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Authors: Lois Faye Dyer

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BOOK: Beauty and the Wolf
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The little girl giggled. “No!”

“Whew.” He pretended to wipe sweat from his brow with his forearm. “That's a relief. Because if you were racing, I wouldn't have a prayer of keeping up with you—since you're a speed demon!”

He snatched the little girl up and held her suspended over his head as she giggled and squealed. Just as swiftly as he'd picked her up, he planted a smacking kiss on her cheek and lowered her back onto the bike seat.

“I'm ready to jog,” he said to Frankie, as if the quick, noisy moment with Ava had never happened.

“I doubt you'll need to run to keep up,” she said dryly, bending to give Ava a little push to set her bike wheels in motion. “We're taking it slow and enjoying the moment, aren't we, Ava?”

“Yup.” Ava veered sideways before laboriously straightening her handlebars and forging slowly ahead.

Frankie walked beside Eli, pushing her bike as they followed a few steps behind Ava.

“We're stopping for hot chocolate at the refreshment stand just at the halfway point,” Frankie told him,
pointing at the cream-and-blue wooden building just visible over the heads of a group of teenagers on bikes.

“Do they have coffee?” Eli asked, his expression hopeful.

“Yes, I'm sure they do.” Frankie saw his face lighten and laughed. “Not enough caffeine yet this morning?”

“Not enough caffeine since I went to a job site at 4:00 a.m.,” he told her.

“Ouch, that's early.” She winced in sympathy. “More problems with flooding?”

“Not yet, but I'm worried there might be.” Eli briefly explained there was an unstable slope caused by clear-cutting the timber above his construction site. “We're all praying the retaining wall is finished before there's any serious flooding.”

“Can't the owner of the lot above yours fix this?” Frankie frowned. “It seems unfair for you and your brothers to suffer damages for his negligence.”

Eli shrugged. “That's life in the construction business.”

“It still doesn't sound reasonable,” Frankie said.

He caught the end of her ponytail and tugged gently, his smile warm. “You're probably right.”

“Cousin Frankie,” Ava piped up, interrupting them. “Time for hot chocolate.”

Frankie realized they'd reached the Blue Hat coffee stand.

“Yes, it is,” she agreed. They wheeled their bikes off the path.

Eli plucked Ava off her pink vinyl seat and settled
her on his shoulders. Frankie left her bike next to Ava's, and they joined the line in front of the window.

“What are you doing tonight?” Eli asked her as they waited.

“I'm taking my mom to the Pops symphony at Benaroya Hall. I bought the tickets last fall when they first went on sale.”

“Sounds like fun,” Eli said. He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Is that your favorite kind of music?”

“Not my favorite, but I like going to the symphony. What's your favorite music?” She eyed him. “Let me guess—some heavy-metal rock band.”

“Nah, I like classic rock, like the Stones and Leonard Cohen.”

They compared artists they liked, finding they agreed more than they disagreed as the line moved forward until it was their turn to place their order. Moments later, they carried hot take-out cups to a nearby picnic table.

“Come on, Ava-wave-a, time to get off.” Eli set his cup down and swung the little girl off his shoulders, depositing her on the bench seat.

“Thanks.” She beamed up at him when he handed her a cup of chocolate. “Want to know what my bunny did last night?” she asked, clearly expecting him to say yes.

Eli shot a quick, amused smile at Frankie as he slid onto the bench opposite her and Ava before answering. “Absolutely,” he told her.

“Well…” Ava launched into a description of her father
and mother chasing the bunny around the house after he'd escaped when she'd left the cage door open. “Mama says she's going to have you put a lock on the bunny-castle door, Unca Eli. With a key and everything.” Her rosebud lips drooped. “But Daddy says he's going to keep the key.”

“I see.” Eli coughed and covered his mouth.

Frankie was sure he was covering a laugh.
He's so good with her,
she thought. Ava clearly adored him, and, just as clearly, she'd spent a lot of time with him, because she treated him with all the ease and comfort of family.

He'd make a wonderful father.
Startled by the thought, she coughed and lifted her cup, sipping the hot chocolate to clear her throat.
Where did that come from?

It was nearly lunchtime when the three completed the loop of the park and reached the SUV and the parking lot once more.

Eli loaded the two bikes into the back of the SUV while Frankie snapped the latches to secure Ava in her car seat.

“Bye, Ava.” He leaned in and gave her a kiss, accepting a chocolate-flavored smack on his cheek in return. He tapped his forefinger against the end of the little girl's nose and closed the door.

“Have fun tonight,” he said, holding the door while Frankie slid behind the wheel.

“I will. What are you doing this evening—do you have plans?” she asked, latching her seat belt.

“I'm supposed to have dinner with a college friend, but he hasn't called to confirm, so I might not.” He shrugged. “Maybe I'll rent a DVD and order in.”

“I wish I had another ticket—you could join us at the symphony,” she said.

“Thanks, but you two will enjoy it more without a critic along. Drive carefully.” He stepped back and closed the door, waving as they drove away.

Much as Frankie had looked forward to this evening, she couldn't help wishing Eli would be there, too. Activities seemed infused with a certain energy and heightened interest when he was present.

 

Eli drove away from the park, heading back to the job site. He figured he probably didn't need to double-check the slope again, since it was barely one o'clock and the weather had been clear and cold with no rain since five that morning. Nevertheless, it was second nature for him to be cautious, especially when Wolf Construction had so much time, effort and money invested in the project.

As he'd hoped, the work site was wet from last night's rain, but no further damage had occurred. Eli headed across I-5, on his way to Ballard and his grandfather's home.

“Hey, Granddad,” Eli called, rapping his knuckles on the back door as he stepped through it and into the kitchen. He'd grown up in the rambling old house on Sixty-fifth Street, blocks away from historic Larson's Bakery in Ballard. When their parents were killed in an
accident, Jack Wolf had taken his four grandsons into his home. Now the big house was once more occupied only by the veteran carpenter, since Eli and his brothers each lived in their own place.

“Is that you, Eli?” Jack's gravelly voice grew louder and he entered the kitchen from the living room. He beamed. “Haven't seen much of you lately. Where you been keepin' yourself?” He waved a gnarled hand at the kitchen table with its red plaid oilcloth cover. “Sit down, I just made a pot of coffee.”

“Coffee sounds great, Granddad.” Eli deposited the bag of chocolate-covered donuts on the table and shrugged out of his jacket, hanging it on the back of an oak chair. He pulled the chair out and sat, stretching his long legs out to cross them at the ankles.

Jack carried two mugs to the table, his eyes lighting when he saw the bag. “You stopped at Larson's Bakery? I always knew I liked you the best of my four grandsons.”

Eli chuckled. “You say the same thing to whichever one of us brings you donuts from Larson's.”

“Well, yeah, I do.” Jack set a mug in front of Eli and took the seat across the table. “But then, whoever brings me something from Larson's, that's the boy I like the best. At least for the moment,” he added with a twinkle in his eyes.

Eli opened the bag, took out a donut and passed the bag to Jack. “Then I suppose I'll enjoy my favorite-grandson status, for the moment.”

“Wise of you.” Jack accepted the bag and squinted
into it before grunting his approval and removing a chocolate-covered donut. “What are you doing at my house on a Saturday afternoon?” he asked before taking a bite.

“I had to check a job site for flooding, and since I had to drive by the bakery, I stopped to pick up donuts.”

“The condo building over by the university?” Jack asked, his eyes narrowing.

Eli nodded. “Yeah, that's the one. The owner clear-cut the trees off the slope above it, so every time it rains, there's the potential for trouble.”

“You're putting in drains to take care of the problem long-term, aren't you?”

“Yeah, but they aren't finished, and until they are, I'm keeping a close eye on the site.”

Jack nodded. “Good call. I once lost a whole six-story building, just days away from completion, when a bad storm soaked the slope above it. Four big cedar trees uprooted and slid down the hill, taking everything on the slope with them. That landslide slammed into the retaining wall, took out the back of the building and destabilized the whole shebang.” Jack shook his head at the memory. “What a waste. We had to tear down the building and get the ground stabilized before we could rebuild. Your dad was mad as a hornet over that one.”

“I bet the insurance company wasn't happy, either,” Eli commented.

“Nope, they weren't.” Jack finished his donut and took another from the sack. “That was a pretty woman who came looking for you the other day.”

Eli glanced sideways to find Jack eyeing him, curiosity gleaming in his blue eyes.

“Yes,” he agreed. “She's pretty.”

“You two been keeping company for a while?”

“Not too long.”

“You met her folks yet?”

Eli shot a sharp glance at his grandfather, but Jack only stared back, an innocent expression on his features.

“Justin introduced me to her mother years ago, and her father died when Frankie was young.”

“Hmm.” Jack narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “Seems to me I remember you mentioning Justin Hunt being kinda protective of his cousin Frankie.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So how does your best friend feel about you dating his favorite cousin?”

Eli shrugged. “I don't know. We haven't talked about it.”

“Seems to me you better have an answer. Justin ran wild in this house when you two were kids, so I'm thinking I know him pretty well. He's likely to demand to know your intentions toward her. You'd better be ready with the right answer, or there's likely to be trouble.”

“Justin's not going to go off half-cocked,” Eli growled, shooting a frown at his grandfather. “He knows me better than that.”

“Huh.” Jack snorted. “He knows you've never had a permanent woman in your life, that's what he knows.”

“What's that got to do with it?” Eli demanded.

“You and Justin were bachelors for a long time, so you know each other's habits well. He's not going to want you sleeping with his cousin for a while, then moving on to the next female,” Jack said bluntly.

“Damn, Granddad.” Insulted, Eli stared at him. “You think I'm not capable of having anything more than a temporary connection with a woman?”

“No. Hell, no.” Jack shook his head emphatically. “I'm just sayin' that up until now, you haven't had anything close to permanent. That's all.”

Eli stared moodily at his coffee mug, turning it in slow circles on the red and white oilcloth. “Yeah, well…maybe that's changed.”

“Yeah?” Jack's eyebrows rose in surprise. “If that's true, I'm glad to hear it. Up until now, none of you boys have showed any signs you might be considering settling down. I'd be happy if you were thinking about something permanent with Frankie.”

“I'm not saying I am, and I'm not saying I'm not,” Eli told him.

“What
are
you sayin'?” Jack asked testily.

Eli looked up and met his grandfather's blue eyes, fierce beneath lowered white brows.

“If I were looking to settle down, Frankie's the kind of woman I'd be looking for.” Eli saw the old man's eyebrows shoot upward and his eyes light with glee. “But I'm not looking for a woman to settle down with.”

“Hmph.” Jack snorted and grabbed another donut. “You don't make any sense.”

Eli wasn't sure he was making sense, either, but he'd
be damned if he'd tell his granddad. “Yeah, well, I'm only thirty-five. Statistics say lots of men in today's world don't get married until they're forty. They're busy building careers first.”

Jack's hmph of disgust clearly conveyed his opinion of the statistics and the reasoning behind them. “Your daddy and mama were married when they were barely twenty years old, both of them. And your daddy had a family while we were both busy building the company.”

Jack leveled a finger at Eli. “And don't tell me you're not glad we kept Wolf Construction afloat during those early hard years, 'cause I know you like running it. And if we could both juggle families and working, you and your brothers could, too.” He nodded emphatically and reached for another donut.

“You're right. I like running Wolf Construction.” Eli didn't think it would help to tell his granddad that he'd spent a couple of hours in the park with Frankie and Ava earlier. Nor that watching her with Ava had made him wonder what it would be like if the little girl were their child.

Frankie would make a wonderful mother. She was great with Ava, affectionate and warm but firm when needed.

The sudden mental image of a little girl with Frankie's blond hair and brown eyes, one that called him daddy, had stunned him. He hadn't been able to get that image out of his mind.

But damned if he was going to confess that to Jack.
The old man would never give him any peace if he knew he was imagining having children with Frankie.

BOOK: Beauty and the Wolf
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