit my tongue, looking out the passenger-side window, trying not to laugh.
“Shut up, Sophie.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“I heard you thinkin’.”
I started giggling. I couldn’t help it. Soon Noah joined in, filling the car with his happy noise.
Ruger stared straight ahead at the road, face grim.
If I were a better woman, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much.
I had to admit the silence was refreshing.
Noah was a fantastic kid, but his mouth didn’t have an off switch. Ruger had gotten him a little DVD player that strapped to the back of the passenger seat and plugged into the car. Combined with Star Wars headphones and four new movies, the trip was already a thousand times more tolerable.
I waited until Ruger’s fingers stopped clenching the steering wheel so hard they turned white before I opened the conversation.
“We need to talk.”
He glanced toward me.
“Never good words, comin’ from a woman.”
“I’m sorry if it’s not convenient,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “But we’ve got to figure some things out. At least, I need to figure some things out. What’s the plan once we’re back in Coeur d’Alene?”
“You’re moving into my basement,” he said. He reached back and rubbed his shoulder with one hand. “Shit, I’m all knotted up here. That’s what I get for driving all goddamned night.”