“Understood,” Josh replied. He put an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close, giving me a squeeze. “You’ve got a good kid there.”
I smiled, because I knew he was right. Also because I liked his arm around my shoulder. Josh didn’t make my heart explode like Ruger did, but he had a good sense of humor and was fun to be around. That had to count for something.
We fed all of the tickets we’d won (and it seemed like thousands of them) into the chomping machines, which caused Noah intense delight. Then we spent another twenty minutes at the prize counter as he agonized over which tiny plastic rings or erasers to pick.
The sun had set when we finally walked outside. The pizza place was in one of those strip malls with free-standing restaurants in the parking lot. I looked over at the steak house longingly, still a little hungry—I’d only managed to choke down half a slice. Josh bumped my shoulder.
“Maybe next time we can get a grown-up meal,” he said.
“Is that your way of asking me out again?” I asked, coming to a stop next to my car. Noah bounced around next to me happily, playing with his new treasures. I looked up at Josh and smiled. He smiled back, and I was struck by how cute he was. Geeky cute, like Ryan.
I could do a lot worse.
“Depends on what the answer would be,” he replied, reaching up to tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “I hate getting shot down.”
“I don’t think you’d get shot down,” I said. He leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the lips. It was nice—not hot and intense, but pleasant.
“Uncle Ruger!” Noah yelled, and I felt him take off running. I pulled away from Ryan instantly, my mommy radar fully engaged. I bolted after him, shouting his name and yelling at him to stop. He ignored me, jumping into Ruger’s arms where he stood on the sidewalk outside the steak house.
Several other guys from the club were with him.
“Noah, you can’t run off like that!” I said, catching Noah’s chin so his eyes had to meet mine. “You could get killed. You know better—you’re a big boy now.”
“I’m sorry,” he said instantly. “I forgot. I got excited. I wanted to show Uncle Ruger my prizes.”
Shit, I’d been so worried about Noah, I wasn’t even thinking about Ruger. I looked up to find him staring across the lot.
“Who’s your friend?” he asked, jerking his chin toward Josh, who gave us a halfhearted wave.
“That’s Josh,” I said defiantly. “He’s a friend of Kimber’s husband. They work together.”
“He took us to Chuck E. Cheese’s and we played tons of games and I got all kinds of prizes but I didn’t have enough tickets to get what I really wanted so he said maybe we could come back another time and I said yes,” Noah told him breathlessly. “He’s pretty cool, Ruger.”
Ruger’s eyes hardened, and he set Noah down.
“Stay here, kid,” he said. Then he stepped out across the parking lot, obviously planning to intercept Josh. Fuck.
“Stay,” I said to Noah, then glanced up at Bam Bam. “Will you make sure he doesn’t run off?”
Dancer’s husband gave a quick nod, but his eyes weren’t exactly friendly.
I scurried off toward Ruger and Josh.
“Hey,” I said, looking between them. Ruger’s face was like stone, his eyes glinting with possessive menace. Josh looked confused and a little uncertain. “Josh, this is Noah’s uncle, Ruger. Ruger, this is my friend Josh. We were just leaving. Sorry about Noah bothering you.”
“Noah never bothers me,” Ruger said, cocking his head at Josh, who tried to offer him a smile.
“He’s a great kid,” Josh said. “You must be proud of him.”
“Yup,” Ruger said to him. “You need to go now. Probably be best if you don’t call Sophie again.”
Josh’s eyes widened.
“Go f**k yourself, Ruger,” I snapped. Josh glanced over at me, looking nervous. “Josh, please ignore him. He’s leaving.”
“Nope, I’m not leaving,” Ruger said pointedly. “And I won’t be leaving. You’re not welcome here. Don’t know what Sophie’s told you, but she’s taken.”
“That’s not true,” I said quickly. Josh looked between us, swallowing.
“You need a hand, Ruger?” Horse called from the sidewalk. He offered Josh a wolfish smile.
“Not with this ass**le,” Ruger replied, holding Josh’s eyes steadily. Josh broke, looking away.
“Um, I gotta get going,” he said, offering me a quick, sheepish smile. Then he turned and walked away very quickly.
I stared, dumbfounded.
“Looks like your new boyfriend scares easy,” Ruger murmured. “Didn’t even make sure you were safe with me. Wouldn’t want a man like that at my back. Of course, I don’t need to worry about backup. My brothers are there for me, no matter what.”
He took my shoulders and turned me toward the steak house. I saw Horse, Bam Bam, Duck, and Slide standing around my son. Bam held Noah’s shoulder protectively. Ruger leaned down behind me, speaking softly in my ear as his fingers squeezed my shoulders.
“Look at that,” he said. “You know them, so you know Noah couldn’t be safer. But your buddy Josh? He knows shit about those guys. That didn’t stop him from walking away to cover his own ass while they had your son. Hell of a man you’ve found.”
I swallowed, because I knew he was right.
So Josh wouldn’t be getting a second date if he bothered to call. Probably a moot point, because I had a feeling he wouldn’t.
“You need to stay out of my life,” I told Ruger, watching Noah carefully show off his prizes, offering Horse one of his precious rings. Horse accepted it, sliding it a quarter of the way down his pinkie.
Noah glowed with pride.
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” Ruger said. “Don’t take Noah out with a guy like that again. You’ll send him the wrong message.”
“None of your business.”
“It’ll always be my business.”
“You don’t get to win every single time,” I told him seriously. “Just because you say something, that doesn’t mean it’s true.”
“Just ’cause I say it doesn’t mean I’m wrong, either.”
I glared at him, then marched over and collected Noah, trying not to grit my teeth. I took him home and put him to bed, feeling bitchy the entire time.