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Eddie Montesano squirmed on his seat like a fish on a hook and sighed. Hell, a few minutes in his son's classroom and he'd somehow regressed to the second-grader he'd been twenty-five years ago, uncomfortable on the hard chair, anxious to get away from the rigid rules and expectations.
Terrified the teacher would call on him to answer a math problem she'd written on the chalkboard. Or worse, ask him to read aloud from their reading book. It'd been torture, speaking in front of so many peopleeven if they had been his classmates. Humiliating to have them all witness his struggles sounding out simple words.
He hadn't been able to sit still then, either. He'd always been movingtapping his fingers, shaking his leg or wiggling his ass. He'd been lectured, plenty of times, about not fidgeting, but it hadn't done any good. He'd had too much energy, like a live current zipped through him, making his thoughts race, pushing him to move, move, move.
Though he'd taught himself to be more self-contained, to focus on one task at a time, he'd still much rather be doing than sitting. Especially when sitting made him feel like that restless, nervous kid again.
He stretched out his legs. His left knee whacked the bottom of the desk, the steel toe of his work boot hit the chair across from him, shoved it out a few inches.
What was with this setup? The desks were in groups of four so that half the class faced the blackboard, the other half the teacher's desk. It didn't make any sense to him.
The kids were staring at each other, two by two. Seemed like a distraction.
Then again, the teacher was a woman, and a lot of things women did made no sense to him.
He checked the time. Eight minutes until his meeting with Mrs. Kavanagh, Max's teacher. Not that Eddie was in a hurry to see her again, but he would like to know what was behind this whole parent/teacher thing. Max had assured Eddie he wasn't in trouble, and Eddie hadn't received any calls from the principal so far this year about Max's behavior.
But the note Mrs. Kavanagh had sent home requesting a meeting had been vague enough that Eddie wondered if he'd gotten the whole story from his son.
Max had a habit of keeping his thoughts to himself. Especially if he'd done something wrong. And while Eddie agreed it was better, safer, to keep your thoughts in your head, he wished his son would just admit when he'd messed up so Eddie could tackle the problem, fix it and move on.
He glanced around the room. Shelves filled with row after row of neatly lined-up books took up the entire wall behind the teacher's desk. A white wooden rocking chair was tucked into the corner in front of a circular rug next to the chalkboard. Artwork, graded papers, a huge calendar and equally large schedule covered the walls, along with bright banners and postersmost sporting a cartoon or picture of a baby animalencouraging the kids to read, imagine and go for the gold. Assuring them they were a team, books were treasures waiting to be discovered and that with hard work, anything was possible.
A nice sentiment, that last one. Complete bullshit, but nice.
He was all for doing one's best, putting in full effort and sticking with a job until it was done. But believing that if you worked hard enough, long enough, you'd achieve your goals no matter what, was setting these kids up for disappointment.
And possibly years of therapy.
Eddie had worked his ass off to save his marriage and look where it got him. Divorced, raising his son on his own and constantly trying to be everything to Max. Hoping he was doing enough. Being enough.
Worrying that most days he didn't even come close.
But he'd keep trying, doing his best to make up for failing at his marriage and not being able to keep Max's mother in their lives. And not because he was staring at a poster of a kitten at the end of a ropeliterallytelling him to Never Give Up.
He'd do anything for his kid.
"This is the drawing I told you about," Max said, shoving a picture in Eddie's face.
Eddie leaned back, the hard edge of the metal chair digging into his shoulder blades as he took the paper. He raised his eyebrows. It was good. Damn good.
His kid never ceased to amaze him.
"It's Pops's pumpkin patch," Max said. He pointed at the cottage in the background. "See? That's his house."
"It looks just like it." Right down to the curtains in the windows and brick walkway winding its way from the back door to the garden.
Green vines tangled around fat, bright orange pumpkins. Beyond the cottage, trees in all their autumn glory of copper, red and auburn covered the rolling hills. And standing to the left, a hoe in one hand, his other hand tucked behind his back, was Big Leo Montesano. Max had perfectly captured Eddie's grandfather, from the top of the straw hat on Pops's balding head to the tips of the black rubber boots he wore when gardening.
"It's great, bud," Eddie said.
Shifting from foot to foot, Max beamed. "Mrs. Hewitt said it was the best one out of the whole second grade."
"She's the art teacher." Now Max hunched his shoulders. Chewed on his thumbnail. "I forgot I'm not supposed to tell anyone that."
"You're not supposed to tell anyone she's the art teacher? Is she some sort of spy?"
Max frowned as if Eddie was the one not making sense. "I'm not supposed to tell anyone she said my picture was the best."
Eddie's heart swelled. Christ, but he loved his kid. Max was tall for his age and stocky, with Eddie's hazel eyes and dark hair, and Lena's light coloring and nose. Shy around everyone but family, when he opened up, he was funny and entertaining as hell. Max went full throttle from the time he woke until he hit his bed and slept like the dead, recharging for another nonstop day.
He was Eddie's greatest joy. The best thing he'd ever done.
"We'll keep it between us." Eddie mussed Max's hair, making a mental note to get him to the barber sometime this week. "But I bet she's right."
Max stopped gnawing on his nail long enough to send Eddie a small, proud smile. "She is."
Eddie grinned. That was his boy. "How about we make a frame for this and give it to Pops."
"Yeah. He'll love it. He loves all my pictures. But we can't take it now. Not 'til Mrs. Hewitt says so."
"Okay. Maybe you should put it back, then."
Max did some sort of galloping walk over to the wide windowsill where the rest of his classmates' drawings were laid out. Afternoon sun streamed through the glass, raising the temperature in the room a good ten degrees. Sweat formed on Eddie's upper lip, along his hairline. Reaching behind him, he grabbed the sweatshirt at his shoulder blades and tugged it upward. Only to realize he was stuck, his lower back pressed against the chair holding the shirt in place. He scooted forward and rammed his stomach into the edge of the desk. He grunted. Banged his elbow when he tried to straighten.
"Shit," he muttered, his funny bone tingling painfully.
Someone cleared their throat, the sound delicate, feminine and, if he wasn't mistaken, subtly chastising.
The back of his neck heated with embarrassment. Standing, Eddie shoved the chair back. It toppled over. He sighed. Some days a man just couldn't win.
He yanked the sweatshirt off, avoided looking at the door while he tugged his T-shirt down, then righted the chair. Smoothing his hairand realizing Max wasn't the only one who needed a trimhe turned. Scanned the curvy blonde in the doorway.
Harper Sutternow Harper Kavanaghdidn't look much like the perky cheerleader she'd been in high school. Then she'd been petite with light brown hair that fell to the middle of her back. Now her hair was several shades lighter and at least six inches shorter, her face, hips and breasts fuller.
His gaze flicked to her chest.
A tickle formed in the back of his throat. Interestbasic and purely physicalstirred. Ignoring it, he shoved his hands into his pockets, focused on her face. Same high, pronounced cheekbones and gray eyes that turned down slightly at the corners. Same full, heart-shaped lips.
He'd had a few fantasiesbrief, insignificant fanta-siesabout her mouth.
Then again, he'd been seventeen. Sexy dreams had pretty much been a nightly experience.
Those lips curved into a bright smile. She switched her coffee cup to her left hand and offered him her right one. "Hello, Eddie. It's so nice to see you."
With a nod, he shook her hand. Though he'd known her since kindergarten, he'd never touched her before. Her palm was warm against his. Soft.
Awareness bolted through him. He acknowledged it was partly due to the remnants of the teenage fantasies playing in his head. Accepted it as a man's instinctual response to an attractive woman.
Acknowledged it, accepted it. Then let itand her handgo.
"I hope I didn't keep you waiting," she said.
He wasn't sure if she'd meant it as a real concern or a reprimand for his being early. He gave a mental shrug. Didn't matter to him either way. He'd had a break at work so he'd taken off. No sense finding something to do for a few minutes so he could arrive precisely at four o'clock.
"Max," Harper said, sounding surprised when Max sidled up to Eddie, pressed against his side. "Still stuck here?"
Max lifted a shoulder.
She wrinkled her nose. "That's a drag. I can't wait to leave at the end of the day. Hey, would you do me a favor?" Before Max could even blink, she continued in her rapid-fire speech. "Could you walkand by walk I mean that slow movement of putting one foot in front of the other that is not running, hopping or skippingto the office to check if I have any mail?"
Seemed she knew Max well. He didn't do anything slowly. Except talk.
While Max headed toward the door, Harper gestured for Eddie to follow her as she crossed the room. His gaze fell to the sway of her hips. She had on tan pants and a long sweater the color of rust that molded to her ass. A wide brown belt accentuated the indentation of her waist and he wondered, briefly, what it would be like to set his hands there.
He stumbled, bumped into a desk.
She glanced over her shoulder at him.
His face burning, he stared resolutely at a spot somewhere above her head. Maybe he hadn't fully let that earlier awareness go.
"I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me." She set her cup on the desk. "Although, I have to admit, I was hoping to speak with you alone."
"I didn't have time to find a sitter."
Hadn't taken the time to find one. Not when it wasn't necessary. He only asked for help with his kid when there was no other solution. Absolutely, positively no other solution.
"It's not a problem," she assured him. "But would you mind if I gave him something to keep him occupied while we talk?"
"I'll take that as a yes," she said cheerily, then gestured to the chair across from her desk. "Can I get you anything? There's coffee in the break room or"
"Is Max in trouble?" Eddie loved his kid more than life itself, but that didn't mean he thought Max could do no wrong. Everyone made mistakes. Best if you owned up to them, learned from them and, most importantly, never repeated the same one twice.
Max was having a hard time with that last part.
"Trouble? No, he's not in trouble," she said slowly enough that he didn't believe her. "I thought we should touch base on a couple of things, that's all."
After sitting, she organized a pile of papers. He could practically see her organizing her thoughts, as well. Her desk was covered; papers and math workbooks were stacked in neat piles, a plastic bin sat empty at the corner. A stapler, tape dispenser and hole punch lined up with the edge of the desk. Pencils, pens and markers were jumbled together in a wooden holder declaring that Teachers Have Class.
She was as tidy and put together as her desk, her hair smooth, her nails trimmed and painted a light pink.
He rubbed the frayed knees of his jeans. Wondered if he should have gone home, shaved first, but that would have been stupid, going all the way across town to comb his hair and rid himself of his day-oldokay, three-day-oldbeard. He had no one to impress here. Nothing to prove. His kid was well dressed, well mannered and, other than a few scrapes in the playground last year, well behaved.
And well loved.
If Harper didn't see that, she wasn't as smart as her rank in their high school graduating class had indicated. "No mail?" Harper asked as Max returned. He shook his head.
"Thanks for checking. Would you like to play a game on the iPad while your dad and I talk?"
"Okay," he said quietly, his gaze flicking to his teacher's face before lowering again.
"Great." She took an iPad from her desk drawer, handed it and headphones to him. "Why don't you sit in the bean-bag chair?"
He hurried to the corner and toed off his sneakers. Sitting cross-legged, he put on the headphones and, as easily as that, was cut off from the world, lost in whatever educational game Harper had on that tablet.
Those things were like magic.
"I was thrilled to see Max's name on my class list at the beginning of the year," Harper said, sounding as if she really meant it. "I had your niece and she was a pure delight."
Because Bree always worried about doing the right thing, loved to read and never got a grade lower than an A. Sort of like the woman before him. In school Harper had been one of the brainiacs. Popular with both students and teachers, she'd been incredibly smart and impossibly friendly.
It wasn't natural to be that nice all the time.
No surprise Harper thought highly of Bree. He didn't hold his niece's sweetness or intelligence against her. He loved her like crazy.
He just didn't want his son compared to her.
"Bree's a good girl," he said.
"She is. She must be in what..? Fifth grade now?"
"Middle school? It doesn't seem possible. How's she liking it?"
"Fine." And what any of this had to do with Harper's reason for calling him to meet with her, he had no idea. Women. Why couldn't they just say what was on their mind? It would save everyone a hell of a lot of time and trouble.
"I'm glad she's doing well. It can be a big transition for some kids, that leap from elementary to middle school."
She looked as if she expected him to respond to that but since he had nothing to add, he kept quiet.
"Well," she said, "anyway, thank you for coming in today. I was sorry we didn't get a chance to talk at the open house."
He narrowed his eyes slightly. Straightened in his uncomfortable seat. Was that a reprimand? If it was, why couldn't she lay into him instead of making him guess whether or not she was pissed? "I was working."
When he wasn't working, he spent time with his kid, not running off to meetings and socializing. He wasn't going to apologize for it.
"Are you still at Bradford House?" Harper asked.