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Thursday Afternoon, 3:00 p.m.
Normally the smell of chalk dust comforted Julia Holmes, but not today. Maybe never again.
Shaking her head, she turned back to the blackboard and finished erasing the scrawled lessons, wishing she could erase the day's events just as easily.
The letter of reprimand from the school board lay on her desk, as disturbing to her peace of mind as the empty seat in the second row.
She'd only been trying to help.
Ryan Sinclair, one of her students, had dropped out of school last week to take a job at the mine. She'd tried to talk some sense into him. He was bright and talented with too much potential to be stuck working in a coal mine the rest of his life. The school board hadn't appreciated her "meddling" as they called it, and the letter on her desk told her so quite clearly.
Her presence was requested at tomorrow night's school-board meeting. She swallowed the lump of apprehension that threatened to choke her.
A cough in the doorway pulled her out of her thoughts. Julia turned to see Missy Watson standing there. The girl had been quiet in class today, and Julia was surprised to see tears in her eyes now. "Missy? Are you okay?" She stepped around to the front of the desk.
A sob ripped from Missy's throat. Dropping the eraser, Julia hurried to her. Tears cut pale tracks in her too-heavy makeup.
"What's the matter?" Julia spoke softly, carefully, laying a hand on her student's arm.
"It's it's all my fault."
"What's your fault?"
"The whole mess you're in. With Ryan."
Understanding dawned. Julia gently squeezed the arm she held. "It's okay, Missy." Obviously talk had gotten around about the reprimand she'd received. Or, at the very least, the tongue-lashing the principal had given her. She'd known last week that news of Ryan's father's blowup had been all over the school.
All because she'd cared.
"No, it's not." Missy dissolved into tears again. "I didn't really want him to leave. But but "
Julia's heart ached for the girl. She remembered all too clearly being seventeen and feeling as if the world rested on your every decision.
Despite the warnings against touching students, Julia slipped her arms around Missy's slim shoulders.
"I teased him." Missy's voice wobbled. "He asked me to the prom and I said no." The last word was more a wail than anything.
"Oh, I'm sure he recovered from that." Teenagers and dating. It was a minefield, and while Julia wanted to help Missy, she knew better than to venture in too far. Besides, she wasn't exactly qualified to give advice about love. She hastily put thoughts of her own marriage out of her mind.
"No. I I told him I didn't want to date boys. I wanted to go out with a man. But that's not true. I really like him."
"Oh, dear." Julia could imagine the slap in the face those words had been.
"It's not your fault he left school. It's mine." She sobbed into Julia's collar. "And now you're in trouble and might lose your job."
Missy's guilt seemed all too powerful right then. Julia knew she needed to ease the girl's tears, though she hoped Missy had learned something from this. Maybe she'd think twice before spouting off hurtful remarks in the future. "I'm not going to lose my job." Julia wasn't sure who needed to believe it more, her or Missy.
"You're not?" Missy pulled back and looked up. "Oh, thank goodness. You're the best teacher. I'm doing lousy in all my other classes."
She wasn't doing that well in this one, either, but Julia left that unsaid. Missy hastily wiped her face. Smudges of black mascara ringed her damp blue eyes.
"To be honest, Missy, I'd do it again." And she would. "Sometimes you have to fight for the things you care about."
Missy seemed to consider that. "So, you think I should fight for Ryan?"
"Well " Julia wasn't getting sucked in again. She'd already done enough damage by trying to give a kid advice. "That's up to you. Just think about it."
"I will. Thanks, Mrs. Holmes. You're the best."
Before Julia could say anything more, Missy headed to the door and probably straight to the restroom to fix her makeup. Ah, the resilience of youth.
Julia returned to her desk and sank into her chair, wishing she were as resilient as Missy. She stared at the letter, not really seeing it, not needing to read the words. Despite what she'd told Missy, she could lose her job.
She looked out the window of her classroom. From the third floor, she could see most of Parilton, Pennsylvania, with its clapboard houses and tree-lined streets. The dark silhouette of the Winding Trail Mine sat at the edge of town, mother hen and vulture all in one. Just as it overshadowed the town, it touched every life in Parilton, including hers.
Her husband, Linc, was working up there today, as he'd been, on and off, for several weeks. New equipment going in meant inspection after inspection, all his responsibility. It was another in a long list of things that kept him away from home.
She'd hardly seen him in weeks, it seemed. She missed him, and that knowledge bothered her more than she wanted it to. What was worse was the realization that she had to talk to Linc about the letter. About the whole mess.
She'd finally have to tell him about the job change she'd made last month. She'd meant to tell him about it earlier but had never quite found the right moment. She knew she should have tried harderwaited up when he came in late, woken him before she left in the morning, or found a way to meet for lunch.
But she hadn't quite figured out what to say, or how to explain it to him. She didn't even understand it herself. And since they barely spoke these days anyway, keeping silent was just easier.
Until today, she'd thought it was the right decision.
Friday Morning, 5:30 a.m.
The alarm clattered at oh-dark-thirty. Julia rolled over and smacked the off button, hoping she'd permanently disabled the thing. She opened one eyelid then slammed it shut again.
She did not want to face today.
Linc's even breathing broke the quiet of the room, and she turned to look at him in the dim morning light. She'd tried to stay awake last night to talk to him, but the long hours and stress had taken their toll. Either she had become so used to Linc coming in late, or he was getting better at being quiet.
Maybe she'd wait until tomorrow, when they were both home and not working, to tell him. After she knew the results of tonight's meeting. No, that would only make matters worse.
"Hey," she said softly and waited. No answer. She said it again, louder.
"You say something?" he mumbled.
"Yeah. Are you awake?" She waited for him to wake enough to understand what she was saying. He didn't stir and she knew she'd lost the battle. Rather than try again, Julia climbed out of bed, throwing the covers aside and silently hoping the cool air would startle him awake.
For a long moment, Julia stared down at the mussed bed and grieved the loss of the days when she'd wake him early for an entirely different purpose. With a sigh, she abandoned those thoughts and headed downstairs to make breakfast. She needed something to do to keep her mind and hands busy.
She threw on her robe, letting it hang open, the belt trailing behind. What was the point of looking presentable when she was alone with no one to appreciate her? She shook her head; she needed coffee to chase away the pity party in her mind.
Bitter caffeine, tempered by sugar and cream, caressed her tongue. She stood at the kitchen window and gazed over the rim of her coffee cup at the house across the street. The neighbors were a young couple. All their windows were still dark. Were they asleep? Or had morning come for them as well and their bed was still cozy and inviting? She closed her eyes.wishing.
Wishing for what?
For those early days of her marriage before every moment was a struggle? The days before they'd started talking about a family?
She heard the footstep an instant before warm, strong arms stole around her waist.
"You were saying something?" Linc's voice was thick with sleep, but she sighed in relief. He'd heard her. On some level he'd been listening.
He waited. She took a deep breath.
"I I quit my job at the elementary school," she finally whispered.
Linc went absolutely still against her. Julia wasn't even sure she felt him breathing.
"What? Why?" He came around to face her. She missed the warmth he'd provided. She looked up at him. He frowned and leaned back against the counter, crossing his arms over his bare chest. She couldn't help but drink in the view of the lightly tanned plains and valleys sprinkled with dark hair. The jeans he'd hastily thrown on hung low on his hips.
But the warmth that had been in his body didn't show on his face. She shivered and looked down at her coffee. "I can't do it anymore."
"Can't do what? Teach?"
"No. Not teach. I have another job. I can't be around the little ones." Her voice broke on the last words. "Another job? Where?"
Now she knew she had to look at him. "I've been teaching at the high school for the past month. I'm subbing for an English teacher who's out on maternity leave."
His frown deepened and a flush swept up his face. "A month?" He moved away from the counter and paced away from her. "When were you going to tell me?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't intend not to tell you. I just didn't know how to bring it up. You're so busy"
"That's no excuse."
"I know that."
The stiff way he held himself told her she'd hit a nerve. They'd never kept secrets beforebefore last fall when the whole world had fallen apart.
"There's more," Julia said softly, staring out the window instead of at Linc's bare chest. She wished he owned a robe. Maybe she'd get him one for Christmas. Why was she thinking about that now? She knew she was avoiding this, avoiding talking to him. She didn't want to discuss the hurt that had never gone away.
"Oh, this should be good."
His sarcasm irritated her. He'd been sarcastic a lot lately. "Stop it." She stepped farther away from him. "I don't want to argue again. I know I should have told you sooner and I'm sorry about that, but what's done is done," she said, throwing his favorite phrase back at him. "I don't know how much longer I'll have this job." Her voice broke, but she refused to give in to her emotions. Not now.
"What does that mean?" At least the sarcasm was gone.
She swallowed hard. "Yesterday I I received a letter of reprimand from the school board. They they are reviewing my contract at tonight's meeting." This time there was no hiding the hurt in her voice. She didn't want his pity. She just wanted him to listen for a change.
"Why?" He drew the word out.
"I tried to convince one of the boys not to quit school to work in the mine. He was only a few months away from graduating." Her voice was soft. "His father went to the school boardbut not before reaming me out, of course."
"Oh, great. Are you crazy? That mine is the lifeblood of this town. Every person here depends on it." Linc ran a hand through his hair and walked over to the cof-feemaker. He poured himself a cup and took his time taking that first sip. "I know that."
He closed his eyes as if to savor his coffee, or to ignore her. "So you're trying to go up against the mine management. It was Ryan Sinclair, wasn't it?"
"You heard about it?"
"Half the town heard Jack Sinclair running off at the mouth. I didn't know he was talking about you. Ryan's working up at the mine now. I gather your little talk didn't convince him."
"No." She winced. She'd always found it hard to admit her failures.
The kitchen fell silent, heavy with unsaid words as they both nursed cooling cups of coffee.
Who was this woman standing in his kitchen? Linc couldn't help but stare at Julia.
She'd been edgy lately and he'd known something was wrong. But he'd learned years ago not to push her. Right now she looked a messa just-waking-up-in-the-morning messbut still a mess. Her hair was mussed and her robe hung open to show the shorts and T-shirt she'd slept in. He let his gaze linger on her curves wishing.
When the hell had they grown so far apart that he couldn't even touch his wife when he wanted to? Like now.
"You could" She stepped toward him. "Could you put something about how it's not safe for kids to work in the mines in your report? "
He stared at her, incredulous. "No."
His anger surprised him. She'd always had her causes and another thing he'd learned was to take cover when she started talking about one of them. Why couldn't they have a conversation anymore without one of them getting angry? He forced himself to focus, to tamp down his reaction. "For one, I'm not willing to risk my career for someone else's problem. And this isn't your business. One of us has to keep working and feed us."
"And two? " she bit out.
"I don't agree with you. Ryan is old enough to make his own decisions.
"He's only seventeen."
"When I was seventeen, I was on my own. At least he has parents to turn to, which he did."
"They don't understand"
"No, Julia. You don't understand. Ever since since last fall " His voice wavered, but he quickly caught himself. "You want to fix everyone else's life. Take care of every lost soul that crosses your path." He stepped closer to her, lowering his voice, hoping to ease the tension between them. "Maybe you should focus on your own problems and your own life for a change."
"That's not fair."
"Whoever told you life was fair? It sure as hell wasn't me."
He closed his eyes for an instant trying to clear his mind. His life had never been even close to fair.