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The cranky school bus gears ground out a protest as Patrick Connor pedaled the clutch and tried to coax the transmission into shifting.
I had to be out of my ever-lovin' mind
The words any school-bus driver dreads hearing ricocheted off the curved ceiling of the bus. Patrick's gaze shot to the wide rearview mirror to confirm his worst fear.
Yep. There it was, the telltale circle of excited onlookers, forming a protective fence around the combatants.
Patrick groaned and pulled the bus next to the curb.
On his first dayand last, if he had any say in itof driving a school bus, he indeed had a fight on his hands.
At the next board meeting I'm voting for a raise for these bus drivers. With that in mind, he swung himself out of the seat and marched through the pack of students.
The kids reluctantly gave way then drifted back to their seats. Patrick shoved aside the remaining stragglers between him and the combatants to see two boys, their fists flying.
"Take it back!" one boy screamed at the other as he pummeled him. "Take it back!"
Patrick remembered what it was like to be ten and have your honor on the line. He remembered how fast and hot the adrenaline coursed through your veins, how you either stood up and declared your manhoodwell, prepu-bescent boyhoodor were assigned the status of wuss.
Still, such pressure didn't change the fact that the bus was already ten minutes behind schedule. Making the situation even worse was that the school was in sight. Five more minutes, and those kids would have been somebody else's problem.
"Okay, fellas. Break it up." He yanked the two boys apart and stoodbetween them. A quick check told him that one would be sporting a shiner and the other would have the honor of a split lip and a nosebleed all over his shirt.
What do I do now?
Both the boys were panting like Thoroughbreds at the starting gate. If he stepped from between them in order to make that five-minute trip to school, they'd be at each other's throats again.
But, dang it, he was ten minutes late already.
"Royce started it, Mr. Connor," a kid sitting in a nearby seat told him.
The comment initiated a volley of protests from all sides. Patrick came to a decision and guided the boys to the front of the bus, when he evicted the small fry currently occupying the seats.
"Youthere." He indicated that Royce should assume one of the seats. "And you," he said to the other kid, who looked like a Holmes boy. "Over there. We have five minutesfive minutesto get us parked and y'all into school. I don't want to hear a peep from anybody."
Patrick more or less held his breath for much of the five minutes left of the bus ride.
He drew up to a stop in front of the old school that pretty much appeared as it had back when he'd attended. The air brakes whooshed as he set them, and he sat for a moment longer, not daring to remove his hands from the wheel for fear that the students would notice his fingers trembling.
Then he turned slowly and opened the bus doors. He aimed a warning glance at Royce as the kid bounced up, intent on slipping past him.
"Don't even think about it," Patrick growled.
The other students filed past, rubbernecking at Royce's bloody shirt and the Holmes kid's eye, which was puffing up like phyllo dough. One little girl in braids and glasses stopped short at Patrick.
"Mr. Connor, you shoulda put 'em in their usual seats. Mr. Willie makes 'em sit in assigned seats. That way, he can keep an eye on 'em."
She was giving him an eyeful of pity. Now Patrick felt like a total screwup.
"Well, um, thanks, Bridget. It is Bridget, right?" At her nod and smile, he added, "Next time I'll do that."
Her gap-toothed smile grew wider. "Don't worry. My mom says new things need lots of practice."
This old dog won't be practicing any more new tricks. But he didn't want to dash the little girl's hopes that he wasn't the wimp she feared, so he settled for a nod.
Driving the bus had seemed the perfect solution to the transportation crisis. Vann Hobbes, the school superintendent and his best friend, had mentioned the previous afternoon that the regular driver had to be out for a doctor's appointment. Vann had found no takers on the list of substitute drivers.
"I'll do it," Patrick had told his buddy. "I've got a license to drive a commercial vehicle. Tell me the route, and I'll do it for you."
"You? Drive a bus?"
"Why not? At least all my troubles will be behind me," Patrick had joked.
Boy, had he been dreaming.
Now Patrick squared his shoulders and rose from his seat. With a glower, he silenced Royce's wailing and trekked from seat to seat, ensuring everyone was off the bus.
Halfway back, he spotted a powder-puff pink shirt and blue jeans with girly little bows. The child was wrapped into a tight fetal position. His breath caught as he zeroed in on dark silky hair and flushed cheeks.
But of course it wasn't Annabelle. Gulping down the lump in his throat, Patrick knelt in the aisle. Tentatively, he reached out a hand, then drew back.
He studied the little girl for a long moment, drinking in the innocence of her face, the way her black eyelashes fanned out against her cheeks, how her tiny pink mouth sucked on a forbidden thumb. She couldn't be more than four or so, probably in pre-kindergarten. Healthy. Whole. Alive.
"Hey, you! That was the tardy bell! Can I go now?"
Royce's voice boomed through the interior of the bus, shaking Patrick loose from the spell he was under. He gritted his teeth and put his hand on the little girl's shoulder. She was too damn young to be in school. She should have been outside running and playing, not stuck inside somewhere.
The little girl yawned and stretched. "But I'm tired, Mommy," she protested, still half-asleep.
"You're at school, honey," Patrick said. "It's time to go in. Who's your teacher?" he asked.
Brown eyesthank God they were brown and not blue like Annabelle'srounded in panic. Then the panic subsided and she nodded. "Miss Elephant."
Patrick raised his eyebrows. "Miss Elephant?" He considered the list of pre-K teachers. "Oh, you mean Miss Ellison?"
"That's what I said," the little girl told him, sweeping by him in the grand manner of a queen. "Miss Elephant."
Patrick got up on creaky ankles and knees and watched her go.
He checked the rest of the seats. The bus was empty save for the two defiant, sulking boys. Patrick shepherded them down the steps.
"We gotta go to the office? So what?" Royce mouthed off. "All the principal's gonna do is suspend me from taking the bus for a week. Fine by me. That way I won't have to put up with dorks like him."
The Holmes kid bristled anew. For a second, Patrick thought the two would go at it again.
Jack Harrison, the principal, came out on the sidewalk, a petulant expression on his face. "Do you realize you're ten minutes late?" he said. "Ten minutes! And some of the students were telling me there was a fight!"
Patrick swallowed a retort and presented the two boys to Harrison. "They're all yours. Don't know what it was about, but I expect you can sort it out."
Harrison stepped back and peered at the students' faces. "Good Lord! Well, don't just stand there! They need medical attention. That one has started bleeding from the nose."
Patrick didn't bother suppressing a roll of his eyes. "C'mon, fellas. Appears you get to visit the school nurse."
"See?" Royce said in a singsong voice. "Told you we wouldn't get in trouble."
"Now, that's where you're wrong," Patrick replied. "Because I'm not just a substitute bus driver. I happen to be chairman of the board of education, and I can make certain that you, mister, won't have to put up with other students for just a week. I'm thinking a month's suspension from the bus. Nah. Two. Nah. Maybe for the rest of the year."
The fight went out of Royce. "Oh, man," he moaned. "My mom is gonna kill me."
Patrick was sure he saw begging in the Holmes kid's eyes. Satisfied that he had the boys' attention, he pointed them toward the nurse's office. "Time to visit the new school nurse. Good thing for you two Nurse Nellie had to retire. Hope the new one doesn't have any more of that stinging antiseptic Nurse Nellie liked so much."
To be an octopus!
Dana Wilson pushed aside the thought and pressed into service the only two arms the Lord had seen fit to give her.
"Here, Ritalin for you," she said, edging a pill cup over to a rail-thin kid, "and a lovely dose of Zithromax for you." The liquid sloshed in the cup as she handed it to a pint-size girl with dreadlocks.
"You're not supposed to be saying what we take," the older kid admonished. "It's the law or something. We're not even s'posed to be in here at the same time. Our old nurse handed out meds to us one at a time."
Dana quashed a snort of incredulity. Of course she knew that. But try holding back a wave of kids. No thanks to the prankster who had locked her out of her clinic this morning, she was doing well to get the right pills in the right squirmy little bodies before those bodies zipped off to class.
Now, why am I putting up with this? Oh, yes. Kate. One beautiful blue-eyed angel babyalthough I can't call a three-year-old a baby anymore.
Dana's line of kids waiting for morning meds stretched out the door and down the hall. Well, waiting might create the wrong impression. They shuffled, fidgeted, jostled one another, picked at the staples on the poster of a big laminated hand exhorting them to lend health a hand by actually washing their own hands.
If Dana didn't get them out of her little clinic soon, they'd be late for class and she wouldn't have a staple left on that bulletin board.
"Hey! Cut it out! Leave those staples alone!" she yelled as she noticed one kid steadily slipping a fingernail under an already loosened staple. The gesture of the newly positioned middle finger wasn't difficult to discover. Of course, she could be wrong. This only her third week at the school. She was still getting over how many kids needed morning meds after the school-issued breakfast.
The Ritalin and Zithromax dispatched, Dana called out, "Next!"
But before any other patients could step up to her counter, a man rounded the door and stopped short at the line.
"Whoa. We got an epidemic I don't know about?" he inquired.
Dana couldn't remove her eyes from his face. How absurd, plain absurd, to focus on a man's face to the point when you could look nowhere else. But the last place she expected to find a man that handsome was in a small-town elementary school. With his silvered dark hair, movie-star white teeth and intense blue eyes, he had a face made for a cologne ad.
His voice, though, held a south Georgia twang and his clotheskhakis and a worn chambray work shirt with some sort of logo on ittagged him as a native of Logan.
A parent? A teacher? The guy did have two kids by the scruff of the neck.
"Oh, my gracious! What happened?" Dana had managed to take her eyes off his face long enough to see obvious injuries. "Bring them on in and I'll have a look."
In quick order, she had a pack of ice on the little kid's eyeMike Holmes, he'd said his name wasand was tilting the bigger, surlier boy's head forward, ordering him to pinch his nostrils together.
Only then did she dare return her gaze to the man who'd brought the two boys in.
She found his dark blue eyes assessing her with more than a little interest. At her regard, he spoke up. "They got into a fight on the bus."
A bus driver? Man, oh, man, she wished they'd had bus drivers like this when she was in school. But no, she'd had all the oogy ones.
Dana yanked her brain back from its descent into a hormone lovefest. Marty had been that good-looking in his own way, and when the going had gotten tough, her ex-husband had run as though demons were after him. So why imbue a guy with wisdom just because genetics had graced him with a gorgeous face?
Mr. Gorgeous stretched out a hand. "Patrick Connor, substitute bus driver and suckeronce, but nevermore."
She couldn't accept his extended hand because she was occupied with the two young combatants. Just as well, because she sure knew where casual little handshakes with the likes of Patrick Connor led.
"Um, hi, I'm Wilson DanaI mean, I'm Wana"
Oh crap. Why wouldn't her mouth work for a simple introduction?
He chuckled. "Can I help you? You seem a little swamped."
"Someone locked me out of my clinic" The morning announcements over the intercom interrupted Dana and she fell silent in response to the loud "Shh, shh" she heard from the students still in line. They weren't shushing her; they were taking the opportunity to shush one another. She used the moment of calm to hand out the next round of medications.
The medicine assembly line went quicker now, and Dana managed to dispense the meds in record time. She double-checked her list, ticked off the last name and breathed a sigh as the door shut.
"I had no idea kids could be so inventive." She leaned against the bulletin board. "I thought that after three weeks I had run the gauntlet of every practical joke a kid could come up with. Maybe I'm not cut out for this job."
She was rewarded with a frown as Patrick surveyed the room as if inspecting it. The frown eased a bit, but concern still tightened his forehead.
"So things aren't settling down for you?" Patrick asked after that moment of inspection. "Your résumé said you could run trauma codes in big-city emergency rooms with one hand tied behind your back. Our superintendent figured that operating a little old school clinic would be a breeze."
The two boys rolled their eyes and snickered.
Dana ignored the noises. The man's familiarity with her set all inner alarms on full alert. Maybe new school nurses were hot gossip in a small town like Logan.
Again, he must have read her expression. "Sorry. When I'm not completely screwing up bus routes and letting kids like these pull each other apart limb by limb, I manage a glass company and am chairman of the board of education. I voted to hire youon the principal's and superintendent's recommendations, of course."
Dana couldn't subdue the cringe overtaking her. The chaos in her office this morning created exactly the wrong impression she wanted to give the powers that be. She swept the clipboard and other paperwork littering her desk into as tidy a pile as she could.
"No, no, things are settling down nicely. It, uh, just, takes time, I guess."