First Kiss at Christmas by Lee Tobin McClain
KAYLA HARRISCARRIEDa bag of snowflake decorations to the window of her preschool classroom. She started putting them up in a random pattern, humming along to the Christmas music she’d accessed on her phone.
Yes, it was Sunday afternoon, and yes, she was a loser for spending it at work, but she loved her job and wanted the classroom to be ready when the kids returned from Thanksgiving break tomorrow. Nobody could get as excited as a four-year-old about Christmas decorations.
Outside, the November wind tossed the pine branches and jangled the swings on the Coastal Kids Early Learning Center’s playground. A lonely seagull swooped across the sky, no doubt headed for the bay. The Chesapeake was home to all kinds of wildlife, year-round. That was one of the things she loved about living here.
Then another kind of movement from the playground caught her eye.
A man in a long, army-type coat, bareheaded, ran after a little boy. When Kayla pushed open the window to see better, she heard the child screaming.
Heart pounding, she rushed downstairs and out the door of the empty school.
The little boy now huddled at the top of the sliding board, mouth wide open as he cried, tears rolling down round, rosy cheeks. The man stood between the slide and a climbing structure, forking his fingers through disheveled hair, not speaking to the child or making any effort to comfort him. This couldn’t be the little boy’s father. Something was wrong.
She ran toward the sliding board. “Hi, honey,” she said to the child, keeping her voice low and calm. “What’s the matter?”
“Leave him alone,” the man barked out. His ragged jeans and wildly flapping coat made him look disreputable, maybe homeless.
She ignored him, climbed halfway up the ladder, and touched the child’s shaking shoulder. “Hi, sweetheart.”
The little boy jerked away and, maybe on purpose, maybe not, slid down the slide. The man rushed to catch him at the bottom, and the boy struggled, crying, his little fists pounding, legs kicking.
Kayla pulled out her phone to report a possible child abduction, eyes on the pair, poised to interfere if the man tried to run with the child.
One of the boy’s kicks landed in a particularly vulnerable spot, and the man winced and adjusted the child to cradle him as if he were a baby. “Okay, okay,” he murmured in a deep, but gentle voice, nothing like the sharp tone in which he’d addressed Kayla. He sat down on the end of the slide and pulled the child close, rocking a little. “You’re okay.”
The little boy struggled for another few seconds and then stopped, laying his head against the man’s broad chest. Apparently, this guy had gained the child’s trust, at least to some degree.
For the first time, Kayla wondered if she’d misread the situation. Was this just a scruffy dad? Was she maybe just being her usual awkward self with men?
He looked up at her then, curiosity in his eyes.
Her face heated, but she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. She was an education professional trying to help a child. “This is a private school, sir,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
The little boy had startled at her voice and his crying intensified. The man ignored her question.
“Is he your son?”
Again, no answer as he stroked the child’s hair and whispered something into his ear.
“All right, I guess it’s time for the police to straighten this out.” She searched for the number, her fingers numb with the cold. Maybe this situation didn’t merit a 911 call, but there was definitely something unusual going on. Her small town’s police force could straighten it out.
“WAIT. DON’TCALLTHEPOLICE.” Tony DeNunzio struggled to his feet, the weight of his tense nephew making him awkward. “Everything’s okay. I’m his guardian.” He didn’t owe this woman an explanation, and it irritated him to have to give one, but he didn’t want Jax to get even more upset. The child hated cops, and with good reason.
“You’re his guardian?” The blonde, petite as she was, made him feel small as her eyes skimmed him up and down.
He glanced down at his clothes and winced. Lifted a hand to his bristly chin and winced again.
He hadn’t shaved since they’d arrived in town two days ago, and he’d grabbed these clothes from the heap of clean but wrinkled laundry beside his bed. Not only because he was busy trying to get Jax settled, but because he couldn’t bring himself to care about folding laundry and shaving and most of the other tasks under the general heading of personal hygiene. A shower a day, and a bath for Jax, was about all he could manage. His brother and sister—his surviving sister—had scolded him about it, back home.
He couldn’t explain all of that, didn’t need to. It wasn’t this shivering stranger’s business. “Jax is going to enroll here,” he said.
“Really?” Another wave of shivers hit her, making her teeth chatter. Tony didn’t know where she’d come from, but apparently her mission of mercy had compelled her to run outside without her coat.
He’d offer her his, but he had a feeling she’d turn up her nose.
“The school is closed on Sundays,” she said.
Thank you, Miss Obvious. But given that he and Jax had slipped through a gap in the playground’s loosely chained gate, he guessed their presence merited a little more explanation. “I’m trying to get him used to the place before he starts school tomorrow. He has trouble with...” Tony glanced down at Jax, who’d stopped crying and stuck his thumb in his mouth, and a surge of love and frustration rose in him. “He has trouble with basically everything.”
The woman shook her head and put a finger to her lips, then pointed at the child.
What was that all about? And who was she, the parenting police? “Do you have a reason to be here?” he asked, hearing the truculence in his own voice and not caring.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “I work nearby,” she said. “Saw you here and got concerned, because the little guy seemed to be upset. For that matter, he still seems to be.”
No denying that. Jax had tensed up as soon as they’d approached the preschool playground, probably because it was similar to places where he’d had other bad experiences. Even though Jax had settled some, Tony could feel the tightness in his muscles, and he rubbed circles on his nephew’s back. “He’s been kicked out of preschool and day care before,” he explained. “This is kind of my last resort.”
She frowned. “You know he can hear you, right?”
“Of course he can hear, he’s not...” Tony trailed off as he realized what she meant. He shouldn’t say negative things about Jax in front of him.
She was right, but she’d also just met him and Jax. Was she really going to start telling him how to raise his nephew?
Of course, probably almost anyone in the world would be better at it than he was.
“Did you let the school know the particulars of his situation?” She leaned against the slide’s ladder, her face concerned.
Tony sighed. She must be one of those women who had nothing else to do but criticize how others handled their lives. She was cute, though. And it wasn’t as if he had much else to do, either. He’d completed all the Victory Cottage paperwork, and he couldn’t start dealing with the program’s other requirements until the business week started tomorrow.
Jax moved restlessly and looked up at him.
Tony set Jax on his feet and gestured toward the play structure. “Go ahead and climb. We’ll go back to the cottage before long.” He didn’t know much about being a parent, but one thing he’d learned in the past three months was that tiring a kid out with active play was a good idea.
Jax nodded and ran over to the playset. His tongue sticking out of one corner of his mouth, forehead wrinkled, he started to climb.
Tony watched him, marveling at how quickly his moods changed. Jax’s counselor said all kids were like that, but Jax seemed a little more extreme than most.
No surprise, given what he’d been through.
Tony looked back at the woman, who was watching him expectantly.
“What did you ask me?” Sometimes he worried about himself. It was hard to keep track of conversations, not that he had all that many of them lately. None, except with Jax, since they’d arrived in Pleasant Shores two days ago.
“I asked if you let the school know about his issues,” she said. “It might help them help him, if they know what they’re working with.”
“I didn’t tell them about the other schools,” he said. “I didn’t want to jinx this place, make them think he’s a bad kid, right from the get-go. He’s not.”
“I’m sure he isn’t,” she said. “He’s a real cutie. But still, you should be up front with his teachers and the principal.”
Normally he would have told her to mind her own business, but he was just too tired for a fight. “You’re probably right.” It was another area where he was failing Jax, he guessed. But he was doing the best he could. It wasn’t as if he’d had experience with any kids other than Jax. Even overseas, when the other soldiers had given out candy and made friends, he’d tended to terrify the little ones. Too big, too gruff, too used to giving orders.
“Telling the school the whole story will only help him,” she said, still studying Jax, her forehead creased.
He frowned at her. “Why would you care?”
“The truth is,” she said, “I’m going to be his teacher.”
Great. He felt his shoulders slump. Had he just ruined his nephew’s chances at this last-resort school?
MONDAYMORNING, KAYLA welcomed the last of her usual students and stood on tiptoes to look down the stairs of the Coastal Kids preschool. Where were Tony and Jax?
She’d informed two of her friendliest and most responsible students that a new boy was coming today and that they should help him to feel at home. If he didn’t get here in time for the opening circle, she’d tell all twelve of the kids about Jax.
But maybe his uncle had changed his mind about enrolling him.
Maybe Kayla’s mother, who was the principal of the little early learning center, had decided Jax wasn’t going to be a good fit and suggested another option for him. That would be rare, but it occasionally happened.
Mom said Kayla fretted too much. Probably true, but it was in the job description. Kayla felt a true calling to nurture and educate the kids in her care. Sometimes, that meant worrying about them.
The Coastal Kids Early Learning Center was housed in an old house that adjoined a local private school. Kayla’s classroom was one of three located upstairs, and from hers, she could see down the central staircase to the glassed-in offices. Her mother was welcoming a few stragglers, but there was still no sign of her new student.
She turned back to face her students. “Good job sharing,” she said to redheaded Nicole, who was holding out a plastic truck to her friend. “Jacob, we don’t run in the classroom. Why don’t you look at the new books on our reading shelf?”
After making sure all the kids were occupied with their morning playtime, she stepped out into the hall. If she could flag down her mother, she’d try to find out what was going on with Jax.
And then Tony came into the school, holding Jax’s hand.
Kayla sucked in a breath. Wow. He cleaned up really well.
Not that he was entirely cleaned up; he still had the stubbly half beard that made him look a little dangerous, and his thick, dark hair was overlong. But he wore nice jeans and a green sweater with sleeves pushed up to reveal muscular forearms. He knelt so Jax could jump onto his back for a piggyback ride, then stood easily, and Kayla sucked in another breath. There was something about a guy who was physically strong.
He stopped and spoke to Kayla’s mother—she’d been occupied with another parent right inside the office, apparently—and then, at her gesture, headed up the stairs toward Kayla’s classroom.
Maybe it was the fact that the school was dominated by kids and women, but Tony seemed very, well, large. He took the stairs two at a time, still carrying Jax on his back. “Sorry we’re late,” he said as he came to the door. “Here you go, buddy. You met Miss Kayla before.”
He bent to set Jax down, but the boy clung to him like a monkey.
That wasn’t surprising, but Kayla had seen every reluctant-new-kid trick in the book. She was ready. “We have a special day for you, Jax. If you like trucks and cars, we have a whole tub of them, and friends who like to play with them, too.”
Jax turned his face away and clung tightly to his uncle.
Should I come in?Tony mouthed to her.
“Better if he comes in on his own,” she said quietly, then stepped to Tony’s side to be closer to Jax, who still clung to Tony’s back. “Jax, honey, after playtime, and circle time, would you like to have the job of feeding our hamster?”
The little boy peeked in her direction for a nanosecond, then buried his face against his uncle’s shoulder.
“Come on, buddy,” Tony said. “Get down, and we’ll go see the hamster.” He peeled the boy’s hands apart, releasing their death grip on his neck, and swung him to the ground.
Immediately, Jax crouched and grabbed Tony’s leg and clung to it. “You come, too.”
“Is that okay?” Tony asked her. He knelt and, by holding Jax’s hand, managed to get the child to stand on his own two feet.
Having a parent or guardian come in with a new student wasn’t ideal, but Jax seemed to have a lot of separation anxiety. Which made sense, if he’d had bad experiences at other schools. Kayla made one more try. “How about if we show Uncle Tony the hamster when he comes back to get you?” she suggested. “He’ll come back. Moms and dads—and uncles—always come back.”
At her words, Tony winced. Jax stared at her for a half second, then his face contorted and he flung himself to the floor, his legs kicking, grabbing desperately at Tony’s ankle.
“His mom didn’t come back,” Tony explained to Kayla over the child’s ear-splitting screams.
Kayla pressed a hand to her mouth. “I’m so sorry. That was just the wrong thing to say, then.” Behind her, she heard the kids in her class murmuring and gathering around the door. Another kid’s tantrum always drew an audience.
Tony knelt and patted his nephew’s back. “It’s okay, buddy,” he said, his voice a low rumble. “You’re okay.”
“Not okay!” Jax wailed.
Kayla blew out a sigh and looked from Jax to the cluster of children in her care. A couple of them looked upset. Kids this age were starting to develop empathy, which was great, but it also meant that meltdowns could be contagious.
She glanced down the stairs. No help there. “I’m going to get the other kids busy,” she said to Tony. “If he can settle down, maybe bring him in for a bit and stay with him?”
He nodded, and she went into the classroom, half closing the door in an attempt to give Tony and Jax some privacy.
She never failed with kids, but she’d failed with Jax this morning. She shouldn’t have made an assumption about his family life. With a college degree in early childhood education and three years of full-time experience here at Coastal Kids, she knew better.
She would make it up to him. That was central to her identity as a teacher. It had nothing whatsoever to do with his uncle’s concerned brown eyes.