“Matthew, is it okay if I hug you?”

The words were barely out of my mouth when he threw himself into my chest and squeezed. I cupped his little head in my hands and pulled him even tighter against me.

It was my job on the ice to protect my teammates, but other than them and Gam, there weren’t too many other people I cared about in the world, let alone felt the need to protect—until that moment.

“HEY!” MICHELLE SPUN around in the kitchen as she heard us come through the door.

“I hope it’s okay that I didn’t knock. It was open.” I pointed back toward the front of the house.

“No problem at all.” She waved a dish towel toward me and then flipped it over her shoulder. “How did it go? How was storytime?”

Matthew tucked his hands under his armpits and flapped his wings as he walked around the kitchen. “It was awesome. Viper danced like a duck!”

“Viper danced?” She turned her head toward me slowly, a playful gleam in her eyes.

“Viper did.” I nodded proudly. “I figured if he was willing to do it, why the heck shouldn’t I?”

She laughed. “I’m impressed. What else happened?”

Matthew stood up from his duck position and put his hands on his hips. “There were big boys in the arcade who were mean.”

She pulled her brows in tight, looking from Matthew to me. “What’s he talking about?”

“That big boy took the game I was playing,” Matthew continued, “but Viper pulled him out of the seat and told him to give me money.”

Michelle’s eyes were full of panic as they flashed from Matthew’s over to mine. “What is he talking about?”

I held my hands out in front of me. “Wait, I promise it’s not as bad as it sounds. Let me explain.”

She cocked her hip to the side and crossed her arms, staring me square in the face. Quite intimidating, actually.

“So we went to storytime and danced like ducks, then I took him to Cowboy Phil’s, that place I told you about?” I paused so she could add something, an mmhmm, a yep, a nod of the head, anything to let me know she didn’t want to rip my face off right then.

Crickets.

“Anyway, we ordered our food, and while we were waiting for it to get there, we went to the arcade to donate some quarters to the place. I was playing pinball and he was playing a driving game. Before I knew it, some punk-ass teenagers took his game, so… I very politely asked them to get up and give Matthew his game back. At first, the kid wasn’t exactly willing, but once he stood up and turned around, he changed his tune very quickly.”

Chewing on her bottom lip, she narrowed her eyes and shifted them over to Matthew and back to me again. “What was he talking about when he said they paid him?”

“Oh. That.” I shrugged. “Well, as he was rushing out of the room, I reminded them that they owed the young man money.”

Matthew reached into his pocket and pulled the money out, proudly showing it off to his mom. “I got five bucks, Mom!”

“The game was five dollars? What kind of an arcade was this?” she asked.

“Well, no. The game was one dollar, but all he had was a five, so we’ll just consider the other four punitive damages.” I grinned at her.

“And Mom, Viper only said ‘tit’ one time, so don’t be mad,” Matthew added.

Michelle glared at me and inhaled deeply as her nostrils flared like an angry bull’s.

“I swear it made sense during my bully beatdown,” I defended.

She slapped her hand over her eyes and shook her head just as I reached over and high-fived Matthew and Maura started making noise through the monitor.

Michelle looked up at Matthew and winked. “Someone must have sensed her big brother was home and now she wants to get up to play.” She kissed the top of Matthew’s head and started out of the kitchen. “Be right back.”

I wandered into the family room and sat down on the couch. Before I could call him over, Matthew was already sitting next to me, leaning into my side. I draped my arm over him and squeezed harder.

We sat through almost an entire episode of that annoying talking sponge again, and I pulled out my phone to look at the time. I glanced down at Matthew, who was half asleep on my arm, his eyes completely glazed over. I carefully lifted his head and slid out from under him, laying him gently on a pillow. I headed toward the front of the house but felt guilty leaving without saying good-bye, so I took a deep breath and quietly climbed up the stairs.

I’d only been upstairs in Mike’s house a handful of times. Whenever I’d been there, we’d mostly hung out in the family room or down in the man cave in the basement, so I had no idea where I was going. Once I got to the top, I heard singing and followed it to the left. The first door I came to was about halfway closed, but the singing was definitely coming from there, so I stopped to listen, leaning in close.

It was Michelle.

She was singing “Hush Little Baby,” I assumed to Maura, in the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard in my life. I stood there with my eyes closed, listening to the calming sound that was coming out of her. When she got to the last verse, I decided to sneak back downstairs and just wait to say bye, but when I went to take a step, the wood floor creaked under my feet. I cringed and a second later, the bedroom door opened.

“Hey.” She smiled at me as she carried Maura on her hip.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you. Matthew fell asleep downstairs, and I didn’t want to sneak out without saying good-bye, so I thought I’d come find you, but then I heard you singing, and I didn’t want to bug you…” I rambled incoherently.

“Viper!” she interrupted. “It’s okay. I was just about done anyway. Lately, it’s been hard for me to find time alone with her. Matthew gets my undivided attention when she’s napping, and the couple times you’ve gone to the library, she’s been napping, so I just wanted to steal a few minutes with her. Sorry it took so long.” She reached out and wiped drool off Maura’s chin.

“No way, please don’t apologize. It was nice. I didn’t know you could sing like that.”

“Oh, thanks.” Her cheeks flushed and she bit her lip, trying to hide her smile. “I can’t cook to save my life, so thank goodness there’s one good thing she’ll remember from her childhood, right?”

After a brief, awkward shift right there in that hallway, I cleared my throat. “Anyway, he’s out and I’m sure you have things to do this evening, so I’m gonna take off.”

“Do you have plans tonight?” she asked as she followed me down the stairs.

I shook my head. “No.”

“Then you can’t go.”

Once we got to the bottom of the steps, I turned back to face her. “Huh?”

“You bought my son lunch and saved him from the arcade antagonizers. Throwing a piece of pizza on a paper plate for you is the least I can do.”

“You don’t have to buy me dinner.” I laughed.

“Fine.” She turned and started toward the kitchen. “In that case, stay right there while I get you money for today.”

“You’re not paying me,” I called to her sternly.

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