Eddie checked his hair out in the rearview and gave a final pat to his tie before he got out of his car. His niece Lucy unbuckled herself, got her things, and climbed out of the two-seater, all the while complaining he was taking too long. Of course he was taking too long. They might see Lucy’s teacher, Mr. B. Andrew Daley, and Eddie was determined to make one hell of a good impression.
What Eddie really wanted was to knock the breath from Mr. B. Andrew Daley’s lungs in the same way the officiallyawesome Mr. B. Andrew Daley always knocked the breath from Eddie’s lungs, but what could he do? Rome wasn’t built and all. Eddie was holding to his course, making himself indispensable, helping with science projects and chick hatching, and chaperoning farm field trips. He’d become Daley’s official event photographer.
In all, Eddie had probably spent more time with Daley than he had with any other guy, and he still called him Mr. Daley, for God’s sake.
Finding a guy on a dance floor who wanted to suck him off was a piece of cake for Eddie “Cha-Cha” Vasquez, but asking a guy on an actual date? He couldn’t remember ever doing that. Was he too old to learn new tricks?
Asking Daley out was fraught with more tension than he’d imagined.
“Come on already, Uncle Cha-Cha. How come you keep looking in the mirror?”
“I’m not.” He turned in time to see one of Lucy’s delicate eyebrows arch up, exactly like his sister-in-law’s did when she was not impressed.
“You are too. I saw you just now.” She frowned at him. “And how come you’re dressed like you’re taking Grandma to church?”
“I’m not,” he said. He’d worn his slickest black suit, burgundy shirt, and black silk tie. These were the clothes he looked his best in. He looked GQ good.
“Are too.” Like all the women in his family, Lucy could see right through him.
“I just like to look nice.”
“But I’m going to be late for early bird library.” She tapped her foot on the sidewalk in front of the car.
“Still like your lunch box?”
“Yeah,” she said. “No one’s got a lunch box like it, except my spoon and fruit cup clank when I walk.” She held herself back to slip her little hand into his as they walked along.
“Metal lunch boxes are classic.” He loved seeing her carry a tin lunch box, even if it was leopard-print smiley cat. “So the way you see it, is being unique a good thing or a bad thing?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you the kind of girl who likes to have the same things other people have, or are you the kind who likes to be different?” He was quick to add, “There’s nothing wrong with either one.”
Her brows drew into a thoughtful furrow. “I like some things other people have. My girlfriend Ariana has a plastic polka-dot lunch box that keeps her food cold. Her mom puts in tuna salad.”
“Tell your mom to freeze your juice box if she’s going to put perishable food in your lunch, and have her wrap everything in a cloth napkin. That will keep it fresh and quiet. Best of both worlds. I almost got you another lunch box the other day with Charlie’s Angels on it. The television show, not the movie.”
“Mami says you were born at the wrong time.”
“She did, did she?”
“Yeah, she says you should have been born fifty years ago, ’cause you like old things.”
“Hey, now. I like classic things.” Before Eddie could explain the difference, one of the upper-grade teachers walked up.
“Hello, Mr. Vasquez. Lucy. How are you this morning?”
“Just fine, thank you, Mrs. Calvin.”
Mrs. Calvin nodded to Lucy. “Early library day?”
“Yes!” Lucy jumped and landed on her tiptoes. “I’m in reading level 6.2!”
“The kids sure work hard for this,” said Eddie. The top three students in each grade got to spend an extra hour in the library in the morning. The privilege of extra time and extra books was turning Lucy into a first-rate student.
“It’s been a pretty successful program.” She smiled at him and leaned toward him to whisper, “It doesn’t hurt that there’s contests and prizes.”
“I won last month, did I tell you?” Lucy asked. “I won Teacher’s Pet pencils.”
“I think you mentioned that, honey. Once or twice.”
Or a thousand times.
“I read the whole first Harry Potter book and took a test on it. I got a perfect score.”
“Good for you, Lucy. That’s upper-grade stuff.” Mrs. Calvin checked her watch. “Better run along, or you’ll be late.”
Lucy picked up speed, and Eddie gave a helpless shrug before chasing after her.
“Cool your jets, Lu-lu. We’ve got plenty of time.” She dashed past the last of the classrooms and headed for the main library doors. By the time he caught up, she was already opening one to go in without a backward glance. “Hey, what do I get?”
She dimpled prettily. “Thank you for driving me, Uncle Cha-Cha.”
“Put it right there.” He pointed to a spot on his jaw as he leaned down. She gave him a kiss before turning to run away. “Anything for you, pepita. Have a good day.”
“Bye,” she said. She must have had her head in the books already, or she would have groused at him. I’m not a pumpkin seed, Uncle Cha-Cha.
Eddie didn’t suppose he blamed her. Library was her favorite thing, and he was only her ride. He turned to leave, mildly disappointed without a real reason for it.
Lucy was one hell of a kid. He’d like a couple of kids of his own someday, but a lot of guys thought kids—like carrying metal lunch boxes and wearing a jacket and tie to look nice in the hope of seeing that special someone—were a little old-fashioned. “Hetero-normative brainwashing” was what the last guy he’d dated called it.
As if the desire for a family and a child was beneath Eddie’s dignity.
He knew plenty of guys who didn’t want kids, and that was fine for them. But Eddie liked family. He came from a big one. Growing up, he’d had six different houses to call home and a ton of family at school to keep the bullies away. That was how he liked it.
“Mr. Vasquez.” A rich tenor voice stopped his train of thought—derailed it, actually—and made his mouth go dry. He turned to find Mr. B. Andrew Daley leaning against his classroom door with his hands in his pockets.
How Eddie wanted to be those hands. Since they’d met in September, Eddie’d had the feeling his heart was already inside one of those pockets, clenched tight in Mr. B. Andrew Daley’s lovely, capable hand.
Is there such a thing as love at first sight?
Or had the feeling come on as he’d watched Mr. Daley work?
Daley was always fair. Always patient.
He liked kids for who they were, not what society expected them to be.
Daley genuinely cared. He was like a magnet and Eddie wanted to melt all over him like a hot metal blanket.
Eddie cleared his throat and managed a dumbstruck smile as he ambled over to say hello. “Mr. Daley.”
Daley appeared freshly shaved, and his light brown hair was trimmed close over the ears and collar but fuller—a mass of haphazard curls—on the top. He’d dressed in a mouthwatering combination of low-rise jeans, a blue button-down, and a slim V-neck sweater under a navy sport coat. He had a goddamned scarf wrapped negligently around his throat.
In southern California.
It had probably dipped to a chilly sixty-five that morning. Eddie dared a look at Daley’s feet. Oh God. Combat boots. Kill me now. I’m done.
Daley is the hottest man ever.
“How’s teachery things?” Eddie asked stupidly. He breathed in deeply when he approached Daley, who smelled like glove leather and laurel-leaf crowns and Madagascar vanilla.
“Going along fine. Did Lucy tell you she won the prize in Early Library last week?”
“Yeah.” Eddie had the fleeting thought there was nothing he wouldn’t do for a Teacher’s Pet pencil. “She’s so happy. This year has been great for her.”
“She’s my most voracious kid when it comes to books. I’d say she was the best reader in the whole first grade.”
“That’s good to know.” Eddie couldn’t take his eyes off Lucy’s teacher.
“Do you like to read, Mr. Vasquez? I find a child’s love of reading usually starts with family. I only ask because I’ve been rereading Maurice for about the hundredth time and—”
“I don’t, actually.” Eddie felt his face heat. Whatever Morris was, he’d never read it. He never would unless listening counted as reading. “I’d like to, I mean. But reading is for people who have more time on their hands than I do. I have to go to work now.”
Eddie turned to run, but Daley’s voice stopped him. “Wait. I don’t—”
“It’s okay.” Eddie figured his face must match his burgundy shirt. Why had he worn that? It made him look like a thug. “Um…have a good day.”
Daley tilted his head like a cat with a question. “It was good to see you again, Eddie.”
Eddie shivered when Mr. Daley spoke his name. He couldn’t help it. He tried out a jaunty salute that probably looked like a tic, and headed back toward the parking lot.
One of these days, he thought.
One of these days, I’m going to figure Mr. Daley out.
ANDREW WATCHED LUCY’S uncle walk away yet again. On the one hand, Eddie “Cha-Cha” Vasquez seemed interested. On the other, every time Andrew hit on him, he ran off like a possum with a can tied to its tail.
One of these days Andrew was going to throw caution to the wind and just ask the man out.
What’s the worst that can happen?
Andrew genuinely liked Eddie. He treated his niece, Lucy, like gold. Like she was the most important thing in his life. But aside from that, Eddie was pretty forbidding. Big and built and a little bit rough around the edges.
He could break Andrew in half if he didn’t like Andrew’s attention.
Andrew was no fool. Gay pride parades and the eradication of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and PROP 8 aside, this could still be a dangerous world for a guy who hit on the wrong man. It was only that Eddie stared at him sometimes when he thought no one was looking, and it made Andrew feel licked all over. Kissed. Worshipped even, by dark brown eyes that gave away nothing but a certain hot intensity that made Andrew’s knees weak.
A curious noise caught Andrew’s attention, an odd humming that seemed to be coming from behind him.
Andrew turned in time to see a woman wearing a filthy pink tracksuit amble up to the door of the next classroom over. She was thin to the point of emaciated, and her silvery hair was matted and oily. She’d gripped the door handle and pulled it hard, but the room must have been locked. She fumbled some keys out of her pocket and tried each one unsuccessfully.
Andrew made his way toward her as he asked, “Can I help you?”
She turned her blank gaze on him. “I can’t seem to open my classroom.”
Andrew recognized the woman as a teacher who used to substitute back when he’d first started teaching at Taft. “Mrs. Henderson?”
“My key doesn’t work,” she muttered, frustrated.
Parents dropping off early bird kindergarteners had started staring. Andrew felt an unreasonable irritation with them. Obviously there was something really wrong with the woman. She didn’t need people gawking at her.
Andrew stepped closer so he could talk to her without letting his voice carry to the parents and other teachers whose curiosity was aroused. That was when he noticed the smell coming off Mrs. Henderson’s clothing.
The scent was faint, but it was rank.
The closer he got, the less bearable the odor was—like something between unwashed human and rancid meat. Even as Andrew’s gut twisted, he tried to keep his face neutral.
“Mrs. Henderson, are you all right?”
She frowned. “Why, of course. I—”
“Do you think maybe you could wait in my room with me while I make a quick call?”
“I need to get ready.” Mrs. Henderson tried another key. “The children will be arriving any minute.”
A murmur went through the crowd of gawkers. The older kids hid laughter behind their hands. Andrew understood the impulse. Sometimes uncomfortable things made him laugh too, but he couldn’t stand seeing anyone laugh at someone in Mrs. Henderson’s condition.
“Maybe you could come inside while I call the office,” he offered. Thank God she let him lead her into his room where he could close the door on the outside world. He dialed the number for the school secretary.
To Mrs. Henderson, he said, “Have a seat for a minute while I see if the office can get things sorted.” He left her there and stepped back out while he talked to the office staff about getting a police officer and maybe paramedics because something obviously wasn’t right. At the very least, the poor woman looked like she needed a decent meal.
When Andrew reentered his room, he discreetly started opening windows. Had Mrs. Henderson been living on the street? What was that smell?
“Someone’s on the way to unlock the door right now. In the meantime, can I get you a bottle of water?”
She accepted water and some graham crackers, accepted that he was telling the truth.
God, he hated lying to her.
Andrew sat down and waited with her, hoping the police would get there before he had to open his classroom for the children. Andrew and Mrs. Henderson gazed at one another in awkward silence while he tried to figure out something to say besides, Mrs. Henderson, what the hell happened to you?
Copyright © Z.A. Maxfield