Read an Excerpt
Poppy Carter stood in the center of her new classroom and clasped her hands behind her back to stop them from shaking. Had she taken on more than she could handle?
The desks were lined against the walls with chairs stacked on top of them, and the floor was clean and tidy, but it was the walls that were sending shivers down her spine. Where was the fun? Where were the bright colors that should adorn the room to welcome young pupils?
She sighed and walked to the main desk, pulling out the chair and sinking into it. Her problem was that she'd always been at schools with a half-decent budget, and she knew that this school was barely able to keep the doors open, let alone redecorate.
Poppy dropped her forehead to the desktop before resting her cheek against it instead and staring at the wall. She had a lot to do before tomorrow, and there was no way she was going to start her class in a room like this.
New beginnings, a fresh start and a bright future. That's why she'd come here, and she was determined to make that happen.
Poppy sat bolt upright. Either she was hearing things in this spooky old room or there was someone else here.
The deep male voice was closer this time. Before she could call back, it was followed by a body. One that filled the entire doorway.
"Hi," she said, glancing toward the closest window, planning her escape route in case she needed one.
"I didn't mean to disturb you." The man smiled at her, one side of his mouth turning up as he nudged the tip of his hat and leaned into the room. "We've had a bit of trouble here lately and I wanted to make sure there weren't any kids up to no good."
Poppy swallowed and nodded. "I'm probably not meant to be here myself, but I wanted to have a good look around and see if there was anything that needed doing."
Chocolate-brown eyes met hers, softer than before, and matched with a dimple when the man finally gave her a full smile. "I take it you're the famous Ms. Carter, then?"
Poppy couldn't help grinning back. "Take out the famous part and call me Poppy, and I'd say that's me."
He chuckled, removed his hat and stepped forward, hand extended. There was a gruffness about him that she guessed came with the territory of being a rancher, but up close he was even more handsome than he'd been from a distance. Strong, wide shoulders, a jaw that looked as if it had been carved from stone and the deepest dark brown eyes she'd ever seen .
Poppy cleared her throat and clasped his hand.
"Harrison Black," he said, hand firm against hers. "My kids go to school here."
Right. So he was married with children. It didn't explain his lack of a wedding band, but then plenty of ranchers probably never wore a ring, especially when they were working.
But it did make her feel less nervous about being in the room with him.
"How many children do you have?" she asked.
The smile was back at the mention of his children. "Two. Kate and Alex. They're out there in the truck."
Poppy looked out the window, spotting his vehicle. "I'm just heading back to my place for some supplies, so how about I say hi to them?"
He shrugged, put his hat on his head and took a couple of steps backward. The heels of his boots were loud on the wooden floor, making her look up again. And when she did she wished she hadn't, because his eyes had never left hers and a frown was hovering at the corners of his mouth.
Instead of acknowledging him she reached for her bag and slung it over her shoulder, and when she looked back he was already halfway to the door.
"Ms. Carter, what made you come here?"
She met his gaze, chin held high, not wanting to answer the man standing in front of her, but knowing it was a question she'd be asked countless times from the moment she started meeting localsas soon as her pupils began flooding through the door, parents anxiously following them.
"I needed a change," she told him honestly, even if she was omitting a large part of the truth. "When I saw the advertisements for Bellaroo, I figured it was time for me to take a chance."
Harrison was still staring at her, but she broke the contact. Walked past him and down the short hall to the front door.
"And a new haircut or color wasn't enough of a change?"
She spun on the spot, temper flaring. This man, this Harrison, didn't know the first thing about her, but to suggest a haircut? Did she look like some floozy who just needed a new lipstick to make her problems go away?
"No," she said, glaring at him, feet rooted to the spot. "I wanted to make a difference, and keeping this school open seemed pretty important to your community, unless I've been mistaken?"
His eyes gave away nothing, his broad shoulders squared and his body grew rigid.
"There's nothing more important to me than this school staying open. But if you don't work out? If we've taken a chance on the wrong person? Then we don't just lose a school, we'll lose our entire town." He sighed. "Forgive me if I don't think you look like a woman who could go a week without hitting the shops or beauty salon."
She let him pull the door shut and marched toward his vehicle, desperate to see his children. Right now they were the only things that could cool her down, and the last thing she wanted was to get into an argument with a rude, arrogant man who had no idea what kind of person she was or what she believed in. To even suggest She swallowed and took a deep breath.
"I think you'll find I know exactly how much this school means to Bellaroo Creek," she said over her shoulder, in a voice as calm as she could manage. "And please don't pretend you know me or anything about me. Do I make myself clear?"
She could have sworn a hint of a smile flashed across Harrison's face, but she was too angry to care.
"Crystal clear," he said, striding past her.
If she hadn't known two little children were watching them from the truck, she would have poked her tongue out. But Poppy just kept walking, and sent up a silent prayer that she'd never have to talk to their father ever again.
Harrison knew he'd behaved badly. But honestly? He didn't care. Speaking his mind to the teacher hadn't exactly been his best move, but if she didn't hang around, then their town was done for. He'd needed to say it now because if she changed her mind they'd have to find someone else fast. The future of Bellaroo Creek meant more to him than anything. Because otherwise he'd lose everything he'd ever worked for, just to keep his children close.
He swung open the passenger door. "Kids, this is your new teacher."
They looked outall angelic blond hair and blue eyes. A constant reminder of their mother, and probably the only reason he didn't still hate the woman.
"I'm Ms. Carter." Harrison listened to the new teacher introduce herself, watching the anger disappear from her face as soon as she locked eyes on his children. "Your dad found me in the middle of planning your classroom."
"Planning?" he asked.
She smiled and leaned against the open door, but he had a feeling her happy expression was for his children's benefit, not his. "I can't teach young children in a room that looks like the inside of a hospital," she told him. "I don't have long, but in the morning it'll look deserving of kids."
"You're making it look better?"
Harrison grinned as his daughter spoke. She played the shy card for all of a minute with strangers, then couldn't keep herself from talking.
"I want us to have fun, and that means putting a smile on your face from the second you walk through my door in the morning."
So maybe she wasn't so bad, but it wasn't exactly evidence that the teacher would hang around for the long haul. He'd had enough experience to know that an isolated rural town wasn't exactly paradise for everyone, especially for a teacher expected to teach children of all ages.
"If you need a hand " he found himself saying.
She smiled politely at him, but he could see the storm still brewing in her eyes. "Thank you, Mr. Black, but I'm sure I can manage."
He stared at her long and hard before walking around to the driver's side. "I'll look forward to seeing in the morning what you've done with the place."
The teacher shut the passenger door and leaned in the window. "Your wife won't be dropping the children off?"
Harrison gave her a cool smile. "No, it'll be me."
He watched as she straightened, a question crossing her face even though she never said anything.
"I'll see you kids tomorrow," she called out, walking backward.
Harrison touched his hat and pulled out into the road, glancing in the rearview mirror to see her standing there still, one hand holding her long hair back from her face, the other shielding her eyes from the sun.
She was pretty, he'd give her that, but there was no way she was going to stick it out here as their teacher. He could tell just from looking at her. And that meant he had to figure out what the hell he was going to do if she left. Because staying in Bellaroo wasn't going to be an option for him if the school closed down, nor any of the other families who loved this town as much as he did.
"Daddy, don't you think we should help our teacher?"
Harrison sighed and glanced back at his daughter. "I think she'll be fine, Katie," he told her.
She sighed in turn. "It's a pretty big classroom."
Harrison stared straight ahead. The last thing he needed was to grow a conscience when it came to their new teacher, and he had errands to run for the rest of the afternoon. But maybe his daughter had a point. If he didn't want her to up and leave, then maybe he needed to make more of an effort. They all did.
"We might go back later on and see what we can do. How does that sound?"
"Great!" Katie was elbowing her brother, as if they'd both somehow managed to pull the wool over his eyes. "We could take her dinner and help her do the walls."
Harrison stayed silent. Helping Ms. Carter redecorate? Maybe. Taking her dinner? Hell, no.
Harrison liked to think of himself as a strong man. He worked the land, could hunt and keep his family alive and comfortable in the wilderness if he had to, and yet his seven-year-old daughter managed to wrangle him as if he were a newborn calf.
"Dad, I think she'll like this."
He stared at his pint-size kid and tried to look fierce. "I am not buying a cake to take her."
Katie wrapped one arm around his leg and put her cheek against his jean-clad thigh. "But Daddy, it wouldn't be a picnic without a cake."
"It's not a picnic," he told her, "so there's no problem." His daughter giggled. "Well, it is, kind of." He looked at the cake. It did look good and they were being sold for charity, but what kind of message would that be sending if he arrived to help with cake? Taking sausages, bread and ketchup was one thing, because he could let the kids help their new teacher while he used the barbecue out back. But this was going too far.
He tried to ignore the blue eyes looking up at him, pleading with him. And failed. "Okay, we'll take the cake. But don't go thinking we'll be spending all night there. It's just something to eat, some quick help and then home. Okay?"
Katie smiled and he couldn't help but do the same back. His little girl sure knew how to wrap him around her finger. "Come on, Alex," Harrison called.
His son appeared from behind an aisle and they finally reached the cashier. Harrison had known old Mrs. Jones since he was a boy and was still buying his groceries from her and her husband.
"So what are you all doing in town today?"
He started to place items on the counter.
"Had a few errands to run, so we're a bit out of sequence."
"And now we're going to see our new teacher," announced Katie.
"So you've already met Ms. Carter?"
Harrison frowned. He didn't like everyone knowing his business, even if he did live in a small town with a gossip mill that ignited at any hint of something juicy. "We're going to help her make some changes to the classroom, aren't we, kids?"
Katie and Alex nodded as he paid for the groceries and hauled the bags from the counter.
"It's mighty nice to have someone like Poppy Carter in town. Like a ray of sunshine when she came in this morning, she was."
He smiled politely back. He didn't need to feel any worse about how he'd spoken to her earlier, because no matter how much he tried to think otherwise, he did care that he'd been rude. It wasn't his nature, and he realized now it might have been uncalled for. Did he doubt that she'd stick it out? Sure. But maybe he should have been more encouraging, rather than sending her scurrying back to wherever she'd come from before she'd even started.
"So what do you think?"
Harrison looked up and squinted at Mrs. Jones. He had no idea what she'd just asked him. "Sorry?"
"About whether she has a husband? Suzie Croft met her and was certain she had a mark on her finger where a ring had been, but I told her it was none of our business why she'd come here without a husband." The older woman tut-tutted. "We advertised for someone looking for a fresh start, and that's what we can give her. Isn't that right?"
Harrison raised an eyebrow. Mrs. Jones liked to gossip better than all the rest of them combined. "I'd say we'll just have to wait to find out more about Ms. Carter, once she's good and ready to tell us her business."
Who cared if she was married or not? Or whether she had a husband. All he cared about was that she was kind to his children, taught them well and stuck around to keep the school from closure. Tick all three off the list and he wouldn't care if she was married to a darn monkey.
"Thanks," he called over his shoulder as he carried the groceries out the door. "See you later in the week."
The little bell above tinkled when he pushed the door open. He waited for his kids to catch up and race past him.
An hour at the school, then back homethat was the plan. And he was darned if he wasn't going to stick to it.