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Daniel Armstrong worked his way through the throngs of guests waiting to check in or out of the Barrington Hotel. His hoteland for the time being, his home. He picked up discarded paper coffee cups from one of the side tables and straightened a lampshade. One of the first things he'd done after taking ownership of the hotel was to tell his staff that service was to be the hotel's byword and that going the extra mile to keep the hotel looking its best would be rewarded in kind.
He put his smile on autopilot and flipped open his cell phone as he edged around a group of teens and their teachers from the United Kingdom sprawled on the floor near the elevators. "Greg? The lobby's beginning to look like a refugee camp. We need to get our guests into rooms. What's going on with housekeeping?"
"I'm on it," his general manager assured him. "Should have the UK group in their rooms within half an hour. Did you get that call?"
"Which one?" Daniel's phone had been vibrating most of the morning.
"Her ladyship," Greg replied.
Daniel groaned. His ex-wife, Gloria, was the only child of Robert Barrington and the heir apparent to the Barring-tons' hotel empire and its five locations across Manhattan. The fact that the family no longer owned this particular hotelthat it had been the only property Daniel had walked out of the marriage withrarely seemed to matter to Gloria. The hotel's location close to Carnegie Hall made it attractive to Gloria for preconcert parties. Besides, it still carried the family name, and she seemed to relish dictating orders to the staff whenever she saw fit.
"I'll call her back. Anything else?"
"Nothing I can't handle."
"Okay. Catchinglunch upstairs if you need me."
Daniel took the private elevator to the apartment his ex-father-in-law had constructed on the top floor of the hotel. As such spaces went, this one was more functional than luxurious. A living room, galley kitchen, two bedrooms with connecting bath. It was the wraparound terrace that made the place special. From there Daniel could see Central Park to the north and almost to Times Square to the south. With spring in the air, he'd taken to allowing himself a rare break for lunch on the terrace. The scheduled time-out also provided a measure of calm whenever he had to deal with the mess his private life had become. Daniel headed for the terrace as he dialed Gloria's private number.
"Daniel," she said breathlessly, as if surprised by his call. "How lovely to hear from you."
"Oh, I see we're all business today. Very well. Bottom lineChef Georges has accepted me into his culinary program, and I leave for Paris tonight."
The very idea of Gloria in a kitchen boggled the mind, but Daniel resisted the urge to antagonize her. Chef Georges was currently the person to see and be seen with among people who cared about that sort of thing. He was also good-looking in a just-got-out-of-bed way, and Daniel suspected there was more than a culinary motive behind Gloria's sudden interest in cooking. "How long?"
"Three glorious months in Paris, darling. Oh, and you'll need to make arrangements for Jasmine over the summeractually, immediately. The school called while I was at the spa earlier." She sighed dramatically. "I'm afraid she's been suspended for the remainder of the term."
"Some snafu I'm sure you can clear up with a phone call. Just mention Daddy's name every other sentence. That should help."
"I'm a little busy here, Gloria. Why don't you call the school? Meanwhile I'll talk to Jasmine."
"I already spoke with her. She's distraught, poor thing. I wish there were some way I could get up there. She's in desperate need of comfort, but my plane leaves JFK at six. You know what traffic's going to be like, and I haven't even begun to pack."
Daniel's lips tightened to hold back an explosion of words that began somewhere around, How about for once in your life thinking of someone other than yourself? And ended with the words he knew were inevitable. "I'll take care of it."
"Oh, Danny, you're such a good father. I'll phone from Paris. Au revoir, darling." The line went dead.
Daniel's head was spinning, as was often the case following a conversation with his ex. He sucked in deep breaths of what passed for fresh air in the city as he sorted through this particular crisis. Their sixteen-year-old daughter had been suspended from the upstate boarding school they had signed her up for when she was still in the womb. Gloria was off to Paris for the foreseeable future.
And Danielas usualwas left to do damage control for them both.
He punched in a number.
"Hi, Daddy, I was just thinking about you." His daughter's voice was too bright, too cheerful and too over-the-top. The fact that she answered immediately told him she'd been expecting his call.
"Your mother called."
Daniel forced himself to remain calm. "What happened?"
"It's the headmaster, Daddy. He hates me. He's had it in for me since I arrived. He"
"You'll just take their side like you always do," Jazz accused, her tone slipping effortlessly from sweet to the more familiar sullen. "At least Mama " She accented the last syllable, as if speaking French. It was the only parental name Gloria would acknowledge.
"Jasmine, your mother is not available. I'm offering to hear your side of things."
"Why can't you just assume that I'm the wronged party here? Mama would be on the phone"
"Well, Mama is off to cooking school in Paris for three months, so you're stuck with me." His tone hardened. "Since you aren't ready to discuss this rationally, I'll leave now. Get yourself packed just in case I can't work things outagain."
"Just call the airline, Dad. You don't have to come." She sounded bored and a little exasperated that he was making such a big deal of this.
"I am coming there, Jasmine, understood?"
A pause, followed by an uncertain "Whatever."
The next call Daniel made was to Greg, who assured him he could handle everything and would have a car waiting at the side entrance within fifteen minutes. Daniel abandoned the idea of a quiet lunch on the terrace in favor of chomping on an apple as he closed the doors to the terrace and took the elevator back down to the lobby.
On the drive north, Daniel contacted the headmaster and got the gist of what had happened. Jazz had purchased a copy of a midterm exam for a class she'd barely attended all semester. When she had aced the exam, her instructor had become suspicious and things had evolved from there.
"I'm sure you understand that this cannot be overlooked, Mr. Armstrong, even for a student like Jasmine."
Interpretation? Even if Jasmine's grandfather has just contributed a new state-of-the-art student center that bears his name.
"I wouldn't expect the school to overlook it," Daniel replied. "I would question the school's motives if you didn't see this matter as a serious breach of ethics."
Silence, then a tight-lipped "I see." Clearly the headmaster had prepared himself for a battle. "We'd be willing to reinstate Jasmine for the fall term. Of course, she'll be held back a term. We just feel that perhaps she needs to have some consequence for her poor choices in this matter."
"Let's just take things one day at a time," Daniel said. "I'm leaving now and should be there by noon, at the latest."
"I'll have my assistant meet you in Jasmine's dormitory, and the three of you can go over everything together at that time."
Got it, Daniel thought. The mention of the assistant was a reminder that the headmaster functioned in the same world of proper channels as his wealthy benefactors. Fortunately, ten years of living in Gloria's world had taught him a thing or two about the hierarchy of power plays. The headmaster himself would have dealt directly with Gloria or her father. For the ex-husband, an assistant would do.
"Fine," Daniel muttered as he abruptly hung up the phone. "We'll play by your rulesfor now."
Jo Cooper hitched one strap of her bibbed overalls back onto her shoulder and headed from the small guest cottage up to the gray-shingled farmhouse. On her way she paused to look out toward the large freshwater pond that sparkled in the morning sun like its name, Star Pond. She closed her eyes and allowed the gentle winds to play over her face, sniffing the clear air as the May sun warmed her cheeks.
Spring was her favorite seasonso alive with possibilities. These days the possibility that held the most excitement for Jo was the new business she'd started with one of her six brothers. They had brought the concept of temp workers from the corporate office to the farmrecognizing that a number of aging farmers could use seasonal help getting crops planted, watching over them through the growing season and bringing them to harvest.
Ella Armstrong, a spry, elderly Nantucket widow, had hired them to manage her ten acres of cranberry beds. And although Jo had been a little taken aback when she learned the farm was located on Nantucket Islandnot in Maine where her business was basedsomething in Ella's manner had struck a chord with her. Her brother Hank assured her he could manage the work they'd taken on in Maine. If necessary, he'd draft other family members to pitch in.
"Go," he'd told her. "I think you need this. I think this woman reminds you of Mom."
Their mother had died in a freak accident the year before. Jo had immediately taken over the dual roles of housekeeper and confidant that her mother had performed for a house filled with men.
"You've never had a chance to really mourn. I mean, you lost her, too, but you've been so busy taking care of Dad and the rest of us Just do it, okay?"
Jo had arrived on Nantucket in late March, spent that first night in Ella's kitchen going over plans for the season and moved into the guest cottage the following morning. "You'll be wanting your privacy," Ella had told her when Jo had protested that one of the small bedrooms upstairs in the farmhouse was all she needed. "And frankly, I like my privacy as well."
The woman pulled no punches, and in that she reminded Jo a lot of her own mother.
"Joanna Alissa Cooper," her mother had announced one evening when Jo was ten. She had come running home in tears to complain about some prank her brothers had pulled on her. "You are the lone girl in a family of six brothers and you have a choice to make. Either you find the gumption to stand up for yourself, or let them have the upper hand by default. This is not my problem. Do I make myself clear?"
So Jo had watched and learned, and every time she refused to surrender to the teasing and practical jokes her brothers dished out, she saw her mother's proud smile. When Jo started giving as good as she got, the tables were turned and it was her brothers who complained to their mother. But Mom just shrugged, murmured, "Poor babies," and then winked at Jo.
Being with Ella Armstrong had already begun to pay off. For the first time since her mom's accident, she found herself focusing on the way her mom had lived instead of the way she had died.
"Ella," she called as she bounded up the back-porch steps and rapped on the door. As was their routine, Jo was there to share breakfast with Ella. Ella insisted on starting the day with a reading from a daily devotional and silent prayer. Jo maintained a polite silence during both rituals. Her faith, once unshakable, had suffered following her mother's death. She rapped a second time and then paused before opening the back door. Something wasn't right. Every morning since her arrival, Jo had been greeted by the tantalizing smells of bacon frying, cinnamon rolls or blueberry muffins baking and coffee brewing.
She wrenched open the door, stood a split second taking in the pristine kitchen, undisturbed from the night before, and headed at a run for the stairs.
Ella Armstrong lay on her side on the floor next to her bed. "Good morning, dear. I fell," she said weakly when Jo burst into the room.
"Stay where you are. I'm calling for help." Jo urgently pulled out her cell phone.
"Bother," Ella muttered as Jo gave the dispatcher information while grabbing a pillow and quilt from the bed and making Ella as comfortable as possible on the floor.
"I just have to go unhook the front-door latch," Jo said. "Don't move."
Her work boots thudded on the wooden stairway as she rushed downstairs. Her heart pounded in her ears as she clicked the latch and then immediately sped back upstairs. She was breathing harder on the return and stood for a moment in the doorway, uncertain of what to do next.
"Sit down," Ella instructed weakly. "They'll be here. Probably all excited to get a call. Now if, as I suspect, I've gone and fractured something, I do not want you to play nursemaid. Are we clear about that?"
Within minutes the ambulance came screaming up the long, winding drive. While the paramedics examined Ella and transferred her to a gurney, Jo called her crew and gave them instructions for the day. "I'm going to the hospital with Mrs. Armstrong," she said into the phone.
"No," Ella protested.
"Yes, I am," Jo said quietly to the older woman, grasping her hand. "So stop arguing."
"Oh, all right. Get my purse. You'll need my Medicare card and such. No bigger than a minute," she added, addressing one of the paramedics, "but bossy as they come."
Jazz slumped in the front passenger seat while Daniel and the headmaster's assistant loaded her things into the trunk.
The assistant had been waiting with Jazz and all her belongings in the lobby of the dorm. As soon as Daniel had arrived, the assistant had come out to meet him, pulling two of Jazz's larger bags. Jazz had followed, carrying only her purse. In the lobby beyond the automatic glass doors, Daniel could see several additional pieces of luggage and two cardboard moving boxes.
Daniel stepped out of the car.
"Mr. Armstrong? Evan Dickson." The young man wore a navy blue blazer embroidered with the school's crest over the left pocket. He set down the suitcases and extended his hand. It was evident by the way he failed to meet Daniel's eyes directly that he was nervous. He offered Daniel a clipboard full of papers that he'd tucked under one arm in order to manage the suitcases. "You'll need to sign these, sir. While you do that, I'll just get everything loaded into"
Daniel smiled and placed his hands in his pockets, leaving the clipboard dangling between them. "Is the headmaster in his office?" Daniel didn't wait for a response but took Jazz by the elbow, ready to cross the commons to the administration building. To his surprise, Evan Dickson made a blocking move and once again thrust the clipboard at him.