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“I bet it’s Kylie,” Trev said.

Even though he knew better than to react, Joe froze.

Max let out a short laugh. “Nah. Kylie hates him. Thinks he’s a jackass. I know this because every time I go visit Rory when she’s at work at South Bark Pet Shop, she and the girls are talking. Carl’s my cover,” he said, grinning at his dog. “They throw themselves at him and don’t pay me any attention.”

“Kylie thinks I’m a jackass?” Joe asked before he could stop himself and knew when Max grinned that he’d been had. Shit.

“If we’re done discussing our love lives . . .” Archer said with deceptive casualness.

“You say that because you have one,” Reyes said. “Some of us aren’t in a relationship and we take all the scrapes we can get.”

“I don’t know. You might be better off,” Max said. “I mean, I love Rory, but sometimes being in a relationship is about getting a large fry when you really just wanted a small—but you know your girlfriend’s gonna eat ’em all even though she said she didn’t want any.”

Archer snorted but wisely didn’t say anything because they all knew Elle was maybe even more badass than him. “Back to work,” he said and just like that, fun time ended.

Joe was grateful for the intervention, but he knew it wasn’t over. These hyenas were going to drive him crazy wanting details. He could ignore them but what he couldn’t ignore was . . . Kylie thinks I’m a jackass?

That evening, Joe pulled up to his dad’s place. He’d promised to show up early, but the job had kept him longer than he’d planned and then he’d gotten caught in construction traffic.

Grabbing the two grocery bags off the passenger seat of his truck, he headed up the walk to the modest duplex on an equally modest but relatively safe street filled with identically styled homes in the Inner Sunset District.

Joe had bought the place five years ago. Since Alan Malone was too proud and stubborn and mean to allow live-in home care, he was only visited twice a week by a nurse who checked up on him. When and if he opened the door to her, that is.

This meant that Joe had to live on the other side of the duplex, mostly because Molly refused to. He’d tried to give her the place rent-free but she lived in Outer Sunset, “just far enough away,” she always said, “so you two can’t try to run my life.”

They split up the shifts, each checking in on their dad often. Tonight Joe was up. The lights were on, but the front door was locked. This was not a surprise. The retired veteran always kept his windows and doors locked and bolted.

Joe had a key, but letting oneself in without warning was bad for one’s health. He knocked on the door, four hard raps and then a pause, and then one more. This was their code because his dad needed one.

There was no answer so he called his dad’s cell.

“You’re late,” came a surly voice and then a click.

He’d disconnected.

“Son of a bitch,” Joe muttered. He tried texting.

Joe: Traffic.

Dad: Tough shit.

Joe: I brought food.

No response.

Joe knocked again, same pattern as before. “Open up, Dad.”

Nothing.

Joe sighed. “Dad. Open up or I’ll just break in.”

To this he got a definitive answer. The unmistakable sound of a shotgun ratcheting.

Chapter 11

#GoAheadMakeMyDay

There were probably some people who could hear their dad ratchet his shotgun and stand firm, secure in the knowledge that their own father wasn’t going to shoot them.

Joe was under no such illusions. If his dad felt like shooting, he would most definitely shoot. Joe had long ago taken away all of the bullets in the house, but there was no betting against the old man. He was wily as they came.

And skilled.

“Seriously?” Joe called out to him. “I’m only a few minutes late.”

There was no response and it was like being fifteen and stupid all over again. There’d been many, many nights when he’d had to sleep on the porch without so much as a blanket to keep warm because his dad had locked him out of the house for being late.

Late being anytime after dark.

His dad didn’t do the dark and hadn’t since he’d come home from the Gulf War a different man from the one he’d been before he’d left. Because he couldn’t keep a job for any length of time, Joe had stepped up to help provide from a young age, although not all his methods had fit into the niceties of society. But letting his dad and sister go hungry hadn’t been an option.

Thankfully those days were long behind him now and Archer paid him more than well enough to cover what they needed. He set the bags of groceries he’d brought with him on the stoop, pulled out a small tool, and . . . took his life in his hands by breaking in. When he got the locks opened, he nudged the door. “Don’t shoot me.”

“Why not?” came the gruff reply.

“Because then you won’t get dinner.” But Joe wasn’t stupid, so he stepped to the side of the door and out of direct sight range until his dad responded.

“Fine, but it’d better be good.”

Joe grabbed the bags of food and headed in, still cautious. One never knew with his dad. He relocked the door and then, to soothe the man he knew damn well was watching his every move, he checked the locks four times, paused, and then checked one more time. OCD was a bitch. He turned and found his dad indeed watching him his wheelchair in the doorway between the living room and kitchen, a rifle across his legs, wearing only his underwear.

“Where are your pants?”

“I don’t like pants.”

“Well no one does,” Joe said, passing him to head into the kitchen. “But we still have to wear them.”

His dad wheeled along after him, looking pale and surly at the same time.

“You doing your stretching exercises like you’re supposed to?” Joe asked. “To reduce your pain?”

“Fucking doctors. They don’t know shit.”

“It wasn’t the doctor who taught you those stretches. It was your PT. You like her, remember?”

“No, I don’t.”

“You told me she smells nice,” Joe said.

“And she does.”

Joe drew a deep breath, feeling his already thin patience waning. He loved his dad, loved him a whole hell of a lot, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to strangle him sometimes. He put water on to boil for spaghetti and began to brown some sweet Italian sausage for the sauce. “I don’t understand what the problem is.”

“She’s not your mom.”

Joe stilled and then turned from the stove. “Dad, no one is. But . . . Mom’s gone.”

“Fucking cancer. Fucking doctors.”

She’d been gone for twenty years now but there was no arguing with the man.

“Where’s Molly?” his dad asked. “Thought she was coming tonight.”

“She’ll be by tomorrow. Said to tell you she’ll bring you pizza if you want.”

“Yeah, I want. She’s nicer than you. She brings me cigars, too.”

Joe stopped stirring the meat and stared at his dad. “She’s not supposed to be doing that.”

His dad patted his wheelchair side pocket smugly.

Joe shook his head but didn’t get dragged into a fight. He knew damn well there were no matches or lighters anywhere in the house. He and Molly had PTSD-proofed the house years ago and they kept a clean ship. So his dad could hold on to those cigars all he wanted if they made him feel better. And seeing him defiant and pleased with himself was far better than the depression and anxiety he usually displayed. “You need to get out more.”

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