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Something was badly amiss in the Texas public school system: Hanna Rosser's straight-A son did not participate in fistfights.
Hanna pulled into the parents' parking lot of Marble Falls Elementary and tried to keep her cool as a motorcycle roared into the spot she'd been eyeing. Calmly she parked her white Volvo SUV two spaces down and tried not to notice how the tight denim hugged the guy's long legs as he slid off the macho contraption and headed up the sidewalk, unbuckling his helmet.
Trade the helmet for a Stetson and the Harley for a stallion and he'd epitomize the phrase long, tall Texan. Six feet and some change, dirty cowboy boots and a swagger that said he couldn't care less what anyone else thought.
Slinging the helmet by the leather strap, he jabbed his fingers through his disheveled hair and then opened the heavy glass door. He stepped back, allowing her to precede him into the hall. For each of his long strides Hanna made two, her heels tapping on the shiny waxed tile in her rush toward the office.
Ashton's first day in a public school and he'd been involved in a fistfight? This couldn't be happening.
She reached for the metal handle of the office door, and again, Mr. Tight Jeans leaned around and held it open for her.
Deep dimples bracketed his mouth. "After you, ma'am." His voice held the same interesting mix of smooth and tough as his jeans.
Leading the way into the office, she wondered if this man's bully son was the one who'd taken a swing at Ashton. Fighting hadn't been an issue in Ashton's private school back in Dallas. She'd certainly brought him up to know better than to strike another child.
The secretary stood and nodded. "Ms. Rosser. Vince."
Vince? Hanna glanced at him from the corner of her eye as he flashed those killer dimples at the little redhead behind the desk. This guy was on a first-name basis? Oh yeah, undoubtedly his son had been picking on the new sixth-grader.
"Please take a seat. We're just waiting on one more parent, and then Principal Montgomery will see you."
Vince stood until Hanna sat, and then folded his long, lanky frame into a matching wooden chair, placing his black-and-silver helmet on the one between them with a clunk. She inched farther away as Vince crossed one leg over the other, his giant cowboy boot further staking his claim on the center chair.
Please God, don't let Ashton's asthma have flared up. Was her baby boy okay? Richard would have a hemorrhage if any harm had come to his son.
A photocopier occupied one corner of the office, copying, collating and stapling, the noise adding to her nervousness and humiliation during the excruciating wait to go before the principal. The entire experience made her feel as guilty as if she'd been the one called to the office instead of her child.
"So who is the other parent?" Vince asked the secretary.
"William Baer." She shuffled papers on her desk and looked up as the door creaked and a stocky male entered the office. Even sporting a company emblem on the breast pocket, Mr. Baer's navy golf shirt and tan Dockers looked more respectable than Vince's denim ensemble.
Vince stood and shook his hand. "Hey, Will."
Hanna smoothed her skirt as she stood, uncomfortable with the way Mr. Baer's gaze roamed up and down her frame.
He extended his hand. "William Baer, ma'am. I don't believe I've had the pleasure."
Accepting the overly zealous handshake, she almost choked on his sweet aftershave. "Hanna Rosser. We just moved to the area this weekend."
"Well, I must say, you're a most welcome asset to Marble Falls."
Vince cleared his throat and for the first time actually seemed to notice Hanna's appearance. Without comment, he turned his attention back to the secretary. "So, what's the problem?"
She punched a button on the phone and within moments Principal Montgomery stepped out. Hanna had met the woman literally six hours earlier when she'd enrolled Ashton. Approximately forty, tiny, rather attractive in a no-nonsense sort of way. Short blond hair tucked behind her ears, black slacks and a bright-red blazer. "Please, step into my office."
Both men stood, allowing Hanna to walk between them before entering.
Principal Montgomery nodded to each as they entered. "Ms. Rosser. Mr. Baer. Mr. Keegan."
Hanna did a double-take at the girl sitting between Ashton and the other boy, as if separating the boys so they wouldn't throw more punches.
Hanna rushed to Ashton, scanning him for any injuries. She gasped and ran her finger over the caked blood at the corner of his split lip. Jerking away, Ashton scowled and glanced at the other two kids.
Taking the hint, Hanna pulled her hand back, still assessing the damage. One shirtsleeve had been half ripped from the seam, Ashton's lip was swollen and his dark hair was a mess, but he held the ice pack in his hand, not to his lip. At least, his breathing wasn't labored, and there was no wheezing.
Afraid she'd embarrass him further, Hanna resisted the urge to pick the sprigs of grass out of his dark curls.
Taking a stance behind Ashton, Hanna watched the men as they waited for the case to be presented and Principal Montgomery to deliver her verdict.
"Who wants to speak first?" the principal asked the children.
Mr. Baer turned to the pudgy boy. "Billy, did you start this?"
"No way. I was just minding my own business."
"So who hit who?" Mr. Baer demanded.
Billy shrugged and looked sheepish.
Hanna couldn't imagine that Ashton had hit him at all, much less first. "Did you strike this boy?"
Ashton mimicked Billy's sheepish shrug. "Not first."
"So who threw the first punch?" Principal Montgomery asked.
Ashton cut his eyes sideways at the girl while Billy shuffled his dirty sneakers.
Mr. Tight Jean's gaze landed on the girl with the falling-down ponytail and grungy jeans. "You're unusually quiet, Mackenzie."
The girl stood and placed her hands on her slim hips. She had a good three inches on either boy. "He asked for it."
"Nuh-uh." Billy leaned into her face. "You hit me first. I don't hit no girls, not unless they punch me first."
Ashton stood to the side while the other two faced off.
"Mackenzie, did you hit Billy?" Vince asked.
"He's a yellow-bellied scum reptile, Dad. He's always picking on people who won't fight back just so's he feels tough."
Hanna stared at father and daughter. Both tall and slender with the same sandy-blond hair, Mackenzie's only a shade lighter than her father's. Even their honey-tanned complexions matched.
Mackenzie's left eye sported a darkening bruise, but her father didn't seem overly concerned. Hooking his thumbs in his pockets, Vince raised an eyebrow at Mackenzie. "Was Billy picking on you?" The guy's eyes were the same blue-denim color of his jeans as he matched stares with his rebellious daughter.
She didn't back down. "He knows better than to mess with me, but he figured Ashton was fair game showing up in church clothes and all." She flipped her bedraggled hair behind her shoulder and glared at Billy. "Didn't count on getting whipped by no girl when you picked on my friend, though, did ya?"
With a bruise on his chin, the remains of dried blood in his nose, on his upper lip and down the front of his dirty white T-shirt, Billy had obviously taken the worst of the beating. But he too held his ice pack in his hand instead of to his bruised face.
"Billy?" his father asked, but Hanna couldn't decide whether his perplexed expression had more to do with his boy hitting a girl or being bested by one.
"It weren't no fair fight. Two against one. They ganged up on me."
Glancing at Ashton, Hanna was stunned that her son's bruised lip actually snarled as he took his spot beside Mackenzie, toe to toe with Billy. "Don't mess with me if you don't want to fight."
"Ashton!" What had happened to her mild-mannered son? "Sit down."
William turned to Vince. "So what are we going to do about this?"
Vince slanted a grin and jabbed his fingers through his sandy hair, only tousling it more than it already was from the helmet. "Maybe you should warn your boy not to tangle with my daughter."
Was he insane? Holding her breath, Hanna waited for the other shoe to drop. Her friend's son in Dallas had once had charges filed against him for hitting another boy on the soccer field, and they'd ended up in court. The boy had received forty hours' community service. Just the kind of ammunition her ex could use in court to make his case that Ashton would be better off in Dallas with him and his new girlfriend.
Instead of the anger she'd expected, William Baer simply rubbed his forehead and grinned.
Both men were morons to make a joke out of this.
The principal motioned for the kids to sit as she remained behind her desk. "Totally unacceptable behavior. Billy and Mackenzie, you two are in this office way too frequently. Ashton, as you're new here, I'm going to withhold judgment. But you're starting out on shaky ground. You're all assigned to ISS for the remainder of the week. Tomorrow morning you will report to the office, collect your assignments and proceed to the library. In addition, I expect a five-page report from each of you by Friday on how you're going to learn that violence doesn't solve problems and how to get along. There will be no more incidents. Understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," Ashton said, but he flashed Mackenzie a conspiratorial grin.
Billy shuffled his feet. "I promise."
Mackenzie returned Ashton's grin. "Okay. As long as you make Bully Baer sit at a different table."
The early-spring wind popped the flag and clanged the cable against the flagpole in front of the school as Hanna shuffled Ashton toward the SUV. She couldn't believe he'd actually gotten into trouble, much less a fistfight. At least nobody had mentioned involving the police. She folded the form she'd received explaining In School Suspension and the possible consequences if this did not resolve the behavior issue.
Now that the divorce was finalized, she was fighting to regain control of her own life. She hadn't expected her control of Ashton to be tested so quickly.
Vince and Mackenzie stood on the sidewalk beside the macho motorcycle, both holding helmets. Was he actually going to drive his daughter home on that unsafe vehicle?
Ashton waved goodbye to Mackenzie, but Hanna pointedly ignored Vince Keegan. With any luck, Ashton's friendship with Mackenzie would run its course quickly. Hanna had hoped he'd pick his friends more wisely.
He carefully placed his backpack in the backseat and buckled his seat belt. "Sorry, Mom."
Staring in the rearview mirror at those deep-brown eyes, she wanted to reach back and ruffle his curls the way she did when he was little. "I'm sorry you had such a horrible first day."
"It wasn't that bad, just some of the boys kept messing with me. Walking by my desk and knocking my pencil off. No real biggy. Morning recess was okay. I was talking to Ms. Jones. But at lunch, I didn't have anybody to sit with so I found a seat at one end of a table when Billy and these other guys crowded me. Billy knocked my milk over into my plate. He said he was sorry, but his grin was all full of meanness and the other boys laughed like it was a big joke."
"I'm so sorry, sweetie." Hanna stopped at a four-way intersection and looked back at Ashton.
He shrugged. "That wasn't so bad, either. But then at afternoon recess Billy kept calling me names, and Ms. Jones wasn't noticing since she was talking to another teacher."
Visibly brightening, Ashton continued. "So I'm standing there wondering what to do, and Mackenzie swoops in like Wonder Woman. She shoves Billy and tells him to back off. He shoves back, and I don't know who hit who, but I couldn't just stand there like a wuss and let a girl fight my battle, you know? So Billy grabbed Mackenzie's ponytail, and I socked him in the nose." Ashton's eyes sparkled with pure male elation. "Blood spurted out like a fountain, just like in the movies. It was cool. He swung back and busted my lip against my tooth, but it didn't hurt much."
"Ashton, I do understand. But this behavior cannot continue. You should resolve your problems with your words and not with your fists. No exceptions. No excuses. Okay?" She didn't mention that his lawyer father would twist such incidents to seal his argument that Ashton belonged in Dallas. "Your asthma didn't flare?"
"No, Mom. Anyway, I had my inhaler."
As they pulled away from the intersection, Ashton pointed to the Super Wal-Mart. "I need some new clothes before tomorrow."
Snapping her gaping mouth shut, Hanna wondered who this boy was and what he had done with her son. "You want to buy clothes at Wal-Mart?" She hadn't been in a Wal-Mart in fifteen years. To her knowledge, Ashton had never set foot inside one.
"Yeah. Mackenzie said they have jeans. I want the kind that looks like you've been playing in them already. And she said you can buy three-packs of T-shirts."
OhmyGod. "We can get you some jeans and shirts at the mall this weekend."
"No!" He looked frightened, almost horrified at the thought of waiting four more days. "I have to have Wal-Mart clothes tomorrow or Bully Baer will smear me all over the playground."
Wal-Mart. She cringed at Ashton's ruined polo shirt. She hadn't thought twice about paying fifty dollars for that shirt at the Galleria last summer. Only three days living back in Marble Falls and she was already considering updating her son's designer wardrobe at Wal-Mart? Would Bluebonnet Books ever generate enough profit that she could again afford to buy her son designer clothes?
Punching Billy Baer! Vince followed Kenzie's little red electric bicycle into the garage and parked the Harley next to it. They both slid off and placed their helmets on the respective seats. It amused him that she mimicked everything he did. He tugged on her ponytail as she adjusted her backpack. She wrapped her arm around his waist, he wrapped his around her shoulders, and they headed across the backyard playing their game of trying to see who could put their foot in front of the other one as they walked.
He watched her small sneaker jab in front of his boot in the tall grass and figured he'd better mow tonight or old Mrs. Haythorn would be over here cutting the lawn for him.
Boo stretched his paws out in front of him and yawned from his afternoon nap, his rear end straight up in the air and tail wagging in excitement as they climbed the three stone steps onto the back porch. Kenzie turned Vince loose and squatted, throwing her arms around the gigantic red beast. "Hey there, Boo. You should've been at school today. Bully Baer was a total dweeb again."
She giggled as Boo's long pink tongue lolled out and licked her neck in unconditional adoration.