Yeah, well, why wouldn’t he, after all the changes in his short life? But Leo was his father, though he didn’t much feel like one these days, so he came home from his assignment in Afghanistan to see what the problem was. Then he’d go back to the war and finish his story. It was too important to be left untold.
He opened the door of the SUV and approached the school with the same trepidation that he’d seen soldiers approach a bunker. The place was scary quiet, as though something dangerous lurked inside, just like a bunker.
Then the bell rang, like a bomb going off. His heart threatened to jump through his ribs. The glass doors flew open and children of all sizes streamed out, the very few teachers calling ineffectively to those who veered off in search of freedom. How could so few adults be expected to control so many children?
An impact against his knees made him grunt and he looked down into the wide dark eyes of a little girl, her black hair parted exactly in the center of her head and braided to her shoulders. She stared up at him, pink Dora backpack slung over her shoulder, and shoved her thumb into her mouth. No telling how long they stood there before a woman—her mother—hurried over to scoop her out of the way, casting a wary glance at Leo.
Right. Small town. Stranger. Never mind that he’d lived here from sixth grade until he could get the hell out. No one remembered him. And though he’d hated living in a small town, he wanted that protective atmosphere for his child.
Who he didn’t see, anywhere.
“Whose Toyota is this?” an annoyed voice called from behind him.
He turned to see a beautiful blue-eyed blonde standing at the fender of his rental. “Mine.”
She huffed out a breath. “Sir, you can’t park here. You’re backing up traffic. Don’t you see the arrows?”
His face heated. He had seen the arrows but thought he’d be long gone before the traffic started to flow. His first time with the after-school business. Livvie had dealt with that, then the stream of nannies had taken over, then his parents. He’d just thought…
“Where should I go?”
“There’s plenty of parking across the street.” She pointed to the supermarket parking lot.
He turned toward the thinning stream of kids emerging from the school. Where was Max? “My son should be out any minute.” He tried his charming smile, so rusty it had to be more of a grimace.
She wasn’t charmed, just folded her arms under her full breasts and waited. Behind her, several cars took up her cause by honking. At him. Well, hell.
With another glance at the school, he turned to the rental, tugging the keys from his front pocket. “Sorry,” he muttered to the blonde as he climbed in and started the vehicle, doing his best not to peel out as he left the place.
By the time he parked—plenty of space his ass—and jogged across the street to the school, most of the kids and traffic had gone. Some older kids milled around, and one smaller one, bent double, sobs racking his body as the blonde woman crouched before him, her hair tucked behind her ear as she tried to comfort him.
Christ. He hadn’t thought—the day Liv died, Max had been left at school, with no one to pick him up for hours. His son had to think something had happened again to turn his life upside down.
“Max! Max, I’m here.” Leo increased his speed and dropped to his knees beside his son, putting his hand on his arm. The boy’s flinch surprised Leo into drawing back. “Hey, buddy. Hey. I’m here.” Helplessly he let his hand fall to his lap as he watched the blonde cradle his distraught son in her arms.
Leo’s gut tightened at the boy’s refusal to even acknowledge him. He’d thought his mother had been exaggerating, but maybe not. “Okay. Okay. I’ll take you to Grandma’s. We just thought it might be fun if I surprised you.” Actually his mom hadn’t thought that was such a great plan, but Leo hadn’t gotten where he was without being stubborn—in his career and in his life. Look what it got him, a son who wouldn’t look at him, who clung to a stranger instead. Leo’s arms ached with the need to comfort his son.
“Are you his father?” the blonde asked.
He shifted his gaze to the woman. “Yeah. I’ve been out of town. Are you his teacher?”
“The school counselor.”
Right. So she knew Max, who lost his mother and moved to a new town so his father could report on the war in Afghanistan. He watched his son, nonplussed. The kid had loved visiting his grandparents, so Bluestone seemed like the perfect solution when the string of nannies didn’t work out. But the kid before him didn’t look like he was bouncing back from the loss of his mother. He was pale and fragile, almost unrecognizable. Did the boy think the same about him?
“Max, your daddy wanted to surprise you.” The blonde’s smooth, soothing voice even had Leo relaxing.
She rubbed her hand up and down Max’s slender back and made gentle shushing noises, just like Liv had done when Max was little and had colic. Christ, he missed his wife, missed that he hadn’t had to feel guilty when she was around because she took care of everything. Missed that he hadn’t had to feel helpless.
“He came all this way to see you,” the blonde continued.
Her words gave him a jolt. Did she know where he’d been? Probably, since this was Bluestone where everyone knew everyone else.
Max turned his face away from her shoulder with a doubtful sniff as he inspected his father—and no doubt found him lacking. Leo forced another smile. This was his kid and he didn’t know what to say.
“I’ve missed you, buddy.”
Max snuffled and pulled away, just a bit, from the counselor. Leo held out an ineffective hand, knowing the boy wouldn’t take it.
“Want to go home?”
For a moment, the boy’s face brightened and Leo knew he’d said exactly the wrong thing when the boy echoed, “Home?”
“Grandma’s.” Not the beautiful house in Excelsior with the playroom and the neighborhood where his friends lived and the mother who loved him more than anything. “Grandma’s house.” The words lumped in his throat. He wanted to go home, too, to the time before his wife had been killed, when the light that had warmed both his son and him had been extinguished.
The blonde murmured a few encouraging words Leo didn’t pick up over the roar of blood in his ears, and Max finally straightened to stand before his father. Leo flinched at the accusation in his son’s eyes. He rubbed a hand over Max’s arm.
“Wow, you’ve gotten big,” he said in what he hoped was a man-to-man voice. “What are you lifting these days?”
Max only looked at him, and again, Leo felt helplessness flow through him.
“How about some ice cream on the way home?” He glanced over at the counselor. “Is the Dairy Queen open yet?”
She nodded. “Just last week.”
Leo stood and offered a hand to his son. “Let’s go ruin our dinner.”
The blonde rose, too. “Will you be in town long? I’d like to schedule a conference with you and Max’s teacher.”
“I’ll be here awhile,” he said, not wanting to let Max know he only planned to stay a couple of weeks, until things settled again. “I’m Leo, by the way.”
“Trinity Madison,” she said, and extended a hand.
He shook it, briefly, trying not to think about the softness of her skin, the ringless state of it, and he turned to guide his son across the street to his SUV.
Now that he and Max were alone, he was even more clueless. He’d talked to Max on the phone a few times while he was in Afghanistan, but the conversations had been short. The kid apparently followed in his own footsteps when it came to social interaction.
“Have you been to Dairy Queen yet?” he asked as he buckled the boy in the booster in the back seat.
Max shook his head. “Grandma said too much sugar isn’t good for me.”
Leo remembered her saying the same to him, but weren’t grandparents supposed to spoil kids, just a little? And if any kid deserved spoiling, it was one who’d lost his mother. “Yeah, well, it’s not good for any of us, but we’re going to go anyway.”
He closed the back door and rounded the vehicle to climb in, trying to remember what his mother used to do when she picked him up from school. “How was your day?”
“I got a mark.”
A mark? What the hell was a mark? “What does that mean?”
“I couldn’t sit still in class and the teacher yelled and then she gave me a mark in my behavior folder.”
Okay, so he got in trouble. “So what does that mean? Did you miss recess or something?”
“Tomorrow I have to stand against the wall at our break.”
“Well, buddy, I guess you need to stay in your seat so you can play on Friday.”
“Doesn’t matter. No one plays with me anyway.”
His mother had mentioned Max didn’t have any friends, but Leo figured it was just a matter of time. Clearly that wasn’t the case. “Well, that sucks.”
“Grandma says that’s a bad word.”
Leo pressed his lips together. “Yeah, she’s right. Sorry, buddy. So why doesn’t anyone play with you?”
“They think I’m weird. And they’ve all been friends before. They don’t need me.”
Again Leo heard the accusation in the boy’s voice. Man, he’d really screwed this up, moving Max away from the world he’d known so Leo could get back to his life. Worse, he didn’t have the first clue about how to make it better.
* * *
Ice cream apparently wasn’t the way. Max ordered a dipped cone and dripped it all over the booster seat, then the minute they pulled into the driveway at his parents’, Max puked all over the running board. Leo’s mom Nora must have been watching from the front window because she hurried out from the side door, helping Max out of his soiled shoes and casting a baleful glare at her son.
Like Leo needed to be judged right now. “He was upset. I was trying to smooth things over.”
“You did a bang-up job there. Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.” She scooped Max into her arms—the kid was nearly as tall as she was—and marched into the house, leaving Leo alone, his arms still aching to hold his child. Instead, he turned on the hose and washed the ice cream off his car.
When he walked into the kitchen later, Max was at the same counter where Leo had done his homework years ago, freshly bathed, the scent of the shampoo his mother had used since Leo was a child carrying him back. He wanted to press his lips to his son’s head, something he’d done when Max was little but now just felt awkward. Instead he leaned on the counter at a right angle to the boy.
“Where’s your homework?”
“We do it right after dinner,” Nora answered. “We have a routine, Leo.”
Frustration bubbled, but he tamped it down. His mother had called him to come home, but now wouldn’t make room for him.
He turned to his son, drawing on the depths of his patience. “Do you have a lot of homework? What’s it in?”
“Wednesdays are spelling,” Nora said. “Twenty sentences.”
Tension gripped his shoulders as he fought bitter words. He was trying to engage his son in a conversation, and his mother was interfering. But how could he fault her, when he’d asked her to do that very thing so he could continue his career, knowing Max was in good hands?
And he was in good hands. But that no longer seemed enough.
He sat on the stool beside Max. “Why don’t you drag out that homework and we’ll get it knocked out before dinner?”
“We do it after dinner,” Max said, parroting his grandmother.
“Yeah, well, if we get this done, we can play some ball before bed.”
“He’s already had his bath,” Nora protested, turning away from the stove.
“So he can have another one.”
“I don’t like to play ball. Or take baths.”
Leo laughed, something he couldn’t have imagined doing just an hour ago, and he reached out to ruffle his son’s hair. Max flinched.
Leo folded his hand and let it fall to his lap. “Right. Well, let’s get going on that homework. Twenty sentences seems like a lot.”
* * *
He’d had no idea how much of a struggle it was to get ten sentences out of a kid who didn’t want to talk but that was all they managed before his mother instructed Max to set the table for dinner. His mother sent Leo a chiding look when Max went into the dining room.
“He needs things a certain way, Leo. There’s security in our routine. You can’t just come in here and change it.”
“I’m his father.”
“You trusted me to do what’s right for him. So I am.”
Leo rocked back on his heels. He wasn’t willing to admit that he had no idea what was right for his son, only that he wanted to be the one to call the shots. He could almost hear Livvie chiding him, telling him he couldn’t have it both ways—couldn’t have his freedom to do his job and be in charge here, too. He’d made a choice and clearly it was the wrong one. He’d known it at the time, but God help him, he couldn’t bring himself to stay. He needed the job, the way it absorbed him.
And abandoned his kid.
“Is it that he misses her, do you think?”
“Misses her, misses you, misses home. Everything’s changed for him, Leo, against his will. He has no control over his life and it makes him angry. Sound familiar?”
He heard the smile in her voice but wouldn’t meet her gaze. He’d been much the same way when his parents had moved him away from his friends in Milwaukee and planted him here. They’d grown roots. He couldn’t wait to blow away.
Instead of responding to her, he turned toward the dining room. “I’m going to see if he needs help.”
But Max was putting the finishing touches on the table when Leo entered. Max closed the sticking drawer on the breakfront with a grunt, and turned to his father.
“What are we drinking?” Leo picked up one of the cut-glass tumblers his mom had had since he was Max’s age.
“I drink soy milk. Grandma and Grandpa drink ice water. Grandma bought your beer. She said it’s your favorite kind.”
Leo’s mouth watered at the idea of the beverage, but he wasn’t going to indulge before he tucked his son in bed. “I think I’ll have milk, too. Soy milk?”
“Grandma thinks I’m lactose intolerant.”
Leo lifted his eyebrows at the big words. But that would explain the reaction to the ice cream. “Is it any good?”
Max grimaced, drawing another chuckle from Leo. God, he should have spent more time with his kid and less time feeling sorry for himself. Max could have helped him climb out of his grief. They could have helped each other heal. Was that an irredeemable failing?
The milk was nasty, but the meal was good. Leo hadn’t had a home-cooked meal since he’d dropped Max off here two—no, almost three—months ago. The boy had been quiet, but Leo hadn’t wanted to see it, had only wanted to get out of there, get on with his life. He hadn’t seen any other choice, though. He had to work, and Max always loved visiting his grandparents. It had seemed like the perfect solution.
So he drank the milk in solidarity with his son, and after dinner helped his mother clean up while Max finished the last ten sentences in half the time it took to do the first ten.
“Grandma said my brain needs fuel to do my work,” he said when Leo questioned him.
Leo scanned the sentences, good ones, and read one that caused his gut to clench.
My dad has returned but how long will he remain?
He looked up and saw the question in the boy’s eyes, but couldn’t bring himself to address it. Not long. He had a job to finish, and another after that, and another. And when he came back, how much taller would Max be? How much angrier? “Let’s go play some ball. You have a ball and mitt?”
Max shook his head. “I don’t like to play ball.”
Yet another failing. Leo’s great remaining love was baseball. He’d never shared that with his son. “How do you know if you haven’t tried?”
“I’ve tried. I don’t like it.”
Leo glanced at his mother, who gave a slight shake of her head. Right. He was pushing. “So what do you like?”
A smile pulled at Leo’s mouth. “Fishing. With Grandpa?”
“We go every Saturday morning. He has a boat.”
Oh, Leo knew about the boat. Leo hated that boat, that he’d been forced to help his father rebuild, that he’d sat on many resented Saturday mornings. But he’d been a sullen teenager who didn’t know how to sit still. Apparently his son was better at that, except when it came to class.
“Maybe I can join you this Saturday?”
Max made a face. “Grandpa said you don’t like it.”
“Maybe if I tried it now I’d like it better.”
Max frowned doubtfully.
“There’s no time now anyway,” his mother said, stripping off her rubber gloves. Funny, in their whole marriage, Livvie had never used rubber gloves. Her hands had still been silky smooth the day she died. “Max’s favorite show is on in a few minutes.”
“His favorite show?” Leo repeated, looking out the big kitchen window at the gorgeous day. His parents had never been TV watchers when he was growing up. Most of the time after dinner he was damn near shoved out the door. Of course he had a lot more energy than Max. “Nah, come on, Max, let’s go for a walk down to the lake. You can show me Grandpa’s boat.”
“I want to watch my show.”
Leo opened his mouth to push his idea, but a shake of his mother’s head had him closing it again. He didn’t want to fight with his kid his first night here. So he followed him into the living room, where the curtains had been drawn against the bright evening, and sat on the couch with his mother while Max hunkered on the floor in front of the TV and watched a hideously-drawn cartoon with glazed eyes.
Leo scrubbed his hand over his mouth, feeling impotent. His kid, yes, but he’d delivered him to his parents hoping the sense of family would pull the boy through his grief. Clearly that wasn’t happening. And now Leo felt like an interloper with his own son.
“Time for bed,” his mother announced when the program ended, rising from her end of the couch.
Sunlight still streamed around the edges of the closed curtains, and Leo braced himself for Max’s protests, but none came.
“I’ll get him to bed,” Leo said, holding a hand out to stop his mother.
She cast a questioning glance at Max, and Leo figured he’d have another argument, but Max just headed toward the stairs. Leo thought about saying something to his mother, but instead followed his son.
Max stepped into the bathroom and closed the door in Leo’s face. Uncertain what to do, Leo wandered into his old room, which his mother had redone after he left and which Max now occupied, and looked around.
Max had lived here two months and the room showed very little evidence of it. Granted, Liv had decorated his room at home, but there had been little boy stuff scattered around—action figures, a bicycle helmet, Legos, discarded clothes. He’d had a corkboard with drawings he’d made of superheroes and Godzilla, all pretty good for an eight-year-old.
But here, there were no toys, and only a few books. His school backpack sat by the door on one side, and the suitcase he’d used to bring his clothes up here sat by the door on the other side.
Like he was ready to leave at the first moment’s notice. Leo closed his fingers into a fist. He had to talk to the kid—Max was staying in Bluestone. Leo was here to help him settle in, not to move him back to Excelsior.
Max appeared in the doorway, dressed in dark pajamas, his expression solemn. Leo realized he was between his son and the bed and stepped back. He remembered then that Livvie would always read to Max at bedtime, but he didn’t see any books in the room.
“Do you, ah, want a bedtime story?”
“Dad.” Max’s tone was exasperated. “I’m too old for that.”
“Well, yeah, for picture books and stuff like that. I mean, you can read to yourself, right?” Did Max like to read? Leo had no idea. “But I can tell you a story.”
Max angled his head, then moved past his father to the bed. “About Afghanistan?”
Leo tried to think of a story that wouldn’t give the boy nightmares. Hell, Leo had nightmares about the constant shelling and danger there. “Sure. I’m stationed with some funny guys there.” He tucked the sheet and bedspread over his son and sat at the edge of the bed. “We stay in a bunker most of the time, and it can get pretty boring, so they’ve rigged up some games.”
“Like video games?”
“Nah, that’s too tame for these guys. One time the sergeant was sleeping, and his men rearranged the whole bunker into an obstacle course, so that when the man got out of bed, he had to climb over their stacked bunks, belly crawl under a tent made of sheets and wiggle through boxes, just to get to the can.”
Max’s eyes widened. “Did he do it?”
Leo shrugged. “He didn’t have a choice if he had to go, you know?”
“What else do they do?”
Leo shared a couple more of their innovations born of boredom, his heart feeling lighter at bringing his son into his world, even if only to the safe part. Then he glanced toward the window, saw the sun had set, and patted the boy’s leg. “Better get to sleep. I’ll take you to school tomorrow, okay?”
For some reason, those words shut Max down. “Okay,” the boy muttered, dragging the blankets up to his ear and turning toward the window.
What had Leo said wrong?
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