Read Actually Online

Authors: Mia Watts

Actually (3 page)

BOOK: Actually
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I’m
the fuck up,” he shouted angrily through his tears.
Aaron shoved back his chair. He went to Mikey and awkwardly pulled him into a hug. Mike tried to push him off, but Aaron held on, fisting his shirt behind his back until Mike grabbed him and dropped his face into his brother’s shoulder.
“It’s not your fault. The other guy was drunk. Do you really think I’d stay at school and let CPS take you away from your home? God, Mikey, I’m doing everything I can to keep our lives together. That’s what they wanted, and it’s what
I
want.”
“I messed everything up,” he sobbed.
“Because of soccer? You aren’t responsible for the accident. Arguing about soccer wasn’t what killed them. The other guy, the drunk killed them. Not you.”
“I distracted them. That was
me
,” Mike shouted pulling away.
“The radio distracts. The green lights on the dashboard distract. Oncoming headlights distract. Dad was good at handling all of them. Talking and driving was a piece of cake. You know that because he’s the one who taught us how to drive in the first place. He knew what he was doing behind the wheel and if he worried about distraction, what would he have done?” Aaron asked trying to pull the answer they both knew from his kid brother.
“He’d pull over,” Mike finished.
Aaron sighed with relief, pulling him back into a hug. “You’re my kid brother. Where else would I be?” Aaron tried to sooth him though his own heart was breaking.
This time when Mike pushed away, Aaron let him go. Mike ran out of the room. He took the stairs two at a time, and moments later a door slammed. Aaron stayed frozen in place.
“Bet you didn’t expect a Shakespearean tragedy when you said you needed to talk to me,” Aaron offered dryly.
He heard Mr. Mitchell’s chair scrape back. “Talking comes in all shapes. I’m glad you trusted me with this one.”
Aaron looked down at the mess on the floor and sighed. “I should make him come down and clean it up. It’s what Mom would’ve done.”
“I’ll get it. There’s time for figuring out your own methods later. Today, you’re choosing your battles, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Where do you keep your broom?”
Aaron pointed to a slim door beside the pantry. He moved to the sink and reached under it for the tile cleaner and some paper towels. They worked in silence until the room was cleaned and the remaining dishes put away.
Aaron made a pot of coffee. They hadn’t discussed Mr. Mitchell’s concerns yet, and a night of studying stretched beyond that. He’d need the caffeine.
“Can I get you a cup?”
Mr. Mitchell shook his head. “I’d never sleep with a cup this late. How about water?”
They took their drinks into the living room and sat on the couch.
“So, you came over to tell me about Mike.” Aaron opened the subject for him.
Mr. Mitchell shook his head. “Not tonight. Go check on him. Make sure he’s in school tomorrow. You and I can have this talk after work.”
“I have a test online tomorrow. It’ll have to be Friday.”
“Then make sure he’s in school the next
two
days and we’ll talk about it with a whole weekend to come up with solutions. Eat the whole cow one bite at a time. We’ll get through this together.”
Aaron cracked a reluctant smile. “You’re planning on moving in for the weekend, Mr. Mitchell? That’s some serious dedication to the job.”
Mr. Mitchell laughed. “Not quite, although I do think you need some help.” He took a sip of water and put his glass on a coaster. “I know I used to be your teacher, but I’m not anymore. You’re my student’s guardian, so you should probably just call me Ian.”
“Ian,” Aaron said testing it out. He made a face. “Feels disrespectful.”
Ian smiled. “It’s not. I always thought that you were the kind of person I could be friends with outside of school. I’d like to test that theory, if that’s okay with you.”
“I’d like that, but—” He should tell Ian. He had the right to know what he was getting into and he may prefer to keep his distance. Besides, it had been a night for complete honesty.
“But?”
“It’s only fair to tell you that I’m gay, and as a gay man, I find you embarrassingly attractive. If that complicates things for you, I’d understand,” Aaron finished, rushing to take a gulp of hot coffee to give purpose to the inevitable silence following his confession.
Ian stayed quiet. He shifted uncomfortably as though his skin didn’t quite fit him and he’d dropped his gaze. “I see.”
“Contrary to popular belief, gay men aren’t wandering masses of volatile hormones hoping to lay every straight guy they see. I
can
keep my hands to myself and attraction doesn’t necessarily mean I want to do you.” Although in this case, he’d happily take Ian to bed and really work out the rest of the latent grief by getting physical.
When he glanced up, Ian was blushing.
“No, that’s—fine. Unexpected, but fine. Straight men are friends with women and don’t try anything, right?”
Aaron chuckled. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Right. Of course,” Ian laughed too. His expression sobered. “Does Mike know?”
“In theory. I mean, he’s aware of my interests, but he’s never seen them put into practice. I’ve never discussed dating or people I’m interested in, so it’s never really been brought home to him.”
“That friend you were kissing the night—”
“Barney,” Aaron finished for him. “We thought we’d see if there was room for more than friendship.”
It was sad when outing yourself to someone seemed a thousand times easier than evaluating grief. But that’s where it was, and Aaron grabbed the new subject with relief.
Ian waited expectantly.
“We don’t know,” he answered the unspoken question. “I haven’t seen him since that night. Honestly, I haven’t thought about him much except when he texts to see if I’m coming back.”
“I’m sure he understands that your hands are full at the moment,” Ian offered.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Aaron rubbed his forehead, feeling the fatigue of a long day catching up with him. “I can’t worry about that right now.”
“I’ll help however I can.”
“You have at least two hundred students. You can’t be doing special favors for all of them,” Aaron chided.
“None of my other students are going through what you are. Let me worry about my students and what I can or can’t do. I’m offering you help that you need. Just say thank you and let it go,” Ian insisted.
Aaron’s smile felt watery. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.”
Ian stood, picking up his glass. Aaron stood with him and followed as Ian put his glass away in the dishwasher. “I’ll come on Friday. Dinner’s on me this time.”
“You cook?”
“Frequently. How does a traditional fried chicken dinner sound?” Ian asked.
“Like heaven.”
“That’s what I like to hear. Any chance I can get in the house before you get back from work?”
“I’ll leave the backdoor unlocked. Just go through the wooden gate beside the garage. Mike should be home, but he’s not very reliable these days,” Aaron finished.
“I’ll give him a ride home.”
“I’d appreciate that.” Aaron held out his hand.
Ian took it and tugged him into a gruff half-hug, their opposite shoulders knocking into each other before they both drew back. Aaron was still smiling as Ian pulled out of the driveway.

Chapter Four

The next Friday, Ian marked the last grade and closed the book. He slid it into his leather bag and glanced at his watch. One more period, and he’d drive Mike home after they hit the grocery store. After making the offer, he felt a little nervous to cook for them. He didn’t doubt his abilities, but he wanted everything to be perfect.

Leanne knocked on his classroom door. “Hey, hot stuff, how’d your day go?”

Ian laughed humorlessly. “Let’s just say, it’s been a long week. I’m ready for the weekend.”
“Do you have plans?” She walked to his desk and leaned over it.
Leanne had full breasts, and she wore outfits that flattered them. Right now, her blouse gaped low and though he wasn’t looking directly at them, his could still see that they were trying to bust an escape.
“I do,” he said cheerfully.
“Oh?”
“I’m helping out old friends.”
Her eyes narrowed speculatively. “They wouldn’t be Mike Hedlund, would it?”
“Let me guess. You have an opinion about that?” he asked.
“It’s not healthy for you to get caught up in the family drama of one of your students.”
“Leanne, if you knew someone needed help, and you could give it, would you really turn your back on him?”
She stood up, shrugging as she did so. “If he’s a student, I’d involve the counselor and see if there were some social networks that could assist. As a teacher? When it leaves the classroom, you get into some sticky territory.”
“Caring about students doesn’t stop at the classroom door. We keep having this discussion.”
“Because you refuse to see reason,” she argued. She folded her arms, effectively plumping her breasts. He felt certain that it was more for the effect than for anger.
Ian stood too. He lifted his satchel to the seat of his chair and began loading it for the weekend. “We’re not going to see eye to eye on this. You might as well give up.”
Leanne moved around his desk. She dropped a hand on his arm, and Ian paused what he was doing.
“I’m not going to stop. The Hedlunds—what’s left of them—need me. They need
someone
to care about them and I do. Why wouldn’t I help them?”
Leanne stepped closer, looking up at him under her lashes. “I think it’s sweet. Admirable even. But getting involved could cost you your job.”
Her hand traveled up his biceps to his shoulder. Her touch crossed the line, but he also recognized that his perceptions were skewed. Not being
out
yet, he didn’t want to react in a way a normal straight man would act. He didn’t think a straight man would object to a curvy, interested woman touching him. He also didn’t want to encourage her.
“I won’t lose my job. I don’t take dumb risks,” he told her.
“Is that why you won’t ask me out? I’m free tonight.”
He blinked. “
That
would be a risk which would make work messy for both of us.”
“So you
do
like me.” She smiled cat-like. She gave a flip shrug. “You had pizza with me last week without it being a
thing
. Can’t we do that again?”
He was about to tell her that he liked her just fine from the other side of the desk, but he didn’t get that far. Leanne lifted on her toes. The hand on his shoulder caught him behind the head and dragged him down where a pair of ruby lips assaulted his with more determination than a first kiss had any right to have. Especially when it wasn’t welcome.
Ian pushed her shoulders gently, breaking the kiss. “Leanne, this isn’t the time or the place.”
“Then have dinner with me tonight at my place. Let’s see how we do one on one, without a restaurant table between us.”
“I have plans, remember?” She wasn’t so bad, he rationalized. She always brought a smile to the kids and made the staff in the break room laugh. To be fair while he hadn’t led her on, he also hadn’t discouraged her, so she had every right to be tired of the run-around.
She sighed heavily. “I like you, Ian. I want to get to know you better and I’m pretty sure you want to get to know me better too, so stop fighting it.”
A throat cleared nearby. Ian looked around her, dropping his hands quickly. Mike stood just outside in the hallway looking more than a little amused.
“I gotta go, Leanne. We’ll talk about this later.” He closed up the satchel and hefted it to his shoulder.
Leanne still hadn’t moved back enough to give him space. He squeezed past her, trying to ignore the way her hand
accidentally
brushed his crotch. He’d deal with her later, when he’d figured out just how to do that.
He smiled at Mike. “Ready to go?”
“I am. Are you? I could wait out here while you two get it on.”
Ian scrubbed a hand over the kid’s head. “Smartass.”
Mike grinned fleetingly.
“Let’s hit the store. I have a few things to pick up before we drive home,” Ian said.
“You mean,
my
home right? You aren’t planning on moving in are you? Because my brother’s gay. That could totally fuck with your relationship,” he noted, tipping his head to the classroom where they’d left Leanne.
“No, I’m not moving in, but you’ll be seeing more of me around your place. Your brother needs a hand and you need a friend.”
Mike’s expression soured instantly. “I have friends.”
“Any of them listen to you about what you’re going through?” Ian asked pointedly.
“It’s not up for discussion.”
“I noticed. Sometimes, you don’t get to choose. This is one of those times.”
* * * *
Aaron could smell dinner before he opened the door from the garage. He stood for a moment, inhaling the scents. It was crazy how some things could make you forget how hard your day had been. The smell of dinner he wasn’t cooking was one of those. He pressed his forehead to the door, his hand still on the doorknob outside.
Mr. Mitchell—Ian—was on the other side of this door, moving around his kitchen. He cooked for them, and he’d stay for dinner and at some point during the evening, Aaron would wish, not for the first time, that Ian was his. That Ian wouldn’t go home. He’d go upstairs with Aaron and hold him until Aaron fell asleep.
But that was wishful thinking. He’d give anything to rest in Ian’s arms for a while, to share the burden and know that this man would help him through it. The irony was that while Aaron could feasibly believe that Ian would hold him if he started to have a nervous breakdown, he’d have no idea that Aaron wanted a lot more than holding.
God, he didn’t remember ever having a crush so bad that his chest ached from it before. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He’d felt the same way back in high school the minute Mr. Mitchell introduced himself to the class Aaron’s junior year. The new teacher had made quite a stir with his youthful energy and good looks. Aaron hadn’t been immune.
Except back then, Mr. Mitchell had been at the front of the class teaching advanced world history, explaining the proper documentation of a research paper, and being altogether unattainable.
Now, Ian stood in his kitchen, on Aaron’s turf, cooking dinner for them and offering a friendly shoulder. It would be so tempting to give in to that crush. A crush that had developed from high school lusty fantasies to a more realistic expectation of what a relationship with the man could actually offer.
God damn, Aaron wanted it. Wanted Ian and everything he offered. Everything he hadn’t offered and probably never would. That was the ache. It was the need and desire, longing and lust, the desperation and comfort housed in a the cracking shell of reality that Ian—no matter how close he got to Aaron—would still be out of reach. He’d still be as unattainable as Mr. Mitchell had been standing in front of the class all those years ago.
Aaron took another deep inhale, letting the scents of fried chicken and gravy wash over him as he steadied his nerves to enter. Then before he gave himself more time to wallow on the differences between fact and fantasy, he pushed open the door with a bright smile.
“Wow, it smells really great in here,” Aaron began.
The words had no sooner left him than he was laughing. Ian turned around, wearing one of Mrs. Hedlund’s old red aprons with the white lacy frills around the edges. KISS THE COOK featured in huge white block letters spanned his belly. The flour streaks on the red fabric didn’t limit itself to the apron. It dotted the top of one of Ian’s brown dress shoes, his left forearm and most of his face. Like persistent snow, it touched the tips of his eyes lashes where he must’ve drawn his arm across his face.
“Hey, no laughing at the cook,” Ian warned pointing at him with a spatula.
“You’re going to make someone a fantastic wife someday,” Aaron teased.
“I’ll let that one slide because I haven’t seen you smile like that in a long time.”
The laugh died on Aaron’s lips.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s fine,” Aaron insisted. “It’s also true. Thank you.”
Ian cocked his head. “You’re welcome,” he answered softly.
Their eyes met, and for a moment Aaron wished he had permission to hug the other man and brush the flour from his face. His breath caught in his chest. Aaron looked away, finding an excuse in putting away his school books and cleaning up to help with dinner.
When he got back, he thought he had his feelings under control, but Ian in his kitchen, humming, did him in all over again.
“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re kind of an adorable mess,” Aaron told him.
“Thanks.” Ian laughed.
“Do you need some help?”
“The timer is about to go off on the biscuits. Pull them out for me?”
“Sure.” Aaron put on some oven mitts and caught the buzzer as it sounded. He put the tray of hot biscuits on the counter top beside the stove. A shallow pot of warming gravy and another of mixed vegetables shared the stove with the chicken Ian fried.
“My mom would’ve made corn, but I figured we had enough starch going here.”
“I’m not complaining. You can cook every night if you want,” Aaron said.
“With such a willing test group, I just might.”
“Kiss the cook,” Aaron read deliberately, wondering if he dared.
He glanced up. Ian was chuckling as he lifted another piece of chicken to the draining plate. Color tinged his cheekbones, but that could’ve been heat from the fry pan.
“I would, but he might deck me,” Aaron offered.
Ian lifted his brows, then leaned down to present his cheek. “Go for it.”
Aaron brushed his lips over the floured surface. He hadn’t laughed this much in months. It felt good. It also felt good to be himself around Ian without judgment.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Mike snarled. “Make up your damn mind. Do you eat pussy, or cock?”
Both Ian and Aaron whirled.
“What—?” Aaron started.
Mike stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him.
“—Was that about?” Aaron finished, stunned. “I’m sorry about that.”
“Don’t be. I didn’t mind, and we were just having fun making dinner. If that’s too much for him, then it’s probably better that he go cool off for awhile. I’ll talk to him when he gets back.”
“He knows I’m gay,” Aaron said. “He just hasn’t seen me act
gay
.”
Ian pulled out the last piece of chicken and turned off the burner. “He saw something today that might’ve confused him.”
Aaron glanced sidelong at him. He reached into the cupboard for serving bowls. He handed one of them off to Ian, waiting for him to finish.
“Leanne Mallory, the English teacher, came to talk to me today while I was waiting for school to end. She kissed me. Mike saw it. I can see why he’d be confused about seeing what just happened here.”
Aaron frowned. The kiss on the cheek had been playful, but in light of the Leanne incidence, Aaron felt a little confused too. He shouldn’t have been, he supposed. He should expect that Ian had someone. Getting a token kiss from a gay guy probably seemed funny to him.
“Yeah, that would do it,” Aaron agreed. “I shouldn’t have done it. Your girlfriend wouldn’t appreciate it.”
Ian handed him the chicken and a bowl of vegetables, and followed him to the table with the other items. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Are you sure? Sounds like you do, and if I’d known, I’d have kept my lips to myself.”
“I didn’t want you to,” Ian blurted out. He looked away. “I mean, if I had a girlfriend, what you did would still have been funny.”
“Funny?” Aaron said.
His heart sank as his fears were realized. He’d been a joke. In all fairness, it had been meant as a silly flirtation, and Aaron knew it wouldn’t go anywhere, but the more they talked about it, the bigger a deal it seemed.
“Because the apron said, kiss the cook. And you did. It was a spur of the moment thing.” Ian shrugged. “If I had a girlfriend, she wouldn’t be the kind of person who’d see that for anything other than what it was.”
“Of course.” Because a little buss from a gay dude you’re cooking dinner for was all a lark.
“It bothers you?” Ian asked, taking a seat at the table across from him.
“No. Why should it?”
“I don’t know, but I think it does.”
“I’m not up for a deep confession. How about we eat dinner and talk about Mike’s school issues. That was the plan right?” Aaron asked tightly. He stood up. “Drinks.”
“Water,” Ian answered, seeming uncertain.
Aaron brought the chilled water pitcher from the fridge with two glasses and sat down again. He poured in silence. Ian took the offered glass. He took several long swigs, watching Aaron over the rim.
“The kiss was more than just playing off the apron joke,” Ian stated after a moment.
A wry smile tugged at Aaron’s lips. He poked his green beans with his fork. “I intended it to be a play off the apron.” He hadn’t hidden from the truth before. He decided to be honest about it now. “But in light of the attention it got, it’s no longer in proportion.”
“I didn’t mind. Really.”
“Be careful, Teach. I told you up front that I’m attracted to you. Don’t lead a gay-boy on.”
Ian’s gaze dropped to Aaron’s mouth, and Aaron’s throat went dry. “I didn’t think I was.”
Aaron nearly choked on his water. Ian kept grinning, a wicked twinkle in his eyes as Aaron wiped his mouth and laughed with him.
“You didn’t, huh?” Aaron teased.
“I was kind of disappointed, actually.”
“How so?”
“My apron said,
kiss the cook
, not,
give the cook a buss on the cheek
,” Ian recalled.

BOOK: Actually
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