He never yelled at Lindsey — didn't really feel like it was his place, for the most part, and anyway, he'd always kind of figured that if there were a kid in his life at some point, she'd think of him as the cool one. Lindsey didn't, but Warrick still tried not to act like he thought he was her dad or something.
The third time he pulled up alongside the curb and got iced for his trouble — for bothering to help the kid, no less — he lost his cool, what he had left of it. "Get your ass in the car!" he yelled, and she turned around and swung her oversized fake-designer purse at the door of his new Jeep. Warrick just stared at her, not sure whether to admire her (she was her momma's kid, you had to give her that, anyway) or to jump the curb and run her down.
Then he noticed that she was shivering — no, shaking, her skinny body acting like it was trying to fly apart from the pressure of her fury while her eyes showed that she already knew she'd lost the battle. Damn, it was hard work to be seventeen. "Come on," he said gently, and just like his fading anger sucked the life out of hers, she dropped her shoulders and got in the Jeep, awkwardly holding her knockoff purse against her chest, cradled in the crook of her arm.
There were faster ways to get Lindsey home than the main roads, but faster wasn't always better, and in this case Warrick thought they could both use the time for some serious inner dialoguing. Sometime around where I-215 turned into Clark County 215, Warrick said, "I'm not going to tell your mom about this." Lindsey rolled her eyes, and even though he'd known damn well she wasn't going to do anything like thank him, that still worked his nerves. "I know being grounded sucks," he said, "but the faster you just do your time and get it over with— "
"It's not like it'll matter," Lindsey said, looking out the window away from him. "Even when I'm un-grounded, she's still going to be a total bitch about— "
"Hey," Warrick said sharply. "Nu-uh."
Lindsey rolled her eyes again, but with a certain amount of restraint this time. "She can ground me, but what do I get to do about her invading my privacy— "
"Your MySpace page is not private," Warrick said. "The faster you learn that the internet is the opposite of privacy, the happier you'll be. If you want to sneak around with older guys, at least be the slightest bit smart about it." That probably wasn't the best advice, come to think of it. It was kind of hard to remember whose side he was supposed to be on, sometimes.
"You're not my dad," she muttered.
"I don't want to be your dad," Warrick snapped, and then that didn't seem like quite the right thing to say, either. He sighed, then had to change lanes right in front of a shiny little Prius or else miss the exit off the Beltway and into Spring Valley. He still hadn't adjusted enough to Catherine's new neighborhood to get there completely on autopilot. Coming off the Beltway and into the slower speeds of the suburb, Warrick glanced over at Lindsey and saw that she was slumped in the corner of her seat, her head against the window. She looked a lot more like the kid that Warrick remembered, peering sleepily out the passenger window of Catherine's mother's car, on their way to pick up Catherine from the station or drop her off. "Look," he said, "you know…my mom died when I was pretty young— "
"Oh, God," she said, her voice a little high and shaky. "Stop. Just — don't try to relate to me, okay? It's not like you're so perfect, like you're just gonna have all this great advice for how to live my life."
"I didn't say I was perfect," Warrick said, unsure exactly where this was coming from, let alone headed toward. "Did you ever think you might have something to learn from people who have already made it through all the stupid things you haven't had time to screw up for yourself yet?"
"I don't want to learn anything from you," she said, the anger creeping back into her voice and into her spine, straightening her up in her seat. "I don't care what anybody thinks, Caleb and I love each other, and he's a good person."
"I got news for you, kid. Twenty-six-year-old guys who are good people don't mess around with high school girls."
"You don't even know him! That's just a stupid generalization, because you and my mom, you spend all your time at work and you only ever meet people who suck, who lie to people and hurt them, but not everybody's like that! Caleb loves me, he would never hurt me — he's a better person than you are, I know that much. He doesn't cheat." Warrick turned his head sharply to look at her. She lifted her chin and said, "I'm not stupid, you know. I'm not blind. I know you're cheating on my mom with Nick."
Warrick took a couple of slow breaths before he said, as evenly as possible, "You don't know half as much as you think you do, okay? There's a lot you don't know." Lindsey just snorted and turned away to look back out the window.
Nick's car was already in the driveway, next to Catherine's, so Warrick pulled up to the curb and parked there. He unbuckled his seat belt and turned sideways just in time to see Lindsey try to wipe her face surreptitiously on the inside sleeve of her uniform blazer. Seventeen was tough for a lot of people, but the last few years had dealt out more tough for Lindsey Willows than some people had to cope with in their whole lives.
"Hey," he said, as gently as he could. "You need to know, I'm not gonna hurt your mom. Not ever, okay? Nick's a good friend — hers and mine both. What you've been thinking, whatever you picked up on…. The thing is, I did use to date Nick, years back, before your mom, before Tina. And I don't tell a lot of people about this, so…I'm trusting you. Understand?"
She looked over at him warily, but something in her face made Warrick think that she wanted to believe him. "Does Mom know?"
No laughing, Warrick instructed himself firmly. Very bad time to laugh. "Sure she knows," he said. "She knew at the time. And she knows the two of us are still tight, and she damn sure knows there's not a person in the world she needs to be jealous of. You don't have to worry about your mom." Lindsey nodded, but Warrick couldn't help thinking he was wasting his breath anyway.
Well, maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. Maybe one of the good things about getting to know your parents as a grown-up was that things started to even out a little over time, and you paid back a little bit of that trillion dollar worry-deficit they invested into you.
And now he was scaring himself, thinking of Lindsey as practically a grown-up. He'd covered a shift for Catherine just last week while she took Lindsey to Arizona for a prospective student weekend, and he still couldn't get it through his head that she was old enough to leave home next year. He didn't know how Catherine was coping with it as well as she was.
Warrick followed Lindsey inside and into the kitchen. Catherine was still wearing her high heels and her jewelry from work, and her sharp working eyes, too, as she stopped in the middle of her conversation with Nick and took them in much too fully, Lindsey's pale, sullen weariness and Warrick's slightly frazzled uncertainty. "You're later than I thought you would be," she said. "You didn't have any trouble?"
"I got a little turned-around trying to find the school," Warrick said, which was probably a stupid mistake, since there wasn't so much as a dry cleaner's in Vegas that Warrick didn't know about and couldn't find. Catherine's eyebrows went up skeptically. "It's fine," he said, meeting Catherine's eyes over her daughter's shoulder and giving her a nod, asking her to trust him, just for a minute. "There's no problem."
"Okay," Catherine said, resigning herself to the cover story for the time being. "How was school, sweetie?" Lindsey shrugged.
"You're not late," Nick said, "you're right on time. The pork chops are just now finished. You want to get the muffins out of the oven for me, Lindsey?"
"Do I have to eat dinner?" she said. "I'm not hungry, and I've got a lot of homework."
Catherine opened her mouth to argue, but she glanced at Warrick and seemed to decide there was a tactical value in getting him alone to shake him down. "If you want to take a plate upstairs, you can eat and get a jump start on your homework," she said. Nick started assembling the plate in question right away.
"Can I take my laptop upstairs with me?"
"No," Catherine said shortly. Lindsey started to argue, and Catherine cut right across her with, "I let you stay late at school so you could use the computer lab there because you said you'd rather do that than have me in the room with you, but I was not kidding about those being your only options. For right now — for right now, that's the situation. If you want to socialize with somebody, it's going to have to be us tonight. Live and in person. Yeah, that's what I thought," she said dryly to the expression on Lindsey's face.
Nick handed her a plate with one pork chop, a corn muffin, some baked apples and some mashed potatoes, and he looked equal parts surprised and pleased when Lindsey thanked him. Warrick wasn't particularly surprised; Nick had taken about two hundred percent less of the weight of Lindsey's bad moods than either Catherine or Warrick had. Who the hell would have guessed that Nick would somehow end up the cool one? He was probably still riding off residuals from that damn Dixie Chicks concert he'd taken her to when she was twelve.
They could hear her footsteps all the way up the stairs, and the door to her bedroom when it shut, and only then did Catherine turn on Warrick and demand, "She wasn't at school when you went to pick her up, was she? Where did she go — to meet that son of a bitch, that Caleb? I will press charges if he comes near my daughter again, so help me God."
"Hey, hey," Warrick said, taking her shoulders between his hands and kissing her forehead. "She's home now, she's fine. You need to sit down and have something to eat before you go off doing anything. You know nobody's good for anything after pulling a double." Catherine looked unconvinced, but she did at least sit down at the table. Nick put a plate with the remaining pork chops on it in front of her, and Warrick said, "And you, what did you do with yourself all day? Get some of that sweet Food Network porn action?"
"Hey, if you've got a problem with it, buddy, you can just eat chips and salsa over the sink like you do at your place," Nick said, unruffled. "Some people appreciate my hobbies, right, Catherine?"
"Nah, nah," Warrick said, hooking his thumb in the waistband of Nick's jeans and letting his voice go low and husky as he tugged. "Everything looks pretty good to me. I can appreciate with the best of them." Nick didn't exactly pull away, but he stayed awkward and tense as Warrick kissed him, then immediately looked up at the ceiling. "She's not coming back down," Warrick said. "And anyway…she already knows."
"What?" Catherine said.
"Not about you," Warrick amended quickly. "She knows about me and Nicky. She thinks I'm messing around on you."
"What did you tell her?" Nick asked. "When she told you that. What did you say?"
Warrick let him go and shrugged. "I don't know, some bullshit, 'it's not what you think.' I didn't know what to say. But…she's not a little kid anymore. I think we should at least talk about coming clean with her."
"Oh, right, she'd love that," Catherine said. "Who doesn't want to know as many details as possible about their mother's sex life?"
Nick went back to the job of transferring dinner to the table, and then he and Warrick tucked into it. Catherine just picked her food over, frowning into the middle distance. "It's good," Warrick told Nick, just to break the silence.
But Nick was just as lost in his own thoughts and didn't seem to hear. "If Lindsey can sense that you're— that we're all keeping things from her somehow, maybe that explains a lot about some of the…trust issues that keep coming up lately between you guys."
"Well, what do you want me to do about it, Nicky?" she said, sounding more tired than anything else. "It's all well and good to say, 'honesty,' but I can tell you right now, she's not going to trust me more if I tell her. She's going to think that I'm a horrible hypocrite, because I get to do what I want with whoever I want, and I won't let her run off with Romeo."
"She's gonna have to adjust to the idea that you're a grown woman and she's not," Warrick said.
Catherine rolled her eyes, and Warrick had never seen the resemblance between her and Lindsey so clearly as he did right then. "Oh, okay, I'll just tell her that. That works so well with teenagers."
Nick reached across the table and touched her wrist, fixing her with those earnest eyes of his. "I can't tell you what to say to your daughter," he said. "All I can tell you is, this last year — this is the first time that Vegas really felt like home to me, and I know it's because I have family here now. You and Rick, you're my family, and that makes Lindsey my family, too. I wish there was some way that she could know that, because…. Because it just doesn't seem right, letting kids go around thinking they've got fewer people out there caring about them than they really do. You know what I mean?"
Like pretty much everybody, Catherine melted into hot cocoa in the face of Nick when he was in full sweetheart mode. "I do know what you mean, Nicky," she said, putting her hand lightly over his. "And it means so much to me, knowing how much you two want what's right for Lindsey. But this isn't just…something…. We can't just take her out for ice cream and say…. I love you both and you are my family, but this isn't exactly The Brady Bunch."
Warrick laughed, then took a second to wipe his mouth on his napkin before saying, "Well, hell, think of it this way: at least we don't have three very lovely girls to deal with."
At least Catherine's appetite seemed to return, and she finished off her first pork chop and cut a second one in half. "She already thinks I'm a horrible hypocrite," Catherine said, but she sounded something on the bright side of resigned about it. "She's fixated on the age-difference thing, and she's — let's say, mentioned, more than once, that there's about the same gap between Warrick and me as there is between the son of a bitch and her."
"I'm not saying it isn't a hard sell," Warrick said, "but this is where the concept of grown woman comes into the picture again. And anyway, the situations are completely different. There's a biological difference."
"Oh, I see," Catherine said, dropping her fork and throwing up her hand. "Now we get to it. This is where you spin me some line about how men are biologically predestined to chase after nubile little things in private school plaid skirts."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," he said, holding one arm between them as if he were worried that she'd start whacking him with a plate. "How is that what you got out of the conversation we were having?"
"Because I want you to know, for the record, that even though men go on ad fucking infinitum about their biological imperatives, that everything in the world is not about what gets men off. These horny little assholes think that having a sexual peak means they're allowed to do whatever they can con my kid into doing with them, but women have their sexual peak in their forties, and I have to pretend it's some kind of vaguely embarrassing accident that I want to sleep with someone younger than I am? That's not an accident, that's science."
"Baby, baby," Warrick laughed, grabbing her hand and kissing the inside of her wrist. "For the record, I'm both very aware and very happy about your sexual peak. So you can give me a break here, okay? I wasn't going to defend dirty old men; Darwin is not a get-out-of-jail-free card."
"But we do appreciate the warning," Nick said with a little smirk. "Now I know who to blame when Warrick and I get kicked to the curb in favor of the twenty-one-year-old stud who bags your groceries at Whole Foods: science."
Catherine relaxed into a reluctant smile, pulled her hand out of Warrick's and used it to push her hair back over her shoulder. "I'm just saying, a lot of people act like it's practically psychotic for a forty-five-year-old woman to be interested in nothing more scandalous than what everyone assumes any red-blooded twenty-six-year-old man would jump at."
"Forty-nine," Warrick said. He'd been saving this one up for a special occasion, but how could you walk away from an opening like that? Catherine looked at him in wide-eyed shock. "You're not forty-five," he said. "You're forty-nine."
"I was born in 1963— "
"Mmm," Nick said, a noise of deep regret. "You actually weren't. We got to thinking after you told us about seeing Jaws. If you were sixteen in '75 when Jaws came out— "
"Then you were born in 1959— "
"And that's science," Nick finished, that sly, sweet way he had of getting one over on you good.
Warrick held up his hands innocently. "I just think if you wanna go waving your finger under my nose about age discrimination, then you need to be an out and proud forty-nine-year-old woman, baby girl."
Catherine finally managed to close her mouth and narrowed her eyes at them both, flipping her hair back. "Did it ever occur to you two math geniuses that I might not have seen it at a first-run theater?"
"Aw, you are the lyinest old lady— " Warrick burst out, more in admiration than anything else.
"Did you have some kind of point to make, Brown?" she growled. "Something about biology?"
Warrick grinned, but let the age thing drop. Wasn't like he didn't plan to get plenty of mileage out of it down the road, anyway. He shrugged and said, "I was just gonna say that a sexy older woman can't exactly molest a younger man. You can scream sexism or double standard at me, but it ain't the same thing."
Something in Catherine's face changed, and suddenly he felt on thin ice like he never really had while he was dredging up her dark secrets. "Let's not have this conversation," she said shortly. "It makes you look like an idiot."
A little too stung to take the first, sensible, part of her advice, Warrick said, "Sure, I'm not saying it's not smart for boys to wait a while, too — but come on, any guy will tell you that if he's hot for teacher and she wants to keep him after school and make a man out of him— "
"Let's not have this— "
"It's not necessarily smart, but it's not exactly a hanging offense, either."
"Rick, shut up!" she barked at him in a voice he'd never, ever heard Catherine use except on a suspect.
"No," Nick said, soft and matter-of-fact. He stood up and started gathering plates together, not quite looking at either of them. "It's okay, Cat. Don't worry about it."
"Nicky," she said, oddly plaintive, almost lost, and Warrick looked back and forth between them helplessly.
Nick straightened up, and to Warrick's dismay he was wearing the same strained little brave-soldier smile he used to wear after every therapy session for his PTSD. "It's not his fault," he said to Catherine. "And it's really nothing I haven't heard before."
"Does somebody want to tell me what— "
"No," Nick said, with something like his normal, wide smile. "I really don't want to, but I should. That's been the problem for almost thirty years: I don't want to talk about it." He put his hand on Warrick's shoulder and squeezed, and Warrick still didn't know exactly what was going on, but he felt small anyway, ashamed of himself under Nick's thoughtless forgiveness. "I will sometime soon, though, okay?" he promised. "I think it'll be…good for us — for our relationship. I haven't…trusted you yet, the way I should. But I will. Cross my heart."
"Yeah, man," Warrick said hesitantly. "Whenever you— Anything you want to talk about. You know I'm here."
"I know," Nick said, and smiled at him, running his thumb along the stubble shadow cropping up along Warrick's jaw before getting back to clearing the table.
Warrick washed the dishes and Nick dried them while Catherine went upstairs to make sure the kid hadn't staged a prison break. After everything was scrubbed and put away, Nick flipped the lights off, leaving the kitchen lit by the streetlight out back and the small light under the hood of the stove. Warrick slipped an arm around his ribs and pulled him close, nibbling his ear while Nick let out a small, satisfied noise and ran his fingers into Warrick's hair. "I've got the early shift tomorrow," he said. "Are you parked behind me?"
"I do, too," Warrick said. "Stay over. We'll be getting up so early, it won't make any difference." He could feel the reluctance in the way Nick held himself, so he worried lightly at Nick's earlobe until he laughed breathily. "Come on, I'll take you to Steak'N'Shake before work," he cajoled.
"That's what you bribe me with? Steak'N'Shake? Man, is the romance ever gone."
"If Cat's not too tired to let you fuck her, I'll go down on you both at once," Warrick said. "Is that bribe enough for you?"
"Oh, well, it sure beats biscuits and gravy," Nick admitted. Abruptly, he put his arm around Warrick's neck and hugged him tight, and Warrick knew enough to rub both hands up and down Nick's back and shoulders. "I meant what I said. My home is wherever y'all are now, no matter where I live or who — who knows what about us."
"Never thought you didn't mean it," Warrick said, trying to keep his tone light. "Hell, you're the one of us who does think this is The Brady Bunch."
"Well, they were family, too," Nick said. "That's what makes that show a classic."
"You think that story's true, that Greg and Mrs. Brady used to get it on behind the scenes?"
"I'm sure their love was very pure," Nick said. "It was a simpler time, you know."
Warrick pulled away, but just enough to grab Nick by the shoulders and push him gently toward the kitchen door. "Times change," he said.
Nick gave a little don't-I-know-it chuckle. "Lucky us," he said, and let Warrick steer him up the stairs where Catherine was waiting for them.