Neil knocks on the door of the large mansion, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet. This was his first client, and he hoped he’d gotten the right house because Stuart Hatford’s directions over the phone were marred by static and worsened by his British accent.
Neil sighs heavily, hoping that the lady wasn’t as old as Stuart made her out to be. After the death of his father, from whom he was running for years, Stuart had taken Neil under his wing, giving him a new identity and letting him be part of his Cuddle Buddy organisation. Neil didn’t mind, it seemed like an easy job, and all he really had to do was give hugs and listen to people’s problems.
There’s a sound of crying inside, and Neil frowns, hoping that the lady hadn’t hurt herself. Neil’s about to knock on the door again and call her name – Janet – when he hears heavy footsteps.
Neil takes a step back just as the door swings open, and he blinks in confusion at the dark Hispanic guy looking at him with something akin to relief.
“Oh, thank heavens you’re here,” the guy breathes, looking positively relieved to see Neil. Neil stares at him in confusion, because Janet’s profile had said that she lived alone.
“Um,” Neil frowns. Maybe he’d gotten the wrong house after all. He’s distracted when another man appears in the background, tanned and tall with dark hair and striking green eyes. He looks unnervingly familiar, his face contorted into an utterly horrified expression because of whoever was crying inside the house.
“Is he finally here?” Tall, tanned and handsome-ish sighs in relief and Neil takes another step back because he’s apparently landed in an unwanted situation.
“I’m Nicky,” the Hispanic guy says apologetically, before glancing at the guy behind him. They both look exhausted as the crying sound continues, loud, heart-wrenching sobs. “And that’s Kevin.”
It makes sense now, why he’d looked familiar. It’s Kevin Day, who was a prodigy at Exy, the sport that had always haunted Neil, and the sport which his mother had strictly forbidden him from ever playing. Kevin Day was one of Neil’s favourite Exy players, someone Neil had always wished he could be like, but someone Neil could never follow.
“What’s your name?” Nicky asks gently as if there wasn’t someone crying inside.
Neil blinks, pausing. “Neil Hatford.” It felt good to not have to think twice about his name. He is and forever will be, Neil Hatford.
“Neil, you’re going to be a lifesaver,” Nicky gushes, before opening the door wider. “Come in,” he proffers, and Neil knows he shouldn’t, but he does anyway, curiosity getting the better of him.
“We’re supposed to interview you,” Nicky admits, and Neil gets even more confused, standing in the humongous house. “But right now, we just need someone to take care of him.” Him? “I need to pick up his brother from school, and Kevin’s not good with kids.”
Kids? Where was Janet?
The crying is wrenching Neil’s heart, and he looks toward the direction where it’s coming from. He wants to go comfort whoever was crying because Nicky was just ignoring them.
Nicky winces as the crying sound intensifies. “Can you… you should be good with kids, right? The agency said they’d send their most qualified nanny, so you should be good with him. Just… can you try to calm him down? We’ve tried and he just…” Nicky sighs tiredly. “His father’s away for the weekend, and he’s usually the one who does it.”
Neil blinks because one, Nicky’s ignoring the crying child, and two, they expect him to be a nanny? Neil loves kids, most of his experience stemming from his stint as a Junior Exy Coach, the first job that Stuart had gotten him. He knows he should leave, should tell them that they’ve gotten the wrong person, but the kid’s sobs are tugging at something in him.
“He’s right in there,” Nicky says, leading him to a room. Neil peers in curiously. The house is huge, and the room takes advantage of that. It’s clearly a playroom, messy with toys scattered on the ground, a large whiteboard taking over the entire back wall and the perpendicular wall painted in black chalkboard wall paint. The chalkboard wall has a ton of drawings and writing on it, clearly done by young children. There are space and dinosaur posters everywhere, as well as numerous hand drawings. There are two tables next to each other, with computers and books on them.
In the corner, where the whiteboard and chalkboard wall meet, is a tiny figure, curled up into a ball, sobbing uncontrollably.
“I need to run,” Nicky says, glancing at Kevin, who’d gravitated toward them and was now standing behind Nicky. “I’m sorry, but I really need to pick up his brother. Can you, just, stop him from crying?”
Kevin huffs, and Neil sends out a mental apology to poor Janet, before approaching the small kid warily. He has a mop of blond hair, and when he looks up at Neil, his eyes, besides being bloodshot, are so light and hazel that it’s a shock. He’s maybe five or six, and extremely adorable, even with the reddened eyes and tear-stained face.
“Hey, there,” Neil whispers, sitting down in front of the kid and crossing his legs.
“Who are you?” the kid sniffles, scowling at Neil, scrubbing his face.
“I’m Neil,” Neil stretches out his hand. “You?”
The kid eyes him cautiously before putting his tiny hand in Neil’s and shaking it. “I’m Ash.”
Neil reaches over to the roll of toilet paper that’s next to the kid, tearing a piece and giving it to Ash, who blows his nose noisily. “Nicky sent me in here to find out why you’re crying,” Neil tell Ash, who looks away, face flushing. “Do you want to tell me?”
“He doesn’t understand,” Ash chews on his lip as he mumbles out the words, looking like he’s going to start crying again. “And Kevin tells me I shouldn’t cry.”
Neil scowls but doesn’t say anything. “I won’t ask if you don’t want to tell me,” he says gently, before remembering one of his Junior Exy students who always cried when they lost a match and was always comforted when he gave her a big hug. “Do you want a hug?”
Ash’s eyes widen, and his bottom lip quivers as he nods. Neil gives him a gentle smile and opens his arms, and Ash clambers over to him, crashing onto his lap. The little boy holds on to him for dear life, small fingers curling in Neil’s hoodie. Neil wraps his arms around him, stroking his back. He doesn’t say anything, just lets Ash’s little trembling body stay close to him. Ash doesn’t cry again, holding on to Neil tightly.
“I had a nightmare,” Ash whimpers. “About my Dad. I miss my Daddy.”
Neil lets Ash hide his face in his hoodie as he whispers the admission. “Why didn’t you want to tell Nicky that?”
“Cause Kevin and Uncle Nicky always tell me I should be a big boy,” Ash whispers. “I just want Daddy to come back.”
Neil’s heart aches.
“They’re stupid,” Neil says bluntly, and Ash’s eyes widen before he starts to giggle softly.
“Daddy always says that about Kevin and Exy,” Ash snickers, and Neil smiles slightly at Ash’s pronunciation of Exy - Ek-thee.
“Do you play?” Neil asks curiously, hand still stroking Ash’s tiny back. Ash’s little head nods against his chest as he sniffles softly.
“Me and my brother play with Kevin. Daddy plays with us if we beg him plenty. Uncle Nicky says Kevin’s too mean to us, but he plays with us sometimes too.”
“Before I came to South Carolina, I used to teach a Junior Exy class,” Neil says stupidly, and Ash’s pulling back from Neil’s chest, facing lighting up. Fuck.
“Does that mean you’ll play with me?” he asks excitedly, tear-stained cheeks bunching up into a large smile. “Daddy doesn’t play when Kevin’s there, but he could play where you’re there!”
Neil wonders if he’d ever been like that, having an undying, untouchable, bottomless love for his father. He doesn’t even think that it was possible. Still, maybe it might have been.
“It depends,” Neil tells him gently, suddenly remembering that he was not supposed to be here. He’d completely forgotten about poor Janet.
“On what?” Ash’s eyes are wide, his previous sadness absolutely wiped away and forgotten. “My brother plays in the school team. I wanna get as good as him and Kevin!”
Oh fucking hell. Neil swallows, choking back the automatic yes, because he doesn’t want to, he can’t break this kid’s heart. “I’ll talk to your father and see if I can stay.”
“I’ll beg him,” Ash says seriously. “When Kevin’s not here, you could play with us! He’ll understand!”
Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t. Ash’s father could be an overly horrible monster who hated Neil. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Neil was already going to be killed by Stuart for forgetting Janet.
Neil’s decision-making skills were extremely biased when it came to a small boy begging him to play Exy.
“Don’t beg him,” Neil says softly. “I’ll talk to him when he comes back, and you need to respect his decision, okay? I’m sure your father’s a very busy and important man and he has to work extremely hard to take care of you.” He tweaks Ash’s little chin, and the boy nods fervently.
“He is,” Ash states grandiosely. “He has, like, a million companies.”
Neil doesn’t doubt it, because the house spoke for itself. “So, he’s just as smart as you, then.”
Ash giggles, shaking his head. “Daddy’s smarter! Uncle Nicky always says he hates Daddy’s memory because it’s too good.”
Ash’s father sounds more and more interesting by the minute. If he was as smart as Ash proclaimed, Neil was utterly fucked.
“I’m sure it is,” Neil grins so Ash doesn’t see his internal war. There’s a small rumbling sound, and Neil holds back his laughter as Ash pouts, realising that it was the little boy’s stomach. “Are you hungry? What do you want to eat?”
Ash’s eyes light up. “Can I get ice cream?” he asks shyly. “Kevin doesn’t let me get any when Daddy’s not here.”
“Well, it’s a good thing that I’m here then,” Neil beams at Ash, who smiles back at him hopefully. “We’re going to march up to Kevin and demand ice cream!”
“Yes!” Ash cries, fist-pumping, and Neil grins, standing and taking Ash’s hand in his, holding his little fist tightly.
Ash follows Neil’s lead, and they storm up to Kevin, who’s still hanging out in the doorway, watching them with an unreadable expression, arms folded.
“We demand ice cream!” Neil’s voice is highlighted by Ash’s smaller, higher voice, and Kevin snorts, rolling his eyes.
“Fine,” he huffs, unfolding his arms and turning. “But only because he stopped crying.”
Neil follows Kevin to the kitchen, still holding Ash’s hand. When Ash takes his hand from Neil, he bounds over to the chair by the counter, wiggling into a seat and waiting patiently for his ice cream. Neil’s heart goes out to him, because he’s such a good kid, and all he needed was patience and love.
Kevin sighs heavily as he opens the freezer, and Neil leans on the counter. “I’m not giving him too much,” Kevin states. “He’s a growing child, he should be eating his vegetables.”
“Oh, fuck off your high horse,” Neil mutters lowly. “He’s a kid.” Kevin doesn’t react the way he should, which is to berate him for cursing in front of Ash. Instead, he bursts out laughing.
“You sound just like Andrew,” Kevin snorts, shaking his head and peering into the freezer. “You haven’t even been here for an hour yet, and you’re already starting a revolution. Amazing.” He pulls out three containers, looking at Asher. “Pistachio, chocolate or cookies and cream?”
“Chocolate!” Ash yells excitedly, legs swinging as he bounces in his chair. Neil declines when Kevin offers him some, not being a huge fan of sweets himself.
Under Neil’s watchful supervision, Kevin gives Ash a decent sized scoop of chocolate ice cream, and Ash digs in eagerly, practically inhaling the cold dessert. Kevin leans on the counter near Neil, folding his arms and watching Ash eat his ice cream happily.
“You did a good job with him,” Kevin comments and Neil glances over to him. “I’ve never been able to talk to him while he’s crying and it’s frustrating.”
“That’s because you treat him like a teen or an adult,” Neil responds lowly. “He doesn’t need to talk shit out. He’s a child. He needs a hug and ice cream.”
“I’m not going to bribe him with ice cream,” Kevin mumbles stubbornly. “I’ll never hear the end of it from Andrew if I do.”
Neil snorts, rolling his eyes and looking fondly at Ash, who’s bouncing happily in his seat as he eats his ice cream.
“He’s had a hard life,” Kevin says suddenly, and Neil looks at him sharply. Kevin frowns, keeping his eyes on Ash. “No, I’m – I’m not implying that he should grow up because of what he’s been through. Thing is, he and his brother went through a lot when they were younger. It’ll be good to have someone who’s good with them around often. Andrew tries to be there for them, but they were unexpected. We couldn’t totally drop everything for them.” Kevin sighs, rubbing a hand through his hair. “Andrew’s a CEO who stays away from the public eye because of them. Nicky and his husband moved back to America from Germany because of them. We’re trying our best to take care of them, but ultimately, we need someone for them full time.”
Neil chews on his lip, mind whirling. This dysfunctional family was getting more and more confusing by the second. “Do they ever regret it?”
Kevin shrugs. “I mean, can they? Are they allowed to? They’re children. They’re small human beings who have minds of their own, who’ve made Andrew smile more times in a few years than he’s done for his entire lifetime. Sure, they cry and pee the bed and have nightmares, but I don’t think any of us would ever say that we regret it.”
Neil goes to respond, but the sound of the front door opening cuts him off. There are heavy footsteps, and Nicky’s yelling don’t run, which is practically ineffective as a blur of blue and blond barrels into the kitchen.
The boy manages to stop, swivelling to face Kevin, panting heavily before yelling, “I stopped ten points!”
Neil blinks, taken aback, but Kevin grins, giving him a high five. “Good job, tiny Minyard! Do you want some ice cream?”
Neil turns and glares at Kevin, who shrugs unashamedly. “It’s Exy. He deserves something, right?”
Neil shakes his head in disappointment, as the boy nods in response to ice cream, asking for pistachio, before turning his curious gaze to Neil.
He could almost pass for Ash’s twin, except he was probably just a year or two older. His face is slightly rounded, and his lashes are longer. He’s wearing shorts and a jersey, a blue bag strapped to his back.
“I’m Neil,” Neil introduces himself before the boy could ask.
“He’s going to stay with us forever, Maddy!” Ash adds in enthusiastically, and Maddy’s eyes widen. Neil winces.
“Let’s see what your father says first,” he murmurs, and Maddy’s imminently distracted by ice cream as Kevin hands him the bowl.
“Ooh, is ice cream sharing out?” Nicky finally appears, looking tired but smiling nonetheless. “I want pistachio and chocolate, please!”
Kevin sighs heavily, dishing out some more ice cream for Nicky. Maddy sits next to Asher and digs into his ice cream, chattering with his brother.
Nicky’s smile gets wider when he sees Neil. “So, how was it? I see Ash looks happier. I’m sorry I had to leave you with him.”
“It’s okay,” Neil offers him a tentative smile. “He’s a good kid, I didn’t mind.”
“Wait till the sugar kicks in,” Kevin mutters, and Nicky snorts, not disputing that, scooping some ice cream and moaning as he eats it.
“I know you’ve met all of us already, but just to get the formalities aside,” Nicky says after inhaling a big chunk of ice cream. “That’s Kevin Day, Exy legend,” he says, almost mockingly, and Kevin glowers at him, crossing his arms and leaning against the counter. “The kids are Asher and Maddox Minyard. Their father is Andrew Minyard, and I’m Nicky Hemmick-Klose. My husband and I live next door, so we’re here often.”
Neil nods slowly, taking in this information although some things still weren’t adding up. Where was the children’s mother? Were Kevin and Andrew together? Were Ash and Maddy their kids? If so, why was Kevin so horrible with them?
He doesn’t ask anything, though, just swallows his curious questions and nods.
“I’m supposed to give you an official interview,” Nicky sighs as he eats more ice cream. “But I guess Ash was your interview.”
“I’d say he passed,” Kevin intones. Neil glances at him, frowning. “He’s the only one who calmed him down as fast as Andrew.”
“Damn,” Nicky raises his eyebrows, resting his now-empty bowl on the counter and looking impressed. “What’d you say to him?”
“He said you were stupid!” Ash calls out, and Maddy snickers. Neil flushes, looking at Nicky and Kevin with a faux-innocent expression.
“For Christ’s sake,” Nicky looks like he’s holding back his laughter. “You’re just like Andrew.”
“That’s what I said!” Kevin looks amused, snorting. “I don’t know if that means Andrew’s going to love him or hate him.”
“We’ll see,” Nicky chuckles lightly. “Anyway, you’ll be a live-in nanny, as I’m sure the agency told you.”
Oh fuck. Neil had forgotten about Janet. Shit.
“We won’t be able to leave you alone with the kids until Andrew approves of you,” Nicky says contritely, but Neil shrugs it off, mind whirling with possible excuses he could give Stuart for completely blowing off his first day on the job. “So, Kevin and I will be around often. You might see my husband around as well,” Nicky continues. “We’ll take turns because we’re all extremely busy, and we’re lucky that Kevin’s on a season break right now, so he’s available.”
Neil nods, stuffing his hands in his pockets because he can’t believe he’s going to do this. Stuart was going to murder him.
“They don’t have strict house rules. Andrew’s a believer in the free-spirited, if I may say so myself,” Kevin snorts and Nicky sends him a dark look before continuing. “So, they don’t have strict bedtimes or diets, but we try to be reasonable.” Neil nods. “Can you start on Sunday? That’ll give you a day to remember what it was like to have a life.”
Neil grins, glancing over at the two kids who were talking animatedly with each other and his heart yearns for them. “Sure,” he says agreeably, wondering how he would break the news to Stuart.
“Oh, and Andrew should be back by Monday, so you could look out for that,” Nicky grins, and Neil sighs heavily. He hopes that Andrew would hate him completely and kick him out. That way he wouldn’t be a stupid liar who got stupidly soft around kids.
He sighs again. He didn’t know how he got into this situation and he didn’t know how to get out. “I should head out,” Neil murmurs. “My uncle’s probably waiting for me.” He doesn’t add – to kill me.
Nicky nods in agreement, then he’s telling Ash and Maddy to say goodbye. Ash pouts, but then he comes and hugs Neil’s waist with his short arms, and telling him to come back soon, okay Mr Neil, we need to play Exy and Maddy’s nodding emphatically, waving him goodbye.
Neil doesn’t really understand the weird sadness he feels as he leaves, and it feels like he’s living some dream that just crashes when the door closes behind him.
He was utterly screwed.
“Are you a bloody idiot, Neil?” Stuart’s scolding him over the phone, a few minutes after he walks away from the house. The connection is much better, which means Stuart’s cursing is much more audible.
He takes the directions to Stuart’s house, which is only a few blocks away, so he sets off in that direction.
He’d left his phone number with Nicky, knowing that soon he’d probably get a call asking who the fuck was he, the random stranger from no agency that pretended to be a nanny for a few hours. He wasn’t looking forward to that call, pushing it to the back of his mind, holding on, stupidly, to that tiny hope that he’d be able to see the kids again and play Exy with them.
Stuart’s standing outside of his house, arms crossed and an angry look etched on his face when Neil finally arrives, sweaty on the outside and fuzzy on the inside, still reeling from the last hug that Ash had given him.
“You messed up,” Stuart scowls at Neil as soon as he steps into the house, ambling over to the couch and dropping onto it. “You had Janet waiting there for too bloody long.”
Neil wants to feel horrible, wants to hate himself, but Ash’s little voice keeps replaying in his head, come back soon, okay Mr Neil, we need to play Exy.
Was it possible to love a kid so fast?
“I’m sorry,” Neil confesses, sighing heavily. “I may have mistakenly become a nanny. I ended up at the wrong house. If they call me by Sunday, I can become a live-in nanny.”
Stuart glares at him. “You’re just as fucking stupid as your mother,” Stuart mutters, dropping on the couch next to Neil and shaking his head. “At least it’s not a completely rubbish excuse.”
Neil winces. “The kids are so adorable, Stuart. They remind me of my Junior Exy class.”
Stuart groans. “You did love those bloody kids. Are you taking the piss, or are you serious?”
“I'm serious,” Neil says strongly. “Well, until they call me and ask me who the fuck I am.”
Stuart shakes his head. Whether it’s in disappointment or fondness, Neil can’t tell. “Go to bed, Neil. You look absolutely knackered. And in the morning, get your shit sorted. If you really want to do this, let me know.”
Neil nods in acquiescence, although his mind was already made up. The only thing that could fuck this up was if they realised he wasn’t from the nanny agency.
He follows Stuart to his given room, curling up in his bed, remembering what Ash’s little fists felt like curled in his.
Ash reminded him a lot what he was like after he lost his mom, and it tugged at something in Neil. He was finally out of danger, surely the universe didn’t hate him enough to take away his chance at happiness.
“Neil,” Nicky says happily as he opens the door. The only call that Neil had gotten from Nicky wasn’t to curse him out and call him a stalker or paedophile, but to ask Neil if he was still up for the job. Neil hadn’t dared to hope for much, but no matter how hard he tried, that call had made his hopes soar.
“Hey, I’m glad you could make it,” Nicky smiles, and Neil stuffs his hands in his pocket, trying to hide his nervousness and racing heart. “Luck’s on your side, Andrew came back a day early. You can meet him in his office.”
Neil chews on his bottom lip anxiously as he follows Nicky into the house, which is much quieter than the last time he’d been there. He climbs the massive staircase behind Nicky, following him down the hallway, and waiting with bated breath as Nicky presses a small buzzer by the door.
When Nicky lets him enter, Neil’s blown away by three things.
The room is enormous, just as large as the playroom downstairs. Half of the room is sophisticated and professional, whereas the other half is clearly for the children. The walls on the children’s side are also painted with chalkboard paint, and are covered with drawings and writing. There are two desks with a computer on each one, with a basket of toys on the floor next to the tables.
The windows are ridiculously tall, yawning panes, leading out onto a balcony that overlooks the garden in the back, which is complete with a huge pool and an actual downsized Exy court.
Then lastly, and most interesting of all, is the guy sitting behind the large, neat desk, and the intensity in his eyes leave Neil speechless. Neil swallows, blood burning in his veins, barely hearing Nicky introduce him, because goddam, this guy is hot.
He’s almost a large-sized version of Ash and Maddox, with the same blonde, messy hair, and hazel eyes. His face is angular and carefully emotionless and he stares at Neil, whose heart rate spikes under the observation, barely aware of Nicky still talking as he introduces the blonde as Andrew Minyard.
Neil bites his bottom lip as his eyes roam the blonde’s jawline, hard and set, to his long neck, to the muscles that are clearly being restrained by the black shirt he’s wearing.
This was bad. This was a really fucking bad idea. Neil wants to back away, escape, but then Nicky’s giving him a gentle push inside and closing the door behind him.
“Mr Hatford,” Andrew’s voice is smooth as the honey of his eyes, and Neil’s pores raise. “Have a seat.”
Neil forces his locked-up legs to move, wishing that they’d met under different circumstances, where Neil wasn’t a liar, and Andrew’s gaze wasn’t so cutting.
Andrew leans back in his chair, surveying Neil with hard eyes. “I was most interested when I spoke to Asher on the phone yesterday, and he was gushing about his new nanny that was going to play Exy with him,” Andrew says casually, but Neil gets a chill from the coldness in his eyes. “Especially since the agency had called me just a few minutes before to inform me that they wouldn’t be able to provide us with a nanny at such short notice.”
Neil’s heart stops. This is it, it’s all crashing down around him. It seems like the universe hated him, after all. Go figure.
Andrew’s eyes get harder, and his voice is sharp as steel. “You have one chance, Mr Hatford, to tell me who you are, and why the fuck you’re in my house.”
Neil’s heart climbs into his throat, and he takes a deep breath. He was absolutely fucked, and he wouldn’t be able to keep his promise to Ash.
“I got the wrong house,” Neil confesses lowly, eyes trained on the nameplate on Andrew’s desk. Andrew J. Minyard, CEO, Vixen Technologies.
“I work for my uncle’s company, and it was my first day as a Cuddle Buddy,” Neil clears his throat, flushing slightly. “But the phone connection was really bad, and I didn’t hear him clearly over the phone. I ended up here, and Nicky barely gave me a chance to explain myself, and I couldn’t leave when I heard Ash crying.”
Neil inhales slowly. “I couldn’t bear to hear him cry,” Neil whispers, throat thick with unshed tears. He clears his throat again. “Especially when Kevin and Nicky were doing fuck-all about it.”
“Why,” Andrew deadpans, and Neil’s horrified to feel the tears gathering along his lashes. He clears his throat, blinking them away quickly.
“He reminded me of myself,” he confesses hollowly.
“Elaborate,” Andrew commands, unmoving, face still carefully emotionless.
“My…” Neil swallows, glancing over Andrew’s shoulder at the bookcase that takes up the entire wall behind him. He focuses on a fixed point and wills himself to get it together. “My father used to abuse my mother and me. I’ve had my share of curling in a corner and crying.”
“Forgive me, Mr Hatford,” Andrew states blandly. “If I have issues believing you.”
Neil chews on his bottom lip, before making a decision. He unzips his hoodie, not missing the way Andrew tenses. He unbuttons his shirt and exposes his chest and shoulders to Andrew. Andrew’s eyes lock onto Neil’s scarred skin, facial expression unchanging.
“My father gave me this,” Neil says softly, finger brushing the raised bumps that he’d gotten after the iron had peeled off his skin. “He slapped me with a hot iron. I can show you every scar I’ve gotten from that man, but there’s nothing else I could do to make you believe me.”
He buttons his shirt, leaving the hoodie unzipped. “I love kids,” Neil pleads. “I used to teach a Junior Exy class, and it was the best time of my life. I know I’m not qualified and you could kick me out of here at any time. I just have a soft spot for kids, and I didn’t want to disappoint Ash. I saw myself in him and wanted to help him, that’s all. At least he has a good father who comes back when he cries.”
Andrew studies him for a few long minutes, and Neil doesn’t dare breathe.
“You’ll be on a test period of two weeks,” Andrew starts, and Neil inhales sharply, heart racing. “And it’s only because I can’t get an official nanny at the moment. If Asher or Maddox complain about anything, you’re gone. If you raise your hand to them, or touch them in any way inappropriate, I’ll kill you.”
Neil feels the threat all the way down to his bones, and he can tell that Andrew isn’t kidding. His voice his sharp, unwavering.
“I understand,” Neil says, voice strong, still a little bit in disbelief. Andrew glares at him for a few seconds, before there’s a soft buzzing sound coming from his desk.
Andrew presses a small button on a silver machine on his desk, and says, “come in”. Neil’s taken aback at how quickly Andrew’s voice gentles.
The door opens and Neil looks back, seeing a small head peek in. Asher.
“Daddy!” Asher screeches, racing inside and somehow jumping on the chair next to Neil's and clambering over the desk to kneel in front of Andrew, nearly knocking over his computer. It’s obvious that he does it quite often, although he could go around the desk just like his brother.
Andrew opens his arms, and Neil’s heart skips a beat when he sees Andrew’s face soften, embracing Asher and holding him tightly before putting him to sit, reaching down and hugging Maddox as well.
“Hi, Drew!” Maddox says excitedly, grinning up at Andrew. “I saved ten goals in the game!”
Andrew’s eyebrows raise in faux shock. “You’re kidding,” Andrew deadpans. Neil’s heart can’t take this. “You can’t possibly be that amazing already.”
Maddox giggles. “I’m not lying! Ask Kevin!”
“The tiny Minyard speaks the truth,” Kevin drawls, and a glance back confirms that he’s leaning against the doorway, arms folded. “He’s taking after you, Andrew.”
Neil almost misses the quick glare that Andrew sends Kevin, but it’s gone so fast he’s not sure if he imagined it.
Asher looks back, only now realising that Neil’s sitting in the office. “Neil!” he says excitedly. “Are you here to play Exy?”
“Asher,” Andrew says softly, drawing the small boy’s attention back to him. “Can you give me a few minutes alone with Neil?”
Asher and Maddox look at Neil, wide-eyed. “Oooh,” Maddox grins mischievously. “You’re in trouble.”
Neil’s unable to stop his laugh from tumbling out, before Kevin’s ushering the kids outside, shutting the door behind them.
Neil clears his throat. “Yesterday, I, uh. I gave Ash a hug when he was crying. Is that okay?”
Andrew looks at him, face unreadable. “If he was okay with it, then, yes. However, I won’t let you be alone with them during your trial period. And don’t overdo them at Exy. Asher wants to join a judo club, so that’ll take up some of his time and energy as well.”
Neil nods in understanding, still in some disbelief that this was happening. “Thank you,” he says honestly. “I won’t let anything happen to them.”
Andrew reads his face, eyes searching. Neil almost shudders under his heavy gaze. “I hope so. I value those kids more than my life.”
When Andrew’s finished talking to Neil, he lets Nicky give him a quick tour of the house. First, Nicky shows Neil to his room, which is more than Neil expected.
The room is large, with a queen-sized bed and a television opposite. It’s barely furnished, but Nicky tells Neil that he could decorate it to suit but to keep it kid-friendly.
Neil’s room is directly opposite the kids’. Maddox and Ash have separate rooms, with personalised nameplates on their doors.
Nicky also gives him an idea of where Andrew’s room is and explains to Neil that both Andrew’s office and room are sound-proofed and had buttons to alert Andrew that someone was by the door and small speakers by the door for Andrew to let anyone know if they could enter.
After, he gives Neil a tour of the backyard, and Neil walks around the glistening, blue water of the pool, looking in awe at the mini version of an Exy court. Nicky explains that Andrew had it built especially for the kids, with Kevin overseeing all of the modifications. It was constructed with the same hard plexiglass as normal courts, and kept in the same condition. The goals even lit up red. Neil falls completely in love with it.
Unfortunately, he doesn't get a chance to explore inside of it as Nicky continues the tour. He shows Neil Andrew’s basement gym, and walks him through the rest of the house, through the living room, dining room, TV room, games room, and the kids’ playroom.
Somewhere in between the dining room and TV room, Neil manages to have a small existential crisis about the fact that he’s ended up in charge of not one, but two little human beings, wondering at what point in his life he’d gotten so stupid.
Thankfully, the kids spend most of their day with Andrew in his office, giving Neil a day to get himself together. Nicky gives Neil a quick breakdown of the kids’ and Andrew’s schedules, before inviting him to join him and Erik for a quick dip in the pool.
Neil complies, getting changed and hanging out with Nicky and his husband for the rest of the day. Nicky and Erik converse mostly in lowly German, and although Neil’s fluent in the language, he doesn’t try to eavesdrop, instead taking the time to swim in the pool and trying to remember the last time he’d even seen one, appreciative that Nicky and Erik don’t stare or ask about his scars.
He manages to make it through the day without completely messing up or seeing the kids. Nicky explains that whenever Andrew was away for more than a day, he spent a lot of time with them, even if it was in his office, doing work while they played.
Neil’s begun to realise that Andrew wasn’t joking around when it came to the kids, and it gives him a sense of peace with an underlying of regret.
Nicky gets the boys ready for bed and points out their favourite books to Neil, who takes a serious note of them, stroking the boys’ head as they fell asleep. Maddox falls asleep with a smile on his face as Neil strokes his head softly, and Neil realises that these boys were seriously touch-starved, but there was no way he was going to mention that to either Andrew or Nicky.
It’s almost nine in the night, and he’s on his bed flipping through channels when he decides he’s dying of thirst, so he exits his room. The house is still after Nicky and Erik and Kevin had escaped to their respective houses, and the kids were in their rooms.
He’s passing Maddox’s room when he hears sniffling, and his heart clenches. He knocks softly on the door, entering the room. Maddox is wiping tears away quickly, trying to put on a brave face, so Neil gives him an encouraging smile, crouching next to his bed.
“Hey, Madds, what’s wrong?” Neil rubs his chest softly, and Maddox hiccups lightly, before looking away in shame. Neil decides to try another tactic. “Hey, do you want some ice cream?” Neil whispers conspiratorially, and Maddox looks at him suspiciously. He knows, eventually, he's going to have to comfort them with something other than ice cream, but until he figured out what, the cold treat would work just fine.
“Kevin said we shouldn’t eat snacks at bedtime,” Maddox mumbles, chewing on his lip.
“But Kevin isn’t here,” Neil winks. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
Maddox still looks worried, sniffling slightly. “Would you tell Drew I was crying?”
Neil wipes away Maddox’s undried tears with his thumb, looking at the kid, his heart hurting. “Why don’t you want me to tell him?”
Maddox looks away. “Because I don’t want him to think I don’t like him.” He whispers, a frown etched on his face. Neil matches his frown, but doesn’t ask him to elaborate.
“He wouldn’t think that,” Neil promises softly. “He loves you so much, Madds. He’d never think anything like that. You should trust him.”
Maddox chews on his lip thoughtfully, before nodding. “Okay. Can I still get ice cream?”
Neil grins, ruffling his hair fondly. “Yeah, come on. Just be quiet, okay?”
Maddox smiles, creeping behind Neil as they go down to the kitchen. He sits quietly at the table while Neil scoops out a small amount of ice cream for him, leading him into the dining room and giving him the bowl.
“Ash says you give awesome hugs,” Maddox says shyly as he stabs his ice cream with the spoon, and Neil’s heart squeezes.
“Only to good boys,” Neil smirks and Maddox pouts, scooping some ice cream and eating it.
“I’m a good boy,” he promises Neil and Neil laughs lightly, patting Maddox’s head.
“When you finish your ice cream, you can get as many hugs as you want,” Neil assures him, and Maddox nods eagerly, eating his ice cream. Neil hesitates before asking, “don’t you ask Andrew for hugs?”
Maddox shrugs light-heartedly. “He doesn’t give it often,” he mumbles around a large, full scoop. “He gives the best hugs but not a lot.”
Neil nods thoughtfully, pulling a chair and sitting next Maddox. When Maddox finishes, he looks up at Neil shyly, and Neil grins, holding out his arms. Maddox lets himself get folded into Neil’s arms, climbing on his lap.
Neil holds him close. Maddox rests his head on Neil’s chest settling in as Neil rubs his back gently. Before he knows it, Maddox’s breathing has slowed, and he’s sleeping soundly on Neil’s chest. Neil doesn’t want to move, instead, slowly his breathing, hoping to get Maddox into a deep sleep before moving him.
There are soft footsteps in the kitchen, and Neil looks up as Andrew pauses in the doorway of the dining room, staring at Maddox curled on Neil’s lap. Neil continues to stroke Maddox’s back lightly as he watches Andrew.
Andrew steps forward, walking over to Neil and reaching out for Maddox. He takes Maddox gently into his arms, holding him close. He doesn’t say anything as he turns to carry him back to bed.
Neil tries very hard not to look at Andrew’s ass that’s wrapped in black silk. He glances away from it and looks up at Andrew’s muscular back, tendons and muscles bunching up under his thin, long-sleeved cotton jersey.
Neil swallows hard as Andrew walks off, carrying Maddox to his room. He stands and carries Maddox’s empty bowl to the kitchen, washing it quickly, before finally pouring himself a glass of water.
Neil’s lost in thought, thinking about Andrew and his gorgeous ass, and the kids who loved hugs, when Andrew comes back downstairs, barely glancing at Neil before pouring himself a cup of coffee from the coffeemaker that was somehow always brewing.
Neil winces as Andrew loads up the coffee with sugar and milk, leaning against the counter and sipping the liquid. Neil takes a gulp of his water, relishing in the cool, refreshing liquid sliding down his throat.
“I know I shouldn’t be alone with them,” Neil admits, voice quiet. “He was crying and so I gave him ice cream and a hug.”
“I’m not good with touch,” Andrew confesses lowly, and Neil has to force himself not to react. “I know they’re touch starved, and I should hug them more often.”
“That doesn’t make you a bad father,” Neil says quietly. “Take it from someone who got the jackpot on horrible fathers. Kevin told me that you didn’t expect them. I don’t know your story, but I know you’re doing all you can for them.”
And it’s true. It’s clear that Andrew loved them a lot. Andrew took days away from them, but still made time for them when he came back. This family was going to be the death of him; a gorgeous father and two adorable young boys.
Andrew looks at him wordlessly, finishing his coffee. Neil’s unable to look away, heart pounding as Andrew’s intense eyes survey him. When his cup's empty, Andrew breaks the gaze, turning to place his cup in the sink.
“I’m going to check on Maddox,” Andrew’s voice is husky, and Neil’s pores raise. He nods dumbly, dragging his eyes away from Andrew’s strong arms, and the long sleeves of his t-shirt that are clinging to his biceps.
Andrew leaves and Neil stares after him, his mouth dry. It should be illegal for someone to look so damn good just in their pyjamas. Neil’s snapped back into reality when Andrew disappears up the stairs, swallowing down the rest of his water quickly, before heading off to his bedroom.
When he passes Maddox’s room, he sees the door is open a crack. He moves to close it, pausing when he hears soft voices.
His intention isn’t to eavesdrop, but he can’t help himself from overhearing Maddox’s small voice saying I miss him, and Andrew’s strong voice responding quietly, I know you do, kid. Something in Neil twists painfully, and he moves away from the door, heading off to his room.