Fleur watched the children streaming through the door into her classroom and couldn’t keep the smile from her face. She loved the first day of school and the excitement the young ones brought in with them as they prepared for a new year of learning. First graders were the easiest in her opinion. They were asserting their independence and no longer afraid of being away from home all day, but still eager for new experiences. This was her fifth year and she no longer felt the fear of ruining their small fragile minds.
After a deep calming breath, she waded through the small group and began steering her new charges towards their assigned tables. It was such a different experience from seven years ago, back when she’d taught human children, before the species war and the building of the wall that kept the humans in the south and the shape shifters in the north. Back then her biggest concern was keeping the larger boys separated and ensuring they didn’t bully everyone else. Now, she had to be wary of which species sat at each table, ensuring their natural instincts wouldn’t be teased.
Only four boys and two girls had arrived and she quickly seated them according to their animal halves. Three birds and three canines, not too bad. There would be one feline in the class, but being a girl would hopefully keep her from acting overly aggressive at this age. She was assigned as far away from the birds as possible. More kids streamed in and Fleur sat them quickly, preparing to start the day. Soon, only the little feline’s seat was empty. Her name was Kit. Fleur smiled at that and walked to her desk as the bell finally rang.
“Good morning class, my name is Ms. Moreau. Can everyone say Good morning, Ms. Moreau?”
She smiled encouragingly at the shining faces and clapped her hands together when they repeated her greeting. Her day was off to a good start and the children appeared to be a well behaved group. An hour later, Fleur was passing out the electronic tablets common in every classroom when she spied movement at the door. She turned and froze, unable to hide her shock as Philip Warner strode in, a weeping little girl on his shoulder. His gaze roamed the room for a moment before settling on Fleur and he stopped walking to simply stare. They stayed that way, staring at each other in surprise and wonder until a hiccup and sniffling voice broke the trance.
“I-I don’t wanna, d-daddy. I-I don’t wanna go to school.”
Philip placed a large hand on his daughter’s back and rubbed a soothing circle as he turned to whisper into her ear. As soon as their eye contact was broken, Fleur felt able to move again and finished passing out the tablets. She knew this was her last student, the little feline child named Kit. Never in a million years would she have guessed Kit’s father would be her long lost friend, Philip. Fleur swallowed down the lump in her throat and walked slowly toward where Philip was trying to pry Kit from his shoulder. The girl had her little legs and arms wrapped tightly around her daddy and didn’t seem inclined to let go anytime soon.
“Good morning. My name is Ms. Moreau. You must be Kit. We’ve all been looking forward to meeting you.”
The little girl stopped whimpering and raised her head to peek at Fleur. Brilliant emerald green eyes, just like her father’s, flashed from beneath her dark blond bangs for a moment before she once again buried her face in Philip’s neck. He smiled warmly and gave Fleur a shrug.
“She was so excited about the first day of school yesterday. Her resistance this morning kind of came as a surprise and it took a while to get out of the house. Sorry we’re late.”
Fleur steeled herself before turning her full attention to the man who’d been in too many of her dreams to count. Philip had been one of her best friends before the war. After all hell broke loose, he’d gone south to help his parents get to safety and Fleur hadn’t heard from him since. Relief nearly overwhelmed her at the evidence that he was alive and well. His dark brown hair was shorter than she remembered, but his tall muscular build was the same. They’d both been into sports in high school and college, one of the many things they’d had in common.
“No problem, I understand. The first day of school can be kind of scary.”
Philip grinned and took a step closer, leaning down a bit as he lowered his voice.
“Goddess, Fleur, I can’t believe it’s really you. If we didn’t have an audience I’d have you in my arms right now. I’ve missed you so much.”
His whispered entreaty was said with so much emotion, Fleur felt tears burn the back of her throat. Philip had always been like that, never afraid to say exactly how he felt. He wasn’t a coward, hiding feelings out of fear they wouldn’t be returned. Not telling Philip how much she’d loved him was the biggest mistake of Fleur’s life, and now that they’d found each other again she wished she could correct it. Unfortunately, he appeared to have a family now and Fleur would be his daughter’s teacher. She had to remain as professional as possible.
“I’m so happy to see you too, Philip. It does my heart good to know you’re all right. What about your parents? You got to them safely?”
He nodded as Kit once again raised her head. This time she loosened her grip enough to turn and face Fleur, her curiosity apparently winning out.
“You know mawmaw and pawpaw?”
Fleur smiled at the little angelic face and nodded, reaching over to wipe a single tear from her cheek.
“Yes, I do, Kit. Your daddy and I were friends when we were in school.”
Those magic words were all it took to loosen the death grip Kit had on Philip. As soon as he felt her let go he gently placed her on her feet and straightened her dress. Fleur wasted no time showing them to Kit’s place at her table and the little girl took her seat without further fuss. Philip smiled proudly and stepped back toward the door. Fleur longed to keep him there by whatever means necessary but knew that wasn’t possible. He waved her over before leaving.
“Do you get to leave when school lets out?”
Fleur bit her lip and thought it over while glancing down at his left hand. No wedding band didn’t really mean anything, but it still gave her hope.
“I’ll have to finish up a few things but it shouldn’t take more than half an hour.”
He grinned and it made her heart speed up. She’d missed his dimpled face so much, she felt like crying again.
“Great. Can Kit and I wait for you, and then maybe go somewhere to catch up?”
“Sure. That would be wonderful.”
He opened his mouth again, but then closed it and took a step back. Fleur knew his reluctance to leave was because of Kit, but it made her breathless anyway. She could hardly wait for this day, that she’d looked forward to all summer, to come to an end.
Philip parked his car and took a calming breath to keep from jumping out and running into the school. Fleur was in there. Beautiful, amazing, Fleur, with her light brown eyes and curly black hair. He’d been dreaming of her heart-shaped face for years, praying she’d survived the war and found safety. Leaving her behind to go to his parent had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done, but she’d had her own family to attend to when the battle lines were drawn. His only consolation was that she was far enough north from where the worst battles were taking place not to be involved in the fighting. He’d had to get through that chaos, smuggling his parents and a few others past the human military to safety.
That’s when he’d met Kit’s mother, Kristy. She’d been all alone and he’d kept her safe, the situation creating an instant bond between strangers. He’d never truly loved her and she probably hadn’t loved him, but when she’d become pregnant he’d done his duty and married her quickly. It was a bad time for both humans and shifters. The war destroyed civilization in most places and all the amenities they’d taken for granted. Childbirth was no longer an easy process and Kristy simply wasn’t strong enough to endure in their roughened conditions. She’d slipped away moments after meeting her daughter for the first and last time.
A lone tear escaped as Philip fought the guilt that always came with Kristy’s memory. He knew in his mind he’d done all he could for her, but his heart bled for the mother his daughter would never know. Luckily, his parents had survived and helped him raise his precious child. Without their support he would’ve been completely lost. Swallowing down the last of those thoughts he stepped from the car and headed into the school, ready to find the two most important females in his life.
A bell rang as Philip waited by the front office with a few other anxious parents. The animal inside him bristled at being so close to those he’d consider prey when in his other form. However, he’d long ago learned to control his baser instincts and simply smiled kindly at the gazelle shifter standing beside him. Children of all shapes, sizes and species streamed out of classrooms and down the hall toward them. He stood back and relaxed against a wall until the stream turned into a trickle. Passing a few stragglers, he walked through the empty hallways to Fleur’s classroom and stepped inside. She was at her desk stacking the electronic notebooks while Kit straightened the chairs.
“Well, how was the first day of school?”
Kit ran to him and jumped into his arms and he hugged her tightly. Few things brought joy to his life anymore, but Kit was definitely the most important. He looked up at Fleur, who stood from her desk and picked up her purse before walking toward them.
“Hello, Philip. Kit is a wonderful helper. We got everything done quickly so you don’t have to wait on me.”
“Perfect.” He flashed her a grin before walking out of the class with Kit in his arms.
They decided to have an early supper and Philip followed Fleur to a nearby diner. Kit behaved amazingly well as they caught up on the years since the war and learned all about their new lives. Philip was an engineer employed by the Alpha of their country, The Federal Nation of Therianthropes. He was one of many trying to reconstruct the roads and highways destroyed during the war. Fleur seemed fascinated by his job and he proudly told her all about it before steering the conversation back to her. Philip was thrilled to learn she’d never married and currently lived alone. The lion inside of him wanted to roar in triumph at the knowledge that she could soon be his.
“Daddy, I want ice cream.”
Philip smiled down at his daughter and signaled to the waitress.
“Vanilla with chocolate syrup?” he asked.
“Oh yes, please.”
Fleur chuckled and Philip grinned at her. She would soon learn he loved to spoil his females. The waitress arrived and he ordered ice cream for all of them, waving away Fleur’s halfhearted protests.
“Do you need to head home right away?”
Fleur looked up from her dessert with a questioning gaze. She seemed to think it over for a moment before shaking her head.
“I’m dropping Kit off at my parents for the evening. Would you like to ride with us? We can finish catching up and come back for your car later.”
“Um, sure. That’s fine.”
Kit giggled, but kept eating her ice cream. Philip winked at her, hoping she liked Fleur as much as it appeared after only one day. They left the diner and dropped Kit off with her grandparents. They’d been overjoyed to see Fleur, remembering her fondly and grateful she was well. Philip had to pry her away from his mother with promises of dinner together the next night.
“I hope you don’t mind having dinner with my parents tomorrow.”
Fleur flashed him a smile before looking out the window as he drove toward his house a few streets away. He hadn’t told her where they were going, but she went along without question. Her obvious trust warmed him to his soul and he knew he’d found the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
“Not at all. I’ve missed them too. I’m just so glad all of you survived…everything.”
“I’m happier than you can imagine knowing you’re safe and well, Fleur. I’ve missed you so damn much. It’s like a piece of me has been missing.”
He kept his eyes on the road through his confession, but from the corner of his vision saw her turn toward him. He glanced over and saw tears streaming down her face, immediately alarming his animal. He pulled into his driveway and yanked off his seat-belt, turning toward her in concern.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart? What is it?”
She smiled through her tears and took off her seat-belt, crawling over the console and into his lap.
“I’ve missed you so much, Philip. As soon as things settled down I started looking for you, but never had any luck. I feared the worst.”
He held her tightly against his chest and kissed her temple, reveling in the feel of her in his arms. His lion purred in satisfaction and he felt her answering call in his mind.
I’m so sorry, baby. I’ve been looking for you too. I had no idea you were so close.
Fleur sniffled and rubbed her face against his chest, a soft purr escaping her throat.
“Kit told me about her mom. I’m so sorry, Philip.”
He sighed and ran a hand through her hair.
“We were friends but not much more. It wouldn’t have lasted. I’m sorry she’s gone because Kit will never know her. But my parents have helped me a lot, so she’s never wanted for anything.”
“I’m glad. She’s an amazing little girl.”
“Thank you. She has a big heart and can read people very well. I can tell she already likes you a lot.”
Fleur looked up at him with hope in her eyes.
“Yes, sweetheart. And thank the goddess for that. It’ll make it easier when I tell her you’re moving in.”
Her jaw dropped and she sat up straighter.
“Philip! I haven’t agreed to that.”
He pulled her tightly against his chest again and kissed her hard on the lips. She melted against him without hesitation, calming his lion with her surrender.
“I need you back in my life. Forever this time. Please don’t make me live without you again.”
More tears filled Fleur’s eyes as she nodded and placed soft kisses all over his face and neck. He hugged her tightly and breathed out a sigh of relief.
“I love you so much, Philip. I don’t think I could live without you again either.”
“I love you too, sweetheart. We’ll work everything out, you’ll see. Kit is a wonderful little girl with a great capacity to love. She’ll welcome you in with open arms.”
Fleur sniffled a bit as her gaze sobered.
“I hope so. I’ve always wanted a little girl.”
“Now you’ll have one, and soon we’ll get started on trying for a son.”
Her eyes glazed and her breath hitched.
“How soon, Philip?”
He chuckled and opened his door.
“As soon as I can get us out of this car and into the house.”
“Oh good, I don’t want to wait.”
“Me either, sweetheart. Me either.”
“This has been the best first day of school ever.”
Philip roared out a laugh as he carried her to his front door. He couldn’t help but agree, and just prayed Kit would feel the same way when she learned her new teacher would soon be her new mommy.