I gotta tell you, Jake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone give Kolya such a run for his money.
I agree, Bobby. Kolya’s typically several car lengths ahead of the second place driver.
This could be close. I mean, Mitchell is doing pretty well today. He’s no Kolya, but he’s a damn good racer. I know he’s a rookie, but damn has he moved up into the public eye fast.
These two are certainly giving the fans one hell of a race to remember.
That they are, Jake.
Hey, did you see that?
Number 52 just pulled up into third. Where did he come from?
52? *papers rustling* Who’s the driver of car #52?
Uhh. . . . some rookie, I thought. Oh man, Bobby, he’s tied with Mitchell!
Here it is! Name’s John Sheppard, racing for Team Atlantis.
Atlantis? Haven’t heard their name in a while. Not exactly synonymous with winning.
And here they are with an unknown name. Looks like their gamble’s paying off.
Holy crap, look at them go!
This has got to be the most exciting race we’ve covered in some time, huh, Jake?
You said it, man. First Kolya and Mitchell, and now Sheppard.
Three laps to go.
. . . . .
Half a lap to go, folks, and Kolya’s lead is shrinking by the second. Mitchell and Sheppard are neck in neck for second place.
Oh, wait a second. Looks like we spoke too soon. Sheppard’s making a move as they head into the second last turn!
. . . . . aaaaand Sheppard pulls into second place!
He’s gaining on Kolya, Mitchell now in his rearview.
It’s gonna be close.
Rounding the last turn.
Heading for the finish line.
Sheppard’s gaining on Kolya.
Mitchell making a valiant effort to catch up but it’s no good.
Kolya’s falling back!
No, no he’s not falling back, Jake. Sheppard’s speeding up!
Ooohh . . . . . oh man, gonna be close.
Here comes the finish line. . .
SHEPPARD TAKES THE WIN!!!!
OH MY GOD, THE ROOKIE FROM BEHIND TAKES IT ALL!!!!
Bobby, can you believe this?
It’s incredible! Rookie John Sheppard for Atlantis Racing comes out of NOWHERE and not only displaces Mitchell, but he beats Kolya—a man who has not lost a race in over five years, folks. FIVE years!
We have a new champion, folks! Incredible, just incredible. That was one hell of a race by Sheppard.
This kid is going places, Jake, trust me on that.
Every spot on the street was taken, or so it seemed. It took him two tries before he finally found an empty spot four houses down from where he needed to be. He took his time turning the car off. He really did not want to go in there. Birthday parties were the worst.
His phone buzzed. With a sigh, he pulled it out and scowled at the text on the screen. Yes, he knew he was late, thank you very much. That was sort of the point. Reluctantly, he climbed out of the car, grabbed the gift bag, and made his way down the sidewalk.
Damn suburbia. He always felt like some creepy neighbor was watching him, just waiting for the moment to come out and attack him with a garden shovel or something. He’d take the city over this any day, and he loved his apartment. Since this was his sister’s house, he didn’t bother with knocking or ringing the doorbell and just strolled on in. He had just closed the door behind him when he heard a screech and turned. Something hit his legs and he staggered back, dropping the gift bag.
Wincing at the high pitch of her voice, Rodney frowned down at his niece. “Do you have to yell that?” he asked her.
She peered up at him then held up her hands. “Pick me up, Uncle Mer.”
Rolling his eyes, he hoisted her onto his hip with a groan. “You’re getting to be too big for this, kiddo. What are you, four?”
Shaking her head, Madison said, “No, I’m not. I’m eight today! And besides, it’s my birthday and the birthday girl always gets what she wants. Mommy says so.”
“Oh she does, does she?”
“Uh huh. So what’d you bring me?”
Rodney shook his head. “Now, you know I’m not going to tell you. The surprise is the fun part. Plus, you’re a smart girl, and smart girls don’t cheat.”
Maddie pouted. “Even on their birthday?”
Like mother, like daughter. “Especially on their birthday.” No sense in not teaching her that right from the start. He never gave in to Jeannie’s pouty face growing up and he’d be damned if this kid would make him.
She made a face. “Fine.” Squirming, she slid out of Rodney’s hold and down to the floor. “I have to go finish making my hat.”
“Hey, where’s your mommy?”
Maddie took off back down the hall, yelling back, “Kitchen, with Daddy and friends!”
Kitchen. With Daddy and friends. Rodney sighed heavily. This was not shaping up to be a great day. Picking up the gift bag, he headed for the kitchen. He loved his sister, really he did, he just did not like being set up by every one of her single friends. It was like once she’d married . . . oh whatshisname, that English major fellow—she’d become convinced he needed someone too. When he informed Jeannie he was bi, she seemed to be ecstatic that he’d opened up the possible blind date situation. Fortunately, he’d alienated most of her friends so that drastically cut down on the potential blind dates.
The kitchen was full of people but thankfully Jeannie was close to the door when he entered. She scowled at him. “Finally! I can’t believe you’d show up late to your own niece’s birthday party!”
He leaned over to kiss her on the cheek. “I hate parties, you know that.”
“They’re eight-year-olds, Meredith.”
“And their parents,” he pointed out.
Jeannie sighed. “You won’t understand until you’re a parent.”
“Which is hopefully never.” He held up the bag. “Where do you want this?”
“I’ll take it. The rest of her presents are down the hall so she doesn’t peek. Caleb, hun, would you him get a drink? Mingle, Mer, okay?” Jeannie brushed past him.
Mingle. Yeah. Right.
Rodney looked over. Jeannie’s husband was holding out a bottle. “Uh, yeah. Fine. Thanks.” It was a twist cap, cheap stuff, but hey. He wouldn’t say no to alcohol.
As he drank, Rodney eyed the rest of the occupants. Jeez, how many kids were here? And it looked like all of them brought their single mothers. A couple of them apparently hadn’t gotten the message he’d been giving over the years because they kept eyeing him, making him uncomfortable. Maybe there were some new kids in the class?
He was contemplating making an escape—Jeannie never did come back—when the sound of the doorbell drew his attention. Caleb leaned back and said, “Ah, I better get that. Don’t know where Jeannie went.”
Left alone, Rodney did not intend to get caught in any sort of conversation with these women, so he moved so that he was sort of in the hallway. He’d have gone further into the hall but for the two hellions that nearly ran him down.
Great. Just what the day needed. More out of control kids and their mom.
“—glad you could make it, John,” Caleb was saying when Rodney looked back up.
His brother-in-law was talking to a man that Rodney could only see the back of. About Rodney’s height, slim build, with short brown hair that stuck up every which way, he was wearing a black leather jacket, and dark wash jeans tucked into what looked like black motorcycle boots. Nice ass, though.
Really nice ass.
The new arrival ran a hand through his hair, making it stand up more than it already was. He sounded tired as he responded, “Sorry we’re so late, Caleb.”
Caleb clapped a hand on his shoulder and grinned. “Don’t worry about it. We’re just happy to see you and the kids.” Taking the presents, he added, “I’m going to go find my wife, maybe get the barbecue going. Why don’t you head on into the kitchen, grab a beer?”
Rodney quickly moved back into the kitchen, sticking close to the island and away from the moms. The man entered shortly afterwards and Rodney watched him.
He stopped just inside, looking around. Picking up a bottle of beer from the cooler, he leaned against the fridge and made no effort to talk to anyone. Now that he could see the front of him, Rodney decided he was a) extremely handsome, and b) far too young to have two kids Maddie’s age. Unless he just looked younger than he was—and he was hot. Okay, stop thinking that way. Dating one of Jeannie’s friends was a definite no, no matter how hot the new dad was. His black leather jacket was unzipped and Rodney could see a pair of sunglasses tucked into the collar of a black shirt. Didn’t he know Goth was for teenagers?
Movement and a low giggle from his right drew Rodney’s eye and he hid a grin. The women who’d been eyeing him earlier were now eyeing the new dad like shark sensing fresh prey in their midst. Ah, it was nice to not be the focus of that attention for once.
The women were halfway to the dad when Rodney reluctantly decided to rescue the poor fellow. He looked uncomfortable enough; he didn’t need to fend off the sharks, as well. Plus it would be nice to have someone male to talk to at this thing, so Rodney pushed away from his spot, cut off Jeannie’s friends and walked right up to him.
The man quirked an eyebrow in silent query when Rodney stopped in front of him.
Holding out a hand, Rodney introduced himself, “Rodney McKay, uncle of the birthday girl.”
After a second, he took Rodney’s hand and gave it a firm handshake. “John Sheppard.” He paused then added, “Uncle of two of the birthday guests.”
Uncle? Intrigued by that statement—he’d assumed young father but it looked like his earlier assumption of being too young to be a dad had borne fruit—Rodney said bluntly, “You’re welcome, by the way.”
John gave him a confused look. “For what?”
Rodney jerked the tip of his bottle over his shoulder and clarified, “My sister’s friends. Sharks, I call them. Predatory is the nicest adjective I can think of to describe them. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being forced to get to know some of them and I figured I’d save you some trouble.”
His mouth lifted in a half-smile. Rodney noted that his eyes were hazel and full of amusement. “Ah. I see. Well, thanks, then.”
The conversation stilled after that. Rodney drank some beer then abruptly said, “Let’s go help with the food. Being vegetarians, my sister and her husband are not very good at cooking food normal people want to eat.”
John shrugged. Rodney took that as a yes and set his nearly empty bottle on the closest counter. John set his down next to Rodney’s—unopened, Rodney noted with interest—then gestured for Rodney to lead the way. Down the hall, there was a door in the main bedroom that led to a very nice patio and backyard. One good thing about suburbia, he supposed, was the space you had. Too bad the neighbors were most likely creepy stalkers or something.
His suspicions about the grill were right. They still hadn’t managed to turn it on. “Have you been trying to do this since I got here?” he asked his sister as he and John walked out.
Jeannie straightened up, a frown on her face, but her expression cleared almost immediately. Rodney had about a second to wonder why before she hurried over to hug John. Go figure.
“John! Caleb said you were here, oh it’s so good to see you! How are you?” Jeannie said as she pulled back.
John offered a small smile. “Hi, Jeannie. Sorry we got here so late. We, uh, had some trouble getting on the road.”
She smiled at him. “Oh don’t worry about that. Remember, anytime you need help or advice, you call us, okay?”
He nodded. Rodney was now very intrigued about John Sheppard. Why was he here, and where were the kids’ parents? Why were Jeannie and Caleb so happy and relieved to see him? How exactly did one become an uncle of pre-teens? And how long had Jeannie known him? She seemed surprisingly protective of him. There was a mystery there and Rodney vowed to solve it.
Caleb called out, “Hey, John, how are you with grills?”
Sliding between the siblings, John joined him, bending down. Oh, yes. Very nice ass. To distract himself from the view, Rodney turned to Jeannie and asked in a low tone, “What’s his deal?”
He waved one hand inarticulately at the two men. “John. What’s his deal?”
Jeannie shot him a disapproving look. “Oh sure, you remember his name but not your brother-in-law’s.”
“John’s name is normal. Your husband’s is not.”
“One could argue that since Caleb’s name is more unique, you’d remember it better.” Rodney shrugged. Did it matter? Jeannie continued, “John’s relatively new to the area; moved in a couple months ago. His niece, Nicole, is Maddie’s age and his nephew, Alex, is about thirteen.”
Rodney was kept from questioning her further when Caleb and John suddenly stood up and high-fived each other.
Jeannie walked over with a smile. “You got it started?”
Caleb nodded, grinning. “Thank John, he’s a genius.”
John ducked his head. “It was nothing.”
“Genius?” Rodney repeated. “He turned on a grill. Anyone who actually grills can do that. Actually, I don’t grill and I could probably have figured it out. That’s not genius material.”
“Meredith,” Jeannie chided, frowning at him.
“What? He knows it’s true.”
John’s gaze was steady on Rodney’s as he said, “Your brother’s right, Jeannie. I’m no genius, but I do know my way around a grill.”
Rodney raised an eyebrow at his sister as if to say see? I was right.
Jeannie shook her head then turned to the cooler. “Let’s get the food started before the kids start demanding cake.”
He’d been telling the truth, he did love grilling. He just hadn’t had the chance to do so lately. And not because it was the middle of March, though it was a rather warmer March than normal—he used the garage for shelter. It was big enough. Caleb was grateful for his help and John figured this way he could avoid the . . . . what had Jeannie’s brother called them? Sharks. Amusing, yet accurate from the little contact he’d had with them the past couple of months.
Jeannie popped up next to him with a plate and ordered, “Eat. Caleb can handle things if anyone wants seconds.”
John took the Styrofoam plate, amused by her mothering, and loaded it with a hamburger, some coleslaw and chips. Looking around for a place to sit, he noticed Rodney sitting on the edge of the deck, away from everyone. His mind tagged the man as safe, so he wandered over, snagging a can of pop from the cooler on the ground as he went.
“Hey,” he said, “mind if I sit here?”
Rodney looked up, clearly startled to see him, then shrugged and faced forward. “Yeah, sure. Whatever.”
So John sat. And ate. And neither of them said a word, just let the conversations behind them flow as a steady stream of noise.
It was nice, the silence. His life was usually all about noise and speed and he sometimes forgot to slow down and enjoy the quiet too.
A hand landed on his shoulder and John looked up at Jeannie. She looked from him to Rodney and said, “Can I convince you two to help with clean-up while Caleb and I get the kids ready for presents?”
Rodney groaned and John felt a flash of amusement. He started to get up. “Yeah, sure, Jeannie. No problem.”
“Great, thanks!” Then she was gone.
John bent down to pick up his trash and asked, “Need a hand up?”
“No, I’m good. Should have known she’d make me work.” Rodney climbed to his feet.
John followed him over to the trashcan and offered, “Look at it this way: you’re not trying to wrangle a dozen kids.”
Rodney visibly shuddered. “Oh god, that sounds horrible.” He tossed his plate and plastic cup into the can. “Good point.”
They worked fairly easily together, Rodney going along the tables just sweeping things into the trash can while John sorted out what needed to be tossed and what could be saved. He was cycling back to the patio after taking some of the condiment containers into the kitchen when he got waylaid in the doorway by a couple of the women.
“Hi, John,” one said, running a hand down his arm. “It’s great to see you. You haven’t been around the school lately.”
He forced a smile to his face. “Hi, Margaret.”
Margaret gestured to her friend. “John, have you met Deb?”
“Don’t think I’ve had the pleasure.” No matter how many women flirted with him, John never felt anything but uncomfortable.
The second woman smiled widely at him. “Wait, John Sheppard. I knew I recognized you when you came in! You’re that fam—”
Rodney knocked them both aside as he stepped between them. In a move that quite impressed John, Rodney grabbed his wrist, said pointedly, “I need him,” and dragged him back out onto the deck. All in about ten seconds. Rodney thrust the garbage can at him and walked over to a table that was partially clean. John followed.
“Thanks for that.”
“Yeah, well, I warned you about them.”
John’s mouth quirked up in a half smile. “Yeah . . . you did. Predatory was the right word.”
Rodney dumped a pile of dirty paper plates in the can and looked up at him. “I’ve found they only understand bluntness. Subtlety is completely lost on them.”
“Good to know.” John was starting to learn that bluntness was the norm with Rodney. Which was fine by him. He’d had enough people in his life lie to him; bluntness was perfectly fine. Welcome, even.
Once they finished the patio, they headed downstairs. Jeannie and Caleb, along with some of the other parents, had gathered the kids on the other side of the room. John paused at the bottom of the stairs, scanning. There. Off to the side.
“Are you coming?”
Rodney gave him an annoyed look so John hurried over to help clean. It was a mess. Food ground into the carpet, plates and cups tipped over, liquid spilled. It took them ages to clean up and John kept glancing over, finding himself needing to know where Alex and Nikki were.
“My god, they’re not going to up and vanish on you.” Rodney’s surprisingly astute observation effectively pulled John’s attention back to the task at hand.
Rodney gave him a knowing look and gestured at the kids. Madison was nearing the end of her presents. “The kids. They’re not going to disappear if you turn your back on them so just relax already.”
John tensed, because that was indeed what it felt like. Not bothering to respond—he had a feeling Rodney wouldn’t understand without background and he really didn’t want to go into the whole messed up tale right then—John went back to work.
After presents came cake and ice cream, a couple more party games and then John was half-carrying his sleepy niece to the car, a tired Alex following along behind carrying the goodie bags. John had a bag of leftovers from Jeannie—“In case you don’t feel like cooking later”—dangling from his free hand and his phone buzzing in his pocket. Shifting Nikki to the other hip, he tugged it out.
John answered on a sigh, “Yes, Teyla, I know I haven’t been answering. I told you, today was . . . yeah, I know that. You’re kidding me, seriously?” He turned his head. “Alex, can you get the door? Look, Teyla, can we talk about this another time? I’m about to get in the car. With the kids. Yeah. Yeah. Thanks. Bye.”
John got his niece and nephew settled, slid his sunglasses on and got in the car. The rumble of the Mustang’s engine settled in his chest and settled him as he hit the gas.
He had nearly everything together but this one box refused to budge. What the hell was wrong with it?
“Need a hand?”
Rodney banged his head on the trunk lid. Rubbing the sore spot, he turned around with a scowl, intending to harangue the poor soul who had caused it.
John Sheppard stood a couple feet away, still looking as handsome as he had at Maddie’s party two weeks ago. “Jesus Christ, you nearly gave me a heart attack!” Rodney snapped.
John lowered his sunglasses. “Sorry.”
He sounded sincere so Rodney bit back his next remark and said instead, “What are you doing here?”
John raised an eyebrow. “It’s the middle school. Here to pick up my nephew. What are you doing here? I didn’t think you had any kids and Madison goes to the elementary school.”
Rodney crossed his arms with a huff. “For your information—not that you need to know—I run an afterschool tech club for interested parties.”
John looked interested. “Tech club? Like computers?”
“In part. At the moment, we’re working on robotics.” Which reminded him . . . he turned back to tug at the stubborn box.
“Do you need any help with that?”
“Are you always this stubborn?”
“It’s called independence.”
“It’s stubbornness. Look, just let me help you. It’s one box, how much damage could I cause?”
Rodney threw his hands in the air and stepped away. “Fine! It’s all yours.”
John stepped up to the trunk and stared inside for a moment then bent over and reached for the box. Rodney couldn’t help himself. He leaned to the side to admire John’s ass. John stumbled back a step as the box came loose and he rested it on the bumper, tossing Rodney a smile.
“Well . . . I loosened it for you,” Rodney huffed, trying to hide the fact that he’d just been ogling John’s behind.
John nodded easily. “I’m sure you did. Where are we taking it?”
Rodney blinked. “I’m sorry, we?”
“Yeah. You’ve obviously got your hands full and I’ve got a few minutes to kill before school lets out so . . .” he trailed off with a shrug.
Rodney thought about it. It would save him a trip . . . He took a couple bags out of the backseat, dropped them in his wagon and said, “Follow me, then.” He didn’t wait for John as he headed for the doors. He did, however, hear the hood of the trunk slam shut.
John trailed after him as Rodney walked down the hall. It was quiet, everyone still in class for a couple more minutes. He decided to take the opportunity to prod a bit. “So, what exactly do you do?” he asked as they walked.
Rodney glanced over his shoulder. “What do you do?” he repeated. “You know, a job?” He pushed open the door to the empty classroom he was using. John still hadn’t answered. “What, is it some lousy job? Are you ashamed to tell me?”
“I’m not ashamed,” John immediately responded, his tone defensive.
Rodney smirked. Score one for him. He dropped the handle of his wagon and pointed at a spot on the partially full table. “You can put that there.”
John set the box down and Rodney immediately started opening it and pulling things out. He’d put together an example of what they’d be working on but it had needed to be boxed in several pieces for the trip.
“I’m a racecar driver,” John finally said then added with a little disbelieving laugh, “Actually, I’m quite famous.”
Figured. Handsome, athletic, and probably dumb as a brick. Well, at least he knew not to let himself get any farther in the attraction phase. He could admit John had a nice ass and move on. “You say that like I’m supposed to know who you are,” Rodney said, putting a few pieces together. “Clearly Jeannie didn’t tell you I know nothing about sports.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured that when you didn’t say anything at the party. A few of the women there recognized me.”
Rodney scoffed. “You don’t think they actually follow racing, do you? They probably saw you on some magazine at the dentist’s or doctor’s office and thought you were handsome.”
John retorted, “Some women are into NASCAR. What is that? Some sort of robot arm?”
“That’s exactly what it is. We’ve been working on combining computer programming and mechanical engineering, starting with basic designs. This is one of the more advanced projects that will test whether they’ve been paying attention. We’ll be working on it for a while but I wanted them to see what their ultimate goal was.” He frowned at the arm. “Can you hand me a screwdriver from the toolbox in the wagon?”
John came around to the other side of the table, looking down at the arm, his brow furrowed. Rodney stuck out a hand, impatiently waiting for him to hand over the tool. Instead, John tugged the arm towards him, tightened a couple spots with the screwdriver, then attached a wheel and straightened. Rodney stared at him.
“Did you just . . . ?”
“That’s what you wanted, right? The gears weren’t sitting right. And you were missing a part when you put it together.”
“Huh.” Rodney studied John, his head tilted to the side. Interesting. Maybe there was a brain under that spiky hair. “I take it you learned from working on your racecar?”
John grinned at him. “Nope. Well, yeah. A driver knows his car intimately. But no. I studied mechanical engineering and mathematics at Stanford.”
Rodney felt his mouth drop open. “Stanford?” Holy shit, so he was handsome, athletic, and smart? How was that fair? That made him totally out of Rodney’s league. Ugh, he hated his life sometimes. “What the hell are you doing racing cars?”
John shrugged, twirling the screwdriver like a baton. “It’s fun. What about you?”
“MIT. Physics and mathematics. I’m a university professor.” Fun. He thought driving metal deathtraps at 200 mph was fun. He went to Stanford and was playing live action Hot Wheels because it was fun. How did one even respond to that?
“Nice. Explains how you did such a good job with the arm, here. Looks good.”
Rodney bristled. Was John mocking his hard work? “I’ll have you know—” He was cut off before he could really get started by the sound of the bell ringing to signal the end of the school day.
John set the screwdriver down with a regretful look. “Guess that’s my cue to leave.” He headed for the door, tossing a wave over his shoulder. “See you around, McKay!”
Rodney watched him go, feeling dumbstruck and wondering what the hell just happened?
The students started to trickle in, casting curious glances at the setup on the front table. Rodney forcibly shoved all thoughts of John Sheppard out of his mind and focused on science.