Toby grinned and threw his arms around Josh’s neck in greeting. The kid’s moods were pure and mercurial, but he loved with a fierceness that always grabbed Josh by the throat. He hugged Toby back hard, and Toby barked.
Letting out a breath, Josh set him aside to lean over Anna, who hadn’t moved. He didn’t fool himself; he had no delusions of being able to control his sister. She hadn’t stayed still simply because he’d ordered her to. “Anna.” Gently he pushed the damp hair from her sweaty brow. “Talk to me.”
She opened her eyes and laughed outright. “That was sweet,” she said.
Toby tipped his head back and barked at the ceiling, his voice filled with glee.
Josh sat back on his heels and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Toby should be in bed, Anna. And you could have hurt yourself.”
She started to crawl to her chair. “Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.”
Josh scooped her up while Devon sauntered over. Though how he could walk at all with his homeboy jeans at half past his ass was a mystery. Devon righted Anna’s wheelchair, and Josh set her into it.
“Oh, relax,” she muttered after Josh stood over her, hands on hips. She tugged on Toby’s ear. “Hey, handsome. Go get ready for bed, ’k?”
“Arf-arf,” Toby said, and turned to the hallway.
Josh caught him by the back of his Star Wars sweatshirt. “You use soap and water today?”
Toby scrunched up his nose and scratched his head.
Josh took that as a no. “Use both now. And toothpaste.”
“Arf,” Toby said slowly, all hurt puppy face.
But Josh had learned—never cave. “Go on. I’ll be right there.”
Toby went from sad to excited in a single heartbeat, because if Josh was coming, too, it meant a story. And for a moment, Toby looked young, so fucking painfully young, that Josh’s chest hurt again.
Getting home in time to fall into bed exhausted was one thing. Getting home in time to crawl into bed with his son and spend a few minutes before they both crashed was even better. “Pick out a book,” he said.
Josh gave Devon a look, and the guy made himself scarce. Devon might be a complete loser but he was a smart loser.
Anna ignored Josh and pushed back her dark hair. She was tiny, always had been, but not frail. Never frail. She had the haunting beauty of Snow White.
And the temperament of Cruella de Vil.
Five years ago, a car accident had left her a highly functioning paraplegic. She was damn lucky to be alive, though it’d been hard to convince a sixteen-year-old to see it that way. “If you can’t get him to bed on time,” Josh began, “just tell me. I’ll come home and do it myself.”
“Oh good,” Anna said with an impressive eye roll. “You still have the stick up your ass.” She headed into the foyer, grabbing her purse off the bench.
“You’re still mad about me nixing your Europe trip,” he guessed.
“Give the man an A-plus.” She snatched her jacket off the low hooks against the foyer wall. “Always knew you were smart. Everyone says so. They say, ‘Oh, that Dr. Scott’s so brilliant, so sharp.’” She turned away. “Shame it doesn’t run in the family.”
“No one says that,” he said.
“They think it.”
Josh’s fingers curled helplessly as she struggled into her jacket, but if he offered to help, she’d bite his head off. He wasn’t the only Scott family member who hated needing help. “So prove them wrong,” he said.
She shrugged. “Too much work.”
“Anna, you can’t just traipse around Europe with Devon for the rest of the year.”
“Why? Because my life is so busy? Because I’ve even got a life?”
“You’ve got a life,” he said, frustrated. “You’re taking classes at the junior college—”
“Yes, Cooking 101 and Creative Writing. Oh, and my creative writing teacher told me I should definitely not quit my day job.”
He sighed. “You can do anything you want to do. Pick a major. You are smart. You’re—”
“Paralyzed,” she said flatly. “And bored. I want to go to Europe with Devon.”
God knew what Anna saw in the guy who claimed to be going to a Seattle tech school at night while working on a roofing crew by day. Josh had never so much as seen Devon crack a book, and he sure as hell seemed to have a lot of days off. “How does Devon have the money for Europe?”
“He doesn’t. My settlement money from the accident comes in two weeks.”
Oh hell no. “No.”
“I’m going out,” she said, both ignoring what he’d said and changing the subject since it didn’t suit her.
“Where?” he asked.
Jesus. Like pulling teeth. “Fine. Be back by midnight.”
“You’re not Mom and Dad, Josh. And I’m not sixteen anymore. Don’t wait up.”
“Devon have gas this time?” Last week he’d run out of gas in his truck at two in the morning, with Anna riding shotgun up on Summit Creek.
In answer to the gas question, Anna shrugged. She didn’t know and didn’t care.
Great. “Midnight, Anna.”
“Wake me up when you’re home.”
She rolled her eyes again and yelled for Devon, who appeared from the kitchen eating a sandwich. He slid Josh a stoner-lazy smirk, then pushed Anna’s chair out the front door and into the night.
Nice. Josh shut the door and ground his teeth. He was all too aware that he wasn’t Mom and Dad. They’d been gone for five years, killed in the same accident that had nearly taken Anna as well. Josh had been twenty-eight, a brand-new father from his first and only one-night stand, and a single year out of residency when it’d happened. Overnight he’d lost his parents and had suddenly become responsible for a badly injured, headstrong, angry teenager along with his infant son. He’d held it together, barely, but it’d all been a hell of an adjustment, and there’d been more than a few times Josh hadn’t been sure he was going to make it.
Sometimes he still wasn’t sure.
He locked up, flipped off the kitchen and living room lights, and found Toby jumping on his bed with his Jedi saber, the iridescent green light slicing through the air.
Josh caught him in midleap and swung him upside down, to Toby’s screams of delight. Then Josh tossed him onto the bed and crawled in after him.
Toby had a few books on his pillow. He was into superheroes, cars, trains…anything with noise, really. Being read to calmed him, and he snuggled up close and set his head on Josh’s shoulder, pointing to the top book. The Berenstain Bears. The cover showed the entire family, but Toby stroked his finger over the mama bear.
He wanted his mama bear.
Like a knife to the heart. “Toby.”
Toby tucked his face into Josh’s armpit but Josh gently palmed the boy’s head and pulled him back enough to see his face. “You remember what I told you, right? About your mom? That she had something really important to do, but that she’d be here with you if she could?”
Toby stared at him with those huge, melting chocolate–brown eyes and nodded.
And not for the first time in the past five years, Josh wanted to strangle Ally for walking out on them. For walking out and never so much as looking back. Leaning in, he pressed a kiss to Toby’s forehead and then sighed. “You forgot the soap.”
Josh woke somewhere near dawn, dreaming about being smothered. When he opened his eyes, he realized he’d fallen asleep in Toby’s bed. The Bean had one half, Tank the other, both blissfully sleeping, limbs and paws akimbo.
Josh, bigger than both of them put together times four, had a tiny little corner of the bed. And he meant tiny. His feet were numb from hanging off, and the Berenstain Bears book was stuck to his face. Wincing at his sore bones, he shifted, and at the movement, Tank snuffled and stretched.
The bedroom was instantly stink-bombed. “Jesus Christ, dog, you smell like a barn.”
Tank just gave him a pug grin.
Josh shook his head and eased out of the bed, pulling the covers up over Toby, who was sleeping like he did everything in life—with 100 percent total abandonment.
Envying him that, Josh showered and went downstairs.
Nina was cleaning the kitchen and making Toby’s lunch.
“I need you to walk Tank today,” he said. “Twice. Once midmorning and once in the afternoon. He sure as hell better learn to hold it that long if he wants to live.”
Nina carefully closed Toby’s Star Wars lunch box. “No,” she said.
“Okay, okay, I’m only kidding. I’m not going to actually kill him.” Probably.
“No, I won’t walk that dog.” Nina was four and a half feet tall, Italian, complete with accent and snapping black eyes that could slay one alive. The housekeeper also possessed the baffling ability to organize Josh’s place so that it looked like humans lived there instead of a pack of wild animals. She didn’t cook, though. And she didn’t mother. The sole reason she made Toby’s lunch was because Toby was the only one in the house she actually liked. “I do not care for that dog,” she said. “He licks me.”
“He’s a puppy,” Josh said. “That’s what puppies do.”
“He’s a nightmare.”
Well, she had him there.
The 12-Step Chocoholics Program: Never be more than 12 steps away from chocolate!
Half an hour later, Josh had gotten Toby onto the school bus, then driven to the office, still having no idea what he was going to do about the damn dog. He would have thumbed through his contact list, except he hadn’t replaced his phone yet.
He could rehire Grace. She needed the money but hiring her again would involve being sucked into her sexy vortex. Hell. He left his car, and instead of heading inside the building, he crossed the small side street to the hospital, then walked around to the old west wing, which was now the Health Services Center, run by Mallory Quinn.