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The first time Sarah saw the name on her class roster, she felt shock unlike anything she'd felt in years roll through her.
Not that daunting of a name, really. It surely suited the dark-haired eight-year-old boy who'd soon be joining her third-grade class. She had made a point of not looking at the boy's picture, even though she was perfectly aware that there was one. It was framed in a plain gold frame that sat on his grandmother's desk in the classroom right next to Sarah's classroom. Genna Scalise often talked about her grandson, Eli.
Sarah hadn't expected to ever be the boy's teacher, though.
She set aside the roster on her desk and went to the window that overlooked the playground. Frost still clung to the exterior corners and she could feel the coolness of the pane radiating from it. Outside, the bell hadn't yet rung and children were clambering over the swings and jungle gym. Winter scarves flew in the breeze and boots crunched over the crispy skiff of snow scattered across the playground.
Despite the cold, they were enjoying the last few minutes of freedom before they had to settle down into their seats. Until they broke for recess in a few hours, that was.
Nothing like feeling carefree.
She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt as carefree as they looked.
Which wasn't strictly true. She could probably pick the exact date on the calendar when she'd stopped feeling carefree.
Her gaze slid to the class roster. "So, why didn't you tell me the news?, The chipper female voice drew her attention to the doorway of her classroom.
"Hey, Dee. What news?"
"About the new deputy." Deirdre Crowder was the sixth-grade teacher and at five-foot-nothing, she was about as big as a minute. Her blue eyes were mischievous. "He works for your uncle, girl, but you could have shared the wealth. A new, single man suddenly in town and all that. If it were the week before Christmas rather than Thanksgiving, I'd consider him to be our very own Christmas present!"
Sarah now had years of practice under her belt at keeping her true thoughts to herself. "Go for it," she said with a smile. "He's my new student's father. And you know I don't get involved with my kids" fathers."
Dee's eyebrows lifted as she sauntered into the room. Her shoulder-length blond hair seemed to crackle with the energy that kept it curled in loose ringlets. "I may have only come to Weaver a year ago, but as far as I can tell, you don't get involved with anyone. What's with you?, She joined Sarah at the window. "If I had your looks I'd be dating every available man in town."
"There is nothing wrong with your looks," Sarah countered. She'd heard Dee's opinion plenty in the months since school had begun in August. "Deputy Tommy Potter thinks they're about perfect."
"Oh, Tommy." Dee shook her head, dismissively.
"Unless he was going to arrest me for something, or wants to spread a little gossip, that boy moves about as slow as molasses in winter. He has no gumption." She pushed up the sleeves of her bright red sweater and pointed out the window. "Since it might as well be winter, with all that snow on the ground, you can just imagine the snail's pace I'm talking about."
Sarah's lips curved. "You're the one who moved to a small town, Dee. Could have stayed in Cheyenne where the pickings were more varied."
Dee pressed her nose against the cold windowpane, looking not much older than the children playing outside. "Have you met him? The new deputy, I mean? I heard he comes from Weaver."
If Sarah hadn't been prepared to see that name on her class roster, she definitely wasn't prepared to discuss her new student's father. "He left Weaver a long time ago."
"Yeah, but you did know him, right? Most everyone in Weaver seems to know everyone else."
"Maybe by sight," Sarah allowed. Though the Clay family had its history with the Scalise familyhistory that had nothing to do with her experience with him. "Talk to Genna," she suggested. "She's his mother. She could tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Max."
Her throat tightened.
At the mention of Genna, the most senior teacher at Weaver Elementary, Dee turned her back on the window. "How's she healing up, anyway?"
"Fine, last I heard." Sarah felt a little guilty that she didn't know more. That she hadn't made a more concerted effort to visit Genna herself. After all, they were coworkers and had been since Sarah began teaching at Weaver Elementary nearly six years ago. Genna was a friend of her mother's. Her aunts!
"What was she doing skiing at her age, anyway? It's no wonder she broke some bones."
"Anyone can have a skiing accident, even someone who's barely twenty-five," Sarah said pointedly.
Dee grinned impishly and rolled her eyes. But Sarah was spared her comment when the bell rang, sharp and shrill.
"To the salt mine," Dee said, heading for the classroom door. "Want to head over to Classic Charms one night this week? See if Tara's got anything new in?"
Sarah nodded. The children outside had scattered like leaves on the wind when the bell rang, and now she could hear footsteps ringing on the tile floor in the corridor. "Sure." affixed high on the wall and noted before he'd be tardy. Not that with a brand-new student on his
that much a stickler for the rules.
Ordinarily those sounds, this classroom, felt safe to Sarah.
But not today.
Would he bring Eli?
Between her fingers, the chalk snapped into pieces. Squelching an impatient sound, she picked them off the floor, and rapidly finished writing as the final bell rang.
No Eli Scalise.
As she'd done every morning at the beginning of the school day, she moved across the room and closed the door. Regardless of her feelings about her new student and his presenceor lack of itshe had a class to teach.
She turned back to her students, raising her voice enough to get everyone's attention. "How many of you saw the double-rainbow yesterday?"
A bunch of hands shot up into the air. And the lessons of the day began.
"Why do I gotta go to school?"
Eli sighed mightily. "But you said we were going to go back to California."
"Not for months yet."
Max Scalise pulled open the passenger door of the SUV he'd been assigned by Sawyer Clay, the sheriff. They were already late, thanks to a conference call he'd had to take about a recent case of his. "In."
His son, Eli, made a face, but tossed his brown-bag lunch and dark blue backpack inside before climbing up on the seat.
"Fasten the belt."
The request earned Max another pulled face. He shut the door and headed around to the driver's side.As he went, his eyes automatically scanned the area around them.
But there was nothing out of the ordinary. Just bare-branched trees. Winter-dry lawns not quite covered by snow. A few houses lined neatly along the street, all of them closed up tight against the chill. Only one of them had smoke coming from the chimneyhis mother's house that they'd just left.
Genna was as comfortably situated as she could get in the family room, where Max had lit the fire in the fireplace as she'd requested. She had her heavy cast propped on pillows, a stack of magazines, a pot of her favorite tea, the television remote and a cordless phone.
Outside the houses, though, there were no particular signs of life.
His breath puffed out around his head in white rings and cold air snuck beneath the collar of his dark brown departmental jacket.
God, he hated the cold.
He climbed in the truck. "I could-a stayed in California with Grandma Helene," Eli continued the minute Max's rear hit the seat.
"What's wrong with your grandmother here?, He made a U-turn and headed down the short hop to Main Street.
Eli hunched his shoulders. The coat he wore was a little too big for him. Max had picked up the cold-weather gear on their way to the airport. There hadn't been a lot of time for fine fitting. "Nuthin!," his son muttered. "But she always visited us out there. How come we gotta come here this time?"
"You happen to notice that big old cast on Grandma's leg?, Max drove past the station house and turned once again, onto the street leading to the school. It took all of three minutes, maybe, given the significant distance.
The closer they got to the brick building that hadn't changed a helluva lot since the days when Max had run the halls, the more morose Eli became. If his boy slouched any more in his seat, he'd hang himself on the seatbelt.
"Look at the bright side," Max said. "You won't be bored."
Eli's eyesas dark blue as Jennifer's had been rolled. "Rather be bored back home than bored in there." He jerked his chin toward the building.
Max pulled into the parking lot and stopped near the main entrance. "Don't roll your eyes." Donna, the school secretary, had told him when he'd faxed in the registration forms from California that the office was just inside the main front doors. A different location than he'd remembered from his days there.
"Do they have an after-school program?"
Eli was used to one in Californiatwo supervised hours of sports and games that had never managed to produce completed homework the way it should have.
Eli heaved a sigh. "I hate it here."