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TEAM PLAYERS: Chapter 16

I’m dressed and ready and in the truck in less than half an hour. Daryl is driving, Dwayne is up front, and Donovan is in the back with me. I wasn’t sure what to wear but thought Uncle Walter might want me to be smart so I decided on the black shift dress that I brought with me in case I might need to attend to something formal. It’s figure hugging with a high neck and it hangs to just below the knee.

Donovan gazes at me appreciatively. “You look like you should be working in some CEO’s office, not riding around in the back of this old truck.” he says.

“Not that I should be a CEO?” I raise my eyebrows and Donovan laughs.

“Now, that I’d like to see,” he says.

“There’s nothing sexier than a powerful woman,” Daryl agrees.

“Powerful. You want someone to stamp on your balls with stiletto heels,” Dwayne says, shaking his head at his brothers.

“Powerful doesn’t have to mean dominant, bro,” Donovan says. “Just someone who knows what they want and is prepared to go after it.”

“I thought guys like women who know their place?”

“I like a woman who wants to spend a lot of time in the bedroom,” Daryl says.

“I’d love a woman to make me a sandwich once in a while,” Dwayne says. “It’s been a long time since any of us had a woman to do more than…” He pauses as though he’s just remembered he’s talking to me rather than just shooting the shit with his brothers. If I didn’t know about their history, I’d find that comment really misogynistic, but instead, Dwayne’s desire for a woman to care for him is just sad. It’s the way I feel about the man-sized gap in my life. I wish I knew more about their individual situations. Do these guys remember their mom? Was she a good mom or a bad mom? Did she care for them or neglect them? I know there’s a folder back at the house that will tell me everything but I’m not sure that looking at their personal documents is fair. Maybe they’ll tell me in time.

“Are you saying my sandwiches aren’t good enough for you?” Donovan says.

 “Nah, your sandwiches are decent enough.”

“That doesn’t sound much like praise,” I laugh.

“He’s always searching for compliments,” Dwayne grumbles.

As I gaze out of the window, taking in the treelined streets and wide-spaced houses, I can’t help but compare it to home. There’s so much more land here, which makes it feel less urban and less pressured. Our house is crammed in on both sides and our yards are like postage stamps. The walls are thin, and we can sometimes hear our neighbor rip one in the middle of the night. It’s why Mom was so angry at Cathy for shouting because she knew everyone in the surrounding houses would have heard every word of her criticism. Here, you could probably shoot your family, and no one would be any the wiser.

“We can’t stay the whole day,” Donovan tells me. “We’ve gotta head to the practice fields this afternoon. You can come watch or you can stay with your uncle. We’ll come pick you up if you decide to stay.”

“I guess I’ll play it by ear,” I say. “See what Walter needs. Is that okay?”

“Sure.” Donovan turns up the volume, blaring the music. It’s not a track I’m familiar with but the words seem to click with the boys because they all start singing along. It’s about the grind; working hard to achieve your dreams.

“See, this is what it’s all about,” Dwayne says.

“We’ve just got to keep on trying,” Daryl says.

“Make Dad proud,” Donovan adds, glancing at me.

“What’s going to make Dad proud?” I ask.

Donovan nods, rubbing his hand over his stubbly chin, eyes glowing with whatever he’s thinking about. “He wanted at least one of us to make it the NFL,” he says. “It’s what we’ve all been working toward because with all of us playing, it’s motivation and competition. That’s what Dad said anyway. If we all keep pushing in the same direction, at least one of us is going to reach the top.”

“And when we do, we look after all of us. It’s a team dream,” Dwayne says, turning his head to talk to me directly.

“So who’s closest to the top?” I ask.

“Logan,” Dwayne says. “And Daryl.”

“Shit, I’m not higher than you,” Daryl says as though the idea that he might be separated from his brothers is too much for him to handle.

“It’s okay,” Donovan says. “We just keep on pushing. It’s in the hands of the higher power.”

I fold my hands in my lap and smile at their dreams. From a distance, my eleven stepbrothers come across as brash jocks. The kind of men who would shout out of the window at a woman on the street. And maybe they have a little of that about them, but it’s not everything that they are. Getting to know them all is like peeling an onion. There’s layer upon layer, and each layer draws me closer rather than pushing me away.

“I’m not sure I believe in a higher power,” I say. “Life’s too hard. There’s too much tragedy and loss.”

Donovan reaches out and takes my hand. “If we didn’t know hardship, we would never truly appreciate joy,” he says. “The journey doesn’t have to be smooth to teach us the lessons we need to learn.”

“You think it’s about lessons?” I ask.

“Sure. We’re not put on this planet to sit in front of the TV eating fast food. We’re here to explore, to strive, to love. We’re here to go further than our parents, and to help our kids go further still.”

“My parents haven’t gone far,” I say.

“Maybe not, but your dad was absolutely focused on helping us all take a step up. He wanted us to fly. He wanted the same for you too.”

I stare out of the window, my heart suddenly clutched in a vice-like grip. How do these boys know what my dad wanted for me? When they talk this way, I can’t tell if they’re just being kind or if my father genuinely included me in all of his talks about hopes and dreams. Was I always present in their life, even in my absence? Would that make it better or worse to not be forgotten but to be excluded anyway?

We pull up outside Walter’s store, and it’s already buzzing with people. I’m not sure if it’s always decked out with red, white, and blue bunting and balloons, or if someone has just gone to town for today. Either way, it looks great. As we all jump out of the truck, Walter catches sight of us and drops the folder he was looking at on the table set out front.

“The troops have arrived,” he says gratefully, coming around to slap each of the triplets on the shoulders and then pull me into a big hug. “Thanks for coming.”

He steps back, still gripping me by the shoulders. “I still can’t get over how much you look like your mom. It’s like going back in time. How has your stay been so far? Have these boys been treating you well?”

I smile, glancing at them, finding their dark eyes filled with interest and amusement. I guess they’re thinking about the bed I slept in last night and the things they heard. I was treated very well by Harley and Hunter, but that’s not the kind of treatment that Walter is referring to.

“They’ve been amazing,” I say. “Really supportive.”

Dwayne makes a snorting sound, but my uncle doesn’t notice. “You’re really glowing,” Walter says, touching my cheek.

“I think it’s sweat,” I say self-consciously. “It’s really hot out.”

“It is. It’s going to be a great day. So, can I show you what I need you to do?”

“Sure.” I follow Uncle Walter into the store, and the triplets trail behind us.

“We’ve put together these packs. You can hand them out, encourage people to leave their email addresses and telephone numbers so we can get in touch with them. We’ve set up a competition to encourage this… they enter via this sign-up form.” Walter holds out a tablet.

“Wow, you’re getting with the technology, Walt,” Donovan says.

“Jolene helped me.” Walter shakes his head. “I’m getting too old for taking on all this new information.”

“Is she not here today?” I ask, gazing around for someone who could be my cousin all grown up.

“No, she’s competing. Your aunt has driven her.”

“That’s a shame. I want to catch up with her. I managed to get across to see Danna already.”

Walter’s bushy eyebrows shoot up. “You went to the Jackson ranch?”

“Yeah.” I shrug. “It was great.”

Walter glances at the boys and I get the feeling that he wants to ask me a whole load of questions about my visit but doesn’t want to with an audience.

“Shall we get to work then?” We all nod, and Walter shows us around and explains about his aims for the day. The store gradually starts to get busier and for three hours I’m rushed off my feet. Every time I pass one of the triplets, they wink at me or smile at me and my heart flutters. They’re such gorgeous men, with broad grins that light up their eyes and exude warmth. I’m even starting to see slight differences between them, like how Dwayne can raise his left eyebrow in a way that neither of his brothers can, or how Daryl’s smile is always a little lopsided. Then there’s the dimple that appears on Donovan’s right cheek when he’s being extra cheeky.

I’m tottering around in my heels and dress and I don’t miss the way many of the middle-aged men browsing for motorcycles look at me appreciatively. Ogling women half their age seems to be linked to the motorcyclists’ midlife crisis.

My favorite customer of the day must be one of Walter’s regulars because his name is already in the database. Kade is around thirty, with gorgeous blue eyes, blond hair that is shaved at the sides and long on top, and a tattoo sleeve filled with images and symbols from the sea. He asks me if I’ll accompany him on a test drive on the new motorcycle he’s interested in purchasing, and I agree because I’ve never ridden one before. I know it’s clichéd to associate tattoos and motorbikes with bad boys but I can’t help myself. I have to wriggle my dress up around my thighs to get on the thing, and then hold on around Kade’s taut abdomen as he fires the bike up. I squeal as we take off down the road, the motorcycle like a rocket between our legs, and Kade laughing at my enthusiasm. It’s exhilarating and freeing in a way I never would have thought of before. When we’re back, Kade is convinced enough to buy. I slide off the back, wriggling my dress back down my thighs, and I catch Kade’s eyes on my bare legs. “I’ll go get my uncle to help you with the purchase,” I say.

Walter takes over with Kade, giving me a grateful wink. When the paperwork if finished, Kade finds me outside, tidying up the refreshments table. “So, I just wanted to say thanks for your help today,” he says, his broad smile revealing a chipped tooth that makes him look even wickeder.

“That’s no problem,” I say.

He slides his hands into his pockets, widening his stance and cocking his head to one side. “If you ever want to take another ride, we could go somewhere.” There’s no nervousness in his request, just a smoothy cockiness that comes with age and experience. Internally I giggle, wondering how willing he’d be to take me out if he knew I was pregnant.

“Thanks,” I say. “That’s a nice offer but…”

“You gotta boyfriend?”

The wind whips around me, blowing curls across my face. Around ten feet away, Donovan is watching our exchange with an indecipherable look on his face. “I do,” I say. “But thanks for the offer. I loved riding with you.”

Kade shrugs and smiles. “Shame. I had a good feeling about you.”

I should tell him that I’m only nineteen and a man his age has no business having any kind of feelings about me. I should tell him that I’m about to start sporting a huge baby bump and swollen feet like Danna’s. I should tell him that my foster brothers are offering to give me a whole lot more than a ride on the back of a bike and some hot nasty sex in a motel room. That’s pretty much where I think Kade’s good feelings would have taken us. Instead, I smile again. Maybe I’m not as bad at making good choices as I thought I was. “It’s been great helping you today.”

That’s called excellent customer service in action.

Kade nods and straddles his new motorcycle, tugging on the large black helmet. When he’s disappeared in a loud rumble, Donovan finds his way toward me. “Boyfriend?”

I turn toward him, taking a glass of juice from the tray he’s holding. “It’s the best excuse in the book.”

“If he had pushed you any more, he would have felt my fist in his face as the next excuse. Sick fuck. He was practically old enough to be your daddy.”

“I don’t think he was that old, but that isn’t the point.”

“No, it isn’t. We want you to be ours, Maggie. I’m not going to let any douchebag on a bike threaten that.”

Donovan walks back into the store and I turn to watch, noticing the straightness in his back and the determination in his stride. Not long after, Daryl appears to let me know they’re going to practice. I stay to help Uncle Walter as the store is still busy and I want time with him to find out what he knows about the man who came to make an offer on the house.

When it finally quiets, I find Walter at his desk. He’s intensely studying the computer in front of him, and I get the feeling he’s praying that Jolene will come back from practice to help him. My shadow crosses his desk, and he tears his eyes away from the screen, squinting at me over his glasses. “Maggie, thank you for coming today. You know Kade was really raving about you. Said I should hire you full time.”

“That’s sweet,” I say. “He asked me out after he bought his bike, so I think it was less about my customer service abilities and more about my little black dress.”

Walter shrugs. “We’ve all got to play on our strengths one way or another. Men like beautiful women and if that helps you sell motorcycles, well, I’m not going to complain, and neither should you.” He reaches to a pile of papers, retrieving an envelope. “This is your commission.”

I take the envelope in surprise. “You don’t need to give me commission. I was only here to help out.”

“That was a big sale, and you deserve it,” Walter says. “And if you’d be interested in coming to work for me… it doesn’t have to be full time… just let me know.”

There’s a black leather seat opposite Uncle Walter and I perch on the edge, cradling the envelope in my lap. “Thank you. That really means a lot.”

“Have you decided what you’re going to do?” He leans back in his chair, clasping the back of his head with both hands.

“No. Not really. I still have college to consider. I haven’t been able to face finishing clearing Dad’s things yet. The boys have been great but…”

“But what?”

“It’s a lot to take on board. And there was this man who came around the other day.”

“Man?” Walter drops his arms and leans forward with interest.

“He says he’s offered the boys money for the house. He wants to buy it.”

“Did they tell you about the offer?”

I shake my head. It’s what I’d hoped would happen, but for whatever reason, they haven’t been forthcoming with the information. “No.”

“What does the man look like?”

I give Walter the best possible description that I can, and he nods thoughtfully. “I think you’re talking about Tristan Copeland. He’s new in town. He’s been buying up property around the outskirts. At first, no one thought anything of it, but now it seems to be a tactical buy-up of property rather than someone just looking for general investments.”

“What do you think he’s planning?” I ask.

Walter holds his hands in the air, palms up. “I wish I knew, Maggie. Why, are you thinking about taking him up on his offer?”

“I don’t know what his offer is yet. I played like I knew what he was talking about. And anyway, I don’t own the house outright. I’m a one-twelfth share holder. I don’t exactly have a say.”

“You do,” Walter says. “If you wanted to sell, the boys would have to take your wishes into consideration.”

“It’s their home. I’d feel terrible.”

Walter shrugs and I’m surprised at his flippancy. He’s known the boys for years, way longer than me, and yet I’m already feeling a greater sense of loyalty toward them. “Tristan has an office at the end of Main Street. Why don’t you take a drive down there and find out all the information? No one can make a decision without knowing all the facts.”

“Okay,” I say. “I will.”

“The triplets will be back in a minute to collect you. Why don’t you finish up and wait outside?”

“Sure. And thanks for this and everything,” I say, flopping the envelope back and forth.

“It’s nothing. You’re family, Maggie. I’m here for you, whatever you need, okay? And keep those boys on their toes,” he says with a wink. “Danna’s given lots of people funny ideas about relationships. Who knows what those boys are thinking with a pretty girl like you living under their roof? All their Christmases have come at once.”

I blush, remembering how it felt to be sandwiched between the twins. Does that constitute as keeping them on their toes? I don’t think so!

“I will, Uncle,” I say.

I spend the next few minutes tidying up the refreshment table and throwing away the trash. When the triplets pull up to collect me, my mind is still lost in the mind-blowing places their brothers have taken me.


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