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Tears. Books thrown. And pencils. Breakage. Name-calling. Screaming. Hair-pulling. It was like a scene from a bad marriage or the kind of drama that a reality television show adored, rife with mayhem, conflicts, conspiracies.
But it wasn't a bad marriage, or bad TV.
It was Morgan McGuire's life, and it didn't help one bit that each of the perpetrators in today's drama had been under four feet tall. The day had culminated with a twenty-one-child "dog pile on the rabbit."
It was the kind of day they had failed to prepare her for at teacher's college, Morgan, first-year first-grade teacher, thought mournfully.
And somehow, fair or not, in her mind, it was all his fault.
Nate Hathoway, father of Cecilia Hathoway, the child who had been at the very center of every single kerfuffle today, including being the rabbit in that unfortunate dog pile.
Now, Morgan McGuire paused and stared at the sign in front of her. Hathoway's Forge. Her heart was beating hard, and it wasn't just from the walk from school, either.
Don't do it, her fellow teacher Mary Beth Adams had said when Morgan had asked her at lunch if she thought she should go beard the lion in his den.
Or the devil at his fire, as the case might be.
"But he's ignoring my notes. He hasn't signed the permission slip for Cecilia"
Morgan sighed. "Ace. Her real name's Cecilia. I think she needs something feminine in her life, including her name. That was what the first fight this morning was about. Her hairstyle."
Not that the haircut was that new, but today there had been a very unusual new styling for the haircut. How could he have let her out of the house looking like that?
"And then," Morgan continued, "one of the kids overheard me ask her about the permission slip to be in The Christmas Angel. She didn't have it."
The production of The Christmas Angel was descending on Canterbury, Connecticut.
The town had been chosen by the reclusive, aging troubadour Wesley Wellhaven for his second annual Christmas extravaganza.
The fact that Mr. Wellhaven would be using local childrenthe first graders would be his backup choir if Cecilia managed to get her permission slip signedhad whipped the children into a frenzy of excitement and dramatic ambition.
"Morgan, rehearsals are starting next week! Mrs. Wellhaven is arriving to supervise the choir!" Mary Beth said this urgently, as if the fact could have somehow bypassed her fellow teacher.
"I know. And I already told the class that we are all doing it, or none of us is doing it."
"That was foolish," Mary Beth said. "Can't Ace Hathoway just sit in the hall and read a book while the rest of the children rehearse?"
"No!" Morgan was aghast at the suggestion. But meanwhile, poor Cecilia was being seen as the class villain because she was the only one with no permission slip. "If I don't talk to him, Cecilia is going to continue to suffer."
Mary Beth shook her head. "Just let her sit in the hall."
"It's not just the permission slip. I have to address some other issues."
"You know that expression about going where angels fear to tread? That would be particularly true of Hathoway's Forge. Nate wasn't Mr. Sunshine and Light before his wife died. Now " Mary Beth's voice trailed away and then she continued. "It's not entirely Nate's fault, anyway. Kids always get high-strung around Christmas. It's hitting early because of all the hoopla around the whole Christmas Angel thing."
Naturally, Morgan had chosen to ignore Mary Beth's well-meaning advice about going to visit Nate Hathoway.
Now, taking a deep breath, she turned off the pavement and up the winding gravel driveway, lined by trees, now nearly naked of leaves. The leaves, yellow and orange, crunched under her feet, sending up clouds of tart aroma.
Morgan came to a white house, cozy and cottagelike, amongst a grove of trees. It was evident to her that while once it had been well loved, now it looked faintly neglected. The flower beds had not grown flowers this year, but weeds, now depressingly dead. Indigo paint, that once must have looked lively and lovely against the white, was peeling from the shutters, the window trim and the front door that was set deep under a curved arch.
Despite the fact light was leeching from the late-afternoon autumn air, there were no lights on in the house.
Morgan knew Cecilia was at the after-school program.
The road continued on to a building beyond the house. It dwarfed the house, a turn-of-the-century stone barn, but a chimney belched smoke, and light poured out the high upper windows. Morgan realized it was the forge.
She drew nearer to it. A deep, solid door, under a curved arch that mirrored the one on the house, had a sign on it.
That was the kind of unfriendly message, when posted on a door, that one should probably pay strict attention to.
But Morgan hadn't come this far to go away. She drew a deep breath, stepped forward and knocked on the door. And was ignored.
She was absolutely determined she was not going to be ignored by this man anymore! She knocked again, and then, when there was no answer, turned the handle and stepped in.
She was not sure what she expected: smoke, darkness, fire, but the cavernous room was large and bright. What was left of the day's natural light was flowing in windows high up the walls, supplemented by huge shop lights.
In a glance she saw whiskey-barrel bins close to the door full of black wrought iron fireplace pokers and ash shovels, an army of coat holders, stacks of pot racks. Under different circumstances, she would have looked at the wares with great interest.
Nate Hathoway, she had learned since coming to Canterbury, had a reputation as one of the finest artistic blacksmiths in the world.
But today, her gaze went across the heated room to where a fire burned in a great hearth, a man in front of it.
His back was to her, and even though Morgan suspected he had heard her knock, and even heard her enter, he did not turn.
From the back, he was a breathtaking specimen. Dark brown hair, thick and shiny, scraped where a leather apron was looped around his neck over a denim shirt. His shoulders were huge and wide, tapering perfectly down to a narrow waist, where the apron was tied. Faded jeans rode low on nonexistent hips, hugged the slight swell of a perfect masculine butt.
Even though his name was whispered with a kind of reverence by every single female Morgan had encountered in Canterbury, she felt unprepared for the pure presence of him, for that masculine something that filled the air around him.
She felt as if the air was being sucked from her lungs and she debated just leaving quietly before he turned.
Then she chided herself for such a weak thought. She was here for the good of a six-year-old child who needed her intervention.
And she was so over being swayed by the attractions of men. A bitter breakup with her own fiancé after she'd had the audacity to consider the jobher own career in Canterbury still stung. Karl had been astonished that she would consider the low-paid teaching position in the tiny town, then openly annoyed that his own high-powered career didn't come first. For both of them.
Morgan was making a new start here. No more stars in her eyes, no more romantic notions.
Her mother, whom Morgan had thought liked Karl, had actually breathed a sigh of relief at Morgan's breakup news.
Darling, I do wish you'd quit looking for a father figure. It makes me feel so guilty.
Not guilty enough, however, to postpone her vacation to Thailand so they could spend Christmas together. In lieu of sympathy over her daughter's failed engagement her mother had given her a book.
It was called Bliss: The Extraordinary Joy of Being a Single Woman.
Surprisingly, given that she had initially resented the book being given to her in the place of some parental direction about how to handle a breakup, Morgan found she was thoroughly enjoying Bliss.
It confirmed for Morgan the absolute rightness of her making the break, learning to rely only on herself to feel good. Not her boyfriend. And not her mother, either.
Two and a half months into her teaching career and her new location in Canterbury, Morgan loved making her own decisions, living in her own home, even buying the groceries she liked without living in the shadow of a nose wrinkling in disapprovalDo you know how many grams of sugar this has in it?
Just as Bliss had promised, every day of being an independent woman who answered to no one but herself felt like a new adventure.
But now, as the man at the forge turned to her, Morgan was stunned to find she had no idea at all what the word adventure meant.
Though something in the buccaneer blackness of his eyes promised he knew all about adventures so dark and mysterious they could make a woman quiver.
One who wasn't newly dedicated to independent living.
Morgan fervently reminded herself of her most recent joythe absolute freedom of picking out the funky purple sofa that Karl, and possibly her mother, too, would have hated. Amelia Ainsworthy, author of Bliss, had dedicated a whole chapter of the book to furniture selection and Morgan felt she had done her proud.
But now that moment seemed far less magical as this man, Nate Hathoway, stood regarding her, his eyes made blacker by the flicker of the firelight, his brows drawn down in a fierce lack of welcome that echoed the sign on the door, his stance the stance of a warrior. Hard. Cynical. Unwavering.
One hand, sinewy with strength, held a pair of tongs, metal glowed orange-hot at the end of them.
Morgan felt her breath catch in her throat.
Cecilia's father, Nate Hathoway, with his classic features, strong cheekbones, flawless nose, chiseled jaw, sensuously full lips, was easily the most handsome man she had ever set eyes on.
"Can't you read?" he growled at her. "I'm not open to the public."
His voice was rough, impatient and impossibly sexy.
It shivered across the back of Morgan's neck like a touch.
Ignoring her, he placed the hot iron on an anvil, took a hammer and plied his strength to it. She watched, dazed, at the ripple of disciplined muscle as he forced the iron to his will. His will won, with ease.
"Um, Mr. Hathoway, I can read, and I'm not the public. I'm Cecilia's teacher."
The silence was long. Finally, his sigh audible, he said, "Ah. Mrs. McGuire." He shot her a look that seemed uncomfortably hostile and returned his attention to the metal. He doused it in a bath. It sizzled and hissed as it hit, and he turned his eyes back to her, assessing.
Maybe it was just because they were so dark that they seemed wicked, eyes that would belong to a highwayman, or a pirate, or an outlaw, not to the father of a fragile six-year-old girl.
Morgan drew in a deep breath. It was imperative that she remember the errand that had brought her here. The permission slip for Cecilia to participate in The Christmas Angel was in her coat pocket.
"It's Miss, actually. The kids insist on Mrs. I corrected them for the first few days, but I'm afraid I've given up. Everybody over the age of twenty-one is Mrs. to a six-year-old. Particularly if she's a teacher."
She felt as if she was babbling. She realized, embarrassed, that it sounded as if she needed him to know she was single. Which she didn't, Amelia forgive her!
"Miss McGuire, then," he said, not a flicker in that stern face showing the slightest interest in her marital status.
He folded those muscular, extremely enticing arms over the massiveness of his chest, rocked back on his heels, regarded her coolly, waiting, the impatience not even thinly veiled.
"Morgan," she said. Why was she inviting him to call her by her first name? She told herself it was to see if she could get the barrier down in his eyes. Her mission here was already doomed if she could not get past that.
But part of her knew that wasn't the total truth. The total truth was that she did not want to be seen only as the new first-grade teacher, and all that implied, such as boring and prim. Part of her, weak as that part was, was clamoring for this man to see her as a woman.
There was an Amelia Ainsworthy in her head frowning at her with at least as much disapproval as Karl ever had!
But that's what the devil did. Tempted. And looking at his lips, stern, unyielding, but somehow as sensual as his voice, she felt the most horrible shiver of temptation.
"It's obvious to me Cecilia is a child who is loved," Morgan said. It sounded rehearsed. It was rehearsed, and thank goodness she'd had the foresight to rehearse something, or despite her disciplined nightly reading of Bliss, Morgan would be standing here struck dumb by his gorgeousness and the fact he exuded male power.
Now, she wished she had rehearsed something without the word love in it.
Because isn't that what fallen angels like the man in front of her did? Tempted naive women to believe maybe love could soften something in that hard face, that maybe love could heal something that had broken?
He said nothing, but if she had hoped to soften him by telling him she knew he loved his daughter, it had not succeeded. The lines around his mouth deepened in an expression of impenetrable cynicism.
"Cecilia has the confidence and quickness of a child sure of her place in the world." Originally, Morgan had planned on saying something about that quickness being channeled somewhere other than Cecilia's fists, but now she decided to save that for a later meeting.
Which assumed there would be a later meeting, not that anything in his face encouraged such an assumption.
She had also planned on saying something like in light of the fact her mother had died, Cecilia's confidence and brightness spoke volumes of the parent left behind. But somehow, her instinct warned her not to speak of the death of his wife.
Though nothing in his body language, in the shuttered eyes, invited her to continue, Morgan pressed on, shocked that what she said next had nothing to do with the permission slip for The Christmas Angel.
"It's the mechanics of raising a child, and probably particularly a girl child, that might be the problem for you, Mr. Hathoway."
It's none of your business, Mary Beth had warned her dourly when Morgan had admitted she might broach the subject while she was there about the permission slip. You're here to teach, not set up family counseling services.
Morgan did not think sending the odd note home qualified as family counseling services. Though Nate Hathoway's failure to respond to the notes should have acted as warning to back off, rather than invitation to step in.