I glared at him as Noah started wiggling to get down. I let him go and he held the string of fish up, so proud he practically glowed.
“Uncle Ruger and I are going to cook dinner,” he declared. “We’re eating my fish. You can share!”
I glanced down at the three tiny little rainbow trout, smaller than could possibly be legal. Then I looked up at Ruger, questioning.
“I’ve got some salmon marinating in the fridge,” he said. “I’ll grill it with corn.”
“I brought Noah his favorite macaroni and cheese,” I replied. “Want me to cook that up while you get the grill going?”
Dinner was a little awkward, but not as bad as you’d think, under the circumstances. I’d busied myself doing the macaroni and prepping the veggies while Ruger and Noah cleaned the fish. I wouldn’t have trusted Noah with a knife, but Ruger guided him carefully, explaining each step as he slit the fish open, gutted them, and then rinsed them out. We wrapped everything in foil and threw it on the grill while Noah ran off to play and I set the table.
“So, you got the job today?” he asked, leaning back against the railing, a casual eye on the food. It was almost like things hadn’t blown up between us over the weekend. Okay. I could work with that. Denial had always been an excellent strategy for me.
“Yup,” I said. “It’s a good one. They do full benefits after three months and I’ll have a week of vacation starting next year. Thanks again for grabbing Noah.”
“No problem,” he said, shrugging. “It’s not like he’s hard to be around, if you can get him off the whole Skylanders thing. He ever get tired of that?”
“No,” I said. I saw a spark of humor in his eyes and I smiled back. At least we had Noah between us, I realized, no matter how f**ked up everything else was.
“You’ve done a hell of a good job with him,” Ruger said. “I want you to know that.”
“Thanks,” I said, startled. “What brought that on? I thought you were pissed at me?”
Shit, did I just say that out loud? Why did I have to go and stir things up, right when we were starting to get along? He didn’t jump all over me, though. Instead he just gave me a slow smile, which was strangely worse.
“You’ll figure it out,” he said.
He stepped over and rotated the corn while I studied him, suspicious. He stayed quiet, pulling out his phone and checking his messages. Yup, definitely worse. At least when we fought I knew where we stood.
On the bright side, Noah’s little trout were pretty tasty—all three bites. He turned down salmon to eat SpongeBob-shaped macaroni and cheese, no huge surprise there. Ruger startled me by bringing out a bottle of sparkling cider to celebrate my new job. Noah was ecstatic, drinking half the juice by himself out of a real wine glass. I have to admit, I was touched. After dinner we cleared the dishes while Noah took off again, with a stern warning that we’d be heading home in ten minutes.
“You start work tomorrow?” Ruger asked as I loaded the dishwasher.
“Nine on the dot,” I replied, feeling a little rush of excitement. “It’s perfect. I can’t believe how things worked out. Thanks again for helping today—you have no idea how much it meant to me.”
“I note you didn’t follow up on the job at The Line,” he said, cocking a brow. I frowned and looked away.
“Um, I wasn’t really serious about that anyway,” I said. “I don’t want to work for the club.”
“Yeah, you made your feelings about the club clear,” he said. My mood deflated a little. “I’ve got something for you.”
“That’s a loaded statement,” I replied, my voice flat. He smirked, and I felt better. It wasn’t an angry smirk.
“Dirty mind, Soph?” he asked. “Seriously, this is important. Come on into the living room.”
I followed him, then sat in a chair. He sat on the couch, then patted the seat next to him. I shook my head. He held up a thick, business-sized envelope.
“You don’t get your surprise if you don’t come over here.”
“What makes you think I’ll want it?”
“Oh, you’ll want it,” he said, clearly pleased with himself. I got up and walked over to him slowly. He grabbed my hand, pulling me down and across his lap. I gave a token struggle, but he handed me the envelope and curiosity took over, so I let him win.
Also, it felt kind of nice to sit on his lap. Yeah, I know. Stupid. But I’m only human.
I opened the envelope and saw cash. A very large wad of cash. My eyes opened wide and I pulled it out, shocked. I didn’t count it, but it seemed to be all hundred-dollar bills … there had to be three or four thousand dollars in here.
“What the hell is this?” I asked, looking at him. He gave me a grim smile.
“Holy shit!” I gasped. “How did you get this out of Zach?”
“It’s from Mom’s estate,” Ruger said. “I paid him out and then he paid you out. In exchange, he gets to keep living. Everybody wins.”
I turned to look at him, shocked.
“Are you serious?” I asked. Our faces were about two inches apart, and his eyes flicked to my lips. I licked them nervously and felt something stir under my butt. His arms came around my waist, holding me loosely, and my ni**les hardened.
“Pretty hard to get more serious,” he told me. “Old friend tracked down Zach for me in North Dakota and I rode over there Sunday afternoon, got back early this morning. We had words. Then we went to the bank. I didn’t give him the promise to let him live in writing—that’s just a little side incentive. I’ll revoke it if he ever gets within ten miles of you or Noah again. Mom would’ve wanted this anyway. She never stopped loving him, but she sure as shit stopped trusting him.”
I swallowed. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the details … But I couldn’t feel sorry for Zach. He’d earned everything he got and then some.
“How much money is in here?” I asked, flipping through the wad of cash.
“Not all of it,” he said. “That’s just last year’s. The rest is in transit. Dealing with that much cash gets complicated. Needs to be cleaned up a bit, and then we’ll find a way to get it to you that won’t leave an ugly trail. The trade-off is, we agreed on your current monthly rate, and it’s not like you can take him to court to ask for more if he gets a great job or something.”