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Tom Cartwright sat slumped, his head bracketed by his palms. The hallway was oddly familiar, took him back years to when he was a schoolkid. All the times he'd sat outside the principal's office, trying to figure how to talk himself out of trouble. He stifled a low groan.
The principal's office might be better than a room full of six-year-olds. How he'd been talked into doing this
"Uncle Tommy?" Gabby's sweet, pure voice pulled him from his thoughts. She was standing in the doorway only a few feet away. She skipped over to him and tugged on his arm, her tiny hand dwarfed by his biceps. "Come on."
Tom dropped a kiss to his niece's head before dragging his feet out from beneath him and standing. She didn't even reach his waist, but she slung her arm around him anyway.
"You look sad." Innocent eyes locked on his, looking up, and he did his best to convince her with a smile.
"Are you sure you want me to do this?"
Gabby rolled her eyes. "You're way more exciting than Mom and Dad. I've told the others all about you."
Tom found her hand and followed her to the classroom. He tried not to laugh. If only she understood what she was saying. "Gabby, your mom's a retired soldier and your dad was a Navy helicopter pilot. They're hardly boring."
She dismissed him, shrugging as only a kid could.
And just like that, after years of staying quiet about his career, of so fiercely protecting his identity, not wanting to put those he loved at risk, he was about to address a roomful of kids. To tell them a little about what he did, or what he used to do, all because a girl no taller than his hip had insisted he had to.
But he no longer had to keep his career close to his heart. He was free to talk about some of what he 'd once done.
He leaned forward to open the door, waiting for Gabby to walk through before doing the same. Tom swallowed as he surveyed the room, looked at all the little kids sitting on the mat, waiting, fidgeting.
"What do we say?"
Tom turned his body to see where the voice was coming from.
Oh. He sure hadn't expected the woman standing behind her desk, the smile on her face so open and wide he was sure she must be directing it at someone else. Not at him.
"Good morning, Mr. Cartwright," the children sang out.
Gabby still held his hand, squeezing it as though she was trying to wring water from it.
They all sat looking back at him, cross-legged on the mat, curiosity plain on their faces.
"Ah good morning," he said, prising his gaze from the woman before glancing at the class again.
She didn't make it easy though, his eyes, as if with a mind of their own, being drawn back in her direction. The teacher's hair was drawn up into a swishy-looking ponytail, almost-black locks with a slight curl at the very end. Blue-green eyes seemed to smile at him, wide and happy.
Tom looked away. He wasn't used to being distracted, to finding his attention so easily diverted.
"Thanks for joining us, Mr. Cartwright," she said, her voice low and filled with warmth. "Gabriella's told us a lot about you and what you do."
Now it was he who fidgeted. Not because of the woman crossing the room toward him, but because it went against all his instincts to talk about his work. He tried to settle his rapidly racing heartbeat. Gabby was only six. How much could she even know about what he'd done?
"You must be Gabby's teacher," Tom asked, even though the answer was obvious, needing to say something before she thought he was mute.
There went the megawatt smile again.
"Miss Rose," she said before closing the distance between them and touching her hand to his forearm, leaning in ever so. "Or Caitlin, just not to the class." Her voice had dropped to a whisper, barely audible, as if she was letting him in on a tightly held secret.
Tom fought the urge not to take a step back, was conscious of all the little faces turned their way. He wasn't used to someone being in his space, had been trained to keep a distance in most situations. Had craved this kind of contact for so long that he'd forgotten what it felt like.
All the same, he was pleased that she was Miss Rose and not Mrs.
"Tom, please," he said, forcing a smile and wishing it had come naturally. "Mr. Cartwright reminds me of my father."
And that was not something he liked to be reminded of.
"Well, Gabriella, I think it's time you introduced your uncle to the class."
Gabby beamed up at Tom as he touched his open palm to her hair, before scurrying off and standing tall and proud before her classmates.
"I did my project about my Uncle Tom because he's so interesting," she began. Tom nodded when she looked at him, as if needing his support. "He works for the United States Navy, but he doesn't go away anymore because now he teaches new " Gabby's face flushed. She paused, clearly stuck.
A warm, soft breath touched close to Tom's cheek.
He jumped as it was followed by a gentle squeeze of his arm, words whispered near his ear. "I think she needs some help up there."
He thrust his hands in his pockets and crossed the room in four strides, wanting to rescue his niece from embarrassment but needing to put space between him and the pretty teacher, too. He'd spent too many years almost exclusively in the company of men to deal with that kind of sensory overload. She looked too good, smelled too good hell, she even sounded too good for his liking!
"Recruits," he said, smiling at the children, pushing any thoughts of women aside. "I teach new recruits."
Gabby leaned into him and he let his arm fall around her. It didn't matter what happened, what had happened, she grounded him. Made everything right, showed him what was important. Made him realize that he had to suck up his pain and push past what was holding him back. What had stolen his career from him.
Made him want to stay strong.
"So," said Gabby, confidence returned, "Uncle Tom was a Navy SEAL, like as in a seal in the ocean!" She giggled and the other little people did the same. "But really it means."
Tom took over again when she floundered, wanting her to enjoy her school project rather than be nervous.
"A SEAL is someone in the Navy's Sea, Air and Land team for special operations." The room went silent. Gabby plopped down to listen, and suddenly Tom felt like a fraud standing there, not knowing what to say or do.
He glanced at Caitlin, the teacher, with her kind smile. She leaned forward a little from where she stood against the wall, as if to encourage him.
Suddenly he was back in the classroom as a kid again, wanting to act out and be naughty because he didn't know what else to do.
Silly, because the man he'd become knew how to behave, how to take orders, do what was expected of him. And whether he was on active duty or not, he had no intention of letting the side down.
"Do you guys have any questions for me?" The last thing he wanted to do was stand up and talk about being a SEAL. Only the people closest to him had ever known his role, and even then he'd been selective about what he told them.
Now he'd retired, talking about it didn't come any easier.
A confident boy's voice piped up. "Is it true that most of you don't pass the training?"
Tom blew out a breath. He could have guessed the boys would have most of the questions, and that they'd want to know about the physical stuff. He rocked back on his heels, head turned slightly to the right in case the kid asked another question.
"All Navy SEALs have passed a tough training test," he said. "If you don't pass, you don't get in, simple as that. About eighty per cent of the guys who try out don't make it."
"What about the girls?"
Tom wasn't sure where that question had come from.
"Unfortunately there are no women in the SEALs yet," he said, "but that might change one day."
He watched as Gabby shrugged her shoulders. The girl next to her was pouting as though she was personally offended by his response.
"How hard is it?"
The same little boy again. Tom grinned at him, he couldn't help it. He would have been just like that at the same age, full of questions and curiosity. He'd dreaded coming today, but this was doing him goodmaking him feel less like a failure, as if he no longer held any value, and more like a worthwhile member of society. So long as he could keep his eyes off the brunette on the other side of the room.
Tom cleared his throat then crouched down on his haunches, at the same height as the children watching him. Gabby was cute, but this little guy had spunk and he liked to encourage kids.
"The toughest challenge is when you train for five days on no more than four hours sleep. Your body is so exhausted you don't know how you're going to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But you do. That's what makes a SEAL."
The boy asking the questions shuffled closer. It made other kids do the same; they were hanging on his every word.
"So it's kinda like being a superhero?" the boy asked. Tom laughed, shaking his head and resisting the urge to ruffle the boy's shaggy mop of blond hair. "Yeah, I guess. Only it's like you're going to die and you feel like " He tapered off before saying the expletive that had nearly spilled. "Rubbish."
Temporary silence filled the room and Tom looked up. Miss Rose had remained quiet, to the side of the room, but now she walked toward him, smile still firmly in place.
And suddenly he couldn't take his eyes off her all over again.
"I think we should thank Mr. Cartwright for coming now," she said, gaze firmly on those in her charge.
A groan rang out around the room, but not obeying her clearly wasn't an option.
"Thank you, Mr. Cartwright," they said in singsong unison.
Except for that one little boy again. "What about the trident?"
Tom's head snapped up. "The trident?"
"Yeah, is it true you get one? Have you got it with you now? What's it look like?"
The kid sure knew his stuff. Tom had no idea how he knew so much.
"No," said Tom, before clarifying. "I mean no, I don't have it with me now, but I was given one."
He didn't know why, didn't know what made him do it, but he sought out Caitlin's eyes, locked his focus on her. "Most of the men I know have given their trident away with their heart. When they get married, they've given it to their brides on a gold chain."
Tom swallowed. Wished he wasn't looking at the woman who'd taken his mind off everything yet put his brain on high alert at the same time. He shouldn't have looked at her like that, didn't know why he'd even disclosed the importance of the trident. Not in that context.
"How sweet," she said, hands clasped together.
But Tom didn't miss the gentle pink blush that had crept up her neck and was curling toward her cheeks.
He should never have said it, not like that. Didn't know what had come over him.
He had nothing to offer a woman, not now. He didn't know who he was, how he would ever cope with what had happened to him, what he'd had to give up. He was lost.
Before, he'd have done anything to meet a woman as sweet and kind as he imagined Caitlin to be. Now, he was damaged, and he didn't want anyone else drawn into that web of pain with him.
No matter how darn cute her smile was.