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  to straddle it. “There’s no amenities at all.”

  “Then why are we—”

  “Because you two screwed up and are lucky to still have jobs.”

  They sighed in unison.

  “And,” Mark went on, “because the couple who owns this place lost their home in the fire last year. Business is down, way down.”

  “Shock,” James muttered.

  “You both agreed to this. The alternative is available to you—suspension.” Mark stood. “So if this isn’t something you can handle, don’t be here when I come to pick you up in the morning.”

  He turned to the door, and just as he went through it, he heard James say, “Dude, sometimes it’s okay to just shut the hell up.”

  AFTER DROPPING OFF the pizza and ultimatum, Mark picked up his brother and drove the two of them up the highway another couple of miles, until the neighborhood deteriorated considerably.

  “He’s been looking forward to this for a long time,” Rick said.

  “I know.” Last summer’s fire had ravaged the area, and half the houses were destroyed. Of those, a good percentage had been cleared away and were in various stages of being rebuilt. The house Mark and Rick had grown up in was nearly finished now. Still small, still right on top of the neighbor’s, but at least it was new. They got out of the truck and headed up the paved walk. The yard was landscaped and clearly well cared for. Before they could knock, the door opened.

  “So the prodigal son finally returns,” Ramon Diego said, a mirror image of Rick and Mark, plus two decades and some gray.

  “I told you I was coming,” Mark said. “I texted you.”

  Ramon made an annoyed sound. “Texting is for idiots on the hamster wheel.”

  Rick snorted.

  Mark sighed, and his father’s face softened. “Ah, hijo, it’s good to see you.” He pulled Mark in for a hard hug and a slap on the back.

  “You too,” Mark said, returning the hug. “The house looks good.”

  “Thanks to you.” Ramon had migrated here from Mexico with his gardener father when he was seven years old. He’d grown up and become a gardener as well, and had lived here ever since. Forty-eight years and he still spoke with an accent. “Don’t even try to tell me my insurance covered all the upgrades you had put in.”

  “Do you like it?” Mark asked.

  “Yes, but you shouldn’t waste your money on me. If you have that much money to spare, give up the job and come back to your home, your roots.”

  Mark’s “roots” had been a tiny house crowded with his dad and brother, living hand to mouth. A one-way road for Mark as he grew up. A road to trouble.

  Ramon gestured to the shiny truck in the driveway. “New?”

  “You know damn well it is,” Mark said. “It’s the truck I bought for you for your birthday, and you had it sent back to me.”

  “Hmm,” Ramon said noncommittally, possibly the most stubborn man on the planet. Mark knew his dad was proud of him, but he’d have been even more proud if Mark had stuck around and become a gardener too. Ramon had never understood Mark not living here in Santa Rey, using it as a home base.

  “You should come home more often,” Ramon said.

  “I told you I wouldn’t be able to come during the season.”

  “Bah. What kind of a job keeps a son from his home and family.”

  “The kind that makes him big bucks,” Rick said.

  They moved through the small living room and into the kitchen. “If you’d use the season tickets I bought you,” Mark told his dad. “You could see me whenever you wanted.”

  “I saw you on TV breaking up that fight. You nearly took a left hook from that Ducks player. Getting soft?” He jabbed Mark’s abs, then smiled. “Okay, maybe not. Come home, hijo, and stay. You’ve got all the money you could need now, yes? Come settle down, find someone to love you.”


  “I’m getting old. I need nietos to spoil.”

  Rick rolled his eyes and muttered, “Here we go. The bid for grandkids.”

  “Someone to take care of you,” Ramon said, and smacked Rick on the back of the head.

  “I take care of myself,” Mark said. And about a hundred others.

  Ramon sighed. “I suppose it’s my fault. I harp on you about walking away from your humble beginnings and culture, and I divorced your mother when you were only five. Bad example.”

  “I’ve never walked away from my beginnings, Dad. I just have a job that requires a lot of traveling. And Mom divorced you. You drove her batshit crazy.” His father was an incredibly hard worker, and incredibly old world in his sensibilities. He’d driven his ambitious, wanna-be actress wife off years ago.

  The living room was empty except for two beautiful potted plants. Same with the kitchen, though the cabinet doors were glass, revealing plates and cups on the shelves. “Where’s the furniture? I sent money, and you’ve been back in this house for what, a few weeks now?”

  “I liked my old furniture.”

  “I know, but it’s all gone. You got out with the clothes on your back.” Mark still shuddered to think how close he’d come to losing his dad.

  “I’ll get furniture eventually, as I find what suits me. Let’s eat. You can tell me about your women.”

  There was only one at the moment, the one with the flashing eyes, a smart-ass mouth, and heart of gold. The one who still showed her every thought as it came to her. That had terrified him once upon a time.

  Now it intrigued him.

  His father was at the refrigerator, pulling out ingredients. “We’ll have grilled quesadillas for dinner. It’s a warm night. We’ll sit on the patio.”

  “I’ll take you out to dinner,” Mark said.

  “No, I’m not spending any more of your money. What if you get fired over this fight mess? Then you’ll be broke. Save your money.”

  “I won’t get fired, Dad. The players are working hard, making restitution.”

  “So you won’t have to suspend them?”

  “No, which is good since they’ve got more talent in their pinkie fingers than my entire line of offense, and I have a hot offense.”

  Ramon nodded his agreement to this. “The press has been relentless on you.”

  Rick nodded. “You were flashed on Entertainment Tonight with a woman from some reality show.”

  “That was a promo event,” Mark said. “I told you, I don’t need someone else to take care of right now.”

  “Love isn’t a burden, hijo. You really think it’ll soften you, make you that vulnerable?”

  Mark sent his brother a feel-free-to-jump-in-here-and-redirect-the-converation-at-any-time look, but Rick just smirked, enjoying himself. “What happened to cooking?” Mark asked desperately.

  “Your brother has someone,” Ramon pointed out, not to be deterred.

  Rick smiled smugly.

  “You could at least have a home here in Santa Rey,” his dad said. “And then maybe a family.”

  Mark sighed. “We’re not going to agree on this issue.”

  “We would if you’d get over yourself. Chicken or carne quesadilla?”

  No one in his world ever told Mark to get over himself. Instead they tripped over their feet to keep him happy. He supposed he should be thankful for the reminder to be humble. “Carne.”

  THE NEXT MORNING, both James and Casey were ready to roll right on time. They were dressed for construction work and had a coffee for Mark.

  Nice to know they could still suck up with the best of them. He wondered if either of them had talked the other out of bailing, but he didn’t really give a shit. As long as they were still here, willing to put in the time and maybe even learn something, he was good.

  They worked until afternoon, showered, then attended the rec center’s staff meeting, per Rick’s request. This was held in a conference room, aka pre-school room, aka makeshift dance studio. Everyone sat at a large table, including Rainey, who didn’t look directly at Mark. He knew that because he was looki