“Hi, my name is Steve Moore, and I didn’t think I’d come here to a single father support group. I never planned on being a dad, and I’m not. Let me rephrase—I’m a parent, but I’m not a dad. I’m an untraditional parent—I take care of my baby sister. I was given guardianship over my sister when our parents were killed. Remember the single-engine airplane accident over at the county airport? That was our folks.” Steve’s knees knocked together, and he fought to keep upright.
Talking in front of a classroom of twelve-year-olds was so much easier than trying to talk about himself to the support group. His heart hammered and he squeezed his hands together behind his back.
“I’m a substitute teacher at the middle school, an author, a movie reviewer, and a swim instructor. Gotta have a lot of jobs to keep me busy. That said, I spend a lot of time with people, but I’m lonely and overwhelmed. My sister is a good kid. She’s smart, driven and helps out, but she misses our parents.”
He needed to stop jabbering on. The others in the room probably didn’t want to hear anything else he had to say.
“You’re doing fine, Steve,” Colin, the leader of the group, said. He smiled and nodded. “What makes you feel lonely, other than the solitary job of raising a kid?”
So, they weren’t tired of him? He blew out a long breath. “The other staff at the school only pay me attention when I’m subbing for them. Otherwise, I’m just a body taking up space. The metropark pool is full of kids, which is good for my sister, but it’s not a great place to meet people. The movies are good but can be solitary too. I guess, I’m looking in the wrong places. I just need to know I’m not alone, so here I am.” When he finished speaking, he held his breath and waited for the collective response. Would they kick him out for not being a real father?
“You’re not alone.” Colin smiled again. “We’re all in your shoes and know where you’re coming from. You’re in a good place.”
“Thanks.” Steve eased onto his chair and sighed. For the next hour and a half, he listened to the other members share their stories. They discussed their achievements and steps backward, all while boosting each other up. As he listened to the other men, he tried to figure out where he knew Colin from. The man wasn’t completely unfamiliar to him.
The bookstore… That was where he’d seen Colin. The guy owned the local business and had a boyfriend who was a cop. He’d seen the pair around town together.
He rested his ankle on his opposite knee and thought about his life. He wished he were lucky like Colin. Most men weren’t interested in him. He didn’t have a whole lot of experience with relationships though he’d had a couple of boyfriends after college. The problem was, every time he wanted to bring a guy home for a fling, his sister came to mind. He wasn’t about to allow someone he barely knew into his home with his baby sister. He refused to put her in any kind of danger.
Being cautious for her meant he had no social life whatsoever. As always, he’d been the responsible kid because there hadn’t been anyone besides their grandmother. She lived in a retirement community and hadn’t wanted custody. Responsibility was great, but the loneliness sucked.
At the end of the meeting, the men shook hands. Some immediately left and others grabbed some of the literature from one of the tables. Steve hesitated. None of the guys were particularly what he was looking for. Then again, he wasn’t even sure he had a type.
“Hi there. My name’s Don Oberman.” The older gentleman stuck out his hand and shook Steve’s. “I didn’t give my story tonight. I usually do, but there were a lot of guys here tonight, so I stayed quiet.” He smiled. The salt-and-pepper flecks in his short hair caught the light. “I’m the single dad of a college kid.”
“Very cool.” Steve folded his arms. He knew better than to take such a closed-off stance, but he wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. “Were you married?” He froze, trying to hide the embarrassment. He’d been too forward. “I’m sorry.”
“No need to be sorry.” Don laughed. He widened his stance and crossed his arms. “I hooked up with my partner Rooney twenty-five years ago. We couldn’t get married, but I was able to adopt. They wouldn’t let him and me, just me. We adopted Todd and never looked back.” His smiled wavered. “Well, until the AIDS got Rooney. Todd’s doing great. Second year of college.”
“Great for your son, but I’m sorry to hear about your partner,” Steve replied. “Was it recent? His passing?”
“He passed a couple years back, but I’m still not ready to move forward and date.” He sighed. “I’m not looking for a hookup. It’s too fresh after losing Rooney. I’d like someone to have coffee with and just talk with. Probably sounds silly, but I don’t care.”
Steve cocked his head. “How old are you? You can’t be more than mid-forties.”
“I’m forty-seven, but thank you.” Don slapped Steve on the back. “So, coffee sometime? I own the shop, so whenever you’ve got time, I can have ’er open.”
He’d wanted a friend too. Hell, a father figure could be a good influence. “Sure.” Steve grinned. Not a date, but a social meeting. Good enough.
“How about Wednesday? Or are you teaching?”
He hadn’t gotten a call about coming in on any long-term assignments, but sometimes the schools waited until the wee hours of the morning to phone and the teachers waited until the last minute to decide to take leave. Crud. “I’ll meet you around eleven unless I’m teaching. If I don’t show by eleven-thirty, then assume I’m teaching.”
“Great. I’ll see you Wednesday.” Don waved, then strolled away.
Steve stood in silence and watched the older man leave. He had a date—well, no, they were meeting for coffee. Don was too old for him, but maybe Don would be good for him.
“See you next week?” Colin asked. “This can be overwhelming, but you’re doing fine.”
“I am and I will be. I’m glad I came.” Steve gathered up his jacket. “Thanks.”
“Call if you need help or just want to talk. That’s what I’m here for.” Colin waved before Steve left the building.
Steve slid behind the wheel of his father’s sedan and grinned. He’d gotten out of his shell all right. He’d made friends and talked about his issues. “You’d be proud of me, Dad,” he said to the interior of the car. “Real proud.”
Five minutes later, Steve pulled into the driveway of his sister’s friend’s house. He strolled up to the door, but before he could knock, his sister barreled down the porch.
“See you in the car, Stevie,” she said and raced past him.
“Sure.” He stopped at the steps. “I’ll tell Violet’s mom thank you, and we’ll go.” He turned back to the front door where the woman waited. “Thanks for keeping Genie. I know she can be a handful sometimes.”
“Can we talk?” Violet’s mother, Abigail, eased onto the porch. From the pinch of her eyebrows and the low tone of her voice, Steve guessed it wouldn’t be a great conversation.
“Sure.” He stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets. “Did she break something? Say something she wasn’t supposed to? I’ll get it fixed, pay for it or talk to her.”
Abigail gripped her cell phone. “Your mom and dad were fine people. Level-headed and sweet. They really were.” She paused. “But I don’t know how they managed to end up with you.”
“Excuse me?” End up with him? What the hell was she getting at?
She gestured, waving her phone through the air. “We don’t talk about being gay in this household.”
“Okay. That’s good to know.” He still wasn’t sure where she was going with the tense conversation.
“Don’t tell Genie about being gay. Don’t try to explain it to her.”
“Because she’s too young?” Steve asked. “I don’t know. She’s pretty smart for her age and she’s quick on the uptake.”
“Because it’s immoral.” Abigail’s voice rose a notch. “You’re going to screw her up if you keep on talking about gayness being okay. It’s not. Men marry women—end of story.”
“I don’t think it is.” Now, he understood. She wanted to lecture him. Swell.
“You’ll make her gay,” Abigail snapped.
“I will? Because I’m her brother? I doubt that.” Now, he was just playing with her and wondering why in the hell he’d ever let Genie visit with the old windbag… Because of Violet, her daughter. Well, shit.
“You’re teaching her to be gay, that being gay is acceptable, and that having loose morals is fine. It’s not. She deserves more. Behave, and don’t flaunt your sexuality.”
“Or you’ll what? You’ll get involved? Fill her head with your version of the truth? Look, Mrs. Finch, I’m glad you’ve got your thoughts on this subject. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes and seen what my sister and I have had to go through, please don’t try to push your beliefs onto us, okay?”
“You flaunt your sexuality on a platter,” she snapped. “It’s disgusting.”
“I’ve done that? Huh, I didn’t know.” Apparently, his speech and polite explanation weren’t enough or were being ignored.
“The girls were talking about boys, and Imogene said she wanted to find you a date. That’s not right. When I questioned her about her statement, she told me she had a boyfriend and that she wanted you to be happy too. Whether you’re happy or not is doesn’t matter. She’s ten years old. She should be worrying about dolls and trying makeup, not finding her disgusting gay brother a date. How would your mother feel about this? Or her mother, for that matter? The family was proud until you came along. Has your grandmother expressed an interest in raising Imogene? If not, then she should be contacted. She’d be a better parent to a small child than a pervert.”
He tried to shove his anger down deep. She wasn’t worth him getting upset, but still. “What I find inappropriate is my sister going with someone because she’s too young and you trying to intervene where you’re not welcome because you want to encourage her. She’s not old enough to have a boyfriend, and we’ll have a talk about it when we get home.” Besides, his grandmother was eighty-two and living in a retirement community. She didn’t need the stress of raising Imogene.
“You’re not seeing my point,” Abigail snarked.
“I see it just fine. You want to keep her from the real world and mold her how you see fit. That’s fine for your daughter. I won’t tell you how to raise her, but this is my sister you’re talking about. There are gay people in the world. I’m not going to lie. Besides, between teaching at the metropark, subbing and writing, I don’t have time to have a boyfriend.”
“Maybe you should attend the support group for reformed gay men. They might be able to fix you.” Abigail smiled, her eyes narrow and her lips tight.
He wanted to answer her but didn’t. She wasn’t worth his time. Steve nodded once, then strolled down the walkway to the car. Some people refused to understand. He stopped partway to the vehicle, then turned back to Abigail. “Thank you for allowing Genie to visit with Violet. I appreciate it.” He’d take her with him to the next meeting if he had to. No more alone time with Abigail Finch.
Steve ambled up to the sedan, then collapsed in the driver’s seat. No more worrying about his lonely life. He could be lonely and emo about it later. Right now, he had to think about his sister and keeping her happy.
“I heard you talking to Mrs. Finch.” Genie buckled her seatbelt. “Yes, I have a boyfriend, but it’s just chatting on the computer and talking at lunch.”
“I wasn’t worried.” Not entirely. She was growing up too fast for his comfort, but he chalked that up to being a parent. He put the car into gear and headed home. “I’m worried about what she told you, though.”
“Her garbage about you being gay and going to hell?” Genie cackled. “I let her talk, just like you tell me to do, then smiled and went on my way. Yes, I told her I wanted you to get a boyfriend. I’d also like Mom and Dad to come back, but since that’s impossible and you getting a hunk isn’t, I figured I’d aim for the boyfriend.”
“Did you just say get a hunk?”
“Uh-huh. Like Jared.” She giggled. “He’s a hunk.”
“He’s also eleven.”
“I didn’t say for you to be his boyfriend. He’s mine.”
“You’re making me feel old, you know that, don’t you?”
When they reached the house, she bounded out of the car first and into the kitchen. “Stevie, you need a boyfriend. You’re lonely and getting dorky. Try one of those computer sites or something.”
“Mrs. Finch said she thought Grandma would be better to raise you.” There. He’d put that tidbit of info out for her to mull over.
“Grandma? Why would she do that? She doesn’t leave the retirement home that much.” Genie rolled her eyes. “I’m staying put.”
He tossed his car keys into the basket and his wallet onto the buffet. “Why don’t you go upstairs, get your shower, and get ready for bed? I’ll worry about men, okay?”
“Fine.” She grinned and shot up the stairs.
Steve massaged his temples. If he’d been told three years ago he’d be raising his sister, fighting to get permanent custody and living in his parents’ home, he would’ve laughed. Now, he was twenty-four and had assumed the roles of parent and breadwinner. He’d been given so much responsibility… He riffled through the mail he’d left on the counter and paused when he saw the thick envelope. The final custody hearing in court. Jesus. He’d spent a bucketload of money to keep custody of Genie and so many hours running to court. He was her brother, for God’s sake. Didn’t that count for something?
He caught a glance of his sister’s picture in the hallway. Maybe he would let Genie find him a boyfriend. Her taste couldn’t be much worse than the guys he’d already dated. She could be his good-luck charm.
Anything was better than being alone.