"Decent." He indicated Tory with a tilt of his head. "Sunshine meet my friend Tory. Sunshine’s Talon’s wife."
Tory smiled as she shook Sunshine’s hand. "The tall blond who can’t shoot hoops?"
Sunshine’s laugh was infectious as she looked at Talon proudly. "That’s my baby. Ain’t he beautiful?" She raised her hand at her husband. "Go Talon, show them how it’s done," she shouted.
Ash turned and laughed as Talon made a shot that fell far from its mark.
"Well, maybe next time," Sunshine whispered under her breath before she shouted. "Good try, baby, good try! Next time you’ll make a home run!"
Ash exchanged an amused grin with Tory. "Yeah and on that note let me go stop him from embarrassing himself further." He dropped his coat, helmet and backpack at her feet.
Tory smiled as he ran across the court, pulling a silver whistle out of his back pocket before he put it on over his head and blew it. Talon turned toward him and Ash made an ancient Celtic obscene gesture at him that luckily only Talon, Tory and possibly Sunshine would recognize as extremely offensive.
Talon glared at him. "You’re lucky there are kids here, buddy."
Ash gave him an evil grin before he wrangled the kids toward their starting places.
Sunshine sat down beside her and pulled a bottle of water out of her giant organic wicker bag. "So how long have you known Ash?"
Tory watched the grace Ash showed as he moved fluidly around the kids who were so tiny compared to him. She didn’t know why, but he reminded her of some ancient warrior trying to train them for battle. "Not very. About a week."
"And he brought you here?"
Tory shrugged, not really understanding his compassion herself. "My house was broken into and a good friend of mine killed last night. Ash was afraid to leave me alone."
Horror filled Sunshine’s dark brown eyes as she reached out to touch Tory’s arm. "Oh my God, sweetie . . . are you okay?"
Tory swallowed as she thought about Dimitri and grief overwhelmed her. He’d always been the jokester of their crew. Full of life and preciously sweet. She was really going to miss seeing him on the boat and hearing his good-natured taunts. "Not really. But I’m holding it together. One step at a time, right?"
Sunshine took her hand into hers and offered her a kind smile. "Absolutely. And if you need anything, you call us. Talon and I live outside of town and can be anywhere pretty quickly because he drives like a lunatic. Night or day, you need something, you call."
The warmth from this woman touched her deeply. They were strangers and yet Sunshine didn’t care in the least. "Thank you. Ash is lucky to have you guys as friends."
Sunshine waved her words away as Ash blew the whistle and separated two of the boys who were trying to bite each other. Smiling a smile that warmed her heart, he tucked one of the boys under his arm as he moved him away from the other one before he set him on his feet.
"I don’t know," Sunshine said wistfully. "I think we’re more lucky to have him."
Yeah, Tory was beginning to feel lucky that she’d met Ash too. Though to be honest, she wished they’d met under a better set of circumstances than his embarrassing her. "How long have you guys known him?"
"A few years for me. A lifetime for Talon. The two of them go way back."
Tory looked at the tall blond who was probably no more than two or three years older than Ash. His short curly hair was sweaty and he had two tiny braids that fell from one temple. She was glad to meet someone Ash knew really well. "No kidding? Ash never really talks about the people he knows."
"Yeah, he’s brutally evasive."
Tory nodded in agreement. "Good description."
Sunshine offered her a bottle of water. "But even so, you have to love Ash. He’s one of the few truly reliable people you’ll ever meet."
Taking the water from her hand, Tory watched as Ash showed Talon how to shoot a basket during a time-out, then he laughed and shook his head when Talon screwed it up again. This was the first time she’d seen him really having fun. Most of the time, he was so reserved and closed off-as if afraid of allowing anyone to have any kind of power over him. There was only one reason she could think of that he’d be like that.
"Ash had a hard childhood, didn’t he?"
Sunshine frowned. "I don’t know. I’ve heard mixed things from different people. Some say he was very privileged and rich."
Yeah there was something very wealthy and Old World about him. Dignified as if he were accustomed to only the best things in the world . . . like the handsewn jacket she wore. "He does seem to have a lot of money."
Sunshine snorted. "Oh no, hon. What he has now, he earns. Believe me. But no one I know-and I know a lot of people who’ve known him for many years-really knows anything about his past or his family. He just refuses to talk about it."
Which meant it had to be brutal. Why else would someone hide it? Thoughts of family should be comforting. She was forever thinking about hers and smiling. The fact that Ash had closed himself off entirely from the subject said it all.
They were sources of pain for him.
Her heart heavy, she watched as the game picked up again. Ash was actually adorable as he ran alongside the kids who could barely play. They bumped into each other and tripped onto the court. Ash would run to make sure they were okay before he picked them up and set them back on their feet.
She’d never seen anything quite like it. But they were all cute. Especially Ash in all his Goth glory.
Sunshine dug out a bag of cinnamon flavored oatcakes. "Want some?"
"Thanks," she said, taking one from the small bag.
As they snacked, a mother and a small boy in a wheelchair came in and parked beside them so that the boy could watch the game. The boy who had short black hair and bright blue eyes grimaced as if he were in pain while his mother gently stroked his back. He was an almost exact physical duplicate of his mother, except the boy had a smattering of freckles over the bridge of his nose.
Tory scooted down to sit closer to him. "Hi," she said, holding her hand out to him. "My name’s Tory."
He looked at his mother to make sure it was okay to talk to her.
"His name’s Toby."
"Toby?" Tory grinned at him. "Really? My friend Ash was playing a boy named Toby this morning on the Xbox."
Toby smiled through his tears. "That was me! I kicked his butt!"
"Toby," his mother chided, "such language. What have I told you about that?"
He sat taller in his chair. "Well, I did."
Tory introduced herself and Sunshine to Toby’s mother. "So are you two here to watch Ash?"
Toby shook his head. "My brother Zack is number seven on the blue team."
"Oh," she said, spotting the boy with brown hair, "he’s the best player on his team."
The buzzer sounded for halftime. Ash came running over. His cheeks were mottled with red from his exertion. He held his hand out for Toby to high five him. "Hey Tobinator. How you doing?"
Toby squealed in glee. "Can we play?" he asked Ash.
Ash looked at Trish. "Is it okay?"
She frowned in apprehension. "Be gentle. He had a hard session with his therapist today."
"Will do." Ash picked him up and cradled him against his chest before he returned to the court where the teams were practicing again.
Zack passed his brother the ball. Laughing, Toby caught it and Ash ran him at the basket so that he could slam dunk it in to the basket that had been lowered to accommodate their smaller size. He held Toby over his head and twisted him back and forth, making the boy squeal in delight.
Trish’s eyes misted at the sight of Ash with her son. "I don’t know what I’d do without that man."
Tory frowned. "What do you mean?"
Trish wiped at her eyes. "Toby and my husband were in a bad car wreck a year ago. Barry was killed instantly and Toby was partially paralyzed. For weeks in the hospital, Toby was unresponsive to everyone. He wouldn’t eat or speak. And then one day Ash and a friend of his came in and were singing with the kids on Toby’s floor, handing out gifts. When he saw Toby, he went over and the next thing I knew, he had Toby laughing again." She sniffed. "Just look at them out there . . . God love that man."
Ash was holding Toby low to the ground so he could dribble the ball while his brother tried to block him. Lifting him up, Ash feigned to the right and ran at the basket so Toby could slam dunk it again. The boy lifted his arms up and whooped in triumph. Ash tickled him before he cradled him in his arms and ran him back over to his mother.
He set Toby back in his wheelchair and wiped his arm over his sweaty face. "All right, Tobe, we have to get back to the game. But Zack wants a rematch afterwards."
Ash ruffled his hair before he glanced to Tory. "You doing okay?"
"Cool. But stay away from Sunshine’s oatcakes. Talon says they’re disgusting."
"Hey!" Sunshine shouted indignantly. "I’ll get you for that, Ash."
Laughing, he stood up and returned to the center of the court.
"How are you doing, Toby?" Trish asked, her voice full of concern. "Did that make you hurt more?"
He beamed. "Nope. I feel great. Ash says I’ll be walking again this time next year."
His mother winced as if the thought made her ache. "Oh baby . . . you know what the doctors think."
Toby lifted his chin. "I believe Ash. He says I’ll be walking and I will. Just watch and see."
Tory smiled at the little guy. "That’s the spirit."
Toby took her hand while they watched the rest of the game and cheered for his brother Zack.
When the game ended, Talon grabbed a ball to shoot again.
Ash scoffed at him. "Stop embarrassing the gene pool, Celt."
"Shut-up, T-Rex." He shot and missed.
Ash came to stand in front of Toby, arms akimbo. "Ready, squirt?"
Ash picked him up and looked at Tory. "You know how to play?"
"It’s been a while, but yeah."
His grin taunted her. "Want to join us for a game?"
Talon handed her the ball as he came to sit beside Sunshine and drink some water. "I’m tired of being laughed at. Go avenge me."
Tory took her jacket off before she bounced the ball on the floor. Ash held Toby to his chest. "All right, Toby, let’s annihilate the kyria."
Toby frowned. "Kyria?"
Tory feigned left and twisted around them as she ran at a basket. She was almost to it when Toby grabbed the ball and Ash put him up on his shoulders. Shouting in glory, Toby shot it at the basket and scored.
"And the crowd goes wild. Ahhhhh," Ash mocked the sound of cheering fans.
"Hey Ash?" Zack asked, running up to them. "Can I dunk one too?"
"Sure." He held Toby out to Tory who took the boy. He wrapped his little arms around her neck and made her melt while Ash grabbed his brother and put him up on his shoulders.
Zack dunked the ball and held his hands up in triumph while he bounced on Ash’s shoulders.
Trish came forward, shaking her head at them. "Okay boys, tell Ash thank you, but it’s time for us to go and let the next team have the court."
Toby pouted like a pro.
"Aw, mom," Zack whined as Ash set him on his feet.
Then Ash took Toby from her arms and carried him back to his wheelchair. "Don’t worry, squirt. We’ll beat Zack in a couple of weeks when I’m back in town."
"Okay and don’t forget next Saturday! Nine a.m. sharp!"
Ash gave him a staunch Roman salute. "Ever at your service, my lord and tormentor." He brushed his hand over Zack’s hair. "You played unbelievably well today. Keep practicing, kiddo."
"Will do. Bye Ash."
Tory walked up to him as they left. "You are so not an ass**le."
He glanced down at her, making her wish she could see his eyes through his dark sunglasses. "Trust me, I can be. But I have a height requirement before I break ass on someone."
Talon snorted as he walked past them. "Yeah, take it from someone who’s had his ass broken by him. Ash ain’t all fun and games."
Without thinking, Tory put her hands on Ash’s h*ps and leaned against his back. The moment she did, she realized she’d made a mistake as a wave of desire hit her so forcefully, it was all she could do not to pull his lips down to hers. Oh dear heaven, the man was sweaty, but he didn’t stink at all. Instead, he smelled so good she wanted to take a bite out of him.
And all she wanted to do was run her hands down that hard chest and nibble him until he begged her for more.
Ash couldn’t breathe as he hardened to the point of pain. Thank the gods he wasn’t wearing tight pants. And the thought of her hands only being a few inches away from his c**k only made him ache more.
Clearing her throat, she stepped back. "How many more games do you have to referee?"