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"MS. FOSTER, are you alone?" Startled as the loudspeaker sounded in her third-grade classroom during her Thursday-afternoon planning period, Meredith glanced up from the sloppily scrawled math problem she'd been trying to decipher.
"Yes, Mr. Shepherd." She used the formality, just as she always did when anyone else was around — or could possibly be around.
"Could you come down to my office?" The principal's inner sanctum — the only place in the building where one could be guaranteed an uninterrupted meeting.
Meredith dropped the purple pen she'd been using to grade papers.
"Yes, Mr. Shepherd. I'll be right there."
The beautiful March day had just taken a nosedive. She was in trouble again.
"YOU'RE THE BEST teacher I've ever had, Meredith. Year after year, your students average higher scores than any other students in the district on both national and local aptitude tests."
"I know." Hands clasped in her lap, one thumb rubbing the opposite palm, Meredith added, "Thank you."
"You're also the teacher who brings me the most parental phone calls."
She occupied one of the two wooden armchairs in front of the scarred but spotless desk while the principal, dressed in casual slacks, cotton shirt and tie, stood at the window behind it.
"Those parents pay my salary."
She nodded, pulling her hair in the process as her waist-length ponytail got caught in the corner of the chair's arm.
"Some of them make up the school board and the superintendent who oversee us."
It must be bad. "They are the community that —"
"Mark, I get the picture," Meredith interrupted. "Mr. Barnett called." She was only guessing, but it didn't take a psychic to figure it out.
"He got me at home last night — during dinner."
"I'm sorry." For what, she wasn't sure. Causing him aggravation, certainly. Interrupting his dinner, of course. But for telling the boy's divorced mother that she suspected Tommy's father was emotionally abusing him — no.
"You not only created grief that we didn't need, your conversation with Tommy's mother yesterday afternoon resulted in a nasty fight between the boy's parents."
Unfortunate, to be sure. "Which should be avoided at the cost of an eight-year-old boy's safety?" She shifted and felt a sting as the back of her leg stuck to the wood. If she'd ever learned to tuck her skirt beneath her when she sat, as her mother had urged her to do for most of her life, that wouldn't have happened. Instead, the long folds of colorful cotton flowed around her.
"You're a third-grade teacher, Meredith, not the school counselor. Your job includes speaking to parents about scholastic concerns, reading problems, poor test scores or a lack of attention in class — not about unproved suspicions of suicidal tendencies."
"So I should just let a kid kill himself or rip himself to pieces considering it? I should let his monster of a father continue to tear him down until he eventually believes there's no point in being alive?"
"He's eight years old!"
"A very mature eight years old."
"There's a protocol for these things. Professionals who are in place to help if you suspect trouble. People who are trained to deal with sensitive issues, with families and life tragedies."
"I've talked to Jean twice. She talked to Tommy and said she didn't think there was any need to call in the boy's parents — or to speak with him again unless something else came up."
"Jean's been with us for four years. She has almost a decade of child psychology training and is highly respected in her field."
That might be. But Jean Saunders lived completely in her head. If it wasn't logical, if it didn't fit a predetermined pattern, it didn't exist. "She's missing something with this one."
"What did she say?"
"That he's suffering from the usual apprehensions, guilt and insecurity of an only child pulled apart by divorce. That at most, his parents are using him to get at each other. Which they are."
"Meredith..." The name was drawn out in warning.
"You have no way of knowing that."
She didn't respond to his comment. There was no point. Mark wouldn't listen.
"Tommy is considering suicide," she said softly, instead. "His father has convinced him that he's not a stable child and that he is the sole cause of his parents' divorce."
His father was rich, powerful and the current district attorney.
Mark's eyes narrowed. "Has he said as much to you?"
"But you overheard him talking to someone else? One of the kids?"
He stood behind her and began to pace. "I'm guessing he didn't write a paper on the topic."
"He's only in third grade. We're working on learning cursive script, nouns and verbs, not creative writing."
Mark settled against the edge of the desk, directly in front of Meredith. She wished he wouldn't do that. His closeness made this all much harder. And it was hard enough already.
This was one of those days when she found it a tempting idea to turn her back on Mark Shepherd, walk right past his secretary in the outer office on the other side of the thick mahogany door and out of this Bartlesville, Oklahoma, school forever.
But she didn't know what she'd do if she couldn't teach. And there was Tommy — and others like him — to consider.
"I'll call Mr. Barnett and apologize," she said, glancing up at the man she might have dated if they hadn't been working together, if sexual relations between colleagues at the same school hadn't been against district policy — and if he'd ever asked. "And then I'll call Mrs. Barnett and tell her I was out of line and to disregard what I said."
"You know as well as I do that she won't. The suspicion has been planted."
Meredith stood, which made her just inches short of her boss's six feet, allowing her to meet him eye to mouth. Frank, her ex-fiancé, was Mark's height. It had been one of the few things she'd ended up still liking about him.
"I hope for Tommy's sake that she won't ignore it," she said to him, standing her ground. "I hope she gets him into counseling and away from his father eventually."
"All of which you absolutely are not going to say to her."
No. Because she couldn't do any good for anyone if she was out of work and away from the children she knew she was here to help. But it would be hard.
"He did it to her, too," she said, facing him, the chair at the back of her legs. "That's why it was so easy for her to believe that he was doing it to their son."
"Let me guess, she didn't tell you that. You just know."
"No." She shook her head, the colorful earrings dangling. "She told me."
"TOUGH DAY AT WORK?" Susan Gardner slowly ran her fingers through Mark's hair, back and forth. He loved it when she did that.
"Hmm," he said, his eyes half closed as he lounged beside her on the couch. He'd listened to Kelsey's bedtime prayers an hour ago, checked to make sure that her cat was curled up beside her and was only now starting to relax.
"I really admire your ability to spend your entire day with kids and not go crazy," she said. "I wouldn't have the patience."
"I could never spend my days looking down people's throats and up their noses," he responded, grinning.
She chuckled, as he'd meant her to. "I do not spend my days looking up people's noses," she said, tugging gently on a strand of his hair. "I only do that once or twice a week. Now if you want to talk about peering into ears..."
He didn't. Not really, though he greatly respected her ability. He spent his days refereeing, while Susan, an ear, nose and throat specialist, spent hers healing.
"Kelsey seemed awfully subdued tonight."
Susan was being kind.
"She was rude," he said, frustrated with his nine-year-old daughter. She'd always had such a big heart, her awareness of those around her advanced for her age.
Lately, however, there were moments when she was a person he didn't even know.
"She doesn't like me."
"It's not you...." Mark turned his head, taking in the beauty of the woman beside him. Susan's hair was short, dark, sassy. Her eyes big and luminous. Nothing like the long red-gold hair and soft green eyes of the woman who'd made his day ten times more difficult than it had needed to be.
He liked short, dark and sassy. "Kelsey's not used to sharing me."
"We've been dating for almost six months."
"But she had me to herself for almost three years before that."
Her hand trailed down the side of his face to his neck. "I might believe that, if you two didn't still have three nights a week alone," she said and shook her head. "I'm not that great with children. I like them, I just don't know how to relate to them. Put me in an operating room and I'm calm and confident, but leave me alone with a child who's not a patient and I'm completely out of my element. I don't know what to say."
"You just talk to them," Mark explained, touched by her earnestness. "They're people like everyone else, only shorter."
"They don't think like adults."
"So, you were a kid once. Think back to that."
She sighed, resting her head against his shoulder. "I don't ever remember being a kid. My folks had me on the fast track before I was five."
Her parents were older; he'd met them several times. And she'd been something of a child prodigy. She was four years younger than he was and she'd been in medical school when he'd still been an undergraduate in college. She hadn't had many chances to make friends her own age. He knew all this. He'd just never considered the possibility that her unusual upbringing might have robbed her of childhood thoughts as well as everything else.
"We'll work on it," he told her, reminding himself to think of some ways to do that. Tomorrow.
Tonight his mind was tired and his body was restless. He slid an arm around Susan, enjoying the slender shapeliness of her athletic body. She came to him eagerly, raising her mouth for his kiss.
They wouldn't sleep together tonight. Mark never had sex in his house when Kelsey was home. But he needed to — tonight more than many other nights.
Her lips opened and he slid his tongue inside, finding the rhythm that had become familiar to them over the months, relishing her response. Until he reminded himself that he had to stop.
"Being a parent's tough sometimes," he said with a groan.