At 25 years old, preschool teacher Kayla Harris is embarrassed to admit she's never been kissed. When Tony DiNunzio and his grieving nephew show up in her classroom, she can't help being drawn to both of them. If only her insecurities-and his guilt over his sister's death-would stop standing in their way.
As Christmas approaches, can these three come together to form a family... not just for the holidays, but forever?
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Author: Lee Tobin McClain
Series: The Off Season #5
Publisher: HQN Books
Publisher: HQN Books
Format: Kindle ARC
No. of Pages: 352
Date of Publication: October 28, 2021
My Rating: 5 Stars
Kayla Harris looks out the window and sees a scruffy man approaching a upset young child at the town's playground. As she starts to rush to the child's aid, the child does calm down in the arms of the man. That does not explain why the child was there by himself at first and then the man showed up. Why is he looking so rough? Kayla is a preschool teacher and children are her first priority.
She soon learns that Tony DeNunzio is the boy's uncle. The child's name is Jax and Kayla is more than curious as to why the two are together.
One night out with her friend Amber has Kayla confessing that she has reached the age of twenty-five without ever being kissed. This discussion leads Kayla to making a resolution to kiss a man before the end of the year. Will she be able to do it? Find someone that she would be that comfortable with?
This story is very, very touching. For starters, Amber is plus-sized, but has tremendous self-confidence. Then there is Jax. All he has is Tony. (Well, he has another aunt and uncle, but Tony has taken guardianship of him.) Jax just about broke my heart. His clinginess, sensitivity and sadness came right through the pages of this book. Also, there is Tony, trying to learn how to become a father all of a sudden, especially when considering how Jax tragically lost his mother Stella.
As Kayla rents out a cottage to Tony and Jax, she gets to know them, especially once Jax gets enrolled as a student. Meanwhile, there is a side story, and it is rather significant. There are unclear details about Stella's death, and it soon becomes apparent that perhaps Tony and Jax may not be safe. Will they every get past losing Stella and remain safe and become a family of two? What about a family of three with Kayla? Is the baggage that both Kayla and Tony carry too much for a loving and lasting relationship to develop?
I was thoroughly enamored with this touching story. I admit to crying for Tony and Jax. I felt like their pain was my pain. I also felt for Kayla as I am also a plus-sized woman. Then there is the story itself and how wonderfully it developed, even with the air of intrigue in this story. Lastly, the dogs in the story - did they steal the show for me? Maybe. Just maybe.
I love Lee Tobin McClain's writing. She manages to connect her readers to her characters, thus making me feel like she is sitting in my living room relating said stories to me.
Many thanks to HQN Books and to NetGalley for this ARC for review. This is my honest opinion.
Please enjoy the following excerpt:
KAYLA HARRIS CARRIED a bag of snowflake decorations to the window of her preschool classroom. She started putting them up in a random pattern, humming along to the Christmas music she’d accessed on her phone.
Yes, it was Sunday afternoon, and yes, she was a loser for spending it at work, but she loved her job and wanted the classroom to be ready when the kids returned from Thanksgiving break tomorrow. Nobody could get as excited as a four-year-old about Christmas decorations.
Outside, the November wind tossed the pine branches and jangled the swings on the Coastal Kids Early Learning Center’s playground. A lonely seagull swooped across the sky, no doubt headed for the bay. The Chesapeake was home to all kinds of wildlife, year-round. That was one of the things she loved about living here.
Then another kind of movement from the playground caught her eye.
A man in a long, army-type coat, bareheaded, ran after a little boy. When Kayla pushed open the window to see better, she heard the child screaming.
Heart pounding, she rushed downstairs and out the door of the empty school.
The little boy now huddled at the top of the sliding board, mouth wide open as he cried, tears rolling down round, rosy cheeks. The man stood between the slide and a climbing structure, forking his fingers through disheveled hair, not speaking to the child or making any effort to comfort him. This couldn’t be the little boy’s father. Something was wrong.
She ran toward the sliding board. “Hi, honey,” she said to the child, keeping her voice low and calm. “What’s the matter?”
“Leave him alone,” the man barked out. His ragged jeans and wildly flapping coat made him look disreputable, maybe homeless.
She ignored him, climbed halfway up the ladder, and touched the child’s shaking shoulder. “Hi, sweetheart.”
The little boy jerked away and, maybe on purpose, maybe not, slid down the slide. The man rushed to catch him at the bottom, and the boy struggled, crying, his little fists pounding, legs kicking.
Kayla pulled out her phone to report a possible child abduction, eyes on the pair, poised to interfere if the man tried to run with the child.
One of the boy’s kicks landed in a particularly vulnerable spot, and the man winced and adjusted the child to cradle him as if he were a baby. “Okay, okay,” he murmured in a deep, but gentle voice, nothing like the sharp tone in which he’d addressed Kayla. He sat down on the end of the slide and pulled the child close, rocking a little. “You’re okay.”
The little boy struggled for another few seconds and then stopped, laying his head against the man’s broad chest. Apparently, this guy had gained the child’s trust, at least to some degree.
For the first time, Kayla wondered if she’d misread the situation. Was this just a scruffy dad? Was she maybe just being her usual awkward self with men?
He looked up at her then, curiosity in his eyes.
Her face heated, but she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. She was an education professional trying to help a child. “This is a private school, sir,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
The little boy had startled at her voice and his crying intensified. The man ignored her question.
“Is he your son?”
Again, no answer as he stroked the child’s hair and whispered something into his ear.
“All right, I guess it’s time for the police to straighten this out.” She searched for the number, her fingers numb with the cold. Maybe this situation didn’t merit a 911 call, but there was definitely something unusual going on. Her small town’s police force could straighten it out.
“WAIT. DON’T CALL THE POLICE.” Tony DeNunzio struggled to his feet, the weight of his tense nephew making him awkward. “Everything’s okay. I’m his guardian.” He didn’t owe this woman an explanation, and it irritated him to have to give one, but he didn’t want Jax to get even more upset. The child hated cops, and with good reason.
“You’re his guardian?” The blonde, petite as she was, made him feel small as her eyes skimmed him up and down.
He glanced down at his clothes and winced. Lifted a hand to his bristly chin and winced again.
He hadn’t shaved since they’d arrived in town two days ago, and he’d grabbed these clothes from the heap of clean but wrinkled laundry beside his bed. Not only because he was busy trying to get Jax settled, but because he couldn’t bring himself to care about folding laundry and shaving and most of the other tasks under the general heading of personal hygiene. A shower a day, and a bath for Jax, was about all he could manage. His brother and sister—his surviving sister—had scolded him about it, back home.
He couldn’t explain all of that, didn’t need to. It wasn’t this shivering stranger’s business. “Jax is going to enroll here,” he said.
“Really?” Another wave of shivers hit her, making her teeth chatter. Tony didn’t know where she’d come from, but apparently her mission of mercy had compelled her to run outside without her coat.
He’d offer her his, but he had a feeling she’d turn up her nose.
“The school is closed on Sundays,” she said.
Thank you, Miss Obvious. But given that he and Jax had slipped through a gap in the playground’s loosely chained gate, he guessed their presence merited a little more explanation. “I’m trying to get him used to the place before he starts school tomorrow. He has trouble with...” Tony glanced down at Jax, who’d stopped crying and stuck his thumb in his mouth, and a surge of love and frustration rose in him. “He has trouble with basically everything.”
The woman shook her head and put a finger to her lips, then pointed at the child.
What was that all about? And who was she, the parenting police? “Do you have a reason to be here?” he asked, hearing the truculence in his own voice and not caring.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “I work nearby,” she said. “Saw you here and got concerned, because the little guy seemed to be upset. For that matter, he still seems to be.”
No denying that. Jax had tensed up as soon as they’d approached the preschool playground, probably because it was similar to places where he’d had other bad experiences. Even though Jax had settled some, Tony could feel the tightness in his muscles, and he rubbed circles on his nephew’s back. “He’s been kicked out of preschool and day care before,” he explained. “This is kind of my last resort.”
She frowned. “You know he can hear you, right?”
“Of course he can hear, he’s not...” Tony trailed off as he realized what she meant. He shouldn’t say negative things about Jax in front of him.
She was right, but she’d also just met him and Jax. Was she really going to start telling him how to raise his nephew?
Of course, probably almost anyone in the world would be better at it than he was.
“Did you let the school know the particulars of his situation?” She leaned against the slide’s ladder, her face concerned.
Tony sighed. She must be one of those women who had nothing else to do but criticize how others handled their lives. She was cute, though. And it wasn’t as if he had much else to do, either. He’d completed all the Victory Cottage paperwork, and he couldn’t start dealing with the program’s other requirements until the business week started tomorrow.
Jax moved restlessly and looked up at him.
Tony set Jax on his feet and gestured toward the play structure. “Go ahead and climb. We’ll go back to the cottage before long.” He didn’t know much about being a parent, but one thing he’d learned in the past three months was that tiring a kid out with active play was a good idea.
Jax nodded and ran over to the playset. His tongue sticking out of one corner of his mouth, forehead wrinkled, he started to climb.
Tony watched him, marveling at how quickly his moods changed. Jax’s counselor said all kids were like that, but Jax seemed a little more extreme than most.
No surprise, given what he’d been through.
Tony looked back at the woman, who was watching him expectantly.
“What did you ask me?” Sometimes he worried about himself. It was hard to keep track of conversations, not that he had all that many of them lately. None, except with Jax, since they’d arrived in Pleasant Shores two days ago.
“I asked if you let the school know about his issues,” she said. “It might help them help him, if they know what they’re working with.”
“I didn’t tell them about the other schools,” he said. “I didn’t want to jinx this place, make them think he’s a bad kid, right from the get-go. He’s not.”
“I’m sure he isn’t,” she said. “He’s a real cutie. But still, you should be up front with his teachers and the principal.”
Normally he would have told her to mind her own business, but he was just too tired for a fight. “You’re probably right.” It was another area where he was failing Jax, he guessed. But he was doing the best he could. It wasn’t as if he’d had experience with any kids other than Jax. Even overseas, when the other soldiers had given out candy and made friends, he’d tended to terrify the little ones. Too big, too gruff, too used to giving orders.
“Telling the school the whole story will only help him,” she said, still studying Jax, her forehead creased.
He frowned at her. “Why would you care?”
“The truth is,” she said, “I’m going to be his teacher.”
Great. He felt his shoulders slump. Had he just ruined his nephew’s chances at this last-resort school?
MONDAY MORNING, KAYLA welcomed the last of her usual students and stood on tiptoes to look down the stairs of the Coastal Kids preschool. Where were Tony and Jax?
She’d informed two of her friendliest and most responsible students that a new boy was coming today and that they should help him to feel at home. If he didn’t get here in time for the opening circle, she’d tell all twelve of the kids about Jax.
But maybe his uncle had changed his mind about enrolling him.
Maybe Kayla’s mother, who was the principal of the little early learning center, had decided Jax wasn’t going to be a good fit and suggested another option for him. That would be rare, but it occasionally happened.
Mom said Kayla fretted too much. Probably true, but it was in the job description. Kayla felt a true calling to nurture and educate the kids in her care. Sometimes, that meant worrying about them.
The Coastal Kids Early Learning Center was housed in an old house that adjoined a local private school. Kayla’s classroom was one of three located upstairs, and from hers, she could see down the central staircase to the glassed-in offices. Her mother was welcoming a few stragglers, but there was still no sign of her new student.
She turned back to face her students. “Good job sharing,” she said to redheaded Nicole, who was holding out a plastic truck to her friend. “Jacob, we don’t run in the classroom. Why don’t you look at the new books on our reading shelf?”
After making sure all the kids were occupied with their morning playtime, she stepped out into the hall. If she could flag down her mother, she’d try to find out what was going on with Jax.
And then Tony came into the school, holding Jax’s hand.
Kayla sucked in a breath. Wow. He cleaned up really well.
Not that he was entirely cleaned up; he still had the stubbly half beard that made him look a little dangerous, and his thick, dark hair was overlong. But he wore nice jeans and a green sweater with sleeves pushed up to reveal muscular forearms. He knelt so Jax could jump onto his back for a piggyback ride, then stood easily, and Kayla sucked in another breath. There was something about a guy who was physically strong.
He stopped and spoke to Kayla’s mother—she’d been occupied with another parent right inside the office, apparently—and then, at her gesture, headed up the stairs toward Kayla’s classroom.
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