When the phone rang again, Logan allowed himself a flicker of hope before snuffing it out. No, it wasn’t the warehouse manager calling back to say he had the job after all. No Christmas miracle was coming.
He stared at the screen, dread sinking through him. It was Rencliffe Academy, which meant his balls were about to be busted because the kid had fucked up.
Logan shivered on the side of the bed in his skivvies, the battered parquet floor freezing under his bare feet since he’d put the heat down as low as possible in hopes of paying the bill. Fuck, he was tempted to huddle under the blankets and go back to sleep, dealing with whatever crap this was later.
But Veronica’s disappointed face filled his mind. As foolish as the choice had been, he’d married her, and her son was his responsibility now. He swiped the screen and answered.
“Mr. Derwood? It’s Assistant Headmaster Patel calling.” She spoke calmly and smoothly in a British-type fancy accent. Logan braced himself. She said, “I’m afraid there’s been another incident. Can you join us this morning for a get-together?”
He wasn’t sure why Rencliffe insisted on making it sound as if they were inviting him over for finger foods and Chardonnay or some shit. “Yeah. I’ll be there in—” He groaned to himself, remembering his Ford was broken in the shop. Because of course it was.
After a pause, she prompted, “Mr. Derwood? This is really quite urgent. Connor’s behavioral issues—”
“Yeah, I know. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Thanks.” He hung up, bile rising in his throat. The only silver lining to apparently being unemployable was that he didn’t have to take time off work for yet another school visit. Too bad his disability benefits had run out. That sure made being jobless a real son of a bitch.
Merry fucking Christmas.
There was nothing else to do but text Jenna:
Can I drive u 2 work and take the car? Will pick u up at 3.
His sister was working short days Monday to Thursday after having her second kid, and hopefully he’d caught her in time. The typing bubbles appeared on the screen, and she replied:
No prob. Just leaving day care. Everything okay?
He barked out a laugh in his empty bedroom. He couldn’t even remember what okay felt like. Forget good or great. Those feelings were distant memories. He typed back:
Just have to run errand. Thx. They had to order a new part for the pickup.
A new part he couldn’t afford, but he left that out. He also didn’t mention Connor because it would only make Jenna worry, and she had enough on her plate. Shit, her plate had been overflowing since she was fourteen.
When the cancer finally got their mom, Jenna was the one who’d taken care of their father and the house while Logan had been in Iraq. He was seven years older than his baby sister, but she was the one who kept them all afloat.
She worked her ass off to include Connor in family stuff, and at least he tolerated her. For a moment, Logan considered whether he should ask Jenna to come with him to the school, but no. She had work, and she had to save her emergency time off for her own kids. Connor was his responsibility. Logan was thirty-eight years old, and he should be able to unfuck his own life.
He stood, wincing at the stiff ache in his muscles and the phantom twinges in his formerly broken bones. After being in traction, he’d never take moving his body for granted again, but goddamn, everything felt tighter than it used to. Of course, he hadn’t done his stretches, so what did he expect?
There was no time to shower and shave, but he splashed his scruffy face, ran a comb through his cropped dark hair, and scrubbed a wet towel under his arms. He sniffed five shirts before finding a fresh-enough gray Henley and pulling it on over his jeans and combat boots. Maybe he should have dressed up a bit, but the folks at Rencliffe knew who he was. Putting lipstick on a pig wouldn’t change anything.
After Jenna picked him up, he listened to her good-natured complaints about her kids and husband and Christmas shopping. She chattered nonstop until they reached the six-story, glass-fronted office building in a corporate park on the outskirts of Albany.
There was a puke stain on her shoulder, but Logan didn’t tell her. She’d call it “spit-up,” but from what he could tell, it was puke. But it was already dry and too late for her to change anyway.
Putting the SUV in park by the front of the building, she gave him a gleaming smile, dimples appearing in her cheeks. Logan and Jenna shared the same greenish-hazel eyes, but she’d been the only one to inherit their mother’s sunny smile and optimism. “I haven’t let you get a word in edgewise. Sorry.” Her smile faded. “You sure everything’s okay?”
“Yep. Have a good day at work.”
But Jenna stayed put behind the wheel. “Look, I know it’s still too soon to think about dating again—”
“Yet you’re bringing it up anyway.”
She sighed. “I just hate seeing you so miserable—and don’t bother telling me you aren’t. I know you don’t like me worrying, but newsflash: I worry anyway. And maybe dating would help.”
“It wouldn’t.” The thought of meeting a woman and trying to impress her, getting to know her, inviting her into the shit show of his life—it was exhausting.
Hell, Logan hadn’t even had the energy to hook up with guys beyond a half-hearted hand job in a bathroom stall at the mall a few weeks ago. It had been quick and rough, the way Logan liked it with men. No kissing, no hugging, no need to be tender and concerned about feelings.
That’s how he knew he was straight. He only wanted that other stuff with women. Men were for getting off and nothing more.
Jenna sighed again. “You’re right. I don’t know why I said that.”
He gave her a small smile. “Because you’re desperate to fix things for me.” Because Jenna was good and kind. He didn’t deserve her. “Don’t worry about me, all right? You’d better get inside or you’ll be late.”
“Oh, did you hear about the warehouse job?”
He shrugged. “Not yet.” He’d put in a bunch of applications other places, so maybe one of them would call. For now, there was no point in worrying Jenna more by telling her he’d failed yet again.
“I’m knocking on wood.” She rapped her knuckles on her head, then leaned over the console and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Have a good day.”
He walked around the vehicle, waving to her before she disappeared inside. Logan had a good foot on his baby sister, and as he adjusted the driver’s seat and mirrors, his phone rang again. He pulled it from the pocket of his leather jacket, his stomach dropping. The landlord. He let it go to voicemail. He didn’t need to hear Mrs. Politano tell him again that the rent was overdue.
He hadn’t been able to afford the rent on Veronica’s house after her death, and he’d moved into a tiny bungalow in a rundown neighborhood. Even if he’d had the money, the thought of sleeping every night in the room where Veronica died had been unbearable.
“Fuck,” he muttered as he drove out toward Rencliffe. It was about forty-five minutes away, and Logan wished he could just be there already to get this over with.
He jabbed at the presets on the radio, and every one played commercials or Christmas songs with sleigh bells and peace on earth by a warm fireplace. He left it on a station blaring an ad for extended Black Friday deals. From what he could tell, Black Friday went for about six weeks at this point.
If that warehouse job had come through, maybe he’d have a hope of a decent Christmas. He could’ve at least bought Connor some presents. But the job hadn’t come through, because no one would hire him once they found out he’d been fired from the railway and blamed for the accident.
No matter that he’d served his country for four years in the Marine Corps after 9/11 and earned a commendation medal. Thank you for your service, but you’re a useless sack of shit now.
He struggled to take a deep breath, the low ache in his sternum that had never fully gone away flaring hot. Logan tugged at his seatbelt. His broken bones had healed, but sometimes he just couldn’t fucking breathe. Usually it was only when he exerted himself, and he knew right now it was probably all in his fucked-up head, but it still hurt.
The sign marking Rencliffe’s curving driveway was freshly painted in gold and navy, proclaiming:
The Brightest Minds Since 1909
Logan followed the driveway through the towering trees, only a few red, gold, and shit-brown leaves left hanging as winter quickly approached. Visitor parking was empty but for a silver Audi. Birds chirped almost desperately as he walked up the path to the main gray-brick building, which was decorated in massive red-ribboned holiday wreaths and lights that were currently off.
The school was a sprawl of five or six buildings, including the dorms. A newer addition had been constructed in the same style with big arches and turret-type things on the top like a castle. Veronica had called it Gothic, which apparently didn’t actually mean scary, although Logan found it all pretty creepy. Rencliffe was definitely the type of place where a crazed murderer would strike in the movies.
He walked into the vaulted foyer of main building, his boots thudding. He stopped in front of a massive Christmas tree decorated in white lights and old-fashioned wooden ornaments shaped like birds, pinecones, and angels. Probably all made by the students.
The hush hanging over the polished wood and marble foyer made him think of church. They’d been Easter-and-Christmas Catholics when he was growing up, but he hadn’t even done that much in years. Though Rencliffe wasn’t a religious school, he still half-expected a priest or nun to appear to greet him. Instead it was an older woman, who led him down the eerily quiet hallways to Mira Patel’s book-lined office.
She was surprisingly young—probably thirty. According to the framed diplomas behind her desk, she’d attended the University of Delhi and Oxford, so clearly she was pretty freaking smart. Her black hair was tied back in a twisty bun, and she had big eyes behind her gold-framed glasses.
If they were in a porno, she’d be about to let down her hair, take off her glasses, and rip open her cream blouse to reveal big tits. She’d hike up her skirt and—
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Derwood. It’s good to meet you.” She sat in the padded leather chair behind her desk as Logan took one of the guest chairs and shoved away the stupid porno thoughts. “The headmaster’s absent on personal business, so I’m handling Connor’s case for the moment.”
“Right. I’m sorry if the kid’s been acting up again.”
“Mmm.” She leaned forward in her chair, folding her hands on the shiny wood desk, her nails gleaming with pale polish. “I hope you don’t mind if I go back over the particulars with you?”
“Um, the particulars?” Jesus, he felt like he was back in high school about to fail an exam he hadn’t studied for.
“Connor’s background. How we’ve gotten to where we are now. I understand you were a recent addition to his life before his mother passed away?”
Dull pain throbbed in his chest, and he forced a breath. “Uh-huh. Veronica and I met about a year and a half ago. I was in an accident at work and had to be in the hospital for a few months. Veronica was my nurse.”
A memory flashed—the wedding march playing on someone’s phone at the hospital chapel, Logan dragging an IV and Veronica still in her purple scrubs, her fellow nurses throwing confetti made of paper from the shredding bin.
Clearing his throat, he added, “My life was shit, and she was the one good thing.” He shifted on the hard-backed chair. “Um, excuse my language.”
Ms. Patel smiled. “Shit happens. You’re recovered now?”
“Mostly. If I push too hard, I get out of breath. But it’s fine.”
She nodded. “So you and Connor’s mother married quite quickly?”
“Yeah. Within a couple months. Dumb, I know. But I loved her and was so sure we’d be together forever.” He snorted. “Then, you know. Reality smacked us upside the head. She brought me home from the hospital, and in a few weeks we were driving each other crazy. Living with someone’s not all roses and unicorns.”
“No, it certainly isn’t.” Ms. Patel smiled wryly. “Compromise isn’t easy.”
He shifted, hot trickles of shame in his gut. “We tried, though. We did. We really cared about each other, even if we didn’t fit.”
“And I’ve tried with Connor. I really have.” He cringed internally at his defensiveness.
She eyed him sympathetically. “I know you have. It’s a challenging situation. Thirteen can be a tough age already, and Connor’s faced a traumatic loss and major life changes. Plus, you’ve suddenly found yourself a single father. It’s an adjustment, to say the least.”
A single father.
It was so weird to think of himself that way. He wasn’t qualified to be anyone’s dad, let alone a single one. Logan nodded. “Yeah.”
“What was your relationship like before his mother’s passing?”
Passing. As if she’d drifted off down a lazy river in the sunshine. Logan hated when people didn’t just call it what it was. Veronica hadn’t passed anywhere—she was rotting in a hole in the ground. He choked down the resentment. Ms. Patel was only being polite.
“We didn’t really have a relationship. He was pissed when I married his mom, and I can’t blame the kid for that. He hardly talked to me when he was home on vacations from school, and I didn’t know what to say to him anyway. Things got very tense with me and Veronica. Then she died.”
“It was an aneurysm? That must have been quite a shock.”
He tugged at a loose thread on the cuff of his Henley. “Yeah. I’d spent the night on my sister’s couch since Veronica and I had been going at each other all day. They said even if I’d been home, it wouldn’t have mattered.” But maybe the docs were wrong. If I’d been there…
“Then Connor discovered her in the morning since he was home for the summer.”
Hearing Ms. Patel say it out loud was a steel toe to Logan’s nuts, guilt surging through him. Jaw clenched, he nodded. A clock ticked on the wall, each second louder than the last. His mind filled with red flashing lights, the sympathetic—yet definitely suspicious—cops escorting him inside his own place, a sheet over Veronica on the bedroom floor, waiting for a body bag. The poor kid sitting in the kitchen with a female cop.
Connor hadn’t been crying, and Logan hadn’t seen him shed a tear since. The kid was empty, although when Logan had clumsily tried to squeeze his shoulder, Connor had exploded with rage. It was apparently all he had left.
Ms. Patel quietly stated the fucking obvious. “It was extremely traumatic for him. We’ve endeavored to give Connor the support he needs, but he’s simply not cooperating. His biological father isn’t in the picture at all?”
Logan huffed. “Waste of space. Took off down to Florida years ago. Every once in a while he shows up with expensive presents and a bunch of bullshit stories. For a smart kid, you’d think Connor could see through him. The guy has zero interest in being a father.”
“When was the last time you were in touch with Mr. Lisowski?”
“Dunno. After Veronica died. I don’t know if Connor’s talked to him.”
“A few texts, apparently. You don’t feel he can be any help in this situation?”
“Fucked if I know.” He winced. “Excuse my language again.”
She waved off his apology. “I’d need your permission to speak to Mr. Lisowski about Connor since you’re the legal guardian. I understand Connor’s mother had been a foster child? No family?”
“Right. If you think he can help, call him, but he probably won’t answer. Mike couldn’t care less about the kid if he tried.”
She picked up a gold and silver pen and wrote in a leather-bound notebook. Logan watched her pen making loops and swoops before she capped it and looked back at him. “I understand you’re currently out of work?”
Anger flared, a hot burst in his veins. What she meant was: I understand you’re a useless sack of shit? He barked, “Look, are we going to talk about whatever Connor did, or what?”
“Yes, of course.” She folded her hands again, calm as anything. “You know that Connor’s full scholarship is incumbent upon him keeping his grades at a minimum of a B average. And even more importantly, it requires him to behave in an orderly, respectable manner. To not put himself or any of his classmates in harm’s way.”
Fuck. “What did he do?”
“Connor dropped his backpack down the gap in the stairwell from an upper floor.”
“Oh.” That didn’t seem so bad? “Did he break something?”
“The bag hit another student in the lower leg and caused significant pain and bruising. If it had hit him in the head, it very well could have killed him. This is no laughing matter or a ‘boys will be boys’ situation. Perhaps that recklessness would fly in a public school, but this is Rencliffe, Mr. Derwood.”
All he could do was nod like he was back in the principal’s office. “I understand. It was a stupid thing to do. It won’t happen again.”
She sighed, sitting back with a squeak of leather. “I sincerely hope not. We’ve attempted to engage him repeatedly, but he’s sullen and uncooperative. Connor has a brilliant mind. He used to be one of our best students. We’ve been cutting him a lot of slack, but he needs to curb this destructive and harmful behavior. Not only toward his classmates, but himself.”
Logan went very still. “What do you mean? Is he, like, cutting himself or something?”
“Not that we know of. But he’s skipping classes, showing up late, and not completing assignments. Getting into fights, as you know from your discussion with Mr. Howard a few weeks ago. Connor’s going to fail his courses, and we know it’s not because of his intelligence. The term exams are next week, concluding on Friday, December twenty-first, followed by the holiday break.”
“Right.” The colorful ceramic tree in the corner of Ms. Patel’s office seemed to mock him with its cheery lights and glossy snow. The holidays were supposed to be a magical time for kids, and what would Logan be able to give Connor? A roof over their heads if Logan was lucky.
“If Connor performs at a B level on his exams—which should be infinitely doable for him even without studying a word—and if he stays in line, he’s welcome back in January to turn things around.”
“And if he doesn’t?” Logan gripped the arms of the chair.
“Then I’m afraid Connor’s tenure here at Rencliffe will end. You should investigate the public school options in your neighborhood, although I sincerely hope it won’t be necessary.”
Where was that, exactly? The rented house he was about to be evicted from? He rubbed a hand over his face, a week of scruff scratching his palm. “Okay.”
“Mr. Derwood, I assure you we want Connor to succeed. It would truly be a shame if he squanders his limitless potential. He’s had a full scholarship here for two years because we believe in him. But he has to meet us halfway. It’s been months of acting out, and while we’re very sympathetic, we have to think of the other students. Connor has been too disruptive for too long.”
“Yeah. I get it.” He pushed to his feet. “You’ve been fair. Thank you.” He stuck out his hand, and she shook it firmly.
“Connor’s waiting in the atrium. I can take you there.”
“I know the way. Thanks.”
When he reached the high-ceilinged greenhouse down the hall—all glass and flowering plants and even a tinkling fountain, Logan found Connor tossing stones from a rock garden into the pool of water. Two stone fish were twisted together in the middle, water spouting out of their open mouths.
Connor didn’t turn, instead plonking a rock right at one of the fish heads. His navy uniform jacket was stretched tightly across his narrow shoulders, gray pants a bit too short.
If he gets kicked out, I guess I don’t have to pony up for new uniforms.
That wasn’t much of a silver lining. “Hey,” Logan said, jamming his fists in his pockets. Shit, he never knew what to say to this kid.
Connor ignored him, bending to scoop up more rocks. Logan stood there and let him finish that handful before he said, “Are you going to knock off the crap you’ve been pulling? You’re smarter than this.”
Another rock dinged off the stone fish’s head. “You don’t know anything about me. You’re not my father.”
“I know. But I’m…” Logan didn’t know. In the eyes of Ms. Patel, he was a single dad, and he felt like such a fake. But he was all the kid had left.
“You’re just the asshole loser my mom married because she hated being alone.”
It shouldn’t have hurt, yet Logan’s chest tightened the way it did when he exerted himself too much, his breath coming short. Right now it was completely in his head, and he reminded himself of that as he forced in a gulp of air. He was sorely tempted to leave Connor to his sulking misery, but he had to be the grown-up.
“You took forever to show up.” Connor turned, narrowing his dark gaze. The kid was maybe five-two, a full foot shorter than Logan and probably a hundred pounds soaking wet. Still, he internally cringed as Connor sized him up. “Bet you were hungover.”
Logan breathed out evenly, ignoring the tug in his chest. I’m the adult here. He doesn’t really know me at all. “I wasn’t hungover. I had to borrow Jenna’s car. Mine’s in the shop.”
“Sure. Bet you were out late screwing sluts, just like you were before my mom died.”
“Hey!” Logan clenched his jaw, imagining they were being watched through all the glass windows, the heat of hidden eyes crawling on his skin. He gritted out, “First off, don’t use that word. Second, I never cheated on your mother. Never.”
Connor muttered, “Yeah, right.”
“I didn’t.” Christ, he’d barely jerked off since she died. Didn’t even wake up to morning wood anymore—even his dick knew how useless he was. “Listen to me—”
“Why?” Connor’s sandy hair was a shaggy mess over his ears, which was probably a dress code violation or something. Was Logan supposed to take him to get his hair cut?
Connor’s lip curled as Logan stayed silent. “You’re such an idiot. No wonder you barely graduated high school.”
Logan didn’t argue for his own intelligence since the kid had a point. Look at the mess Logan had made of his life. But he was all Connor had, so he stood there and took it.
Veronica had loudly questioned his faithfulness a few months before she died. Logan didn’t really blame her—he’d stayed out later and later to avoid their fights about everything from doing the dishes to which way to put the damn toilet paper. She’d assumed the worst about his absences, although he wasn’t a cheater.
In the small house, of course Connor had heard all their shouting matches. Logan wanted to comfort Connor in his grief—their grief—but everything was poisoned between them. He had no clue how to fix it.
Summoning patience, Logan unclenched his hands. He spoke calmly but firmly—the way the parenting vids he’d watched on YouTube advised. “Listen to me. They’re going to expel you.”
Connor rolled his eyes. “They won’t go through with it. No way.”
“They will. You’re here on their good graces, and they’ve had enough of your shit. Ask Ms. Patel. You could have put that kid in the hospital with your prank. Why would you drop your bag like that?”
With a jerk of a shrug, Connor said, “Dunno. To see what would happen.” He added defensively, “No one was down there when I let go! Then stupid Tim walked out.”
“You know it wasn’t his fault. But listen—Ms. Patel told me you’re out if you don’t get a B on your exams and stop acting up. This is serious. They’re going to expel you. She told me to look into other schools.”
Connor’s perma-scowl evaporated as his brown eyes went wide. In a heartbeat, he looked so fucking young, his voice breaking. “Really? She said that?”
The poor kid was angry and hurt and surging with confusing new testosterone on top of it all. Logan tried to soften his voice. “Yeah. And if you get kicked out of here, you’re stuck with me full time. So hit the books and cut the shit, okay?”
The bluster returned in an instant, and Connor raised his chin. “I’ll go live with my dad in Florida. I’m sick of the cold anyway.”
No, you won’t, because your dad doesn’t give a goddamn about you.
Forcing an even tone, Logan said, “Your mom always talked about what a genius you are. That she knew it from the time you could barely talk.”
Connor’s brows drew together, and he fidgeted with his fingers, shifting from foot to foot. “She… She did?”
“Yep. She was so proud of you, getting a full ride to Rencliffe out of elementary school. She used to smile so big when she talked about you. You know, how her eyes got squinty and her nose would crinkle?”
Connor nodded, biting his lip. Even with the pimples and attitude, he looked like a baby sometimes. Logan wanted to tell him everything would be okay and give him a hug the way kids deserved to be hugged, but the few times he’d awkwardly tried anything like that, it had resulted in Connor shoving him away.
Logan sighed. “I know you hate me. I don’t blame you.” He laughed hollowly. “There’s plenty to hate. But you’ve got a good thing here. They want to help you. So let them. Okay? You can get a B on your exams in your sleep. Stop skipping class and screwing around. Make your mom proud.”
After a few moments, Connor nodded, his jaw tight. He toyed with a plaid scarf hanging around his neck, and Logan eyed it. “Is that the one Jenna gave you at Thanksgiving?” They’d always done one gift for everyone at Thanksgiving in Logan’s family for some reason. He didn’t even know how the tradition had started.
Connor scoffed. “Dunno. I guess.” He whipped it off and stuffed it in his uniform jacket pocket. “I was cold.”
“She says hi, by the way.”
“Whatever. Tell her hi back.” He shrugged. “I don’t care.”
“Okay. I’ll see you at the end of next week when school gets out.” Assuming you don’t get expelled in the meantime. Logan could only pray he’d somehow land a job so he could afford rent and food and maybe a few presents for the kid. If there was ever a time for a Christmas miracle, it was now.
Connor rolled his eyes. “Can’t wait.”
Ms. Patel appeared before Logan had to think of anything else to say. She smiled warmly. “Connor, are you up for a talk before you go back to class?”
Thank Christ the kid nodded and followed her out. Logan gave her a tight smile and made his way back through the main building and out to the parking lot. The birds still chirped, the sun peeking out from steel clouds. His phone buzzed, and this time there was a text message from Mrs. Politano:
Without rent I can’t eat. Time’s up. Changing the locks in two days, so get your stuff out.
Logan tasted bile. That was a definite no-go on the holiday miracle. He climbed behind the wheel of his baby sister’s shiny SUV and tried not to cry like the pathetic, useless sack of shit he was.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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