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"You do understand that this is only temporary?"
Amy Carroll jerked her eyes away from the fall scene outside the window and gazed at the Alcona Elementary School principal. "Yes, I understand, Mrs. Fredericks. My grandmother told me the situation when she called." Grams seemed to know everything in the small town. "Temporary is fine. I lived in Chicago for five years, and I would miss the hustle and bustle being gone too long. I'd love to be called back, but I don't expect it to happen."
"Don't give up hope. You might be."
The finality washed over her. "They've closed a number of schools in the Chicago area, including the one where I taught. My only option would be finding a position somewhere outside the city."
Mrs. Fredericks smacked her hands together. "Whatever happens, this works well for us. You have excellent credentials, and I'm pleased you'll be joining our staff on Monday to finish out the school year." She closed the file folder, slipped it into her desk tray and rolled back in her chair. "Welcome to Alcona Elementary." She rose and extended her hand. "The secretary will give you what you needa school calendar, your textbooks and a lesson planning guide. You've taught second grade before, so it's perfect."
Amy stood and grasped her hand. "It is, and thanks so much." She gave a firm shake and stepped toward the door. "I look forward to"
"Mrs. Fredericks." The office secretary leaned into the room. "Mr. Russetyou know, the twins' fatheris waiting to see you."
"The twins. Yes." A heavy sigh whisked the air as the principal's shoulders slumped. "You can " She paused and eyed Amy. "Ask him to wait just a moment."
Amy took another step toward the door, anxious to retreat.
"Please wait a moment, Miss Carroll."
Amy jerked to a halt.
"The twins will be in your class next week."
"Really?" Amy tried to keep a smile on her face.
Mrs. Fredericks nodded. "It might help you to meet the girls. They have a propensity for getting into trouble. Earlier this week, Holly tripped Ivy while she was jumping rope."
Amy struggled to keep her eyebrows from arching. "Is this common?"
"I'm afraid so. It's their typical behavior, and as always, Holly insisted it was only an accident."
"Could it have been?" She liked to give children the benefit of the doubt in such situations.
"Not usually, but I think sometimes Ivy sets up the situation. Almost feeds Holly the ideas. Their teacher hasn't put her finger on the trouble. Maybe you can."
Maybe you can. Amy managed to keep her composure. The pressure didn't set well, although the comment appeared to be a compliment. But what if she failed?
"I'd like you to meet them. They're right across the hall in the cafeteria. It might help you prepare for Monday."
A niggling sense of worry settled over Amy. "I suppose that would be practical."
"Plus you can keep an eye on them while I talk with their father." Mrs. Fredericks chuckled and motioned her to follow. "Let me introduce you."
Amy followed Mrs. Fredericks through the doorway. Across the hall, she spotted the girls seated on each side of the cafeteria benches, cuter and sweeter looking than her perception. Although not identical twins, their features were similar. Their bright blue eyes, like the Caribbean sea, widened when they saw the principal.
The child with a tawny-colored ponytail swung her legs over the bench. "It wasn't me, Mrs. Fredericks."
"Yes, it was." The blonder twin slipped from her seat, her hair gathered into a ponytail on each side of her head. "Mrs. Fredericks, Holly tore up my drawing in art class."
"I know. Please sit for a moment." Holly gestured to the benches. "I want you to meet someone."
Their heads turned and they scrutinized Amy before eyeing each other, a hint of fear quickly covered by determination.
Amy's heart squeezed.
"Miss Carroll, this young lady is Holly." She rested her hand on the one with honey-brown hair and the deep frown. "And this is Ivy."
Ivy gazed at her, curiosity written on her face.
Amy stepped closer. "Hi. It's nice to meet you."
Mrs. Fredericks eyed them. "Miss Carroll will be your new teacher, starting Monday."
"New teacher?" Holly's ponytail flipped as she swiveled toward Amy.
"Remember?" Mrs. Fredericks leaned forward, resting her palms on the table. "Mrs. Larch is expecting a baby soon, so she's taking a leave."
Their intent expression flickered as their glances collided. "She told us." Their responses blended in agreement.
"Good. Now I'll leave you with Miss Carroll, and you can have a nice talk." She turned to Amy. "I'll be back shortly." Mrs. Fredericks offered a pleasant grin, then strode toward the door. Before she exited she glanced over her shoulder. "When I return, I'll introduce you to the girls' father. I'm sure you'd like that."
"Our dad?" two voices rang in unison.
Amy wasn't so sure she was ready to meet her first parent quite yet, but she clenched her teeth and agreed. When she looked at the twins, they were peering at her again, Holly with her arms crossed at her chest and Ivy with one fist jammed into her waist.
Amy pulled her gaze upward, reading the signs written in large black letters that hung above the tables. Citizenship. Responsibility. Apparently, the twins hadn't read them. She bit the inside of her lip. Every year she'd met children and their parents, but today the meeting seemed more like confrontation.
"Why are you here?"
Holly's blunt question grabbed Amy's attention. She held back a grin. That's the question she'd planned to ask them. Instead she slipped around the end of the bench and sat at the table. Both girls scrutinized her before they settled down again, their query still hanging on the air.
"I came to pick up the textbooks used in your class," she answered simply. Getting to know the two girls better seemed more important than showing her authority. Still, behind those sweet faces, Amy sensed that some kind of unhappiness or hurt was dredging up their troublesome behavior. She looked from one girl to the other. "I think the more important question is what are you doing here?" She swung her arm toward the cafeteria serving counter.
"Mrs. Fredericks made us sit here."
"Hmm?" Amy tapped her finger against her cheek. "I wonder why? It's not lunch time."
Ivy bit her lip. "Kids who misbehave have to sit in here and wait."
Holly's frown deepened. "I didn't do anything bad."
Ivy rested her palms on the table, pressing her face closer to Holly's, her look searing through her sister. "You tore up my drawing."
"But you said it wasn't any good."
Ivy fell back to her seat. "If I wanted to tear it up, I would have done it."
"That's right, Ivy." Amy focused on Holly, monitoring her tone. "When something belongs to me, I make decisions about what to do with it. No one else."
Holly turned her head toward the doorway and tightened her ponytail.
Amy didn't respond to the child's behavior. "What kind of pictures were you drawing?"
Holly's head tilted back, as if she wasn't sure Amy really cared.
Hoping to soothe the tension, Amy grinned. "I'd like to hear about what you do in the classroom because I'll be your new teacher on Monday."
Holly's shoulders relaxed. "We were drawing pictures of pilgrims and Indians for our social studies."
"Because it's almost Thanksgiving, right?" Amy gave them a wink.
"Uh-huh, and " A movement by the door caught her attention.
"Daddy!" Both girls shot from the benches and ran to a harried-looking man who stood inside the doorway, his hands tucked in his jacket pockets.
Amy's heart gave a twinge. A five o'clock shadow encompassed his lean jaw and his chestnut hair was tousled as if he'd run his fingers through it many times. His eyebrows stretched above his caramel brown eyes, flashing with emotion. She couldn't tell if he were ready to blow a gasket or just fizzle.
Her question was answered when he released a nervous laugh and rocked on his heels. "You must be Miss Carroll, the new teacher." He strode toward her. "I'm the girls' father." He wiped his hand on his pant leg before extending it to Amy.
Amy met him halfway while the twins hovered at his side. She dropped her palm into his, aware of his warm grip.
"Nice to meet you." His frustration couldn't hide behind his pleasant expression.
"Good to meet you, too, Mr. Russet."
Behind him Mrs. Fredericks watched the scene with seeming interest. "I'll leave you now. And I'll see you on Monday, Miss Carroll." She gave her a wave and vanished.
When she looked back, Amy saw the girls cringe, and her skin prickled. "Your daughters were telling me about their social studies."
"Social studies? Really?" A grin played on his lips before his gaze dropped to the twins. "You know, girls, we have some serious talking to do."
The twins lowered their eyes, but in them, she saw consternation. Maybe remorse. Whatever it was, the look caught her attention.
When she looked up, their father was studying her with curiosity. "I'm sure we've met." Amy drew back. "Met? Where?"
"At your grandmother's. Years ago." She did a double take. "My grandmother's?" A crooked smile curved his mouth. "Ellie Carroll. Lake Street. Right?"
"Yes, that's it." But Amy's memory drew a blank. "We live on Lake Street, too." The twins' voices melded together.
His grin widened. "I thought you'd remember. It was maybe eleven years ago."
Her face knotted as she tried to recall. "I don't think so." Yet something shimmered in the shadow of her mind. "I was only eighteen then, Mr. Russet."
"I was twenty-three, earning money as a handyman while I looked for a job." He grinned. "Maybe you remember my first name, Mike?"
Amy gasped in surprise, as the memory came flooding back.
"You're the guy who dug out Grams's old shrubbery and planted new ones." She pictured him in the summer sun, his muscles flexing while his shirt hung on her grandmother's deer ornament in the tree-sheltered yard.
"The same, except a few pounds heavier and some wrinkles."
Amy studied his face, seeing only a few worry lines. His unruly hair hadn't changed. She remembered how it ruffled in the breeze, his lean handsome face taut with concentration. They were young then, and she'd flirted with him. But when she went inside, her grandmother had notified her he was newly married. Heat rose up Amy's neck at the thought. She hoped he didn't remember she'd toyed with him.
She managed to look at him. "I'll tell Grams I saw you."
"Gramma Ellie sits with us."
Amy's head turned toward Ivy. "She does?"
"Quite often, actually." Mike shrugged a shoulder. "She and the girls get on great."
Even though she tried to listen to what he was saying, her memory kept flashing back to the summer they'd first met. Her chest pressed against her lungs, the same reaction she had that day. But today Grams's words rang clear, and she knew better. He was married. Amy eyed the doorway, calculating how she might whip past the beguiling man and escape. She came to her senses and checked her watch. "Speaking of Grams, I'd better be on my way. She's expecting me home, and I don't want her to worry."
"Certainly, Miss Carroll." He stepped aside, his gaze settling on the girls. "I have a couple things to take care of myself."
"Nice to meet you, Holly and Ivy. I'll see you on Monday." Ivy gave a wave, but Holly only sent her a questioning look.
"And nice to meet you again." She could only glance at Mike, fearing he would notice he'd flustered her just as he had that day long ago. She hurried through the doorway, wishing Mrs. Russet had been the one to face the principal about the girls.
Discomfort followed her to her car, and after she opened the door, she turned and slammed it closed. Too busy dealing with her memories, she'd forgotten to pick up the textbooks and lesson plan book in the front office.
Quickly darting into the building, Amy gathered the materials from the secretary. Safe outside, she slipped into her hatchback and headed down Highway 72 toward town. She loved working with children, and although she knew the twins might be a problem, she decided to formulate a plan of action. If she had solutions before the problems occurred, she might be able to teach the girls a little about cooperation and getting along. Being an only child, she'd never experienced a sister's relationship firsthand, but that wouldn't stop her from trying to help the girls with theirs.
Mike's frustration inched into her mind. He seemed at a loss on how to deal with them, which made her assume the twins' mother did most of the disciplining. If she talked with Mrs. Russet, perhaps they could decide how best to resolve the twins' issues.
Reaching Main Street, she stopped at the Local IGA and picked up the groceries her grandmother had asked her to bring home. When she turned down Lake Street, she looked closely at each residence, curious to know which might be the Russets'.
Soon she turned into her grandmother's driveway, washed by its homey feeling. She'd spent so many summers at Grams's, listening to her stories and learning how to bake cookies. Her grandmother taught her so many things she'd missed living in Illinois with her dad. And spending Christmas with her grandmother made her smile.
As soon as her car came to a halt in the long driveway, Grams's face appeared at the kitchen window. Amy waved before lifting the bags and heading inside. "Sorry I'm late. I hope you didn't need the groceries."
"No, they're for tomorrow."
"Good." She set the sacks on the kitchen table. "The principal wanted me to meet two sisters who'll be in my class. They'd gotten into trouble, and"
"Holly and Ivy." Her rosy cheeks lifted in a grin. "Am I right?"
Amy chuckled. "You are." She pulled milk and eggs from the package and set them in the refrigerator. "And I talked with their dad."
"Poor Mike." Grams shook her head. "That man has faced the principal more than he did when he was in school, I'm sure." She lifted the bag of flour. "Those little darlings are so needy, but you'd be surprised how good they are with me."
"Their dad told me." Amy tried to picture the girls' expressions without defiance and questioning looks. "I assume their mother works. I wish she'd been the one"
Grams shook her head. "Their mother died a few years ago."
"Died? That's awful."
"I think the twins were about four years old. Mike's raising those girls alone."
Amy's heart wrenched. She knew what that was like.