“Tatiana!” said Tatiana, and I smiled at her.
We were doing letter and sound recognition, a component of the language and literacy part of nursery school.
Right now, we were trying to get every kid to name a word that started with T without any other chatter, which would reinforce their focusing skills as well as literacy. So far, our record was five words in a row, which was pretty good, given that everyone here was only four and had the attention span of a gnat.
“Theater,” said Silvi.
Lissie, my assistant teacher, shot me a glance. Silvi was advanced, already reading. I felt a flash of pride for Clara, followed by the increasingly familiar buzz of nerves whenever anything related to Rafael entered my consciousness. For nearly five years, I’d done a damn good job of keeping him out of my head.
“Turd,” said Geronimo, and the kids dissolved into giggles.
“He said ‘turd’! He said ‘turd’! Turd!” they shrieked. Axel got up and ran in a circle, a victory lap of sorts. Khaleesi started to cry, since she hated all things bowel-related, and Lissie comforted her.
“We got up to six ‘T’ words! That’s a new record, so good work,” I said. “And, Geronimo, you’re very funny, but let’s keep bathroom talk for bathrooms and when you have to go, okay, sweetheart?” I glanced at the clock. “Great job, everyone. And look at the clock! It’s time to clean up.”
“Clean up, clean up, everybody clean up,” the kids sang. We had a song for everything.
I directed the kids—Khaleesi and Cash could put the stuffed animals away, Silvi and Wren could bring the paintbrushes to the sink, Dash and Roland would put pink reminder slips in everyone’s cubby about bringing in special cuddle friends on Friday. Nash and Primrose reshelved books. I helped kids find their lunch boxes, gave out hugs, checked to see if paintings were dry enough to be taken home.
Then, at 2:00 on the dot, Lissie opened the door to let the parents in to get their kids. Donna, the teacher in room 2, let her kids out early every day . . . she was one year away from retirement and really over teaching. The hallway was mobbed with kids and parents, and for a second, I didn’t see him.
Then Silvi shouted, “Uncle Rafe!” and he knelt down, opening his arms as she ran to him.
My body reacted before my brain—knees softened, my left leg wobbling, the instant heat in my stomach rising through my chest and neck into my face, my hands buzzing with adrenaline.
He was here.
Clara had put him on the authorized-pickup list. I’d known this day was coming, but now that it was upon me, I couldn’t seem to . . . to . . . what was the question again?
Rafe picked up his niece, kissed her on the cheek. “Hello, sweet girl,” he said, smiling.
Then he looked at me, and his eyes . . . I couldn’t believe I’d gone so long without seeing those eyes, so dark and beautiful, either the happiest or saddest eyes in the entire world, depending on his mood.
They were happy right now. Because of Silvi, of course.
He was clean-shaven now, and it made him look younger. My heart felt weak and thin.
“Georgia,” he said, and my stomach squeezed. His accent always made my name sound lush and delicious.
“Hello, Rafe,” I managed. “It’s good to see you.”
He was more beautiful than ever. Every one of his features was just a little big—nose, mouth, eyes. Generous. His hair was shorter. No more ponytail, and he looked . . . perfect. But for some reason, his short hair and lack of a beard made me want to cry a little, because . . . well, because I hadn’t known.
“Miss Georgia, Miss Georgia, I can’t find my sock!” said Geronimo, who liked to strip down naked in the bathroom. And thank God, because it gave me an excuse to stop staring at my ex. I took Geronimo by the hand and led him to the bathroom, my heart banging. Never in my life was I so glad to close a door.
I took in a breath, then picked up the errant sock, which was lying under the sink. “Here you go, honey. Remember what we said about keeping your clothes on in here? Just pull down your pants next time, okay?”
“Okay. I love you,” he said, throwing his arms around my neck.
Maybe if I’d been a preschool teacher when Rafe and I were married, we would’ve made it.
Don’t start, my brain said. You blew it. He asked for a divorce and you couldn’t say yes fast enough.
I put on Geronimo’s sock, tied his shoes and had him wash his hands. “That’s my boy,” I said, ruffling his hair.
“We’re best friends,” he told me.
“It’s nice to have so many best friends, isn’t it?” I asked. Couldn’t have him thinking he was my favorite, even if he was in my top five.
When I came out, Geronimo’s dad was waiting. “How was my boy today?”
“He was excellent, as usual,” I said. “And very creative.”
“I said ‘turd,’ Daddy! It starts with ‘T’!”
The dad laughed. “I guess it does. Thanks, Georgia. See you tomorrow.”
“Bye, gentlemen. Have a great afternoon.”
Silvi was giving her uncle the tour. “This is where we paint. This is where we read books. I have this book at home. I have this one, too. Read me this one, Uncle Rafe.”
“Silvi, let me talk to Miss Georgia a moment, sweetheart. We are old friends, did you know that?”
My heart rate tripled.
“You are?” Silvi asked. “That’s a pleasant surprise!”
I couldn’t help a smile. Silvi’s vocabulary was rock ’n’ roll.
“We are.” His hand rested on her head. “Can you look at a book by yourself for a moment, sweet one?”
“Silvi loves books, don’t you, honey?” Which he probably knew, being her uncle and all that.
“Yes, I do,” she said. “I can read some by myself.”
My hands were shaking, so I stuck them in the pockets of my denim jumper (which was just as sexy as it sounded).
Rafe came over and stood in front of me, and my heart wasn’t just pounding now, but thrumming. The poker in my stomach twisted again and again.
“Small world,” I said, my voice quiet.
“Yes. How have you been, Georgia?”
“Great. Fine. I’m preschool teacher now.”
“So I heard.” A dark eyebrow lifted.
“I heard you have a new restaurant. Um . . . Cherish told me. My stepmother? Remember her?”
“Of course I remember her.”
“Sure. Why wouldn’t you? I mean, how many people are named Cherish, right? Let alone exotic dancer stepmoms, right? Anyway, she said that . . . that she went to your restaurant. And it was good.”
Rafe didn’t answer for a minute. Why would he? I was babbling like an idiot. I tried to look at him and failed.
“Silvi says she loves school,” he said finally. “Thank you for that. The move, it was a little difficult for her.”
“She’s doing great here.” I drew in a shaky breath. “How are you, Rafael?” Forced myself to look at him.
His expression was neutral. I had no idea what mine was. “I’m doing very well, thank you,” he said. “I hope it will not be too awkward, us seeing each other from time to time.”
Awkward? Not at all. Agonizing, that was a better word.
“No. It’s fine. Don’t worry about me! I’m . . . I’m great. With this, I mean. It’s lovely to see you again. Lovely to have Silvi. That’s what I meant.”
He just kept looking at me.
“Are you seeing anyone?” I asked, then jerked back a little because I hadn’t meant to ask.
“Yes,” he said. “I am.”
Of course he was. “And is she . . . is she nice?” Is she beautiful? Is she kind? Is she thin? Do you love her?
My ex-husband didn’t answer immediately. The silence swelled. Then he said, “I would rather not discuss her. But yes. She is nice.”
I nodded, my face burning. “Well. Congratulations on the new restaurant.”
This time, the voice was deeper. We both turned, and there was Mason.
“No,” Rafe said, his eyes widening in surprise. “It cannot be. Mason? Oh, madre de Dios, Mason! Where is the boy? You are a young man now! Come! Give me a hug!”
There it was, that magical ease and warmth he had with people. Mason obeyed happily, and I swallowed against the wedge in my throat.
Mason had been our ring bearer.
The two of them were chatting away like long-lost friends, which I guessed they were.
That was the shitty thing about divorce. You lost that whole other family, that whole world. Rafe had been so good for Mason, his gentle brand of masculinity a much better role model than Hunter’s seething, omnipresent hostility.
Maybe if Rafe had been in the picture, Mason wouldn’t have done what he did this past April.
“Mason, please, come meet my niece, Silvi. She is a student here.”
“Cool. Hey, little kid. I’m Mason.”
“I’m not little. I’m almost a big sister,” Silvi said.
“Oh, gotcha. Sorry.” Mason grinned at us.
“I forgive you,” she said sweetly.
“Silvi, we should go,” Rafe said. “I have to work tonight, and I want to take you to the park and perhaps for some ice cream, what do you say?”
“I say yes!” Silvi got up, hugged my legs, then grabbed her uncle’s hand. “Bye, Miss Georgia,” she sang out.
“It was good to see you,” Rafe said. Probably a lie.
Then they were gone.