Eight years later
Aldo pulled into one of the visitor spots in the elementary school parking lot and cut the engine. Receiving a personal invitation from the principal to his kid’s school was not how he’d planned on using his lunch hour.
In fact, he and his wife had some very non-kid-friendly plans. Every Wednesday, they both blocked out a ninety-minute lunch and then proceeded to make excellent, naked use of those ninety minutes.
Unfortunately, urgent calls from the principal took precedence.
He slid out from behind the wheel, adjusting his pant leg over his boot. He looked down and paused for a moment. Somewhere between walking down the aisle with Gloria Parker, adopting their oldest, and watching his wife power through labor with their second, he’d forgotten he was an amputee. The label had simply peeled off, fluttered away, and life was normal. Beautifully, blissfully normal.
Until your seven-year-old daughter’s principal demands your presence in the middle of the day. Parental concern and guilt twined together in his gut. He’d help Lucia fix this, whatever it was. He just hoped it wasn’t his fault.
Aldo had just reached the door when he heard his name. He spotted her, dark hair catching the autumn breeze, lips pursed in maternal worry. She was beautiful as always. He never got used to it. The feeling would sneak up and sucker punch him every time he looked up and saw Gloria Parker—Gloria Parker-Moretta—stroll into the room. She was his, and he was hers. It was as simple and as beautiful as that.
“Hey,” she said, leaning up to kiss him on the corner of the mouth. “Did they give you any idea what this is about?”
Aldo tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, tickling the diamond earring he’d given her years ago.
“Nope. I think it’s part of the requisite psychological parent torture. They want us to assume the worst when really Lucia won some kind of geography award or something.”
“Lucia wouldn’t know how to find her way out of our driveway,” Gloria said dryly. Their seven-year-old was smart, outspoken, and athletic. But her sense of direction—or lack thereof—was a running joke in the family.
“She would if we got her the new iPhone that Tiffy Hernandez’s parents got Tiffy,” Aldo teased.
Gloria rolled her eyes and tucked her arm through his. “After all these years, I still feel poorly equipped to parent. And Tiffy’s ‘here, have everything you ever wanted’ parents are making it even harder.”
“They’ll thank us someday,” Aldo said optimistically. Lucia and Avery had it pretty damned good. Both he and Gloria saw to that.
She grinned up at him. “You’re a great dad.”
“I know,” he said airily. “You’re a pretty great mom, too.” She was a phenomenal mother. An incredible wife. And an even better woman. She’d never lost herself to any of those roles. Not when Della and Fred had retired and sold her the business. Not when she’d fallen in love with owning a rental property and had proudly housed seven families that desperately needed a chance. And not when she’d become a wife and a mother.
“Are we just telling ourselves that so it doesn’t hurt as much when the principal accuses us of helicoptering or neglect?” Gloria wondered.
“Glo, we’ve got this. We’re going to make this mystery meeting our bitch, and then we’re going to have a quickie in my truck.”
She considered for a moment. “Not on school grounds.”
“Of course not,” Aldo snorted. “We’re parents, not hormonal teenagers.”
Together, as a team, they marched down the hallway in the direction of the administration office.
“Lucia got into a fight on the playground,” Principal Tucker said. His voice lacked the trademark sternness that administrators in Aldo’s school career had all possessed. And with wire-rimmed glasses and his reddish hair brushed to one side, he looked more like everyone’s favorite cousin than a disciplinarian.
“A fight?” Gloria repeated. “A physical fight?”
“He started it, Mom,” Lucia piped up. Her skinny arms were crossed defiantly over her chest. She had dirt on her face and grass stains on the knees of her jeans. One of her braids had come loose. Aldo wasn’t sure if the damage was from the fight or just life. His daughter lived life hard.
At age five, Lucia had announced she wanted to play football like daddy. Two years later, and Aldo was a pee wee football coach, and his daughter had the best kicker’s leg in the division.
Lucia was Vietnamese and adopted, but no one doubted she was 100 percent Moretta. She had Aldo’s swagger and Gloria’s knack for reading people…and then working around them. They were going to be in serious trouble when she hit her teens. He couldn’t freaking wait.
“I don’t care who started it, Lucia,” Gloria said in well-worn mom language. “Fighting is never the answer.” She softened the rebuke by stroking her hand down Lucia’s long dark ponytail.
They were treading on marshy ground. Violence had left such a mark on Gloria’s life that she feared their daughters would face the same dangers. The worry kept both of them up some nights.
Principal Tucker pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “We’re just trying to get to the bottom of what happened. We’re not looking to make someone the bad guy here.”
“Who were you fighting with, Lu?” Aldo asked.
Shit. The kid was on the football team. He was trouble on and off the field. Bigger than the rest of the kids, he didn’t give a shit about authority unless it was his grumpy-ass father who rarely made it to games, —and when he did, he shouted his disappointment from the sidelines.
“Why were you fighting with Toby?” Gloria asked.
Aldo could hear the tension in his wife’s voice.
“He told my friend Janicka that she had to be his girlfriend. She said no, but he said she had to. I told him boys can’t make girls be their girlfriends if they don’t want to, and he shouldn’t take it personally. And then he told me to shut up.” Lucia paused to take a breath. “So I told him that he should shut up, which I know is against our code of conduct. But, Mr. Tucker, Toby was so annoying.” Lucia rolled her eyes dramatically, and Aldo had to cough to cover his laugh.
Gloria stepped on his foot, but he could see the amusement in her eyes, too. They had to look away from each other to maintain the appropriate level of parental disappointment. At this stage of the game, they were professionals at not laughing at funny things.
“Anyway, so we said shut up a couple of times, and then he tried to grab Janicka’s hand. And I was like No!” Lucia demonstrated a sweeping karate chop through the air. “And I hit his hand away just like that.”
Aldo made a note to review proper technique with Lucia again.
“My mom and dad both say that people shouldn’t hurt each other unless they absolutely have to and they’re defending someone,” Lucia lectured Mr. Tucker. Aldo breathed a sigh of relief. “Janicka was scared, and Toby was being mean. He doesn’t get to tell her she has to be his girlfriend. Right, Mom?”
Lucia looked up, eyes pleading with her mother.
“You’re right,” Gloria said. She put her hands on the back of Lucia’s chair and gave the principal a look that dared him to argue with her. “That’s definitely not okay.”
“I am in complete agreement,” Mr. Tucker said, interlacing his fingers on the desk. “But Mrs. McKnight said that you were, um…‘sitting on him, stuffing dirt in his face.’”
Aldo choked, and Gloria elbowed him in the side. Parenting was a balancing act between teaching your kids the exact right thing to do and letting them get away with something every once in a while. Aldo was leaning heavily toward letting Lucia get away with making Toby Potts eat dirt.
Lucia looked down at her lap. “I maybe got a little carried away. He pushed me first. Called me a stupid girl. And then he grabbed me here, real hard,” she said, holding up her tiny arm where a bruise was already developing.
Aldo knew rage. It was immediate and fierce. Someone had laid hands on his little girl, had tried to physically hurt her. That kid was going to run laps until he dropped dead for the rest of football season. He’d talk to the father, too. Lay it out very clearly. He’d talk to Lucia again, a refresher course in Girl Power 101. Avery was old enough, too. Four was old enough, right?
Gloria gripped his arm, fingernails digging into his skin until he started breathing again. She knew him so well. And if stuffing a seven-year-old boy in a trashcan after school was the right thing to do, Gloria would hold the lid for him.
“What did you do when he grabbed you, sweetie?” Gloria asked, careful to keep her tone neutral. But Aldo could see the anxiety in her eyes.
“I pushed him, and he fell on his b-u-t-t, and I jumped on him. I told him he doesn’t get to hurt people just because his feelings are hurt. Just like you said, Mom.”
“I didn’t tell you to stuff dirt in someone’s face when you said it,” Gloria reminded her, shooting a guilty look at Mr. Tucker.
“I improvised that part,” Lucia said proudly. “I have some questions. Am I in trouble? I was just standing up for my friend. And Toby was mean. Really mean. Also, why isn’t Toby in here? Why is it just me? Is it because I’m a girl? Am I in more trouble because I’m supposed to be nice and sugary sweet, and I made someone eat dirt?”
Gloria’s jaw opened and then closed with a snap. Aldo squeezed her shoulder as they both basked in unabashed pride in their daughter, the budding feminist.
“I don’t think you’re going to be in trouble,” Mr. Tucker predicted. “But I would like to talk to your parents for a minute, Lucia. Can you wait out in the office for us?”
“Okay.” She rose reluctantly and eyed all three adults. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” And with that, she headed for the door. Aldo stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. He was about to burst with pride. And yeah, maybe they’d have to navigate some sticky areas of self-defense and the etiquette of dirt-stuffing, but Lucia was going to be just fine out there in the world.
He held up his fist. She looked up at him and back at the fist before bumping it with her own. She gave him a nod worthy of a cocky NFL quarterback and strutted from the room.
“Please, sit,” Mr. Tucker said, indicating the chairs in front of his desk. Warily, ready to leap to the defense of their daughter, they sat. The principal took his glasses off and pulled a cleaning cloth from his desk drawer. “Allow me to be candid. This is not the first time Toby has been involved in a physical altercation. We have reason to believe that there are issues at home, which is why I’m hesitant to respond in the typical disciplinarian fashion.”
“So this kid just gets to walk around getting physical with classmates?” Aldo demanded.
Mr. Tucker put his glasses back on and smiled benignly. “Not at all. Our school has a pilot counseling program that provides students—and families—with access to professional therapists. And we will be encouraging Toby’s family to partake. Toby will have his own sessions at school, and if he attends them and participates, he won’t be punished for this incident. If we can turn this into a teaching moment, we have the opportunity to put students like him on an entirely different path.”
Aldo stewed on that for a minute.
“Kids like Toby are considered at-risk for repeating patterns learned at home,” Mr. Tucker said cryptically. “We take these situations very seriously. These kids are young, and they can still learn to change those patterns. But we need as much help as we can get.”
“What can we do?” Gloria asked. His big-hearted, public-serving wife was constantly getting him roped into volunteering and giving back. It was one of the things he loved most about her.
“Well, I was thinking since your husband is Toby’s football coach, maybe some time spent with a healthy male role model—a hometown hero, if you will—would help. This is a really essential time in childhood development. Kids are interacting in their own world with what they’ve learned at home. If a boy learns that he can get what he wants with violence now, it’s much harder to change that pattern later in life. The same as if a child learns that standing up for themselves gets them hurt.”
Aldo felt Gloria shudder next to him.
“You two have raised a bright, smart, strong little girl who is utterly fearless. I wish I had a school of Lucias.”
“No, you don’t,” Aldo and Gloria said together. They laughed, and the tension broke.
“I guess what I’m saying is we’re a community here, and if we all work together, these kids are going to have a brighter, healthier future.”
“Did I just volunteer to mentor the kid who bruised our daughter?” Aldo asked with disbelief when they stepped out into the sunshine.
“Welcome to my world,” Gloria said wryly. “What’s Uncle Luke going to say when you tell him you wrangled him into it, too?”
“Already figured that out. I’ll have Harp do it.”
“Smart. I imagine the grandmothers will celebrate Lucia’s dirt-stuffing with baked goods and nail polish tomorrow night at dinner.”
“What’s on your mind, Glo?” he asked, reading her like a well-loved book. He turned her to face him, settling his hands on her slim shoulders.
“That our daughter is so much stronger than I was at that age. And how happy and proud and sad that makes me. That Glenn never had an Aldo Moretta to look up to. That our beautiful, sweet, smart girl is seeing this at seven. Seven, Aldo. I thought we had more time.”
He pulled her into his chest and wrapped his arms around her.
The scars were still there under the happy, the busy. The scars were what made them love so deeply. “You raised a little girl who just stood up to a bully and then a bunch of adults who might have thought about holding her responsible for it. You did that, Gloria Parker-Moretta. She’s living up to your beautiful, kick-ass, shining example.”
She blinked back a tear and looked up at him. “I just wish the world was different for our girls.”
He stroked a hand over her smooth cheek. “We’re making it different, one kid at a time.”
She sighed out the tension and worry and angst on one long breath. “I love you so damn much, Aldo. Thank you for being my partner in all this.”
“Thanks for choosing me.”
“Thank you for being an excellent father and a brilliant husband, Mr. Hometown Hero.”
“It’s a great life, Glo.”
“Yeah, it is.” She looked down between them. “So how fast do you think you can get out of those pants?”
It turned out, he was able to get out of his pants pretty damn fast. They were parked against the tree line at the far end of the lakefront parking lot. And as he shoved up the skirt of Gloria’s pretty blue dress, as he held her just over the tip of his needy erection, he knew a love so fierce it carved his chest open.
She was his. And he was hers.
Gloria brought her mouth to his as she settled onto him, over him. Their bodies recognizing the familiar push and pull of lust born from love.
It was a great life. One brightened by the color and laughter of their daughters. Shaded by the constant presence of friends, family, and community. And filled with a love so deep and abiding that old wounds healed and new confidence marched them forward into the beautiful future.