“Can we go feed the ducks when we’re done eating?” Rory asked, his face smeared with mustard. Alexia giggled and wiped the mustard away.
“Sure,” she told him.
Rory leaned against his uncle and gazed up at him with puppy dog eyes. “Will you come too?”
Asher couldn’t help but grin. He was a sucker for that look. “Sure, as long as you promise one thing.”
“I won’t bring the whipped cream can with me,” Rory assured him, making every one laugh again.
“No. Not that. Promise you’ll save me from the evil geese this time instead of laughing at me?” Asher asked.
Rory grinned, happily nodding his head.
Across the table, Morgan raised an eyebrow.” Evil geese?”
“Yeah,” Asher said, gazing towards the pond. “I brought Rory here to play catch and they chased me until I gave them the ball.”
“I told you they thought you’d taken one of their eggs away,” Rory commented.
“If they chase me again I’ll do more than take an egg; I’ll stuff ‘um with chestnuts and roast them for Christmas dinner,” Asher muttered.
“But Christmas is still really far away,” Rory pointed out.
“Then it will be good practice,” Asher shot back, pouting.
Conner chuckled and gave Asher’s arm a squeeze. “I’ll protect you from the evil, rampaging geese.”
Asher turned to him and grinned. “Thanks, at least someone cares.” Still grinning he stuck his tongue out at Rory who responded by making funny faces at him.
“And who’s supposed to be the adult here?” Morgan laughed.
“You,” Alexia fired back before tickling Rory.
It took a while for the food to be consumed along with strawberry shortcake and cookies for desert, heavy on the whipped cream for everyone except Alexia who’d declared it fattening.”
“Women look amazing with curves, sis,” Asher pointed out gently. “You’re beautiful. Little whipped cream isn’t gonna hurt you.”
Alexia’s eyes brightened at the compliment and she let him decorate her strawberry shortcake with a little whipped cream. She’d never imagined her brother could be so accepting, especially after the first day at his apartment when he’d seen the changes she’d made to herself. But since he’d moved back over the bar, she’d seen the Asher who’d tried to take in every stray when they were little, who’d bottle-fed kittens when their mom got run over in the road, and who’d washed her skinned knees when she’d fallen and hurt herself trying to keep up with her brothers.
As she dug into her dessert, she remembered how he was the only one who’d never called her a pest, or mocked her for being afraid of storms. He’d just let her crawl into bed with him and hold her while the lightning and the thunder warred outside the window. Sometimes he’d even made up stories about them being gods or giants fighting and she’d fallen asleep to one of his fantastic tales.
She was almost done when he stood and picked up Rory, put the little boy on his shoulders and handed him the bread, carrying him to the pond with Conner and his camera following.
“That’s the Asher I remember,” she said softly, looking across the table at her father.
“That’s the Asher I’ve missed,” Morgan said, staring after the young man fondly.
“I know he still misses Cole, I-I just hope that he never resents me for causing the rift between them.”
“You didn’t cause the rift between them and I need you to stop thinking that way. Cole’s stubbornness caused, it and I hope one day he’ll come to his senses and fix it.”
She gave him a small, tense smile that just made him wish he could erase all the hurts of the past.
“Why don’t you join them around the pond,” he suggested, as the sounds of laughter drifted across the field.
“But…” She gestured to the things on the table that still needed to be put away.
“No buts about it, you go. I brought you all out here to have a good time, so git!”
With her father using his “stern” voice, there was no room left for her to argue. Alexia finished her last bite and tossed the paper plate in the trash, along with three others she managed to grab before he scowled at her.
“I’m gittin’ I’m gittin!” she yelped as she ran to join the others.
Morgan watched as Asher made a wisecrack, no doubt about him, and Alexia laughed, and then fell in stride beside him as they walked.
“Ohhh look,” Rory said softly, leaning down to point at a green-headed duck near the reeds, sitting all alone.
“Let’s go feed him please, please.”
“Sure, kiddo,” Asher said, walking slowly in that direction. The duck quacked when they approached, then stood and eagerly went after the bread pieces Rory dropped for it.
Conner walked a few feet away from them, taking pictures of them as they fed the ducks. Alexia had bread and tore it into small pieces, scattering it about and laughing as the ducks and geese ran over to get them.
“Not the geese,” Asher groaned.
“It wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t feed them too,” Rory pointed out logically, and Asher grinned, because he couldn’t argue with the boy’s logic, especially when he was right. So, with a long suffering sigh Asher held still, even with the geese crowding close to his boots, and patiently waited for Rory to finish feeding them.
By the time they’d run out of bread, their food had settled and Morgan had finished cleaning up things around the table, so they all gathered in the field for a little football. Asher was bound and determined to teach Rory to throw a proper spiral, while Conner half-played in between running for his camera to get shots of them playing in the setting sun.
They played until Rory was tired, then Asher tossed some wood in the fire pit and got a fire going while Morgan walked back to the car, pulling a guitar from the trunk.
“Aw come on, Morgan,” Asher grumbled.
“You come on, and stop being stubborn and play for us will ya,” Morgan urged, holding the guitar out to him.
“Come on, Uncle Asher,” Rory pleaded, giving him the puppy dog look again.
Asher shook his head and took the guitar, scowling a little even as he sat down and checked to be sure it was in tune. Conner sat across from him, taking pictures in the firelight, a fact that made Asher just a little ill at ease. He hoped there weren’t too many picture of him and all his scars, or at the very least, that shadows from the flames would hide them.
Alexia sat to his left, with Rory leaning against her, her arms around him as Morgan settled into his seat. Asher played “Home on the Range” just because he knew Morgan hated it, singing in a high, off-key falsetto and making everyone laugh. When he was done he settled in and got serious, playing through some old Southern Rock songs before slowing things down with old peace songs like the ones his mother used to sing.
Rory fell asleep after a while, drifting off to the music. Conner took a few more pictures then finally put the camera away for good, content to just sit and listen to the rise and fall of Asher’s voice as he sang.
“We should pack up,” Asher whispered when he was done singing a stunning rendition of ‘Simple Man.’
“It’s getting late and I think someone’s pretty much gonna have to be carried from here on out.”
“I’ll get him,” Morgan offered, “if you boys want to go ahead and put the fire out and load up the car.”
“Sure thing,” Conner said, standing up to help.
Asher put the guitar back in its case and returned it to the trunk, then joined Conner and Alexia in gathering things together. When they were sure they had everything, Asher and Conner went back to the fire pit to put it out.
Flickering flames illuminated their faces as they stood together for a moment, watching the fire burn low.
“Today was awesome,” Conner said softly. “Thanks for letting me tag along.”
“I’m glad you wanted to,” Asher admitted.
Conner cocked his head to the side, studying him. “Why wouldn’t I have?”
Asher just shrugged. “I dunno. I guess I’m still getting use to you being around.”
“Hey,” Conner said softly, lightly touching Asher’s arm. “I’ll be around for as long as you want me around and I really hope you’ll keep wanting me around.”
Asher grinned at that and turned towards Conner, watching the way the fire played across his face. So gorgeous. Asher’s hand was moving before he realized it, lifting to lightly rest against the side of Conner’s face, stroking his fingers over Conner’s cheek.
Those rough, work-worn hands caressing him so gently made Conner moan and he let his eyes fall closed, even as he tilted his head and nuzzled his face against Asher’s palm. Asher blinked, startled by the moan and the movement and dropped his hand, shocked at himself for touching his friend without his permission. He jerked his hand away, an apology already spilling from his lips as he did.
Conner didn’t let him finish it, though; whatever he wanted to say was lost when Conner kissed him.
Morgan and Alexia watched from the car, both smiling as they saw the two lose themselves in each other’s arms.
“About damned time too,” Morgan grumbled.