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The neat, handwritten letter had all the primness of some Victorian maiden's blush. According to the indignant opening line, it was not the first such reprimand that Todd Lewis should have received in the past month. The prissy, uptight tone might have amused him had the contents not infuriated him so.
Exhausted by an endless and frustrating day under the hot Miami sun, he reached for the can of beer beside his chair. Perhaps he was overreacting. God knows, it would be understandable. He was bone-weary. His shoulders ached, his back felt like someone was holding a burning knife in the middle of it and his thighs throbbed from the strain of struggling with those damned girders since just after dawn. He had little patience left for someone who'd spent a few hours lolling around in an air-conditioned classroom and still had complaints about how tough the workday was.
He took a long swallow of beer, then slowly read the letter again. The words and the crisp, precise, censuring tone hadn't mellowed one whit. Neither did his dark mood.
Elizabeth Gentryhe was willing to bet it was Miss Gentrywas sharply criticizing his son. For some reason he couldn't quite follow, she didn't seem to be too thrilled with him, either. She demanded that Todd come in the following afternoon at 3:30 to discuss the boy's "uncontrollable behavior, deplorable manners and inappropriate language."
Todd felt his blood pressure begin to soar again. He did not appreciate being chastised in such a demeaning tone by a woman he'd never even met. Nor was he wild about the labels she'd slapped on his son. Another sip of beer soothed his parched throat but not his fiery temper.
He could just picture the woman. Gray hair drawn back in a tidy little bun, a spine of steel, no makeup, rimless glasses sliding down to the end of her too-large nose, nondescript clothes in gray or brown or maybe one of those little floral prints his grandmother used to wear. He sighed at the daunting prospect. He had no idea how to deal with a sexless, unimaginative woman like that.
He took another sip of beer and read on. "Your continued refusal to take action in this matter indicates a startling lack of interest in Kevin's educational well-being and social adjustment. Should you fail to keep this appointment, I am afraid it will be necessary for me to pursue the matter with other authorities."
What other authorities? Was the woman actually suggesting that he be reported to some local bureaucrat, maybe even a state agency? A knot formed in his stomach at the insulting suggestion that he was an uncaring father, who approved ofwhat was it?uncontrollable behavior, deplorable manners and inappropriate language.
Okay, he was willing to admit that Kevin was a handful, but what eight-year-old wasn't? He just needed a little firm discipline every now and then.
Suddenly the nagging memory of his ex-wife's endless complaints about Kevin's manageability returned with untimely clarity. He'd dismissed her rantings at the time as yet another excuse for walking out on them. Sarah had wanted to leave long before the night she'd finally packed her bags and departed. She'd been too young, too immature to accept the responsibility of marriage, much less a troublesome son. He had blamed the inability to cope on her, not Kevin.
The comparison gave him a moment's pause, but he dismissed the significance almost at once. No doubt this terribly proper and probably ancient Miss Gentry was equally inept with children. If she couldn't handle an eight-year-old boy, perhaps she'd chosen the wrong profession. Perhaps she should be teaching piano and embroidery to sedate young ladies in frilly dresses and dainty white gloves, instead of third-grade boys who got dirt on their clothes even before the school bus picked them up in the morning.
He glanced across the room at his sturdy, blond son. Kevin was quietly racing small cars through an intricately designed village he'd built from the set of Lego blocks he'd begged for and received for his birthday. Todd figured the subdued behavior would last no more than another ten minutes, long enough for his son to feel secure that this note from his teacher would not result in some sort of punishment.
"Kevin." He kept his tone determinedly neutral. Still, wary blue eyes glanced up from the toy Porsche that was about to skitter around the village's sharpest turn. A tiny jaw jutted up, mimicking all too accurately Todd's own frequently belligerent expression. That look warned him that there just might be something behind Miss Gentry's complaints.
"What's this all about, son?"
"Same old stuff." Kevin directed his attention back to the car. It whizzed around the turn and up a hill.
"What stuff?" Todd persisted. "I gather this is not the first time your teacher has written."
A guilty blush spread across Kevin's round, freckled cheeks and he continued to look down. Todd nodded with sudden understanding. No wonder the teacher had been indignant. She thought he'd seen all of her earlier notes and had intentionally ignored them.
"I see," he said wearily. "What did you do with the other letters?"
There was the tiniest hesitation before Kevin said in a whisper, "I lost 'em."
"Really? How convenient," he said, barely controlling his temper. "Suppose you tell me what they were about."
Kevin studied the miniature red Porsche he was pushing back and forth and mumbled, "She said she told you in this one."
"I want to hear it from you."
Kevin remained stubbornly silent. Todd knew from experience that getting him to talk now was going to require tact and patience. He was shorter than usual on both tonight.
"Son, she says this is the fifth note in the last three weeks. Are you sure there's not something happening in school that you should tell me about?"
Kevin's expression turned increasingly defiant. "I told you, Dad. She don't like me. That's all it is."
"School just started a month ago. Why would you think your teacher doesn't like you?"
"Everybody knows it, Dad. She's always telling me how to do stuff."
Despite himself, Todd grinned. "She's a teacher. That's what teachers do."
"Yeah, but Dad, she only tells me. Even when I tell her I can't do it, she makes me. The other kids get it, but I can't. I try, Dad. Really."
The tears that welled up despite the tough facade convinced Todd that his son was telling the truth, at least as he saw it.
A swift surge of compassion swept through him, blotting out for a moment his need to get to the bottom of the teacher's complaints. His overwhelming desire to protect Kevin at any cost refueled his anger at the stiff, unyielding Miss Gentry and gave substance to all of his long-standing suspicions about the school system's ineptitude. It had done a lousy enough job with him. He'd obviously been foolish to hope that things had improved.
What kind of teacher would single out a child day after day like that? He'd tried his darnedest not to interfere, to let the school do what it was supposed to doeducate his son, but he wouldn't have the boy made out to be some sort of freak because he was a little slower than the other kids. Kevin was smart as a whip. Anyone who took the time to talk to him could see that.
"Are you going to talk to her, Dad?" Kevin's voice was hesitant, the tone a heartbreaking mix of hopefulness and fear. Todd wasn't sure what response his son really wanted.
"Don't you want me to?" he asked, though he knew there was no longer any real choice in the matter.
Kevin shrugged, but his little shoulders were slumped so dejectedly it made Todd feel like pounding his fist through a wall. "She's made me stay after school almost every day this week," Kevin finally admitted. "A couple of times I almost missed the bus. I think she's real mad at both of us now."
Todd sighed. Kevin tried so hard not to let anyone fight his battles for him. If only he'd told Todd sooner, perhaps this wouldn't have gotten so far out of hand. The prospect of confronting Miss Gentry's self-righteous antagonism held about as much appeal as putting in another grueling, mishap-ridden twelve-hour day at the site of his latest shopping center.
"Then maybe it's time I have a talk with her," he said, anyway. "Don't worry about it, son. I'll get it straightened out. Tell her I'll be there tomorrow afternoon." He recalled the string of problems he'd left behind at the construction site and the imperious tone of that note, then amended, "Or the next day, at the latest."
But despite the reassurance, fear still flickered in Kevin's eyes. That frightened expression aroused all of Todd's fierce protective instincts. He remembered every single humiliating moment of his own school experience and swore to himself that Miss Elizabeth Gentry would not put his son through the same sort of torment.
Liz stared longingly out the classroom window at the swaying palm trees and deep blue sky. It was a perfect Florida day. The humidity had vanished on the breeze. She had only five more spelling papers to grade before she could leave the confining classroom and enjoy what was left of the early October afternoon. The prospect of a long swim raised her spirits considerably.
She had had an absolutely hellish day again. The school had instituted yet another form that had to be filled out, though no one knew quite why. Two of her students had been sent home with the flu, after generously sharing their germs, no doubt. She'd had cafeteria duty, which almost always left her with a headache. Today's was still throbbing at the base of her skull. And Kevin had gotten into another fight. This time he'd sent Cindy Jamison to the school nurse with a bloody lip. She herself had gotten a lump on her shin and a run in her hose trying to break up the brawl.
Now Kevin was sitting at his desk, his head bent over another assignment as they waited for his father, who was already forty minutes late. The man probably had no intention of showing up this time, either, though Kevin had vowed that he would be here.
She heard a soft, snuffling sound and looked back just in time to catch sight of a tear spilling onto Kevin's paper. Her heart constricted. Blast that stubborn, indifferent father of his.
"Kevin, bring me your paper."
He looked up, his expression so woebegone that once again she felt like taking his father apart piece by piece.
When Kevin didn't move, she said, "Aren't you finished?"
He shook his head.
"That's okay. Show me what you have and we'll do the rest together."
"It's not very good."
"No problem. We'll work on it."
Kevin approached her desk with the look of a child being told that Santa Claus was leaving him only a lump of coal. It was an expression without hope. Stoic and resigned, he placed the rumpled page in front of her. "I made a lot of mistakes."
"Then let's see what we can do about them," she said briskly. "You know everybody makes mistakes when they tackle something new. It's nothing to be ashamed of and it's definitely no reason not to at least try."
Kevin regarded her with surprise. "My dad says that, too."
Liz was startled that they'd even discussed the subject. Her image of Todd Lewis did not include supportive father-son talks. She'd been certain that he either ignored the boy altogether or pressured him by expecting perfection.
"Does your dad help you with your homework?"
"Sometimes," Kevin said evasively. "Mostly Mrs. Henley helps me." Mrs. Henley was the woman next door.
"Sometimes, if Dad's real late, she fixes dinner and helps me with my homework."
Liz felt that familiar surge of helplessness rush through her again. For the next half hour she and Kevin worked on correcting his paper. It was a tedious, frustrating process for both of them, but Kevin's glowing smile at each tiny success made the effort worthwhile. When he printed the last of the words on his list perfectly, she hugged him.
"That's exactly right. I think you deserve a reward. What would you like?"
His eyes widened. "You mean like a present or something?"
She grinned at his look of delight. "A small present."
He chewed on his lip thoughtfully, then finally said, "I'm really hungry. Could I have a hamburger?"
It wasn't exactly what she'd had in mind, but he was looking at her so expectantly, she shrugged. "Why not? I'm sure we can find someplace nearby for a hamburger and maybe even some french fries."
"Great, but what about my dad?"
Liz wasn't much in the mood to talk to Todd Lewis about anything, but regulations demanded it. "If you give me the number, I'll call him at his office and get his okay."
Kevin's face fell. "He doesn't work in an office. You can't call him."
"What about a cell phone?" she asked.
"He only uses it for work, I don't know the number."
She should have realized that the minute she'd made the first call last week and gotten only an answering machine. "Where does he work?"
"He builds stuff. You know, like shopping centers and things. He's building one now that's really neat."
Liz made one of those impetuous decisions that occasionally got her into very hot water. She didn't believe in breaking rules, but she sometimes bent them in two if she thought it would help one of her students. Right now, Kevin needed all the positive reinforcement she could give him. She'd brave a lion in his den, if that's what it took. Todd Lewis seemed only slightly less formidable.
"Do you know where it is?"
"Sure. He takes me with him lots on the weekends.
Sometimes we even go by at night, if he has to go back and work late."
It didn't sound like any sort of lifestyle for a young boy, Liz decided, and only added to her conviction that Todd Lewis was treading dangerously close to being an unfit father. Yet Kevin always spoke of his father with such obvious pride. He clearly idolized the man. That intrigued her.
"Come on, then," she said to Kevin. "Let's go see him."
When they found Todd Lewis, he was standing with one dusty, booted foot propped on a steel girder that was about to be hoisted to the third level of a future parking garage. A yellow hard hat covered much of his close-cropped brown hair and shaded his face. A light blue work shirt was stretched taut over wide shoulders. Liz found herself swallowing hard at the sight of him. He was biggerat least six-foot-two and probably two-hundred poundsmore imposing and more masculine than she'd imagined. He made her feel petite and fragile and very much aware of her wrinkled shirt, the run in her hose and the fact that she hadn't stopped long enough to put on lipstick.