As a teenager, Archie Noblesse clawed his way out of the poverty, heartache, and abuse of the reservation and left his family behind. Desperate to shake the shadow of his past, he reinvents himself as Archer Noble, an outspoken blogger and controversial author who lives only for himself. But when his beloved sister dies, Archer is saddled with guardianship of his niece and nephew.
Elementary school teacher Ryan Eriksson is devastated when his best friend Marguerite is killed, leaving her two young children orphaned. Helping Archer with his new responsibilities eases his grief, but when Archer offers him custody of the children, Ryan’s left with an impossible choice: get the family he’s always wanted, or respect Margie’s wishes and convince Archer to give parenting—and his heritage—a chance.
To buy time, Ryan promises to stay for the summer, hoping that Archer will change his mind and fall for the kids. But Archer’s reluctant, and the growing attraction between him and Ryan complicates matters. Legal decisions must be made, and soon, before Ryan returns to school. But with hearts involved, more than just the children’s future is on the line.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:drug use
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Twenty Years Ago
I hope you rot in hell, you sick motherfuck.
Sixteen-year-old Archie Noblesse took a long, defiant drag on his cigarette. He was hidden by the dumpster behind the community center but getting caught was the last thing on his mind at the moment. No one cared what he got up to. His grandfather would have smacked him upside the head—it had never taken much to get his moosum going—but he’d passed on years ago, so Archie stubbornly puffed away.
A good chunk of the one thousand-strong band was inside the center for his uncle’s wake, but Archie hadn’t been able to pretend for another minute. He shuddered at the thought of enduring it all again tomorrow for the funeral. If only they knew you like I did, you fucking pervert. Maybe they had. The reservation was full of buried secrets; you only had to scratch the surface. But no one ever did. No one wanted to.
He felt ready to shatter at any minute. The anger he usually kept in check was churning in his gut like molten lava in a volcano’s crater. It was pushing at his chest, ready to spew from his lips. The thought of his uncle’s saggy gut and sour breath made him shudder; the limp dick that, thank God, he couldn’t get up half the time. Although that had never stopped him from trying. Or making Archie try.
A door opened. The gentle Cree hymns, all too familiar on the reservation, poured out.
“I thought you’d be here,” said his sister Marguerite as she peered around the edge of the dumpster. Technically, she was his half sister, although he never thought of her that way. They had different fathers, both anonymous strangers, but Margie had gotten lucky—given her much lighter-colored skin and narrow face, hers had obviously been white.
As a child, Archie used to dream that his father had been a white businessman from the east who had come through Winnipeg, but he was a whole lot wiser now. Rich, white men used a better class of prostitute than their mother. And the mirror didn’t lie; Archie hated his almond-shaped eyes and round face for marking him pure Cree as much as his tanned skin. His father was probably some drunk from the reservation. Sonia had never told him who it was, and as he had gotten older, he’d figured that she probably didn’t even know.
Sometimes Archie was jealous of Margie for her light skin. He didn’t want dumb Indian blood. But he kept his secret to himself. It wasn’t her fault, and most of the time he loved her, loved her like he’d never loved anyone else on this earth.
Margie plucked the cigarette from his fingers and crushed it beneath her scuffed shoe. “Smoking’s bad for you.”
“So’s this place.” It was his favorite saying.
“Kookum says you should be inside.”
“Gran can kiss my ass. I’m not spending another minute with that fucker.”
Margie leaned her slight weight against his side, and Archie wrapped his arm around her narrow shoulders, noticing how the fabric of her secondhand dress pulled tight. At thirteen years old, she kept outgrowing her thrift-store clothes.
He would do it all again, make the same sacrifices, if it meant Margie was safe. He’d been her protector since birth, keeping her quiet while Sonia entertained in the next room, or on the nights she never came back to the apartment at all. He’d shoplifted formula from the store when there wasn’t enough money for food, so Margie wouldn’t go hungry. When Sonia made the mistake of leaving them alone in their rented-by-the-month motel room for three days, and the CFS finally caught up with them again, he’d thought it would be different than all the other times; this time they were being sent to live with family and now they’d be safe. But on the isolated northern Manitoba reservation Archie had found himself in a different kind of hell. Sure they had food on the table, and a roof over their heads, but there were new dangers.
While Margie had adjusted to life on the reservation quickly, making new friends as she always did, it had been more difficult for Archie.
Grandma Betty, Kookum as she insisted on being called, had her own problems, like an abusive alcoholic husband and a drug-addicted son with a fondness for little kids. She couldn’t protect herself, let alone Archie and Marguerite. Uncle Russ had been the only person to take an interest in him. At first, he’d been fun—when he wasn’t high that is. He’d show up every few weeks, hang around for a couple of days—long enough to score some drugs, or when he couldn’t afford that, a bag of paint thinner or glue to sniff—and then disappear again. He treated Archie like a grown-up: taught him how to shoot a pellet gun and smoke a cigarette. But then one night he drove Archie out to the middle of nowhere, and what little hope and faith Archie had left in the world had died.
Afterward, when his uncle had zipped up his pants and boasted that no one would believe Archie if he told, Archie had known, with a sinking heart, it was true. The local RCMP detachment was half an hour’s drive, and folks around here would never help him. He was an outsider. And what if they sent him away? Split him and Margie up? So he’d stayed quiet, and after a while it hadn’t been so bad. At least it had kept Margie safe.
Archie was tainted goods—he accepted that now. But Margie still had a chance.
At least their sick, drug-addled fuck of an uncle had croaked before he could get to her—finally OD’d on a bad batch of heroin. Just in time too, because with summer coming there would be no hiding her budding breasts under layers of clothes like they had been all winter. Archie wouldn’t have been able to keep his uncle away from a temptation like that for much longer. Even if he was small for his age, he was getting too old for the pedophile’s taste.
There was a tiny part of him that did feel a bit sorry for his gran, losing first her husband four years ago and now her son, with her daughter swallowed up by the city. No wonder she’d never noticed what was going on in her own house. But loss was a way of life around here.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he said abruptly, his mind made up. “While everyone’s at the funeral.”
“You can’t,” Margie cried. “Why? He’s gone. We’re safe.”
“For now. But we need to get outta this place. And we need money, more money than I’ve got, to do it. You have to go to college, and I’m not waiting around here for the pushers to get to me. I don’t wanna croak before I hit forty like Uncle Russ.”
“But you’re only sixteen, Archie. Where will you go?”
“I have enough for the bus ticket to Winnipeg. And from there . . .?” He shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal, as if fear wasn’t a giant boulder in the pit of his stomach. Margie didn’t know about the money tucked away under his mattress in their run-down double-wide trailer. Five hundred dollars. It was enough to get away if not exactly a windfall. It wasn’t like he could have walked down the street and gotten a job at the local fast-food hangout—there wasn’t one—so he’d spent a lot of time on his knees to earn that dough over the years, even in the winter, giving blowjobs behind the school for twenty dollars a pop, twenty-five if they wanted to come in his mouth. Sometimes it even turned him on—especially in those last few minutes when he was working them good, and he held all the power. They begged him then, especially the macho married ones who kept their eyes closed and pretended it was a woman’s mouth wrapped around their dick. His uncle had taught him one useful skill at least.
But it was dangerous. He held a lot of secrets.
If he stayed, it was only a matter of time before this place got to him and he gave in to the addictions that ran in his family. Or worse, killed himself like the two kids in his class had last spring. And that was if he was lucky. If he wasn’t, if word got out what he’d been doing, he wouldn’t stand a chance. He was too small and scrawny to fight back.
He could feel the badness in his blood waiting to escape. He had to get away before it spilled over to Marguerite. He had to protect her.
“What about school?”
Archie snorted. “You’re the smart one, not me. I’ve learned all I need to know, thanks.”
“But what if mom comes back for us? How will we find you?”
“She won’t come back,” Archie said bluntly. Marguerite, so good and pure, had never given up hope that Sonia would return one day, but Archie knew the truth. They hadn’t heard from her since the day, seven years ago, when Grandma Betty and Grandpa Tom drove all the way to Winnipeg to pick them up from foster care. The last memory Archie had of his mother—he hated calling her that—was of her asking them if they had any money they could lend her. No, their mother—not that she’d ever really been their mother—was either dead or would be soon. That’s what happened to junkie whores in Winnipeg’s notorious North End.
Margie pursed her lips. “What will you do?”
“Whatever it takes,” Archie replied with false bravado. His chances were slim, but they were a hell of a lot slimmer if he stayed here.
He had to get away. It was the only option. Once he made it to the city, he would bus tables, do dishes. If he had to, he’d turn tricks. The key was to stay away from the drugs and alcohol or else he’d end up like so many other Indian kids. He’d seen how slippery that slope could be.
When she grew silent, he knew Margie was thinking about Sonia too—the needle tracks running up her arm and the bottle of cheap wine always within reach. “Don’t worry, I’ll be safe. I won’t end up like her. Once I make enough money, I’ll get you out too. You’ll be able to go to any college you want.”
“I don’t care about college.”
She was lying. Margie was the smartest girl in her grade. She would do something good with her life and make him proud. “Yes, you do,” Archie insisted. “You don’t want to stay here and pop out babies.”
“Don’t leave me, Archie,” Margie sobbed, clutching at his arms. Gran had plaited her long, dark hair in two braids, and it made her look so young. For one brief moment, Archie’s eyes stung, but he wouldn’t let the tears spill. He had to be strong. He would take all the bad as long as Margie got the good. “Please.”
“You’ll be okay now, Margie. Just stay in school. Stay away from the drugs. And boys. Whatever you do, don’t get knocked up. It’ll only be a few years at most. Promise me.” He shook her by the shoulders, hard enough to drive his point home. “You have to be strong. We have to be strong.”
Archie hugged his sister, the last good thing in his life, tight. When Gran found them a few minutes later they were both crying, wrapped in each other’s arms.
Archer Noble toyed with the buttons of his charcoal-gray Armani suit as he waited for the makeup lady to finish blotting the forehead of the panel show’s host and the cameras to start rolling. Unable to shake the feeling that his good fortune might disappear at any second, he caressed the expensive fabric. He may have taken a white man’s name, changed his haircut and his clothes, but there were times when he could almost smell the weary stench of the reservation clinging to him. It was in his pores, in the color of his skin. No matter how he tried, he would never be able to completely mask it.
The suit, the only designer one he owned, was reserved for public appearances like this. He changed it up by varying the brightly colored silk ties and pocket squares so that he never appeared to wear the same outfit twice in a row. The money he’d spent on the jacket alone would have fed his family for months growing up. On his feet, his sole pair of dress shoes, buffed to a high shine, were a long way from the secondhand sneakers he’d grown up with. If he had finally learned one thing in thirty-six years of clawing his way out of the muck, it was that appearances were important. People tended to think twice about shitting on you if you looked—and acted—like you had money. And nobody shit on Archer Noble, not since he’d left poor, dumb Archie Noblesse behind.
He glanced around the vast studio, blinking under the bright lights, and tried not to let his awe show. After years of scrounging freelance writing and speaking gigs, and the occasional appearance on PROUDtv, his sacrifices were finally paying off.
Sales of his latest book, I Don’t: The Truth About the Gay Marriage Agenda, had surpassed his expectations. In fact, the whole same-sex marriage issue had been one big cash cow for him and his publisher as everyone scrambled to voice their opinion on the debate. Now, after six weeks of making the rounds on the public access cable and local radio circuit, an op-ed in the Huffington Post, and a two-second sound bite on CNN, he had finally hit the big time. A national network with a live, syndicated talk show. Kim, the publicist his agent had set him up with, was a miracle worker.
He glanced over at her. She stood in the shadows next to the floor director. Behind her, the small studio audience was filing into the seats. Kim gave him a nod and a thumbs-up. She had done her part. Now he had to do his.
Who would ever have thought poor, scrawny Archie Noblesse, who grew up without a TV set and never finished high school, would make it all the way to Los Angeles, television capital of the world?
This was the final stop on his North American book tour. With the initial controversy over his book dying down, and the US Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage come and gone, the networks were starting to lose interest—their focus had moved back to the crisis in the Middle East—and the pressure to stay on top was eating at him.
Archer’s phone vibrated in his pocket. The area code indicated a Toronto number, but one he didn’t recognize. It wasn’t Marguerite’s. The thought of his sister reminded him he hadn’t spoken to her in weeks. He made a mental note to call her later tonight. Right now though, he didn’t want to be disturbed. He switched the phone off and tucked it back away.
“So, where are you from?” asked the middle-aged, well-dressed woman seated to his left as they waited to begin. They had been introduced in the green room, but Archer couldn’t remember her name. Something innocuous and appropriately suburban: Patty or Debbie. She wore a navy-blue skirt and matching blazer and, yes, even a string of pearls around her neck. She was part of some family-values organization. He didn’t recall which; they were all the same anyway. On her other side sat a dour-looking pastor from an evangelical church he had never heard of. This was a conservative panel for a conservative talk show, and they certainly had all the usual bases covered—religion and family morals. One of these things does not belong, thought Archer, who only two days ago had guested alongside a drag queen and gay porn star, and then fucked said porn star in the restroom afterward.
“Canada,” Archer replied. He knew where this conversation was going.
She gave him a patronizing smile. “I meant originally. Hawaii? You look a bit Hawaiian.”
“And originally, I’m still from Canada.” Archer loved screwing with people who tried to figure out his ethnicity. Aboriginal people were something of a novelty in American media. Hispanic was usually people’s first guess, followed by Filipino. Hawaiian was new. “I’m First Nations Cree.”
She frowned, but then the lights went down and Glenn Smith, the host, took his place behind the curving desk with a practiced smile. Archer straightened his tie and savored the surge of anticipation coursing through his veins.
“Three, two, one, and . . . we’re on.”
“Friends, today we are discussing a serious topic that is having repercussions throughout this country: same-sex marriage.” Glenn Smith’s cherubic face squinted into the camera, lips tightening to reflect how serious he was. “My guests are Pastor Gordon Sinclair of Holy Light Church, Mrs. Penny MacDonald from the American Family Association and leading member of One Million Moms, and Archer Noble, controversial blogger and author of I Don’t: The Truth About the Gay Marriage Agenda.”
Glenn turned to the weasel-faced pastor and began the discussion. Archer listened with half an ear. Not that it mattered anyway. The arguments were always the same. Blah, blah, destroying the fabric of society. Blah, blah, sanctity of marriage. You’d think someone could come up with an idea that hadn’t already been beaten to death.
Was this show being broadcast up in Toronto where Margie would see it? He would send her a link if it went online. She hated his alter ego but still faithfully sought out his every appearance, saved every article, with all the devotion of a younger sister.
Archer made eye contact with the PA he’d been flirting with earlier. The man was younger than he preferred and a shade too Abercrombie & Fitch for his taste, but the production assistant was clearly interested, and Archer’s flight back to Vancouver didn’t leave until morning.
“What about you, Mr. Noble?” Glenn asked, finally swiveling in his direction. “You are a practicing homosexual who doesn’t believe same-sex couples should marry or raise children, correct?” Archer heard Penny’s swift intake of breath, as if learning she’d been seated next to Satan himself. Yes, that’s right, lady. Betcha never saw that one coming.
“Oh, I’m practicing, Glenn.” Archer leaned forward in his chair with a wink to the camera. Bastard obviously hadn’t even read the book. “Actually, Glenn, I’ve never said we shouldn’t be allowed to marry—that’s a civil-rights issue, and the lawyers are welcome to argue over it—they have to earn their keep, don’t they? My book is about why on earth we would want to in the first place.
“The gay establishment doesn’t speak for all of us. Yeah, gay marriage is a threat, but not to your families or straight marriage.” Here he deliberately paused. “It’s a threat to my sexual freedom. It’s one more way to make us more socially acceptable, to oppress our sexual freedom by forcing us to conform to antiquated notions of religion and monogamy. And making us feel worse about ourselves if we don’t.”
Glenn’s nostrils flared. His stare hardened and then narrowed in on a point behind Archer. Seeking guidance from his producers perhaps? Archer sped up.
“Gays want to be accepted by society. Isn’t that what you hear all the time? But why aren’t we demanding acceptance as we are? Civil unions weren’t enough? In pushing for traditional legal marriage we’re not asking for acceptance, we’re trying to mimic heterosexuals. And why would we want to be just like heterosexuals? I thought we were loud and proud. You can’t be both.”
“But—” sputtered the pastor.
Archer kept going. “You’ve got this whole fairy-tale fantasy thing taking hold now, a generation of upper-middle-class white lesbians and gays obsessed with the idea of marriage and happily ever after. The notion that marriage and, by extension, monogamy is the ideal is laughable. Monogamy doesn’t even work for straight people. The sexual freedom we’ve spent years fighting for is being eroded from within. Instead of being liberated, we’re being brainwashed into thinking anonymous, promiscuous sex is bad. But you know what? That will never go away; it will only go underground and we’ll stop being able to have open, healthy relationships because we’re living off a rom-com script that was never written to fit us.”
Glenn’s eyes bulged. His face was red with rage. Still, Archer had done his research on the host. He would have to push harder to get the explosion he wanted. “Thank you for your opinion, Mr. Noble, now—”
“If you ask me, these demands for same-sex ‘marriage’ are simply slowing chances for real progress,” Archer continued as if Glenn had never spoken. “The only people winning here are the lawyers and wedding planners.”
“What about equality?” Glenn’s eyes narrowed as though he saw a way to trap Archer. “I thought you people were all about equality. Are you saying you don’t want that?”
Archer flashed a quick smile. “Do I think I’m as good as you? Certainly. Do I deserve the same rights? Of course. But don’t mistake that for thinking we’re the same. We’re not the same. Unless you like sucking dick, Glenn.”
Chaos erupted in the back of the studio. A roar of outrage emerged from the shadowed audience. Cha-Ching. Archer could practically see the dollar signs now.
Out of the corner of his eye Archer caught the producer frantically signaling, and Kim doing her best not to laugh. Glenn smiled tightly to the camera. “We’ll be back in a minute, folks, with more of our show after this commercial break.”
As soon as the red light on the camera winked out, Glenn jumped to his feet. “Get this faggot off my set,” he shouted and stalked away.
Archer calmly stripped off his mic and stood. “Guess that’s it for me. Very nice to meet you,” he said to his companions, who were still gaping in shock.
Kim grabbed his arm as he left the stage. “Oh my God, the social media frenzy is going to be awesome. This will be on YouTube by tonight. And on all the networks tomorrow. Way to go out with a bang.”
Archer looked over to where Glenn was arguing with his producer. “What if it’s not? What if they somehow lock it down?”
Kim waved her smartphone at Archer. “One way or another it will be on YouTube tonight. I’ve got the whole thing here.”
“Are all publicists so evil, or did I just get lucky?”
The cute PA he’d flirted with was glaring at him from the sidelines. Kim nudged his elbow. “Speaking of getting lucky . . . I think you blew your chances.”
Archer shrugged. Looked like he would have to change his plans. Too bad. He felt like celebrating. “Oh well, that’s what the internet is for.”
“Let’s get out of here before they lynch us.” Kim hurried him out of the studio without incident, and they jumped into the car she had waiting. “I’m heading back to New York tonight, but I’ll give you a call in a day or so. Sooner if this goes viral. We’ll figure out our next steps.”
“Sounds good. Thanks, Kim.”
“Better get ready for all the hate mail.”
“I’m already used to that.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m not exactly on the GLAAD Christmas-card list, you know. I’m a traitor, I’ve betrayed the queer community . . . yadda, yadda, yadda.”
“Yeah, but now we’re talking the right wing.”
Archer snorted. His armor was impenetrable. “As long as it rakes up sales, I say ‘bring it on.’”
“Oh, I’ve also got a couple of organizations that want to book you.”
“I think so.”
“I’m not interested.”
“Could be good exposure.”
Archer shook his head. “I can’t stand all that self-help, do-gooding crap.” As the car weaved through stop-and-go LA traffic, he turned his cell phone back on and saw five voice messages in his inbox. They were all from the Toronto area code but different numbers. What the hell was going on? “Shit.”
“What is it?” Kim asked.
“I don’t know.” The only person he knew in Toronto who would call was Margie.
Just as he was about to listen to the first message, the phone rang in his hand.
“Hello?” he answered with dread in his stomach.
“Is this Archie?” It was a man’s voice.
“Yes.” The feeling deepened. Only Marguerite called him by that name.
“I’m calling from the Toronto Police Service. Do you know a Marguerite Leblanc?”
“She’s my sister.”
“We found your number on her phone.” Pause. “I’m sorry to inform you there’s been an accident.”
The rush of white noise in Archer’s head drowned out the cop’s next words.
“No answer again?” Ryan Eriksson asked when his principal, Susan Taylor, hung up the phone.
“Left another message.” She sighed and lowered her large frame into the chair behind her desk. “I hope we’re not going to have to call Children’s Aid.”
Ryan glanced over his shoulder at the two tired children seated on the wooden bench outside the school office. For a five- and seven-year-old, they sat surprisingly still, as if they knew something was wrong. “Can’t we wait a bit longer? I’m sure Marguerite will be here any minute.” He gave her his best pleading look.
“Kill the puppy-dog eyes, will you? You know the policy, but I’ll wait another half an hour. You don’t need to stick around though. Go start your summer vacation.”
Ryan shook his head. His overlong bangs fell into his eyes, and he brushed them off his forehead. “I’ll stay.”
“I wish all my teachers were half as dedicated as you. Most of them were outta here as soon as the bell rang.”
“I want to make sure they’re all right.” Ryan watched the two dark-haired youngsters with a tight chest. He’d given them each a notepad and some markers from his stash to keep them occupied as they waited to be picked up. That had been almost an hour ago when school let out, and there was still no word from their mother. He and Susan had called every number Marguerite had listed on file, only to leave multiple messages at all of them. Ryan had even sent a couple of texts directly to Marguerite’s cell but received no response. He had to admit he was worried. “I could take them home with me. Wait there,” Ryan said suddenly.
“I can’t allow that, Ryan. Even if you are friends with the family, I can’t let you take them without permission.”
“But she gave me permission,” he blurted, hit with the memory of a conversation that had taken place several months ago, back when he was still happily deluded and dreaming of a future that would never happen. He had run into Marguerite after school one day, and stopped to watch the kids playing on the jungle gym and update her on his adoption plans. She had smiled and told him he was going to be an amazing father, and then she had asked him for a favor.
“I signed a paper and everything.”
Susan frowned. “What?”
“Marguerite made me a temporary guardian in case of an accident. She had it notarized too. She was supposed to leave a copy with the school.”
“Let’s not panic yet. She’s probably having car trouble.”
“And not call?” That wasn’t like her. He’d gotten to know Marguerite Leblanc well over the last year; initially because Dillon was in his second-grade class, but they had also hit it off immediately when she joined the Parent-Teacher Association. She was like the older sister Ryan had always wanted. And as a recent widow, she seemed like she needed all the friends she could get. He’d never met her husband, Jackson—he’d passed away two years ago, before Ryan met Marguerite—but from the way she often spoke of him, he had the sense he would have liked the man too. To lose a husband so young was such a tragedy. Whenever he’d been invited to the house, the happy, smiling family photos lining the walls had touched something inside him.
“Do you have any plans for the summer?” Susan asked, wrenching his thoughts away from Marguerite’s unusual absence. She continued to clean up her office, putting anything she wanted to take home for the summer into a cardboard box.
Ryan hesitated. He’d had plans, big plans, but only Marguerite had known about those. Now they were gone. In a way it was a godsend that he hadn’t blabbed to more people, so he didn’t have to deal with the inevitable looks of pity. The two months loomed ahead of him, long and empty, with nothing to do except dwell on what he didn’t have anymore. “I put my name on the substitute list for summer school.”
“You’re a glutton for punishment, aren’t you? I thought you were planning to visit your parents up north.”
“I can do that in August. A week with Arne and Karen is about all I can take anyway.”
“As someone who’s been around, can I give you some words of wisdom? You’re an amazing teacher, but this job can burn you out if you’re not careful. You need to have a life beyond the classroom.”
Ryan didn’t need another reminder about his lack of a social life. He got that enough from his roommate, Jill. “Thanks for the advice, Susan.”
“Hey, I’m being selfish here. You’re our most popular teacher so I want to keep you around. Have you seen the waiting list to get into your class for September? I’ve already had three parents try to bribe me to get bumped to the top of the list.”
Ryan gave her a wan smile, but inside he was still focused on Marguerite. He chewed off the lip balm he’d just reapplied his lower lip. Marguerite would never be late in picking up her children, especially on the last day of school. She lived for those kids. And she would never be out of reach for so long. Something was wrong.
“I still can’t believe Archer Noble is their uncle,” Ryan marveled. He’d been shocked to discover the brother Marguerite spoke of in such glowing terms, and whom she had listed as an emergency contact, was the polarizing author.
“Why, who is Archer Noble?” Susan asked absently.
“Only the man who is single-handedly setting the gay-marriage debate back a generation.”
“I thought it was legal here.”
“It is. Has been for more than a decade. That’s why it’s so awful he’s Canadian. He’s a discredit to gay men everywhere. Marriage is bad; indiscriminate sex is good.”
“Don’t knock indiscriminate sex.”
Ryan snorted. “He writes gay travel guides, with chapters on the best parks for cruising and the top-ten places for public sex.”
“Is he hot?”
“It’s not all about being hot, Susan.”
“At your age, hon, it should be,” she replied with a twist to her lips. Ryan felt the blood rush to his cheeks and cursed his fair skin. So maybe he had been intrigued by Archer Noble’s tan-colored skin and the dark eyes gazing out at him from the photo on the book jacket. Intrigued enough to subscribe to his YouTube channel anyway. And maybe he had visited the man’s blog, more than once. Too bad the man stood against everything Ryan believed in and longed for.
“I’m going to check on the kids,” he said and left the office before Susan could tease him any more.
“Where’s Mommy?” asked Emma when he approached.
“Don’t know, sweetheart. We’re trying to find her.”
“Is she lost?”
“Why can’t we wait at home?” Dillon demanded. “Mrs. Benning has a key. Mommy gave it to her just in case. After Emma locked her out one time.”
Emma pouted. “I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did,” Dillon retorted. “You were little. You don’t remember.”
Ryan folded his lanky six-foot-two frame onto the bench between them. Emma immediately cuddled against his side. He was usually more cautious about things like that, but there was no one left in the building save for Susan and himself, so he savored the innocent gesture and he slipped his arm around her shoulders. Teachers weren’t supposed to have favorites, but he couldn’t help it—these two were his. His heart swelled with love that was all too bittersweet. If he was ever lucky enough . . .
A familiar pang of regret soured his stomach, and he tried to push it away. He’d been so close to having this for himself that he couldn’t bear to think about it. “So what are you guys doing this summer?” he asked instead. “Did your mom sign you up for camp?”
Dillon shook his head but didn’t take his eyes off his drawing.
“Why not? I thought you were looking forward to soccer camp.”
“We couldn’t ford it,” Emma chirped.
“She means ‘afford,’” Dillon interjected.
Ryan frowned. He knew Marguerite had recently taken on a second, part-time secretarial job in addition to the bookkeeping she did from home, but he had no idea things were so tight. If only she’d come to him, he would have lent her the money. Dillon had been going on about soccer camp for months, and he hated to see the boy disappointed like that. Maybe it wasn’t too late. He would talk to her about it when she arrived.
Emma turned her round face up to him. “Did you like our present, Mr. Eriksson?”
“I loved your present.” He had been assailed by end-of-the-year gifts from his students—everything from boxes of chocolates to gift cards for dinners out and a bottle of chardonnay he couldn’t wait to get home to open. But it had been the Leblancs’ homemade popsicle-stick picture frame, with its glued-on rhinestones and feathers that had made him tear up. The photo inside was one of him and the kids that Marguerite had taken at last year’s Christmas party.
“Mommy even let me use the glue gun. Because I’m almost six,” boasted Emma.
“It was stupid,” Dillon grumbled. “Everybody else bought you something.”
Dillon had been uncharacteristically sullen all day while the rest of the class had been bursting with last-day excitement. Is that what had been bothering him? “Your gift came from the heart, and that’s what makes it special—not how much it cost. I can have lots of chocolates, but I will only have one picture frame made by Dillon and Emma.”
“We can make you another.” Emma smiled sweetly, making Ryan laugh.
“I especially liked the feathers,” he added with a wink.
Dillon brightened. “Really? Those were my idea.”
Ryan bit the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning. Dillon was such a sweet, fanciful boy, shy and sensitive. A daydreamer like Ryan had been as a child. He’d known immediately that the white feathers had been Dillon’s contribution.
“I’m hungry,” Emma whimpered.
“You’re always hungry,” Dillon snapped.
Ryan rooted around in his backpack, and found an unopened granola bar, which he split carefully down the middle and handed them each half. “What’s going on buddy?” he asked. “You don’t seem too happy. It’s summer vacation.”
“Why do I have to be in Miss Bogie’s class next year?”
“You wanted Mr. Nelson?”
“No, I want to be in your class.”
Ryan smiled. “You already were in my class.”
“But why can’t I stay in second grade?” Dillon demanded.
“Because that’s not how it works. You don’t want to stay in second grade forever.”
“Will I be in your class?” Emma piped up.
“Not for another year, sweetie.” Ryan tugged gently on her long, silky ponytail. He paused, an idea suddenly coming to him. The Leblancs only lived a few blocks away from the school. He’d been there a couple of times. He could ride over on his bike and see if anyone was home. Or if not, the neighbors might have heard something. Maybe Marguerite had had some sort of accident and couldn’t make it to the phone. Why hadn’t he thought of it before?
But as he got to his feet, the massive oak doors of the main entrance swung open, flooding the foyer with afternoon light and silhouetting the two figures who stood there.
“Mommy?” Emma cried excitedly as she jumped up from the bench.
But it wasn’t Marguerite.
An icy chill swept up Ryan’s spine, as if the strangers had brought a blast of arctic air with them. The doors closed with a heavy boom, and he got his first good look at the pair. The man’s bearing screamed police officer, despite the lack of uniform. He tucked a pair of sunglasses in the front pocket of his sport coat, and when the fabric parted, Ryan caught a glimpse of the badge attached to his belt. The woman at his side, dressed in an ill-fitting pantsuit and carrying a clipboard, was young but already had the unmistakably jaded air of a public servant. Susan dashed out of her office. The color drained from her face.
She visibly collected herself and stepped forward to greet the strangers. They spoke softly, glancing over repeatedly to where Ryan stood with the two children. He gripped them close to his sides.
“Ow,” Dillon protested, and Ryan loosened his hold. “Who are those people?”
Ryan couldn’t answer. Without a word, Susan led the pair into her office and shut the door. The look she gave him in passing told him everything he needed to know.
His knees buckled, and he dropped onto the bench.
“What’s wrong, Mr. Eriksson?” Emma asked.
Ryan peeked over his shoulder, through the window of the outer office where the secretary usually sat. Susan had closed the door to her personal sanctum, but through the sidelight he saw her gesturing angrily at the cop and the woman.
“Wait here, guys,” he instructed, trying to sound casual. The hole in his stomach grew larger as he neared the office and heard Susan’s strident tone. He entered without knocking.
“Ryan.” Susan sighed but didn’t order him to leave. Her face was still pale, and she looked a decade older than she had only moments ago. “This is Detective Pickering and Mrs. Scott from Children’s Aid.”
Ryan hesitated. “What’s happened? Is she . . . is she okay?”
“No.” It was the cop who spoke. His tone was gentle but matter-of-fact. “There was an accident on the Gardiner Expressway this morning.”
“What hospital is she in? I can get the kids over—”
The detective shook his head. “Mrs. Leblanc died of her injuries about an hour ago at St. Mike’s.”
The world seemed to slip away from him. It wasn’t possible. The blood pumped so hard between his ears it was all he could hear. It had to be a mistake. He had talked to Marguerite only this morning when she dropped off cupcakes for the class to celebrate the last day of school. They had discussed getting together over the summer now that he was free. She couldn’t be gone. For a second he thought he was going to be sick and clamped a hand over his mouth just in case.
“No,” he repeated weakly. “It’s not possible. Wait. This morning? And you’re only here now?”
The cop bristled. “It’s taken some time to track down next of kin and the children.”
Susan laid a cautionary hand on Ryan’s arm. “Mrs. Scott is here to take Emma and Dillon into foster care until Marguerite’s brother arrives. Apparently he’s out of the country.”
Shocked, Ryan glanced back and forth between them. “You can’t.”
“It’s standard procedure in cases like these,” the social worker offered. “Until we can determine legal guardianship.” She held out a plain white business card with her name on it: Annabelle Scott. Funny, she didn’t look like an Annabelle.
“I don’t fucking care about standard procedure.” He sounded hysterical. He felt hysterical. “I’m not letting those kids spend the night in some institutional office, or worse, with strangers. That’s the last thing they need.”
“We don’t have a choice, Ryan,” Susan murmured.
“The file,” he croaked, his throat rough as sandpaper. “My temporary guardianship. Did she leave a copy with you?”
Susan flew to her desk. The rest of that strange conversation flooded back into Ryan’s mind and made him shiver. Much as he had that day.
“Do you believe in dreams, Ryan?” Marguerite asked, her beautiful brown eyes turning dark with uncharacteristic worry.
“As in prophesies?” He laughed. “No.”
“My grandmother used to say dreams were the way we communicated with the spiritual world. I dreamed of my mother last night. I never really knew her—she left us when I was five . . .” Marguerite crossed her arms over her chest and hugged herself tight, as though frozen from the inside out. She turned imploring eyes to him. “If something were to happen to me, I don’t want the kids in foster care. I’ve been in the system, Ryan. I don’t want them to go through that.”
“They won’t,” he said simply, naively. “Because nothing’s going to happen to you.”
“Here it is,” Susan exclaimed, jerking him out of his trance. She handed the paper to Mrs. Scott, whose lips thinned as she read the short document.
Ryan’s heart dropped to his stomach. When Marguerite had made her proposal, he’d never imagined this. He’d thought she’d been overreacting, that he’d only be called upon if she had to stay late at work, but now he had to wonder. Had Marguerite truly sensed this day would come? Or having had her own experiences in foster care, had she just wanted to be prepared?
Oh God. He turned and found Dillon and Emma with their noses pressed to the glass of the outer office as they made funny faces at him. They blurred in front of his eyes.
“Well,” he snapped, swinging back to Mrs. Scott. He squared his shoulders, standing tall. His stomach flipped, but he was not going to back down.
“There is no legal weight to this, I’m afraid,” she replied. “There’s no law in this province governing emergency guardianship.”
“Don’t her wishes count for anything? Please,” he begged, voice thick with unshed tears. “What more do you need? Run a background check. I’ll give you all my information. You can check up on me whenever you like . . .”
Annabelle Scott’s hard face softened, and he saw how young she really was. Probably no older than him. “I’m not a monster—”
The phone on Susan’s desk rang. All four of them stared at it uneasily, before Susan answered.
“Hello? Mr. Noble,” she sighed. “I’m so sorry—”
Ryan’s hope flickered back to life; Marguerite’s brother had returned their call. “What if he agrees too?” he asked the social worker.
Susan’s gaze flicked to Detective Pickering and Mrs. Scott as she spoke into the phone. “Yes, they’re here now. The police and Children’s Aid.”
Ryan heard the voice on the other end of the line grow louder. He couldn’t blame the man. He couldn’t bear to see Emma and Dillon carted off with some stranger either.
He motioned for the phone. “Let me talk to him.” Susan handed him the receiver. Ryan gripped it in a sweaty palm. “This is Ryan Eriksson. I’m Dillon’s teacher.” He quickly apprised Archer Noble of the situation and what he wanted to do. “I can take them home and wait with them until you get there. Apparently the neighbor has a key.”
At first there was only silence on the other end of the line. Then a deep sigh filled with the weight and weariness of a much older man. “Thank you. I’m . . . I’m still in LA. I’m booked on the next flight to Toronto, but it won’t get in until after midnight.”
Ryan had heard Archer Noble speak on a number of occasions, mostly YouTube clips, but the deep timbre of the man’s voice managed to startle him. He suppressed a shiver and focused on the matter at hand. “What do you . . . Do you want me to tell the kids?”
“I don’t know.” The man sounded lost. “I don’t have the faintest clue what to do right now.”
Ryan was equally adrift. But Dillon and Emma were the priority. He gathered his thoughts. “Okay, we’ll figure it out when you get here. Let me give you my number in case you get delayed.” After they exchanged information, he handed the phone to Mrs. Scott with shaking hands. She finished up her conversation while Ryan tried to get himself under control.
“So?” he asked when she was done.
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Of course I’m sure. I can handle it.”
“All right, Mr. Eriksson. Believe it or not, I’m only looking out for those children. And I agree with you—it’s in their best interest to be with people who care about them.”
Ryan felt light-headed at the reprieve. “Can we go then?”
“You can go,” she agreed, with a relieved sigh. “I’ll need a copy of this for the case file. And identification.”
“Anything.” He scrambled to make the necessary photocopies in the outer office before she could change her mind. There was a brief second, as the bright beam of the scanner blinded him, where he almost crumpled. Keep it together. They’re depending on you. He took a deep breath, pasted a smile on his face, and stepped back into the hallway. Detective Pickering had obviously decided he was no longer needed and had left, but Mrs. Scott was crouched in front of Emma and Dillon, her face soft and friendly as Dillon chattered.
“. . . and Amy wouldn’t come down from her chair until Henrietta was back in her cage. She thought she was a rat,” he finished, recounting the tale of last week’s classroom chaos when Henrietta the Hamster escaped from her cage. The social worker laughed along with Dillon. “And where is Henrietta now?”
“Spending the summer with another teacher,” Ryan answered. “My roommate has a cat.”
Dillon looked up at him, his eyes wide with worry. “It’s okay to talk to her, isn’t it?” he asked in a loud whisper they all could hear. “I know she’s a stranger, but Mrs. Taylor is right there.”
“Yes, Dillon,” Ryan assured him, combing his fingers through the boy’s fine hair. The last thing Ryan wanted to do was alarm the kids. “It’s okay. Are you guys ready to go home?”
“Is Mommy coming?” Emma asked.
The innocent question felt like a punch to his gut. “No, I’m going to take you home instead.” He threw Mrs. Scott a challenging look.
“You are?” Dillon’s face lit up for the first time that day. It made Ryan want to cry. They were so innocent. And all that was about to change. To lose both parents so young . . . What would happen to them now? “Are you going to stay for dinner? Was that her on the phone?”
“Yes to dinner,” Ryan managed to say with a reassuring smile. It sat forced and tight on his lips. “Something’s come up. We’ll talk about it later. So you get me tonight. The arrangements are all made. Put your stuff away and we can go. If we’re lucky, Mrs. Benning still has your house key.”
“I’ll take care of everything here,” Susan said, wrapping him in a big hug. “Get them home. Call me as soon as you know more.”
“I will,” he promised, squeezing her just as tightly. He pulled back with a sniffle and turned away, pretending to be busy gathering up his things until he could focus again. He had to be strong. Dillon and Emma needed him right now.
Ryan slung his backpack over his shoulders, fastened the buckle of his bicycle helmet around the straps, and then took Emma’s hand. He’d told Annabelle Scott he could handle this. But how? How did you explain death to a child? He knew how to teach, but no one had trained him on how to deal with loss and grief. Could anyone ever really deal with it?
He would leave things until their uncle arrived, let them be happy a little while longer. But it would take Archer Noble hours to get here. What if they had questions? How would he manage? For once, Ryan didn’t have any answers.