So, here’s your introduction to ECHL player Beau Hopper, former Marine Connor Casey, and a minivan named Lady GaGa.

Chapter 1 – Beau

Thank God for one-stoplight towns. Beau Hopper coasted through stop signs and intersections on the outskirts of town, tapping his unreliable brakes as little as possible. Glancing at the map app on his phone, he quickly checked the distance he had left. Two minutes until the shop. Okay, good. He could make it without stopping to throw in some more brake fluid. To be fair, Hidden Creek had more than one stoplight, but still, it was small. If he couldn’t exaggerate in his head, where could he?

Hopefully, no animal or small child would choose to dart out in front of Lady Gaga in the next two minutes. With that enchanting image in mind, he pressed the brakes on the red Town & Country minivan. The pedal immediately sunk to the floorboard. Fuck.

Turn right in one hundred feet the Google Maps app calmly ordered him, obviously unaware of his impending vehicular disaster. Pumping the brakes, he dropped the van into low gear. He took the turn, not giving the stop sign a second’s consideration, and coasted into the garage’s parking lot. Thanks to whoever had designed it, the driveway had just enough of an incline to slow the van to a stop right before it crashed into the cement wall of the building.

Beau breathed a sigh of relief and put the van into park. It had better only be the master cylinder. Yeah, he should have brought it in a week ago when he’d started having to add brake fluid every other day, but he’d been busy. Usually, he treated her better. They’d been together a long time; he’d bought the van after he’d graduated from college nine years ago. She was the only thing he really cared about.

Peggy’s Auto Palace didn’t look like much. At one time, the green paint on the garage doors and around the top of the building had been fresh, but those days were long gone. The sign had been replaced fairly recently, but Beau could clearly see the outline where the old one had been. A three-bay garage with a dirt lot packed tightly with cars in varying conditions, the shop had that comforting look of a place that would try to get their customers parts from a salvage yard rather than trying to convince them to go with original parts.

Beau hopped out of the van and went to go find someone to help.

One of the bay doors was closed, another had a brand new Tacoma up on the lift, and the last had an older Honda Civic parked in it. No people anywhere that Beau could see. There was a glassed-in office at one end of the building, so he headed in that direction.

“Hello?” he called, walking into the small room. The ancient window air conditioner grumbled loudly as it tried to fight the late-afternoon heat. It wasn’t that hot temperature-wise, but the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm came complete with a smothering blanket of humidity. At least it would be gorgeous after the storm passed.

“Yeah?” A tall, thin woman with short hair answered him. Beau barely registered her presence, being totally distracted by the hot guy leaning against the doorframe, eating his lunch like he had no idea how sexy it was. The white sleeveless T-shirt he wore displayed his bulging biceps to great effect. The guy had been kind enough to tie the arms of his unzipped coveralls around his waist so Beau could get a great look as he entire torso. Surely Beau had seen at least one porno that started with this same scenario.

The guy raised his eyebrow at Beau’s silent staring. “Can we help you with something?” he asked.

There were so many things the guy could help him with, but only one he would ask for at this moment in time. “Um, yeah. I need my van looked at?”

Brilliant, Beau. Damn it. Why did that guy have to be here? Beau never had been able to think around really hot guys. Heat crept up the back of his’s neck. “It’s the brakes. They’re sinking to the floor. I’m thinking it’s the master cylinder, or leaky hydraulics, or both.”

“Okay,” the woman said. “If you want to leave it, we can take a look at it tomorrow. It’s kind of late now.” She stood up, and the hot guy took another bite of his sandwich and wiped his hand on his coveralls.

“I figured.  It’s not a problem. One of my teammates is coming to pick me up.” He hoped. Technically, Shotsky hadn’t called him back yet. But he would; Beau was ninety percent sure.

“Teammates?” Hot Guy asked.

“Yeah, I play with the Tornadoes?” Why was everything he said coming out as a question?

Hot Guy shook his head. “Don’t know them.”

Beau got that reaction a lot. “Local ECHL team. We’re a development team for the Seattle Thunder.”

Peggy—at least he assumed the woman was the eponymous Peggy—wiped her hands on her jumpsuit and walked outside, Hot Guy right behind her.

He looked at Beau as he passed and gave him a jerk of his chin. “Hey.” His eyes dropped quickly down and back up Beau’s body.

Beau smiled. Oh, yes. In places like Hidden Creek, Texas, it paid to be subtle. Hot Guy was a pro at subtle. Beau gave him a return smile and a quick nod. Yeah, I see you, that nod said.

“Not seen you around before. You new?” Peggy asked, shoving her hands deep into her pockets.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I moved here a few months ago.”

Peggy gave him an appraising glance, pausing at his hair. “Most hockey players I know don’t have blue hair.”

“How many hockey players do you know?”

She paused. “Good point. Most hockey players I’ve seen on TV don’t have blue hair.”

They made their way to the front of the shop. The guy scowled at Beau’s van, kicking the tires. Beau didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone do that in real life.

“I wouldn’t expect a hockey player to be driving a soccer mom mobile,” he said.

“Hey. Don’t hate. Appreciate.” Beau smiled.

The guy laughed, his entire face lighting up. Underneath the grime and sweat, he looked a few years younger than Beau—almost boyish. Beau wanted to see that smile again.

“I’m Connor,” the guy said. “Connor Casey.”

“Beau Hopper. Pleased to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you.” They shook hands, holding on a few more beats than necessary. Another part of the game. Connor’s palm was warm and calloused from work. What would it feel like on Beau’s waist? On other more intimate places? God, he needed to get laid. It had been too long.

“So, Beau Hopper, tell me why you drive a minivan,” Connor said.

“I think the real question you have to ask yourself, Connor Casey, is why don’t you drive a minivan?” He liked the way Connor’s name felt on his tongue. “But to answer your question, this is not just any minivan. This is Lady Gaga,” Beau said, waving his hand with a dramatic flourish.

“Lady Gaga?”

Crossing his arms, Beau turned back to Connor. “Well, what else was I supposed to name her? She has style. Panache. Presence. She’s not some common Dodge. I had to give her a name that matched her flair.”

Connor held his hands up in apology. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to impugn your van.”

“Oh, great word.” Beau placed his hand dramatically over his heart. “Sadly, it is not just the van you have wronged, it’s Lady Gaga herself you have besmirched.”

“Besmirched?” Connor bit back a smile.

“Be. Smirched. Now you have to swear on Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta and Madonna Louise Ciccone that you won’t do it again.”

Connor shook his head. “Who are those people?”

Beau gasped. “You really don’t know?” It was on the tip of Beau’s tongue to ask how Connor could call himself a gay man if he didn’t know those two crucial bits of information. But Connor hadn’t called himself that yet in front of Beau. It could just be wishful thinking on Beau’s part, no matter what signals he was getting.

“I’m just screwing with you,” Connor said with a laugh.

“Thank God. I was starting to rethink my decision to leave her with you.” He really wasn’t. There was no way he was driving her again until the brakes were fixed. “Real answer why I love her? She has everything I need, including a ton of storage room, even before you count the box on top.” Connor looked up and frowned as if he had just noticed the giant black plastic storage container on the top of the roof. “Do you have any idea how much space hockey gear takes up?”

Connor shook his head.

“A lot.” Beau walked around to the back of the van, where numerous bumper stickers vied for space on the big tailgate, decorating it like a gold-painted pasta on a kid’s picture frame.

Besides a decal for each hockey team he’d played on, there were others he’d accumulated over his years of traveling across the United States. Route 66, Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, and Colorful Colorado. Something from every state. The Oklahoma state decal blended in with the rest, just another pin on the map.

“Holy shit. You’ve got quite the collection,” Connor said.

“I pick one up every place I live. Every team I’ve played on has a space.”

“You’re from Oklahoma?” Peggy asked, noticing the plates.

“Yes, ma’am. Originally. I’ve moved around quite a bit.” That was putting it mildly. If you added up all the time he’d spent on the ranch, it would come out to something less than ten, eleven years.

“There’s not a lot of hockey in Oklahoma.”

Beau grinned. “That’s why I’ve moved around.”

“Okay, so it has plenty of space for your bumper stickers. What else does it have?” Connor asked.

“I’m glad you asked.” He lifted the hatch to show off the interior. The passenger’s side of the vehicle was occupied by a small but complete kitchen setup, with a single-burner electric stove, a small fridge, and cabinets. A mattress on a raised storage platform took up the other side. The bed was made up with a set of mismatched sheets and a fluffy comforter. Four pillows lay at the head. A small flat screen television hung from the ceiling.

Connor raised his eyes appreciatively, running a hand over the wooden cabinetry. “Nice woodwork.”

“Thanks. I did it myself.”

“Are you a builder?” Peggy asked, throwing a quick look at Connor.

“I do a lot of construction over the summers.” With a push of the key fob, the side door slid open automatically. “Check this out.” He lifted the end of the bed platform, demonstrating how it was hinged in the middle. “It’s all removable. And she’s got stow-and-go seats that fold into the floor, so I don’t even have to take them out. If I need seating, I just roll up the mattress et voila.”

“Do you have power in here?” Connor asked, climbing in the back for a closer look.

“Yes. There’s a second storage battery under that box with a power inverter to change the D/C from the battery to A/C for my computer.” He pointed to the small box at the foot of the bed.

“Sweet,” Connor said. “Must be great for camping.”

“It really is.”

“Do you live in the van?” Peggy asked, eyebrows drawn together.

“I have before. Might again, if I can’t find another place,” Beau said with a laugh.

“What happened to your old place?” Connor asked.

“Nothing. It’s just not really working out for me. I’ve been staying at the house the team puts all the single guys up in instead of giving them a housing allowance. Think Animal House, but smellier.”

“Sounds like it could be fun,” Connor said.

Beau shrugged. “Too many parties, and I can’t open a bathroom door without finding some strange girl in the shower. I’m too old for that anymore. It’s not really my scene.” That was the short answer. The long answer was more involved, but Beau was taking care of it. He’d find somewhere else to live for a few months and avoid having to deal with the situation anymore.

Peggy cocked her head to the side. “Which part ain’t your scene? The sleeping around or the girls?”

She was fishing, but his gaydar was telling him he would be safe with these two. “Both,” he answered, bracing for the inevitable follow-up question.

“You gay?” she asked.

Beau held her gaze. “Yes, ma’am, I am.”

Connor cleared his throat, and Beau glanced over at him. His skin had developed a sheen of sweat in the short time they’d been outside, making him look even sexier. Beau winked at Connor and was relieved by the grin he got in return. Question asked and answered. He was sure they were playing on the same team.

“Can’t be easy, being a gay hockey player,” Peggy said, leaning against the side of his van.

He shrugged. “Can’t be easy being a woman auto mechanic in Texas, either.”

Peggy laughed. “I like you, hockey boy.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Connor looked at him, head cocked. “Do the other guys know?”

Beau rocked his hand in a ‘maybe yes, maybe no’ gesture. “Some of them. I don’t lie if people ask, but I don’t announce either. I’m not the only gay guy in the league by a long shot. Actually, that’s one of the reasons I was glad to get on the Tornadoes. Makes it easier.”

He’d enjoyed every team he’d played on until now, but the Tornadoes held a special place in his heart since they were affiliated with the Thunder. Like many young hockey players, he’d worshiped their former team captain, power-forward Bryce Lowery. When Bryce came out last Thanksgiving, right before retiring, it had been a complete surprise to everyone. But the team was one hundred percent behind him, and so far the fans had handled it well.

“I don’t get it. What makes the Tornadoes different?” Connor asked. “Sorry, I don’t really know much about hockey.”

“The Tornadoes and Thunder are affiliated.”

Connor spread his hands. “And?”

“Do you not follow sports?” Beau asked rolling his eyes.

“Yeah. Football. A real sport.” Connor had a glint in his eye, daring Beau to argue against football deep in the heart of Texas, where the game was everything.

Game on. Beau narrowed his eyes at Connor. “How many games does a professional NFL team play during a regular season, not counting preseason or playoffs?”

“Sixteen,” Connor answered.

“In a seventeen-week season, right?” Connor nodded.

“Do you know how long hockey season is?”

Peggy looked up like she was adding in her head. “Twenty-four?”

“Close. Twenty-six during the regular season. And how many games do you think each team plays in a season?” He poked Connor in the chest, and the other man’s eyebrows shot up. “How many?”

“I don’t know. I’m gonna guess it’s not twenty-six.”

“Eighty-two.”

Connor gave a low whistle of appreciation. “Day-um. That is a lot of hockey.”

“Damn straight it is.” He gave Connor a blatant look up and down his body. “Come on down to the rink one night and see for yourself. I’ll get you a ticket.”

Connor smiled.

“Get a room, boys,” Peggy joked, pushing off from the van. “So, I think I heard something about that team, the Thunder. Couple of their boys came out just recently, right? Pretty publicly, if I recall correctly.”

“How do you know that?” Connor asked her, surprised.

“I like to keep up on what’s going on in the community, Con.” The implication that he might want to as well hung in the air.

“Fine. Tell me about it.” He turned to Beau.

“Two guys on the team are dating. It was a huge deal when they came out a few weeks ago. You really didn’t hear anything about it?”

Connor shrugged apologetically.

Beau shook his head. “You should look them up. And not just because they’re both really hot. But they were really brave, too. They risked some seriously lucrative positions by going public.”

“I bet they gained some positions they liked even better.” Connor raked his eyes up and down Beau’s body. “I’ll check them out.”

“You can come watch at our place,” Peggy butted in. “I’ve told you before. It’d be fun.” She turned to Beau. “My wife Val and I try to catch the hockey games when we can.”

Beau smiled. “Glad to hear we have fans.”

“I never said we watched the Tornadoes,” she said with a wink.

Smacking him lightly on the shoulder, she turned back toward the office. “Hang out here for a few minutes, I need to talk to Connor. We’ll be right back.”

“No problem.” Beau walked to the back of the van and sat down on the floor next to the bed. He loved his van, but he really didn’t want to have to sleep in her for the next few months if he didn’t have to. It was hard to keep it cool overnight.

Rental property was scarcer than hen’s teeth in these parts, but he thought he’d seen a halfway decent hotel on the strip. Maybe he could stay there for a few months. Or maybe he’d just buy one of the little ranch houses in town, fix it up while he was here, and flip it for a profit when it was time to go. That might be fun. Whatever. Something would work out. It always did.

 

Chapter 2 – Connor

 

When they reached the office, Peggy closed the door behind her. Connor knew that “give us a moment” move all too well. She used it every time some customer had an unfounded complaint. She would take him inside and pretend to dress him down.

Crossing her arms, she glanced at him, lips pursed. “You know,” she started.

“Don’t even say it.”

Connor knew exactly what she was thinking. Beau did construction and needed a place to live. Connor needed construction help and had an empty thirty-foot travel trailer in his yard. But there was no way he was having some strange guy in his house…his trailer…whatever, no matter how cute he was and how amazing that bubble butt was. Maybe because of how cute he was.

It was hard enough raising four kids as it was. The last thing he needed was a hot gay guy to come in and distract him. That would only make Connor think about things he couldn’t have if he was going to keep the kids. Things he hadn’t had in a long time.

Not to mention, he didn’t know anything about Beau. Sure, he played hockey and he had the body of a god, but that didn’t mean he would make a good house guest. Sure, he had mentioned not liking his teammates sleeping around, but what if he brought someone home? Social services would have a field day with that. No, he couldn’t take that chance.

“I’m just saying, he could help. Maybe even with the kids.”

“He’s a total stranger!”

“Anybody you get to make that swap is going to be a total stranger,” she argued in the infuriatingly logical way she had.

“He’s practically a homeless drifter!” Okay, maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration. He might be arguing extra hard to make up for the part of him that was silently jumping up and down in excitement at having a hot guy within touching distance. That specific body part had a history of poor decision-making.

“He’s an ECHL-level hockey player,” Peggy said. “That’s what they do. They move from team to team. It doesn’t make him a ‘homeless drifter.’”

“Well, maybe. But either way, you can tell by that collection of stickers that he doesn’t stay in one place very long.”

“You don’t need him for that long, right?”

“No. Should just take a couple weeks. Maybe two months.”

“So? I’m not seeing the problem.”

Damn her and her logic. Shouldn’t she be trying to talk him out of this? Something about Beau made Connor think he had trouble written all over him. It reminded Connor of when he used to be wild and free. And a jerk. No. That part of his life was over.

“He might even be able to help you with the kids,” she suggested again.

“No way. Absolutely not.” That he wouldn’t back down on. “Does he look like someone you would leave alone with kids?”

“There was a time people would have said that about you.”

“Newsflash, they’re still saying it,” Connor said bitterly.

“I’m just saying, he could help.” Peggy gave him her best ‘listen to your mother’ glare. “Plus, he’s pretty.”

Connor shrugged like he hadn’t noticed the guy was gorgeous. “But what’s with the hair?” he asked.

“You don’t like blue?”

“It’s not just blue. It’s like…five different shades of blue and green. It’s like, shimmery.” He searched for a way to describe it besides ‘it makes me want to run my fingers through it’. “It’s mermaid hair.”

Peggy laughed out loud at him.

Connor scowled and blushed, a not very attractive combination. So, of course, that was when Beau knocked on the door and stuck his head in. “Sorry to bother you, but I have to go soon. I have a game tonight, and I need to get to the rink.”

“Ask him,” Peggy said.

“Ask me what?”

“Nothing,” Connor said.

Beau ran his hands through his hair as he tried to read the energy in the room. Connor wondered if the blue strands were as soft as they looked. Probably not. Probably brittle from all the bleach.

Peggy shot a look at Connor and, before he could stop her, opened her big mouth. “Connor needs some construction help with his house. He needs the work done as soon as possible. He’s got a big old trailer in his backyard standing empty. Harvey hit his house pretty hard.”

“Harvey?”

“Giant hurricane? Flooded Houston?” Connor felt the familiar surge of rage he got when he realized how little impact the disaster had made on the national consciousness.

“Wasn’t that like last year?” Beau said. “I thought it would all be fixed up by now.”

“Oh, yeah. Those thoughts and prayers just fixed everything right up,” Connor said with a bright smile.

“Connor,” Peggy snapped. “Don’t be a dick.”

Connor scowled. But Peggy was right. It wasn’t Beau’s fault he didn’t know how much recovery the area still needed. It pissed Connor off how little the national news had covered a disaster that had destroyed so much in his area. Connor clenched his hands at his sides, remembering the videos of the wreckage.

He’d been in Helmand in Afghanistan when the storm had hit. Watching the disaster unfold on Reddit livestreams and Twitter feeds, he’d felt more helpless than he ever had in his life. Thank God no one in his family had been hurt, but the house had taken severe flooding damage.

“Sorry,” Connor apologized sincerely to Beau. “You couldn’t know.”

“No. But I can help fix it,” he said, shooting Connor a finger gun with a click of his tongue.

Connor rolled his eyes and laughed at the ridiculousness of Beau.

“It would kill two birds with one stone,” Peggy continued.

“Not to talk myself out of a place to stay, but why can’t you just hire someone?” Beau asked. “I’m sure there are people way better at this kind of stuff than I am.”

“I’m sure there are, and I would hire one if I could. If they weren’t already booked solid for the next year.” Connor tried to keep the bitterness from his voice. He’d called every contractor he knew. The only person who’d been available had given him a price so high he hadn’t been able to respond. He’d just hung up.

Peggy smirked and pointed a finger at him. Belatedly, he realized he’d only given her more ammo. “Face it. You need the help. He could be good for you! What kind of stuff can you do, Beau?”

“Oh, a little bit of everything, really,” he said with a shrug. “My family’s got a ranch, and I spent summers working on it. There was always something that needed to be done. Repairs to the barn, fences, equipment, that sort of thing.”

Curiosity got the better of Connor. “What kind of ranch?” There was no reason for him to ask. It didn’t matter. But something about the man intrigued Connor. And not just the way his hand had felt in Connor’s when they’d shook.

“Cattle,” Beau said.

Connor knew better than to ask how many head. That was private.

Silence grew between them, the awkwardness growing until it was almost tangible. What was he supposed to say? He had never been good at small talk.

Peggy cleared her throat. “So, what do you think? He gets the trailer, you get the help?”

Beau shrugged. “It would work for me.” He smiled at them, his cheeks dimpling.

Oh, no. No dimples. He didn’t need that. Beau was attractive enough as it was. Normally, Connor didn’t go for guys with funny hair colors. Then again, Connor didn’t go for anything, lately.

He didn’t need Beau. He’d ask some more friends, take a few days off from the shop, make up for the time he’d spent not working on the house. The kids just needed so much more attention than he’d ever counted on. He could barely leave them for ten minutes before one of them needed something. But that was his problem. He’d get the work done in time one way or the other.

He should get Sean a car, but after the accident, neither of them was that excited for him to get behind the wheel.

He should say no thank you right now. What he found himself saying was, “I’ll think about it.”

“Great.” Beau smiled and the dimples came out again.

“Yeah.” Connor rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. “I’ll need to take a look at the van—”

“Lady Gaga,” Beau corrected.

“Lady Gaga,” Connor repeated. It took every ounce of restraint not to roll his eyes. “Oh my God. Well, give me a day—” he looked over at Peggy, who shook her head “—a couple of days, and I’ll be able to tell you what the problem is. And I’ll get back to you on if I need the handyman help? Will you be okay in the meantime?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’ll have one of the guys come pick me up.”

The offer to drive Beau wherever he needed to go was on the tip of Connor’s tongue. But the kids would be waiting at home, and the last thing he needed was for Sean to have to cook dinner for them again.

“Where are you going to live?” Why did he care?

Beau gave a one-shoulder shrug. “I can survive a few more days at the Animal House. It’s no big deal.”

“Okay. Peggy will write you up, get your information. I’ll talk to you in a couple of days.”

“I’ll look forward to it.” He held his hand out, and Connor shook it like they were sealing a bargain. Beau’s hand in his felt good. Really good. Yeah, Beau was trouble waiting to happen.

 

###

 

There was trouble waiting for Connor at home, alright, but it didn’t come from Beau Hopper.

Connor cursed out loud when he saw the silver Altima sedan parked in his driveway. Parked at the bottom of the long driveway, blocking the entire thing, of course. Goddamn Milton Preston, aka the Walrus, aka the Casey-Bennett family’s very own Department of Family and Protective Services investigator.

Connor took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. Nothing good ever came from fighting with the social worker. He’d learned that back in the day when the very same Milton Preston had been assigned to investigate him and his mother when Connor was Hidden Creek’s premier ‘troubled teen.’

That had been almost sixteen years ago. Nothing Connor had accomplished since then had changed how Preston saw him. Apparently, there was nothing he could do for the man to make up for the mistakes he’d made as a kid.

Thank God he had a semi-clean shirt in the truck. The last thing the Walrus needed to see was Connor in a dirty wife-beater with his tattoo visible. He’d probably assume they were some kind of gang sign. Asshole. Connor yanked off his dirty shirt and slipped into the blue button-down he kept for situations exactly like this. He’d been caught by surprise one too many times.

A quick look in the mirror showed his dark hair was still military-short. After nine years of rocking a high and tight, anything else felt wrong. He’d shaved that morning. He wasn’t a teen anymore, troubled or not. He was almost thirty years old and a staff sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. He could deal with some overweight bureaucrat on a power trip.

He used the walk up the drive to tuck in his shirt and try to muster counterarguments to whatever bug was up Preston’s ass today. Maybe he shouldn’t have bought that generic cereal.

Connor went in through the front door instead of the kitchen door to buy a few more seconds of peace. In the living room, Fiona, Micah, and Benji sat on one couch, arms crossed, glaring across the carpet at Milton Preston. They had never been good at hiding how they felt about him. To them, he was the enemy, plain and simple. Connor had tried to explain to them that the situation was more nuanced than that, but as time went on, he was starting to come around to their side.

The Walrus was stroking the long white mustache that had earned him the nickname, a sure sign he was nervous. It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten the impression that the man was a little bit intimidated by him. Good.

Milton stood up when Connor entered the room. “Mr. Casey,” he said with a nod of his head. He clasped the binder he was never without to his side. The fate of Connor’s family lay in that binder, and Connor would love to get his hands on it.

“Mr. Preston,” Connor said, striding across the room to shake the social worker’s hand. He carried himself like he was still in uniform, drawing on the feeling of confidence it gave him. “To what do we own the pleasure of your company?”

“I came to see how the repairs to your property were coming.”

One look at his face and Connor knew what the Walrus thought about the progress they had made. Connor didn’t say anything. Preston hadn’t asked him a question, and Connor’s policy was to volunteer nothing.

The social worker cleared his throat. “Yes. Well. I came here for that, and I found these three alone in the house.”

Connor wanted to punch that smug look right off his face. Who actually pursed their lips? Of all the days for him to show up, of course, it was today. There was one day a week Sean stayed extra late after school. On that day, the other three were alone for about an hour before Connor got home. They were fine. Fiona had turned out to be quite the taskmaster, and Connor often came home on those days to find the house as neat as it could be, and all three of them doing their homework.

“And what were they doing?” Connor asked, breaking his own no speaking unless spoken to rule.

Preston frowned even deeper if that were possible. “Homework,” he admitted grudgingly.

The kids’ heads swiveled between Connor and Preston as if they were watching a tennis match.

“But that’s not the point,” the officious man continued. “The point is, they were unsupervised in a house about the safety of which DFPS has grave concerns.” He raised his eyebrows at Connor as if daring him to contradict him.

Not gonna happen. Whatever Connor said could be, would be, and had been used against him. Silence was his best weapon.

“Yes, well,” Preston said, stroking his round belly. Even the expensive suits he wore, thanks to his wife’s money, couldn’t contain the results of years of beer and barbeque. “As you know, the Department of Family and Protective Services will remove children from unsafe situations. And it is my opinion that this situation is unsafe.”

Connor’s silence unnerved the man. He stroked his mustache compulsively. “There are hazards that have yet to be mitigated. There are bare electrical wires, nail guns, uncovered insulation, and gaping holes in the walls, to name a few.” He was getting into it now. “If it were up to me, these children would already be gone. But DFPS in their wisdom decided to give you some time to correct the deficiencies. I am not happy with the amount of progress that has been made. Need I remind you, Mr. Casey, that you have less than thirty days to get this house up to spec?”

“Fewer,” Fiona muttered under her breath.

Connor shot her a glare. “No, sir. You do not. Rest assured, the repairs will be completed within the time frame I was given.”

Preston looked around the living room and snorted. Too bad for him there was nothing unfinished in this room. “You know I was against allowing you custody of these children.”

No shit. Pretty much everyone involved in the case had made that perfectly clear. Thank God the will had been airtight and his military record spotless. The military may hand out medals like candy overseas, but they still impressed the civilians.

“Yes, sir.” Connor didn’t blink.

“Don’t make me add neglectful supervision to the report as well as unsafe situation.”

“I won’t, sir. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. And let me assure you one more time, the repairs will be completed to your requirements in the time allotted.”

“Yes, well.” Preston looked around the room as if searching for something else to add to his binder of bitchiness. “See that it does. And find someone to watch those children. Maybe a nice woman, a girlfriend, for example.” He smirked at Connor. “Do you have a girlfriend, son?”

Preston knew damn well he didn’t. He probably knew what size underwear Connor wore. “No, sir. I do not.” The Walrus was a well-known homophobe and racist. He’d never been able to prove Connor was gay, but he never gave up. Unfortunately for the Walrus, Connor knew the law better than he did. Technically they couldn’t take the kids away from him simply because he was gay, but you bet your ass they would find a reason that looked good on the books to cover their own asses.

“Maybe you should get one,” Preston said. “A woman’s touch is just what this place could use.”

“I’ll take it under consideration. Sir.”

Preston studied Connor as if he could break him and make him beg Preston to let him keep his brothers and sisters. The fucker could fuck right off. He would never. Connor stood straight and tall, hands in a loose fist by his thighs. Let the Walrus stare. Connor could stand like this for hours.

Finally, Preston blinked and fiddled with his binder, smoothing his tie over his stomach and stroking both sides of his mustache. “Yes. Well. I will be back in two weeks to check on your work. I expect to see significant progress.”

Connor nodded, he and the kids watching in silence until Preston skittered away down the hallway. When the front door slammed, Connor exhaled, shaking out his hands.

“Asshole,” Fiona muttered.

Connor knew he should say something about her language, but he agreed with her. He was going to have to take Beau up on his offer and maybe try to find someone else to work with them as well if he were going to get this place done on time.

“Are they going to take us away?” Benji asked, eyes wide. He clutched Cheese to his chest.

“Never,” Connor said immediately. “Never going to happen.” He dropped down onto the couch next to Benji. “Shove over,” he said. “You’re getting so big.” Benji giggled and Connor breathed a sigh of relief. “How’s Cheese?” Connor asked reaching over to pet the extremely mellow guinea pig.

“He wants to get married!” Benji said.

Connor looked to Fiona for an explanation.

She nodded. “We’re going to have a guinea pig wedding.”

“Oh, okay. Can it wait until after dinner?” He thought about what he had in the fridge. Not much. Leftover takeout and some stuff in the freezer. Good thing Preston hadn’t checked in there. Maybe he should buy some veggies just to have on hand, even if he couldn’t get anyone to eat them.

“It takes a while to plan a wedding,” Micah said. “We’ll do it tomorrow.”

“Great.” Connor pushed himself off the couch. “I’m going to get dinner started.” He went into the kitchen.

When he was out of sight, he let himself sag, pressing the heels of his hands against his closed eyes. God, he was so fucking tired.

He probably should have the kids help, but it seemed like more work than it was worth right now. For the thousandth time in the months he’d been back, he thought he should make a chore chart of some kind. He remembered the kids having one when he would come back and visit on leave.

More than a chore chart, he wished he had someone he could ask how to do this. How did parents do it and make it look so easy? Somehow he was supposed to be both mother and father but without any of the authority. It sucked.

Maybe he could order some more books. Some of the ones he’d already gotten had been a little useful. God, he was going to mess this up. Sometimes he woke up at night in a cold sweat thinking about it. They were such good kids, better than he had been. They deserved the best.

The familiar wish that there had been some other adult who loved them to take them and care for them and give them everything they needed rose up in him, and he squashed it back down. There wasn’t anybody. No one but him.

So, buckle down, Marine, and get it done.

He took long, slow, deep breaths until the urge to cry passed.

Sean thundered through the back door in a swirl of fresh air and youthful energy. “Hey. What’s going on?”

“Looking for something to make for dinner.”

“Oh.” Sean pulled open fridge door and stared deep into its recesses. That was his first move every time he came home. “What are you thinking? Looks kind of bare in here.”

“Spaghetti?”

Sean made a face and pulled out one of the Gatorades that were a staple in their house. “Again? Never mind. I’m going out with Gray soon. I’ll grab something then.”

Oh, great. Sean going out on school nights had been happening more and more. Connor didn’t want to get all hardass on Sean, partially because he remembered being sixteen and how important friends were then. And partially because he was afraid it wouldn’t work.

He would push, Sean would push back, and then what? Connor couldn’t ground him. He hadn’t realized before how many rules and parental threats depended on the willingness of the kid to submit to them.

The thought of getting into some power struggle with Sean scared the crap out of him. He knew he was more awkward around Sean than he was with the other kids. But Sean kept asking about Connor’s time in the service. Kept asking him if he’d killed any guys, and what was it like being at war. Apparently, it sucked wasn’t enough of an answer.

Connor never answered him directly, steering the conversation back to safer topics, or making sure there was always a younger kid with them so Sean wouldn’t bring it up. It was working a little. They’d been relaxing around each other a bit.

Just what he needed now would be Sean stomping out of the house, daring Connor to try and stop him. Connor’s blood ran cold at the thought.

No, his best bet was to get Sean to actually respect him and see that he was trying to help Sean do his best. He snorted to himself. Good luck. But he had to try.

“It’s a school night.” He let the implications hang there.

“I know,” Sean said leveling a look at Connor as if daring him to say more.

“Don’t stay out too late. And call and let me know where you are.” Just that, he begged silently. Don’t be doing what I was doing at your age.

Sean gave him an insolent salute. “Yes, sir, Staff Sergeant!”

If only he were still in the Marines. He’d known what to do there. There’s been no need for questions, no second-guessing. Ever since he came home, all he seemed to do was guess and second guess.

When he was behind an M16 in the Marines, Connor used to stress about whether or not he would live through the day; now he stressed over whether or not he could find a wedding dress for a guinea pig.

“Just make sure to eat something,” he told Sean. Not that he had to remind the kid to eat.

“I will,” Sean said. “And I promise to be home by ten. Is that good?”

Connor relaxed. “Yeah. That would be great. Thanks. Can you send the kids in here to help set the table before you go upstairs?”

“Can do.”

Connor pulled the big pot out of the cabinet and made of list of things to do. First thing was to fix the house. Looked like he’d be calling the blue-haired, sexy Beau and see if his offer still stood. And then he guessed he was going to try and find out how to get two guinea pigs hitched.