"So when do we get to meet him?" I wanted to know.
I'm Robyn's eldest brother, admittedly a badass SOB capable of scaring the crap out of just about everybody. I guess I just look scary, I don't know—I'm a big sucker, tall, well over six feet, with dirty blond hair that has only a passing acquaintance with a comb. I do a better job with the beard than I do with my hair. So sue me. I own a gym, and I'm a bodybuilder myself. Two hundred sixty pounds of muscle and madness, and proud of it. For years, I've made sport out of terrorizing anyone and everyone Robyn dated.
"Who?" Robyn asked as she cleared the dishes from the table after dinner. She knew who I was talking about but was obviously postponing the agony of meeting her five brothers for this new guy for as long as she could. That told me he was different from the others. I had to check him out, see if he was good enough for her.
I grinned. "The guy you're so hung up on," I said. "And don't try to deny it. This is me you're talking to. I know you, and this one's different."
"Don't know what you're talking about." She scraped the remnants of food into the food bowls along one wall.
I was distracted from my interrogation for a minute there. "I've got to get that garbage disposal put in," I said.
She laughed at that. "We don't need a garbage disposal," she said. "In case you haven't noticed, we already have ten of them. These guys will eat anything that's not nailed down or on fire."
Almost as if on cue, all the cats and dogs appeared in the doorway, knocking each other down to get to the food. I looked down at them and shook my head. "They're so old they can barely get around, but the minute they smell food, they've got all kinds of energy."
Robyn laughed. "Much like five guys I know."
I got back on subject. "So...this guy, what did you say his name is?" I wanted to know.
"What is it?"
"None of your business."
"You ashamed of him?"
"No, of course not."
"Then why the secrecy?" I pushed her.
"I'm not going to have you and the other four Stooges scaring him away," she said, running hot, soapy water into the sink.
I made a face. "There are only three Stooges, honey. Everybody knows that."
She turned to face me. "Not true," she said. "There were a total of five. Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp and Curly Joe." We'd been like that since we were kids, teasing, debating the silliest things.
I laughed. "Does that make me Moe?" I asked, scratching one of the dogs' ears as it ate.
She thought about it. "I guess you're as close to a Moe as this family's got."
"Moe was the smart one," I reminded her.
"When compared to the other four, I suppose you could say you're the smart one. You didn't have to repeat any grades or anything," Robyn said. She turned and threw a dishtowel at me. "I'll wash, you dry. On second thought, you wash, I'll dry."
"You need a dishwasher," I said as I got up and dragged my ass over to the sink, pushing the towel back at her.
"No, I don't. I've got one--you."
I reached down into the water and started washing the dishes. "Now, back to your mystery man. Name?"
I whistled. "I'm impressed. Does Angelina know?"
She rolled her eyes. "Give it up...Moe."
"You know that's not gonna happen," I said, grinning. "Might as well tell me."
She hesitated. "Alex," she said finally. "His name is Alex."
I kept working on the dishes like I wasn't making a big deal of it. "Now we're getting somewhere. Does he have a last name?"
"Yes, of course. But that's all you're getting."
"Where'd you meet him?"
"At the shelter." She took a tall glass from me, held it up to the light to inspect it for spots, then dried it.
"He works there?"
She hesitated. "Not exactly...."
That made me stop what he was doing. "Are you telling me he lives there?" I asked, hearing all kinds of alarm bells in my head.
"I'm not telling you anything," she said.
"He does live there--are you freakin' nuts?" I asked, pressing a wet hand to her forehead, pretending to see if she had a fever.
"Do you really think because someone's living in a homeless shelter, they're no good?" she asked, angered by the possibility that she could be correct in such an assumption about her big brother.
"I didn't say that."
"You might as well have."
I turned to face her. This was no time for subtlety, and I was no good at that shit anyway. If it was rattling around in my head, it eventually found its way into my mouth. "Robyn, you've told me yourself--the guys who come in there are almost always psych cases. Druggies or with a nasty case PTSD, courtesy of one war or another."
I wasn't convinced. "You sure about that?" I asked.
"Yes. I am."
"How long have you known him?"
"Long enough," she said.
"Which means you've probably known him for what--a week?"
"No." Now she was thoroughly annoyed with me. "Six weeks."
"Oh, well, send out the friggin' wedding announcements," I said sarcastically. "You know all there is to know about him--until the DEA or his two wives turn up looking for him."
"Shut up, Paulie!" she snapped. "He's not like that. He's different from the others. Really."
"So was Jeffrey Dahmer. And not in a good way."
"Alex is a good man." She paused. "Paulie, I do see guys at the shelter all the time. And yes, they're all damaged goods. They've been on drugs or damaged by war. Yes, I've seen it. Too much of it."
"So how is this guy Alex different?" I asked. I looked at her and turned into a damn marshmallow. "You know I'm only worried because you're my baby sister and I love you."
"Alex is very intelligent," she said. "And creative, talented. He's an artist--the best amateur I've ever seen. Good enough to be successful if he wanted."
"He doesn't want to? Doesn't that make you wonder?"
"I have the feeling that he's walked away from something so painful, it made him give up everything," she said. "I see such deep sadness in him...."
"But you don't know any of the details? And you can't understand why I worry?"
"Have I ever been stupid over a man, Paulie?" she asked.
"No," I admitted.
"Then why don't you trust me?"
"I trust you," I insisted. "It's him I'm not sure about."
"He's a good guy. Really."
"And you're falling hard for him," I said, passing her the last washed dish.
She dried it and put it in the cabinet. "I like him. Like."
"I get the feeling there's more than like going on there," I said. "Be careful, kiddo."
"Always," she said, tossing the wet towel at me. Then, with the sweetest smile she could manage, she added, "And Paulie...if you interfere, I'm going to feed your favorite body parts to that hungry mob over there." She pointed to the dogs and cats.
Yikes! I winced at the thought.
"They really will eat anything, you know."