Nick was about to run, ditching Vinny—had even stumbled a few steps back—when the first adult grabbed him.
“Let me go!” He panicked and struggled, flailing his arms and legs to no avail. Jabbing an elbow in the man’s chin, he stomped on the guy’s instep but still couldn’t break free.
“Get that boy under control,” boomed the voice of Hilton Childler, making Nick freeze.
Breathing heavily, he straightened his back and faced the huge, menacing man. Childler had a thick chest and thin black hair with wings of white flaring out behind his ears. He wore a dark three-piece suit, and the gold from his pinky ring winked up at Nick, mocking him.
“Just who do you think you are, boy, dragging my daughter outside alone?”
“Daddy, it’s my fault—” Kiernan started.
But her father hushed her by raising a hand. “I’ll deal with you when we get home.”
She gasped so softly only Nick could hear.
“Answer me,” Childler said to Nick.
“I… we were dancing when she got sick, so I took her out—”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Scowling, Nick smarted back, “You asked what we were doing out here.”
Anger built in Childler’s face, making his cheeks darken and his jaw bulge. Suddenly Nick knew what his dad always meant when he’d called Hilton Childler an intimidating figure.
He pointed a finger at Nick, making him swallow. “Just who do you think you are, boy?”
Grinding his teeth, Nick said nothing.
“Who is he?” Childler asked the adult holding Nick.
“I don’t know, sir. He must’ve—”
“What kind of school are you running here, Gambly?” Childler roared, not letting the adult answer his questions either. “When I come to pick my daughter up from a dance, I expect her to be in the dance, not outside alone with some hoodlum. Now, tell me who he is at once.”
“H-he doesn’t attend Tri-Delta, sir. I suspect he’s here with the other boy that snuck in. The other claimed he came with his cousin. We were just looking for the second boy when we found these two outside.”
Nick glanced toward Vinny. He must’ve returned to the locker rooms and chickened out because he was dressed back in his street clothes, like he’d been about to abandon Nick at the dance.
“Nicky, I’m sorry,” he said, shaking enough to make a bead of sweat drip from his hairline. “They knew I couldn’t be here alone. They—”
“Shut up.” Childler roared, making Vinny whimper himself quiet. Turning back to Nick, Kiernan’s father glowered. “Did you sneak in here tonight with him?”
Nick quivered inside, but was glad his voice sounded sturdy enough as he lifted his chin. “Yes.”
Next to him, Kiernan gasped. He glanced over in time to see her clutch her stomach and stare at him like she’d been stolen from.
Shame consuming him, he lowered his head.
“Where’d you get those clothes?” Childler demanded.
Nick shrugged, still staring at the ground. “From the locker room.”
“You stole them?”
Nick lifted his face to frown. “We were just borrowing them. We weren’t going to keep them. What would we want with rich boy clothes?”
“Then why are you wearing them?”
Nick rolled his eyes. Was the guy really this slow? “To get into the dance.” Why else?
Hilton Childler stepped forward and shook a finger at Nick’s nose. “To get into the dance and man-handle my daughter—”
“I told you, she got sick!” Nick jabbed a finger toward the tulips. “You want proof? She threw up right over there.”
“Don’t ever interrupt me, boy!”
Kiernan began to cry.
Nick heard her sniff and saw her shoulders tremble. He had to look away. “Look,” he said on a surrendering sigh. “Me and my buddy didn’t do anything wrong. We were just curious, is all. Sure, we snuck in and took some clothes. But we were going to give them back. We weren’t going to do anything. We aren’t looking for trouble.”
“Well, you found trouble.” Childler looked between Vinny and him, and then pointed to Nick. “And you doubly for taking my daughter outside."
“Nothing happened,” he muttered, raising his voice. “Ask her. Nothing happened.”
“Leave her out of this.” Childler stopped as if to pull himself back under control and then said, “You’ll pay for this, boy. What’s your name?” He grabbed Nick’s lowered chin and forced it up. “Well?”
Nick snapped his face away, remaining mute.
“Kiernan,” Childler boomed; her body jerked taunt, her eyes wide and scared. “What’s this kid’s name?”
She shook her head. “I… I don’t know. Nick. All he said was Nick.”
“You there,” Childler pointed toward Vinny. “What’s his name?”
“Nicky,” Vinny wailed. “Nick Farrow.”
“Vinny!” Nick kicked his cousin in the shins. “Shut up.”
“That’s enough out of you,” the adult holding Nick, smacked him on the back of the head.
Childler snorted out a laugh. “Nick Farrow, huh?” He held his stomach and slowly became serious. When his smile, a wicked leer really, settled on Nick, Nick’s insides contracted. Childler knew that name. No matter how much Nick hoped he wouldn’t, of course, Childler would recognize his name. He closed his eyes.
“You must be Nicholas Farrow, junior.” Childler rubbed his hands with an evil kind of glee. “Bob,” he barked.
The man holding Vinny stepped forward. “Yes, sir?”
“Fetch Nick sr. down here. Now.”
The man shoved Vinny down on the bench and hurried away with another, “yes, sir.”
“No!” Nick struggled against his captor. “I snuck in. I made the mistake, and I’ll pay for the crime. Please. I’ll do whatever you want. Just don’t call my dad.”
“Aww. Such a sweet, desperate plea.” Childler said sympathetically before he burst out laughing. “But pointless.”
“My dad didn’t do anything wrong,” Nick tried one last time.
Childler’s chuckle stopped with a glare. “Listen here, boy. That daddy of yours has been a thorn in my side ever since he tried to start up a union in my factory.”
“Leave him out of this,” Nick said, his nostrils flaring.
“What?” Childler lifted his brows. “Don’t you want Daddy to know what a bad little boy you’ve been?”
“I don’t want him punished for something I did.”
“Oh, but isn’t that what father’s do? Take the wrap for their children?”
Nick felt his chin quiver. “What’re you going to do?”
“I guess you’ll just have to wait and find out.”
“My father is not involved with this,” Nick repeated. “I’m not going to let him get into trouble for something I did.”
Childler blinked and touched his own chest. “Are you giving me orders now? Wearing Tri-Delta clothes must really make you feel high and mighty.”
Nick clamped his jaw shut. He looked at his feet.
“That’s better,” Childler said, satisfied. He turned away and then ignored Nick and even Kiernan until Nick’s dad showed up.
The group stood there for what felt like forever. Kiernan stopped crying a little, but she sat on the bench with her arms locked around her chest. Every once in a while, she’d let out a little hiccup or shiver as she stared at the ground. Nick glanced at her a few times to see how she was holding up. But he felt so guilty every time he looked, he had to turn away again. So, he mainly just focused his attention on the ground and prayed “Bob” couldn’t find his dad.
At one point, when Childler glared in his direction, he snapped at Gambly, still keeping guard of Nick, to take Nick inside and change him back into his own clothes. Nick hated how Gambly never let up on his neck. The principal kept a meaty palm fastened around the back of his throat like a leash. Nick glared as much as possible, but it didn’t seem to help anything. He never gained his freedom.
Vinny was being a good boy and didn’t move a muscle as he sat on the bench, tucking his hands under his thighs. He looked like a scared rabbit, which made Nick roll his eyes. His cousin never could handle the getting-caught part.
Kiernan’s father paced the sidewalk, his shoes making a squishing sound that drove Nick nuts. He was actually relieved when Childler said. “Ah, here he is. Nicholas, we’ve been waiting.”
Nick’s head flew up; he watched his dad walk up the sidewalk behind “Bob.”
“Mr. Childler,” his dad said. “What’s going on?” Then he spotted Nick. “Nicky? What in the world are you doing here?”
“Dad.” Nick shrugged out of the principal’s hold and hurried to his father.
“He’s breaking into my daughter’s school, trying to debauch her, is what’s he’s doing,” Childler said. “I can only assume you set him up to do this.”
“What!?” father and son spat together.
“That’s a lie,” Nick growled. “I didn’t even know she was your kid.”
“He’s very believable, Nicholas,” Childler murmured, narrowing his eyes. “Did you teach your boy to lie as well as you do?”
“I’d like an explanation to this,” Nick’s dad turned to him. “Nicky?”
“Me and Vinny were sneaking into their school dance, when—”
“Wait. You were what?”
“Yeah, we knew it was wrong. But we weren’t trying to cause any trouble. Honest, Dad. We were just curious is all. Then Vinny had to go to the bathroom. I said I’d wait for him by the food, which is where I met her.” He tipped his head in Kiernan’s direction, and Nick sr. glanced over at her. She shrank further down on the bench seat.
“We started to dance,” Nick continued. “But she got sick, so I took her outside.” He pointed toward the tulips again. “And that’s when he barged outside and found us.”
Kiernan started to hyperventilate. Nick swallowed as his father shook his head.
“You really got yourself in deep this time, didn’t you, Nicky?” He took Nick’s arm. “Thank you for calling me, Mr. Childler. I assure you, he’ll be properly punished.”
“Oh, I’m not through with you yet, Farrow.” Childler took a step in their direction. “This is the last straw. You’ve been vandalizing my factory long enough, trying to put it out of business ever since you realized you couldn’t get your little union started. Well, I’ve had enough. This is the final straw. With the evidence proving you started the fire in the break room, I should’ve fired you last week.”
Nick’s dad let out a long, tired sigh. “Mr. Childler,” he entreated. “Please. You know I didn’t start that fire.”
Nick hated the way his father looked so humbled as he faced his boss. He hated the way Childler looked at his dad like he was the scum of the earth. It wasn’t fair; the anger boiled inside him.
“I’ve worked for your company for twenty years,” Nick sr. said. “You know I’d never vandalize any piece of that place. I’m not sure who started the fire in the break room, and I don’t know who broke out the windows last month, but it makes me just as sick as it does you. You may own the factory, but it’s my life. I know you know that. You can’t honestly believe I’d have anything to do with my son being here tonight either. Sir, I wasn’t even aware you had a daughter.”
Nick thought that would be the end of it. His dad was a great leader and a great spokesperson. That’s why he was now the senior foreman of the night shift at Childler Steel.
But Childler surprised him when he said, “I don’t believe you. You’re fired.”
“No!” The blood roared through Nick’s ears, and his vision blurred. He didn’t realize he’d been the one to cry out until he charged Childler.
His father grabbed his arm, stopping him. “Nick. Cool it.”
“No.” He resisted his father’s controlling hand and glared at Childler. “You can’t do this! I didn’t even know who she was. I swear, I didn’t—”
“Nicky,” his father’s calming voice spoke again, soft this time. It made Nick clench his teeth. “Calm down, son. Don’t say something you’ll regret—”
He already regretted plenty. He’d snuck into that stupid dance, put on those ugly clothes, and then asked the wrong girl to dance. “But it’s not fair, Dad! He’s trying to fire you because of me. For something I didn’t even do.”
“Don’t worry about that now,” Nick sr. said. “Let’s just get home. Vinny,” he called. Nick’s cousin popped to his feet and hurried forward. “Let’s go home.”
But Nick wasn’t so willing. “No,” he said and turned Childler. “This isn’t right. How could you do this to my dad? He’s done nothing buy slave his life away for you.”
Childler cocked a sardonic eyebrow that taunted, Na, na, na. I won; you lost.
Nick pointed a threatening finger at the old jerk. “You’ll regret this. Your company won’t run right without my dad.”
Kiernan pushed to her feet. “Daddy,” she said, tugging on his sleeve. “I don’t think he meant any harm by asking me to dance. It was my fault, really. I said that I wanted to—”
“Shut up,” Childler muttered from between clenched teeth. “I said I’d deal with you when we got home.”
The fear Nick saw flash across her cheeks decided his next action. This time, when he struggled away from his dad, there was nothing Nick senior could do to hold him back. He tore free and raced to Kiernan. Grasping her hand and making her jump, he looked into her eyes. An unshed tear wobbled at the edge of her lashes as she gaped back. But she seemed to steady herself under his concerned gaze and let out a shaky breath.
Nick squeezed her fingers and turned to Hilton Childler, pulling Kiernan safely to his side. “Are you really firing my dad because of what I did tonight?”
Childler gave a brief nod, but his eyes seemed glued to where Nick’s hand was fastened to Kiernan’s. “Technically, it’s because he’s the only suspect we have on the fire. But this is the last straw. After tonight, I simply can’t allow him to work for me any longer.”
Nick glanced at his dad and then toward Kiernan. He bit his lip before facing Childler again. “In that case… If you’re going to punish him for something I did, I think I should at least get to do it.”
He smiled at Kiernan. She frowned the split second before he yanked her against him and sealed his mouth firmly over hers. She could only let out a short gasp of surprise before he muffled the sound.
It was a short kiss. Nick could taste butterscotch and smell fruit. She had soft lips he would’ve liked to linger over longer, but at the bellow of rage from Childler, Nick’s dad yanked him away by his arm.
“Farrow!” Childler screamed after them as Nick’s dad and Vinny hustled him out of there. “You keep your son away from my daughter. I mean it. If I ever catch him near her again, I’ll have the cops after him so fast he won’t know what hit him.”
As Childler raged on, Nick managed to glance over his dad’s shoulder, catching sight of Kiernan. She touched her slightly parted lips with her fingers as she stared after him with wide eyes.
Since both his dad and cousin held his arms restrained, he couldn’t wave goodbye, so he settled for winking at her.