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Sydney Harris ran a finger over the dent in the kitchen wall next to the side door. The dent from the coffee cup she'd lobbed there after she'd spent a miserable night in the local lockup—thanks to her corrupt, narcissistic, creep of an ex-husband. At the time she'd considered that dent a symbol, a reminder that things could only get better, so she'd left it there. Except things hadn't gotten better. In fact, they'd gotten worse, and after today, every time she looked at that dent, she would remember the day her career went down the toilet.
"Sydney, are you still there?"
She tightened her grip on the phone. "You're firing me?" she asked Doreen Catalano, director of Meadow Ridge Early Learning Center. Her now former employer.
Her now former best friend.
"Technically, this isn't a termination. We're simply not renewing your contract. We're within the legal parameters of your employment agreement."
"Legal parameters? What about loyalty? What about the fact that we've been friends for ten years?" She applied pressure to the center of the dent and her finger popped through the drywall. Wonderful. Now there was a hole. Kind of like the rest of her life. One big gaping hole—no husband, no friends, no job. What else could she lose?
No, Syd, don't even go there.
"Call it whatever you want," she told Doreen. "I'm still out of a job."
"Sydney, you're a wonderful teacher, but you know as well as I do that we can't ignore the concerns of the parents. The rumors…"
"Will you at least write me a recommendation?" she asked. "I think you owe me that much."
After several seconds passed and Doreen didn't answer, the last of Sydney's hope sank somewhere south of her toes. "I'll take that as a no."
"If we were to write you a recommendation and something were to…happen…we just can't take that kind of risk. You'll receive the rest of your vacation pay and a generous severance."
If something were to happen? Sydney's voice shook with anger. "Forgive me if I sound ungrateful, but that hardly softens the blow. You were there, you know how much I had to drink—one lousy glass of wine at dinner. As did you, I might add, and I don't see you losing your job over it."
"I wasn't arrested for a DUI."
"I guess it doesn't count that they dropped the charges. And excuse me, but in ten years have you ever known me to be a raging alcoholic? Did I ever once show up late for work, or hungover—or intoxicated? This is all about Jeff getting revenge."
"He's the mayor. People trust him."
More like people feared him. It was obvious Doreen did. "Let me guess. Did he threaten to have the school investigated? Maybe he said there would be trumped-up abuse charges if you didn't fire me? Did he say he would have the school's license yanked?"
There was a pregnant pause, and Sydney knew she was right. That manipulative, egotistical bastard. She could sue them, but frankly, she'd spent enough time in court this past year. And why would she want to teach at a school where no one trusted her?
"Sydney, maybe…well, maybe you should consider relocating. Getting a fresh start somewhere new."
No way. "I'm not running away. Prospect is my home. I won't let him steal that from me, too."
"I have your personal effects from your desk and your check if you'd like to pick them up today. This is for the best, Sydney."
"Best for whom?"
Doreen didn't answer, but Sydney had heard enough anyway. She punched the disconnect button and tossed the phone down on the counter. Nothing would change Doreen's mind, and begging wasn't an option. Not if she planned to maintain at least a shred of her dignity.
The satisfaction of raking Jeff over the coals in the divorce had been short lived when he'd set out to systematically destroy her reputation—and had now succeeded. If he heard that she'd begged for her job, and failed, he would never let her live it down. She wouldn't give him the pleasure.
She had honestly thought this mess would blow over and everything would go back to normal. She thought people knew her better than this.
Apparently, she thought wrong. Either that or people were just too afraid of her ex to cross him.
Even though Sydney had spent the past sixteen years of her life in Prospect, California, after the divorce she had been deemed an outsider. No more significant than the thousands of tourists who visited every year.
"Legal parameters, my foot," she mumbled, poking at the hole in the wall. Bits of drywall broke off, leaving a dusty white pile on the floor. It was time to patch this up and move on. To stop living in the past.
Rummaging through the kitchen drawers for something—anything—to cover it, Sydney settled on a roll of duct tape. It would have to do until she could buy a putty knife and spackling. She pulled off a length, tearing it with her teeth, and smoothed it over the hole. Not great, but better. Now, if she could just use the tape to temporarily repair her life.
"Gawd, what are you doing do to the wall?"
Sydney turned to see Lacey, her fifteen-year-old daughter, standing in the kitchen doorway. She should have left for school over an hour ago. "I was fixing a hole."
"With tape? It looks dumb."
She had to admit it did look pretty dumb. She tore the tape off, taking another chunk of drywall along with it. "You're late again."
"I overslept." Lacey shuffled into the kitchen and Sydney cringed when she noticed the latest condition of her hair—pale blond and freshly streaked in varying shades of purple. Her makeup wasn't much better. Thick black eyeliner reduced her eyes to two narrow slits, creating the illusion that she was perpetually pissed off—which, come to think of it, she was. Mauve lipstick added a touch of obstinacy, perfecting that "rebellious teen" look she worked so hard to achieve. Even her school uniform was a wrinkled mess.
It broke Sydney's heart to see the transformation her daughter had gone through. From a somewhat happy, fairly well-adjusted teenager to Wednesday Addams gone emo. Couldn't Jeff see what his behavior was doing to his child? Didn't he care?
Of course he didn't. Jeff cared about one person—Jeff.
"You only have a week of school left. Could you at least try to get there on time?"
Lacey shrugged. "Who called?"
If she could shelter Lacey from the truth, she would have. The kid had been through so much already. All she could do now was try to minimize the damage. "Doreen Catalano, from the preschool. They'll be replacing me now that my contract is up."
Lacey's mouth dropped open. "They fired you?"
Sydney kept her voice even. "No. They just chose not to renew my contract."
Lacey wasn't buying the calm act. "He did this, didn't he? Dad is screwing with you again."
"It's not a big deal." Sydney forced a smile. "Really. I'll find another job." And won't that be fun without references, she thought. Ten years of experience down the toilet. But she would manage. God knows she had overcome worse. And on the bright side, Jeff paid so much in alimony and child support, technically she didn't need a job. She would just have to tighten the belt a little.
They would be fine.
"I wish he would leave us alone." Lacey poured herself coffee and dumped half a cup of sugar into her mug. "I wish he would marry that bimbo and forget we exist."
Sydney suppressed a rueful smile. "Lacey, honey, please don't call your father's girlfriend a bimbo."
"Mom, she's, like, only a few years older than me. Do you have any idea how embarrassing that is?"
Seven years, actually, but who was counting? And of course Lacey was bitter. Her father's infidelities had hardly been a secret. But the last time, with his "bimbo" assistant, Sydney had had enough. She wished she could have seen his face when he'd been served with the divorce papers. And though he'd put her through hell this past year, she was still glad she did it. She was relieved to finally be free.
She gave Lacey's shoulder a squeeze. "I have to go pick up my final check. I could drop you off at school on the way."
Lacey shrugged out of reach. "No, I'll walk. I'll be home late today. I'm going to Shane's house to study for Spanish finals."
"You don't take Spanish."
She rolled her eyes. "Duh. I'm helping Shane study."
Sydney forced herself to take a deep breath and count to ten. She's still adjusting, that rational inner voice reminded her. Give her time.
"I expect you home by six," she said. "But—"
Sydney held up a hand to shush her. "Don't bother arguing. You know your father is coming to get you for dinner."
Lacey's eyes narrowed until they all but disappeared. "I don't want to see him."
"I know you don't, and I understand why, but no matter how angry you are or how unfair all of this seems, he's still your father and he has a right to see you."
"Fine. What do you care if I'm psychologically scarred for the rest of my life!" She yanked her backpack off the kitchen table and stormed out the side door, slamming it behind her.
Sydney sighed, wishing there was something she could do to make this easier on her daughter. She had suggested to Jeff that they take her to see a counselor, but he refused. He didn't want people to put a label on Lacey, or so he claimed, but she was sure it was more about people labeling him a bad father. Either way, without his consent, her hands were tied. She could sue for the right, but another lengthy court battle would only make things worse.
She grabbed her car keys from the crystal candy dish on the counter, shoved her feet into her flip-flops and stepped out the side door into the late morning sun. In the distance a grayish haze ringed the crest of the Scott Bar mountains so she knew it was going to be a warm and sticky afternoon.
A thick wave of heat enveloped her as she opened the door to her minivan, and as she climbed in she noticed that the new tenants appeared to have settled into the rental house next door. Yesterday there had been a moving van and now there was a red pickup truck in the drive. There was also an unmarked police car parked out front. She hoped that didn't mean there was going to be trouble with the new neighbors.
The previous resident, Mr. Bellevue, had been moved into an assisted living facility last month after he'd forgotten to turn off the stove and almost burned down the house for the fourth time in month.
Sydney made a mental note to stop on her way home and pick up a housewarming gift.
Pulling out of her driveway and around the police car, she started driving toward the preschool, but had barely gone fifty feet when she glanced down at the passenger seat and realized she hadn't brought her purse. No purse, no ID.
Ugh! Could this day get any worse?
She slammed on the brakes, threw the van into reverse and floored it. A blur of black in the rearview mirror made her jerk to a stop, but not before she felt the impact and heard the unmistakable crunch of glass.
And just like that, her day got worse.
Jamming the van into park, she let her head fall against the steering wheel.
Just what she needed. Another run-in with the Prospect County Sheriff's Department. One more reason for them to harass her.
She took one long, shaky breath, and with trembling hands pushed the door open and climbed out of the van. She circled around back to check the damage.
A dented bumper and obliterated taillight on her van—that wasn't so bad. Besides a broken headlight, the police car didn't have a scratch on it. So why did she feel like throwing herself down on the pavement and sobbing? Maybe she could just leave a note on the windshield and skulk away.
Just as she'd completed the thought, she heard a door creak open and turned to see a man walking toward her from the house next door. He wore faded jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt, but she recognized him as one of Prospect's finest. Deputy Daniel Valenzia, or as she had often heard him called, Deputy Casanova. He was a confirmed bachelor and notorious breaker of female hearts all over town.
There was a time when Sydney had also been seduced by a man with authority. The only problem with authoritative men, she'd learned, was that they abused that power for selfish reasons.
She was guessing by the lack of uniform, rumpled dark hair and several days' worth of dark stubble, Deputy Valenzia wasn't here on business. He wasn't part of Jeff's lynch gang, so Sydney had never actually met him, but cops were cops as far as she was concerned. It was sad, really, because before the divorce she'd had tremendous respect for law enforcement. Now if she saw a patrol car headed her way, she pulled down the nearest side street or into the closest parking lot. A couple dozen tickets—for things as ridiculous as dirt on her license plate, not to mention a baseless arrest for DUI—could make a woman a little paranoid. Being hauled away in handcuffs on Main Street on a busy Friday night in front of half the town and twice that many tourists had been the most humiliating experience in her life by far.
Deputy Valenzia stopped a few feet from her to inspect the damage, his face unreadable. Sydney waited for the explosion, for him to berate her for her stupidity. To call her a careless woman driver. When he finally met her eyes, she was jolted with awareness.
Set over a pair of amazingly high cheekbones—cheekbones any woman would sell her soul for—his eyes were black as tar and so bottomless she felt as if she were swimming in them. And…warm? A little amused even, which made no sense at all.
Why wasn't he screaming at her? Why wasn't he ranting and raving? If it had been Jeff's BMW damaged in a fender bender, he'd have chewed the poor driver to shreds by now with harsh words and legal threats.
"So, what happened here?" he finally asked.
"I'm very sorry," she said. I'm very sorry? Lame, Syd, lame.
Valenzia just nodded, his eyes still locked on hers, as if he expected her to say something else. Or maybe he was checking to see if her pupils were dilated.
"I didn't mean to hit it," she said, and the second the words left her mouth, she cringed. That's a good one, she thought, realizing how dumb that sounded. People didn't usually mean to hit anything, and if they did, they didn't admit it. And what had her lawyer told her? Never give more information than asked for, and when they do ask, only give them the basic facts. Never elaborate.