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Leaning against the open door of his pickup, his cell phone cradled against his ear and noise from the construction site making it nearly impossible to hear, Joe Morgan was sure there had to be some mistake. Even though Luke was only in first grade, Joe had already gotten some strange phone calls from school. This, however, was the strangest.
"What was he doing with his hand in a girl's mouth?"
"Trying to pull the tooth, I believe," said Miss Reynolds, Luke's twenty-something, ever-so-proper, first-grade teacher. "Maybe Luke will explain that to you. He certainly wouldn't say anything more to me."
Joe could just imagine the story Luke would tell about this particular antic. Luke was always up to something, always scheming and planning, always into some sort of trouble.
"He broke the girl's tooth?"
"Apparently the tooth was already loose. When he tried to get it out of Jenny's mouth, it hurt. So she bit him. When he pulled his hand out of her mouth, the tooth came with it. It was stuck in the side of his thumb."
"Wonderful." Joe could just imagine what this girl's parents must think of him and his son.
"Neither one of them is hurt. Not really. They both just want the tooth. Luke claims he bought it from Jenny for a dollar."
"While it was still in her mouth?" Joe frowned. Other kids were content to play doctor. His son had to be original.
"Honestly, Mr. Morgan, that's all I've managed to get out of them. The children know they're in trouble and are refusing to talk. We also can't find the tooth, something that's causing them considerable anxiety."
Ever since Luke had lost his first toothno, even before thathe'd been fascinated with the whole idea of losing teeth. He was definitely up to something. Joe had no idea what. Raising two little kids on his own, now that his wife was gone, was proving to be almost more than he could handle. But he never thought he'd get tripped up so thoroughly over something like teeth.
"I'm afraid you're going to have to come in again, Mr. Morgan. We need to talk about what's going on with Luke."
Joe groaned, but he was at the school at three-twenty, right on schedule. He parked his pickup amidst enough minivans and SUVs to stock a car lot, then dusted off his jeans as best he could, sending sawdust flying. His shirt was coated with dust, as well, his cowboy boots caked with dried mud, but there was nothing he could do about that. He worked hard for a living, and by this time of day, it showed.
The school Luke attended was old and steeped in tradition. For more than one hundred years, St. Mark's Academy had educated the well-to-do children of the well-to-do St. Mark's parish, and the family of Joe's former wife had been founding members of the church and the school. His mother-in-law had put the kids' names on the preenrollment list the day they were born, and she'd probably pulled some strings to get them admitted.
Joe felt as if he'd had no choice but to send Luke and Dani there, even if tuition was killing him and he never quite felt at ease inside this building or with the parents of the other students.
Keeping his eyes down, a tight smile on his face, he made his way across the broad sidewalk, where children were waiting to be picked up from school. In their school plaids and white shirts, the girls were neat and tidy, their hair done in sleek ponytails or intricate braids that Joe would never master. The boys, in dark slacks, white shirts and outrageously expensive sneakers, were louder and rougher as they huddled together laughing and talking about their day. His son was probably in Mary Simmons' office. Ms. Simmons was the principal, and Joe had never met a woman so good at invoking guilt and remorse in his weary soul.
He went to Luke's classroom, with its four neat rows of tiny desks and chairs, every inch of the walls covered with kids' drawings and posters and signs. Order reigned here, where chaos was king at his home. No wonder Luke didn't fit in, Joe thought.
Luke's teacher, who might have been twenty-five years old, was waiting for him. He felt ancient beside her, though he was only thirty-one.
Miss Reynolds, as he'd always called her, because that was what Luke called her and Joe didn't even know her first name, wore a long flowery dress with lace at the collar and the sleeves. Her hair was smoothed back into a neat knot at the back of her head. She always gave him a smile that made him feel like a bowl of cream that had been placed in front of a happy, hungry cat. She was husband-hunting, just as he'd feared the first time he came in for one of these little conferences. But Joe wasn't interested in being anyone's husband again.
Luke, he thought, you're going to pay for this.
"Ma'am," he said, trying to hide all that he was feeling. If he hadn't left Texas nearly a decade ago, he would have tipped his hat, in that respectful way he'd been taught to greet a lady. Instead, he settled for nodding his head and lowering his eyes.
"Mr. Morgan." She pointed to one of the kiddie chairs. "Please sit."
Joe sank into it and tried not to grimace as his knees rose in front of him. He just loved these chairs.
"I sent Luke to the after-school program so we can have our little talk in private," she said. "Mr. Morgan, I don't mean to pry, but I was wondering if there was anything going on at home that I should know about."
Joe groaned. The teacher smiled sweetly, as if she hadn't asked him to bare his soul to her.
"Sometimes parents aren't aware of it," she said, "but problems at home almost always show up in a child's behavior at school. And if there is a problem, it's best to tell us so we can be prepared and try to offer some extra help and understanding."
Everyone at his house could use some extra help and understanding, Joe thought. But still, he hated what it would take to get it for them.
"I know that you and Luke's mother are divorced," she began, "and that you have full custody."
"That's right," he said. He'd given the school the bare bones of it on the forms he'd filled out. Who was the custodial parent? Who was authorized to pick up the child from school and who wasn't? Were there any custody issues the school should be aware of? He'd hated that form.
"And the two of you have been separated for ?"
"Thirteen months." He could tell her the day, even the hour, if she thought that was necessary.
"And when Luke does see his mother"
"He doesn't," Joe cut in.
"Oh." Miss Reynolds looked taken aback. "Not ever?"
"No." Joe's face burned.
"Well.I wish we had known sooner."
"Sorry," he said tightly. It was the first time his wife had ever walked out, and he wasn't up on all the proper procedures to follow.
"Look, I don't mean to pry. I was just worried about Luke and trying to understand what was going on. I noticed when we returned after Christmas break a few weeks ago that Luke seemed particularly upset. I thought perhaps something happened at Christmas."
Joe suspected that Luke asked Santa to bring his mother home for Christmas, and Santa hadn't. Not that Joe was going to share that particular tidbit with Miss Reynolds.
"Luke is rather quick-tempered lately," she tried. "And irritable."
She could have easily been describing Joe, but again, he didn't say anything about that. Still, she looked like she expected a response.
"It's been a difficult adjustment," he said, which had to be the understatement of the year.
"Well I'll try to be understanding with Luke in class. And if anything happens, anything you think I should know, please feel free to call me. I'll do anything I can to help Luke."
She smiled and let her hand rest on his knee for a moment. When did women get so forward? Joe wondered. He and Elena had been together for eight years, and he didn't remember women coming on to men this way before. Maybe there was just something about a man alone trying to raise two little kids that brought out that protective streak in some women. They just didn't understand. The last thing Joe wanted was to give another woman a chance to trample all over his heart and his kids' hearts. He rose to go, the movement freeing him from her touch.
"One more thing," Miss Reynolds said, getting to her feet, as well. "Luke seems obsessedthat's the best word I can think of to describe itwith teeth. All kids this age are excited by the idea, but Luke."
"I know. I'm not sure why. He won't tell me."
"You're going to have to talk to him," Miss Reynolds said. "We really can't have him trying to pull the other children's teeth here at school."
"Of course." Joe gritted his teeth and promised to have the talk.
"I did have an idea about that. We have a wonderful new children's dentist in town. She came and spoke to the class about taking proper care of their teeth when we did our unit on dental hygiene, and the kids just loved it. Luke was especially attentive that day. He was quite taken with her costume."
"Yes. She dressed up as the tooth fairy. The kids talked about her visit for weeks."
"A grown woman actually dressed up as the tooth fairy to come talk to schoolkids?"
"Yes. We had a terrific time that day. They're convinced she is the tooth fairy."
"Luke talked about her at home, too. I thought he was making it up." Joe hadn't seen his son so animated since his mother had walked out on them.
"I thought you might take him to see her. Maybe she could explain what's proper and what's not when it comes to teeth, and Luke would listen to her."
Miss Reynolds held out a slip of paper. Joe took it and fled from the classroom, clutching the tooth fairy's phone number in his hand.
He wasn't going to call her. He was convinced he could handle this himself without the aid of a woman who dressed up like a fairy. But the next day he got another call from school. Something about an incident in the cafeteria, Luke's hand in someone else's mouth, and a flashlight and more kids who weren't talking. Joe was at a loss. A grown woman in a fairy costume didn't sound so bad anymore.
He got Luke from school and tried not to think about what it would be like to tell his strange tale to the lady dentist. He just hoped she could help.
When Joe pushed open the front door of the dentist's office, music flowed out. It was some silly jingle from a television program that Dani loved.
"Is this place for babies?" Luke asked, insulted to the core.
"No, it's for big kids, too," Joe replied, smiling at the notion that at seven, Luke was big. To Luke, a person was either big or little. There was no in between. Dani, at four, was little. Luke was convinced he was big.
A few moments later the receptionist led them down a hallway colored with a rainbow, one shade dropping out as it made its way into each brightly colored treatment room. Luke drew the blue room, which featured a blue ceiling complete with stars. Luke and Joe stared up at those thousands of glittering stars. Was it a trick of the light or were they truly glittering?
Special paint, he decided. Manufacturers were doing amazing things with paint these days. He'd have to inquire about exactly what brand it was. Some of his clients might be interested.
"Dad!" Luke was tugging on his pant legs. "Look! It glitters! Isn't it cool? And it's a sign. I know it is. This place is magic!"
Joe scoffed. Magic was for seven-year-olds.
Then, just as he turned away, he caught a rush of movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning back, he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. It was crazy, but he could have sworn he'd just seen a star streak across the ceiling. A shooting star.
Joe blinked to clear his vision. It was the middle of the afternoon, he reminded himself, and he was inside staring at a ceiling painted blue and sprayed with fake stars. Nothing moved in the would-be sky, but the stars still glittered. He almost reached up to touch them, to see if it truly was glitter and would rub off on his fingertips.
He was still trying to figure it out when he heard footsteps behind him, then a rich full voice that said, "Hello, you must be Luke."
Joe's son seemed struck dumb, and a moment later Joe supposed they must look like a real pair.
This had to be the fairy.
She had dainty feet, encased in fancy sandals with tiny straps in a sparkling silver color. Her pale skirt and loose jacket were very professional, but they did not stop him from noticing her pale peach-colored lips and eyes as blue as that fake sky. Her hair was honey-colored and pulled back from her face into an intricate braid Dani would have loved and seriously envied, and it hung to a point halfway down her back. She had delicate hands, moon-shaped earrings, and an absolutely dazzling smile that was directed, full force, at his son, who was positively glowing.
Joe told himself he was being rude, staring at her this way. He simply couldn't help it.
"Dad!" Luke was tugging furiously on Joe's jeans. Bending down, Joe let Luke whisper in his ear, "It's her!"
"Who?" Joe was still staring at her and thinking that he hadn't been so affected by a woman's beauty in years. He thought he was over thatthat having his and his children's hearts ripped out by a woman who had pledged to love them forever would have cured him.
"The tooth fairy!" Luke whispered loudly enough for the mischievous-looking woman to hear. He looked as if he was ready to explode with excitement. "She came to my school, 'cept she was all dressed up then in the blue dress with the stars. She even had her magic wand with her. I know it's her. And she's real. She's the tooth fairy."
"Luke, there's no such thing as"
"Uh-hmm." The woman cleared her throat loudly.
Joe stopped just in time. "Sorry."
She gave him a conspiratorial wink, then turned to Luke and stuck out her hand. "I'm Dr. Samantha Carter. And you are Luke, aren't you? Please tell me I'm in the right room."
Luke took the hand she offered and whispered, "You're her, aren't you?"