Graduation and Gifts

Life doesn’t come with a script but some moments don’t need one.

Senior year pushed us all. It dared us to embrace wonder and chase love. It challenged us to find out who we were as people, as partners, as a family. We’re so much better together.

Graduation isn’t the end of our story by any stretch. It’s the next chapter.

*Please note this is a reverse harem and the author suggests you always read the forward in her books. Contains some bullying elements, mature situations, and is recommended for 17+. This is the eighth in a series and the story will continue through future books.

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Read Chapter One

Guess who’s coming…to what?

Frankie

“I was looking for Frankie Curtis,” the man at the door said. “I’m Henry Jackson.”

Jake’s shoulders went stiff, Ian sat forward, and Archie emerged from the kitchen, but Coop and I were on the sofa and closer than the others. The man’s voice sounded warm, if a bit wary. I glanced down at the near see-through pale blue tank-top and sleep shorts I had on and jerked to my feet. Ian stripped off his sweatshirt and tugged it over my head. It hit me about mid-thigh and I still had to roll up the sleeves.

For his part, Jake hadn’t moved.

“I did get the right apartment?” Hesitance entered the man’s voice. “Sorry, if I’m coming by late. I drove here straight from the airport and I got lost once.”

My heart fisted at his words.

“No,” Jake said slowly. “You’re at the right place.” He spared a glance back at me but didn’t move from the door. I couldn’t see past him and Henry Jackson couldn’t see in. Brows raised, he looked at me for an answer and I hesitated.

“Breathe,” Coop said as he tugged my hair free from the sweatshirt and smoothed it down. “We’ll put on the coffee and clean this up.” He was already reaching for the popcorn. Ian was emerging from the other bedroom with a new shirt on and I hadn’t even noticed him leaving.

“Breathe,” he said, repeating Coop’s earlier suggestion and I blew out another breath. It came out far shakier and I folded my arms as a shiver assaulted me.

“I got the coffee,” Archie said quietly, but Jake still hadn’t moved to open the door fully.

Toes curling in my socks, I tried to quiet the shakes before walking over toward the door. Jake nodded once then backed up a step, even as he held a hand out loose for me to take if I wanted.

Oh, I definitely did. Unhooking my arms, I reached for him. He locked his fingers around mine and I shifted my gaze from Jake’s to the door and the man standing there illuminated by the yellow outdoor lamps attached to the walls at various intervals.

He was a bit shorter than Jake, but still taller than me. Dark hair and…green eyes. The green eyes stopped me because I always thought I had Maddy’s eyes, but the color wasn’t exact. Mr. Jackson’s…

“I’m Frankie,” I told him despite how dry my mouth had gone. This was ridiculous. I wanted to roll my eyes and laugh at myself, but I settled for a half-smile and started to extend my hand. “I mean, yes, I’m Frankie. Would you like to come in Mister—or is it Professor…”

Crap, what was I supposed to call him?

He took my offered hand and his grip was a little sweaty, kind of like mine. When I dug my nails into Jake’s hand, he just tightened his hold.

“Hank,” the man said slowly, more than a bit of wonder in his voice. “Call me Hank.” He stared at me for a moment, then said, “And I can come in or we can go somewhere. I don’t want you to feel cornered or ambushed, just… You called and you mentioned graduation and I thought if you were reaching out that maybe you wanted to meet me and I’ve wanted to meet you.”

The words came out of him in a rush and I had to bite my lower lip to keep from laughing a little. He sounded almost as nervous as I felt.

“I did want to—Yeah, it’s fine, come in.” I gestured him in and he let go of my hand as I started to back up.

“You have company,” he said as he stepped in and the lights from the living room revealed a youthful face despite the hint of stubble on his cheeks. He glanced from me to Jake, then behind me. “I’m interrupting.”

“It’s fine, these are my boyfriends, you’d have to meet them anyway.”

Hank paused a beat and raised his eyebrows, but he wasn’t alone, Jake wore nearly the same expression as he stared at me over Hank’s shoulder while closing the door. “Boyfriends?”

Well, love me, love my guys and all that so… I nodded. “Yeah, that’s Jake and…”

“Ian Rhys, sir,” Ian offered as he extended his hand. Hank shook it easily and then Coop’s when he offered his.

“Coop Brennen,” he said, grinning. “Boy next door and resident best friend as well as boyfriend.”

I laughed. “Smart ass.”

“Benton,” Jake said as he took his turn for a handshake.

“And I’m Archie,” Archie said as he came to stand next to me, he looped an arm around my waist before he offered his hand. “Standish.”

Hank paused, then accepted the handshake. “Eddie Standish’s kid.”

It wasn’t a question.

“Unfortunately,” Archie told him with a half-smile. “Hopefully you won’t hold that against me.”

“Not at all,” Hank said with an ease that had me letting out a breath as I leaned into Arch. That hadn’t even occurred to me there might be a problem, considering the history. Then again, I didn’t expect him to just show up when the guys and I had settled in for the night. “Just surprised,” he admitted and then glanced at me where he paused with a small smile. “I’m going to make this weird and keep staring, just ignore me for a bit. I promise I’ll get over it.”

“It’s okay,” I said with a laugh. “It is weird. I mean… Are you looking to see how I’m like you or how I’m like her?” Cause, I really had no idea how they left things.

He gritted his teeth and wrinkled his nose like he was bracing for something. “More me than her, I mean, you’ve got her coloring. But those are my mom’s eyes and that little—crinkle right there at the corner of your right eye? That’s us too. Jackson family trait. We all do it.”

A family trait, it was the stupidest thing to grin about, but I was still pleased. And we were all still standing.

“Yeah, see,” Hank said glancing around at the guys like he was apologizing to them too. “I’m making it weird. Kelly told me I do that because I talk, talking is my thing and I get chatty and then—well, everything kind of comes out jumbled. Great when you’re lecturing, can keep the room engaged, not so great when you’re meeting your adult daughter for the first time and she has no idea who you are.”

His self-deprecating smile and hand gestures made me laugh. That, and he actually looked genuinely worried.

“He is so Frankie’s dad,” Coop murmured and I elbowed him, but he laughed and pressed a kiss to my temple. “If it’s all right to call you, Hank, sir, why don’t we all sit and I’ll grab some coffee. We could order in food if you’re hungry. We pretty much decimated the leftovers already.”

“Hank is fine, boys,” he said. “Boyfriends,” he muttered, then shook his head. “That’ll take a little getting used to. Chloe’s all of seven and she’s not allowed to date until she’s thirty.” Another flash of a smile, then he focused on me again as we all sorted ourselves out, Archie sat next to me on the sofa while Ian settled on a chair and Jake came to sit on my other side. That left the love seat open and a second chair, but Hank chose the love seat, it was closer to me.

It gave me a minute to kind of assess him as he rubbed his hands on his jeans. He was dressed comfortably, like someone who’d just arrived on a flight. He didn’t have on dress shoes, but rather a pair of running shoes that looked well worn. His shirt was Star Wars and he wore a jacket over it. I leaned forward.

“Chloe is your daughter?”

I’d kind of latched onto that. Wittaker had told me he had a family.

“See, there I go… yes.” He pulled out his phone and flipped it around to show me a photo. There was Hank with a dark-haired woman, both smiling into the camera with two boys standing between them and a girl peeking out from behind him. They all had dark hair like the woman, but the older boy looked a lot more like Hank. “This is Kelly, she’s my wife—she’s also looking forward to meeting you. I thought about bringing everyone, but Kelly insisted that it should just be us at first, then when you’re ready you can come meet your siblings.”

My stomach bottomed out and Hank flashed me a quick smile.

“If you want. No pressure. I mean, yes, this is pressure me showing up, but really no—I… I wanted to meet you.” He admitted and lowered the phone. “I’m very sorry I didn’t know about you. She never told me. Not until she asked for a DNA sample because you were sick.”

Wait…

“I know you’re not,” he continued as Archie slid his hand over my knee and gripped mine when I held on. “Mr. Wittaker explained. Of course…” He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry about that either way. And I’m very glad you’re not sick.”

Just when I thought Maddy couldn’t get worse, she surprised me. “No,” I told him. “I’m not. And I’m sorry she made you think I was.”

“Yeah well, that was then and this is now and when your attorney called, I was… I was surprised but I told him I’d already done a sample and I didn’t mind doing it again. Apparently, once I agreed to it, the lab released the results. I told him, I wanted to speak to you and that I would welcome any contact.”

“He told me,” I admitted. “I wasn’t… Okay confession time, I wasn’t sure about meeting you.” I met his gaze as directly as I could. He’d been really honest with me. “I had no idea…and Maddy and I aren’t… Well we’re not close. She didn’t tell me anything about you either.” Maybe we’d skip the part where she named Archie’s dad as mine. He’d been used enough in this particular scenario. “And maybe I was a little afraid.”

Jake stood and went to help Coop who was carrying out mugs of coffee.

“That’s fair,” Hank told me as he twisted to take the mug from Coop. “Thanks.”

“I didn’t put any sugar or cream in it,” Coop told him. “But we’ve got some.”

“Black is fine.” Hank nodded then took a big gulp as if he were knocking back a whiskey, and my heart kind of clenched for him.

“You were scared too,” I said quietly and he gave me a half-shrug as Jake brought me a cup and then handed another to Archie. It wasn’t long before Ian had one and then the guys were all there with us.

“We could give you some time,” Ian offered. “If you want.”

“I’m fine with you boys being here, you know until I knocked, it didn’t even occur to me she might be here by herself and that would have been more uncomfortable. We’ve just met, but I want to earn the trust and that takes time.” Then he set the coffee down and returned to the phone. “Anyway, yes, these are your brothers, Alec, he’s ten, very serious kid. Don’t know where he gets that from. Always has to try and be the best at everything he does. Studies twice as hard before he plays. It’s a little intimidating.”

I laughed at the face he made. There was so much genuine affection and pride in his voice and it left me hungry for that same kind reaction.

“This is Craig, he and Alec couldn’t be more opposite if they tried.” Hank frowned. “Actually, I really do think they try. They’re three years apart, but Craig and Chloe are twins. So they are always thick as thieves. He’s the most gregarious of them, he’ll make friends with anyone. He’s never met a stranger.”

The older boy did look serious, but he had a nice smile and the younger had a much wider grin. His right eye had that same little crinkle mine did and it struck me. They were related to me. Hank was my father, these were my siblings. For the last decade, they’d been around, and I could have known them but…

Some days I really hated Maddy.

“This is Chloe, she’s a darling, but Kelly says I’m biased. She’s a daddy’s girl though.” He paused then looked at me. “But she’s got a good sense of humor. I think she’s going to like having an older sister. I’m afraid the cat is out of the bag on that one too.”

“You told them about me?”

Hank made another face as he leaned back. “Well, not precisely, at least we didn’t intend to, but Chloe’s become a bit of an eavesdropper and she heard Kelly and I talking. She has no filter, she immediately told her brothers. Mostly because Alec wouldn’t be the oldest anymore, so he couldn’t be the boss of her.”

The exasperation and fondness were equal in his voice.

“I’m sorry?” I offered but he chuckled and shook his head.

“Not at all. You aren’t going to be a secret. I mean—if you want time to get to know me before you meet them and if you want to keep a distance, I’ll respect that. But we’re a loud bunch and…I’d really like to get to know you Frankie. I feel like I missed a lot and knowing my kids now, I know what I missed. I don’t want to miss any more. But I also don’t want to push anything on you that you’re not ready for…”

He was perfect.

“Though maybe, I’m the one still reconciling the idea that my daughter has four boyfriends, would you be terribly opposed to not telling Chloe about that immediately?”

Jake snorted then Coop laughed and even Ian’s shoulders were shaking. Archie’s reaction was a great deal more guarded, but I wanted to like Hank.

More, I thought I did like him.

“Well, I don’t really think it’s the first thing I tell everyone but… these guys are my family. They’ve saved my life and they’ve been my best friends forever. If you’re going to be my dad, then I need you to know they’re important to me.”

He smiled encouragingly. “I’d like that chance. I even…” he shifted a little in his seat and then stood to dig into his pockets and finally he pulled out a coin. “I brought you this.” It was a penny and he placed it in my palm.

It was old. I frowned down at it. Old with a Native American head inscribed on it and… “1899?”

“Yeah, that was when my great-great grandfather came over from Poland. He came through Ellis Island, stayed with a family he knew in Brooklyn. This penny was the first one he made. He kept it. Never spent it. Gave it to his son when he finished school and then that son gave it to his oldest daughter and so on…my mom gave it to me when I graduated high school. Said that penny brings us luck because it shows a commitment to the hard work it takes to make a life for yourself.”

Tears burned in my eyes and the penny wavered.

“I haven’t gotten a chance to do much for you, but you come from a long line of hard workers. And you should know about them and me… when you’re ready.”

I blew out a breath and closed my hand over it. “What about Alec?”

“He’ll be good, he doesn’t know about the penny for one, and for another, it goes to the oldest child. That would be you. Don’t worry, we can do other things for him when he’s ready. That penny will be for your oldest child… You know when you have one. In ten or fifteen years.”

There was a beat and one of the tears slipped out as I started to laugh and even Archie cracked a smile.

“We were going to finish watching the Fast and Furious movies, we’ve been having a marathon and we could order pizza,” I offered. “If you’d like to stay.”

“I’d love to stay,” he said. “But only if you let me buy the pizzas.”

“Um…” I started.

“How about you throw in for it,” Jake suggested. “Frankie’s a little too polite to tell you that the four of us tend to eat everything in sight.”

Hank grinned. “Fair deal then.”

“And I’d offer you a beer,” Coop said. “But we’re a little young to have it in our fridge.”

“Or wine,” I said drily.

“You know, I won’t tell if you won’t,” Hank said. “But right now, I’d kill for a beer. If you point me toward the store, I can go pick us up some.”

I put a hand over my mouth as he stood to follow Jake into the kitchen. They were both laughing. The penny weighed a thousand pounds in my palm, but emotion clogged at my throat. I glanced at Archie and he gave me a long look.

“He seems okay.”

That was high praise.

“Yep,” Coop said as he followed after them. “You want wine, Frankie?”

“Oh God, yes,” I admitted, and Ian slid over to take the spot Jake had left.

Voice low, he said, “You really okay?”

“I don’t know. It feels like Christmas and a birthday and…. The best surprise ever, and I’m terrified to look at it too closely.”

It was his turn to press a kiss to my head as Archie squeezed my hand. “I like him,” Ian said quietly. “But take your time. You don’t have to decide anything tonight.”

No, I didn’t. I swiped at the tears from the corners of my eyes then looked down at the penny before glancing in the kitchen as Hank and Jake both laughed. They looked… relaxed with each other. Even Coop seemed to have eased up some. Only Archie was still guarded and when he squeezed my hand, I understood it.

Until we were certain, he would be.

And I was okay with that too.

Hank caught me staring and he grinned. “Everything on your pizza? Back me up here.”

“Pineapple,” my guys announced in chorus and Hank gripped his chest.

I just grinned.

As first steps went, this was a doozy and I was all right with it.