The Pick Up (An Up Red Creek novel)
This title is part of the Up Red Creek universe.
Kyle’s life is going backwards. He wanted to build a bigger life for himself than Red Creek could give him, but a family crisis has forced him to return to his hometown with his six-year-old daughter. Now he’s standing in the rain at his old elementary school, and his daughter’s teacher, Mr. Hathaway, is lecturing him about punctuality.
Adam Hathaway is not looking for love. He’s learned the hard way to keep his personal and professional life separate. But Kyle is struggling and needs a friend, and Adam wants to be that friend. He just needs to ignore his growing attraction to Kyle’s goofy charm, because acting on it would mean breaking all the rules that protect his heart.
Putting down roots in this town again is not Kyle’s plan. As soon as he can, he’s taking his daughter and her princess costumes and moving on. The more time he spends with Adam, though, the more he thinks the quiet teacher might give him a reason to stay. Now he just has to convince Adam to take a chance on a bigger future than either of them could have planned.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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When the third car hit the puddle and splashed cold brown water over his ankles, Adam gave up trying to dodge it.
“Hi, Mr. Hathaway!”
Adam gritted his teeth and pasted on a smile for the woman who had pulled up in front of the school’s loading zone in her German station wagon. “Hello, Mrs. King.”
Mrs. King hurried around the car to load her son in the back. When she turned, she smiled at Adam broadly and handed him a plate covered in foil. Cars were lining up behind her, waiting their turn to collect their children from school. He was going to have to make this quick before the honking started.
“The soccer club is having a bake sale,” she said, “but I made too many. I thought you might like them.”
Whatever was under the foil would be on the staffroom table as soon as he could go back inside. Just like the zucchini loaf the week before. And the gluten-free cookies the week before that, but Adam kept that information to himself. He took the plate and felt his smile stretch another quarter inch. Mrs. King flushed.
“You shouldn’t have,” he said. It seemed polite enough. He hoped she’d take the hint.
“Oh, it’s no trouble. I wanted to.” Behind her, children’s voices were asking when they were leaving. Adam glanced at the line of cars backed out onto the street. Mrs. King followed his gaze and seemed to understand that she was holding things up. “Everyone loves my brownies. And the way to a man’s heart is through his—” Her eyes went wide as she bit her lip, and her face flushed a little more. Adam maintained his bland smile and let her collect herself. She ducked an awkward half shrug, half curtsy, then averted her gaze as she darted around the front of her car, got in, and drove away.
The next car rolled forward. Adam remembered to avoid the puddle.
No one had told him about the perils of pick-up duty when he was in college. They had talked about the psychology of learning and how to engage young minds. No one had told him about the importance of rubber boots in the spring or what to do when the soccer moms descended on him.
“Hi, Mr. Hathaway!” Another woman waved as she loaded kids into her minivan.
He hadn’t expected to be the subject of so much interest among his students’ parents when he’d come to Red Creek the year before. Mrs. King had been doing her baked goods routine for several months. And he was pretty sure Sophia Townsend’s mom had memorized his schedule. She was consistently the first one in line to pick up her daughter on the afternoons that Adam supervised. She always wanted to speak to him about something: Sophia’s last math test, the upcoming PTA meeting, whether he thought Sophia was too young to take up the violin. Adam stayed polite, and under no circumstances did he ever suggest that Sophia’s mom call him or arrange a meeting with him after school hours to discuss further.
Jayden Tucker’s mom was the most direct and had asked him if he wanted to go on a date sometime. Trying to maintain some professionalism, Adam had taken the obvious out, which was that teachers getting involved in a relationship with their students’ parents was probably not a good idea. She’d purred that the school year was nearly over, and she was a patient woman.
He had not taken the other obvious out, which was to tell her the truth—that he was gay—because that was none of her business. No meant no. He told his students that all the time. It didn’t matter if it was asking someone out on a date or asking if someone would share a cookie they’d brought as a snack. The same rules applied.
Adam watched the last van pull out of the parking lot. His shoes were soaked through, his socks squished uncomfortably, and his pants were wet from the knees down. All he wanted to do was go inside, pack up his lesson planning, and go home to his apartment and TV.
A flash of yellow caught his eye as he turned. It was Caroline Fenton, covered in a bright-yellow poncho. She was sitting on one of the low concrete planters by the front door of the school. She wore red rain boots designed to resemble fire trucks and clutched a purple backpack in her hands.
“Hey, Caroline,” he said, walking toward her. Caroline was new in his class. She had only been with him for a few weeks. It was odd for someone to enroll their child so late in the school year, but the principal had shrugged, said the family had recently moved to Red Creek, and her father wanted to get her settled and socialized as quickly as possible.
Caroline smiled as Adam approached. Her smile and her delight with everything the first grade had to offer were welcome additions to his class. She stood out in many ways. The first thing was her name. In a sea of Sophias, Emmas, and Isabellas, Caroline’s name seemed less trendy. Her style stood out too. Most of his students might have walked off the set of a Gap Kids commercial, all khakis, pinstripes, checks, and polo shirts. Caroline came to school most days in brightly printed leggings and T-shirts for bands and comic books she wasn’t old enough to know about.
“Hi, Mr. Hathaway,” she said.
“Is your mom late?”
“My mom’s in heaven.” Caroline said it like heaven was down the street next to the library, but her words made Adam’s stomach knot. He’d known that Caroline’s mother had died, but the question had slipped out on reflex.
“Your dad, then?” he said. Caroline shrugged. Adam’s socks squished in his shoes. “Do you want to come inside and wait where it’s dry?” Hopefully one of the administrators would still be in the office, and he could leave Caroline with them to sort out where her father was. He’d done his bit for the afternoon’s pick-up duty. It was time for someone else to take over.
Just as Adam was about to ask if there was someone they could call, yet another Range Rover pulled in front of the school. Caroline straightened as it stopped opposite them. The driver’s-side door opened, but instead of a frazzled mom, a young man appeared. He was dressed in skinny jeans and a worn wool coat unbuttoned down the front. Despite the rain, there was a pair of sunglasses perched on top of a head of hair that was too perfectly disarranged to be accidental. A babysitter maybe? Or a nanny? He had a Bluetooth earpiece clipped over one ear, which, in Adam’s opinion, was a sure sign of chronic douchebaggery. That was too bad, because in another life, Adam would have said he was attractive.
“Daddy!” Caroline ran toward the man, rubber boots squeaking as she went.
Adam froze. Not the nanny. A parent.
“Hey, Jelly Bean!” Caroline’s father smiled at his daughter with an affection that Adam didn’t always see in the usual crush of after-school pickup. The man had the same eyes as his daughter: a warm brown like coffee on a cold morning.
Both sets of eyes were focused at Adam.
“Hi,” the man said as he shifted Caroline against one hip.
“Daddy, this is Mr. Hathaway,” Caroline said. Her father’s eyebrows lifted.
“Your teacher?” His easy grin made Adam’s cheeks heat, and he gripped his umbrella tighter. He wasn’t supposed to feel like that when parents smiled at him.
“Hi!” The man stuck out his free hand to shake Adam’s. “I’m Kyle, Caroline’s dad.” His handshake was firm, his palm warm despite the clammy weather. “I meant to stop in and introduce myself earlier and make sure that the Bean here wasn’t giving you too much trouble.” He hitched her up against his side and she giggled again. “But we’ve been so busy getting settled and I figured you’d call if there was a problem and Bean says she’s making friends so I—”
“You’re late, Mr. Fenton.” Attraction was fluttering in his chest, and Adam squashed it by letting his irritation sour his voice more than he normally would have with a parent. The younger man—Kyle—stopped midsentence, blinked, and then continued.
“Yeah, sorry. My van died and I couldn’t get ahold of my dad, so I had to call down to the hospital, and then they couldn’t find him, and so then I had to borrow a car from a friend, and then we had to get the booster seat put in and—”
“Pickup is between three ten and three thirty, Mr. Fenton.” Adam wasn’t sure what a father in the hospital would have been able to do, but then blinked back to reality, because that wasn’t the point. It was almost quarter to four now. Adam could feel his feet shriveling inside his shoes.
“I know, but like I said, my van wouldn’t start and my dad wasn’t available and—” Adam ground his teeth while Kyle rattled on. He didn’t seem to have a verbal off switch. “—I thought I’d be here on time, but then I got turned around in that subdivision near where the bowling alley used to be. When did they build that? Anyway, none of the streets seemed to lead back to Elm Street and by the time I realized that my only option was to backtrack I was already ten minutes late and then I—”
Adam held up his hand, because clearly there wasn’t going to be a pause anytime soon.
“That’s fine, Mr. Fenton. Unforeseen circumstances. I get it.” His heart was still doing a weird skipping thing, and slipping into his professional persona seemed safest. If he focused on school policy and not the way he was feeling, he could have this conversation wrapped up quickly before he did anything to embarrass himself. And anyway, it was best to set a tone on the school’s policies up front. He’d had a few parents who were chronically late over his career. They used Adam’s time like a free babysitting service, and he tried to break bad habits when he could. “In the future, if you’re going to be late, please call the school and let us know. We can have Caroline stay inside.”
He didn’t stick around for a response as he spun on one sodden heel and strode into the school. His jaw ached, and there was a prickle on the back of his neck. If he turned around, Caroline and her dad would still be watching him. His brain had taken in what felt like a million little details while he had been making his point, but it wasn’t appropriate to dwell on them. He tried not to think about the ease with which Kyle held Caroline while talking, as if it were second nature to have a child on his hip. He tried not to think about the man’s broad hands or long fingers. He definitely didn’t think about Kyle’s wide mouth and the way his lips had spread into a genuine smile when Kyle had looked at his daughter. And he most certainly did not think about the artfully arranged hair and what it would feel like to slip his fingers into it while he got to know that wide mouth a little bit better. He groaned as he finally made it back into his classroom.
Adam hated pick-up duty.
“Jelly Bean, you didn’t tell me your teacher was so hot!” Kyle slid behind the wheel of the borrowed Range Rover.
“He’s not hot, Daddy!” Caroline laughed from her seat in the back. “He’s Mr. Hathaway.”
“And Mr. Hathaway is a total fox.”
Kyle had been serious when he’d said he had meant to come into the school earlier and introduce himself, but the move had been all-consuming and Caroline seemed to be adjusting without his interference. And anyway, there was a ton of work to catch up on, so taking the time to stop at the school hadn’t seemed necessary. Kyle had been surprised when Caroline had said her new teacher was a man. He hadn’t thought there were male teachers at Caroline’s grade level very often. Somehow though, when she’d talked about Mr. Hathaway over dinner, Kyle had imagined someone older. Much older. Somewhere between Mr. Rogers and Santa Claus. Instead, he had arrived at the school to find Mr. Hathaway was exactly the opposite, with wavy dark hair that curled around his ears and enough stubble on his jaw to fall into the sexy-not-lazy category. His bright-blue eyes had glowered at Kyle as Mr. Hathaway had lectured him about punctuality.
A shame about the attitude, but Kyle didn’t have to like him to admire him from the school parking lot.
Because that didn’t sound creepy at all.
“Can we have pizza for dinner?” Caroline asked from the back seat.
“We’re having jelly beans for dinner.” Kyle smiled.
“We are?” Caroline’s eyes widened.
“No, Jelly Bean. I’m making good stuff for dinner.” He signaled at the intersection and turned left toward his dad’s house.
“Like what?” Her voice dropped suspiciously.
“Well, owl brains were on sale at the store today, so I made a stew with those along with some dragon tongues and cat whiskers.” They played this game almost every night.
“Daddy! That’s gross!”
“No it’s not! Cat whiskers are very good for you. Lots of fiber. But you have to be careful they don’t get stuck in your teeth.”
“Why can’t we have pizza?”
“You know pizza is a sometimes food, not a weeknight food. Don’t make me tell you what’s in pepperoni. And contrary to popular belief, tomato sauce is not a serving of vegetables.”
“A tomato is a fruit,” Caroline said.
“It is?” He let his voice rise and smiled incredulously at his daughter in the rearview mirror.
“Yes, because it has seeds and only fruits have seeds.”
“Where’d you learn that?”
“From Mr. Hathaway.”
“Oh, Mr. Hathaway said so?”
“Mm-hmm.” She nodded, using her whole body for emphasis. Her rubber boots bounced up and down against the edge of the booster seat.
“What else did Mr. Hathaway say?”
“That we need to drink lots of milk so that we have strong bones, and that ice cream is only okay as a treat because it has too much sugar.”
Kyle chuckled. He suspected Mr. Hathaway was one of those my body is a temple gym freaks who believed the answer to everything was whey protein and chia seeds. He’d been tall, and while it was hard to gauge the body under his bulky rain jacket, Mr. Hathaway’s pants had been soaked from the rain, giving Kyle a chance to admire what appeared to be a set of well-muscled legs underneath them.
“Are you learning about the food groups at school?” he asked.
“Uh-huh,” Caroline said.
“What else did you learn?”
“Uhhh . . . I forget.” The universal kid phrase for I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
They drove in silence for a few minutes, splashing through rain-filled potholes. Kyle didn’t remember it raining quite so much in Red Creek when he was growing up. It was supposed to be one of the benefits to leaving Seattle, having more sunny days for a change, but it had rained pretty well nonstop since they had moved back.
The Bluetooth clipped to his ear chirped, signaling an incoming call. The plastic was uncomfortable, but it was the best way to manage his clients while he was in the car. His regular set of wheels had been built before hands-free had become a thing, and temporarily syncing his phone to Ben’s SUV had seemed pointless when he had already been stupidly late to pick up Caroline from school. Kyle pointed at Caroline’s reflection in the mirror. She mimicked locking her mouth shut with a key, and he depressed the earpiece. “It’s Kyle.”
“Oh thank god!” Shannon sounded stressed.
Kyle put on his crisis-management voice. It was his preferred tone when Shannon called. “Hey, Shannon. Did you get the confirmation about the charity auction? I sent it over last night.”
“I don’t care about the auction. I’m freaking out right now.”
Kyle hoped she didn’t hear him sigh. Freaking out was Shannon’s general state of being.
“Really? What’s the problem?”
“Madison’s got a birthday party tomorrow, and she didn’t bother to show me the invitation. I found it in her backpack this afternoon. Honestly. The kid thinks I’m a mind reader.”
“Okay. So you want me to RSVP?” It was important to keep Shannon on task. She had a tendency to spiral into panic.
“No, I took care of that. I know the girl’s mom from skating club. I told her I’d sent an email RSVP weeks ago, and when she said she hadn’t got it, I pretended like it got lost in a spam filter.”
Kyle couldn’t help his eye roll. Spam filters: the perfect escape clause. He scrunched up his face at Caroline in the rearview mirror, and she giggled.
“So what can I do to help?”
Shannon had been his boss since he’d left college, first at the charity, and then when he’d gone virtual with his business. She’d agreed to keep him on as a virtual assistant when he’d announced he was moving back to the East Coast, and he was grateful for that, but it still baffled him sometimes that she was a grown woman managing a million-dollar charity and a family.
“A gift, Kyle! I don’t have time to go shopping. The party’s at four o’clock tomorrow. You can work with that, right?”
Kyle turned onto his father’s street.
“Sure thing. How old is the birthday girl?”
“She’s in Madison’s class. Haven’t you been listening?”
“Okay, so eight, then? I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry.”
“Thanks,” Shannon said. “Put it on the Amex if you can.”
“No problem. I’ll email you the confirmation when I get it sorted.”
“Do you have to work tonight, Daddy?” Caroline asked when he’d finished his call.
“A little bit,” he said. Caroline crossed her arms over her chest and stuck out her lower lip. “Don’t give me that look. I taught you that look and it has no power over me.”
They pulled into the driveway. Kyle hopped out and came around to open the SUV’s back door and take Caroline’s bag. Ben would be by to take back the Range Rover later.
“Daddy?” Caroline asked as Kyle hung his own coat by the front door.
“Yes, Jelly Bean?”
“If you’re working tonight, does that mean we can have pizza?”
* * * * * * *
Shopping for Shannon only took twenty minutes online. Kyle found a Princess Amazonia gift set, no doubt a new release since the movie had been spun out into a TV show too. It was a too-convenient ploy to separate doting parents from their money. The set was complete with all the dolls and the Princess’s jungle tree hut. Caroline assured him that it was super awesome amazing excellent. He pretended not to see the wistfulness on her face when he showed her the picture of the giant tree fort. A toy like that would earn him at least a month’s worth of Dad Points if he bought it for her, but the total cost was more than Kyle’s income that week, and maybe the week after too. Enough of Shannon’s money spent though, and shipping was guaranteed to arrive, wrapped, to the birthday girl’s house by noon the following day, so at least one little girl would be happy.
He was pulling a lentil loaf out of the oven when his dad got home from work.
A month into his return to Red Creek, and Kyle still wasn’t used to how much older his dad had gotten since Kyle had gone away to college. His thinning hair had turned silver where it had once been a soft brown. The strain of the last few years had etched new lines in his face that were visible all the time, and not only when he laughed or frowned. His shirt stretched over a gut that balanced precariously on his belt.
“That smells amazing,” he said.
Kyle grinned. “Bet you say that to all the girls. The kale will be ready in five minutes.”
“Kale?” His father’s expression clouded.
“You liked it last time, Dad. You’re worse than Caroline sometimes.”
His dad smiled, the way he always did when Kyle said his daughter’s name. “It amazes me that you know how to make all these things. Did you at least make mashed potatoes?”
“Yes, Dad. And if you eat it all, you can have two scoops of ice cream instead of one for dessert.”
“Can I have two scoops of ice cream?” Caroline asked as she wandered into the kitchen.
“We’ll see.” Kyle meant no, but he knew she’d take it as yes. It was a trap he fell into less lately. “Go wash your hands. We’re going to have dinner.”
Ten minutes later, the Fenton clan, all three of them, were circled around the small kitchen table.
“So how was school today?” Kyle’s dad asked Caroline.
“Good.” Caroline pushed her lentils around her plate. “Daddy was late to pick me up, and Mr. Hathaway was mad.”
Kyle wondered at his daughter’s ability to always zero in on the details he least wanted to talk about. Hadn’t anything notable happened at recess?
“Mr. Hathaway was mad?” his father said.
“Yes. Because he got all wet and Daddy was supposed to call to say he was going to be late, but he didn’t and that made Mr. Hathaway angry, but he said it was unfor . . . unfor . . . What did he say, Daddy?”
“Unforeseen and so it was okay. And then Daddy said Mr. Hathaway was hot.”
A mouthful of mashed potatoes lodged itself in Kyle’s throat, and he choked.
“Are you okay?” Caroline asked. He tried to smile, but that seemed to make it harder to breathe somehow. His eyes watered and he flailed, knocking over Caroline’s juice cup as he reached for his own drink. Caroline leaned over to pat him on the back, and Kyle gave a weak smile and wobbly thumbs-up. His dad appeared next to him, with a cloth to wipe up the spilled juice. Caroline kept patting him, her little hands becoming increasingly forceful, although they didn’t cover enough area to really make any difference. Eventually he held up a hand and gulped down big swigs of water from his glass.
“Sorry. I’m okay, Bean.” He smiled at her and wiped his eyes with a napkin. Her lower lip wobbled, so he pulled her onto his lap and buried his face in her hair. The smell of his daughter, warm bread and a hint of sweetness from her No Tangles shampoo, was one of his favorite things.
“Well, I think that’s pretty much it for dinner, don’t you?” his father said as he came back to the table. “Caroline, how about we watch a movie tonight?”
“Princess Amazonia!” Caroline shrieked as she scrambled from Kyle’s lap. “Come on, Grandpa!”
He smiled at her. “Why don’t you go get it set up? I’ll be right in.” As he glanced at Kyle, the expression on his face said We Need to Talk. Kyle had seen that pointed glint in his eye so many times over the course of his life, and it almost never boded well for him.
The two men sat in silence at the table while they listened to Caroline’s little feet thump toward the den.
“You’re going to rot her brain if you keep suggesting after-dinner TV,” Kyle said when he heard the TV turn on. “Aren’t I supposed to be signing her up for endless cello and tennis lessons?”
“Kyle.” His dad was apparently unwilling to be distracted by the idea of his only granddaughter as a prodigy. “I’m not sure that telling your daughter you’re attracted to her first-grade teacher is the best way to get settled here.”
Kyle rolled his eyes and sighed. “I’m not attracted to him, Dad. I was simply stating an empirical fact. It was nothing.”
“It’s not nothing if she’s bringing it up at dinner.”
“It was nothing. Although if you’d seen him, you’d know I’m not wrong.” Kyle smiled and waited for his father’s returning smile at the joke. It didn’t happen.
“That’s not the point. Your daughter has lost her mother, and you don’t want to confuse her about . . .” His father’s brow creased as he searched for words, showing those worried lines Kyle didn’t remember again.
“Please, Dad, spare me. I’m not going to do anything stupid. My daughter’s ogre of a teacher gave me a lecture for being late, and I wanted to lighten the mood afterwards. I didn’t mean it and Caroline knows that. We play around all the time,” he said. When his father grimaced, Kyle sighed and tried a softer approach. “If it will make you feel better, I’ll tell her I wasn’t serious about it, but trust me. I know my kid. In an hour, any thoughts of hot Mr. Hathaway will be replaced by Princess Amazonia and her jungle friends, and nothing else will matter.”
On cue, Caroline’s voice called from the other room.
“Grandpa, it’s starting! You’re going to miss it!”
“There’s popcorn in the cupboard if you want it.” Kyle stood to collect their plates.
“It’s not the all-natural crap you bought last week, is it?”
“Yes, it is. Fake popcorn butter is all chemicals. I don’t want Caroline eating that.”
His dad rolled his eyes. It was a Fenton trait, passed down through generations.
“Grandpa!” Caroline called again.
“What’s with the face?” Rebecca picked up Adam’s plate as she walked by.
“What face?” he asked.
“Yours. It’s all grumpy. And you didn’t say three words during dinner.” She turned the sink on to wash the dishes, and Adam went to pull a towel from the rack to help. Upstairs, a herd of elephants thundered down the hall.
“Peter Thomas Burton! David Christopher Burton!” Rebecca’s voice hit a pitch that made Adam flinch. “You go sit down and get your homework started in the next two minutes, or you won’t believe the chores I will find for you to do!” There was laughter upstairs, the sound of a door slamming. “Shit.” She sighed.
“Swear jar,” Adam said. Rebecca glared at him from the corner of her eye, but then fished into her pocket and threw a couple of coins into the half-full glass jar on the window sill.
“Can you go see what they’re doing?” she asked her husband, Cameron, who was sitting at the kitchen table. Cam glanced up from his cell phone, opened his mouth, saw the expression on his wife’s face, and headed toward the whirlwind his sons were making.
“Never have teenagers, Adam.” Rebecca sighed again as she rattled cups around in soapy water. “Sometimes I think you’ve got the right idea with teaching. You get a new set of babies every year and never have to deal with teenage sass. All the sighing and mumbling anytime I try to talk to them. It would be so much easier if they were little again.”
“Says you,” Adam said. Rebecca’s memory on the issue was clearly selective. Six-year-old sass could be very effective, regardless of how she remembered it with her own kids.
“I miss my sweet boys who wanted to sit on my lap and cuddle. I’d go so far as to say I miss the time I found Dave coloring on the upstairs wall with permanent marker. That was easy to fix. The destructive force of teenagers could bring a small country to its knees in a week.”
“At least they’re clean.” Adam picked up a glass to dry it. “I caught one of my students wiping his nose with the back of his hand and then rubbing it on another kid’s sleeve at recess yesterday.”
“Clean’s relative, little brother. The dishes I found under Pete’s bed last week were so moldy they were on the verge of developing language skills and religion.” She shuddered. “And there’s no remorse. When they were small and I gave them a hard time, they were so apologetic, they’d follow me around the house and hug me anytime I stopped moving. These days, it’s a miracle if I can get them to look up from whatever damn screen they have going while I talk to them.”
Adam knew that feeling well. At six years old, half his students were too plugged in already. Every one of them knew how to use a cell phone. He wasn’t sure his family had owned a computer when he had been his students’ age.
He and Rebecca stood side by side in companionable silence for a minute. Their dishwashing routine went back years, and the familiarity of it now was comforting.
Of course, Rebecca decided that comfort should only last so long.
“You didn’t answer my question from before,” she said.
“What question was that?” He’d hoped she might have forgotten. Rebecca shook a soapy hand at him.
“Don’t avoid the subject! You’ve been distracted since you got here. Everything okay at work?”
“Yes. No.” He may have growled the last word. “I don’t know. I met a new parent today.”
“Are they still trying to woo you with pastry?” Rebecca’s nose wrinkled. “Adam, I wish you’d let me drop a few hints with—”
“No!” he said, and she jumped, rattling dishes. “Sorry. No, you don’t need to do that. It’s not . . .” He licked his lips to buy time. “It’s not a mother, it was . . . He was my newest student’s father.”
“Father?” Rebecca’s eyes sparkled with mischief that only big sisters can imagine. “As in a man? A hot man?”
“A young man. I think. I don’t know. He looked young, too young to have a six-year-old. Definitely too young to . . .”
After he’d watched the Range Rover pull away from the school, he’d gone straight into the office and asked to see Caroline Fenton’s file. It had been very thin, with only her enrollment form and vaccination records. He’d read it all anyway. Her last school was Oak Park Public School in Seattle. No known allergies or medical conditions. Under parental information, her father’s name was listed as Kyle Fenton. His marital status said widowed. Caroline’s mother’s name was Olivia Russo. Under Olivia’s marital status, someone had circled Other and then written in deceased. There was a secondary contact listed for emergencies—Gord Fenton: Caroline’s grandfather.
“To what?” Rebecca said.
There were so many ways to answer that question. Too young to have lost his wife? Too young to be managing on his own? Too young to show the easy aptitude for parenting the man in skinny jeans had shown when he’d swaggered up to the school? Had he swaggered? Adam’s mind was wandering.
“Nothing,” he said. “Too nothing. I don’t see a lot of dads at work. It stood out. That’s all.”
The arch of Rebecca’s eyebrow told him she wasn’t buying it.
“You know . . .” she said, keeping her hands busy with a grimy lasagna pan, “if there was a hot dad—”
“I can’t date a parent.”
“Says you. But it’s practically May, so he won’t be a parent for long and—”
“The answer’s still no. Anyway, that’s not what I was thinking about when I brought up Caroline and her dad.” Despite the memories of Kyle’s long fingers and easy smile that had kept intruding over dinner, he really had spent most of the time wondering about their story.
“Caroline?” Rebecca straightened. “As in Caroline Fenton? Gord Fenton’s granddaughter?”
Adam’s jaw tightened, and his ears were on fire. He hated small towns sometimes.
“Are you blushing? You’re blushing!” Rebecca’s tone was teasing, but she removed the plate that he had in a death grip from his hands before he snapped it in two.
“How do you know about Caroline?”
“Holy shit, it is Gord’s grandkid!”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “I heard him talking. Gord. He comes into the café all the time. Sweet guy. He works at the hospital. He has the best stories about the things that happen there.” She paused, like she was waiting for a response. The hospital was down the street from the café, but Adam didn’t see what that had to do with what they were discussing. “Anyway, he came in a couple months ago, all excited, talking about how his son and his granddaughter were coming to live with him. He had her picture on his phone, showed it to anyone who would stop long enough to see it. Cute kid.”
“Did he talk about his son?” Adam asked. “Or maybe his son’s wife?”
“Not really, I don’t think so. Oh! He might have said the mother wasn’t in the picture anymore, that his son and the kid were coming to start over? Why?”
“Nothing.” Adam shook his head. “Caroline said her mother was in heaven.”
“Poor thing. Six years old and she’s lost her mother.” Rebecca’s expression grew sad. “How long ago did it happen? How did her father seem to be holding up?”
Adam shrugged. They were gossiping like old ladies now, which he hated doing, especially when it came to his students and their parents. At least he’d managed to distract Rebecca from his love life, or lack thereof.
“I couldn’t tell. He was late, picked up his daughter, apologized, and they were gone again.”
“We should have them over for dinner.” Rebecca put the last pot in the dish rack.
“What? Why?” Adam asked.
“Because moving someplace new is hard. Losing loved ones is harder. And I know Gord would come at least. He said his son only cooks things made of soy.” She wrinkled her nose. “Everyone deserves a good meal.”
Adam couldn’t argue with that last part. Rebecca had done her best to keep him from starving after he’d moved to Red Creek. It felt awkward to be extending the invitation to Caroline and her father though. Adam didn’t want them to think he and Rebecca were being nosy.
“That’s not necessary,” he said. “His father lives here, you said it yourself. He probably grew up here. I’m sure it’s not all that bad for them.”
“Well, you don’t have to come.” The taunting big sister look had returned. “Despite the amount of time you spend in this house, you don’t actually live with us. If you don’t care about Hot Young Daddy Fenton, I’ll schedule them for a night when you’re not around.”
“He’s not Hot Young—” He bit his tongue. She was baiting him now. “Fine. That’s nice of you, Rebecca. Let me know how it goes.” He put the last pan away in the cupboard above the stove and then went out to the front hall to collect his still damp coat.
“Where are you going?” Rebecca called from the kitchen.
“I have to go; I’ve got work to do.”
“Let me know if you change your mind!” Her voice followed him out the front door. He ground his teeth at her teasing. He didn’t need her matchmaking, and anyway it was a moot point. The school year was nearly over, and then he wouldn’t have to think about Kyle Fenton and his daughter again.
“Do you ever think about getting a newer model?” Ben asked from under the van’s hood.
“Don’t say that!” Kyle said. He patted his van’s dented bumper. “Don’t listen to him; he didn’t mean it.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Ben said. “I’m as big a fan of classic cars as anyone, but, with Caroline and all, I mean, aren’t you worried about safety? This thing doesn’t have modern airbags, and the body is fifty percent rust.”
“Thirty percent!” Kyle said. “And it’s safe enough.”
Ben swore as he rummaged deep inside the van’s inner workings.
“But it’s only a matter of time before a couple of my hours on a Friday night aren’t going to be enough to keep her running anymore. You should sell the van for scrap. I could get you a good deal on a newer ride.”
Except that wasn’t an option, because Ben’s idea of a good deal would cost more than a Princess Amazonia tree hut.
“We’ll be okay for a while longer. And what would I do with an SUV like yours? Can you imagine? Kirsten and the dealership may have your nuts in a vise, so that you think any vehicle that’s not a Range Rover is a death trap, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are going to be lining up at the country club anytime soon.”
“You’d get used to it.” Ben laughed as he wiped his hands on a rag draped over the van’s front headlight. “Give it a try now.”
Kyle climbed into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition. The motor coughed once, and then the van roared to life.
“You, sir, are the best best friend ever!” Kyle hooted.
“Leave it running for a minute. I want to see how it sounds.” Ben bent to pick up the half-finished beer he had set on the floor earlier. Rain ran in streams down the asphalt and out onto the street as both men stood together at the edge of the garage.
“This weather needs to stop,” Ben said. “The girls are going stir-crazy, and if I have to hear the opening theme to Princess Amazonia again, I’m moving out.”
“It’s the same over here.” Kyle took a swig of his own beer. “My dad was humming ‘Save the River’ one morning this week over breakfast. I threatened to call the hospital about a potential epidemic. He might have a crush on Amazonia too.”
“Well, Amazonia’s a babe, obviously. Kirsten had a funny look on her face when we watched the Prince Arvin shirtless swimming scene the other night though. There’s something going on there,” Ben said. Kyle laughed. Prince Arvin was pretty easy on the eyes too, but Kyle didn’t remember a shirtless swimming scene. He’d have to check it out later.
They stood in silence for a moment, watching the rain and listening to the roar of the van’s engine.
“Did you know this was going to be our life? In high school?” Kyle asked.
“What, beers in the garage and working on cars? Absolutely.”
Kyle envied his certainty. Ben had always known what he wanted to do. Fix cars. Get married and stay in their hometown.
“No,” Kyle said. “Princess cartoons, hiding from our daughters.” He didn’t want to knock what Ben had going, but the last month, waking up every morning in his father’s guest room, driving the same streets, seeing the same people, it had all started to get to him. Sometimes he felt like a permanent itch had developed under his skin, and there was nothing he could do to find relief.
“Pretty much. The van sounds fine.” Ben turned toward the van. “You’ll want to keep an eye on the radiator and the internal temperature. If it overheats too much it’ll—”
“Seize up. I know. That’s what they told me before. If the van got us across the country, it’s got a few years left.” Kyle ignored the face Ben made as he shut the engine off.
His phone rang, and he groaned inwardly when he saw who it was. “This is Kyle.”
“Kyle! We have a problem!”
“Yes it’s Eva, Kyle. I have a problem!” Eva Munro was one of his newer clients. She was a writer who had published her first book, a self-help manual for financial management. “Some troll online gave the book one star.”
“One star, Kyle! Do you know what that does to the average? I need to stay above four to keep the book visible. I’m down three-tenths right now; it was at four and a half this morning. It’s a disaster!”
“Okay,” he said. “It’s okay.” He respected everyone’s right to read and like or not like a book, but not when it meant fielding phone calls from panicked writers at . . . He checked his watch. God, it was nearly nine o’clock. His clients knew he was technically only available from eight to eight East Coast time, but that hadn’t stopped Eva from calling at odd hours in the past.
“I’ll call the publisher in the morning and find out if we can’t squeeze another couple free copies out of them. I’ll do some research and see if there are other reviewers we haven’t contacted who would consider reading it.”
It took some negotiating, and listening to Eva rant, but eventually they agreed that Kyle would call her in the morning to let her know what the publisher said. He took an extra minute to make notes on his phone after he hung up.
“So listen,” Ben said as Kyle rejoined him, “I’ve got a pickup basketball game tomorrow afternoon, and we’re short a guy. Do you think you could come?”
Kyle frowned. “Isn’t the whole point of pickup that you work with whoever’s there?”
“Well, yeah.” Ben stuffed his hands in his pockets and shifted his weight from foot to foot. “We always have the same group of guys. Except this week, Mark’s off on a cruise and Aidan’s kid’s got the flu and his wife won’t let anyone leave the house, so . . .”
“Ben.” Kyle put on the same voice he used to explain to Caroline why bedtime had to happen every night. “I’ve known you for almost twenty years, and you have always been a terrible liar.”
“It’s not—” Ben let his eyes wander everywhere around the garage without ever landing on Kyle.
“Did my dad put you up to this?” Kyle asked.
Ben examined his shoes. “Maybe.”
“Do you remember that time in seventh grade where I managed to break my ankle playing scooter hockey?” Kyle asked. Ben had the guts to smile at the memory. “Exactly. I appreciate you and Dad trying to get me involved in stuff, but do you think I, of all people, should be your substitute for pickup basketball?”
“It’s really relaxed! We play around for an hour and then go out for a beer. No one’s going to care if you’re not great at it.”
Kyle shook his head. “It doesn’t matter anyway. Someone has to watch Caroline, and my dad’s working tomorrow.”
“Kirsten could take her. If it’s raining they’re going to stay in and bake or do crafts. Doesn’t matter if it’s two girls or three. And if it’s nice, I think she’s taking them to the park. There’s a spring festival going on, with balloons and face painting. Caroline will love it!”
Kyle squinted at his friend.
“Very convenient,” he said. “You’ve got this all organized. You probably cleared it all with my dad and Kirsten. Came up with a list of possible solutions to every reason I have not to go?”
“Come on, Kyle. You’ve been here a month, and I only ever see you when the girls get together to play or if your van craps out. You spend all your time in this house with that stupid phone attached to your ear. You have to spend some time in the real world before you lose your mind. If all you want to do is pass out Gatorade, I don’t care, but I promised your dad I’d take you out for an afternoon, and that’s what I’m going to do!” He was a little wide-eyed, and his chest heaved.
“Rehearsed that whole speech, didn’t you?” Kyle asked.
“Shut up.” Ben’s lips twitched.
“Fine.” Kyle poked him in the chest. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you when our team loses hard, and you have to drive me to the hospital after I break the other ankle!”