Ashley “Buck” Buchanan moved back home to take care of his sick mother when he was 22. That was the first time he met Pippin, the neglected 6-year-old boy next door. Fifteen years later, Buck, a caretaker by nature, offers up his couch for Pippin, who needs a break from his mom and a quiet place to sleep.
Pippin Olander is a ray of sunshine despite his emotionally lacking upbringing and works hard to make a better life for himself. Even though he’s fiercely self-sufficient, he learns to accept help from Buck, his rock and the only steady presence in his life.
Their friendship deepens and grows into something more as they spend time together. But when other people try to throw a wrench in the works, when Pippin’s independence is triggered, can Buck and Pippin trust in the love they’ve found?
I love having Pippin in my house. We don’t see each other all that often considering I work third shift and he has two day-time jobs, but his presence in the house is obvious. There’s an extra toothbrush in the bathroom. And a disposable razor, a deodorant, and some kind of cream he puts on his face. I cleared out a shelf in the closet for him where he keeps a few items of clothing. My modest book collection has mysteriously grown: I’ve noticed the addition of that vampire book he was reading, and a couple other paperbacks I haven’t put there.
Then there’s the mornings. He’s always awake when I get off work and two steaming mugs of hot chocolate wait for us both on the breakfast bar when I walk through the door after my shift. Some days we enjoy each other’s company in silence, sometimes we chat.
We talk about everything and nothing. He tells me about the book he’s reading or something funny that happened at the coffee shop. I tell him about my trials and tribulations at work and my niece’s huge eyes and ecstatic smile when I brought her the picture books.
One morning I ask him about college.
“I don’t really know what I want to do with my life,” he says. “I just want to do something. I don’t want to end up like ...” He stops himself and clears his throat. “I don’t want to wake up one day when I’m fifty and be bitter because I didn’t try.”
Warmth and satisfaction unfurl in my stomach at his words of absolute trust. “No clue to what you wanna do?”
“Well ...” He squirms on his stool and his gaze dances away.
“You don’t hafta tell me.”
“I’ve, uh ...” He taps his lower lip with his finger and my gaze zeroes in on it. “I’ve always been interested in law. But I don’t want to be a lawyer. I could never defend a guilty person. Never!” The last word is said with vehemence and a wrinkled nose.
“Oh, darlin’, I know.” The endearment just slips out and I’m about to apologize. But his face breaks out in a wide, happy smile and two pink spots appear on his cheeks, making him look so adorable, it’s impossible for me to take it back.
“I like reading and researching so I thought ...” He sighs. “Promise not to laugh.”
“Why would I laugh?”
“Uh. Mom does. ‘No Olander has ever gone to college,’ she says and laughs.”
Fury flashes in my chest and I clench my teeth. Just when I thought she couldn’t do anything worse to rile me up! What kind of mother laughs at her child’s dreams and ambitions? What kind of person, full stop?
My anger must have been written in neon Sharpie all over my face, because he hurries to explain. “It’s not her intention to be mean. But ambition is foreign to Olanders. Maybe I take after my dad.” He shrugs.
His defense of her snuffs out my anger more effectively than a fire extinguisher would have killed a raging fire.
Don’t forget about his loyalty, Buck, I berate myself silently.
I draw fresh oxygen into my lungs. “Maybe. Or maybe you’re your own person.
His eyes light up. “I like that idea! You really think so?”
I nod and smile. “What’s so ambitious the Olanders would faint if they knew?”
“I found this online paralegal program. It’s just an associate degree, but it would mean I don’t have to save up forever. I can even start classes right away if I want to. And it sounds really interesting.”
An associate degree? His mom got her knickers in a twist over a two-year college degree? I resist the urge to growl. “I like it. You’d be great at it. Lord knows you have your nose buried in a book often enough,” I say instead.
Those little words of encouragement make him grow ten feet. He stands, walks around the breakfast bar to my side, and winds his arms around my waist from behind. His body is flush with mine, his cheek pressed against the back of my head.
“Thank you, Ashley,” he whispers. “No one has ever supported me like you do.”
I grunt and blink, my eyes suddenly itchy. I will always support you. Always, I vow in my head, unable to say the words out loud.