I was fine with that. I had grown to love the way he watched me. It was amazing how fast I’d become accustomed to being studied like prey, how much I’d come to crave it, when I knew precisely what was at the end of that intent stare.
That wasn’t to say that I wasn’t distracted by his idle self. He could distract me by doing absolutely nothing.
Hell, he was legitimately distracting me right then just by eating a freaking apple. I loved, seriously loved, how he consumed it with purpose and intensity as he did everything, it seemed.
It was a treat to watch him devour it in big succinct bites, going to the very last bit of fruity flesh until you wondered if he would devour the core or not.
“You aren’t going to like how your pot pie crust turns out if you keep looking at me like that,” he told me.
Biting back a happy smile, I turned my back on him and went back to cooking.
God, I loved all of his little quirks.
My boys, Rafael and Gustave, arrived at the same time though they came in their own cars.
Raf came with a bouquet of white daisies, and Gustave brought pink carnations.
My father had taught them this when they were very young. Always get flowers for beautiful women, he’d told them more times than I could count. And, as I was the only daughter to my doting father, he’d been sure to point out to them, and there is no woman on this earth more beautiful than your mother, so she can never have too many flowers.
They’d both taken it to heart. More often than not, even on the most casual, quick of visits, they came bearing flowers.
I flushed in pleasure. “You shouldn’t have,” I said. I always said this, but never meant it.
I adored this ritual.
“Nonsense,” Raf said.
“Mother,” Gus chided.
They both sounded so much like their grandfather that it filled my heart with joy.
I embraced them, giving Gus and then Raf a light kiss on the cheek.
They both favored me. My ex and I had similar coloring—dark eyes, black hair, dusky skin, and so did the boys, but their actual features, sharp straight noses, almond eyes, lush lips that stayed a natural dark rose in color, even their square white teeth, it all came straight from me, and I couldn’t have been happier about it.
Raf was taller, leaner than Gus. And Gus, while still over six feet, had a shorter, more bulked up build than his older brother. Small physical differences aside, though, anyone could tell at a glance that they were brothers and that I was their mother.
There weren’t many men out there as good looking as my boys. They were outrageously attractive. I’d seen it early on, made a point of keeping them humble, while still knowing their own worth.
Me being their mom helped as they adored me and didn’t disrespect the women in their lives because of it.
While my sons had a striking physical resemblance, personality-wise they were opposites in many respects.
Raf was so sensitive. Not to himself. Rarely for his own pain did he suffer. He suffered for others. It both broke my heart and overfilled me with pride to see the way he was moved.
Gustave, on the other hand, was insensitive to almost an extreme. He was a fighter. He could both take and land blows with precision. He fought for everything he thought was worth his concern. Causes. People. He’d always been a tank of a boy, designed to defend.
For being so dissimilar, I thought their personalities complemented each other quite brilliantly.
But when they fought. Oh, Lord. It was agony for all three of us. Just the worst. They hated being at odds with each other. Went to great, careful, tedious steps to avoid it, so when it happened, it was usually unavoidable and terrible.
Terrible for me because my boys were hurting, and your children in pain is at least ten times worse than literal pain to yourself.
Terrible for Raf because he was sensitive, all criticism focused inward, and he kept it bottled up tight, rarely letting it lash outward. But when it did go outward, and he said things that were usually true but that he knew were hurtful, he suffered double the impact.
Terrible for Gustave because, though he was the insensitive ying to Raf’s empathetic yang, he treasured his brother’s vulnerability, felt it was something he should protect, and so when it was not protected, he knew he had failed, and in his own resilient way, he was every bit as self-critical as his brother.
They had a row back in high school (over a girl) that I swear was more painful to go through than my divorce. That bad. Eyes were blackened, young hearts broken. They hadn’t spoken to each other for nearly a month.
When they’d at last reconciled, we’d all been unutterably relieved.
They worked well as a team, and suffice it to say, anything else was unthinkable.
There were a tense few minutes, when I initially introduced Gustave, the younger, more volatile of my boys, to Heath, but all things considered, it was to be expected.
Me even having a love life was going to be an adjustment for them, and the reality of it in the form of a man like Heath, well, I just assumed that would not go smoothly right away. I knew it would take time.
That being said, I could tell Raf had spoken to him, convinced him to behave, even if it was just with cool civility.
I’d take it.
I put the flowers in vases and set them as centerpieces along the middle of my large dining room table.
Without having to be asked, Raf began to set out plates and napkins, while Gus put out the silverware.
I hadn’t raised my boys to be idle little princes. They always pitched in. They’d moved out of my house knowing how to take care of themselves, and while Raf liked to tease his brother by announcing to me that Gus had girls doing his laundry for him at his dorm, I’d made sure he knew how to do it himself from the time he was thirteen.
Like tonight, for instance. Since Heath and I had cooked, it was no question that the boys would be in charge of cleanup. This was how I was raised and a system I’d passed on to them, because it worked perfectly.
My father would perhaps have cringed, but for convenience sake, we ate buffet style, filling up our plates in the kitchen and carrying them back to the dining room.
Clearly thinking the same thing, Raf smirked and muttered, “Grand-pere would have a fit,” as he carried his loaded plate out of the kitchen.
I entered the dining room last, but all of the men were still standing behind their chairs, politely waiting for me to sit first.
I felt near to bursting as I took them all in. I couldn’t help feeling more than a twinge of pride at being surrounded by such magnificent men.
I said a quick prayer that they all wouldn’t kill each other and took my seat.
No fists flew. No dishes were thrown. No profanity was spewed.
All in all, I counted the evening a victory.
Of course it wasn’t perfect. Gustave and Heath did not meet and hit it off. They didn’t bump fists, talk about sports and become best friends, but I’d known they wouldn’t.
For the most part, Rafael and I kept the conversation going, light and easy. Heath and Gustave were largely silent, answering questions when asked, but in general just eating in silence. This, also, was how I’d known it would go.
Heath loved the pot pie; going by the way he cleared his plate and went back for seconds.
Gustave was not far behind him.
I was fairly preening, knowing that at least with my cooking I’d done well tonight.
We hit a slight bump in the road when Raf asked Heath in a friendly way, “What was it that you do for a living again?”
“I work in security,” was Heath’s typical vague answer.
Gustave took exception, instantly and obviously.
He set down his fork, eyes boring into Heath. “What does that even mean? What do you do in security?”
Heath was unfazed. “Lots of things, most of them confidential for the sake of my clients.”
Raf, ever the peacemaker, promptly changed the subject to something else.
Another little bump occurred some time later when Gustave burst out with another question, delivered with a frustrated tone. “How old are you, anyway? And how did you meet my mother?”
Heath finished chewing his mouthful of food. “I’m twenty-five, and I met her at the grocery store.”
“Are you usually into older women?”
“Gus! Rude!” Raf’s voice barked, uncharacteristically sharp. His brother had managed to offend him.
“Sorry,” Gustave muttered, and I could tell by the dark flush to his cheeks and the way his eyes darted to me that he was instantly remorseful of the rude remark. I even knew why.
He’d only just realized that it was insulting to more than just Heath.
“No,” Heath drawled, his amused eyes swinging to mine. “To be honest, I didn’t realize our age difference was quite so dramatic when we met, but I didn’t care when I did find out. Have you seen your mom?”
It was my turn to bark out sharply, “Heath!”
The last thing he needed to do was egg them on, but thank God my sons just seemed to find his remark amusing.
“Do you live around here?” Raf asked, again trying to turn the conversation to something innocuous and friendly.