Lessons in Love - Erin Wright - E-Book

Lessons in Love E-Book

Erin Wright

0,0
4,49 €

oder
Beschreibung

Forbidden love is never easy…
Elijah Morland only wants one thing. 
Okay, so maybe there are two items on the list. 
But more important than anything else is to spend more time with his daughter, Brooklyn, no matter how hard his ex-wife is fighting to keep them apart. Desperate, he takes a job at Brooklyn’s elementary school to be closer to her, where she can be his entire focus. 
Which was working just the way he’d planned…right up until he met her teacher, Miss Hannah Lambert. He sees the way she cares for Brooklyn and despite his best efforts, he starts to fall for her.
He can’t date his daughter’s teacher, though – it’s against the rules. Not to mention his ex-wife would have a field day in court if she found out.
But what if, for just one night, the rules didn’t apply?

She’s been hurt before…
It’s simple, really. She cannot, under any circumstances, fall for Brooklyn Morland’s father, even if Brooklyn is her not-so-secret favorite student. 
But he’s standing there in her classroom, looking at her like she’s not invisible. Like she’s not hidden beneath her coke-bottle glasses and oversized teacher cardigan.
The rules are clear: She cannot date a student’s father. She’d be risking her reputation, her career, her everything.

But sometimes, love is worth risking it all…

Lessons in Love i s the eighth novel in the Long Valley Romance series, although all books in the Long Valley world can be read as standalones. It has some strong language, and oh my, sexy times. Enjoy!

Das E-Book können Sie in Legimi-Apps oder einer beliebigen App lesen, die das folgende Format unterstützen:

EPUB
Bewertungen
0,0
0
0
0
0
0



Lessons in Love

A Long Valley Western Romance Novel – Book 8

Erin Wright

Wright’s Romance Reads

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Epilogue

Baked with Love Blurb

Baked with Love Preview

A FREE Story For You…

Stampede of Love Blurb

Stampede of Love Preview

The Other Half of My Life

The story doesn’t end…

Also by Erin Wright

About Erin Wright

Copyright © 2018 by Erin Wright

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be constructed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.

To my dearest Hannah:

You’re making a difference in this world. Don’t ever forget it. You are what this world needs.

~*~

To my dearest husband:

Thanks for putting up with me, even during Release Week. You’re a saint, to be sure, and even better, you’re a saint who cooks me dinner. There is no better kind of saint out there.

Chapter 1

Elijah

Quick Note: If you enjoy Lessons in Love, be sure to check out my offer of a FREE Long Valley novella at the end.

With that, enjoy!

August, 2018

The sun was just peeking over the horizon, sending bright rays of light straight into Elijah’s eyeballs. He blinked and then scrubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands, trying to push the burning pain away.

So. Damn. Exhausted. He was gonna go home and sleep for a week. Maybe two.

Ah hell, who was he kidding. He was gonna go home to try to sleep during the day – which never worked, not real well, anyway – and then he was gonna go on back to Mr. Petrol’s that night and start this hellish nightmare called his job all over again.

He yawned so hard his jaw cracked, and he rubbed at his eyes again, then began slapping his cheeks lightly. He just had to stay awake for a few more minutes. He didn’t live real far away from Mr. Petrol’s, thank God. He could…

What the hell?

He pulled off into the Cleveland Elementary School parking lot and stared up at their reader board.

OPEN - FT JANITOR POSITION W/ BENN. APPLY INSIDE.

Suddenly, he felt a lot more awake.

Like, a whole lot more awake.

“A position at the elementary school,” he said softly to himself, and then began to laugh a little. “A position at the elementary school. Oh, what would Sarah have to say about that!”

He jumped out of his older-than-dirt truck, slamming the driver’s side door closed as he gleefully hurried up the sidewalk towards the admin office. He’d dropped Brooksy off enough at school that he knew just where to go.

Hot damn! A full-time job with benefits, during the day, right here in Sawyer, Idaho. I don’t give a rat’s ass if I have to scrub toilets with a toothbrush – I’ll do it!

This – this was what he’d been looking for, for months now. But with his smarts and skills…no one had wanted him.

He shoved that thought away. He didn’t need to be a college graduate or even a smart guy to push a broom around. Which was damn good, since he wasn’t either.

“Can I help you?” Mrs. Worsop asked over her half-moon glasses, looking up at him from behind her giant wooden desk. She’d been the secretary for the school since he was a kid, and from what he could remember, she’d been old back then. Did she have some sort of secret stash of the Fountain of Life hidden away in that desk of hers? Nothing else explained how she could stay ancient – but not die – for decades at a time. “Are you here to register Brooklyn for school?”

The elderly woman was craning her wrinkled neck, trying to peer around him as if he was suddenly gonna pull his ten-year-old daughter out of his back pocket like some sort of elaborate magic trick.

“No, I’m not here for that. I’m here about the janitor job. Has it been filled yet?”

Honest to God, just asking the question terrified him a little. It’d be just his luck to find out about the position right after they’d gone and hired somebody else. He hadn’t seen anything on the board out front about it before today, but then again, he couldn’t rightly say that he paid much attention to the shit they put up.

“The…the janitor job?” the secretary echoed faintly, staring at him in disbelief. “And just how long have you been harboring a deep-seated desire to clean toilets, Mr. Morland?”

“It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do, actually,” he said with a straight face. “Forever,” he added.

Please, please, please.

He’d get down on one knee and beg if that’s what they were wanting. He wouldn’t like it, but he’d do it.

Mrs. Worsop just stared at him, one eyebrow arched, waiting for him to crack and tell her the truth.

He just stared back, not blinking.

Anything for Brooksy. Anything at all.

“Well,” the older lady finally sniffed when the silence became so awkward, people a block away were probably feeling antsy and didn’t even know why, “the interviews are tomorrow morning. Here’s the application.” She pulled a double-sided piece of paper out of a cabinet drawer and handed it over to him. “You just fill that out and come on back. Eight in the morning is when they start.”

He took the paper and thanked her properly, scanning it as he headed back towards his truck. Now all he had to do was figure out how to sell the principal on the idea that he’d never wanted anything as much as he wanted to mop and wax floors.

If I’m there in the classroom with Brooksy, cleaning it…well, there’s not a damn thing Sarah can say about it. It’s not like she can demand I quit my job that’s paying for the child support, right?

Elated, he did a fist pump in the air. Hells to the yes. He didn’t consider himself to be a real smart man, but at that moment, he was king of the world.

Chapter 2

Hannah

Hannah Lambert looked over the class roll for the year, double-checking that each child on the list had been assigned a desk on the seating chart. The names of Dayton and Tahlia caught her eye – they were both younger siblings to students she’d had in the past. It was always fascinating to see the differences between siblings. Was Dayton going to be a hellion like his older brother had been? It could be an…interesting school year if Dayton was even vaguely like his brother.

Speaking of hellions…

Her eyes stopped on the name of Brooklyn Morland. Just yesterday in the teacher’s lounge, the teachers had been gossiping about who was getting which student, and Brooklyn’s fourth grade teacher, Mr. Pettengill, had asked who’d been “stuck with that Morland girl” this year. Hannah’s neck had flushed red with anger at his tone, and she’d been debating if she could get away with saying nothing at all when another teacher had ever-so-helpfully piped up and informed everyone that Hannah had her this year.

Thank you, Betsy. Really, you’re awesome.

Every eye in the teacher’s lounge had swung towards her, pinning her to her chair. Even now, a day later, she felt herself covered with goosebumps just remembering the ordeal. Despite having worked at the Cleveland Elementary School for the past twelve years, the idea of speaking in front of a group of adults…

Terrifying.

So, of course, she hadn’t said a word; she’d just smiled a little at the group as she’d died inside.

No, worse. She hadn’t died – inside or out – which meant that she then had to listen as Mr. Pettengill began detailing Brooklyn’s fall from grace. Oh, she’d been such a “sweet young thang” when she’d started the fourth grade, but she’d quickly turned into a beast and he’d had to keep a firm hand with her.

Which was, of course, when Mr. Pettengill began lecturing Hannah on how to take care of an unruly child like Brooklyn; to make sure that she knew from Day One that Hannah was watching her and would punish her for the tiniest of infractions.

Which was when her soul shriveled into a tiny ball.

There were days – like, 365 of them a year – where Mr. Pettengill resembled a boot camp instructor more than a fourth grade teacher.

Finally – fin-a-lly – the conversation turned to gossip about other students, and the focus moved off Hannah, which meant she could breathe normally again. Honestly, if she’d had any idea how much she’d need to interact with adults as a teacher, she probably would’ve picked another profession. Maybe she could’ve been a deep sea diver where all she would have to interact with were sharks.

Sharks were honestly preferable to Mr. Pettengill, and didn’t that just about say it all.

She heard a knock on the door of her classroom, yanking her back to the present. “Come in,” she called out, absentmindedly pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose and looking to see who was there.

Mylanta!

As if thinking about the daughter had conjured up the father, there stood Mr. Morland in the doorway, his slim frame bulging with just enough muscles to make a girl drool.

‘Just enough muscles to make a girl drool?’ Where did that come from?

She shot to her feet, her chair skittering backwards and slamming into the painted cinder-block wall behind her. A deep red blush started at her toes and quickly worked its way up her body, staining her cheeks a flaming red she was just sure could be seen from outer space. Some satellite was probably being steered off course right now by the sheer luminescence of her cheeks.

“Hello, Mr. Morland,” she said formally, trying to ignore the state of her cheeks and the fact that her darn chair was still sliding, ever so slowly, along the wall.

Stop rolling. Any day now. You can stop moving. Really, you can.

Mr. Morland walked in, his dark eyes tracking the progress of the errant chair, and then he turned them back towards her, and she was pinned into place yet again. They were this fascinating gray-green color that she’d never seen before; cool, aloof, but just a hint of something more beneath that.

“Hello, Miss Lambert,” he replied just as formally as her, pulling on the brim of his cap. Her chair, thank the Lord above, had finally come to a stop. Hannah could just see it out of the corner of her eye, listing to the side drunkenly. She really needed to buy a new one, but that meant not buying any classroom supplies for the year and if she had to choose between a nice chair for her or pencils and markers for her students…

Drunken chair it was.

“Are you…” She cleared her throat, trying to get the croak out of it. Adults were just tall children, she reminded herself.

Very tall, very handsome children.

Hmmmm…actually, not too tall – the perfect height, really, especially for a person of short stature like her.

Okay, so that wasn’t helping.

“Are you…are you here to talk about Brooklyn?” she finally got out. She scrambled inwardly as she talked, trying to remember how old he was in relation to her, and made the vague guess that he was three years younger, maybe four.

A younger man…she didn’t do younger men.

Ever.

Something her libido was apparently choosing in that very moment to forget.

“Oh!” he said, his brow wrinkled in surprise. “No, actually, I didn’t realize she was gonna be in your class this year. My ex was the one who signed her up for school. I’m the new janitor here now that Mr. Longspee’s retired, so I just wanted to say howdy to everyone and let y’all know that I’m gonna be the one cleaning in here.”

As he spoke, his rich voice with a hint of a drawl sent sparks up her arms. She scrubbed at them and then held them against her chest, hugging herself. Anxious to give herself something to do – anything that didn’t involve looking Mr. Morland in the eye, that was – she hurried over and began tugging her errant chair back towards her desk. “Well, welcome,” she said over her shoulder, concentrating fully on the listing chair. She didn’t actually need to use every bit of concentration on the task but she wanted to, since the chair was a lot safer than Mr. Morland was.

Considering how her body felt on fire at that moment, nuclear explosions seemed safer than Mr. Morland.

Which was patently ridiculous. He’d graduated from Sawyer a handful of years after her, so she’d seen him occasionally at pep rallies, the grocery store, a football game…

But she’d never felt like this before. Not that she’d disliked him; it just hadn’t occurred to her to like him.

Until today, that was. Suddenly, her body and libido were all sorts of awake and paying attention.

Now?! Right now you choose to sit up and drool?!

A couple of months ago, when Mr. Kiener had asked her out for coffee, all her libido had done was curl up in the corner and take a nap. It didn’t help that he was 20 years her senior and missing some of his teeth. He was a nice enough guy; a widower looking for someone to cook for him now that his wife was gone.

Yeah, her libido had taken a real long snooze that day.

“Is there anything I need to work on or do for you here in your classroom?” Mr. Morland asked. He was busy looking around the room, apparently searching for a project to tackle, and she tried to control the panic flooding through her at the thought of him spending lots of time in her classroom, doing things.

Anything at all.

Like, breathing or something.

“No,” she squeaked, and then cleared her throat, shoving her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “No, we’re ready for the new year. Thank you, though.” She was so formal, her back so rigid, she would’ve been right at home in one of those atrocious whale-boned corsets women wore in the 1800s.

She knew she was being dumb.

She knew that this gut reaction to his presence was ridiculous.

a) She was an old maid;

b) She was never getting married – everyone knew that;

c) He was a younger man;

d) He was apparently now her coworker; and

e) He was the father of one of her students.

She couldn’t have special ordered someone to be less suitable for her.

Too bad her twisting, turning, trembling stomach didn’t agree.

Mr. Morland pulled on the bill of his ball cap, murmured, “Have a good one,” and then was gone. On his way to go torture another teacher with his muscles and eyes and tight butt.

Okay, so maybe Mr. Pettengill wasn’t exactly panting over Mr. Morland’s gray-green eyes and tight butt, which was not fair, honestly. Why did they have to affect her like this?

Hannah collapsed into her chair and stared at the empty doorway.

She was in trouble, all right.

Chapter 3

Elijah

September, 2018

“I checked my account,” Sarah slurred, clearly already most of the way through a bottle of wine, “and there ain’t nothin’ in there yet.”

Elijah clenched his jaw so tight, he was a little worried it’d take an act of God to pull it apart again. “I already told you this’d happen,” he ground out. “There’s a gap between my last paycheck at Mr. Petrol’s, and my first paycheck at the school district. I’m gonna be two weeks late. I told you about this when I got the job at the school.”

“But how am I shupposed to pay my bills?” she whined. “I need zhat money.” He heard her taking a loud slurp of what was undoubtedly more wine, even as her words ran together so much, he almost couldn’t understand her.

The thing was, she didn’t need his money. Not really. With the money she’d inherited after her parents had died in that godawful car wreck, she was pretty much set for life. It was why she’d finally told him to go screw himself; that she was gonna divorce him. She didn’t need to pretend to love him anymore, as she so bluntly put it, just so she could stay married to him and live off his income. She was a rich woman now.

A-yup, after about two days of genuine mourning for her parents, her tears dried right up when she realized how rich she was about to be.

So no, she didn’t need his child support payment each month. She loved making him pay it, knowing it made his life just that much more difficult to afford, but she didn’t need it.

The truth was, she was pissed ‘cause he’d done the run-around on her. He’d figured out how to see their daughter without getting permission from the courts beforehand, and if there was one thing Sarah hated, it was losing. It wasn’t that she loved their daughter that much – she wasn’t capable of it – but she hated not coming out on top, no matter what.

“Sarah,” he growled, his temper dangerously close to snapping, “you’ll be paid in full just as soon as—”

“If your child support payment is 21 days and two minutes overdue, I’ll sic the sheriff on you,” she cut in, and then hung up.

Elijah slammed his hand down on the table, scaring Brooklyn’s pet hamster into scurrying into the corner of his cage and hiding.

“Dammit!” Elijah roared at the world. He’d been so sure he’d outsmarted Sarah for once, but here she was with the upper hand again. After he’d been hired at the school district, he’d sat down and calculated pay periods, and had known then that he was up shit creek without a paddle. He was gonna have to rely on Sarah’s goodwill not to get into trouble over this.

And relying on Sarah’s goodwill was never a good idea.

He was stupid, too stupid. He was never gonna be like his brother Aaron. He wasn’t the golden child. He wasn’t the educated child. He wasn’t the pillar of the community. No matter how hard he tried or what he did, he was a failure in everyone’s eyes, including his own.

He shouldn’t have tried to beat Sarah at her own game. That was a huge mistake right there. She was the one with the smarts, who could out-think everyone else and force ‘em to do what she wanted ‘em to do. Their 10-year marriage was proof of that. Beating Sarah at her own game was a fool’s dream.

And in this, he was certainly the fool.

Chapter 4

Hannah

Amelia, Hannah’s aide, circulated around the classroom, helping keep an eye on the students as they started in on their bell work for the day. It was three weeks into the school year and the students were just beginning to settle in, having spent those three weeks testing Hannah’s boundaries, Amelia’s boundaries, and no doubt the school secretary’s boundaries, just to see where they were at.

Hannah had known to expect it, of course – it was just the way fifth graders operated. Old enough to test boundaries; young enough to respect them once they found them. It was one of the reasons why Hannah loved this age so much. Too young, and they’d want her to wipe their nose for them. Too old, and they’d be too cool to listen to a teacher.

Yeah, fifth graders were just about right.

Hannah had finished another elaborate coloring page last night, this one of a frog drawn in mid-jump, and she was taking advantage of the quiet, focused nature of the students to hang the finished product up above their in-class terrarium. She stepped down from the chair and looked up at the high-quality coloring page with a pleased smile.

It’d taken her two weeks to get both the shading of the water and the sun on the frog’s skin just right. She couldn’t draw a stick figure to save her life, but she sure could color. She didn’t brag, of course, but if forced into a corner, she’d name coloring, riding horses, and teaching as being her (only) talents in life.

Luckily for her, two of those talents went hand-in-hand. The cinder block walls of her classroom had long ago been painted an ugly tan that had since turned a nasty dull gray, and without any decorations to brighten things up, she would end up in the insane asylum by the end of the school year, no doubt about it. In an attempt to make her classroom appear less like a federal prison and more like an elementary classroom, she’d begun decorating it with coloring pages depicting every animal and flower and scenic view a soul could imagine, using the bright colors and beauty to bring a liveliness to her room that would otherwise be lacking.

She even had a student’s corner where her kids could bring in pages they’d colored, to show off to their classmates, and that board tended to be one of the most popular in the classroom. Even the shyest and most introverted of students could brag on that board, something Hannah was especially proud of. Too many school activities only rewarded the outgoing and/or athletic students. What about the Hannahs of the world? Making a difference to those students was what kept her going every day.

Newest coloring page hung up, Hannah turned and began scanning the room automatically, checking for problems or students wanting help. Everything looked fine – that was, until she spotted Brooklyn raising her head from her paper to look around furtively.

Yet another reason to love fifth graders: They were too young and innocent to be good at being sneaky. Brooklyn was about to do something she wasn’t supposed to, no doubt about it.

And sure enough, having not spotted Hannah directly behind her at the back of the room, Brooklyn took the opportunity to lash out with her foot, square into the leg of Dayton sitting in the next row over. She was lightning fast, and if Hannah hadn’t been looking straight at them when it happened, she never would’ve seen it.

“Oooowwwwwwww!” Dayton howled, doubling over and clutching at his leg. “What’d you do that for?” he demanded, staring up at Brooklyn.

The classroom broke out in an excited babble, all concentration on their work completely gone. Meanwhile, Brooklyn was batting her eyes innocently at Dayton and was just opening up her mouth to claim ignorance when Hannah was on her, pulling her out of her chair and towards the door before Brooklyn could add lying to her list of crimes.

“Amelia, I’ll be right back,” she called over her shoulder. “Students, get back to work.” And then she shut the door to the classroom behind her and stared down at Brooklyn, her arms folded across her chest. Brooklyn stared defiantly back up at her, her gray-green eyes an exact copy of her father’s. She was a miniature, female version of Elijah Morland.

A little creepy, that.

“Okay, Brooklyn, why’d you do it?” Hannah asked, her tone strict. She might be a wallflower in a room full of adults, but she was large and in charge with her students.

But Brooklyn didn’t break. She just stared back up at her defiantly, not saying a word.

“Brooklyn, I saw you do it,” Hannah said, exasperated. “I’d just finished hanging up a picture on the wall when you looked around for me, didn’t see me at the back of the room, and so you leaned right over and kicked Dayton, clear as day.”

Brooklyn’s eyes widened at that; it was a look of respect for the fact that a teacher had figured out what she was up to. It never failed – every student thought that they were the first ones to come up with mischievous ideas.

And then it disappeared and she was back to glaring up at her teacher, her angry bravado shielding her.

Hannah swallowed her groan. This class had already been more of a struggle to get settled into a routine than past classes had been. She really didn’t want to add an openly defiant troublemaker to the mix. Mr. Pettengill’s warning about keeping her thumb on Brooklyn from the very beginning flashed through her mind, but she pushed the thought away. Whatever the answer was with Brooklyn, treating her like a hardened criminal wasn’t it.

“C’mon, let’s go back inside the classroom,” Hannah said, her frustration bleeding through her self control and right into her voice. “Move your stuff to the desk in the back. I think some time away from everyone else is a good idea.”

Brooklyn shrugged nonchalantly, her dirty blonde hair swinging as she turned back towards the classroom door.

As Hannah followed Brooklyn back into the classroom, she realized just how dirty Brooklyn’s dirty blonde hair really was. It wasn’t just a darker blonde color, it was quite literally dirty. Her scalp looked like she hadn’t washed it for a week.

Automatically, her eyes scanned down the back of Brooklyn, noticing how short and tight her jeans were, like they were her jeans from last school year. Had Brooklyn been wearing new school clothes previous to today? Most students were still wearing their new back-to-school clothes, not yet covered in grime or ripped to pieces and definitely not too small for them. That was something that would change soon enough, of course, but not usually by this point in the school year.

Brooklyn morosely picked up her stuff from her desk and moved to the back, shooting a dark look at Dayton as she walked past him. Something was going on between those two, and Hannah was going to figure out what it was. Dayton didn’t tend to hang out with or interact with girls all that much – Hannah wasn’t sure if he’d so much as said hello to a girl since the beginning of school, preferring to hang out with his buddies instead.

So when did Brooklyn have the chance to get that angry with him?

Hoping for some answers, Hannah pulled him out into the hallway to chat with him, but at least according to him, he had no idea what had caused Brooklyn to lash out.

Some days, the drama between ten year olds was just too much to bear.

While Amelia took the class to first recess, Hannah tried calling Brooklyn’s mother, Sarah, but got no answer. Frustrated, she waited to call again after school, and this time, she hit pay dirt.

“Yeah?” Sarah answered the phone, the word sounding slightly…slurred?

That couldn’t be right. Hannah glanced over at the clock on the wall. It was 3:22 in the afternoon. Sarah wasn’t actually drunk.

Right?

“Hi, Ms. Morland,” she said formally, gripping the phone with all of her might, “this is Hannah Lambert from the school. We had a bit of an incident today in class. Brooklyn…well, she kicked another student this morning pretty hard. She refuses to tell me why or what caused it. I—”

“Whysa hell is dat your business?” the woman snarl-slurred.

Now that Hannah had heard her speak an entire sentence, she was sure of it – Sarah Morland was completely snookered at three o’clock in the afternoon.

Dear God above, save me.

“It’s my business because it’s my classro—”

And that’s when the phone line went dead.

The woman had hung up on Hannah. She’d actually hung up on her.

Hannah buried her head in her hands with a groan, listlessly letting the phone drop back into the cradle. Mr. Pettengill had said that Brooklyn was going to be a lot of trouble.

Hannah was starting to think that he’d named off the wrong Morland.

She slowly opened her eyes and looked wearily at the piles of papers stacked on every conceivable spot across her worn wooden desk, waiting to be graded or sorted or put away or thrown away or…

She stood up and grabbed her purse, forcing herself not to stuff a sheaf of papers into it to take home. She was going to go home and after a nice long ride on Wildflower, she was going to pull out one of her coloring books and relax a little. Do nothing more strenuous than decide which color to use next. She normally visited Dad every other Tuesday, but…she just didn’t have it in her tonight. She could take one week off, right?

After today, she darn well deserved it.

Chapter 5

Elijah

The lunch bell rang, and like magic, every classroom door opened and kids came spilling out into the hallway, all heading towards the downstairs cafeteria in a stream of excited noise. Elijah leaned the handle of his mop against the painted dull gray cinder block of the hallway, humming to himself, excited to see Brooksy and hear about her day so far. He didn’t actually need to be in this hallway right now, but hell, that was one of the few good things about being a janitor – he was in charge of the whole school, and as long as he got his work done, he was a-okay to take his lunch break when and where he wanted.

And when and where he wanted to, was with his daughter.

Brooksy looked both ways in the crowded hallway, trying to spot him, and when she did, her face lit up and she hurried his way, her blonde hair swinging with every step. She was his mini-me, and he loved her all the more because of it.

When he was a kid, he had blond hair that got darker by the year, until it ended up a dark brown without any blond at all. He’d told Brooksy this a year or so ago, and ever since, she’d wondered out loud more than once when was it that her hair was gonna “go brown like Daddy’s.”

No, it wasn’t hard to love Brooksy at all.

“Hi, Dad!” she exclaimed, slipping her tiny hand into his calloused one. “Where we gonna eat today?”

“I didn’t pack a lunch, so I thought we could eat on down in the cafeteria—”

“Mr. Morland!”

His head jerked up, and he saw Hannah bearing down on him, her blue eyes flashing behind her thick coke-bottle glasses. “I need to meet with you after school,” she informed him crisply. “Are you available?”

Elijah was just sure his jaw was scraping the floor. He had the vaguest of memories of Hannah Lambert in high school – she’d been a senior when he was a freshman, so they hadn’t exactly been the best of friends. All he could remember ‘bout her back then was that she was as quiet as a mouse; as flashy and memorable as a wall painted white.

At the beginning of the school year, when he’d checked in with each teacher in their classrooms, she hadn’t appeared to have changed one bit. The times that he’d cleaned her classroom since then and she’d been working away at her desk, she hadn’t said more than two words to him.

Total.

But now…

Instinctively, Elijah looked down at his daughter, who looked as guilty as hell and was trying to hide behind his leg. She was ten. She was way too old to fit behind his leg, and she damn well knew it.

But she was clinging to it with all of her might anyway.

He looked back up at Hannah, who was still waiting for a reply, and who still looked way more…confrontational than he’d known she could be.

Shit on a stick, what did Brooksy do?

“I’ll come on by your classroom after school is out,” he promised, and then began shuffling off the best he could down the hallway, his daughter apparently now attached to him permanently. Most of the children had disappeared, leaving the hallways quieter than they’d been just minutes before. There were a few bangs and shouts from lingering children, but they were otherwise alone.

“Wanna tell me what’s going on?” he asked the barnacle on his leg. She shook her head. She still wasn’t making eye contact. “I can’t talk to Miss Lambert ‘bout you real well if you don’t tell me what’s going on.” She shook her head. They were nearing the top of the staircase, about to go on down to the cafeteria. “I can’t walk down these stairs if you don’t let go of my leg.” She hesitated for a moment at that, and then heaving a sigh, finally let go. He looked down at the top of her head. “You can talk to me, Brooksy,” he said softly. “Just tell me what’s going on.”

Jerkily, she shook her head and then raced down the stairs ahead of him, disappearing through the doors of the cafeteria before he was even halfway down.

Yup, she was his mini-me all right. When he was in trouble, or even thought he was gonna get in trouble, he shut down. Brick walls talked more than he did when he saw problems brewing on the horizon.

With a sigh of his own, he headed into the cafeteria after his daughter. The meeting with Hannah after school was gonna be about as much fun as a tar-and-featherin’ would be, and with his daughter refusing to say a word, he was going into it with his hands tied behind his back.

For the thousandth time, he wondered how it was that he could be a father and yet be so stupid. As a kid, he’d thought his parents knew everything. Now, he realized that they just made shit up as they went along, hoping for the best. He’d butted heads with his father more times than he could count growing up, and they didn’t see eye to eye on most anything even now, but he was starting to empathize with the man anyway.

Which was a hell of a thing to realize.