The blur of voices droned together in the background as I got on my hands and knees to crawl under my desk. Sammy’s gaze weighed heavy on my back, expectant, hopeful. My stomach twisted when I found nothing but dust bunnies.
“It’s not here,” I said, backing out of the narrow space.
Sammy’s face fell. “It has to be.”
“It’s not. Why were you playing in here anyway? You know my office is off-limits.”
He gnawed at his lower lip. Every time he did that, he reminded me of his mother, and a momentary pang of grief would pass through me. That had been Ellie’s guilty habit of choice, too.
“You don’t have carpet under your desk.”
“I don’t have your car, either. Where else—” Something on the line caught my attention, and I turned my head away to better listen. Holding my hand up to gesture at Sammy to keep quiet, I unmuted my earpiece and said, “Does anybody in this department even understand what Quality Assurance means?”
Dead silence filled the line.
I stifled my desire to swear at them. “I am not going to sign off on this project when we know damn well it’s going to break on them the first time some i***t doesn’t do the shut-down correctly. Someone needs to fix this.”
Alastair, the chief engineer, cleared his throat. “Mr. Hardison, it’s not an easy—”
“I’m not interested in ‘it’s not easy.’ I’m interested in getting this right.” The door clicked shut behind me, and I turned to see the empty void Sammy had just filled. “I’ve got to go. I want a full report on how we’re going to address this at our meeting on Friday.”
Though I heard more than one protest at my abrupt tone, I disconnected from the call and tossed the earpiece onto the desk. “Sammy!” I marched out after him. His bedroom door was shut. The twists in my gut grew tighter.
Taking a deep breath, I knocked on the door and waited. Sammy opened it almost immediately. The lip was back between his teeth again, the way he looked up at me through his lashes diffusing the rest of my anger.
“Did you find it?”
He shook his head.
“Well, we’ll have to go without it.”
“But I wanted to show Morgan!”
“You can show him next time.”
“I get to play with him again?”
Too late, I realized I’d just committed Sammy to another date with the Irving kid. It wasn’t that I didn’t want Sammy to have friends. I did. It killed me that he had to fight so hard to try and fit in. It certainly didn’t help that he missed out on a lot of the activities that bonded the other boys together because of the problems we’d always fought with his health. I wanted him to be able to go outside, and run around, and play catch whenever he wanted, but after so many trips to the hospital because he’d caught pneumonia again or was coughing so hard he was giving himself bloody noses or just plain couldn’t breathe, I’d learned to let that go. I’d already lost Ellie. I wasn’t going to lose Sammy, too.
But I wasn’t convinced the Irving kid was the best boy to start a friendship with. He’d knocked Sammy down with the swing, for starters. Then, he’d taken Sammy around to all the most dangerous equipment at the park. Kids didn’t understand the risks, and the way this one’s dad kept yapping in my ear only distracted me from keeping a better eye on Sammy.
Still, Sammy seemed to like him, and Morgan’s disappointment at having to stop their playtime so soon had looked genuine. I’d just suck it up and hope I was wrong about his effect on my son.
“Of course, you do.” I ruffled the top of his hair and smiled. “Why don’t you find something else to show Morgan? We can figure out where you might have left the car on the ride over to the park.”
His brilliant grin made it all worth it.
Though the park was only a couple blocks away, I still drove the short distance. It gave me the freedom of knowing I could get Sammy to an ER fast if necessary, as well as lessened his exposure to the outside air. I parked as close to the playground as I could get, but Sammy had his seat belt unbuckled and his door open before I’d even taken the key out of the ignition. He was off like a shot, running faster than I’d ever seen him go, toward the merry-go-round.
With the weather so nice, kids clustered around the equipment like flies, while their parents created their own little groups along the perimeter of the play area. Most of them were moms, some with strollers, some without, traveling in their packs as they paid more attention to the other adults in the area than their offspring. A few men diffused the estrogen cloud, but one in particular drew my attention the most. Mostly because Sammy was barreling straight for him.
I’ll be honest. I hadn’t noticed much about Peter Irving when we’d met. I was too worried about Sammy, afraid that he’d push himself too hard and too fast and suffer the consequences. He so rarely got to play outside—the pollen count hurt his chances when it was warm, and the cold aggravated his asthma—that I was sure he’d try to do too much. He had an adventurous spirit. It was just a shame he didn’t have the health to support it.
So I was a little surprised that I recognized Peter. If someone had asked me an hour ago what he looked like, I would have stared at them blankly. In the four years I’d been working from home, my ability to remember faces had dwindled into nothing. But the dark hair and tall, lean frame I zeroed in on felt…familiar. Very. Like I saw him every day. That bugged me a little. Because I didn’t know this guy at all. I didn’t even know what he did for a living. All I knew was that Sammy liked his kid, that he kept on talking whether someone was listening or not, and that he had these long, well-manicured, almost graceful hands he moved around a lot when he talked.
Yes, I realize what that sounds like. I might have a small fetish about hands.
Sammy had already reached him and Morgan before I’d even moved onto the grass. I was too far away to hear what they were saying, but before Sammy’s mouth stopped moving, Peter’s head was swiveling in my direction. He grinned when he saw me and waved me over.
My temper was short because of the idiots I worked with who thought a half-assed job was good enough, so I really wasn’t in the mood for company, but ignoring Peter or walking in a different direction would make me look like a jerk. If our kids were going to be friends, I had to make an effort.
As I headed across the grass, a single, unbidden—and wholly unwanted—thought crept in. I promptly shoved it away. It didn’t matter that Peter had a geeky cuteness about him. He wasn’t my type. Not specifically because he was a guy, because even when his gender had been my preference, he wouldn’t have been my type.
Besides, I wasn’t looking to get involved with anyone right now, male or female. Sammy needed stability, not disruptions, and porn was readily available to take the edge off when I got too horny.
And I was going straight to hell for thinking about porn on a kids’ playground. Especially standing in front of a probably very straight father.
I nodded my head in greeting and immediately turned to see what the kids were doing. I hadn’t been this uncomfortable since…well, the last time I’d come to the park.
“You can relax a little. I told Morgan the climbing equipment and the merry-go-round were off-limits for the day,” Peter said. “He brought his pail and shovel for some serious castle building.”
I grimaced. I should’ve thought of that.
“Sammy really wanted to show Morgan his favorite car, but we couldn’t find it before we left.” I glanced at Peter out of the corner of my eye. “I told him, next time. You know. If Morgan’s interested in playing with him again.”
“I hate it when the favorites disappear. It was bad enough when he lost his Matchbox cars. Now it’s video games, and he’s always shocked by my refusal to just buy him a replacement.”
I think I was beginning to understand some of Morgan’s appeal to Sammy. “Please tell me you don’t have a Wii.”
“Not yet, but he acts like he’ll die if he doesn’t have one soon. I’m holding out until Christmas, at least.”
“If the boys turn into real friends, I’ll pay you to hold out even longer.”
“What’s wrong with the Wii? Is it something personal against Nintendo?”
“No, no, it’s not that. I just worry Sam would push himself too hard with it if we got one.” My gaze drifted back to the boys. Lo and behold, they were both crouched in the sand, feet bare, digging away. I stifled the urge to yell at Sammy to put his shoes back on. He wasn’t going to get anything into his lungs through his toes. “Until the most recent tests, he wasn’t ever really strong enough to spend much time outside. So he’s turned into an expert gamer, instead.”
Peter sighed dramatically. “Well, that’s it then. You better get used to me. If I let him, Morgan would spend every single waking second on his computer. He’d sleep at the desk and insist I’d feed him by hand so as not to disrupt his game.”
“Just you? You’re not married?”
“Divorced. Morgan’s only with me part-time.”
“Well, at least you get that. I know a few guys who only see their kids on some of the holidays. And usually the shitty ones, like Memorial Day or Good Friday.”
“I had to fight for it.” Peter crossed his arms over his chest, standing with his hands tucked under his arms, his hip jutting out a bit. His T-shirt pulled down a little, exposing the sharp line of his collarbone. “All in all, I got the best arrangement I realistically could. It never seems like enough, though.”
I’ll admit, I was curious. But I knew that if I started asking questions, he’d probably turn around and start asking the same kind of questions back at me, and the last thing I wanted was to think about Ellie right now. I was lucky I’d gotten off easy with my prying so far.
“Was…Morgan as excited as Sam was about today?” I asked, carefully testing the waters.
“Let me put it this way. I usually have to bribe him with thirty minutes of extra computer time before he’ll stop whining about the park. Today he wanted to come straight here after school because he didn’t want to be late.”
His answer provoked a mixed response in me. On one hand, I was kind of happy somebody seemed eager to be Sammy’s friend. On the other, I still wasn’t sure I wanted that somebody to be Morgan Irving, though the more Peter talked, the more it seemed the boys had a lot in common.
The boys hadn’t strayed an inch from their place in the sand, and there wasn’t even a breeze in the air to add to my worry. When I noticed a pair of young mothers abandoning a nearby bench, I jerked my chin toward it.
“We’ll probably be here for a while. Want to sit?”
Peter flashed a dopey grin. He probably had to be in his early thirties, but when he smiled like that, he looked at least ten years younger. He called Morgan’s name and waited for the boy to look up before walking over to the bench. Morgan waved him off in favor of upending the small bucket of sand over the top of a vaguely blockish lump that served as the castle’s base.
“Is Sammy going to be okay for a while? I checked the pollen count this afternoon. It didn’t seem too high.”
“No, he should be good for the next half hour at least. It’s at a good range today. But I’ve got prednisone in the car in case something happens.”
“Do you think something will?”
I watched Sammy scooting around on his knees, digging a trench around their growing creation. He was laughing, and there were spots of pink high in his pale cheeks. My chest tightened. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him so animated.
“I really hope not. But we’ve learned the hard way it’s better to be prepared.”
“Is there any possibility he’ll grow out of it, or…”
“Oh, yeah, there’s always the possibility. And his doctor is actually optimistic after his last lung function. If it keeps up, we might even be able to lower some of his dosages.”
Peter brightened. “That’s good. He might have a lucrative career as a contractor ahead of him. Look, his side of the castle is still standing.”
I’d be happy to make it to junior high at this rate, but I wouldn’t say that out loud. “What about you?” I asked Peter. “What do you do?”
“I’m a veterinary lab technician. I process a lot of feline urine samples.”
I had started to turn back to watch the boys when the description of his job stopped me. I stared at him and waited for the punchline, but it never came.
“Seriously? You work with…cat pee.”
Peter laughed. “Among other things. I always wanted to be a vet. I thought it would be great to work with animals, but I’m allergic to all cats and most dogs, so I had to take a less direct route.”
It still sounded less than appealing. Suddenly, being stuck in my office on the phone all day didn’t seem so bad. “Well, we don’t have any pets, so you’ll be safe at our house if you ever come over.”
“That’s good to know. What do you do for a living? Something as glamorous as my job?”
“I have my own consulting company. I manage commercial construction projects.” I smiled. It was surprisingly easy after my earlier doubts about Peter. “So, no, it’s not really that glamorous, either.”
We both looked up at the same time. Morgan raced toward us, and my attention immediately went to Sam. He was running, too, albeit at a slower pace, a big grin on his face. My heart slowed to its proper rate, though I still watched him carefully, looking for any signs that he exerted himself too much.
“We want to play Lego Star Wars,” Morgan said breathlessly, stopping just before he slammed into Peter’s knees.
“So, can we go back to our apartment and play? Please?”
“You’re building a sand castle.”
“That’s boring. Sammy’s never played Lego Star Wars and he really wants to.”
“Please, Dad.” Sam trained his baby blues on me, the pleading just seeping from every pore in his small body. “I’ve already done all my homework.”
“What happened to wanting to play outside?”
“I wanna play with Morgan. He says it’s really cool. When you shoot them, they explode in about a zillion little Legos—”
“Morgan probably has homework, too, you know.”
“No, I don’t,” Morgan said quickly. “Well, I have my reading, but we can do that before bed tonight, right? Please?”
Peter glanced at me. “If it’s okay with Mr. Hardison, then it’s okay with me. But that counts as your computer time for the rest of the day.”
I wanted to say yes. I did. Sammy didn’t ask for much, so when he did, I tried to do what I could to give it to him. Deals like the park if his function results were good, trips to visit his grandparents, too many video games to even count. Morgan seemed eager to be on his best behavior today, too. The brat who’d knocked Sammy over yesterday was nowhere to be seen.
But what did I really know about Peter Irving except what he’d told me? I wasn’t sure I was comfortable sending my only child over to his house based on the brief acquaintance we’d struck.
My eyes moved from Sammy’s hopeful little face to Peter’s waiting smile. The sneaky thought about how cute he was that had slipped beneath my defenses when we’d arrived whispered again in my ear. Another reason to keep my distance.
The only problem was…there wasn’t a hint of guile in that sculpted face. He almost looked as innocent as Sammy often did.
“It’s okay with me if Mr. Irving lets me buy dinner for all of us tonight as a thank you for having you over,” I heard myself saying.
“Can we get pizza?”
“Mr. Irving hasn’t said yes, yet.”
Both boys looked at Peter with unguarded hope, as though he held the key to their eternal happiness. “Yes, you can play Lego Star Wars.”
“Thank you!” Morgan grabbed Sam by the wrist and started to pull him away, but Peter’s hand darted out to stop him in his tracks.
“Wait. You’re not going to drag him down the road. Mr. Hardison will meet us at our apartment.” He pried the boys apart. “We only live around the corner.”
I frowned as I stood. “Why don’t I just drive all of us over there?”
“Sure. That makes sense. Morgan, come here. You’ve got sand all over you.”
“I’ve got it,” Morgan insisted, brushing his legs off.
They followed me back to the car, Morgan occasionally voicing protest as Peter brushed more of the sand away. Sam was covered, too, pausing every few minutes to hit at his jeans.
“Sorry, he’s still filthy,” Peter said as Sam opened the door for Morgan. “Oh good, your car is immaculate.”
“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I’ll just vacuum it out when we get home.”
Because paying the price of a little sand to see that look on my son’s face as he clambered into the backseat with his new friend? Totally worth it.