Home > Flirting with the Frenemy (Bro Code #1)(6)

Flirting with the Frenemy (Bro Code #1)(6)
Author: Pippa Grant

The basement is the cherry on top. Half bar with TV viewing area, half game room, it’s where we always hang out when we’re here on those rare days we’re all in the area at the same time without other responsibilities to tackle, and some of my best adult memories have happened in this basement.

Like the Frogger weekend.

And I am never risking fucking up that friendship again.

Not for the houses and the games.

But for the guys who are my only family left beyond my son.

“Run away from the ghosts, bud,” I tell Tucker, who’s sitting on a red leather bar stool so he’s tall enough to man the controller. “You can eat them once you get the dot in the corner.”

He shrieks with glee as he races the ghosts back and forth on the bottom row, until the blue ghost eats him.

As Pac-Man falls off the screen, Tucker bursts into tears. “I died!” he wails.

“Whoa, hey, it’s okay.”

“I died,” he wails harder.

I rub his back, because fuck, what else am I supposed to do? It seems like a silly thing to cry over, but then, he’s seven. He cried once on spring break because a worm dried out on the sidewalk.

Kid has big feelings and a big heart. There’s no way I’m breaking that heart.

The world needs more heart.

“You want to play again?” I ask.

He wipes his eyes, pushing his glasses crooked, and nods. “Uh-huh.”

“You want help?”

“Uh-huh.”

His hair smells like a fruit pie when I lean over him, and his little body is just so little. Even after growing since I saw him last. I kiss his crown and restart the game, covering his small hand with mine. “We’re going to run away from the ghosts, okay?”

“Okay.”

We die twice more before my phone alarm goes off with my two-minute warning to get upstairs and get shoes on.

Tucker heaves a grown-up sigh. “Really, Dad? The alarms again?”

“They keep us on time.”

“Sometimes you just have to live life.”

And that’s his mother coming through. I do my best to keep my expression neutral. “And sometimes, people are counting on us. And other times, we want to get to the pirate parade before we miss it.”

He pushes his hair out of his eyes and hops off the stool, dashing for the stairs and clutching his shorts, which are threatening to fall down his slender hips. “Pirate parade! Pirate parade!”

“Tucker, you forgot your…” I trail off, because he’s gone, running past the basement bar and up the stairs. So I grab the little scrap of a security blanket he still carries with him and trail after him, also grabbing three dirty glasses from beside a glittery notebook on the high bar counter as I pass, though those aren’t our mess. I get to the top of the stairs just a few steps behind Tucker, who’s staring again.

And when I look up, I realize why.

“Not. One. Word,” Ellie says.

“Daddy, a pirate girl came out of the bathtub,” Tucker whispers.

Ellie’s eyes go soft as her dimple pops out when she smiles at Tucker. She’s in a pirate wench dress, with a fluffy white blouse hanging off her shoulders and covered with one of those leather-looking thingies that ties up from her waist to her chest and gives her good cleavage—a corsage? A coriander? A makes-a-man-speechless?—and a flowing gauzy maroon skirt with black stiletto heels coming up to her knees.

I swallow hard and remind my dick that we’re here for my son to go to the Pirate Festival, not for me to lose my head. Again.

Or one of my best friends.

“You may call me Calamity Ellie, captain of the Golden Albatross,” she says to Tucker, ending on a fancy bow that has her wincing when she stands back up.

I start to ask if those boots are a good idea—she looked like she was hurting earlier, and I know she busted her leg and hip bad in the accident—but then I remember who I’m talking to, and I clamp my mouth shut and move past her to put the glasses in the kitchen.

Especially since she’s in full makeup with her hair curled special and hanging down to the tops of her bare shoulders.

She doesn’t look like she’s meeting friends.

She looks like she’s headed for a pirate battle that will be followed with a dance.

Not a care in the world.

Just time to party with the pirates.

“Girls can’t be captains,” Tucker announces as I step out of the kitchen.

I wince and angle back to put a hand on his shoulder. “Never, ever tell a woman she can’t be something. Especially Miss—Captain Ellie.”

“But boys are pirate captains.”

Ellie gives me a look that suggests this is my fault—of course she does—while she puts her fists to her hips. “Is that so, you scurvy dog? You keep talkin’, you’ll be swabbing the poop deck!”

Tucker giggles. “Ew, I don’t want to swap poop on the deck!”

“Then don’t be sayin’ there ain’t girl pirates, sonny boy.”

Ellie winks at him, then sashays past us.

With a limp that puts a rock in my gut.

I’ve never wanted to protect someone so badly while simultaneously being so irritated with her that I want to tie her to a chair and make her promise she’ll quit—quit—fuck.

I don’t know what I want her to quit, but I know it’s none of my fucking business.

Tucker falls in line behind her and also limps all the way out the door.

Fucking hell.

Does it still hurt? Beck said they weren’t sure she’d walk again right after it happened.

But I can’t ask.

I don’t have the right.

Not with our history. All of our history.

“Set the alarm, please, powder monkey,” Ellie calls to me as though we’re kids again and she’s just trying to get my goat.

Like our relationship isn’t way more complicated than that.

Like we didn’t screw on her parents’ basement floor. Like she didn’t tear off out of the house right afterward. Like she didn’t ignore every last fucking attempt I made to apologize.

“Are you going to the pirate parade with us?” Tucker asks her while I set the alarm and lock up.

“Nay, laddie, I be off to pillage and plunder whilst you all be watching the lesser pirates distract you.”

“I’m going to dig for pirate treasure this week.”

“Only the luckiest pirates who believe in girl pirate captains will find any gold.”

“I know all the pirate stories, and none of them are about girl pirates.”

“That’s because men pirates write all the books.”

“Where did you hear all the pirate stories?” I ask Tucker, and not just to distract him from sticking his foot further down his throat, which of course he doesn’t realize he’s doing, since he’s seven. I talk to him most every night before bed, generally read a story on video chat, and I’ve never read him a pirate story.

“From Mr. Duffy next door. He lets me water his dog and he tells me about when he was fighting all the pirates before the war.”

“Which war?”

“The Civil War.”

I make a mental note to ask my ex-wife if she’s aware of what Tucker’s doing when he’s playing outside. She’ll probably tell me Mr. Duffy’s a harmless old man, but Tucker can’t always tell the difference between reality and a good story, and I don’t want him getting made fun of at school for talking about his neighbor the vampire pirate hunter.

I fucking hate not being close enough to go see his teachers and just be there for those minutes after school when he talks about his day.

One more year.

Just one more year.

“Keys?” Ellie says to me.

“I locked the door.”

She points to my SUV. “So I can drive.”

“No.”

“That wasn’t a question.”

“This is my car.”

“I have control issues.”

She’s got that stubborn look Beck gets when he’s determined that we’re going to play poker until he wins. And she’s not overtly setting any guilt trips, but she doesn’t have to.

She doesn’t fucking have to.

I approach and dangle my keys between us. “I’m backseat driving.”

She smirks. “Of course you are.”

But she still takes the keys.

I hold the ring steady until she makes eye contact again. “That’s my kid you’re driving,” I add softly.

She holds my gaze without flinching. “Noted. Now, if you don’t want me stealing this thing, you better get in.”

Tucker’s already in the backseat strapping into his booster seat, so I settle into the passenger seat.

Feels weird to be on this side of the car.

But I think I owe her.

She might not realize it yet, but she owes me too.

And since we’re here together, she’s going to pay up.

Five

Ellie

Shipwreck smells like fried oysters, cannon fire, and dirt. People in pirate costumes stroll along Blackbeard Avenue while locals leap out from behind barrels and out of the local shops to challenge tourists to swordfights.

It’s glorious.

I tell Wyatt and Tucker to go on about their business, that I’ll get a ride back with a friend, but because Wyatt is Wyatt, he insists on walking with me from the parking fields at the end of the main drag toward Crusty Nut, which has the best fried pickles and banana pudding in all of Virginia, and yes, I have sampled every banana pudding in Copper Valley, and a fair number up in the DC metro area too, so I can say with absolute certainty that Crusty Nut’s banana pudding cannot be beat.

Also, if you don’t like banana pudding, I’m happy to eat yours. You can have my Twizzlers.

“Tucker, have you ever seen the inside of a pirate ship?” I ask as we pass Scuttle Putt, the miniature golf course at the edge of the park. The entrance to the payment shack is shaped like the bow of a ship, complete with a mermaid figurehead above the door.

   
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