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At twenty-six, he was the youngest of the three Jackson brothers. Two years younger than Caleb, three years younger than Cutter. Hands to the keyboard, he was definitely the geekiest. Put the three of them together in a crowded room and within minutes he’d be labelled the shyest. According to one of Cutter’s old girlfriends, he was also the sweetest of them all.
This wasn’t saying much. No one in their right mind would ever label his brothers sweet.
Right now his two older siblings were downstairs unloading ice into bins so that the beers brought in by any number of carpenters, painters, fishermen and outboard motor mechanics would stay cold. Jackson’s marina was a regular Friday after-work haunt for those connected to the waterways of Brunswick Bay. His brothers encouraged it. Eli put up with it. The fact that Eli lived above the boat shed, in what had once been an upstairs storage area, made it easy enough for him to disappear when he’d had enough of the party below – even if he was technically the party host.
Eli loved his scarred and battered bolt-hole apartment, with the bed in one corner and the kitchenette that had come straight out of a client’s luxury cruiser. He loved being close enough to the water to hear the slap-slap of waves against the boats moored at the little six-berth marina. More than anything else, he loved the serenity that descended when he was here alone.
Night watchman – that was him – and a boat builder by day. Laboring with his back and with his hands because three generations of Jacksons had done the same before him. Unlike his father and grandfather, Eli had a mechanical engineering degree in his back pocket and an ever growing reputation for designing reasonably priced fishing trawlers with the leanest operational costs around. Life was good these days, a steady ebb and flow, and that was just how he liked it.
Someone cranked up the music downstairs – probably Cutter. Eli cracked a beer and reached for his headphones. He had nothing against music in general, and eventually he’d head downstairs and socialize, if only to appease his brothers, but right now he had a date with a dulcet-voiced, smooth-talking online gamer who went by the name of Fuzzy. Every Friday, come four in the afternoon, Eli, Fuzzy and two others joined forces for a concentrated hour of online strategizing and game play. Eli wasn’t altogether sure when it had become his favorite hour of any given week, but it had. ‘Fuzzy, you there?’
‘I am, but the news is not good. It’s just you and me, healer. The rest of our forces had to bail. You want to recruit from the masses?’
Eli hated teaming up and gaming with strangers. You just couldn’t trust them. ‘Let me check what my brothers are doing. They’re probably good for about twenty minutes of play.’ His brothers had been the ones to introduce Eli to the world of online gaming in the first place, and could generally be counted on to inflict death and extreme destruction. He took off his headset, headed for the scarred, wooden stairs. ‘Hey, Caleb! We’re short two players for this afternoon’s game. Anyone want in?’
Caleb appeared at the bottom of the stairs, his hair wet but his board shorts dry. ‘What characters?’
‘An assassin and a mage.’
‘Who’s the tank?’
‘A woman called Fuzzy. I’ll play healer.’
‘Seriously? You let a woman lead?’
‘She’s good at it. We’re storming Mordred’s Gate.’
‘Bad move. What else you got by way of incentive?’
‘And I’m just about to marry her for a boost.’
Caleb’s smile came wide and wicked. ‘Hey, Cutter. Eli’s getting married this afternoon and then we’re all going to go and storm Mordred’s Gate and die bloody.’
‘Eli’s getting what?’ Cutter bellowed.
Eli could hear Cutter’s laughter and didn’t wait to hear more before heading back to his computer and picking up his headset once more. ‘Yeah, they’re coming, but I should probably warn you, my brothers—
‘Can bear witness. I really need the boost. Besides, I just swapped a battle-axe for a handful of violet ribbons for my hair. I’m all dressed up. You can’t back out on me now.’
‘Greetings, future sister-in-law,’ said Cutter.
‘Yeah, that’s one brother,’ Eli offered dryly.
‘And then there’s me,’ Caleb cut in smoothly. ‘Speckled swordfish at your service. Have you considered yet that you might be marrying the wrong brother?’
‘I’m already on it.’ Fuzzy’s voice came through Eli’s headset, warmly amused. ‘Why do you think I’m checking your stats? Good grief, healer. Have you seen their stats? We’re all doomed.’
‘The trick is to get them to stop whaling on each other long enough to focus on the task at hand,’ Eli told her. ‘Then they’re golden.’
‘We should get this wedding underway. I love a good wedding. All rise.’ Cutter had suddenly developed a lisp worthy of a television cardinal. ‘Dearly Beloved. We are gathered here today to witness the blessed union of this man, and this woman, and… who’s got the rings?’
‘There’s really only one ring,’ Caleb intoned. ‘And I don’t think it’s available.’
‘We don’t need rings,’ Fuzzy said. ‘We don’t even need a ceremony.’
‘No ceremony?’ Cutter sounded deeply offended. ‘At all? And do yourself out of all those precious memories that are guaranteed to keep you warm when you’re old and grey? What kind of wedding is this?’
‘Healer, how old are these brothers of yours? Have they hit puberty yet?’
‘We’re his older brothers,’ injected Caleb helpfully.
‘So how old are you?’ Fuzzy didn’t wait for his reply. ‘Good grief, I’m marrying a two-year-old.’
‘He’s twenty-six.’ This from Cutter. ‘Are we ready? Because, seriously, our boy here’s so shy with women that this could well be his only chance at heavenly matrimony. All rise—’
‘Be right back.’ Eli pushed away from the console with undue haste. He wasn’t panicking, much, he just… beer. He needed another beer, never mind the recently opened bottle sitting right there on the table. He needed pretzels and more beer. Possibly new brothers. Preferably no brothers, except that they were going to help him put a wall full of windows in this place this weekend so maybe he could disown them after that. He plucked a beer from the fridge and a bag of pretzels from the cupboard and took his sweet time returning to the game. He put on his headset, took a deep breath and reminded himself that it was only a game. ‘Am I married yet?’
‘Yes!’ Fuzzy sounded a little desperate. ‘It’s done. There was cake. Can we storm the gate now?’
‘Yes.’ He hoped he sounded authoritative. ‘Let’s go.’
Ten minutes later, Fuzzy let loose a yelp and a curse as her character took yet another hit from a giant lizard that just wouldn’t die. ‘Healer, get your tactically challenged ass over here and restore my health,’ she grumbled. ‘Otherwise I’m going to have to revoke your honeymoon privileges on account of I’m going to be dead.’
‘I would, but I’m a little busy here what with no cover at all.’
‘Hey, they’re your brothers. You try and get them to do something useful. Do they sew? Cook? Clean? Cause they can’t fight.’
‘Can too.’ Caleb sent a half-assed volley of arrows in the monster’s general direction. ‘It’s just more interesting not to. Hey, Fuzzy? Were you expecting your new husband to be more attentive to your needs? Because I was expecting him to be way more attentive to your needs.’
‘Cutter, I need some cover.’ Eli tried to distract him.
‘Can’t. I’m frozen.’
‘I’m on it. Hey, Fuzz. While we’re on real names, what’s yours?’
Caleb gave him the cover he needed to get closer to Fuzzy – Zoey – and restore some of her health.
‘So, uh…’ She sounded uncharacteristically tentative all of a sudden. ‘While we’re on real names, what’s my husband’s?’
‘Jesus, Eli, how long have you been playing games with this woman? A year or more?’
More like two.
‘And she doesn’t even know your name?’
‘She knows my player name,’ he muttered, but that clearly wasn’t enough. ‘So, uh, yeah. Name’s Eli. Short for Elias.’
‘It suits you,’ she said, and there was a shyness to her voice that a man could fall hard for.
Eli didn’t know what to say to that so he concentrated on the game.
‘And how old are you, Zoey?’ Caleb asked next.
‘Year of birth?’
‘Nineteen ninety. What are you, a club doorman?’
‘Just checking. So you want the lizard gone?’
‘If you wouldn’t mind.’ Her voice was dry, very dry. Her name was Zoey and she was twenty-four.
‘What do you do for a living, Zoey?’ Caleb again.
‘I’m a costume designer for theater groups, steampunk aficionados and people who dress up and go and live in medieval villages at weekends.’
The silence lasted a good long while after that. Eli grinned, drank a mouthful of beer and waited to hear what his brothers would say next.
Cutter led. He usually did when the going got tough. ‘How about upholstery for boats? Could you make that? And sails?’
‘You tell me what you want and get me the materials and I’ll sew it.’
‘I like her,’ said Caleb. ‘Eli should keep her. We can use her.’
‘Not if I’m dead. Gentlemen, if you don’t mind, I’ve got a giant lizard on my ass, a gate to open and I could use a little help here.’
His brothers finally got with the program and began a startlingly coordinated attack considering what had gone before. Ten seconds later the monster was dead.
‘Told you they’re useful on occasion,’ Eli said.
‘Still not sure I’m seeing the appeal,’ she muttered as his brothers started railing on each other.
‘Hey, Zoey. You really did marry the pick of us. Want to meet him?’ This from Caleb.
‘It’s okay to ignore them,’ Eli told Zoey before she decided to flee the game, but she didn’t sound as if she wanted to flee.
‘Hey, guys. Guys. GUYS!’ Nothing like a bellowing female to get their attention. They hadn’t had one of those since their great aunt Sally had died. ‘I think the lizard brought a friend.’
‘We should probably take care of that,’ said Cutter. ‘Juice us up, healer.’
‘I’m all out.’
‘Spent it all on his lady wife,’ Caleb grumbled. ‘How’d our brother get so soft, anyway? Pretty sure it wasn’t anything we did.’
‘I’m damn sure of that,’ Eli grumbled, and Zoey laughed. It was a good laugh – one to wrap around a body and warm it through. It gave his brothers pause. He could almost hear them thinking.
A private message from Caleb popped up moments later. ‘You really need to meet this girl.’
Eli reached for his beer and typed a one-handed private message back to his brother. ‘Not how it works.’
‘Hey, Zoey.’ It was Cutter’s voice. ‘If you’re ever in Brunswick Bay, Northern New South Wales, on a Friday afternoon, drop into Jackson’s Boat Building. Eli can show you around.’
‘WTF?’ Another private memo.
Cutter snorted. ‘You know you sent that to everyone, right?’
Eli smothered his curse.
Zoey chuckled. ‘Don’t worry, Eli. I won’t take them up on it.’
‘No! I mean—that wasn’t what I meant. You could take them up on it. If you wanted to. You know… if you were in the area and had an interest in boat yards and, uh, boats.’
There was a clattering noise from one of his brothers.
‘That was Caleb banging his head against the table on your behalf,’ Cutter said cheerfully. ‘He thinks you’re beyond help.’
‘Don’t listen to them, healer. I think you’re sweet.’
‘Story of his life,’ muttered Caleb. ‘I don’t know why people think that. He’s not that sweet.’
‘Let him own sweet,’ said Cutter. ‘He sure as hell doesn’t do suave.’
It probably wouldn’t do to whimper. Maybe if he just stopped healing them they could all die. New plan. Good plan.
‘So, Zoey. We’re going to smoke this next lizard for you now, and get through the gate and take out the sniper who sits beyond it. Feel free to quiz us about Eli on the way. Whatever you want to know. You’ve got to be a little bit curious by now.’
‘Just a bit. Hair color?’ she asked.
‘Black?’ Caleb didn’t sound sure. ‘Mostly black. Or really dark brown.’
‘What’s she talking about?’ This from Cutter.
‘Just pick a paint color.’
‘I’m not a peanut, Zoey. Don’t listen to them. I’m six-two and taller than them both.’
‘By a hair.’
‘By a fraction of a hair.’
‘They haven’t quite come to terms with it.’
Zoey giggled, even as she took a big hit from the lizard. Caleb went into stealth mode and circled around behind it. ‘Eye color?’ she asked.
‘Grey,’ said Cutter.
‘Seriously?’ She sounded skeptical. ‘Grey eyes are pretty rare.’
‘Dove grey, black lashes, no lie.’ Cutter was on a roll, but he wasn’t lying. ‘Eli got our mother’s eyes. People get lost in his eyes on a regular basis. Not that he notices. He’s too busy trying not to be a geek.’
Cutter stunned the lizard with a spell, Caleb cut its throat and Zoey wasted no time taking the lead through the gate, drawing fire and absorbing it. Eli stood back, behind the fighting line and started feeding her more health. Only way to get through the gate was to trust his companions to know what they were doing.
‘We should find an Inn after this and let the newlyweds get a room.’ said Caleb. ‘Who’s with me?’
‘Aye,’ agreed Cutter.
‘Are they playing boatyard pirates now?’ Zoey sounded ever so slightly incredulous. ‘They are, aren’t they?’
Eli sighed. ‘You’re going to be doing something else on Friday nights from now on, aren’t you?’
‘I’m going to be drinking more, for sure.’
‘Hey, Cutter…’ said Caleb and then stopped. Silence followed. They were either having a silent conversation that Eli didn’t have antennae for or they were texting each other. Neither was good news.
‘Hey, Zoey?’ This from Cutter, using his smoothest I’m now going to persuade you to do something truly idiotic voice. ‘What are you doing next weekend?’
‘No!’ Eli could stand against his brothers when he had to. ‘No hitting on the Zoey wife! Go and get a real girl.’
‘But she is a real girl.’
Always with the facts. ‘You need a different real girl. This one’s mine. I like my Friday afternoon play dates.’
‘Possessive,’ murmured Caleb. ‘Maybe he is a Jackson after all.’
And now Zoey had his full name. Not that it mattered. It was just… there were rules about this stuff. Unwritten and unpoliced, but within the world of online gaming, real names and addresses were rarely exchanged. He’d liked the anonymity. This one little hour where he wasn’t Eli Jackson the youngest, the quiet one, the one who’d known loss and darkness and grief.
‘Eli, what are you doing next weekend?’ Cutter said with exaggerated patience. ‘Cause that’s where I’m going with this. You need to get out more with friends. Zoey’s a friend—’
‘I am. I’m loyal and true,’ she cut in. ‘No one could ask for a better friend. Eli, can I shoot them?’ Zoey didn’t wait for his reply, she just started gunning for his brothers.
Caleb let out a whoop, Cutter fired back.
And it was on.
Two minutes later Caleb and Cutter were dead and his lady wife was laughing her ass off.
That noise, right there, was half the reason Eli played.
‘I’m getting a clue as to why he abandons us every Friday afternoon to go play on his computer,’ muttered Caleb.
‘Yeah, I’m getting it too. We should leave them to it, this being their big wedding night and all.’
A message popped up on Eli’s screen from Caleb. Can you imagine a wedding night with a costume designer?
‘No! No one imagine a damn thing!’
‘What?’ asked Zoey.
He’d spoken aloud. Caleb snorted as Eli tried desperately to take his own advice. ‘Nothing. Just… my brothers were just leaving. Now. To go start a party somewhere else.’
‘Nice to meet you, Zoey.’
‘Yeah, good game.’
Oh, now they turned into gentlemen. Eli waited until he could hear them outside before he attempted damage control. Zoey was being uncharacteristically quiet. Maybe she’d left too.
‘Zoey, do you have brothers?’
‘I have a sister. A loving and supportive sister. If I had brothers like yours I’d be in jail, because they’d be dead.’
‘I won’t do that to you again.’
‘Nah, it was fun. You realize that I’m now more curious about you than ever, right?’
‘I, er…’ Hadn’t realized that, no.
‘However, seeing as you neither asked questions earlier, nor offered information unless pressed, I’m going to cut you a break and give you back your privacy.’
‘What did you want to know?’
‘Anything, Eli. Whatever you feel inclined to share.’ Her voice had softened. ‘Ready for another game?’
Five minutes later, mid-battle and surrounded by newbies, Eli volunteered more information. ‘I like sunrise better than sunset.’
‘I like sunshine better than rain.’
‘I like shucking oysters better than I like shelling peas.’
‘I like eating both… though possibly not together.’ She sounded distracted, probably something to do with the dozens of tiny critters trying to eat her. ‘I like chocolate more than I like flowers.’
‘Never eaten flowers,’ he said, and drew a breath and offered up something a little more personal. ‘I like Friday afternoons.’ It was as close as he was going to get to telling her how much he enjoyed it when they played.
‘I like them too,’ she offered finally, after a pause that seemed to last forever.
It wasn’t much, this ragged banter that he offered up to Zoey, formerly Fuzzy, but it was the most he’d offered any woman in years.
It was a start.
End of Excerpt