As job interviews went, it was certainly the briefest Zander ever had.
“You’re the one Mom sent over. I’m Elena. Can you start right now?” The manager of the University Ballroom hardly stopped moving long enough to talk to him. “On a trial basis. I just had to fire a couple of wait staff. If you can carry a tray around for a couple of hours and don’t use your break to get high in the restroom, I’ll hire you.”
“Yes, great.” Zander had to follow her down the hall to finish the conversation. She was short but she moved fast. “Can I ask what the job pays?”
The answer made him stumble. It was twice what he was making at his current job.
“Does that work for you?”
He could get his sister the new school clothes she needed. “Yes.”
“Good. A bunch of big shot alumni are arriving in fifteen minutes. Hop into the kitchen and tell them you are serving.”
Even after she was out of sight, Zander refrained from punching the air in triumph. Trial basis, he reminded himself. Better not screw this up.
In fifteen minutes, Zander was wearing a white apron and carrying a tray of what the cook had called mini quiches. This was what fancy people liked to eat? He bet he could fit four of them in his mouth at once. Whatever, he was being paid. A lot. He’d make darn sure that anyone who wanted tiny food got offered tiny food. He beamed at some old man in a bowtie. “Mini quiche?”
He worked his way around the room. This was easy. He couldn’t wait to give notice at the diner. No more bussing tables for minimum wage. This job was going to make his life so much easier. He headed across the room to serve the other side. What would he say to his boss at the diner? He’d say-
A body lurched into Zander’s tray. He struggled to save the quiches from falling, but only managed to flip them into the air.
“No!” Zander reached out uselessly, as mini-quiches rained on his head, on the person who crashed into him, and on the dignified middle-aged alumni nearby.
“Sorry.” A guy about Zander’s age straightened up and tried to brush broken quiche off his expensive-looking suit. He was dressed to fit in with this crowd. Bet he didn’t scrape to make ends meet, with part time jobs and loans. And he was “sorry,” was he? Zander sighed, seeing the ballroom manager storming over. Well, this job was always too good to be true.
“Seriously?” Elena snapped. “You couldn’t get through a two hour trial without screwing up? At least I found out now, before I hired you permanently. Give me that, and get out.” She snatched the tray from him.
“Wait. Please. Ms…” Nice-Suit guy squinted at her name tag. “Morales? It was my fault. I ran into him. He didn’t do anything. Please give him another chance.”
Elena narrowed her eyes at Zander. “Is that true?”
“I was maybe a little distracted too,” Zander admitted. Probably he should have seen someone running toward him, if he hadn’t been busy daydreaming about quitting his other job.
Elena closed her eyes. “God help me. At least you’re honest. Okay, go get a clean apron. And try to get the crumbs out of your hair.” She shook her head. “Don’t make me sorry for giving you a second chance.”
Zander tried to process the fact that he might still have the job. “No, ma’am.”
He hustled to the kitchen for the clean apron, ignoring the assistant chef’s smirk, and then to the men’s room to look in the mirror. Ugh. Pretty bad. His hair was wavy enough to trap the crumbs, and black enough that egg-and-crust-colored bits showed up vividly. He tried using his fingers as a comb, leaving greasy streaks behind. Ugh.
The door creaked, and Nice-Suit came in. “Hey. Um, I wanted to apologize properly.”
Zander stared at him. “Are you kidding? I should thank you for stepping up and taking the blame. I thought I lost this job on my first day.”
“Next time I’ll look where I’m going. I just wanted a break from my Dad. Parents, you know.” He made a face, looking at Zander for sympathy with his soft brown eyes.
“Yeah, parents.” No way was Zander getting into specifics about his own family. His hair was probably as good as it was going to get, until he got home and could shampoo it. He washed his hands quickly. “I’d better get back to work. Thanks again for speaking up to Elena.”
“Actually.” Brown-eyes hesitated, then spit out, “I was wondering if you’d give me your phone number.” His thumb was rubbing circles against his first finger, nervously.
Yep, I still got it, Zander thought smugly. Even covered in crushed bits of food.
Not a good idea though. It was sure to end badly. Some cute rich boy wouldn’t want to get involved once he saw the chaos that was Zander’s life. “Um.”
Cute Rich Boy hunched his shoulders and offered a forced smile. “Sorry. It’s okay if you don’t swing that way. My gaydar probably needs a tune-up.”
“No. Actually. It doesn’t.” It was a bad idea. No matter how pretty his brown eyes were with his golden hair, or how good his slim shoulders looked in the tailored suit jacket, or how he’d spoken up for Zander to Elena, like a decent person, when a spoiled rich boy could have just walked away.
Zander definitely should say no. “Sure.” He said the digits, watching Cute Rich Boy enter them into his phone.
“Can I have a name to put next to it?” He was standing straight now, and the brown eyes had a twinkle of confidence. Very sexy.
“Nice to meet you, Zander. I’m Kyle. And now I’m going to find my Dad and hear his fascinating thoughts on which MBA program will toughen me up into the hard-driving executive that I need to be to inherit the family corporation, et cetera.” He pulled an exaggerated face of despair, and left. The men’s room door banged behind him.
“Bye,” Zander said, too late.
The rest of the trial shift was calm and routine, much to Zander’s relief. Elena said, “Okay, I guess you’re hired. Can you come Friday evening? There’s a dinner.”
“Go home and wash your hair.”
Zander biked as fast as he could. He burst through the apartment door. “Hey Sis!”
She was on the couch giving Charlie her bottle, dark hair braided out of the way of grabby baby fists. “Hey, Zander. You look happy.”
He sat down next to her and looked at the baby’s peaceful face. “I got that job that Señora Morales was talking about.”
“Awesome!” She butted him with her shoulder.
“I’m totally quitting at the diner. These folks want to pay me twice as much to serve tiny little foods to snobby people. It’s amazing.”
“That’s good, ‘cause I think she needs new clothes again.” Sophie put her finger inside Charlie’s onesie to show how tight it was.
“Dang, she sure does grow.”
“I think that’s normal, idiot.” Sophie stuck out her tongue at him, and then got serious. “I could always get a job too, you know.”
“No.” They’d had this argument so many times. “I don’t want you dropping out of school.”
“I mean after school. Part time.”
“Then we’d just end up paying Sra. Morales for more hours of child care. We’d probably break even on money, and you’d never see your daughter. A baby needs to bond with its mother.” Zander was determined that they’d do this right. No one’s life was going to be ruined here. He would get his college degree. Sophie was going to graduate high school and Charlie was going to have the best childhood they could manage. They could do this.
“I feel bad making you worry about money so much.” Sophie didn’t meet his eyes.
“We’re fine.” Zander mentally kicked himself. He’d have to make sure to keep his money concerns to himself more. Between school and child care, Sophie didn’t need to be worrying about their finances, too. They’d managed so far. Barely, but they’d managed. “We still have some of Mom’s money left. And I get good financial aid. This new job is going to be nice for filling in the corners. Don’t worry.” He gave her a mock-stern look. “But you are being super, super careful about using protection, right? We don’t need another baby. Cute though this one is.”
Sophie rolled her eyes. “As if I have time to even talk to a boy these days.”
Zander flinched. He really didn’t have time to date either. What was he thinking, giving out his phone number? Idiot.
“But yes,” Sophie said, “getting the safer sex talk in horrible detail from my big brother isn’t something I’m going to forget. I think every word of it is burned into my brain.”
“And if you get into trouble, of any kind whatsoever, you will…?” Zander prompted.
“Tell you about it right away and ask for help,” Sophie recited, rolling her eyes again.
She’d hid her pregnancy from the family, until she started to show. Then Step-mother smacked her around for her “sin” and Father threw her out on the street. Zander couldn’t help wishing his sister had trusted him enough to come to him earlier. After all, he also had personal experience of their step-mother’s views on what she considered “sin.”
A knock sounded at the door, and Sra. Morales opened it without waiting for them to answer. She lived across the hall but spent half her time over here watching Charlie. “Where’s my little goddaughter?” She came over and kissed the baby on the head.
“Sra. Morales, I can’t thank you enough for putting in a good word for me with Elena.” Zander pressed her hand. “That job is going to be wonderful. It’s like you are godmother to all of us.”
“Pf.” She waved at him. “I’m just being neighborly. And now you can afford to pay me for more babysitting, so it’s good for me too.”
They hardly paid her anything for watching Charlie, which made Zander feel guilty, but he didn’t see how they could manage without her. Sophie had to go to school. Zander was determined to keep working on his college degree, in between the part time jobs. They needed inexpensive help with child care. Sra. Morales had turned up like magic.
“Go do your homework,” he said to Sophie. “I got to go to my shift at the diner and tell them I’m quitting.”
“When are you gonna write your lit paper?” she asked, nagging him right back.
“I’ve still got a few days! Get off my back,” he teased her.
“Go, go, I’ll watch this darling bebé.” Sra. Morales shooed him toward the door, and Sophie toward the kitchen and her textbooks.
The diner manager wasn’t thrilled with the news Zander was quitting.
“Where am I gonna find someone else at this time of year? All the students already got jobs lined up. You gotta stay until the end of the semester.” He got right up in Zander’s face. His breath smelled like garlic, strong enough to notice even though they were in a kitchen full of cooking Italian food.
“Sorry, I can’t.” Zander hated to leave the diner understaffed. It would be tough on the rest of the employees. The new kid scrubbing pots and pans already looked overwhelmed. “There’s someone in my English lit class who said she was looking for a job. Want me to text her to come down and apply?” He took out his phone.
“Don’t do me any favors.” The manager smacked his hand, sending his phone flying past the new kid’s ear. It bounced off the tiled wall with a crack and plopped into the sink full of greasy, soapy, hot water.
“Hey,” the new kid protested, weakly.
“Dammit, my phone!” Zander shoved his ex-boss and the kid aside and fished his phone out.
“Just get outta here if you’re going.”
Zander glared at him. “I’ll pick up my last paycheck next Friday.”
On the bright side, getting home from the diner early meant he had time to outline the lit paper.
Sophie did a Google search, then took the battery out of his phone and told him to let it dry overnight before he tried turning it on. But in the morning, the phone proved to be dead. Whether it was the impact with the tiled wall or the dunk in the sink that did it, the phone wouldn’t turn on.
“Maybe you can get a new one once you get paid for your new job,” Sophie said.
It was actually kind of peaceful not having a phone for a couple of days. Zander went to class, wrote the lit paper, changed diapers, warmed bottles, played with Charlie.
Sophie fidgeted on his behalf, having trouble imagining phoneless life. Finally she cornered him. “Do you want to at least check your voice mail? Borrow mine.” She pushed her phone into his hands. It was pink with a dangling charm in the shape of a glass slipper. Sophie was such a romantic.
Zander dialed the number for his voice mail. Better at least make sure that his new boss at the Ballroom hadn’t left him any messages. He was supposed to do that dinner event tonight.
“Hey, Zander. It’s Kyle. Just trying to reach you. Did you get my texts?”
Oops. Cute rich boy. He’d left the message right around the time the phone had been in the sink of water.
“Hey, Zander.” Another? He must really think Zander was ignoring him.
“You don’t have to call,” Kyle’s voice continued. “I wanted to apologize. I figure I came on kind of strong, and maybe you felt like you owed me something. Because of almost losing your job over those stupid quiches. Maybe you felt like you had to give me your number, and then you regretted it. It’s okay. Sorry about all those texts. I’ll back off. Uh, bye.”
What the hell? Zander didn’t give his phone number out to any old person just because they wanted it. If he hadn’t been interested, he’d have said so.
But he wasn’t interested, right? He didn’t have time for a relationship. Kyle thought Zander had a normal college student life. He had no idea of the chaos that would be involved in trying to date Zander. No way he’d want a relationship that came with a little sister and a baby. It was better for both of them if Zander didn’t follow up. He turned Sophie’s phone off and handed it back to her. “Thanks.”
“Take it tonight,” she insisted. “In case you need to call us. You can call Sra. Morales’s phone.”
Zander pocketed the pink phone. “Okay.” If it would make her feel better.
The dinner event at the Ballroom was apparently a celebration for the university tennis team. “They had an undefeated season,” Elena informed him, as they set a table with a lot of very shiny silverware on a white tablecloth. Zander imagined a life where your biggest concern was winning at tennis.
The team bubbled in, laughing young men in sports jackets and ties, arguing over who got to sit at the head of the table. Zander moved around filling water glasses, and was totally ignored.
Until one person glanced up. “Thanks. Oh!”
Kyle. Of course. “Hello.” Zander hadn’t known he played tennis, but he fit right in to the confident, privileged crowd. Or he had. Now he was blushing. Zander wanted to set things right between them. “Can we talk? After.” Even if he didn’t want to get involved, he could at least explain about the phone.
Kyle nodded, looking serious. The tennis player next to him was starting to look at them. Zander moved on. Focus on the job for now. Worry about how Kyle was feeling later. Worry about how he himself was feeling even later.
After chocolate cake and some fancy dessert wine, the tennis team made plans to move on to a bar. Kyle begged off, claiming that he had an exam to study for.
“It’s Friday night, loser,” said one of his teammates, punching his arm.
“You know me and organic chem. A whole weekend is barely enough.” Kyle’s smile looked fake to Zander, but the team laughed and left without him.
Zander glanced between him and Elena, and Kyle nodded. “I’ll wait outside.”
When Elena let him go, Zander pulled out Sophie’s phone to see if she’d left any messages. He’d had it turned off while working. The assistant chef passed by on his way out. “Nice charm, Cinderella.”
The little glass slipper was extra sparkly under the bright Ballroom lights.
“Hey, Zanderella! Ha!”
Yeah, hilarious. Zander gave the guy the middle finger.
Sophie’s phone flashed an empty battery symbol at him, and turned itself back off again. Trust Sophie to lend him a phone with a dead battery. Or maybe Zander had was under a dead-phone curse. Oh well. He put it back in his pocket.
Kyle waited outside the front door of the Ballroom, leaning against the railing. His shoulders were hunched, and his thumb rubbed little circles against his first finger.
He looked so miserable that Zander blurted, “My phone died.”
“I didn’t get your texts. The same night I gave you my number, my phone fell in a sink full of water and died. I finally heard your voice mails just today. I wasn’t ignoring you.”
“Oh.” Kyle blew out a relieved-sounding breath. “I thought maybe I was being pushy.”
“I don’t know, what did you say in those texts?” Zander found himself smiling. What happened to the plan of not getting involved?
“Probably pushy things. I come from a long line of entitled jackasses.” Kyle cleared his throat. “What if we start fresh? Would you like to take a walk?”
“Now?” It was getting dark. But Sra. Morales was scheduled to stay with Sophie and Charlie again this evening, so that Sophie could do homework. Zander had planned to study, too. “Sure,” he said. It was a beautiful spring evening. One walk wouldn’t hurt. He could study later. Wasn’t he entitled to one fun Friday night?
Kyle hopped off the railing and grabbed Zander’s hand. “Let’s go to my favorite coffee shop. Better than the bar the team is going to.”
Zander hadn’t really planned on holding hands in public, but Kyle’s slim fingers felt nice. He decided not to let go. It was the 21st century in a college town. People could deal.
Kyle took him to the edge of campus and into a row of overpriced shops and restaurants that Zander usually avoided. Kyle’s favorite coffee shop was full of cushy furniture and heavenly smells.
“What would you like? My treat.”
The wall was covered in scribbled descriptions of coffee drinks. Zander always made his own coffee at home and brought it to class in a plastic travel mug. It saved money.
Kyle saw his blank stare. “Do you like sweet things like mocha, or strong like espresso? Why don’t I get one of each and you can take the one you like the best.” He nodded at the barista, adding, “and one of those blueberry scones.” He leaned in close so that his breath tickled Zander’s ear. “Trust me.”
Zander had never been that impressed with scones, but whatever. Rich people liked different things.
They took their coffee and the huge triangular scone and sank into a bright red couch, side by side, not quite touching. Zander thought about moving closer, so that their thighs would touch, then caught himself with a start. This was just a friendly first date, for crying out loud. He didn’t want to turn it into something serious. Right?
“Here,” Kyle said, and broke a corner off the scone.
Zander put it in his mouth, and instantly re-evaluated all his previous opinions of scones. “This is amazing,” he mumbled through the buttery, crumbly mouthful.
Kyle looked as proud as if he’d baked it himself. “Isn’t this place great?”
They shared the scone, and traded sips of both the coffees.
“Let me know which one you want,” Kyle said, after a couple of exchanges.
“I don’t know, let me taste that one again.” Zander swapped the cups. In fact, the mocha was too sweet, and the espresso too strong, but trading the cups back and forth was kind of fun. Intimate, in an innocent sort of way, to put his lips where Kyle’s had just been. Like something a long-time couple would do.
Besides, it was fun just to sit here like a normal college kid, who had extra money for mochas and scones, who had parents, who didn’t live with a teenage sister and her baby.
“Tell me about Zander,” Kyle said. “All I know is that you work at the Ballroom and your phone died the tragic death of Ophelia.”
Zander took a moment to sort that out before remembering that Ophelia had drowned. “I’m a sophomore at the U.” That wasn’t a lie. He was just telling part of the truth. If he told the rest of his life, that would be the end of feeling normal, and the end of this date.
“Do you know what you are going to do after you graduate?”
“Not exactly. Maybe a nonprofit, working with teens.” Zander sometimes thought about what would have happened to Sophie if she hadn’t had him. She’d have been homeless and pregnant. Awful thought. He’d like to be there for kids in trouble like her, who didn’t have a big brother to turn to.
“That sounds nice.” Kyle turned the espresso cup around and around with his long fingers. “I’m supposed to go to business school but the idea bores the pants off me.”
Zander was ambushed by some totally inappropriate thoughts about Kyle without pants. He fumbled for something non-embarrassing to say. “Uh, what would you rather do?”
“I don’t know.” Kyle frowned. “It doesn’t seem to matter what I want. My dad’s got it all figured out without my input.”
Zander pulled his gaze away from Kyle’s lips to make eye contact. “If you don’t want to go to business school, don’t go. Your dad doesn’t make your decisions for you. Choose for yourself.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Kyle smiled, the fake one he’d given his tennis team earlier.
Zander didn’t like having that smile aimed at him. “Want to go?”
Kyle dropped a bill in the tip jar on their way out, and waved goodbye to the barista like an old friend.
They wandered back toward campus, stopping to look in shop windows. The street lights made pools of light in the crisp black night. A few students wandered in and out of bookstores and cafes. Under one light, a street musician was playing something lively on a guitar. Kyle stopped next to her and started dancing in place, dorky and enthusiastic. A couple people laughed, but others joined in, until the sidewalk was a dance floor.
Kyle held out a hand to Zander, who realized with a start that he was standing there like an idiot, watching him and smiling. What the hell. About the only time he danced these days was when he was comforting a crying baby, but he couldn’t dance any worse than Kyle. He boogied over next to him, and was rewarded with a delighted grin.
The guitarist played the last chorus at double speed, until everyone collapsed at the end, breathless and laughing.
“Something slow now, so you can rest,” she mocked them, and played a ripple of notes that resolved into a ballad. She crooned words in some language Zander didn’t understand.
Most of the dancers moved on, after dropping tips in her hat, but Kyle cocked his head at Zander, with a challenge in his eyes. Twenty-first century, Zander reminded himself. College town. And his dad didn’t make his decisions for him. He stepped up and put his arm around Kyle to slow dance.
Kyle whispered his warm breath in Zander’s ear. “I didn’t think you would.”
Zander caught the scent of Kyle’s skin, soap and salt and coffee. Kyle’s silky hair tickled his face.
“I’m so glad I ran into you again,” Kyle said. “I was going to give up.”
Zander could feel Kyle’s body heat across the tiny space that separated them. It would be so easy to pull him a bit closer, to feel his lean body press against Zander’s.
“I’m glad too,” Zander managed to say. His voice came out unfamiliar, breathless and low-pitched.
Kyle pulled away a few inches, and Zander missed him. “Come around the corner,” Kyle whispered, and tugged on his hand.
Zander caught the knowing grin of the guitarist as Kyle led him down a side street, out of the light of the street lamps.
In the semi-privacy of the shadows, Kyle moved in again, bringing his lips close to Zander’s. “Is this okay? Can I kiss-”
Zander grabbed him and yanked, so that they crashed together, thighs touching, groins, bellies, chests. “Yes,” he said, and mashed his mouth onto Kyle’s.
Kyle squeaked, muffled by the kiss, and Zander forced his hands to let go. He’d been too rough maybe. But Kyle’s fingers dug into his shoulders, and Kyle’s tongue swept into his mouth, and Zander forgot how to think.
A while later, Kyle’s scent and heat moved away, and Zander’s brain got back on line. The first coherent thought it produced was bring Kyle back, and Zander reached for him, but Kyle evaded his hands.
“We might want to move on.” Kyle nodded his head sideways, indicating a giggling group of girls running away from them.
Zander’s brain helpfully offered some images of what the girls must have seen: Zander and Kyle French kissing, their hands roaming, their bodies moving against each other. Heat crept up on his face. It wasn’t that liberal a town, or that dark a side street.
Not all of his anatomy agreed with the idea of stopping, but he decided firmly that his brain was in charge now. He straightened his shirt, hoping he looked more or less presentable. “Okay.”
Kyle held his hand again as they walked back toward the campus. “I’d like to see you again.”
Zander remembered dimly that he’d thought that was a bad idea. But all he could say was the truth. “I’d like that too.”
Kyle held his hand tighter. “If you want… I mean… would you like to come home with me? Now, I mean?”
A bell rang, carrying through the night air. The university chapel. Zander counted the chimes absently. Three, four, five. Did he want to go to bed with Kyle and finish what they’d started? Seven, eight. Yeah, obviously. Ten, eleven, twelve? It was midnight? He was supposed to be home hours ago. Sophie and Sra. Morales must think he was dead in a ditch somewhere. He touched Sophie’s useless phone in his pocket. They might have tried to call. He hadn’t even thought of them. Stupid, pretending he could have a normal, carefree, college-student life.
“I’ve got to go.” Zander looked around. They were almost back at the ballroom. He could get his bike and be home in ten minutes. “I’ll talk to you later.” He took off running.
“Zander, wait!” Kyle ran a couple steps after him, then stopped. Zander would have to deal with him later. He wrestled the bike free of the rack, got on, and pedaled as hard as he could.
He had no choice but to come clean with Sophie and Sra. Morales.
“I met a boy,” he told them.
They cackled together, sounding like family, which made him smile through his embarrassment.
Sra. Morales wiped her eyes. “I understand, hijo. I met a boy once too. Now I’m going to bed. I’m glad you’re safe.” She kissed his cheek and padded back across the hall in her slippers.
When the door closed behind her, Sophie poked Zander in the chest. “Details. You owe me, after worrying me like that.”
“I would have called, but your stupid phone battery was dead.” Zander rummaged in his coat pockets, then patted his pants pockets. Nothing. “Your phone!”
“Don’t tell me you lost my phone, on top of everything else.”
“Damn!” He’d had it at the end of the date - the walk - with Kyle. He must have dropped it near the bike rack or somewhere along the ride home. “I’ll retrace my path-”
“Not tonight.” Sophie stifled a yawn. “I’ve had enough of waiting up and worrying for you. Go to bed, so I can.”
Zander went to bed, thinking of Kyle, alone in his bed too, somewhere.
Saturday mornings Sophie went to a “play date” with other parents at the park. Three-month-old Charlie wasn’t exactly ready to play on playground equipment, but it was a nice chance for Sophie to talk to other parents.
Normally it was a golden opportunity for Zander to study, but today he grabbed his bike and rode slowly back to the University Ballroom, watching the ground. No sign of a pink phone. Nothing around the bike rack. Someone probably picked it up. He found a old land-line campus phone and dialed Lost and Found. No one had turned in a pink phone with a glass slipper charm.
Zander sighed. Another phone gone. They’d have to find the budget to replace at least one of them, if not both. Damn.
Zander parked his bike back home and trudged up the stairs to their apartment. At least he should still have an hour or so to study before Sophie and Charlie got home.
“Hey, thanks so much,” Sophie was saying, as Zander came out of the stairwell and into the hall.
Outside the apartment door, she was holding Charlie and talking to Kyle.
Zander realized he was grinning like an idiot just to see him again. Fool, he told himself. Kyle was just about to find out all the hidden parts of Zander’s life. He’d probably run for the hills. Whatever they had was over, before it really started.
Some inner part of Zander was still just happy to see him. He wanted to touch Kyle again, smell his skin, see him smile.
I’m in trouble.
Sophie had managed to unlock the door without dropping the baby. “Come in. Oh, hey, Zander, look who it is, your boyfriend.” Zander was clearly going to be teased about this forever.
Kyle was beet red. “I just brought the phone.” He waved Sophie’s phone like he was warding them off. The glass slipper swung wildly, catching the light. “I didn’t mean… I can go.”
“You found it! Thank goodness. I thought I was under a phone curse.” Zander gestured to invite Kyle in, since he was still standing in the hall blushing, shoulders hunched.
Kyle stepped inside. He glanced at Sophie, who was across the room, putting Charlie down. He spoke quietly. “About last night… it was probably too fast. I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“What? No.” Zander guessed there was no way of hiding anything now. This was the end of whatever they’d had. But Kyle shouldn’t go away thinking it was his fault. “It wasn’t too fast. I was pretty, um, enthusiastic too, you know.” Kyle’s eyes darkened at this reminder, and Zander had to catch his breath before continuing. “I should have explained. I had to run. I lost track of time. My life’s a bit more complicated than I told you.”
Sophie bounced back to them before Kyle could respond. “So Kyle found my phone! And this morning he called Anna, because she’s the first contact, and she’s my friend from play group, so she was at the park with me when she picked up! How lucky, right?”
“Lucky,” Zander agreed.
“So Sophia gave me her address and I came over to drop the phone off. Nice to get to meet your sister.” Kyle smiled at her. “You two look alike. Same hair. Same eyes.”
“And you met little Charlotte Emily,” Sophie said. She’d clearly made a point to introduce herself and Charlie by their dignified full names.
“Sophie was doing the Bronte sisters at school when she was pregnant,” Zander explained.
Sophie tipped her nose in the air. “Nothing wrong with being named after two great writers. Maybe she will be a great writer too. Or a great something.”
Zander waited for Kyle to comment on Charlie’s skin tone, which was noticeably darker than Sophie and Zander’s Mediterranean tan. Zander never asked his sister about Charlie’s absentee father, but strangers sometimes weren’t shy about it.
Instead, Kyle had moved on to looking around at their dump of an apartment. “So this is your place?”
“Zander’s place, really,” Sophie rattled on, “but he took us in. He’s a great guy. A total catch. I don’t know if you realize. He works so hard and takes such good care of me and Charlotte.”
“Stop.” Zander tried to sound teasing, but probably the more she said, the more appalled Kyle was. He was just too polite to show it.
“I believe it,” Kyle said. His smile had vanished.
Charlie chose that moment to start fussing, and Zander had never been more grateful. Sophie hurried over to her.
“Let me walk you downstairs,” Zander said. Kyle was probably dying to get out of here. Out of Zander’s life altogether.
“Bye, Sophia, glad I could return your phone.” Kyle turned to Zander, and spoke quietly. “And at least I know I wasn’t being pushy. Or reading your signals wrong. Was I?” His thumb rubbed circles on his first finger.
How could he still not be sure about that? “No. Nothing like that. I just have a sort of complicated life. Last night I pretended not to. It wasn’t fair. I’m sorry.” He’d led Kyle on without letting him know what he was getting into. Zander moved to open the door.
“You are allowed to keep some things private. It was just a casual date. You were probably right not to trust me with the really important things.”
“What?” Zander closed the door again.
“It’s okay. I mean, my family know me better, and they know I mess up everything that I try. You don’t want to trust someone like me with a baby. That’s important.”
“No.” Zander felt like the carpet had turned to quicksand under his feet. “That’s not it.” He knew what it was like not to be trusted. Had he made Kyle feel that way?
“Don’t feel bad. You’re just protecting your family.” Kyle gave him the fake smile.
“No. Kyle, I thought-” Zander noticed Sophie pick up the baby and move into the bedroom she and Charlie shared. She closed the door behind her tactfully. “I thought you wouldn’t want to get involved. You could have anyone you want. Why would you want someone who comes with a crying baby and a teenage sister?”
“Someone wise recently told me that I need to stop letting other people make my decisions. Choose for myself.” Kyle’s voice wobbled.
Zander clenched his hands into fists to stop them reaching for him. “That does sound wise. And what do you choose?”
“You,” Kyle said. “I want you.”
Zander stepped closer, magnetically drawn, and put his arms around Kyle, who wouldn’t stop talking.
“Do you know how impressive you are? Before I just thought you were hot, but now I find out you’re supporting your sister and her baby. And you thought that you should hide that? Why? You know, I’ve never done anything with my life other than take orders from my Dad. But you-”
Zander shut him up with a kiss, sweeter and gentler than their back-alley make-out session the night before.
When they parted, Zander said, “I think you’re hot too.”
Kyle snorted a laugh. “Yeah, I noticed that last night.”
“And I’d like to go on a second date with you.”
“Good! I mean, me too.”
“And you can do whatever you want with your life.”
“And if we’re going to be dating, maybe you should hold my little niece and get to know her.”
Kyle’s jaw dropped. “No, I don’t know how to hold a baby. I might hurt her.”
“Sit.” Zander shoved him toward the couch, and went to knock on the bedroom door. “You can come out now, Sis. Thanks for the privacy. Can Kyle hold Charlie?”
“Good, you kissed and made up?” Sophie stuck her head out of her bedroom and squinted at them. “You’re done with the kissing for now, right? Charlotte is too young to see that stuff.”
“Yeah, yeah. Come and let her work her charms on Kyle.”
Sophie set the baby on Kyle’s lap. “Put your arm like this and cradle her. Like that, yeah.”
Kyle stared down at the baby, looking like he’d been hit in the head.
Sophie beamed at him. “We should train you as backup babysitter. Boyfriends are part of the family. That means they babysit for free, right?”
“Babysit…” Kyle tore his stunned gaze away from Charlie’s.
Zander jumped in. “She’s kidding.”
“No, I know. I was just thinking, it must get expensive. Both of you going to school and taking care of a baby, and paying a babysitter.”
“Sra. Morales doesn’t charge much. That’s our neighbor, Charlotte’s godmother,” Sophie said.
“Maybe I could help,” Kyle persisted. “I know not every problem can be solved with money, but this one can.”
“Forget it,” Zander snapped. “You’re not giving us money. I said we could go on a second date, not that you could be my sugar daddy.”
Sophie crowed with laughter at this, startling Charlie, who started to cry. “Oh, sorry, hon.” She took the baby back from Kyle and paced up and down, gently bouncing her. “Shhh.”
“Will you let me finish? Good grief.” Kyle rolled his eyes dramatically. Zander wondered if Sophie had given him lessons. “You can’t be the only student struggling to afford child care. The regular financial aid package is designed to support one person’s tuition and living expenses, not to pay for a baby’s needs too. The university should have a special fund to help students who are single parents.”
“There isn’t one. I checked.” Of course Zander had checked. What was Kyle getting at? “And how do you know so much about financial aid?” His family probably just wrote a check for full tuition every semester.
“It’s an interest of mine. Everyone should be able to go to college if they want to, whether they have money or not.” Kyle stood up and dusted himself off, as if the baby might have left cooties. “I’ll talk to Mom and Dad about funneling some money into a university child care fund.”
Just like that? “They’d do that?”
Kyle snorted. “They’ll be thrilled to see me take the initiative on something. I’ll suggest that the university could name the fund after the family. It’ll seem prestigious to them. Dad’ll love it.” He frowned at Zander. “It’ll probably be a year or so before we can get it all set up. This kind of thing always seems to take ridiculous amounts of time. Can you manage until then?”
“I imagine so,” Zander said. Kyle really did live in a different world. Who knew if he’d manage to carry out this big idea. It was a generous thought though. “It’s a great idea.”
He just meant to sound warm and appreciative, but Kyle caught his breath. “You can’t look at me like that, when your sister’s right here,” he whispered.
“Look at you how?” Zander intentionally dropped his voice to the breathy low pitch that had made Kyle drag him into the alley last night.
Kyle licked his lips and let out a shaky breath. “About that second date. When can we…?”
“Is now good for you?” Zander wanted to suggest that they skip the “date” part of the date and just go somewhere they could make out in private. Would that be weird, at ten o’clock on Saturday morning?
“Now is so good,” Kyle said. “Want to come see my place, since I’ve seen yours now? I’ll make us a pot of coffee.”
His place. Privacy. All Zander could think about was feeling Kyle’s skin on his. He reached out. Kyle took his hand and squeezed it. Maybe they were on the same page.
Zander cleared his throat. “Sophie-” She wasn’t in the room. She’d gone in her bedroom again without him noticing. He raised his voice. “Kyle and I are going out for a bit, are you good with Charlie?”
His sister stuck her head out of her bedroom. “God, yes. Go get it out of your systems already.”
Kyle blushed and started to stutter a reply, but Zander yanked him into the hall, leaned back to say “Bye,” and banged the door behind them.