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Misty took her class of six-year-olds for swimming lessons before lunch every Friday. Even though swimming had finished an hour ago, her braid of damp chestnut curls still hung limply down her back. She smelled of chlorine. Her nose was shining.
Regardless, a Greek God was standing at her classroom door.
She looked and looked again.
Adonis. God of Desire and Manly Good Looks. Definitely.
Her visitor looked close to his mid-thirties. Nicely mature, she thought. Gorgeously mature. His long, rangy body matched a strongly boned face and almost sculpted good looks. He wore faded jeans and an open-necked shirt with rolled up sleeves. Looking closer—and she was looking closer—Misty could see muscles, beautifully delineated.
But did Adonis have a six-year-old son?
For the man in her doorway was linked by hand to a child, and they matched. They both wore jeans and white shirts. Their black hair waved identically. Their coppery skin was the colour that no amount of fake tan could ever produce, and their identical green eyes looked capable of producing a smile to die for.
But only Adonis was smiling. He was squatting and saying to the child, 'This looks the right place. They're painting. Doesn't this look fun?'
Son-of-Adonis didn't look as if he agreed. He looked terrified.
And, with that, Misty gave herself a mental slap, hauled herself back from thinking about drop-dead gorgeous males and back to where she should be thinking—which was in schoolmarm mode.
'Can I help you?'
Frank, Banksia Bay School Principal, should have intercepted this pair, she thought. If this was a new student she'd have liked some warning. There should be an empty place with the child's name on it, paints with paper waiting to be drawn on, the rest of the class primed to be kind.
'Are you Miss Lawrence?' Adonis asked. 'There's no one in the Principal's office and the woman down the hall said this is Grade One.'
She smiled her agreement, but directed her smile to Son-of-Adonis. 'Yes, it is, and yes, I am. I'm Misty Lawrence, the Grade One teacher.'
The child's hand tightened convulsively in his father's. This definitely wasn't a social visit, then; this was deathly important.
'I'm sorry we're messy, but we're in the middle of painting cows,' she told the little boy, keeping her smile on high beam. She was standing next to Natalie Scotter's table. Natalie was the most motherly six-year-old in Banksia Bay. 'Natalie, can you shift across so our visitors can see the cow you're painting?'
Natalie beamed and slid sideways. Misty could see what she was thinking. Hooray, excitement. And the way this guy was smiling Misty felt exactly the same.
Um focus. Get rid of this little boy's fear.
'Yesterday we went to see Strawberry the cow,' she told him. 'Strawberry belongs to Natalie's dad. She's really fat because she's about to have calves. See what Natalie's done.'
The little boy's terror lessened, just a little. He gazed nervously at Natalie's picture—at Natalie's awesomely pregnant cow.
'Is she really that fat?' he whispered.
'Fatter,' Natalie said, rising to the occasion with aplomb. 'My dad says it's twins and that means he'll have to stay up all night 'cos it's always a b ' She caught herself and gave Misty a guilty grin. 'I mean, sometimes he needs to call the vet and then he swears.' She beamed, proud of how she'd handled herself.
'Here's her picture,' Misty said, delving into the pocket of her overalls for a photograph. She glanced at Adonis, asking a silent question, and got a nod in response. This, then, was the way to go. 'Would you like to sit by Natalie and see if you can paint as well?' she asked. 'If it's okay with your dad.'
'Of course it is,' Adonis said.
'You can share my paints,' Natalie declared expansively, and Misty gave a tiny prayer of thankfulness that Natalie's current best friend was at home with a head cold.
'Thank you,' Son-of-Adonis whispered and Misty warmed to him. He was polite as well as cute. If he was a new student.
'We're here to enrol Bailey for school,' Adonis said, and she smiled her pleasure, but she was also thinking, Where is Frank? And why did this pair have to arrive now when she felt like a chlorinated wet sheep?
'I know I should have made an appointment,' Adonis said, answering her unspoken question. 'But we only arrived in town an hour ago. The closer we got, the more nervous Bailey was, so we thought the sensible thing would be to show him that school's not a scary place. Otherwise, Bailey might get more nervous over the weekend.'
'What a good idea. It's not scary at all,' she said, warming to the man as well as to the son. 'We like new friends, don't we, girls and boys?'
'Yes.' It was a shout, and it made Misty smile. In this sequestered town, any newcomer was welcomed with open arms.
'Are you here for long?' she asked. 'You and your family?' Was Mrs Adonis introducing another child to another class?
'There's only Bailey and me, and we're intending to live here,' he said, stooping to load Bailey's paintbrush with brown paint. Being helpful. But Bailey checked Strawberry's photograph again, then looked at his father as if he'd missed the point. He dipped his brush in the water jar and went for red.
His father grinned and straightened, and held out his hand. 'I'm Nicholas Holt,' he said, and Misty found her hand enveloped in one much larger, much stronger. It was a truly excellent handshake. And his smile.
Manly Good Looks didn't begin to cut it, she thought. Wow! Forget Greek Gods. Adonis was promptly replaced with Nicholas.
She was absurdly aware of her braid, still dripping down her back. She wanted, quite suddenly, to kill Frank. It was his job to give warning of new parents. Why wasn't he in his office when he should be?
She didn't have so much as powder on her nose. It was freckled and it glowed; she knew it did. Her nose was one of the glowingest in the district. And five feet four inches was too short. Where were six inches when she needed them? If Frank had warned her, she might have worn heels.
Or maybe not.
'Miss.' a child called.
'I'm sorry; we shouldn't be disturbing your class,' Nicholas said and she managed to retrieve her hand and force herself to think schoolteacherly thoughts. Or mostly schoolteacherly thoughts.
'If Bailey's to be my student, then you're not interrupting at all,' she said and turned to the child who'd called. 'Yes, Laurie, what do you need?'
'There's a dog, miss,' Laurie said from across the room, sounding agitated. 'He's bleeding.'
'A dog.' She turned to the window.
'He's under my table, miss, in the corner,' Laurie said, standing up and pointing. 'He came in with the man. He's bleeding everywhere.'
There were twenty-four children looking towards Laurie's table. Plus Nicholas Holt. A bleeding dog.
There were kids here who'd make this up but Laurie wasn't one of them. He wasn't a child with imagination.
Laurie's table was in the far back corner, and the row of shelving behind it made for a small, dark recess. If a dog was under there it couldn't be a very big dog.
'Then we need to investigate,' she said, as brightly as she could. 'Laurie, can you go and sit in my teacher's chair, please, while I see what's happening?'
Laurie was there like a shot—the best treat in the world was to be allowed to sit in his teacher's big rotating chair. With the way clear, Misty would be able to see.
Or not. She stooped, then knelt. It was dark under the table. Her hands met something wet on the floor—something warm.
Her eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. Yes, there was a dog, cowering right back into the unused shelves.
She could see him clearly now, cringing as far back as he could get.
An injured dog could snap. She couldn't just pull him out.
'Can I help?'
He was Adonis. Hero material. Of course he'd help.
'We have an injured dog,' she said, telling the children as well as Ad as well as Nicholas. 'He seems frightened. We all need to stay very quiet so we don't frighten him even more. Daisy, can you fetch me two towels from the swimming cupboard?'
'Do you know the dog?' Nicholas asked as Daisy importantly fetched towels. He was standing right over her, and then he was kneeling. His body was disconcertingly solid. Disconcertingly male.
He was peering underneath Laurie's table as if he had no idea in the world what his presence was doing to her.
What, exactly, was his presence doing to her?
Well, helping. That was a rarity all by itself. Misty was the fixer, the one who coped, the practical one. She did things by herself, from necessity rather than choice.
She didn't often have a large attractive male kneeling to help.
'Do you know the dog?' he asked again and she got a grip on the situation. Sort of.
'But he's injured?'
'There's blood on the floor. Once I have the towels, I can reach in.'
'It'll be safer if I lift the table so we can see what we're dealing with. Tell you what. If we move the kids back, it'll give him a clear run to the entrance. If he wants to bolt, then he can.'
'I need to see what's wrong.'
'But you don't want a child getting in the way of an injured animal.'
'No,' she said. Of course not.
'I left the outside door open from the porch,' he said. 'I'm sorry; that's how he must have come in. I can shut it now. That means if I lift the table and he bolts we have a neat little space to hold him.
She thought that through and approved. Yes. If the dog was scared he'd run the way he'd come. They could close the classroom door into the porch and they'd have him safe.
But to trap an injured dog.
This was NYP. Not Your Problem. That was what Frank would say. The School Principal was big on what was or wasn't his problem. He'd let the dog go, close the door after it and forget it.
But this wasn't Frank. It was Nicholas Holt and she just knew Nicholas wasn't a NYP sort of guy.
And in the end there wasn't a choice—the dog didn't give her one. She knelt, towels at the ready. Nicholas lifted the desk, but the dog didn't rush anywhere. The little creature simply shook and shook. He backed harder into the corner, as if trying to melt into the wall, and Misty's heart twisted.
'Oh, hush. Oh, sweetheart, it's okay, no one's going to hurt you.'
This little one wasn't thinking of snapping—he was well past it. She slipped the towels around him carefully, not covering his head, simply wrapping him so she could propel him forward without doing more damage.
He was a cocker spaniel, or mostly cocker spaniel. Maybe a bit smaller? He was black and white, with black floppy ears. He had huge black eyes. He was ragged, bloodstained and matted and there was the smell of tyre rubber around him. Had he been hit?
He had a blue collar around his neck, plastic, with a number engraved in black. She knew that collar.
A couple of years back, Gran's ancient beagle-cross had slipped his collar and headed off after a scent. Two days later, he'd turned up at the Animal Welfare Centre, with one of these tags around his neck.
This was an impounded dog. A stray.
No matter. All that mattered now was that the dog was in her arms, quivering with fear. There was a mass of fur missing from his hind quarters, as if he'd been dragged along the road, and his left hind leg looked appalling. He was bleeding, sluggishly but steadily, and his frame was almost skeletal.
He needed help, urgently. She wanted to head out to her car right now and take him to the vet.
She had twenty-four first graders looking at her—and Nicholas was looking at her as well. NYP? She had problems in all directions.
'He's hurt.' It was a quavering query from Bailey. The little boy had sidled back to his father's side and slipped his hand in his. His voice was full of horror. 'Has he been shot?'
Shot? What sort of question was that?
'He looks like he's been hit by a car,' she said, to the class as well as to Bailey. Every first grader was riveted to the little animal's plight now. 'He's hurt his leg.' Anything else? She didn't know.
She looked down at him and he looked up at her, his eyes huge and pain-filled and hopeless. His shivering body pressed against hers, as if desperate for warmth.
She'd owned dogs since childhood. She loved dogs. She'd made a conscious decision not to have another one.
But this one He was an injured stray and he was looking at her.
'Do you want me to call someone to deal with him for you?' That was from Nicholas—with that question he surely wasn't Adonis. This wasn't a hero type of question. This the sort of response she'd expect from Frank.
Find someone to deal with him. Who?
Frank himself? If the Principal wasn't in his office, she had no one to turn to. Every other teacher had their own class.
She could make a fast call to Animal Welfare. This was their dog. Their problem. They'd collect him.
That was the sensible solution.
But the dog quivered against her, huddling tight, as if he was desperate for the poor amount of warmth she could provide. His eyes were pools of limpid despair.
He looked at her.
Since when had anything ever been Not Her Problem? There was no way this dog was going back to one of the Welfare cages.
She did not need a dog. She did not!
But in her arms the dog quivered and huddled closer. She felt the silkiness of his ears. She could feel his heart, beating so fast He was so afraid. He was totally at the mercy of the decision she made right now.
And, with that thought, her vow to leave dogs behind disintegrated to nothing.
What were dreams, anyway?
'Mr Holt, I need your help,' she said, attempting to sound like a teacher in control of the situation.
'Yes,' he said, sounding cautious. As well he might.
'I can't leave the children,' she said. 'This dog needs to go to the vet. That's what happens with sick dogs, doesn't it, boys and girls. You remember Dr Cray? We visited his surgery last month. I'm going to ask Bailey's father if he'll take him to Dr Cray for us. Will you do that for us, sir?'
Then she looked straight at Nicholas, meeting those deep green eyes head on. Not His Problem? Ha. He was asking her to teach his child. Payback happened early in Banksia Bay.
'I don't know about dogs,' he said, sounding stunned.