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"When are you going to get that cracked sink fixed?" Beau de la Croix asked good-naturedly as he slid back into his place at the poker table.
The question was addressed to Philippe Zabelle, his cousin and the host of their weekly poker game. Beau and several other friends and relatives showed up here at Philippe's to talk, eat and bet toothpicks on the whimsical turn of the cards. They used colored toothpicks instead of chips or money because those were the house rules and Philippe, easy going about so many things, was very strict about that.
Philippe's dark eyebrows rose slightly above his light green eyes at the innocent but still irritating query. Beau had hit a sore spot. Everyone at the circular table was aware of that.
"When I get around to it," Philippe replied evenly.
"Better hope that's not soon," Georges Armand, Philippe's half brother commented, battling the grin that begged to break out across his tanned face. "If Philippe puts his hand to it, that's the end of the sink."
Philippe, the oldest of famed artist Lily Moreau's three sons, shifted his steely gaze toward Georges, his junior by two years. "Are you saying that I'm not handy?"
Alain Dulac, Philippe's other half brother, as blond as Philippe was dark, bent over with laughter at the very idea of his older brother holding an actual tool in his hand. "Oh God, Philippe, you're so far from handy that if handy were Los Angeles, you'd be somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Drowning," Alain finally managed, holding his sides because they hurt.
Georges discarded two cards and momentarily frowned at the rest of his hand. "Two," he decided out loud, then looked over to his rightand Philippe. "Everyone knows you've got lots of talents, Philippe, but being handy is just not one of them."
Philippe tried not to take offense, but it bothered him nonetheless. For the most part, he considered himself a free thinker, a person who believed that no one should be expected to fit into a given slot or pigeonholed because of gender or race. With the flamboyant and outspoken Lily Moreau as his mother, a woman who made the fictional Auntie Mame come off like a cloistered nun, he couldn't help but have an open mind.
Even so, it got under his skin that he barely knew the difference between a Phillips-head screwdriver and a flat-head one. Men were supposed to know these things, it was a given, written in some giant book of man-rules somewhere.
The fact that he not only couldn't rebuild an automobile engine but was pretty stumped if one refused to start, didn't bother him. Lots of men were ignorant about what went on under the hoods of things housed in their garage.
But not being handy around the house, well, that was another story entirely.
Still, he had no natural ability, nor even a fostered one. He'd always been too busy either studying or being both mother and father to his brothers because his mother had once more taken off with a show, or, just as likely, with a man. Growing up, he'd found himself taking on the role of buffer, placing himself between the endless parade of nannies and his two younger brothers. Once out of their rebellious teens, Georges and Alain had both acknowledged that even though they loved their mother dearly, Philippe was the only reason they had turned out normal. Or at least reasonably so.
That didn't stop them from teasing him whenever the opportunity arose. Their affection for the man they considered the head of the family actually seemed to promote it.
"One," Alain requested, throwing down his card first. After glancing at the new addition, he looked up at Philippe. He put on the face that Philippe knew was the undoing of every fluttering female heart at the university Alain was currently attending. A university whose tuition bill found its way into his mailbox twice a year and which he promptly and willingly paid. "Too late to change my mind and get the old one back?"
There wasn't even a hint of humor on Philippe's face. "After insulting me?"
"Wasn't an insult, Philippe," his cousin Remy assured him. Remy, a geologist, was closer to Alain in age than Philippe. "Alain was only telling it the way it is. Hey," he added quickly, forestalling any fallout from the man they all admired, "we all love you, Philippe, but you know you'll never be the first one any of us call if we find that we've got a clogged drain."
"Or a cabinet door that won't close right," Vincent Mirabeau called over from the far side of the kitchen.
"Like this one." To illustrate his point, Vincent, another one of Philippe's cousins and Lily's godson, went through elaborate motions to close the closet door. Creaking, it returned to its place, approximately an inch and a half away from its mate, just hanging in midspace. "I think you should bite the bullet and hire someone to remodel this place."
Remy put in his two cents. "Or at least the bathroom and the kitchen."
Philippe folded his hand and placed it face down on the table, his eyes sweeping over his brothers and cousins.
"What's wrong with this place?" he asked. He'd bought the house with the first money he'd managed to save up after opening up his own software design company. The moment he'd seen it, he'd known that the unique structure was for him. To the passing eye, the house where he received his mail appeared to be a giant estate. It was only when the passing eye stopped passing and moved closer that the perception changed. His house was just one of three houses, carefully designed to look like one. There was one door in the center, leading to his house. Other doors located on either end of the structure opened the other two houses. Thanks to his initial down payment, Georges and Alain lived in those. They all had their privacy but were within shouting distance if a quick family meeting was needed. Because Lily was their mother, the need for one of these was not as rare for them as it was for some families.
"Nothing's wrong with this place," Beau was quick to say. They all knew how attached to the house Philippe was. "At least, nothing a good handyman couldn't fix."
Philippe's expression remained uncharacteristically stony. "C'mon, Philippe," Remy urged, "every time you turn on the faucet in the kitchen, it sounds like you're listening to the first five bars of "When the Saints Come Marching In.""
Before Philippe could protest, Remy turned the handle toward the left. Hot water slowly emerged, but a strange echoing rattling noise in the pipes preceded the appearance of any liquid.
Philippe sighed. There was no point in pretending he would get around to fixing that, either. He didn't even know where to start. When it came to the faucet, his ability began and ended with turning the spigots on or off.
Tossing a bright pink toothpick onto the pile of red, blue, green and yellow, Philippe asked, "Anyone else want to bet?"
Vincent shook his head, throwing in his cards. "Too rich for my blood."
"Count me out." Remy followed suit.
But Beau grinned. "I'll see your pink toothpick," he tossed one in, "and raise you a green one."
Picking up a green toothpick from his dwindling pile, Philippe debated. Green represented five cents; he rarely went higher than that on a single bet. His father, Jon Zabelle, had been a charming incurable gambler. The man had single-handedly almost brought them down and was responsible for Lily Moreau's brief and unfortunate flirtation with frightening poverty. That period of time, long in his past and no more than three months in length, had left an indelible mark on Philippe.
It also allowed him to recognize the occasional craving to bet as a potential problem.
Forewarned, Philippe treated any obstacle head on. Since he liked to play cards and he liked to gamble, he made sure that it would never result in his losing anything more a handful of colorful toothpicks. The big loser at his table wound up doing chores to make payment, not going to an ATM machine.
"I call," Philippe announced, tossing in the green toothpick to match his cousin's.
"Three of a kind," Beau told him, spreading out two black nines with a red one in between.
"Me, too," Philippe countered, setting down three fours, one by one. And then he added, "Oh, and I've also got two of a kind." The fours were joined by a pair of queens.
Beau huffed, staring down at the winning hand. "Full house, you damn lucky son of a gun." He pushed the "pot," with its assorted array of toothpicks, toward his oldest cousin.
"Gonna cash in this time and spend all your "winnings' on renovating the house?" Remy teased as Philippe sorted out the different colors and placed them in their appropriate piles.
Philippe didn't bother looking at his cousin. "I don't have the time to start hunting for a decent contractor."
Vincent's grin went from ear to ear. He stuck his hand into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. "Just so happens, I have the name of a contractor right here in my wallet."
Philippe stopped sorting, feeling like a man who'd been set up. "Oh?"
"Yeah. Somebody named J. D. Wyatt," Vincent told him. "Friend of mine had some work done on his place. Said it was fast and the bid was way below anything the other contractors he'd contacted had come through with."
Which could be good, or could be bad, Philippe thought. The contractor could be hungry for work or he could be using sub-grade material. If he decided to hire this J.D., he was going to have to stay on top of him.
Philippe thought for a moment. He knew his brothers and cousins were going to keep on ribbing him until he gave in. In all fairness, he knew the place could stand to have some work done. He just hated the hassle of having someone else do it.
Better that than the hassle of you pretending you know what you're doing and messing up, big time, a small voice in his head whispered.