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"Mr. Fraser, I'm your daughter's teacher, Philippa Browne. I'm calling because—"
"My ex-wife deals with school matters, Miss Browne." The man had a deep voice—impatience dragged over gravel. "I'm in a meeting."
Pip doodled a frowny face on the blotter on her desk with a blue pen. "Nadia and her fiancé are out of town for a couple of days." She wondered fleetingly why his daughter was staying with a friend and not with him. "And this isn't a social call. Kaitlin's just been involved in a fight with another student and we need you to come pick her up."
"Is she hurt?" Now Joe Fraser sounded like a concerned dad.
"No, though unfortunately the other girl will have a black eye."
Startled, Pip dropped the pen. Then she realized the man was laboring under a very natural misapprehension. "Perhaps I should clarify… Kaitlin started the fight."
There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. "We are talking about Kaitlin Josephine Fraser, aren't we?"
"This is a shock to us, as well, Mr. Fraser. This makes three misdemeanors in the space of a fortnight."
Another silence. He didn't know.
"How about we talk when you get here," she suggested. "Can you come before lunch recess is over?"
"Hang on." There was the sound of a muffled conversation on what must be his landline. Pip had rung his cell. She caught the words ".. .my father.. .best treatment... that'sfor me to worry about." She started as his voice suddenly barked in her ear, "I'm on my way. What's the address?"
Hisdaughter had been coming to this middle school for just over a year and he'd never picked her up, dropped her off?
After giving him directions, Pip hung up. Standing, she studied the girl through the window in the classroom door. The ten-year-old waiting in the corridor, knuckling away tears, did not look like a playground scrapper. Or someone who carved her name into trees.
She looked like the A-grade student she was, with serious brown eyes, tidy dark braids and a prepubescent coltishness that would have sent Pip's farm-bred grandmother reaching for the worming tablets. Sensitive, quiet and conscientious, often lost amidst her boisterous classmates, Kaitlin Fraser had aroused Pip's protective instincts since she'd first taught this class last year.
Pip opened the door. "Come and sit down, Kaitlin. Your dad's on his way."
If anything, the girl blanched paler, but obediently she crossed to the chair indicated, next to Pip's desk. Outside, children raced past the open window in noisy, happy play.
Pulling her lunch bag out of her desk drawer, Pip unwrapped her ham-and-cheese sandwich and offered half to Kaitlin, who shook her head miserably. "I insist." Kaitlin accepted the sandwich and they ate.
Pip needed information, but she waited until they'd finished, deliberately cutting up the chocolate cake and apple with her letter opener. Kaitlin smiled. Color came back into the child's cheeks.
Balling the paper bag around the apple core, Pip lobbed it into the bin and sat back. "Did you really start it?"
She'd been on playground duty when she came upon the fight… more a flailing of hands with eyes shut than the roll-around-on-the-ground punching and biting that Pip had once inflicted on her older brothers. At her shout, Kaitlin had swung around and her elbow had accidentally connected with Sophia's cheekbone.
Possibly in shock that she was the victim for once, Sophia kicked up such a squawk that a remorseful Kaitlin had accepted all the blame. Which was a shame—Pip had been trying to nail Sophia for weeks.
"I did hit her first," Kaitlin said. "I mean, she was calling me a geek and saying the giraffe wants its legs back, but she always does that." Her voice started to wobble. "I'm just sick of people acting like my feelings don't matter."
Pip frowned slightly. Kaitlin might be quiet, but she was well liked. "Are there other kids that make you feel that way?"
"No…not kids." She hesitated. "You know, you shouldn't have called my dad. His work's very important."
Now that was an interesting connection. "I'm sure you're important to him, too."
Kaitlin began to straighten the pleats of her uniform over her bony knees.
Pip's counselor instincts kicked in. "While we're waiting for him, why don't you tell me about your dad."
The girl's eyes met hers. "He's not someone you mess with." There was pride there and a warning.
Pip hid a smile. She could handle tough guys. "I'll keep that in mind…. Remind me how long your parents have been divorced?"
Kaitlin returned her attention to the pleats; her fingernails were chewed ragged. "Since I was eight. Mom loved Dad, but he didn't love her," she added matter-of-factly. "He always loved someone else. That's why they split up. They only got married because of having me."
Pip blinked. "They told you that?"
"No." She hesitated. "Remember that genealogy project we did last semester? My birthday was only six months after their wedding." A deep blush colored her cheeks; she'd realized she was making an indirect reference to S-E-X. "And when you're an only child you hear stuff… you know, if you're quiet enough."
Pip didn't know. She was the youngest of four and the sole female. "How much time do you spend with your dad now?"
"Sundays… when he's not working. I don't sleep over because he only has a one-bedroom apartment." There was defensiveness in Kaitlin's posture, as though she was used to justifying it to her peers. She shot Pip a suspicious glance, then relaxed a little when she received an encouraging smile. "And Dad doesn't have much furniture," she confided, "or stuff to cook with."
"Guys can be a bit hopeless like that," agreed Pip. But she was puzzled. King's Elementary was a private school and Kaitlin lived in one of San Francisco's affluent neighborhoods. Kaitlin's mother, Nadia, didn't seem the vindictive type who'd demand a steep divorce settlement. Through her daughter's recent troubles, they'd shared several heart-to-hearts, and Pip liked the woman.
In character Nadia was very much like her daughter except that Kaitlin's shyness had become composure in the mother. Pip always left their meetings thinking ruefully, Next life I'm coming back impeccably groomed and dignified. The downside of being sporty and gregarious was a wardrobe of sweats and a distinct lack of mystique.
"Your mom's getting married again soon, right?" Maybe this acting out stemmed from adjustment problems.
But Kaitlin brightened. "Yeah, and it's because of me they met. Mom made me do a team sport and Doug's my soccer coach. He's so cool he can even make that fun."
Pip hid a smile. Kaitlin was notoriously hard to motivate with sport.
"So, who's acting like your feelings don't matter?"
Kaitlin started gnawing at her chewed nails. "I wasn't meant to be listening."
"Is it your dad?"
The girl's eyes filled with tears. "I shouldn't have told Mom I wasn't enjoying my Sundays with him."
Pip removed Kaitlin's fingers from her mouth and held them gently. "She repeated it to your dad?"
"Yeah." Kaitlin gulped. "But that doesn't mean I don't want to see him, which is what he thinks now. It's just… awkward because we run out of things to talk about. He enjoys sports and I don't. I love fun parks, but he gets sick on the scary rides. We always eat somewhere expensive as a treat and I have to pretend to like the food. Sometimes we go to movies, but he always falls asleep. Mostly we go to the mall—he gives me some money and I spend it while he sits at Starbucks doing work."
Disapproval must have flickered across Pip's face because Kaitlin added loyally, "I mean, I tell him to. He always offers to shop with me, but I know he hates it and I don't want him to be bored. But now I've ruined everything because I heard him say to Mom…" Her voice trailed off, her hand tightened on Pip's.
"You can tell me, sweetie."
"He said maybe he should step aside for Doug," Kaitlin whispered, "since he makes me and Mom happier than Dad ever could."
With difficulty, Pip maintained her nonjudgmental expression. What a whiner Joe Fraser was.
"I see the problem," she said. "You feel like you have to choose between your dad and Doug."
"When what you really want," continued Pip, "is to have them both."
"And to keep seeing Dad on weekends," Kaitlin said in a rush, "but…"
She looked pleadingly at Pip.
"But to have more fun doing it?"
She nodded again.
Pip thought hard. "Why don't I ask your dad to join us at camp next week?" The four-day adventure retreat was the only activity where dads out-volunteered moms, and places were so hotly contested, the school usually held a draw. But as camp organizer she could pull a few strings.
"He'll be working. He always is." The child's stoicism had a strained adult quality to it. "I mean, he can't even make concerts and sports days and stuff like that."
Pip experienced a strong urge to give Joe Fraser a swift kick in the derriere. "Let me handle your dad."
Kaitlin looked doubtful.
"Trust me," Pip assured her. "I'll have your father sorted out in two shakes of a lamb's tail." She used a colloquialism common in New Zealand to make Kaitlin laugh.
As they beamed at each other, a grim voice said, "I thought I was here to discuss my daughter's behavior."
She and Kaitlin jumped. Pip's immediate thought upon facing the door was Who blocked the light? Her second: This guy isn't the whiner type. With close-cropped black hair, a square jaw and crooked nose he looked like a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers—despite the impeccably cut suit. Although his bearing and the laser focus of those deep-set navy eyes were more military.
And right now, decidedly hostile.
Joe remembered teachers as nosy and meddlesome, and it appeared nothing had changed. He looked at his crestfallen daughter. "You okay?"
She gulped and nodded. His gaze swung back to Miss Browne, who'd stood up behind her desk and was assessing him with equal candor. She barely looked old enough to have graduated teachers college. Her short, blond hair and dewy-eyed prettiness made the confident assertion she'd just made to Kaitlin laughable. No one managed Joe Fraser.
Unsmiling, he held out a hand. "Miss Browne."
"Mr. Fraser." She had a surprisingly firm handshake for someone barely taller than Kaitlin. She smiled suddenly, as though he'd passed some kind of test. For a moment the surprise of that open, friendly smile nearly disarmed him. Then he frowned.
"I'd prefer to talk to the principal." He let his tone fill in the gaps. Someone with authority.
Miss Browne's eyes widened slightly, accentuating the ingénue effect. They were the color of the sky on a clear July day. "She's mollifying Sofia's parents right now, but of course, you're welcome to wait." Her accent suggested she was the Kiwi teacher Kaitlin raved about. "It could be some time."
Resigned, Joe sat down. "What happened?"
As Miss Browne outlined events, he watched Katie, who started to squirm. Didn't she know he was on her side? Only a few years ago she would have crawled into his lap for comfort. Now he couldn't even bring himself to put a supportive hand on her shoulder for fear of doing the wrong thing.
On the cusp of womanhood, his baby girl was guarded, sensitive and quick to tears. Joe felt like a testosterone-charged bull in a china shop. Her cheeks were still damp, and a stab of tenderness made him reach into his suit jacket for a handkerchief. His grandmother had raised him to carry one for emergencies. Tentatively he held it out.
Kaitlin shook her head and looked away. "I am trying not to be a crybaby," she muttered.
Wincing, he put it back in his pocket and met Miss Browne's luminous gaze. He interrupted her explanation. "So you're saying my daughter stood up for herself against a bully and she's the one being sent home? What kind of crackpot reaction is that?"
"Exchanging slaps isn't a solution to problems, Mr. Fraser," the teacher replied calmly, "and both girls are being sent home early to reflect on their behavior."
"Perhaps the school should be made to reflect on its behavior in allowing an aggression issue to get to the stage where the victim has to defend herself."
Miss Browne didn't even blink at the threat of litigation. Or else she didn't recognize his threat. Frustrated, Joe leaned forward and planted his forearms on her desk. "Do you even have a procedure for handling bullies?"
"Dad," said Kaitlin, squirming in her chair.
"It's okay, sweetie," her teacher said. "And yes, Mr. Fraser, I know exactly how to handle bullies." She leaned forward and planted her forearms on her desk until the two of them were eye to eye. "Zero tolerance."
Suppressing an involuntary smile, Joe sat back. Maybe the school could protect his child. "You mentioned other misdemeanors?"
Miss Browne turned to his daughter. "Kaitlin, would you mind waiting outside while your dad and I talk?" She sounded kind… an ally not an enemy.
Kaitlin glanced at him. "Do you have to tell him everything?"
"Yes. But don't worry, he'll be fine." Miss Browne looked back to him for confirmation. Heartsick that his daughter obviously saw him as her enemy, Joe could only manage a nod. For the hundredth time he wondered how they'd come to this. At the door, Kaitlin hesitated, then inadvertently twisted the knife. "I'm sorry you had to get involved, Dad."
"I'm not," he said, but she'd already gone.
Feeling exposed under Miss Browne's continued scrutiny, he got up and strode to the window. September was San Francisco's warmest month now that summer's blanketing fogs and biting winds had finally given way to blue skies and moderate temperatures.
But like the kids in the playground, Joe dressed in layers and wouldn't dream of abandoning his suit jacket.