Duck in public tended to keep to himself, nearly fading into the background. He had the curious ability to give the impression of having an opinion while not actually expressing one, and even though he never avoided responsibility once offered to him, he didn't tend to take it on. Folks around Wilby generally felt like they'd known Duck MacDonald, Mr. MacDonald's boy, since he was a kid, but when asked, most people didn't seem to be able to say very much about him other than, "He's nice, I suppose. Real polite."
That was mostly true, believe it or not. Duck was polite, and nice, and thoughtful, and often overly serious. Here in Buddy's house, however, Duck's arms took over the back of the loveseat and his long legs sprawled out in a wide V across the area rug. He didn't look up as Buddy entered the room, and Buddy had to kick his ankle out of the way to get past him.
"We're doing it wrong, Buddy," the man said, as soon as Buddy had collapsed into the sofa to his left.
Jimmy, in Buddy's lap, babbled something and seized on his fingers as if noticing them for the first time.
"What are you talking about?" Buddy asked distractedly, wincing when Jimmy's brand new teeth came into play. Barely two and a half months old, and he was already growing his primaries. He obviously wasn't a patient baby. It was driving him and Carol crazy.
"My dad raised me on his own until I was almost three," Duck said to the ceiling. His head lolled in Buddy's direction but otherwise he didn't move a muscle. "Look at us. Four adults and one baby for just one evening. We're all worn out and he's..." He waved at Jimmy, who was now kicking Buddy rhythmically in the ribs. Buddy laid a hand over the tiny foot to hold it down. Jimmy obligingly began banging on his chest with one small fist instead. Buddy oomphed out of reflex but chuckled at his son's antics.
"Geez, Buddy. Here." Buddy handed the wriggling bundle over to Duck's reaching arms. "You can't spoil him like that," Duck admonished.
Buddy smiled at the sight of Duck cooing and jittering the kid on his knee. "He wasn't hurting me. Maybe he'll be a drummer when he grows up."
"You obviously never had a dog."
"Hey! Are you calling my son a dog? Besides, you never had a dog either."
"My next door neighbors had an English Sheepdog. They let it sleep on the couch as a puppy and never broke it of the habit."
"I don't think we have to worry about that. Jimmy's got his own bed."
Duck rolled his eyes, but he didn't get to say anything back except, "Ow!" Jimmy seemed to find his fingers just as tasty. "Where's the...?"
Buddy handed over the teething ring sitting on the end table. He hoped it was clean. Duck, evidently having the same thought, wiped it on his shirt before stuffing it in Jimmy's mouth.
A sound from upstairs preceded the arrival of Dan, wiping his hands on his pants and leaving damp stains. He groaned as he sank into the loveseat next to Duck. "We have to be doing something wrong," he declared.
Duck laughed and slapped a hand down on his husband's thigh. "I was just saying that to Buddy," he explained, grinning at Dan's questioning look. Jimmy, startled, began to make the short whining noises that came before a full-out cry.
Bracing his socked feet up on the coffee table, Duck sat Jimmy's back against his legs and talked soothingly to him. "Hey, come on, little guy. I'm sorry. It's okay." He continued in that vein until Jimmy calmed down enough to stare at him. "That's a good boy."
"He's not a dog," Buddy reminded him. Duck ignored him, except to grin wider.
Jimmy, distracted from his discomfort, went back to chewing on his ring and drooling down his chin. Duck wiped him up, then told him seriously, "Your Uncle Dan cleaned up your bath. You should thank him." He turned the baby to face Dan. "Thank you, Uncle Dan!" he said in a high-pitched voice. "Will you give me a hug?"
Dan shook his head and leaned away, looking slightly alarmed. He tucked his hands under his arms, for good measure, well aware of Jimmy's preference for his long, slightly hairy fingers.
"What are you, making my kid a ventriloquist puppet now? Give him back to me."
Duck rubbed noses with Jimmy before handing the little guy over. Jimmy's face scrunched up and he waved his arms in apparent discomfort, whether from the rub or from the transit, Buddy wasn't sure. He tickled Jimmy's feet to distract him, but the kid squirmed and began fussing. Buddy checked the clock. "Carol?" he called toward the kitchen. A few bangs answered him. "What's she doing in there?" he muttered.
Duck held up his hands. "Don't look at me. She kicked me out as soon as the sink started running."
"You sure you don't want some help?" Dan called.
Carol leaned out of the doorway to the kitchen. "I'm fine. In fact, dinner's ready!" she announced.
All of them well-trained by now, they trooped obediently to the dining room before anything could get cold. Buddy took a satisfied inhale. Carol had laid out a feast. She always went all out when they had company. This was the first time they'd had guests over for dinner since Jimmy was born, and Buddy already knew he was going to enjoy the heck out of it.
Duck and Dan seated themselves in their customary spots, knowing by now to keep out of the way while Carol made whatever last minute adjustments she deemed necessary -- each dish placed just so and the serving flatware artfully arranged within reach.
"Here," she said finally, holding out her arms with a smile. Buddy handed Jimmy over gently. Carol murmured happy greetings and kissed the tiny face. A little corner of Buddy's heart always melted when he saw his wife and son together. He covered for it quickly by taking his own chair and inviting their guests to start.
"Is it okay if I feed him while we eat?" Carol asked as she sat down in her seat at one end of the dining table.
Buddy was a little surprised. That was what they normally did, but they'd never had other people around before. When people had come over, she had retreated to their bedroom if Jimmy got hungry before the visit was over.
They'd talked about breastfeeding in public and had decided against it. Jimmy did okay with a towel over him, but Carol said she always worried when she couldn't see him. She wasn't ready to bare herself for the citizens of Wilby to gawk at either. This was in their own home, though. Buddy figured, as long as Carol was comfortable, he would be okay with it. It wasn't as if Duck or Dan were likely to ogle a woman's breasts.
"Go for it," Duck replied immediately, even though his eyebrows jumped a little.
"Sure." Dan averted his eyes quickly as Carol laid an absorbent towel over her shoulder and started to unbutton her shirt.
Buddy mooed out loud before ducking down away from her glare, grinning. He enjoyed the glimpse of Carol's milk-swollen breast, though, thinking about what he'd like to do later if they both still had the energy.
Dan made a complimentary comment about the barbeque chicken, which Buddy seconded as he got his first taste. He could definitely get used to having company over more often again.
Duck's expected follow-up seemed less sincere than usual, which was strange. When Buddy looked at him, he noticed Duck darting quick glances at Carol as she guided Jimmy to a nipple. What the hell? He kicked Duck in the ankle again.
"Stop staring at my wife, pervert." He shot Duck a questioning frown.
Duck flushed red from his cheeks down his neck. "Sorry." He kept his eyes on his plate as he asked, "How long will you, uh, feed him like that?"
Carol readjusted her hold to pick up her fork. "The doctors recommend breast milk for the first six months. We're going to try giving him milk that's been pumped out and stored soon, so I can get away to the office again." Dan made a slight face at that, but Duck seemed fascinated.
"If you start comparing equipment, I'm going to have to hurt someone," Buddy cautioned.
Again, Duck looked embarrassed, and they turned their conversation to other topics.
Later, as they walked the two men back to the door, Buddy told them, "Thanks for helping out, guys. Really. You didn't have to do that. You were supposed to be here to enjoy yourselves."
Dan shrugged. "We were free anyway."
"Duck, you have to let us pay you for fixing the faucet, at least," Carol said, speaking softly with Jimmy dozing against her shoulder.
"Naw. I had the parts lying around already, and it's not like it was a job." Buddy would probably protest more if he hadn't spent most of last June helping Duck and Dan extend their garage to fit Dan's car. Duck leaned down to put his face on a level with Jimmy's. "Good night, little guy," he said, smiling fondly, before he and Dan made their last goodbyes and left for their home.
"I think we should hire Duck to be our nanny."
Buddy chuckled as he got under the covers. "Sure. We'll get him an apron to wear." He clicked off the light, leaving the room in shadow, with dim rectangles of moonlight coming through the curtains. He reached for Carol, smelling the sweetness of her skin under the soap. He nuzzled the back of her neck and fingered the bottom hem of her nightshirt, making his intentions known.
"I'm serious." Carol put a quelling hand on his.
"He has a flexible schedule. And he would do it if we asked. I'm sure of it."
"You have a flexible schedule, too," he pointed out before he could think.
"Buddy," was all she said, in a tired voice. They'd had this conversation already a dozen times. The housing market was getting more and more competitive. People were shopping and doing research online. They were getting more savvy, negotiating with their agents for bonuses and to split commissions. Carol was doing okay so far, but she couldn't afford to lose her clientele. Wilby was a small market, and Carol was still, in many people's eyes, not a trusted islander.
Carol had worked hard to get to where she was and Buddy understood that she didn't want to lose her place. She had already lost most of the precious summer months, when most families were buying and selling. Buddy wished Carol didn't have to work at all, but with Jimmy now, they needed the double income. That was why they'd agreed to find a nanny in the first place. They just hadn't expected it to be so difficult.
Carol sighed and turned around to face him in the dark. "I can't stay home. And you know how I feel about temporary sitters. We need someone we know and trust to take care of Jimmy on a regular basis."
"We already call them to help out sometimes. Maybe we can manage like we've been doing until Jimmy's older." Duck had come over almost regularly during those first few weeks when everything had seemed crazy and the clock had had no meaning anymore. More often than not, Dan had gotten dragged along as well.
"You know that's not the answer. Even when we call them, they're like the fire brigade. They rush in, they don't know where anything is, they don't know our routine. It's all a mess and we wind up with all of us exhausted anyway."
He rolled over and clicked the light back on. Carol was curled up on her side, watching him. He frowned at her.
"Do you know how much time he would have to commit to? We can't ask him to do that."
Carol's forehead crinkled in a frown. "You sound like it would be horrible for him."
"He'd be tied up half the day virtually every weekday. He has a job, too, you know."
"A lot of his work is done after hours and on the weekends anyway. And haven't you noticed how he looks at Jimmy?"
"What do you mean?"
Carol got up on her elbow. "You really haven't noticed."
"What are you talking about?" he asked, irritated.
"He loves him."
He shook his head. "We can't take advantage of him just because he has a soft spot for the kid."
"You don't get it, do you?" Her face softened. "He loves Jimmy like he's family."
Buddy's chest tightened under a sharp stab of jealousy-anger-wrongness. A flash came into his mind, of Duck staring at Carol and Jimmy with that weird look that Buddy hadn't been able to figure out. "Jimmy's our son." Well, that didn't sound at all petulant, did it, Buddy?
"He knows that. That's why he looks so sad."
"What are you talking about?" Duck always looked happy and relaxed when he was with Jimmy. He and the kid got along like gangbusters.
Carol took his hand, and he squeezed back, but only out of reflex. He didn't like where this seemed to be going. "Don't you remember what it was like when we were trying? At least we had a little hope. Duck doesn't."
"So, what? You want to give him our son?"
"Of course not," Carol replied, more sharply now. "What I'm saying is, we need his help right now, and I think he wouldn't mind. So, why not?"
Buddy shook his head. "No." This conversation was ridiculous. Duck was a happily married middle-aged man with a job that they shouldn't interfere with. He didn't need a baby. Certainly not theirs.
Carol moved closer and touched his face. "I trust him. Who else would we trust more? Even if it would inconvenience him... Well, we could pay him, to make up for it. The same wages as we would have given whoever we wound up hiring. Buddy, I really think Duck would care for Jimmy like his own, and I think maybe he would want to do it. Isn't that important?"
Buddy reached up to stroke Carol's long hair. It had been a hard birth for her. Even ten years ago, or with a less attentive hospital staff, they would have lost their son, and possibly Carol as well. If anyone had a right to judge who was the best possible nanny for Jimmy, it was her. He sighed.
"I'll think about it."
Buddy... thought about it sometimes. Sometimes he would study Duck, and he would try to imagine what Dan saw when he looked at his lover. His lips, maybe, his shy smiles. The changing color of his intense eyes. Certainly, he had nice hands for a man, rough with work but tapered and skillful. He wondered what made Duck different, what made a man who shared so much in common with himself get hard for another man and want to spend the rest of his life with him instead of with a woman.
He wondered what Duck was like in bed.
Buddy had asked Carol once, if she thought Duck was handsome. "It depends on your taste," she'd replied, which hadn't helped very much at all. "Don't worry," she'd added with a knowing smile. "I think you're much better looking than he is." He'd discovered, somewhat to his personal chagrin, that that had been what he'd wanted to hear after all.
He was petty and egotistical and crass, he knew, but -- he liked that Duck was no threat to him.
Buddy thought sometimes about why he was friends with a gay man and why it didn't matter. And why it did.
Sometimes, Buddy... not worried, exactly, but... wondered about what Duck saw in him. When it came right down to it, Buddy was no more admirable or trustworthy or intelligent than most other men.
Sometimes he wondered about what he saw in Duck.
Circumstances had put himself and Duck in each other's paths. He'd had opportunities to befriend Duck before, and he had not taken them. He worried if maybe in the end, Duck was just 'his gay friend'. Maybe Buddy was so attached to the man simply because being friends with Duck proved to himself that he was a good person, one who was unprejudiced and fair.
Or maybe that was all so much self-critical baloney.
Duck accused him of that sometimes, of being idealistic to the point of arrogance, and out of touch with the real world. Too ready to sit back and 'dispense his wisdom'. Buddy thought Duck made him a better man, and Buddy liked that.
Buddy knew Duck was a good man. He cared about people. He was unequivocal about helping whomever came to him for assistance, and he had a knack for knowing how. Duck had a quality to him that made people trust him, and Buddy wasn't immune to that. He lowered Buddy's defenses, made him want to be silly and honest. Buddy liked that, too.
There was another quality to Duck that made Buddy want to take care of him.
Maybe that was partly to do with Duck being gay. It made him... not feminine, of course. Not that, exactly. But... something. Something that made Buddy want to ruffle his hair and give him hugs and touch him more than he might other men. Something that made him want to track down 'Erik' from Ontario and forget for a while that he was an officer of the law.
But that was a story for the gallant Buddy French that existed only in his head, and in the eyes of silly high school girls with crushes on the lacrosse team captain. For one thing, Duck would kill him if he ever did that. For another... Duck didn't need his help.
He remembered the night when Sergeant Hayes had told him, "Go let MacDonald's boy out. Drive him to the hospital. His dad's had a stroke, the poor devil."
Buddy had looked over the paperwork when they brought Duck in. He'd been astonished at the amount of damage Duck had (allegedly) inflicted on the two other men -- rugged oilmen with years of harsh work and hard living, home on vacation. Maybe they'd been embarrassed to admit to it themselves, too, because Avery and Worth hadn't pressed charges. Duck had dried himself out after that, and the whole incident had faded away.
At the hospital, though, Duck had seemed... vulnerable. Like he needed Buddy to tell him what to do.
Buddy's own dad had been in and out of the hospital for years. He'd died in a room on the opposite corner of the floor where Mr. MacDonald had been that night. Buddy never forgot that feeling of resentful anxiety in his stomach as his mum drove them to St. Agnes for the umpteenth time. Duck hadn't looked the slightest bit violent or dangerous then. He had looked like how Buddy had felt as a teenager, and Buddy's heart had gone out to him.
Buddy didn't feel needed very often. Maybe that was why he'd become a cop.
"I had a crush on you," Duck had told him once. Buddy would have to be a better man than he was not to admit that he found that kind of appealing. Yeah, right, he would admonish his ego, with a mental eyeroll. Buddy French, super stud, irresistible to both women and men everywhere. He wasn't that vain.
Except that maybe he was.
Sandra had made the first move that summer. He had let the pleasurable shock of being wanted turn his head. No excuse, he knew. And certainly no cause for pride either. He'd been a convenient and safe partner for a lonely woman, that was all. Nothing would have come of it, and his already shaky marriage would surely have disintegrated from such a blunder.
That was another thing: Duck had believed in him and Carol when Buddy had been nearly ready to give up. Duck was a man who knew himself. He had known he was in love and had gone for what he wanted in the face of an uncertain outcome and disapproval from all sides. Buddy had envied him for that and had tried to emulate him. And they had both found success.
There was no doubt in his mind that if it weren't for Duck, he would not have Carol and Jimmy with him now. He couldn't imagine his life without them, though he was sure that it would be a darker, lonelier place.
It made him think hard about what Duck really wanted.
"Do you want kids?" They were only about a minute into their usual run, their footfalls synced up in their familiar rhythm. It was curious, he supposed, that they had been friends for so long and yet still didn't know some very basic information about each other.
Duck huffed a brief laugh. "I've known since I was in ninth grade that I wouldn't be having any kids."
"So? I've known since I was in ninth grade that I wouldn't ever get a Porsche. Doesn't mean I don't want one."
"What the hell would you do with a Porsche on Wilby? The highest speed limit on the Island is seventy, and the longest straightaway is the dock."
Buddy laughed, because while that wasn't strictly true, it was probably close. "But really, have you ever thought about it?"
Duck shot him a look. "Where would I get a kid, Buddy?"
"You could try adopting. Or find someone to... Some women will be surrogate carriers, you know?" He and Carol had gathered tons of pamphlets back then, soon after they'd gotten married and discovered the devastating truth. He'd come home one day to find that Carol had thrown them all out, and he had felt relieved and disappointed about it at the same time.
"Maybe, but it'd be a lot of work. And a lot of money. Anyway, Dan doesn't want kids. He's not into that whole thing."
"The passing on the genes thing? Or the having something expensive and dependent clinging to him for twenty years thing?"
That got a smile. "All of it." Duck shrugged. "You've seen him with Jimmy."
Buddy nodded. He had. Dan didn't mind helping out, and he usually seemed to have fun with Jimmy when he was over, but he never asked to hold him or play with him, and he was never the first to bring up children in any conversation.
"Some guys... They get married just because they want a family. The wife hardly matters. I'm not like that." Duck gave Buddy a wry smile. "And I'd be pretty surprised if any woman on Wilby would have me. Were you planning to give me recommendations?"
Buddy elbowed him. "Dope."
"I guess I could always poach on your kid."
That hit a little too close to home for Buddy to make the properly glib response. He settled for an all-purpose snort of amusement.
"Jimmy's a good kid," Duck said, more seriously. "You should be proud."
The reply was subdued, though, because Buddy saw it now -- that wistful look that Carol had pointed out to him.
For the rest of their run, he couldn't get it out of his head.
"Have you asked Duck yet?"
"Not yet. I was thinking Saturday, after our run."
"Shoot. I'll need to drop by the Antonios' place that morning. I've been putting it off for two weeks already. Just let me know what he says, okay?"
Carol had left a note for Buddy before heading out. Mrs. Plummer, over from next door, handed it to him before bustling away, muttering about being late.
"What could she be late for, a lecture on how to care for dentures?" Buddy groused. This, he reflected, was exactly why they needed a regular nanny. Duck shook his head in a commiserating way.
"Help yourself to fruit and waffles," the note said.
Carol had sliced a plate of assorted melons and left the waffle-maker out with a bowl of batter. Jimmy was whimpering and kicking fretfully in his rolling crib by the kitchen table. Evidently, he didn't like Mrs. Plummer's perfume any more than Buddy did. Buddy smiled at the thought.
Duck went to Jimmy and tickled his belly until the kid was giggling instead.
Buddy removed the plastic wrap from the bowl of batter and stirred it slowly as he watched the two of them together. Now that he was looking for it, that edge of sadness to Duck's expression was just discernible under his amiable grin. Jimmy, meanwhile, was still giggling, kick-punting his way across the crib with excitement.
He put the bowl down. "Carol and I were wondering, since the whole nanny thing isn't really panning out... Would you be willing to look after Jimmy while we're working?"
Duck whipped his head up to stare. "Me?"
"Yeah, men can take care of babies. There's even a term for it nowadays: a 'manny'." He smiled, but Duck still looked a bit shell-shocked.
"You want me to--?"
"It'd be a lot of work. You'll have to schedule your jobs around it and probably lose quite a few of them, too. We'll pay you."
"No, no, that's okay. I'll do it. You don't have to pay me. It's not a job." He was almost tripping over his words. "Carol's really okay with it?"
"She's the one who suggested it." Trying to look casual, he pushed off the counter and went to join Duck at the side of the crib.
Duck stilled, and he gave Buddy a long, disturbingly perceptive, look. "Are you okay with it?"
Instead of returning his gaze, Buddy focused on his son. He stroked Jimmy's soft, dark hair. He'd had a full head of black hair when he was born. Carol insisted it was because she'd ingested bowls and bowls of seaweed while pregnant. It was supposedly some folk recipe for dark-haired babies.
"Yeah," he said. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"You tell me."
Shit. That was Duck's hard voice. He'd straightened up and crossed his arms. Buddy lifted Jimmy out of the crib and held him against his shoulder. "Of course I'm fine with it. It would help us out a lot."
"You don't look fine with it."
Buddy didn't know how to answer that, and they lapsed into a confused silence.
Finally, Duck raised his eyebrows and bounced a little on his toes. He made a mock-salute. "I promise not to turn Jimmy gay. Unless he wants to be."
Buddy rolled his eyes. He hefted Jimmy up from where he'd slipped a bit. "As long as you don't try to teach him to sing, either."
"I'm told I'm very entertaining." The smile disappeared from Duck's face. "Are... Are you afraid I'd let him get hurt or something?"
This time, Buddy glared at him. "Of course not. Do you think I trust you less than some half-blind octagenarian? Or some teenager from Wilby High?" When Duck merely stared back at him, he demanded, "Well, do you?"
At that, Duck uncrossed his arms and shrugged, glancing between Jimmy's face and Buddy's. "All right, whatever," he said. "You don't need to tell me anything. If it makes you feel better, you can pay me for it, too."
How much did you have to want something to say that? Buddy heaved a frustrated sigh. Because that was Duck all over, wasn't it? Practical and conciliatory to a fault. "God damn it, Duck--"
Jimmy began to cry.
Buddy tried to soothe him. He rocked him and apologized and whispered nonsense, but none of it seemed to have any affect. Finally, with a sense of defeat, he held Jimmy out towards the other man. "Here... do your thing."
For the first time since Jimmy had been born, Duck hesitated before accepting him into his arms. As soon as he had him, however, his whole demeanor relaxed. Duck talked in a calm, explanatory sort of voice and rubbed circles on Jimmy's back, eventually graduating to slower and slower pats. A few minutes later, Jimmy had settled and was starting to doze off from the exertion of crying.
How did Duck do that? Just put his feelings aside and slip into whatever someone needed him to be?
When Duck gave Buddy a questioning look, ready to hand Jimmy back, Buddy shook his head and gestured toward the crib instead. He watched as Duck laid the baby down inside.
He hovered for a bit longer, and it was only when Jimmy seemed to have fallen asleep that he stepped back. He tensed up again as soon as he turned back to face Buddy. "So." Duck stared at him, unblinking. "What's the deal?"
It was high time that Buddy thought about being practical himself. "We really need your help, Duck. I'd appreciate it a lot if you would. As for paying you..."
"How about half-wages."
Buddy nodded. That was fair, and it would make things less complicated. "Okay."
Duck considered him for a long beat. He came closer and asked, low, "Are you sure about this?"
He stared, feeling helpless in the face of Duck's reasonable, well-intentioned doggedness. Finally, he waved a hand at the crib where Jimmy slept. "He never settles for me like that. Not so fast, anyway," he said, trying not to sound like an idiot and having the feeling that he wasn't succeeding.
Duck's frown deepened for a few seconds. Then he did that little headshake thing he did when something confused him.
"Buddy, you're his dad. You think anything I can possibly do would change that?"
When Buddy only shrugged, Duck put a hand to his forehead and closed his eyes. "Oh, shit," he intoned. "You're having a French Moment, aren't you?"
Buddy scowled, even as he felt a smile try to make its way onto his face. "What are you talking about?"
"Spit it out, Buddy. What moral crisis are you struggling with now?"
"You make it sound so melodramatic."
"Hey, somebody's failed the Good Person Test. I think that's pretty big. Might have to carry you out of here on a stretcher."
"Oh, shut up." He lost the battle with the smile.
"So. You think I'm trying to steal your kid or something?" Buddy realized he had dropped his gaze only when Duck leaned to look up into his face. "Hey. I won't do this if it would screw things up between us, okay? You'll find a nanny eventually."
"Carol trusts you. We trust you, and we need the help." It was perfectly true. Buddy's feelings shouldn't be so mixed up as they were.
Duck turned his gaze to the crib. "You're a great dad. I won't be any competition."
Buddy pursed his lips. "I wouldn't say that. But they say that competition is best for the consumer. Jimmy will win out either way." That was the most important thing.
They didn't warn you about this when you became a dad. Buddy had been ready for the sleepless nights, the constant worry, and the serious lack of a sex life. He hadn't counted on this sense of... possessiveness he felt. Like the caveman in him was growling, That's my DNA. Protect! Fight! Kill!
"So did I pass the interview?" Duck asked.
"On probation, at least." He smiled as Duck made a disparaging noise. "When can you start?"
"How about the Monday after? I'll need to shift a few things around."
A faint whine came from the crib, and Buddy went to Jimmy and picked him up again.
"You really shouldn't spoil him like that. It's going to make my job harder."
"Probation," Buddy reminded him, mock-sternly.
"I've heard Carol say the same thing. And you already told me she wants to hire me."
Buddy sighed ostentatiously. "He's my son, too. Doesn't anyone remember that?"
He'd meant it as a joke, but maybe it hadn't come out all the way in the right tone, because Duck bumped his shoulder with his own. "The kid knows the difference. I'm just his dad's friend, okay?"
Warm gratitude flushed through him. "You're family, too," he told Duck softly. It was true, just like Carol had said. Somewhere between that jail cell and now, Duck MacDonald had become an intrinsic part of Buddy's life.
Duck cleared his throat noisily, started to speak, paused, then said in a light tone, "Are you propositioning me?"
Buddy had an easy answer to that. "Depends. What's your dowry like?" He sighed fondly at Jimmy's sleeping face. "The kid's going to need a college fund."
"You know, Dan actually brought that up the other day." Duck rubbed his knuckles across his chest before resting both hands on the side of the crib. He kept his eyes on Jimmy's face. "He wanted to set something up for his niece, but you know what an arsehole his brother-in-law is. And Steve won't take it. He's still convinced we're living just barely above poverty. Dan asked me if I thought you and Carol might be okay with us doing something for Jimmy instead."
Buddy rocked Jimmy slowly to keep him settled.
This was... a big step. Bigger than dinners together and calling each other for favors that never needed to be returned. Bigger than hiring a guy with a flexible schedule to look after his kid when he and his wife were busy.
"I'll talk to Carol about it. Thanks, either way." He watched as one of Duck's slow, quiet smiles spread across his face. Shifting Jimmy in his arms, he held his son up to eye-level and spoke to him: "Get used to Uncle Duck, Jimmy. You'll be seeing a lot more of him from now on."
Duck leaned forward on his elbows and looked at them with his head cocked a bit to the side. "You know. He could, uh... He could call me Walter."
They had waffles, and Duck headed out for a job shortly afterwards. When Jimmy fussed again, Buddy picked him up, even as both Duck's and Carol's voices cautioned him against it in his head.
He kissed his son on the forehead and gazed into his wide, brown eyes. "A dad, a mum, and two uncles. You are going to be one spoiled kid."
Jimmy burbled something and smacked Buddy in the nose, which Buddy took to mean that he understood.
He traced one finger over a puffy, petal-soft cheek. "You're going to enjoy it, kid. I promise."