This book is extremely important to me — it’s a story I desperately wanted to tell, about a slow and wary and tender love with a lot working against it — and even more going for it. I love Ana and Ethan, and I’m so happy to be able to share them you today.
But first, I have a lot of people to thank.
Thirty-four years ago, my mother gave me my first college-ruled notebook and encouraged me to write stories. My dad has always been equally supportive, and bought one of the first copies of Yours to Keep today. Thank you, Mom and Dad.
Three years ago, my high school friend who’d just published a book told me that the key was to write 1,000 words a day. He was right. Thank you, Brad.
My local friend encouraged me to read romance and confided in me that she was writing a romance novel. She became my first critique partner. Thank you, Ellen.
My husband and two children have been been incredibly supportive of my writing. They tease me gently, saying that I have gone off to “fiction land,” when I become vague, forgetful, or even unresponsive, but they are all openly proud of me, and eagerly await news of sales and other triumphs. My husband reads everything I write, celebrates and defends me at cocktail parties when necessary, and is a great critic. Hugs and kisses, Bells.
I have wonderful and supportive friends — from non-writer friends who’ve been willing to read and copyedit and listen and sympathize — even when they have no idea what I’m talking about — to writer friends who have peeled me off the pavement, the ceiling, walls, and any other available surface, fed me chocolate, taken me for walks, read shitty first drafts, let me fill their DM columns, phone text queues, email inboxes, and ears with neurosis, and generally been totally indispensable. Chocolate back atcha.
I have a terrific agent, Emily Sylvan Kim, at Prospect Agency, and a wonderful editor, Sue Grimshaw at Random House’s Loveswept imprint, both of whom believed deeply in this book. The team at Loveswept, acquisitions, copy editors, production editors marketing, and promo, has worked tirelessly to make sure this book is the best it can be and reaches the most people it can.
I have deep appreciation for the many amazing authors — women I admire so much — who advance-read and blurbed this book, and to all my author friends who have helped promote and spread the word about it. And of course a huge thank you to all the readers who have already bought the book, and all the reviewers who have sought it out and said such thoughtful things about it. I couldn’t do this without any of you, and I am deeply grateful.
Ana Travares has been looking over her shoulder her whole life. Her U.S. visa expired when she was a young girl, and if her secret is discovered, she’ll be forced to return to the Dominican Republic.
Ana allowed herself to get close to someone once before—and after he broke her heart, she swore never to make the same mistake again. But when a handsome doctor asks for her assistance, she fantasizes about breaking all her rules.
Even though pediatrician Ethan Hansen is a natural when it comes to little kids, as the single father of a teenage son he just can’t seem to get it right . . . except for the Spanish tutor he’s hired for his son, Theo. Ana has managed to crack Theo’s shell—and he isn’t the only one taken with her. The sexy tutor has fired up Ethan with a potent mix of lust and protectiveness.
But as he starts to envision a future with Ana, Ethan is devastated to learn the truth about her citizenship. Somehow he’s got to find a way to help her—and hold on to the woman he’s falling hopelessly in love with.
“Serena Bell weaves a sultry, satisfying romance into a heartbreakingly authentic story.”—USA Today bestselling author Megan Mulry
“Serena Bell writes romance about real people with real problems. Yours to Keep is timely, sexy, and very, very good. Highly recommended.”—Molly O’Keefe, bestselling author of Wild Child
“Serena Bell delivers a fully adult romance with authentic characters, genuine stakes, and the kind of sweet, hot yearning that turns pages and stops your breath.”—Mary Ann Rivers, author of Live
“Sweet, drama filled . . . a nail biter [with] swoons galore . . . steamy hot . . . a make-you-tear-up-and-smile book.”—The Book Hammock
Excerpt from Yours to Keep
Copyright © 2013 Serena Bell
All rights reserved — Loveswept Contemporary Romance
Ana Travares had let down her guard. She’d stopped hearing her brother’s voice in her head, warning her not to say too much. Telling her not to make friends too easily. Reminding her that she—that they—didn’t have the luxury of trusting other people. Ever.
At some point, she’d let her shoulders drop from their usual spot around her ears and started to believe that maybe, just maybe, nothing too terrible would happen, as long as she kept her nose clean and didn’t break any rules.
She’d enjoyed living like a normal person. She’d lost that sense of peering around the next corner, anticipating the next challenge. And it had been a relief, like taking full breaths for the first time after wearing a too-tight dress.
Only now she thought it might not have been worth it, because the adrenaline of sudden danger packed such a vicious punch: nausea, trembling hands, tight throat. She spoke nearly flawless English, but authority figures could make her forget every word.
All Ed Branch, the high school’s new academic support specialist, had said was, “We have a new lawyer,” but that had been enough to make her sick.
“The new lawyer’s a dot-the-I’s and cross-the-T’s type,” Ed said. He sat behind his tidy desk, tipping his chair back. “Wants a CORI from everyone who breathes near the high school. You know what a CORI is, right?” He raised his eyebrows. “Criminal Offender Record Information. It’s a criminal background check.”
She nodded, shifting in the hard seat he’d offered her. Her anxiety felt visible.
“Next thing, he’ll be asking people who drive through the school zone to do background checks, too. Can you see it? Stopping drivers at the crosswalk, handing pens and CORIs through the window?” He laughed. “The point is, we’re not singling you out. Everyone who has anything to do with kids has to complete one. You have to, if you want to stay on the Recommended Tutors list.”
That list was her lifeline to work in Beacon. She got half her income from tutoring, and nearly all her tutoring clients through the school. Beacon wasn’t the only town with students who needed tutoring, but it was one of the few towns left in Massachusetts that still had a vibrant foreign language program, one of the few towns where most parents had enough money and time to hire tutors, and the only town of that sort she could get to without a car. She needed Ed’s referrals.
“You have to do a criminal background check just to keep my name on that list?”
“Yep. Crazy, if you ask me. We’re going to spend more time chasing people down to get these things—”
Ed bent his head, and she watched him ransack a file drawer. He slid a sheet of paper over the walnut desk. “I’ll need to see some form of government issued ID, too.”
It didn’t look like much, that piece of paper. It had the high school’s letterhead on it and a series of blank lines, but those lines demanded information that she couldn’t provide. Name—she could do that. Address—yes, she had one of those. Last three addresses—she could dredge those up, with some difficulty, because although they’d moved frequently, they’d stayed in Hawthorne, a small city just outside of Boston’s magnetic field. But social security number?
This would be so easy for most people. Whip out a driver’s license. Jot down an SSN. Smile, move on.
Not easy for her. Not at all.
Sometimes she wished like hell that her brother hadn’t been so careful with her, that he’d let her fake her way, as many undocumented immigrants did. Then she could calmly reach for that piece of paper and write someone else’s social security number on it.
“Is there a problem, sweetheart?”
Her mind raced. If she could stall the process, maybe Ed would forget. Or the forms would get lost. “Do you need it now?”
“You’re here, aren’t you? It’ll just take a minute.”
None of this would be happening if Ed’s predecessor were still in charge of coordinating the school’s tutoring programs. Louisa Grieg had been an easy-to-please, befuddled old biddy. Ana desperately missed her now.
Leave, a voice in Ana’s head shouted. Just get up and leave.
She made herself think of her niece and nephews. Her tutoring money paid for groceries, for milk and cereal, for school supplies, for clothes. There was no margin of error in her household, no room for screwups.
Idiota, she scolded herself.
Her brother had been right. No matter how careful you were, no matter how cautious, there were surprises. Traps.
A string of traps, led from their arrival in the U.S. twenty years ago, when Ana was seven, to this moment. Ana’s mother had never been a meticulous woman, and her exodus to the U.S. had broken her. She’d left behind home and beloved sister in the Dominican Republic, only to discover that her husband, who’d promised to follow her to the U.S., had reneged on his word.
Then Ana’s mother had gotten stomach cancer. Bedridden, she’d forgotten about, or ignored, her children’s visas. After her death, her kids had discovered the truth and, terrified, had hidden until hiding became a necessity.
Now there were no more choices. There was only Ana’s reality: Live here, in the shadows, or be deported to a country that was as foreign to her, as devoid of the things she loved, as rural China.
She was hyperconscious of the sealed door to Ed Branch’s tiny, airless office. Of the narrowness of her own breathing passages, the tightness of her chest.
“Do you need a pen?” He fished one from the can on the desk and handed it to her.
She drew the deepest breath she could. “If I’m not on the Recommended Tutors list, can you still refer people to me?”
“I’m afraid not.” He gave her a sorrowful smile that had more in common with a smirk. “We can’t put our stamp of approval on anyone who hasn’t met our requirements.”
Was he suggesting he’d cut her off from her current clients, as well?
That was worse, somehow, than “sweetheart.”
“—All I’m asking you to do is give me your previous addresses and social security number, and show me some ID.” There was a sour sound in his voice now, an emphasis on the phrase “social security number.”
He had somehow guessed the truth about her. Of course he knew she was Latina—her name proclaimed it, and she’d been told until she was sick of hearing it that she looked like this or that Latina actress, only “skinnier” or “with lighter skin” or “with straighter hair”—but she didn’t fit most people’s stereotypes of an undocumented immigrant. Because she’d moved here so young and started school in kindergarten, she’d learned English in a matter of weeks and was as culturally American as any of her classmates. But his manner—unctuous and sneering—told her she hadn’t fooled him. He knew.
She closed her eyes, shutting out his disdain and the bare, cinder-block walls. The office smelled like ozone and indoor-outdoor carpeting. “I’m sorry.” She put down the pen and stood up. “I don’t have ID with me today.”
“Ana. I can help.”
His tone had a new note, low and deliberate, oozy and sexual.
And here they were. Where Ed had been leading her all along.
He got up and came around to her side of the desk. She stepped back, involuntarily. She could see the gray whiskers he’d missed when shaving, the flecks of chapped skin on his lower lip. He smelled like fabric softener, his breath like maple syrup.
“Let me help,” he murmured. He reached out and, before she could move, stroked her long, jet-black hair back from her face.
She shuddered. “No.” Men like Ed Branch were the reason she tied her hair back in a ponytail, avoided makeup, and dressed in baggy clothes most of the time. Because the only thing worse than living in the shadows was when something low and dirty crept in there with you and made itself at home.
“We can work this out. This CORI problem. I’m on your side.”
She tried to draw away, but he’d woven his fingers into her ponytail. Behind his John Lennon glasses, his eyes were gray, too. The urge to yank her head away was overwhelming. “There’s no problem,” she said.
Fear had made her accent stronger, and distaste flickered in his face. “Ana,” he coaxed. The greasy sound of his voice, the too-sweet scent of him, made her dizzy. “You can tell me. Tell me the truth. What’s wrong? Why don’t you want to fill out the form?”
Because I’ve never been a fan of signing my own death warrants. She reached up and removed her hair from his grasp. Took a deep breath. “I can fill out the form just fine. I just have to look up the old addresses. I’ll take it with me. When do you need it by?”
His mouth formed a hard line. “I know you’re illegal.”
Behind her burst of fear, she felt a sliver of satisfaction. She’d made him show his hand. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I think you do.”
“I’ll just take this home with me and fill it out. Just tell me when you need it by.”
She darted past him and snatched the CORI, but he grabbed her arm and backed her towards the desk, his bony hip bumping hers. “Ana, please, baby, I can make this go away.”
Bile rose in her throat as he moved his other hand to her waist.
Head pounding from the din in the high school gymnasium, Ethan Hansen warily watched his son, Theo, and reminded himself that there were excellent reasons he’d volunteered to do this.
When the school nurse had asked if he’d create a helmet safety booth for Beacon High’s lunchtime health fair, he’d jumped at the opportunity. As a suburban pediatrician, he saw way too much head trauma. If he could remind even a few kids that helmets saved lives, he’d be doing some good. But the truth was, he’d had an ulterior motive, too. He was here because he wanted to show Theo that he was an active, involved father. Even if Theo had no interest in the demonstration.
Theo regarded the tagboard foldout critically. If You’ve Got a Brain in Your Head, Wear a Helmet, the slogan proclaimed.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Theo wore a beat-up Pink Floyd T-shirt and sweatpants, which Ethan had more than once told him were too casual for school. His shaggy black hair shadowed one green eye. He and Ethan shared the eye color, but nothing else physically—Theo’s fair skin and delicate features were elfin, almost ethereal, where Ethan’s features were rougher, his body brawnier, and his red-brown hair a less dramatic contrast to the green eyes.
The rest of Theo was purely his mother, and even eight years after her death, nothing had the power to reduce Ethan to black grief like catching sight of Theo’s face at an angle that suggested Trish’s.
A student darted close enough to snatch a miniature helmet keychain out of the jar on the table, but retreated before Ethan could engage him in conversation.
Theo watched him go, arms crossed. “If you’ve got a brain in your head, come up with a decent slogan.”
Ethan’s blood pressure jerked upwards. “Don’t talk to me that way.”
“I wasn’t talking to you any way. I was just making a joke about the slogan.”
People sometimes said that teenagers were like toddlers, only bigger. Ethan thought they were dead wrong. Teenagers were much cleverer and more dangerous than toddlers. They knew how to weasel out of tight semantic spaces. “Just watch your tone.”
“Why did you have to come here? It’s humiliating.”
Ethan took a deep breath. He was trapped behind this table for another half-hour, and getting into an all-out battle of the wills would be disastrous. “It could have been worse. I could be giving out condoms, like those moms.” He gestured to the three moms behind the table beside him.
Not a glimmer of humor in Theo’s scowling face. “You’re the only dad here.” An accusation.
When Ethan attended school events, he was almost always the only dad, and it was lonely. Some moms were good about including him in conversation, but many avoided him. He didn’t exactly blame them. It was an awkward thing, being the only man in a roomful of women. Conversations stopped dead when he showed up: last night’s party where they’d sold each other jewelry or bras or sex toys, discussions of hair removal strategies, mild or bitter complaints about husbandly inattentiveness. Not only was he not plagued with sagging breasts or unwanted hair, but he didn’t have a spouse to complain about. It was a double whammy, being a widower in a town of two-parent families.
“Yes. I’m the only dad here.” And I’m all you’ve got, thought Ethan, but he didn’t say it out loud. In the mood Theo was in now—a mood he seemed to be in more and more these days—he’d find some way to make it Ethan’s fault that Trish had died.
Ethan wanted to say, Theo, if it’s so humiliating that I’m here, why are you hanging around my booth? But then Theo would accuse Ethan of making him feel unwelcome—
There was no winning these days. And it was getting worse. Sometime in the last few weeks, Theo had crossed over from sullen to outright obnoxious, and Ethan was braced, waiting for genuine rebelliousness—rule-breaking, drug-taking or crime.
“Theo, is this your dad?” The voice belonged to a middle-aged, plump woman whose silver hair was pulled back in a bun. “I have some business with him.”
Generally speaking, there were two reasons women wanted to talk to Ethan: Either they wanted to ask his advice, as a pediatrician, about a medical problem, or they wanted to flirt. He was guessing, however, that this woman’s business fell into neither of those categories. She looked—angry, he’d have to say. Ferocious.
“You didn’t think it might be worth at least trying to get him a tutor?” she asked.
With a father’s sixth sense—so often absent lately, but suddenly at his command—Ethan reached out and grabbed Theo’s scrawny wrist as he began to slink away.
“Hang on.” He turned to the silver-haired woman. “What’s this?”
“Kids these days,” she harrumphed. “They give up soooo easily. And it’s because their parents let them.”
“What are we talking about?” Ethan asked pleasantly. Theo was twisting in his grasp, but Ethan didn’t loosen his fingers.
“We’re talking about the fact that you allowed Theo to drop Spanish.”
“Theo dropped Spanish?”
Theo had given up the struggle. His wrist lay limply in Ethan’s hand now. Ethan eyed him. Theo looked at the floor, at the ceiling—anywhere but at his father.
“Are you his Spanish teacher?”
“His former Spanish teacher. Elsie Andalucía.”
“Ethan Hansen.” He shook her hand, Theo’s wrist still firmly gripped in his left. “He dropped Spanish?”
“You signed the form.” She crossed her arms.
“Actually, I didn’t.”
They both looked at Theo, whose face had turned red. Elsie crossed her arms. “I guess that explains why you never responded to my note suggesting you get him a tutor.”
“Theo,” growled Ethan.
With his shoulders up and his hair falling over his face, Theo gave the distinct impression of a pill bug rolling itself up to hide.
“I’m very sorry about this,” Ethan told Elsie. “Let’s start over, shall we? Can we get him back into that class?”
She smiled, and the wrinkled skin on her cheeks softened in folds. “Absolutely. I can make that happen. But he’s going to need a tutor to make up what he missed and get back on track.”
“And how do I find a tutor?”
“Best way is to go upstairs and talk to the academic support specialist, Ed Branch.”
“Excellent.” Ethan released Theo.
“Can I go back to class? I’m late.” All Theo’s bluster of earlier was absent.
“We’ll talk about this later,” Ethan said sternly.
Theo escaped, his shoulders hunched.
Ethan turned back to Elsie Andalucía. “Thank you so much for bringing this up with me.”
“You’re very welcome. I’ll get him back on that class list—and you let me know how finding a tutor goes.”
They shook hands, and she trotted off.
In the scheme of things, Theo’s forging Ethan’s signature on a class-drop form wasn’t a major crime, but it scared Ethan. He was losing Theo. It was what he’d always feared, from the moment his wife had died and left him with the care and feeding of an innocent seven-year-old. He’d hoped the fear might abate with time, as he became more accustomed to being Theo’s sole caretaker, but it had gotten worse instead, his anxiety rising as Theo grew into a full-fledged teenager. During his own high school years, it had taken all the efforts of both his parents to keep his teenage hijinks from having permanent consequences. There were no checks and balances in single parenting. If he screwed up, if he let Theo slip away—
“Hey!” A petite high school girl had stuck her hand in the jar of miniature helmet key chains and come away with a handful. “One per customer!”
She tossed a scornful glance at him over her shoulder.
He gave up, looked at his watch. Seventeen more minutes, officially, until his shift was over. But it wasn’t like he was contributing anything. He leaned over to the wholesome blond mom at the condom booth. “May I ask you a favor?”
She gave him a flirty smile. “Sure,” she cooed.
“I have to run an errand and head back to work. Can you keep an eye on this booth, too? It’s not—high demand.”
She looked disappointed, but she nodded. What had she expected, that he’d ask her if she wanted to help him make use of the jar of condoms? He knew perfectly well she was married. Most of the women in Beacon were married. Which didn’t stop them from flirting; it only stopped him from flirting back.
The non-flirting on his part wasn’t sexual deadness, not by any stretch. He could appreciate the glories of Beacon’s stay-at-home moms just fine from a visual perspective—expensively colored and straightened hair, subtly applied makeup, bodies finely tuned through obsessive, boredom-induced exercise. But he was careful. Careful, above all, not to flirt with married women, but also careful not to dally even with the few single women in town. Beacon was small, talk was loose—especially about financially well-off available men—and Theo had to go on living here no matter what his father did.
But man, he was human and male and he missed what he’d had with Trish, missed their lively, near-daily lovemaking, the connection of being with someone at a level that went beyond Tab A, Slot B. His hand was ready, willing, and able but a damn poor conversationalist.
After Trish died, there had been no one for a very long time, only paralyzing grief and the unending demands of single fatherhood. When he’d emerged from the most intense period of that, he’d begun dating again, but though he’d engaged in one or two sessions of frustration-busting, almost antiseptic, sex, there’d been nothing that had felt meaningful or lasted long enough to justify bringing a woman home to meet Theo. Because there was no way he was going to let Theo get to know, get to love, another woman who might leave. One lesson in grief was enough for a child.
Especially a troubled teenager. The last thing Theo needed in his life right now was complications. Uncertainty. His father becoming even marginally less emotionally available.
What Theo needed was—
God, he wished he knew.
He fled the cafeteria, a man on a mission. He’d go upstairs, find Ed Branch, and get his juvenile-delinquent, signature-forging son a Spanish tutor.
Ana had had enough. “Get your hands off me,” she told Ed.
“We can have an informal arrangement.” His fingertips slid to her ribs.
“Stop it!” A shout this time.
The door behind her flew open, and she took advantage of the distraction to remove herself from his pawing.
“Is there a problem?” a deep voice inquired.
A man stood in the doorway, his arms crossed. He was tall—at least six feet—and ruggedly handsome, with rumpled red-brown hair and decisive lines to his face. His broad shoulders nearly filled the door frame. He looked pissed.
“Don’t you knock?” Ed demanded.
The man’s green eyes narrowed. “Not when I hear a woman yelling ‘Get your hands off me,’ and ‘Stop it.’” His voice was so mild that he might have been discussing the weather.
Ed shrugged. “Thick door. Easy to think you heard something you didn’t.”
Ana filled her lungs for the first time in several minutes. Her heart beat hard against her ribs.
“Excuse me.” She picked up her backpack and tried to slip out the door, but the man hadn’t moved, and she stopped short of body-checking him. He smelled like hand soap and something cleanly musky she could identify only as big, sexy guy.
“Can I help?” he murmured.
Grateful tears pricked her eyes, but she shook her head. Her face was level with the topmost closed button of his olive-green Oxford dress shirt, and she had to drop her gaze to his shoes—two-tone Keds with brown suede fronts. “Just let me out.”
For a moment, she was afraid he wouldn’t comply, that he’d try to make a big deal of what he’d heard, but then he stepped aside, and she took off at a brisk walk.
She was halfway down the school’s broad central staircase when she heard footfalls behind her.
“Hey,” her rescuer called. “Wait up.”
She was tempted to pretend she didn’t hear him, but instead she slowed. She was shaking all over, the aftereffects of adrenaline.
He caught up with her as she reached the wide, sunny lobby at the bottom of the staircase. It was quiet there, the students in class or at lunch.
“Are you okay?” There was genuine concern in his eyes.
“Yeah.” She absorbed details she’d been unable to process earlier: long-lashes, killer cheekbones. Clean-shaven, well-groomed, neatly dressed. His hair was soft and wavy, but still precisely edged.
She’d sworn off yanquis. So any attraction she was feeling now was only because he’d rescued her. Because she wasn’t quite in her right mind. She could still taste the coppery edge of fear.
“If you want to report him, I’ll vouch for your side of the story.”
“No.” She could manage Ed, but if other people got involved, they might start asking their own questions about her status.
“Are you sure? That was sexual harassment, what he was doing to you. It’s illegal. He might be doing it to other people.”
She didn’t need this, didn’t want it. “I think it’s particular to me,” she said dryly. “I’ll just stay away from him.” Heem. Her fear-induced accent was still in force.
“Can you do that?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah. I can avoid him.” That was more like it, a solidly Anglo him.
She suspected Ed wasn’t in a hurry to rat her out, because that would shut down the possibility that he could coerce her into sex. He’d probably wait a while, try to get her back into his office. So she’d avoid him as long as she could, and meanwhile she’d start looking for other tutoring jobs. Preferably ones unconnected to her current network of referrals.
“Is he your boss?”
She wanted him to stop asking questions and let her go. She thought of her brother, Ricky, coaching her as a kid to walk away from people who were too curious. But she couldn’t bring herself to be outright rude. This guy had rescued her. “I’m a tutor. He does the tutoring referrals. So he gives me work, but he’s not in charge of me.”
“Well, that’s something. And if you have to go in there? Keep the door open.”
She laughed without humor. “Yeah, got that. Hey. Thank you. Thanks for rescuing me. Not everyone would’ve done that. Opened the door like that.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “Naw. Anyone halfway decent would have.”
She knew plenty of decent people who wouldn’t have. In her world, sometimes it was almost impossible to do the right thing without setting yourself up as a sacrifice.
“Well. Thanks again. I’d better be on my way.” She started toward the door.
He dashed ahead of her to push it open.
When was the last time anyone had held a door for her? She couldn’t remember.
He followed her out, and they stood together on the wide concrete curb in front of the school. It was the middle of the day, so there were no buses or cars, and only the occasional student coming and going. The sun shone strongly from a bright blue, late September sky with a few wisps of cumulus clouds. She could smell turning leaves and the faint cinnamon note that fall air held. After the claustrophobia of Ed’s office, it was a profound relief.
“So—crazy question.” He had a nice voice, too, low and rumbly. “You wouldn’t happen to be a Spanish tutor, would you?”
“Because my son needs a Spanish tutor.”
Was he serious? She checked him out for signs that he was propositioning her, but his face was earnest.
She needed the work. Always needed the work, and needed it worse now, if Ed decided to blacklist her. But there were a million reasons she shouldn’t work for this guy. He might cling to the idea that she should report what had happened with Ed to some authority figure. Or he might get curious about what had gone on behind the closed door and start asking questions. She could easily imagine him putting two and two together, especially when she asked him to pay her cash. Or he could decide that if Ed could take a shot at her, so could he. She didn’t want to believe this last thing about him, but she knew better than to assume that because a man was physically beautiful, he was also a saint.
“Mr. Branch can help you find a Spanish tutor,” she said finally.
He made a face. “Don’t make me go back in there.”
She couldn’t help herself; she laughed. The last of her shakiness dissolved.
“He’s really disgusting.”
“Totally vile,” she agreed.
The bell buzzed inside the high school, and from a few open windows came the sounds of chairs scraping and students chattering. He shifted from one foot to the other, and a scowl twisted his features. “My son is giving me hell. He forged my signature on a form and dropped Spanish. And I didn’t know anything about it until the teacher started grilling me this morning about why I’d ignored her note suggesting I get him a tutor.” He kicked an uneven spot in the sidewalk and didn’t quite meet her eyes.
His gaze came up, green eyes bright, and he smiled ruefully. “Yeah. So I need a competent tutor, and I’m guessing you need work, if you were in there talking to Mr. Hands.”
She giggled. She couldn’t help it. Mr. Hands. Perfect.
“I’m Ethan Hansen, by the way.” He extended his hand.
Her life didn’t provide chances to shake hands with men, or for any casual touch outside her family. So it shouldn’t have surprised her that his hand felt startlingly good around hers, warm and strong, his palm slightly rough. Her breath went somewhere and was temporarily unavailable to her. “Ana Travares,” she said, when she could.
“I’m assuming you’re competent? Let’s see. Are you on the Recommended Tutors list?” He unfolded a piece of paper from his pocket and scanned it. “You are.”
“Where’d you get that?” she demanded.
“There were a bunch of them in a pocket outside that madman’s door.” He held it out. Her name was indeed on it. “If you’re on the list, you can’t be all bad, right?”
She wanted to clutch the list like a talisman. She was on it for the time being, until Ed got around to making a new list. Which he could be doing at this very moment. And Ethan Hansen had just vividly illustrated how valuable it was to be on it. In tutoring, there were no certifications or licenses. Even college and teaching degrees weren’t essential. All that mattered was how well you convinced the world that you possessed, in abundance, the required skill.
“Okay,” she said. Or someone said it; she wasn’t actually conscious of having made a decision to accept the job offer. If her id had its own greedy little voice, that would have been it speaking: yes to a job, yes to money, yes to extra security against Ed Branch’s whims.
“Thanks.” The deep smile lines at the sides of his mouth got a thorough workout for the first time. “That’s great. How’s Monday?”
“Sure. Five o’clock?”
“That sounds good. He’s home alone after school. Do you mind if I’m not there when you get there? I’ll be home before six, in time to pay you.”
“You and your wife both work?”
“My wife died when Theo was seven.” Ethan said it matter-of-factly.
“Oh. I’m so sorry.”
That could not have been relief she’d felt when he’d said his wife was dead. It must have been a stab of sympathy. She wasn’t interested in him. Couldn’t be interested in him. Not only because he was probably married, definitely white, and undoubtedly rich and highly educated. But also because she didn’t date anyone.
She’d given up. The men from her neighborhood, the ones who could handle the news that she was undocumented, found her strange—too brainy, too American, too self-sufficient for their tastes. And as for men she met on her own, outside the confines of her family’s approval… Well, there were only two ways they ever responded to finding out that she was living in the U.S. illegally—the way Ed had, by taking advantage of her, or by running for the hills. As Walt had. She felt a stab of pain at the memory of how things had played out with Walt.
Ethan coughed. “Yeah, so, about Monday. I work until late. Theo’s home alone. But if it’s not a problem for you, then Monday should work.”
“Do you have something I could write my address on?”
She fished for a pen in her backpack. He wrote his address and handed them back to her.
“Um, see you Monday, then?”
They shook on it, and this time she steeled herself, so she felt only a shiver of pleasure at the rough touch of his palm.
“See you Monday.” He released her hand.
As she went up the hill toward the train station, she tried hard not to think about whether he was watching her walk away, or whether he was looking forward to Monday, or whether he’d been similarly affected by that very small, theoretically innocent, skin-to-skin contact.