The Pick Up (An Up Red Creek novel)
Kyle’s life is going backwards. He wanted to build a bigger life for himself than Red Creek could give him, but a family crisis has forced him to return to his hometown with his six-year-old daughter. Now he’s standing in the rain at his old elementary school, and his daughter’s teacher, Mr. Hathaway, is lecturing him about punctuality.
Adam Hathaway is not looking for love. He’s learned the hard way to keep his personal and professional life separate. But Kyle is struggling and needs a friend, and Adam wants to be that friend. He just needs to ignore his growing attraction to Kyle’s goofy charm, because acting on it would mean breaking all the rules that protect his heart.
Putting down roots in this town again is not Kyle’s plan. As soon as he can, he’s taking his daughter and her princess costumes and moving on. The more time he spends with Adam, though, the more he thinks the quiet teacher might give him a reason to stay. Now he just has to convince Adam to take a chance on a bigger future than either of them could have planned.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
When the third car hit the puddle and splashed cold brown water over his ankles, Adam gave up trying to dodge it.
"Hi, Mr. Hathaway!"
Adam gritted his teeth and pasted on a smile for the woman who had pulled up in front of the school's loading zone in her German station wagon. "Hello, Mrs. King."
Mrs. King hurried around the car to load her son in the back. When she turned, she smiled at Adam broadly and handed him a plate covered in foil. Cars were lining up behind her, waiting their turn to collect their children from school. He was going to have to make this quick before the honking started.
"The soccer club is having a bake sale," she said, "but I made too many. I thought you might like them."
Whatever was under the foil would be on the staffroom table as soon as he could go back inside. Just like the zucchini loaf the week before. And the gluten-free cookies the week before that, but Adam kept that information to himself. He took the plate and felt his smile stretch another quarter inch. Mrs. King flushed.
"You shouldn't have," he said. It seemed polite enough. He hoped she'd take the hint.
"Oh, it's no trouble. I wanted to." Behind her, children's voices were asking when they were leaving. Adam glanced at the line of cars backed out onto the street. Mrs. King followed his gaze and seemed to understand that she was holding things up. "Everyone loves my brownies. And the way to a man's heart is through his — " Her eyes went wide as she bit her lip, and her face flushed a little more. Adam maintained his bland smile and let her collect herself. She ducked an awkward half shrug, half curtsy, then averted her gaze as she darted around the front of her car, got in, and drove away.
The next car rolled forward. Adam remembered to avoid the puddle.
No one had told him about the perils of pick-up duty when he was in college. They had talked about the psychology of learning and how to engage young minds. No one had told him about the importance of rubber boots in the spring or what to do when the soccer moms descended on him.
"Hi, Mr. Hathaway!" Another woman waved as she loaded kids into her minivan.
He hadn't expected to be the subject of so much interest among his students' parents when he'd come to Red Creek the year before. Mrs. King had been doing her baked goods routine for several months. And he was pretty sure Sophia Townsend's mom had memorized his schedule. She was consistently the first one in line to pick up her daughter on the afternoons that Adam supervised. She always wanted to speak to him about something: Sophia's last math test, the upcoming PTA meeting, whether he thought Sophia was too young to take up the violin. Adam stayed polite, and under no circumstances did he ever suggest that Sophia's mom call him or arrange a meeting with him after school hours to discuss further.
Jayden Tucker's mom was the most direct and had asked him if he wanted to go on a date sometime. Trying to maintain some professionalism, Adam had taken the obvious out, which was that teachers getting involved in a relationship with their students' parents was probably not a good idea. She'd purred that the school year was nearly over, and she was a patient woman.
He had not taken the other obvious out, which was to tell her the truth — that he was gay — because that was none of her business. No meant no. He told his students that all the time. It didn't matter if it was asking someone out on a date or asking if someone would share a cookie they'd brought as a snack. The same rules applied.
Adam watched the last van pull out of the parking lot. His shoes were soaked through, his socks squished uncomfortably, and his pants were wet from the knees down. All he wanted to do was go inside, pack up his lesson planning, and go home to his apartment and TV.
A flash of yellow caught his eye as he turned. It was Caroline Fenton, covered in a bright-yellow poncho. She was sitting on one of the low concrete planters by the front door of the school. She wore red rain boots designed to resemble fire trucks and clutched a purple backpack in her hands.
"Hey, Caroline," he said, walking toward her. Caroline was new in his class. She had only been with him for a few weeks. It was odd for someone to enroll their child so late in the school year, but the principal had shrugged, said the family had recently moved to Red Creek, and her father wanted to get her settled and socialized as quickly as possible.
Caroline smiled as Adam approached. Her smile and her delight with everything the first grade had to offer were welcome additions to his class. She stood out in many ways. The first thing was her name. In a sea of Sophias, Emmas, and Isabellas, Caroline's name seemed less trendy. Her style stood out too. Most of his students might have walked off the set of a Gap Kids commercial, all khakis, pinstripes, checks, and polo shirts. Caroline came to school most days in brightly printed leggings and T-shirts for bands and comic books she wasn't old enough to know about.
"Hi, Mr. Hathaway," she said.
"Is your mom late?"
"My mom's in heaven." Caroline said it like heaven was down the street next to the library, but her words made Adam's stomach knot. He'd known that Caroline's mother had died, but the question had slipped out on reflex.
"Your dad, then?" he said. Caroline shrugged. Adam's socks squished in his shoes. "Do you want to come inside and wait where it's dry?" Hopefully one of the administrators would still be in the office, and he could leave Caroline with them to sort out where her father was. He'd done his bit for the afternoon's pick-up duty. It was time for someone else to take over.
Just as Adam was about to ask if there was someone they could call, yet another Range Rover pulled in front of the school. Caroline straightened as it stopped opposite them. The driver's-side door opened, but instead of a frazzled mom, a young man appeared. He was dressed in skinny jeans and a worn wool coat unbuttoned down the front. Despite the rain, there was a pair of sunglasses perched on top of a head of hair that was too perfectly disarranged to be accidental. A babysitter maybe? Or a nanny? He had a Bluetooth earpiece clipped over one ear, which, in Adam's opinion, was a sure sign of chronic douchebaggery. That was too bad, because in another life, Adam would have said he was attractive.
"Daddy!" Caroline ran toward the man, rubber boots squeaking as she went.
Adam froze. Not the nanny. A parent.
"Hey, Jelly Bean!" Caroline's father smiled at his daughter with an affection that Adam didn't always see in the usual crush of after-school pickup. The man had the same eyes as his daughter: a warm brown like coffee on a cold morning.
Both sets of eyes were focused at Adam.
"Hi," the man said as he shifted Caroline against one hip.
"Daddy, this is Mr. Hathaway," Caroline said. Her father's eyebrows lifted.
"Your teacher?" His easy grin made Adam's cheeks heat, and he gripped his umbrella tighter. He wasn't supposed to feel like that when parents smiled at him.
"Hi!" The man stuck out his free hand to shake Adam's. "I'm Kyle, Caroline's dad." His handshake was firm, his palm warm despite the clammy weather. "I meant to stop in and introduce myself earlier and make sure that the Bean here wasn't giving you too much trouble." He hitched her up against his side and she giggled again. "But we've been so busy getting settled and I figured you'd call if there was a problem and Bean says she's making friends so I — "
"You're late, Mr. Fenton." Attraction was fluttering in his chest, and Adam squashed it by letting his irritation sour his voice more than he normally would have with a parent. The younger man — Kyle — stopped midsentence, blinked, and then continued.
"Yeah, sorry. My van died and I couldn't get ahold of my dad, so I had to call down to the hospital, and then they couldn't find him, and so then I had to borrow a car from a friend, and then we had to get the booster seat put in and — "
"Pickup is between three ten and three thirty, Mr. Fenton." Adam wasn't sure what a father in the hospital would have been able to do, but then blinked back to reality, because that wasn't the point. It was almost quarter to four now. Adam could feel his feet shriveling inside his shoes.
"I know, but like I said, my van wouldn't start and my dad wasn't available and — " Adam ground his teeth while Kyle rattled on. He didn't seem to have a verbal off switch. " — I thought I'd be here on time, but then I got turned around in that subdivision near where the bowling alley used to be. When did they build that? Anyway, none of the streets seemed to lead back to Elm Street and by the time I realized that my only option was to backtrack I was already ten minutes late and then I — "
Adam held up his hand, because clearly there wasn't going to be a pause anytime soon.
"That's fine, Mr. Fenton. Unforeseen circumstances. I get it." His heart was still doing a weird skipping thing, and slipping into his professional persona seemed safest. If he focused on school policy and not the way he was feeling, he could have this conversation wrapped up quickly before he did anything to embarrass himself. And anyway, it was best to set a tone on the school's policies up front. He'd had a few parents who were chronically late over his career. They used Adam's time like a free babysitting service, and he tried to break bad habits when he could. "In the future, if you're going to be late, please call the school and let us know. We can have Caroline stay inside."
He didn't stick around for a response as he spun on one sodden heel and strode into the school. His jaw ached, and there was a prickle on the back of his neck. If he turned around, Caroline and her dad would still be watching him. His brain had taken in what felt like a million little details while he had been making his point, but it wasn't appropriate to dwell on them. He tried not to think about the ease with which Kyle held Caroline while talking, as if it were second nature to have a child on his hip. He tried not to think about the man's broad hands or long fingers. He definitely didn't think about Kyle's wide mouth and the way his lips had spread into a genuine smile when Kyle had looked at his daughter. And he most certainly did not think about the artfully arranged hair and what it would feel like to slip his fingers into it while he got to know that wide mouth a little bit better. He groaned as he finally made it back into his classroom.
Adam hated pick-up duty.
Word Count: 87,600
Page Count: 337
Cover By: Natasha Snow
Release Date: 03/03/2018
Release Date: 03/05/2018