The man of the house since my father’s death at sixteen, I knew I’d be the guardian for my sister, Susan, who has Down syndrome. However, I didn’t realize I’d become her guardian while dealing with my mother’s mini-strokes, rehabilitation, and selling the family home. I’m drowning in paperwork and emotions as I try to get Susan adjusted. A new care plan and a specialized school act as light at the end of the tunnel. I never expected to find her new best friend at the school was my old high school crush.
I always regretted keeping my feelings for Solomon to myself. When we became the victims of losing touch in college, I added it to my list of regrets. Now he’s back as the guardian of a student, and the years have been exceedingly kind. My habit of following rules is suddenly out the window. Risking the reputation I’ve worked so hard to gain isn’t on my to-do list.
Can we manage a relationship without it becoming a conflict of interest?
Expanding Hope is the dream I’ve shed blood, sweat, tears, and dollar bills for. What started as the lofty imagining of a girl who watched her baby brother struggle in a world that didn’t understand him or respect him for all he could do, has come to fruition. We’d gone from a small, rented space to this beautiful building. Seeing so many handi-capable people grow to their full potential and live their best lives has made all my sacrifices worthwhile. Having my brother, Miles, teach one of the courses is a significant bonus. Who better to help them learn how to acclimate to living independently than one of their own?
The importance of representation shouldn’t be overlooked. There are plenty of ways to insinuate without ever opening your mouth. I pause outside of my brother’s classroom and listen to him going over the steps for purchasing groceries. My parents had a can-do attitude. We focused on all the things he was able to do and building up the skills that would give him as much independence as he could handle. It was a radical way of thinking back then. Life expectancy for children with DS used to be thirty years. That’s changed rapidly, along with their understanding of people who have the extra chromosome.
I admired my Mom and Dad for sticking to their guns and ignoring the drivel the doctors had told them when Miles was born. It always helped me forge my own path in life. Because there are plenty of people who’ll let you know what you can and can’t do. Moving away from the room, I proceed down the hallway into the main area where people socialize. Today is Invite a Friend Day. As the owner, I’m not as hands-on as I’d like to be. It takes a lot of money to keep our building running, which means grants, writing, and presentation to more prominent companies looking to do community service and work to make them look good.
I learned a long time ago to ignore the reasons why people do things and focus on the rewards. It’s the only way to keep my soul intact when I do proposals.
I turn to focus on one of our newest students. Susie came to us a month prior. Her lack of socialization broke my heart. She’s made friends and learned at an exponential rate. I call her my sponge.
“Hey, Susie.” I open my arms for a hug.
“I brought my brother! I wanted him to meet you.”
“I can’t wait to meet him.” I glance up, and my heart skips a beat at the face that greets me. It’s been over twenty years, but I’ll never forget those eyes or that expressive face. Soulful, deep-set, navy-blue eyes are set in a square face with a broad forehead and adorably over-sized ears. Ashland, Ohio is a decently sized city, but the village of Loudonville, where I grew up, is far smaller.
“Solomon?” I whisper, shocked. The odds of us coming back together now in Ashland are mind-boggling.
“Ezra?” His dark blue eyes widen. “When my sister said that was her best friend’s name, I didn’t even consider it might be you.”
I grin. “This Susie is your sister?”
We met in high school at a support group for siblings of children with Down syndrome. It was a unique and, at times, challenging position to be in. Having a sibling who required extra help often put us more capable children on the back burner. We were expected to take on more responsibility and grow up faster. Knowing I had a person I went to school with who I could talk to had been a lifeline when I felt ignored and alone. I owe my school counselor for seeing what was happening and being proactive. We’d been like peanut butter and jelly from that first meeting. I’d harbored a massive crush on him, but I hadn’t dared risk losing my anchor over the feelings.
“Yes. That’s my Susie.” He opens his arms, and I go to them like a bird focused on a homing beacon. The earthy scents with hints of pine are familiar and welcoming. Tightening his grip, he makes my heart race. Forty looks damn good on him. “How’s Miles?”
I peer up from the circle of his muscular arms. “Great. He teaches a class here.”
“That’s fantastic, Ez.”
“Seems only right, considering he was the inspiration and seed planted that grew into Expanding Hope.”
“I’m not surprised that you’ve created such an inclusive and warm space. You were always full of idealism and determination. I knew you’d change the world somehow.”
“Sol! That’s my best friend.” Susie’s cry is a bucket of ice water.
Clearing my throat, I step away from the hold that stopped being a hug sixty seconds ago.
“I’m sorry. I know Ez from high school.”
Susie’s eyes round. “You do?”
“Yes. We were great friends.” I grab Susie’s hand. “He talked about you a lot.”
Susie giggles. “He did?”
“Oh yeah. I heard all about his awesome little sister.”
“Is it okay if we share Ezra? She’s pretty cool, you know?” Sol bends down to put himself on her eye level, and my heart melts a little.
“I think we can.”
“Thank you.” Sol kisses Susie’s cheek and winks at me. “I’m so happy to see my friend again.”
His words make my stomach flip. I’m happy to see my old friend, too. I lick my suddenly dry lips and try not to stare at his fit frame. Sol has bulked out in the best way possible. The meat on his bones has me ready to explore him like a tree. I’m not tiny at five-foot-eleven, so he’s got to be pushing six-foot-four. My lack of professional thinking should be appalling, but damn, the man is a thirst trap.
I focus on Susie. “Do you want to show your brother what you’ve learned about the store?”
Susie beams. “I do.” She grabs Sol’s hand and pulls him toward the area we have set up to resemble a store.
“I’ll be the cashier today.”
I grab an apron off the hook on the wall and move behind the cash register filled with realistic paper money and coins. A lot of our students enjoy routines and familiar activities. Taking the scariness out of everyday interactions gives them confidence.
“Good afternoon,” I fall into my role as Susie comes up with a basket full of groceries. Each item is clearly marked with prices. I ring them up, scanning them to add authenticity. I can see the awe in Sol’s face. He had no idea she was ready for this step. I’ve watched her development and come up with a few thoughts on her past caregiver. Her mother was from the school of ‘she can’t do that, and I need to protect her’. She’s blossoming now with her brother at the helm and a progressive care action plan. We work closely with doctors and psychologists to make sure we’re challenging our students without pushing them to do things they aren’t ready for yet.
After bagging her items, I take her money and give her the proper change. “Have a nice day,” I say with a smile.
“You too.” She steps away, and I clap.
“That was amazing, Suz! When did you learn to do that?” Sol asks.
“We’ve been working on it,” Susie tells him excitedly.
Sol looks at me and shakes his head. “Wow.”
“Susie did all the hard work. We just gave her a little guidance.”
A bell chimes, and the doors open as classes shift. Miles steps out and waves at Susie.
“Can I go talk to Miles?” she asks.
Sol shrugs. “I don’t see why not.”
“I can update your brother on how awesome you’ve been doing.”
“Thanks, Ezra.” She all but skips off, and I smile. Her connection with my brother was almost instantaneous. They’re nearly inseparable when he’s not teaching.
I turn to face Sol. “I actually wanted to talk to you alone.”
Sol tenses. “Is something wrong?”
I reach out and grab his forearm, and his muscle flexes. I swallow back a moan.
“Not at all. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Susie is doing so well with her classes. I want to offer you a spot in a new program we are getting ready to launch. We’ll step outside of the classroom and help them further develop their social skills with people they don’t know.”
“I’m not sure if she’s ready for that.”
“I know this is a lot. You’re both in a transitional stage, but I truly believe she’s ready and eager to do more for herself. I think fostering that emotion will serve her well in the future.”
“I don’t know.” He frowns.
“You’re welcome to join us for our first trip to see it firsthand.”
He looks over to where Susie and Miles are talking animatedly. Hands are waving, and voices are raised. Their joy is almost tangible.
“When she first moved into the house with me, she fell into a deep depression. You guys have helped me pull her out of that funk. I don’t want to stand in the way of more breakthroughs for her.”
“We’ll take good care of her, Sol. I know how hard it is to let them go.” I grab his large hand.
He curls his fingers around mine. “I know.”
I hear Whoopie Goldberg’s character from Ghost whisper in my brain, You’re in danger, girl.
Thank you, Shyla Colt and RABT Book Tours
About the author
USA Today Bestselling author Shyla Colt is a chaos wrangler, chronic crafter, and imaginary friend collector. The mom of two and a wife road trips with her weird brood when she’s not taking on a new hobby or bingeing on spooky podcasts and documentaries. She writes strong women with sass, plenty of nerdy tendencies, and the intriguing intense males who love them.
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