“You’re the pussy, Chooch,” Donny muttered with a bitter weariness that was heartbreaking to see in one so young. “At least that’s what I hear from Banger. That’s what he calls you behind your back all the time.”
“Fuck you, man!” Chooch told Banger furiously, switching the target for his aggression without a quiver of his eyelids. Banger was in the process of sizing up Vic, deciding whether or not he could take him. The majority of his bravado melted out of him by the time he met Vic’s steady stare.
Vic’s gaze moved over Banger in a rapid, disparaging once-over. He was at least in his mid twenties if not early thirties—old enough to know that he shouldn’t be dragging fifteen-year-old kids into bars with him. But Vic knew that Donny had a multitude of older brothers—a few of whom were out of prison at the moment. The badass that he studied presently shared no physical similarity to Donny—fortunately for Donny—so Vic figured he must be one of his older brothers’ partners in crime.
Alex had returned to the bar and must have noticed the tempers flaring over at the booth.
“Banger, I don’t want any trouble from you tonight, ya hear? Sheriff Madigan is in the back of the bar and you’re already on his shit list!” Alex shouted.
Alex’s threat to sic Danny Madigan on him seemed to completely flatten an already deflating Banger. Vic couldn’t say he blamed the jerk. Madigan might be a small-town boy, but he was also a six-foot-two-inch, heavily muscled ex-Marine who not only had the power of the law behind him, but could turn Banger into packaged ground meat in a matter of minutes. Still, Vic suspected there was some other reason Banger chose not to tango with Vic when Sheriff Madigan was on the premises—something Vic hoped didn’t have to do with drugs or guns or some other illegal activity.
“Your ass is grass, man!” Banger told Vic with a glare he might have learned in a therapeutic acting class at Joliet Penitentiary.
Vic gave Donny a bland look. He knew the kid interpreted his expression accurately when Donny’s lips curved in shared amusement.
“Banger, you’re a moron,” Donny said before he turned. “Let’s go, Vic.”
“See ya, boys,” Vic said, his mouth curving at Banger’s infuriated expression at his emphasis on the word boys.
Vic paused in the process of holding open the El Paso Lounge’s front door for Donny.
“What about our date?” Missy Shane asked shrilly.
Vic tried to ignore the smirk he saw on Donny’s face from the corner of his eye. “Maybe another time,” he muttered before he ducked his head and followed Donny out the front door. Vic took a long draw of the fresh, brisk air, clearing his head.
“You had a date with Missy Shane and you blew her off?” Donny asked, his voice breaking slightly in incredulity. “Shit, you’re nuts, man. Missy’s hot.”
“Wasn’t exactly a date,” Vic muttered under his breath.
“Then you’re even more nuts.”
“Yeah? Well, you’re too young to be talking about non-dates and hanging out in bars,” Vic accused sourly as they started walking to his truck.
“You’re just changing the subject.”
Vic frowned. The kid was too sharp for his own good. Meg’s bright idea to have Vic offer Donny a job in the stables had to do with the fact that she saw a lot of promise in the kid and couldn’t stand to see him ending up in juvie or worse. Vic had seen Donny’s drawings and had to agree. Besides, Vic was extremely picky about the people who took care of his horses, and Donny was a natural.
“You’re a smart kid,” Vic muttered as they walked through the parking lot. “Way too smart to be letting those assholes talk you into making drug exchanges for them or doing some other equally stupid thing. They’ll tell you how you won’t get in trouble for it because of your age, but they’re lying. They don’t give a shit about you. Am I right?”
Donny flipped the dark fringe of hair out of his eyes. “About me being smart? I left with you, didn’t I?”
Vic opened his mouth to press the subject but bit off his words. Hell, what’d he’d said in the bar was true. He wasn’t the kid’s dad.
Donny had gotten across his point, just as Vic had.
“You got your permit with you?” Vic asked tersely as he dug in his jeans for his keys. He knew from experience around the farm that the kid was a good driver. Vic was helping him log enough hours with an adult driver so that he could get his license.
“You been drinking?” Vic pressed. He’d already surmised that the answer was no from Donny’s behavior, but the kid did have a history, after all. That was one of the reasons Meg had implored Vic to hire him to work in the stables. Meg knew that Donny needed some kind of constant in the chaotic, dysfunctional world provided by his flighty mother, a houseful of reprobate older brothers, and a father who had said sayonara before Donny had cut his first tooth.
“Nah, I don’t drink anymore,” Donny answered with a vaguely insulted expression.
Vic tossed the keys at him. “Well, I have been, so you’re driving. Anybody gonna miss you if you sleep out in the stables tonight?” he queried as he climbed into the passenger seat of his truck and slammed the door. Donny often spent two or three nights a week after he finished work in the cozy little bedroom out in the stables and then went to school with Meg in the morning. Vic regretted asking the question so flippantly, however, when Donny didn’t answer immediately as he busied himself adjusting the driver’s seat and his mirrors for their five-inch difference in height. The kid was growing faster than a stalk of corn in the fertile Illinois soil. He very well might surpass six feet by the end of the summer.