THE MOMMY QUEST
The Luchettis Book #6
“Hey, Luchetti! If that’s really your name.”
Laughter broke out on the playground. Tim glanced up from his own private game of football. In his world he was Brett Favre throwing a touchdown pass to win the Super Bowl.
He was too young to ever have seen Favre play a live game, but that’s what ESPN classic was for. And they played a lot of old Packer games on that station, which suited Tim just fine.
Of course, he never told anyone how much he loved Brett. He lived in Illinois, land of Lincoln and the Chicago Bears. If he said Favre was the greatest quarterback of all time, he just might get a bloody nose.
Tim eyed the circle of boys who’d suddenly decided to pay attention to him, but not in a nice way, and thought he might end up with a bloody nose, anyway. Even though they were laughing, they looked big and mean and ready to stop laughing real soon.
Tim had been in this situation before. When bullies came it was best to hide and get small. Except he was gettin’ really tired of hiding. Besides, his father had told him he never had to worry about people hurting him again. Not in Gainsville. Not while Dean Luchetti was around.
Too bad he wasn’t around right now.
“My name’s Luchetti,” Tim insisted. “Just like my dad’s.”
The leader, Jeremy Janquist, a kid so big everyone secretly figured he’d been held back, stepped away from his buddies with a sneer. “He isn’t really your dad. He just took you in when you showed up in the yard.”
That was kind of true. Except Dean was adopting him, and then they’d be a family forevermore.
“My name’s Luchetti,” Tim repeated.
“Say that on your birth certificate, dim bulb?”
Tim winced, then wished he hadn’t when Jeremy grinned. He had problems in school, not because he was dim, but because he had a tough time payin’ attention. Even if there weren’t so many fun things to see and do in any given day, sittin’ still was hard!
Tim tried to walk away as his new gramma had told him to do when kids teased, but Jeremy wasn’t the kind of guy you turned your back on.
“Moron.” Jeremy grabbed Tim’s arm and spun him around. His fingers seemed to crunch against Tim’s bones.
Tim’s hands automatically curled into fists. He’d lived on the streets before he came to Illinois; he’d faced bigger, meaner kids than Jeremy. If he had to, he could fight. But he sure hoped he wouldn’t have to.
“Do you even have a birth certificate? I hear you ate garbage. That your mom hated you so much she dumped you in an alley and took off. You made up your first name, stole your last one, and you don’t even know when your birthday is.”
Jeremy had heard right, but Tim wasn’t going to tell him so. Tim wasn’t going to tell him anything. He tightened his lips along with his fists and counted to ten.
Sadly his silence only seemed to make Jeremy’s friends brave. They inched closer and started to shout.
Tim’s eyes stung with the effort of holding back the rage and the tears. Every single one of those names was true. Still, he yelled, “Am not!”
Someone shoved Tim from behind. He stumbled into a boy directly in front of him who shoved right back. Tim fell, landing on his knees. He scrambled to his feet, knowing if he was down they might kick, or worse, but as Tim got up someone’s shoulder met his face. The bloody nose he’d expected began.
Tim glanced around to see if the blood would scare them, or only make them madder. Every single boy was bigger than Tim, who wasn’t very big at all. His dad said he’d catch up to all the other kids, just
look at his feet. Tim’s feet were huge, which was why he tripped a lot.
“You don’t even have a mom,” Jeremy said.
She was just . . . gone. Tim didn’t remember a thing about the woman who had left him somewhere, then never come back.
“Only losers don’t have moms.”
Tim had Dean—the daddy he’d found when he’d gone on his daddy quest. He had aunts, uncles, cousins and the best gramma and grampa in the world, who lived right across the cornfield. Everyone loved him. On the farm, Tim wasn’t an orphan, he was a Luchetti.
But most kids had moms, even if she didn’t live with them. They knew their mom’s name, where she was, why she’d left.
Most kids, but not Tim.
“I don’t need a mom.”
“That’s good, because you ain’t gonna get one. Loser.” Jeremy headed for the open area behind the school, where the other boys were playing real football.
Tim breathed a sigh of relief that he’d avoided getting punched or landing in trouble. Then Jeremy tossed one final taunt over his shoulder.
“I hear your dad is as big of a dimwit as you are. No one’ll marry him.”
“What did you say?”
The playground went silent. Was every kid staring at them?
Jeremy came back, towering over Tim, wearing a nasty grin that said he’d been waiting for this. “I said your dad is an idiot. The only job he could get is bein’ a farmer, and that’s because his dad gave him the farm. He’s never been married, ’cause he can’t get a girl, and he had to adopt a kid that was as dumb as an old cow, just like him.”
Tim stopped listenin’ to Gramma Ellie’s advice and moved on to his dad’s. When all else fails . . .
Tim socked Jeremy as hard as he could in his big, soft belly. While Jeremy writhed on the ground, Tim said quietly, “Don’t ever talk about my dad again.”
He lifted his gaze and the others shrank back. Tim might be little, but he’d lived in a place where meaner kids than this had tried to do a lot worse. And no one, no one, talked about his dad like that.
Tim left Jeremy on the pavement with his friends gathered around. He ignored the other children and headed toward the school, where he took a seat against the building and dabbed at his nose with his shirt.
Someone would come and take him to the principal’s office. They always did.
Until he’d met Dean Luchetti, Tim had never known love or home or family. He’d do anything for Dean.
Tim sat up straight. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? He’d prove everyone wrong. He’d find Dean a wife and himself a mother.
The time had come for the mommy quest.
* * *
“Stella? I mean, Ms. O’Connell?”
Stella lifted her head and waited for Laura Benedict, her secretary, to get on with it. Instead, the woman just stared at her.
“Yes?” Stella tried to keep the impatience out of her voice and failed.
She had to remember that she was new here. Well, not new, exactly. She’d attended this school. But she was the new principal of Gainsville Elementary.
She just needed time to get used to how things were done in Illinois, which was different than they’d been done in Los Angeles. Some of those changes were the result of working in an elementary school in the Midwest, rather than a high school in the center of one of the largest cities in the country, and then again some weren’t.
“I’m sorry,” Laura said. “I keep forgetting and calling you Stella. It’s just, I remember you that way.”
Laura had been a year behind Stella at Gainsville High. Now she was the mother of four preteen boys, the wife of a farmer and the secretary at the grade school.
There but for the grace of God go I, Stella thought.
Laura had been one of the popular girls. Once slim and lovely, she was now round and cute. She was also happy. Or at least Stella thought she was. She’d seen so few happy people over the past several years.
“Stella?” Laura made an annoyed sound deep in her throat. “I mean, Ms. O’Connell.”
“Never mind, Laura. Just tell me what you want.” Her secretary blinked at Stella’s tone. She’d been too abrupt again. Would she ever be able to fit into the slower, kinder, gentler world of Gainsville Elementary? Stella was having her doubts.
“There’s been a fight on the playground.”
Stella came to her feet. “Is an ambulance on the way? Were shots fired?”
Laura’s eyes widened, and she stared at Stella with both confusion and horror.
“Sorry. Wrong time zone. What happened?”
“You get to find out.”
In L.A. she’d had assistants for that. By the time the students reached her office, they’d not only been interviewed, they’d usually been booked.
“We’ve got one in the nurse’s office with a bellyache the size of the Sears Tower. The other’s cooling his heels at my desk waiting to talk to you.”
“Just ask him what happened,” Laura said. “Being sent to the principal’s office is enough to get most kids to spill their guts.”
“Okay.” Stella sat down.
“Oh.” Laura stopped half in and half out of the door, eyeing Stella’s favorite suit, a light pumpkin shade that brought out the auburn highlights in her short, dark hair and the green in her hazel eyes. “Don’t hug him—he’s kind of bloody.”
Stella was still pondering those words when the child walked into her office. He didn’t look scared; he looked like a refugee from her world.
Short, skinny, with huge feet and knobby, scraped knees, there was something in those blue eyes she recognized. This child had been beat on before.
Stella frowned. “Have a seat.”
Someone, probably Laura, had tried to wipe the blood off his face. But noses bled pretty badly, and his white T-shirt was now garbage. She’d have to ask Laura to get him a new one from the donation box. Parents tended to freak out when they saw their children covered in blood.
“What’s your name?”
“What?” The word erupted from Stella’s mouth—too loud and too sharp for little kids. But this one didn’t even flinch. He’d no doubt heard worse.
“Rug Rat, really.” He shrugged his bony shoulders, and his hair, which reached past his eyes, slid over the freckles dotting his bloody nose. “But they called me Rat.”
“Who are they?”
If he was hosing her, he was good. Still, she couldn’t fathom anyone in Gainsville being able to call a kid Rat and get away with it.
“Laura?” Stella’s secretary stuck her head in the door. “He says his name is Rat.”
Laura made an exasperated sound. “Tim, do you want to be in more trouble than you are?”
“No, ma’am,” he answered, but he kept his gaze fixed on Stella’s.
“Call his parents,” Stella murmured.
If she hadn’t been locking eyes with Tim, she wouldn’t have caught the slight wince.
“Wanna tell me what happened out there?” Stella asked.
“Who punched you in the nose?”
“Funny, I hear that a lot.”
“I fall a lot.”
“There’s a kid in the nurse’s office with stomach issues. Know anything about that?”
“He fell, too.”
“Someone’s going to tattle. They won’t be able to help themselves. Then I’ll know everything. You could save us both time.”
“Someone can tattle, but it ain’t gonna be me.” Tim folded his arms over his chest, revealing livid, finger-shaped bruises on his left forearm.
Her temper flared. There was one thing that never changed no matter the time zone.
Some parents liked to hurt their kids.
* * *
Dean Luchetti tossed a hay bale onto the wagon and caught sight of his mother waving from the end of the field. His dad saw her, too, and shut off the tractor. Together they removed their seed caps and wiped their foreheads.
September and the thermometer read eighty degrees. In Illinois, the weather changed as often as the direction of the wind. One of the many things Dean loved about it.
“What’s the matter, Ellie?” John asked.
Dean started in her direction. She wouldn’t come out here unless it was important.
Dean’s breath caught as his heart took a leap upward.
“He’s fine,” she said hurriedly, and Dean relaxed a bit.
With Tim fine was usually the best he could hope for.
Dean had fallen in love with the little boy almost from the instant they’d met. His mom said they went together like peas and carrots—different, yet somehow they fit.
Tim had no one; Dean needed someone. When they’d both been diagnosed with ADHD some of Dean’s troubles had been explained, and Tim had found a father who could understand him better than anyone else.
“What is it this time?” Dean asked.
“Someone hit him?” Dean’s voice was so loud he startled a few birds from the nearby trees.
“I don’t know who hit who first,” his mom said. “But according to Laura, you should see the other guy.”
“Don’t sound so proud. You need to get to school. He’s suspended.”
“Shh—ucky darns.” Dean had been trying to quit swearing, since Tim repeated everything he said. Giving up smoking had gone a whole lot better.
“I’ll finish here,” his mom said.
“Leave it. You can’t lift those bales.”
Her answer was a snort. “I was lifting hay bales when you were still a gleam in your daddy’s eye.”
Dean glanced at his father, who was sitting on the tractor staring at the sky, and if Dean knew him at all, wishing for the days when he would have had a lit cigarette in his hand. A heart attack several years back had ended not only his love affair with nicotine, but also with alcohol, red meat and the daily workings of his farm.
Dean’s mother came from sturdy stock. Eleanor Luchetti had birthed six children in seven years, raising them all with one iron hand while she helped his father with the other. But they were semiretired now, and she had no business out in the heat doing Dean’s job.
“Leave it,” he repeated. “Tim can help me since he’ll be free this afternoon.”
“Tim’s in second grade and weighs sixty pounds soaking wet.”
“But he works like a dog.”
“He does.” Eleanor smiled. She was almost as crazy about Tim as Dean was.
“Why don’t you and Dad take a nap?” Dean suggested.
His parents were notorious for taking naps that involved very little sleep, hence the six children.
“Before lunch?” his mother said with mock innocence.
“Go wild. You’ll have the whole farm to yourself.” Dean strode toward the thresher’s cottage on the far side of a cornfield that separated the house where he now lived from the house where he’d grown up. As soon as he entered the yard, a herd of dogs surrounded him.
His mother was right; having five dogs was pushing it. Of course, they used to have eight.
“Move your kids,” Dean ordered.
Bear, one of an original pair of Dalmatians named for the Luchettis’ favorite sports teams, knew that tone. A herder at heart, he ushered his four remaining offspring toward the back field.
Bear’s love affair with a French poodle had resulted in six fluffy, spotted puppies, known as doodles. Dean had managed to foist two of them off on his brothers. He hadn’t had a speck of luck with the rest.
The second Dalmatian, Bull, had recently completed an affair of his own with a Mexican mutt by the name of Lucky. Bull had chosen to move to Quintana Roo with the love of his life and their flock of puppies, dubbed mutations since they were so ugly they were cute.
With the dancing, prancing dogs out of the way, Dean was able to make it into his house. He considered taking a shower, but opted for a quick wash in the sink and a change of his T-shirt instead.
A veteran principal’s-office sitter himself, Dean didn’t want Tim incarcerated there any longer than necessary, so he snatched the keys to his red pickup from the nail on the wall and headed for town.
School had been hard on Dean. He’d never been able to sit still, hadn’t cared about reading or math; he’d only been interested in the land and the animals.
Twenty-seven years ago in their district there’d been no testing, no special classes, no mainstreaming. You either made it through school or you didn’t. Dean had made it, but just barely.
These days kids had the benefits of special education, extra funding, Ritalin—things Dean had once considered a bunch of namby-pamby nonsense—until Tim came along.
He wheeled into the parking lot of Gainsville Elementary and hopped out of the cab. The place hadn’t changed much since he’d attended classes here, which meant it had a lot in common with the rest of the town.
Not that Gainsville hadn’t changed—there was a brand-new hospital and quite a few new businesses— but in truth, the same people ran the place that always had. And if not them, then their kids. Just look at him.
Dean strode into the building and headed for the office, nodding to the volunteer parent aide seated just inside the door.
Times had changed since he’d been here last—not a big surprise. Gone were the days when you could just walk off the street and into a classroom to talk to your child. Even in Nowhere, Illinois, they’d had to institute school security.
Although he doubted Chloe Wrycroft, five foot two and eyes of blue, would be able to stop anyone from going anywhere they wanted to if they wanted to badly enough. Still, she had a high-pitched shrieky voice that had already deafened her husband and would no doubt rouse the entire school if she chose to use it. At least no one would be surprised by an attack.
The thought was so disturbing Dean shoved it from his mind as he pushed through the door into the main office.
Laura Benedict lifted her gaze from the computer with a tense smile. Laura was usually so cheery.
“What happened?” Dean asked.
She glanced at the closed door that read Principal. Then inched to the counter and lowered her voice. “Near as I can piece together, some boys were teasing Tim.”
“About what?” Dean asked, but he already knew.
“Being dumb, being an orphan—”
Laura flashed him a glare. They’d known each other since they were younger than Tim, and she always spoke to him as if she were his sister. Hell, she spoke to everyone that way. “I thought you were cutting down.”
“So did I. Where is he?”
“You left him alone with Mrs. Little?”
The principal of Gainsville Elementary resembled Mary Poppins, until she opened her mouth. Then she was more like the Attila the Hun. Mrs. Little had frightened the spit out of generations of boys and girls. He didn’t plan to let her continue with his son.
But Laura was staring at him as if he’d lost his marbles. “Don’t you remember?”
“Mrs. Little fell off her high heels and ripped her Achilles tendon.”
“So she’s meaner than usual?”
Now that Laura mentioned it, he did recall seeing something about that in the Gainsville Gazette.
“So who’s in there?”
As if his question had summoned the occupant, the door began to open.
“Dean, I thought you knew,” Laura whispered.
Laura’s gaze shifted and his followed.
Dean froze at the sight of the woman in the doorway. “Stella,” he said. “What are you doing here?”