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In her rush to beat the bell, Karen Hudson stumbled into her classroom and spilled the pile of papers bulging from her arms. All the care and attention that went into collating the lessons for her third graders lay scattered on the floor like a pile of windblown leaves, but it was okay. She could pick it all up and spill it again, and it would still be all right. It was a little deal.
She was in love. Now that was big. Finally, it had happened to her; and long after she'd given up hope. As she knelt to gather the fallen papers, she thought about how unlikely it had seemed six months ago that she would find someone. At thirty-seven her illusions about snagging a husband with glowing attributes had long since evaporated. Ten years of floundering in different relationships had cost her the bulk of her passion to marry; a passion nurtured since her starry-eyed girlhood.
Five years ago, after the last failed romance, she decided to turn it all off and quit dating. It had been a relief to end the procession of bad dates and boyfriends. She wasn't looking for anyone when Michael Browning turned the corner into her life on that first day of school last September.
The day had been cool and overcast, not the kind associated with luck and romance. The marine layer stretched all the way from the Pacific Ocean, fifteen miles west, socking in the entire town of Chawell near San Diego. It was a good day for hanging indoors. Karen was greeting her new students and their parents as they filtered into her classroom. She didn't notice Michael standing silently in the doorway with his eight-year-old daughter, Jennifer. When she did look over at him, shehad the impression he'd been watching her.
As soon as she set eyes on him, he glided over to her, steering Jennifer gently in front of him. His movements were neither rushed nor reticent. She had the idea that she could set her clock by his sense of timing. She remembered feeling slightly startled during their introductions as she looked into his eyes. They were a liquid blue and swimming with lights-like sunshine swallowed by water. When he spoke, his voice resonated softly, as if the rhythm in his tone were already calibrated to her heartbeat. What a blissful blur these last six months had been.
The bell blasted outside her room, jarring her into the present. She scrambled to scoop up the remaining papers, which she then dumped onto a tabletop. She made a mental note to assign the job of reorganizing them to Jennifer, who loved to volunteer for that stuff, even as the other children escaped onto the playground.
She shoved her purse hurriedly into the broom closet still stuffed with props from last year's holiday show. As she turned away, she caught her reflection in the long mirror that lined the door. A pair of dark eyes flashed back at her. My best feature, she thought, as she jammed the door shut. Her eyes were large and rimmed with long lashes-spaced wide apart, too, like Jackie Kennedy's. She liked to think they made her look intelligent, though her long nose turned her image a little horsy. Sometimes she felt like a candidate for the bride of "Mr. Ed". Oh, well, can't have it all. At least her nose pointed straight down to a set of well-formed lips-full, maybe too full, but nothing the long nose couldn't handle.
She met her class at the door and they filed past, laughing and talking. Jennifer stopped and threw her arms around Karen's hips and looked up, beaming. Her smile turned on her whole face, just like her daddy's. Her eyes were probably like her mother's, coffee colored and deep-set.
"Good morning, little missy," Karen said, giving one of Jennifer's fat, dark pigtails a tug.
"Hi, Karen-I mean Miss Hudson," Jennifer said, with an exaggerated wink.
"Yes, around here, my first name is Miss," Karen told her, laughing.
"My dad said to tell you that dinner is at six-thirty tonight," Jennifer said, a little too loudly.
"Okay," Karen whispered, leaning over. "I got it."
While she did not intend to tether Jennifer to any secrets, she hoped that her dates with Michael would remain private for as long as possible-and unavailable as fodder among the gossip groupies in their small town. Chawell, located in the dry sloping hills of California ten miles north of the Mexican border, weighed in with just under 5,000 residents, and it was gossip that sustained the idle minded in a town where there was little else to do. A schoolteacher dating a classroom parent made for a tasty tidbit of news, and considering the impressive ability of children to share information, probably already had. She looked into Jennifer's upturned face and sighed in resignation.
"Six-thirty, then," she added, smiling. "I'll be there with bells on."
"Okay, you come with bells, then," Jennifer said, her eyes lighting up, "and I'll bring the whistles. Get it? Bells and whistles."
"Oh, clever child, get to your seat before I blow my whistle on you," Karen said, shaking her head in mock derision. Jennifer muffled a laugh and gave Karen another squeeze, refusing to let go. The bell rang for the class to begin. Karen gently unwrapped Jennifer's arms and pointed her in the direction of her seat. "Go on, Jen," she said, giving her a little push.
As Jennifer headed to her seat, she looked back at Karen. A look of anguish rose swiftly to her face and revealed itself, like a wink, disappearing as quickly as it arrived. Karen blinked. What was that? Was she okay? Maybe she didn't like being rushed to her seat…although that didn't sound like her. Jennifer loved approval and cooperation-a schoolteacher's dream child.
As the children settled into quiet attention, she decided that Jennifer would let her know if something were wrong-she usually did. She relaxed and began the lesson.
The day hurtled by, as usual, and Karen found herself dismissing the children before she was ready at the end of the school day. They left in a flurry of activity, the lesson only half done. She would pick it up again first thing in the morning, while it was still fresh in their minds. She smiled as she watched them pile out the door, waving and calling to each other.
Copyright © 2005 Ann Durand