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Molly Callahan studied the boy slumped sullenly in a straight chair facing her desk and wished desperately she could hand off dealing with him to someone else. Anyone else.
She liked her job most of the time, although discipline was her least favorite facet of it. No choice, though. The high school was small enough that she was the only vice principal. She gave brief, wistful thought to steering Trevor Ward and his father, when he arrived for an emergency conference, into Principal Marta Bright-well's office. Unfortunately, Marta's strength was making everyone feel really optimistic about whatever was under discussion, at least as long as they remained in her presence. A fine quality, but one that failed to solve all those everyday problems that were Molly's bailiwick.
Even so that's what she should do. Her feelings toward this particular boybelligerent, defiant, aggressivewere not dispassionate. Considering the fight she and her daughter, Cait, had had only last night over Trevor, Molly could admit, if only to herself, that she wished he had never transferred to her school. It would be really good if he slouched out beside his father and never came back. She didn't exactly wish him ill. She'd be satisfied if Daddy decided to transfer him to a private school or ship him home to Mom. But she wanted him gone. Gone from her life, and especially gone from Caitlyn's.
She should be trying to understand what was throwing him into turmoil, but she couldn't make herself care. Knots were climbing atop knots in her neck, her head throbbed, she expected Trevor's father to arrive any minute and she had not the slightest idea what she was going to say to him.
Trevor held an ice pack over one eye, but the trickle of blood emerging from a nostril was turning into a stream. Molly sighed, snatched a handful of tissues from a box and went around the desk to thrust them into his hand.
"Your nose is bleeding again."
He grunted and pressed the wad of tissues to his nose.
"If it gets any worse I'll need to send you to the nurse's office." Which she had not done, because the victim of Trevor's rage was currently occupying one of the cubicles there, waiting for his mother to pick him up. Aaron latter was in considerably worse shape than Trevor. Molly could only be glad he'd gotten a few blows in, at least.
Which was unworthy of her, she reflected, surreptitiously massaging her temple. That said, she'd be talking to Aaron's parents later, too. One more thing to look forward to.
"Trevor, I'm going to ask you to wait out in front. I'll need to speak to your dad privately. Mrs. Cruz will help you if you get to feeling worse."
The stare he gave her from the one eye that wasn't swollen shut chilled her. It was almost emotionless, and yet.. full of something. She had never before been afraid of a student, but at that moment she came close.
And her daughter had a massive crush on this boy.
Boy? As he rose slowly to his feet, she realized part of the problem. Seventeen years old, a senior, he didn't look like a boy. He looked like a man. He was already six foot three. Although he hadn't yet achieved his full bulk, he had broad shoulders and more muscles than most of the male teachers had ever dreamed of possessing. He must shave daily and at two o'clock in the afternoon already had a dark shadow on his jaw. His eyes were so dark, brown iris melted into pupil. When he gave someone a black look, it was black.
He was also, unfortunately, exceedingly handsome. The minute he'd walked in the front doors the first day of school, he'd turned every female head in the building. Molly had seen even a couple of the younger women teachers flush at the sight of him. With his physique, dark good looks and sullen temperament, he was the Heathcliff of West Fork High School.
Didn't it figure that his brooding stare had turned to Cait, Molly's bright, perky, academically advanced, sunny-tempered, beautiful, fifteen-year-old daughter.
Molly realized that she was grinding her teeth together as she escorted Trevor out of her office. No wonder her head was throbbing.
Once he lowered himself to one of the visitors' chairs, she took the tissues from his hand and inspected his nose. "It seems to have let up," she said briskly. "Mrs. Cruz, please call Jeannie if Trevor's nosebleed worsens."
"Of course, Ms. Callahan." The school secretary looked past Molly. "Ah Trevor's father is here."
Molly turned, and felt her heart sink. If it got any lower, she thought grimly, her stomach would start digesting it. A distinct possibility, since she'd missed lunch.
Trevor's father, striding down the hall toward her, looked like Trevor would when he finished maturing. If he was lucky. Mr. Ward also didn't appear to be any happier than his son, and it was Molly who was the target of that angry, frustrated stare, not the son who deserved it.
Her favorite kind of parentthe "my son can't possibly be responsible" variety. The "I am pissed at you for interrupting my day and attempting to hold my kid accountable" variety.
She stiffened. How fortunate that she was in the mood to deal with him.
"Mr. Ward," she said, holding out her hand. "I'm Vice Principal Molly Callahan. Thank you for coming."
Barely three weeks into the school year, and he'd already been yanked from his day to sit down with the vice principal to discuss Trevor's behavioral shortcomings. As if he hadn't noticed them.
Richard had become reacquainted with his son precisely four weeks ago, when he picked him up at the airport after a hysterical call from Trevor's mother, Alexa, who'd told him he "had" to take Trevor because she'd had enough. Richard's eyebrows had risen over that. Trevor's grades were top-notch, he was a superb athlete and this past summer he'd worked with kids at the Boys & Girls Club while coaching summer basketball. He was an all-around high achiever.
Richard would have loved to raise both his kids. He'd missed having them this summer. One of the worst days of his life had been when Alexa broke it to him that she and husband number two were moving to California.
At least he'd have Trevor for this last year, before he headed off to college.
Yet shipping him back to his mother was looking better by the day, he thought grimly.
With one swift, encompassing glance, he took in his son, who held an ice pack to one eye and sat slumped low in the chair. His head was bowed. He didn't raise it to look at his father, not even when the woman standing beside him said, "Mr. Ward."
Son of a bitch, Richard thought, ashamed to feel ready to kill the messenger as well as the creature that inhabited his son's body, but unable to smile at her and say, "Great to meet you."
Unlocking his jaw took some effort. "Ms. Callahan."
Her voice was familiar; they'd spoken on the phone briefly last week after Trevor's first fight. She had a hell of a voice, with a husky timbre that would stir any man's interest. Beyond that initial reaction, he hadn't given it much thought. Ms. Callahanthe Ms. was said with militant emphasiswas likely a rigid, cast-iron bitch. On the phone she'd been terse and had nothing helpful to say. He'd been able to tell she was disappointed to have to admit that she had as yet been unable to assign responsibility for the fight to either boy.
"However," she had declared, "unless a fight begins with a clearly one-sided assault, both students need to be penalized. We have zero tolerance for fighting." That time, she'd suspended Trevor and the other boy each for two days.
If she expelled Trevor now, what the hell was he supposed to do with him?
They were in her office before he really saw her and then it was a mild shock. Molly Callahan was young to be in administrationsurely not older than her mid-thirties. She was also okay, not beautiful, but something. Sexy, he decided, if you discounted the steely glint in her gray eyes. Tall for a woman, maybe five-ten. Possibly a little plump by current standards, which weren't his. Generous hips, even more generous breasts, sensational legs that weren't stick-thin and wavy hair of a particularly deep shade of auburn. Natural, if her creamy skin was any indication.
She circled around her desk and gestured toward a chair. "Please, have a seat, Mr. Ward."
He stiffened at her tone of voice. He was not one of her students.
"I gather Trevor was involved in another fight," he said curtly.
"Trevor unquestionably started this one. For no apparent reason. The other young man accidentally jostled Trevor in a crowded hallway. He turned around swinging. One of our teachers observed the entire altercation and described the 'flare of rage' on Trevor's face as frightening. Perhaps you can explain what's going on with your son."
His jaw had gone into lockdown again as she spoke. For the first time it occurred to him that he might be ill equipped to be a full-time parent. He had never, not once, gone to a parent-teacher conference. Yeah, he admired report cards, but he hadn't been there to set rules for homework, to do flash cards, to fold his arms and say, "You knew what you had to do this week to earn that trip to the zoo, and you blew it, buddy."
Not my fault.
No, it wasn't, but resentment that he hadn't had the chance welled up in him until he was all but choking on it.
Ms. Callahan's ill-disguised disdain and dislike rubbed him the wrong way.
"Trevor is a seventeen-year-old boy. If you've looked at his records, you'll find that at his previous high schoolan urban high school with a significantly larger class than here in West Forkhe was in the running to become valedictorian. Colleges were scouting him for both football and basketball. Here he's transferred for his senior year, and it appears West Fork High School is already failing him." Richard knew he wasn't being fair, but right this minute he didn't damn well care. He didn't appreciate anything about Ms. Callahan's attitude.
Her back was so stiff he could tell it wasn't meeting her cushioned office chair. Her lips thinned. "Trevor has been uncooperative and unpleasant since the day he started class. I need to know if he was angry at having to leave his former school to come here. Was he, for example, sent to live with you as a disciplinary measure, Mr. Ward?"
"No," he said shortly, if not altogether honestly. "His mother has recently separated from her current husband." Her third. "I believe Trevor was reasonably fond of him, but hadn't lived with him so many years the attachment was deep. I'm aware that moving to a new school for your senior year is hardly ideal, but he didn't object."
They glared at each other. Her eyes, Richard decided, were closer to gunmetal gray.
"In other words," she said icily, "you'd like to blame the teachers and students here for somehow, in a startlingly swift few weeks, driving your son to rage that inspires him to attack another boy without provocation."
At his sides, Richard's hands flexed briefly into fists that he forced himself to relax. I'm not handling this well. But goddamn it, couldn't she say something helpful? Offer some guidance? Where was the school psychologist? Or didn't they have one?
"No," he said reluctantly. "Of course I don't. Trevor's attitude hasn't been great at home, either." Major understatement. "All I can tell you is that I'm trying to get to the root of it. I'd appreciate some sense that you and his teachers care about Trevor rather than seeing him as nothing but a disciplinary problem."
Fire lit her face. She planted her hands on her desk and half rose from her chair to lean toward him, apparently calling on the greater height to emphasize her authority. "Perhaps it hasn't occurred to you, Mr. Ward, that there were two boys involved a week ago. Two boys today, one of whom is likely on his way, as we speak, to the emergency room. I care about my students. Trevor was the aggressor today." She straightened, on her feet, and held up a hand to silence him when he opened his mouth. "My first obligation is the safety of all students at this school. Do I care? Yes. I also care about the boy Trevor battered bloody this afternoon. I am this close" she pinched her thumb and forefinger nearly together "to expelling Trevor. Because I care, I am only suspending him for the remainder of the week. However, let me make clear to you, as I did to Trevor, that if there is any repeat of his aggression, I will have no choice but to expel him from this school. Do I make myself clear?"
Somewhere midspeech he'd risen to his feet, too, so that he could tower over her.
"Yeah," he said, "you do. Thank you for your consideration, Ms. Callahan. I'm moved by your obvious concern for my son. So moved, I'll be sure to mention it to the principal. Possibly the superintendent, too. John is a friend of mine."
His threats, issued in a gritty voice, affected her not at all. She continued to gaze stonily at him. He nodded and walked out. This time his son let the hand holding the ice pack drop and looked at his dad. If there was something worried or even childish on his face, it was fleeting and replaced by his now-current sullenness.
"We're going home," Richard said, and kept walking, leaving Trevor to fall in behind him or not.
Good. Great. His meeting with Vice Principal Callahan had made him sullen, too, and about as mature, behaving like the average middle schooler, forget high school.
And now he had to figure out how to be the parent.
Caitlyn snatched a carrot that her mother had just peeled and crunched into it. Molly pretended to slap at her hand but then took another carrot from the crisper and began to peel. She watched with pleasure as Cait plopped her book bag on the breakfast bar, hopped on a stool and hooked her feet on it. Orange bits flew as she chewed and talked.
"Wow, I don't know what his problem is, but today Mr. Sanchez was a total" She grinned at her mother's raised eyebrow. They'd agreed years ago that she could express honest opinions of her teachers but not use profanity or obscenities to do so. "Jerk. He was a jerk today.
He was in some kind of snit because nobody, like nobody, passed his stupid quiz. Of course it's our fault. Did it occur to him that maybe he failed to successfully teach a concept? I mean, duh." Another enthusiastic crunch. "So he tried again, and I still don't get it. Who needs advanced algebra anyway?"
"Engineers, I'd guess. Mathematicians, computer geeks, scientists."
"You know this for a fact."
Molly laughed. "Well, no. I confess I got an A in second-year algebra and can no longer remember a single thing I learned. I thank God on my knees daily that you haven't needed my help."
"About that." Cait reached for the zipper of her backpack. "See, there's this thing I don't get " She giggled at her mother's expression. "I'll figure it out myself, thank you."