As Kyle looked around the decaying apartment—although, surprisingly, the kitchen was clean and the refrigerator stocked with healthy foods—his simmering anger boiled up. How could David have allowed Gramps to live this way? Annaliese could’ve arranged a caregiver long distance from California. She handled all the minutia of their lives, everything outside the sphere of her husband’s all-important business life. But it was a waste of energy to hate. David would never change, and once the funeral was over, Kyle never again had to have any contact with the man who’d spawned him but made little other impact on his life.
Kyle set his suitcase in an alcove between stacks of vintage National Geographic magazines. He’d get Riggs from the neighbor’s apartment, which was where the dog must be. Old Riggs would have long since lost the bounce of the stray pup Kyle had begged Gramps to take home from the park. Gramps had been playing dominoes with one of his pals while Kyle threw a parachute man up in the air and tried to catch him before he reached the ground. When a mottled mutt intercepted the toy and ran off with it, Kyle had chased him down. They’d wrestled for possession of the parachute man, and it had been the start of a beautiful friendship. Good old Riggs. How could years have passed with Kyle hardly thinking of him?
The sound of toenails scrabbling on bare floor came from the hallway before the apartment door opened. Two dogs burst into the room, followed by a tall, stoop-shouldered man wearing a Chicago State University hoodie. A tan-and-black Yorkshire terrier raced toward Kyle, took a stance, and barked himself silly at the intruder. Following at a much more sedate pace came Riggs. Kyle dropped to his knees, ignoring the Yorkie and the neighbor, and held out his hands. “Remember me? How’ve you been, buddy?”
The gray-muzzled dog walked straight into his arms. Kyle scooped him up and hugged him—not too hard since his body felt as delicate as bird bones. Had the neighbor even been feeding him?
Kyle looked up. The CSU alum appeared even taller towering above Kyle. The man must be well over six feet and had the permanent slouch some lanky men adopted, as if stooping to avoid hitting their heads on doorways. His skin was dark cacao and his hair shaved to stubble on his nicely shaped head. A handsome man, except his eyes were glittering bits of jet that glared at Kyle as if he were a criminal he’d caught breaking in.
Kyle gently put down Riggs and stood up. He stuck out his hand. “Hi. I’m Kyle, Vince Skelton’s grandson. I think my stepmother told you I’d be coming to take care of Riggs and arrange for Gramps’s funeral.”
“Mm.” The stranger grunted, not sounding at all friendly or neighborly. “So, you’re him.”
Gramps had talked about him to this man? “Thanks for taking care of Riggs,” Kyle replied.
“No problem. I liked Vince. He was an interesting guy.” He continued to eye Kyle suspiciously but finally took his hand in a bone-crushing grip. “Darrell Baines. I live next door.”
Kyle didn’t wince at the hard grip, but his hand tingled after Darrell let go. “Again, thank you for taking care of Riggs. And Gramps too.” He nodded toward the kitchen. “Did you get him groceries?”
“He was eating pizza all the time, so I made sure he had a fresh vegetable now and then.”
“Well, I truly appreciate you looking out for him.”
“Someone had to.” Darrell’s tone was just short of icy.
Clearly, Kyle was in the doghouse for neglecting his grandfather. Fair enough.
A snap of those long fingers summoned the Yorkie from the direction of the kitchen. “Come on, Lacey. Quit nosing around Riggs’s dish.”
Dark eyes returned to Kyle, measuring him and finding him lacking. He stooped to unhook Riggs’s leash and handed it over. “He’s been out for his afternoon walk. He won’t need to eat again till this evening, but you shouldn’t give him more than a few tablespoons of food. He doesn’t digest well anymore and will vomit if you feed him too much at a time. Also, don’t expect him to hold his urine all night. He has to have an evening and a late-night walk. Poop bags and leash go on the hook right above his food dish.”
Darrell picked up Lacey’s trailing leash, bright pink decorated with a pattern of bones. “If you’re going out, let me know. I have to walk Lacey anyway. I’m used to taking Riggs too.”
Kyle bristled at his tone. “Thanks. But I’ve got this. Riggs and I are old pals. I know how to take care of a dog.”
Again Darrell drilled him with that do you? stare. “All right, then. Let me know when you set Vince’s funeral. I want to be there.” He turned to go.
“Wait!” Kyle was suddenly desperate not to be alone in this apartment with all its memories and the ghost of Gramps accusing him of being a shirker. He could have made the time to visit if he hadn’t been such a selfish prick.
Darrell half turned, pulling Lacey to a halt. “What?”
“How did he…? Annaliese told me Gramps died, probably of a heart attack, but she wasn’t sure, and there’s not going to be an autopsy. Can you tell me more about what happened? I can’t quite wrap my head around the, um, circumstances.”
“Yeah. I can tell you. I was the one who found him,” Darrell said in a cool, level tone.
Darrell was half inclined to ask for the guy’s ID when he found him inside Vince’s apartment. But there was no doubt it was the infamous Kyle. There were traces of the handsome teenage boy from one of Vince’s few photographs in the grown man. The angles of his face were sharper with the curves of youth worn away. Honed by time and experience to make him even better looking, Darrell thought before pushing the unwanted sizzle of attraction away.
Kyle Skelton was a jerk. He’d been the center of Vince’s world, but after leaving home at age seventeen, school unfinished, destination uncertain, Kyle had hardly looked back. Vince had a few well-worn postcards he’d received over the years that he kept in a pile beside his chair. In his typical tough way, he’d tried to shrug off how much he missed the grandson he’d raised, but Darrell could see his pain when he spoke about Kyle.
Poor old Vince had no one to care about but Riggs—and maybe Darrell, a little. He’d gruffly complained all the time, but Darrell thought he secretly appreciated being harassed about his bad diet and having Darrell take him to doctor appointments and walk Riggs when it became too hard for Vince to go up and down stairs. Caring for his elderly neighbor had been kind of a burden, but now Vince was gone, Darrell felt a crotchety-old-man-shaped hole in his life.
Darrell pressed his lips tight to keep from demanding why Kyle Skelton hadn’t bought Vince a cell phone so they could at least keep in touch by text.
“I came in yesterday morning to get Riggs for his walk. Your granddad was sitting in his chair just like usual, but he didn’t answer when I talked to him.” Darrell paused, reliving the horror of that moment, the icy chill that had gone through him when he realized he had to feel for a pulse. “It must have just happened, because he’d already started his coffee in the kitchen.”
“I’m sorry you had to be the one to find him,” Kyle murmured. “That must have been hard.”
“Yeah. It was.” Darrell tugged at Lacey, who was still trying to head toward home to check out her own food dish. “I called the coroner and the cops and eventually found your dad’s phone number in an old address book. Vince never talked about his son. I didn’t know if the number would still work. But it did. After that, Annaliese took over.”
A hank of flaming red hair fell over Kyle’s forehead when he nodded. He needed a trim. No. Scratch that. He looked pretty damn fine a little shaggy and with two days’ growth of pale ginger stubble on his jaw. He kind of glowed.
Once more, Darrell shut down his unwanted interest in the stranger’s appearance. “So, I guess your folks will be coming from California for the funeral?”
“Who knows. My father might send Annaliese to represent him. He can find an excuse to be too busy. And my mom is dead. But I suppose Gramps told you that.”
Kyle’s bitter tone almost touched Darrell, who understood about fractured families. Almost. But then he recalled that the man had ignored his grandfather when the man needed him most, and Darrell smothered his sympathy.
Lacey started whining and pulling again. Darrell scooped her up and held her in one arm like a baby. She gazed at him with imploring brown eyes. When are we going home? Can’t you see I’m starving to death and will soon drop dead if you don’t feed me? Have you no heart? As always, he couldn’t keep from smiling at his little darling, who could evaporate a bad mood the way the sun dispelled early morning fog. She was a bouncing bundle of pure joy.
His smile lingered as he regarded Kyle with a little more compassion this time. “I’m sorry about your grandfather. This must be really hard for you.”
“Because I haven’t seen him in years. Yeah. Too little too late, but I’m here now.”
Maybe the handsome grandson did have a heart. Then he added, “I’ll arrange the funeral and dispose of his stuff. Do you know if he kept a will anywhere in this warren?”
So much for a heart! He probably hoped to find something worth sorting through the junk. Perhaps he imagined his grandfather had secret wealth or a stash of valuables, or maybe he’d was just eager to inherit this rent-controlled apartment in a newly gentrified neighborhood.
“I wouldn’t know,” Darrell answered coolly. “Good luck with your search.”
He gripped Lacey, who was squirming to get down, and headed for the door.
Closing it behind him, he realized this might be the last time he’d ever be in Vince’s apartment. His two years of taking care of the old man and his dog were over, and what a sad, bitter note to end on. Part of him wanted to claim Riggs and take him home to live out his days with someone who loved him. Certainly Kyle Skelton wasn’t the man to care for a senior dog’s special needs. But Darrell really couldn’t afford vet bills for a second pet. Unless it seemed like Skelton was going to put Riggs out on the street, Darrell would force himself not to offer to take him.
That’s what he promised himself as he unlocked his apartment and put down Lacey, who raced inside.