Authors: Staci Stallings
Tags: #Christian Books & Bibles, #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Religious & Inspirational Fiction, #Religion & Spirituality, #Christian Fiction, #Inspirational
Her scowl backed him up an inch. “I can take care of myself.”
Truthfully, at that moment he had absolutely no doubt of that fact. “I just thought it would be a good thing to do.” This was spiraling away from him, and he couldn’t figure out how that kept happening with her.
“Well, don’t bother. I’m fine.” She turned and walked across the lot to her car.
Andrew stood there for a second, unsure of what to do next, but his feet made the decision for his brain, and he jogged quickly to catch up with her. “Gabi, please…”
She ignored him and kept walking.
But his strides were long, and he was determined. “Please, can we talk?”
“We have nothing to talk about,” she said, unlocking her car door.
“I think we do.” Reaching out, he put his hand on her arm.
The touch of his hand on her sent illogical flames up her arm and right into her heart. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe.
“Andrew, please,” she said, desperate to break the hold he had over her. “I need to get home.”
“Gabi, please, just give me a few minutes,” he pleaded, never releasing her arm. “Please. I just want to talk to you, that’s all.”
Gabi couldn’t get her brain to work coherently, and her heart was worse.
“Please,” he repeated quietly. “We could go get a quick cup of coffee — and just talk.”
She tried to take a breath, but it didn’t work. What was he doing? And why was she reacting to him like this? She was supposed to be angry with him she told her body fiercely as the fire continued to burn through her protests and right into her heart.
“All right,” she finally relented. “But one cup of coffee, and that’s it. Then you leave me alone. Agreed?”
“Okay.” He released her then, but he never moved.
“I’ll meet you at Nona’s Café on 5
,” she said, opening her door without so much as glancing at him.
“K. I’ll follow you.”
In a matter of minutes they were seated across from one another in a quiet booth in Nona’s Café staring at cups of coffee and wondering where to begin.
“So, talk,” Gabi finally said with a snip to each word. “What’s so important?”
“Well, I guess I just wanted to apologize for what I said the other day. It was totally off-base, and I’m sorry,” Andrew said, choosing his words with great care.
“Yes, it was.” Crossing her arms, she lifted her eyebrows. “I don’t take kindly to people who run down my kids.”
“I understand that, and I appreciate that as well,” he said, thinking she resembled a mother bear protecting her cubs. “But I also wanted to let you know that I’ve decided to volunteer and get to know the kids a little better myself.”
“Volunteer?” she asked, barely concealing the sneer. “So, is that what you were doing with Irvin tonight?”
“Yeah.” He let out a breath. “Well, that’s what I was trying to do with Irvin tonight although I really don’t think I made a whole lot of headway on that front.” Andrew wrinkled his nose. “That’s one tough kid.”
“It’s an act,” Gabi said, recalling with no trouble the times she’d held Irvin while he cried in her arms. Her heart broke for him when she thought about it, but rather than give Andrew a sense that any of this was getting to her, she shifted and tipped her head as if in challenge.
“He’s a good actor then,” Andrew said, and he actually sounded serious. His gaze slipped up to hers and there was a quiet boyishness to it. “But you seem to be able to handle him all right.”
That dragged her eyes and hands down to her coffee cup. “Irvin and I go way back. He was one of the kids in my first class, and believe me, he gave me a run for my money.”
“I can imagine.” Andrew sat back, his gaze more on his own cup than on her. However, it was when his eyes came up that she had hard time holding on to her own tough-girl act. “But it looks like you got through to him.”
She shook her head and sighed. “I try, but there’s so much bad stuff in his life, it’s hard for the good stuff to get through, you know? It’s like beating your head against a brick wall that just gets stronger and thicker every day.”
“Yeah, but it’s easy for you,” he said, his words so soft they practically vanished on the air between them.
Frustration twined through her. “It’s not easy for anyone. Those kids need more love and time than any one person could ever give them. I try, but most of the time it’s not enough.” Thoughts of the kids began to drown out the need to keep up her guard. So many kids had come through her life in the last six years, and where were they now? Where they really any better off than before she knew them? She doubted it.
“But Irvin… he respects you,” Andrew said. “That has to count for something, right?”
With a shrug, she grimaced. “I guess, but all I see’s how easy it is for him to slip back into his homeboy act. I wish there was a way to show him what’s really out there in the world — beyond Collins. But all he’s ever seen is here — and what they show him on TV — nothing real.” Hopelessness rang in her voice. She heard it but could do nothing about it. “Nothing positive to give him any hope.”
“But I think he sees some of that in you — hope, real. I can’t explain it, but in two seconds when you walked into that gym, Irvin became a completely different person.”
“No.” Her lips turned upward as she shook her head. “I think that’s who he really is, but he has to put on this show for everyone else’s benefit. I just don’t let him get away with it.”
His eyes felt like they were digging right into her spirit and being. “The kids are lucky to have you.”
The dichotomy of how much she wanted to do for them versus how pathetically little she was able to do for them hit her. “Yeah, real lucky.” Her snort was filled with sarcasm and derision.
He tilted his head as if not understanding. “No, I mean it. You give them hope. You give them a sense of the possibilities that are out there for them. I see it every time you’re with them.”
However, the hopelessness that surrounded them started closing in on her as well. “But they need so much more — so much I can’t give them.”
“If what they need is love and time, then I don’t think they could find a better person for the job.”
He didn’t take his eyes off of her, but she couldn’t meet his gaze. She studied her coffee while her heart did flip-flops around that look. Why was he being so nice to her all of a sudden? This wasn’t him. He was the arrogant jerk who had said the kids didn’t stand a chance, and she needed to remember that and not get sucked in to whatever this was.
“So, is that what you came here to tell me?” she asked, trying her best to stay mad at him as she tossed her hair back over her shoulder to look at him. There were times it wasn’t hard to remember the arrogant him. This was not one of those times.
“I guess,” he said slowly, looking down at the table. “That and I’d really like to call a truce.”
When his gaze came up, it held such apology, such vulnerability, it swept her breath away from her.
“A truce?” She could hardly get the simple words out of her heart.
“Look, I know some of the stuff I said was really dumb, and I also know I have a lot to learn. But I’d… really like the chance to start over with you. If you don’t want to, I’ll understand, but it would really mean a lot to me if we could.”
He looked so utterly beaten down, how could she say no and kick him again?
“Okay,” she finally breathed, hoping upon hope in her heart she was doing the right thing.
One trace of hope sparked in his eyes when he looked at her. “What?”
A tight, wary smile and she nodded. “Okay. I accept your truce.”
Andrew’s car was there when Gabi pulled into the parking lot the next morning, and she smiled to herself and shook her head. He was standing by her car door even before she turned off the motor, and wrapped up in that gray parka and jeans, he was even more gorgeous than he was in his suits. That was not a good thing for her heart’s sanity, which had started reminding her that he would only be here through the end of the week. This was not forever, and she needed to remember that. But honestly, as she got out of the car, remembering that and holding onto it was more challenging than she had ever imagined.
“Good morning,” he said, shifting from one foot to the other in a vain attempt to keep warm in the chilly morning air.
“Morning.” Amused more than she could say, she turned and dragged some things out of her car. “So are you planning to make this a habit or what?”
“I may have to — at least until they give me a set of keys.”
Spinning to talk to him over her shoulder, she laughed. “You get here any earlier, and you might as well sleep here.”
“Actually, I was just thinking the same thing,” he said, shoving his hands deeper into his pockets as he followed her to the front door. “Man, it’s cold out here.”
“Wait ‘til you get inside,” she said. “You don’t know what cold is.”
“Not most of the time.”
“That can’t be good for the babies.”
She unlocked the door and picked up her things. “It’s not good for any of them, but that’s the way things are.”
All night the previous night Andrew had been up working on a plan, and obviously getting heat would be at the top of the growing list he had already begun.
“So, what’re you going to do today?” Gabi asked as she opened the door.
He shrugged and caught the door to hold it open for her. “I guess work in the baby room again.”
She nearly tripped when her gaze snapped over to him in the darkened hallway. “Again?”
“Yeah, that’s where I was yesterday,” he said, and then he noticed her smirk. “Don’t laugh. I think I was actually pretty good at it.”
One eyebrow went up and her face fell into skepticism. “Oh, really?”
“Yes, really.” He stopped at her door for her to unlock it as well. “In fact, I was thinking. Do you have any glass cleaner?”
“Glass cleaner?” she asked in real puzzlement as he followed her into her classroom. “What for?”
“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging and trying to pretend that it was no big deal. “Charissa and Eric seemed to like the sunshine out in the lobby yesterday, so I was thinking if I cleaned some of those windows, we might be able to bring several of them out there today.”
She lowered her gaze at him as the skepticism grew. “You’re going to clean the windows?”
That brought out his defensiveness. What did she think — he couldn’t even clean a window? “Yes, I’m going to clean the windows. It can’t be that hard.”
At her desk, she sorted through some paperwork. “And when are you planning on doing this?”
“Well, I was hoping I could do it right now before most of the kids show up and I have to go to work in the nursery.” Annoyance went through him, and he let it spill right onto his face as he crossed his arms. “So, do you have any or what?”
“Well.” Her gaze came up, and she studied him carefully. “I do have some.”
“Great!” he said, feeling the breakthrough in her attitude.
However, her eyes narrowed further as she continued to stare at him. “But it’s gonna cost you.”
That didn’t sound good, and his eyes widened in concern. “Cost me? What does that mean?”
“You see this hole over here in this window.” Leaving her desk, she walked over to the bank of windows in that dress that made her look like a willow tree blowing gently in the wind. “I’ve had duct tape on this thing for six months now. Do you think you could see about replacing it?”
Uncoiling now that he knew it was something he could do, he nodded four times. “No problem. I’ll be here as soon as the guys leave tonight.”
“Then, I guess I’ll let you borrow this.” She pulled a plastic box off of a high shelf and brought it over to him. “Just promise me you’ll bring it back.”
His smile spread ear to ear. “Scout’s honor.”
“Wow. I’m impressed,” Ms. Boyd said when she came through the door with her daughter Megan in tow at nearly eight.
“Impressed?” Gabi asked, helping Megan off with her coat. “Why?”
Mrs. Boyd danced her shoulders and her eyes. “Who’s the new maintenance guy?”
“Maintenance guy?” Gabi stood with the jacket, looking at her puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“The one cleaning the windows out front.” She smiled and ducked so it was just the two of them in on the conversation. “I wonder if he’d come clean my windows.”
In one heartbeat, Gabi blushed at the implication. “He’s a volunteer.” She took the coat and put it with the rest of them, hoping that would end the conversation.
“We need more of those around here,” Ms. Boyd said, smirking, and Gabi blushed again despite her best efforts not to. What was her problem anyway?
Andrew made a point of saying hello to each and every parent who came through the doors. Some of them looked at him like he was insane, a few even hurried past pretending not to see him, but most of them were pleasant and said hello. Truth be told, he was enjoying himself immensely.
When Jerry came through the doors, Andrew couldn’t help himself.
“Good morning, Mr. Richardson,” he called from atop his perch on the ladder he’d found in the storage closet.
Jerry jumped and almost dropped the files he was carrying. “Andrew! What in the world are you doing up there?”
Andrew swiped the squeegee with the paper towel. “What does it look like? I’m cleaning the windows.”
“Yeah, I noticed yesterday they were getting kind of dirty.” Descending the ladder, Andrew came abreast of Jerry. “So, ta-da!”
Jerry looked at the windows and then at Andrew in disbelief. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I know, but it’s fun.” He collected the ladder and cleaning supplies to take them back to the storage closet. “Oh, by the way, there’s a window in the four-year-old room that needs replaced. How would I go about doing that?”
“Yeah. There’s a big hole in one of the windows, and with it getting colder outside, she needs it replaced.” Supplies in hand, Andrew followed Jerry down the hall not at all thinking this was odd or out-of-the-realm-of-how-reality-should-be.
“Well, Andrew.” Jerry unlocked his office and entered before he finished. “I’m not sure we have the money to begin replacing all of our windows right now.”
“Oh.” Andrew stopped at the door and leaned on the ladder, only slightly deterred. “Well, can you tell me where I might get a replacement?”
Annoyance split across Jerry’s face. “And who’s going to pay for this replacement?”
“I will,” Andrew said with a shrug.
Jerry’s face fell into a scowl. “You?”
“Well, yeah.” He shook his head as if it all made perfect sense. “It needs replaced, and surely it can’t cost that much. Besides we made a deal.” Bouncing his eyebrows, he picked up the ladder and smiled.
“Yeah, Gabi and me. She let me borrow her cleaning supplies, and I replace her window.”
This was all getting a little too weird for Jerry. Andrew was supposed to be here to write a story, and suddenly he was cleaning and replacing windows, volunteering, and making deals with the teachers? When did that happen?
“Mayfield Windows on Madison is where we’ve gotten the ones before. Call Jim. He should be able to set you up,” Jerry said, surrendering because fighting it seemed like it would take far too much energy.
“Great.” Andrew nodded as he headed out the door. Then he stopped and came back. “Oh, by the way, where would I find a Phillips screwdriver? The stroller in the nursery really needs fixed.”
The kids were strewn about the floor napping when Gabi heard the knock on her door. Very rarely were they disturbed during the day, and so she was immediately puzzled. However, as soon as she saw the door, she knew who it was. He waved to her through the window and smiled as she approached. Disarming and charming. She shook her head as the two words went through her, attaching themselves to the sight of him and not letting go.
“Hi,” he whispered so as not to disturb the children when she opened the door. “How’s it going?”
“Fine?” She was one second from asking him what he was doing here when he nodded.
“Yeah. I was just wondering when music time is exactly,” he whispered.
That yanked more puzzlement out. “Music time?”
“Yeah, you know when you take the kids out to the lobby with the piano. I was thinking I might bring some of the babies over for it.”
Her eyes widened. “The babies? What?”
“Yeah, I thought they might enjoy it,” he said, totally oblivious to her bewilderment.
“Oh, uh, well.” She reached up and scratched the back of her head. “We usually go about two, but…”
“Great. Oh, and don’t worry, I’ll keep the little ones quiet,” he said quickly, “gotta go.”
“Uh. Okay?” She stood in the hallway watching him walk away in the nice jeans and green knit sweater. How did he know about music time anyway? And why was he suddenly acting like Mary Poppins?
Just before two, Andrew loaded Eric and Charissa, who had become his charges, into the now-working stroller, and then he put Marcus into a carrier on his back and bid the other teachers farewell for his afternoon stroll. He couldn’t wait to hear her play again for real. He had heard that music every moment since he’d heard her play the first time, but this was different. This was the real thing.
In the lobby, he pushed the stroller over to the window. The sun was shining through it, and he couldn’t remember it ever shining as brightly as it seemed to be today. He pulled one of the chairs out of the way and spread the blanket he’d swiped from one of the empty cribs across the floor.
“Come here, Little Charissa. Look at the pretty sunshine we have for you today,” he said, laying her gently on the blanket. Then he took Eric out and put him on the blanket, too. Twisting, he got Marcus out of the carrier gently and sat him on his lap.
It was then that he heard the footsteps of little, tiny feet on the hallway floor, and his heart fluttered. Gabi was coming, and for one moment in time, he could pretend that she was coming to play only for him.
It took her one tiny fraction of a second to spot him when she entered the large room, and her breath caught in her throat when her gaze met those green eyes. She held his gaze for a moment, smiled because she couldn’t help it, and then looked away — afraid of letting him see the feelings spiraling through her at the moment. Why could one look do this to her? Yes, he was gorgeous, but he would also be gone in a couple days, not to even mention that he was completely unattainable if she was even looking, which she wasn’t.
“Okay, everyone take a seat,” Gabi said, trying to control her voice and the racing of her heart. She was desperate to keep herself acting normally even if that was the last thing she was feeling at the moment. “How about we start with something simple? Umm, Old McDonald?”
“Yeah,” the children chorused, and across the room Andrew smiled.
An hour later Gabi decided it was time to go. She wished they could stay like this forever, but very soon the older kids would flood the hallways, and getting back to her room then would be next to impossible.
“It’s time to go,” she said at the final note of the third time through Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
“One more,” her kids cried.
“One of yours,” Andrew said, from across the room, just loud enough for her to hear.
Gabi looked over at him in surprise, and suddenly the children around them disappeared. She smiled at him shyly and then turned to the keys in front of her. She took a deep breath to calm her racing pulse and laid her fingers lightly on the keys.
When the music started, Andrew was immediately taken in. Even the children were mesmerized by it. Charissa sat curled in his lap and even the two boys playing at his feet on the floor at up to listen. In fact, while the music played, it was like the whole world stood still just to listen.
Her fingers didn’t miss a single note as they glided softly over the keys. Music had been her one escape since she was very young, and even now it did not let her go. She melted into the music, became one with it as she let everything else wash away from her.
When she came finally to the end of the piece, she sat with her eyes closed, feeling the music still pulsing through her spirit. This was who she was, down deep in the deepest part of herself, she was the music.
None of the children moved at the end of the performance until Gabi sat up straight and smiled at them. Andrew was the first to get his mind working again, and he smiled and put his hands together in applause. The children quickly followed in his gesture of appreciation. Gabi smiled at them, and then her gaze met his over the expanse and the crowd of little heads. The moment froze between them as the ice surrounding her heart began to melt for this gentle, kind, amazing man.