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The soothing voice of the GPS rolled into Al-thea Johnson's car, and she maneuvered her vehicle as directed, onto the snow-covered Main Street of Worthington, Pennsylvania. The week after Thanksgiving, the little town sparkled with the spirit of Christmas. Tinsel connected to telephone poles looped above the street. Huge evergreen wreaths decorated with shiny multicolored ornaments covered the top half of shop doors. Silver bells glistened in the sun that managed to peek through the falling snow.
But as quickly as she entered the tiny town, she exited. The GPS stayed silent so she continued up the winding road and climbed a tree-covered mountain.
Up and up she went for a good ten minutes, causing her palms to sweat as her car just barely chugged through the wet snow. Positive she'd missed an exit, she was about to look for a place to turn around when the GPS sang out, "In thirty feet, turn left."
With a sigh of relief, she braked slowly, carefully. She'd learned to drive in Maryland winters, but she'd spent the past twelve years in sunny Southern California. Her car didn't have snow tires and her driving skills were a bit rusty.
Braking again, she guided her little red car down a short lane lined with snow-coated pine trees. A huge Victorian house came into view. A pewter-colored SUV had been parked haphazardly in the driveway. A man reached in and pulled grocery bags out of the open hatch. Snow fell on him like cotton balls from heaven, covering his shoulders and back, and icing the evergreens that ringed his property. A big black dog bounced around him. A little girl clung to the hem of his jacket.
That's the word that came to Althea's mind. She stopped her car, pushed open the door and slid out. The big dog bounded over with a "Woof." In one quick movement, he jumped on his hind legs, his paws landed on her shoulders and she fell backward into the snow.
Cold seeped through the back of her lightweight jeans and Southern-California hoodie. Huge white flakes billowed down on her.
Trapped by the dogwho had his paws on her chest as if he were holding her down until the police could get thereshe only saw boots rapidly approaching.
The man gave the dog a nudge. The beast bounced off with another "Woof!"
He extended his hand. "Let me help you up."
She gaped at him. His face was perfect with a straight nose, angled cheekbones and the tint of five o'clock shadow, even though it was only noon. "Did you just call me crazy?"
"The dog's name is Crazy. Her given name is Crazy Dog. If she had a birth certificate that's what would be on it."
She came up so fast that she stopped inches away from his nose. This close, she could see his whiskey-brown eyes that perfectly matched his light brown hair.
"You named your dog Crazy Dog?"
He stepped back, putting some space between them. "After the way she knocked you down, I would think you wouldn't be surprised."
She laughed again. Cold air filled her lungs. She slapped her hands together to remove the snow.
"Let me get your back."
The words were barely out of his mouth before he turned her around and brushed the snow off her back and then did a quick sweep over her bottom.
"If this stuff melts on your clothes you'll be wet all afternoon."
Her nerve endings tingled. Her breath stuttered in and out. The intimacy of it should have made her indignant. Instead, it felt surprisingly normal. This was a man who saw a problem and fixed it. For him, his brushing her butt was nothing more serious than that. For her.. well, she hadn't had a man touch her in years. So even that simple brush zinged through her and sent the wrong kind of warmth careening through her bloodstream.
She pivoted to face him. "I'm fine. You don't have to brush anymore."
"That big, stupid dog should know her place." His eyes narrowed as he looked at her hoodie and jeans. "I'm hoping you have a coat in the car."
"I'm from Southern California." Funny how easy that came out of her mouth when really she was "from" right down the road. Newland, Maryland, was only fifty or so miles away from the green hills of Pennsylvania, where Clark Beaumont lived.
"California?" He stepped back. "Are you Al-thea Johnson?"
"In the snow-covered flesh." She extended her hand to shake his. "I take it you're Clark Beaumont."
He caught her hand, gave one quick pump and pulled back. "I thought you weren't coming until Friday?"
"Once I told Emily," she said, referring to the mutual friend who had told her about the job and referred her to Clark, "that I would interview with you, I drove straight through."
"You haven't slept?"
"Or really eaten for that matter."
"Wow. This is not your lucky day. Things sort of went to hell in a handbasket around here this morning when the snow started to fall."
She glanced around at the winter wonderland, understanding why he chose to live in this peaceful, beautiful slice of heaven. Even if living this far out of town probably came with complications.
"Don't sweat it. I haven't really had a lucky year." Or a lucky life for that matter, but a few months ago she'd decided not to wallow in self-pity anymore and it had worked. She laughed more. She forgot all about designer labels and getting married. She took one day at a time, did the task in front of her and didn't worry about tomorrow. And her life, even though it came with trouble, had become happier.
"Which is why you were driving back to your hometown?"
"No. I'm driving back to my hometown to see my sister. I'm interviewing for the temp job with you because of the bad year. My teaching position was cut. Rather than wait until I ran out of money and lost my apartment, I decided to go home. My sister owns a company and can give me a job the second I get to Newland, but I don't want to work in a bakery. I want to find a teaching job. And the few thousand dollars I'll make tutoring your son will give me a couple more weeks before I'll have to become a baker out of desperation." Especially since room and board came with the job.
He sniffed a confirming laugh that said he knew all about bad years, temp employment and desperation. But looking at his house, with multiple angles and levels of roofs, green shutters that accented the creamy yellow siding and gingerbread trim along the wraparound porch, she had to wonder if the guy really knew trouble. The house only needed gumdrops and candy canes to be ready for a storybook. People who lived in storybook houses didn't know trouble.
In her head, she snorted in derision. That's what everyone had believed about her family. But behind the walls of their perfect Cape Cod home, their father had ruled with an iron fist. Literally.
Clark's eyes widened. "I'm sorry. You're freezing. Let's go inside." He glanced back at her car. "Do you want me to grab your luggage?"
She smiled politely. "Let's see how the interview goes first."
He winced. "Right. Sorry." He pointed to the house and motioned for her to go before him. "Emily was so sure you'd be a good choice as Jack's homeschool facilitator that I took the liberty of checking the references on the resume you emailed me. So we really are just down to the interview."
"That's good." She walked to the white porch steps and began climbing. The town she'd driven through at the bottom of the mountain had been decked out for Christmas. But this beautiful Victorian house, perfect for a dreamy holiday, didn't have as much as a string of lights along the porch roof.
"With my housekeeper sick for the past week, everything's been a little off-kilter. If I hadn't gone to the grocery store, I wouldn't even be able to offer you coffee." He stopped. "Shoot. I forgot the groceries. You go ahead inside. I'll get them."
She turned around with him. "I'll help."
"And carrying groceries will warm me up."
She followed Clark to his SUV. He pulled out two plastic bags with handles and she took them from him.
"Just go in the front door and follow it back down the hall to the kitchen."
She nodded, but by the time she got to the door in her slippery tennis shoes, Clark was right behind her.
"If you decide to take this job, you'll have to get yourself a pair of boots."
"And a coat. Winters can be brutal here."
The little girl who had been hanging on Clark's coat when she arrived stood in the front foyer. Wearing a pink hooded jacket and little white mittens, she looked both adorable and warm.
"This is Teagan."
The little girl's gaze dipped to the marble floor, so Althea stooped in front of her. "Hey, Teagan."
"Teagan, this is Ms. Johnson. She's the lady interviewing to be Jack's teacher."
Teagan continued to look at the floor.
"It was nice to meet you, Teagan." She rose. Sometimes it was best to give a child her space. Eventually, she'd warm up to her. Kids always did. With a quick smile at Teagan, she continued on to the kitchen.
Clark plopped his bags of groceries on the center island. Dark wood cabinets should have given the room a gloomy feel, but the cheerful white marble countertops and warm oak hardwood floors took care of that. So did the huge windows by the wooden table that provided a spectacular view of the mountains behind the house.
"Thank my wife for that view. She found this land, created the design for this house."
"She's got a real eye for things." She turned from the windows just as a boy of about twelve walked into the kitchen, the big black dog on his heels.
"Dad, did you get that ham I asked for?" When he saw Althea, he stopped dead in his tracks.
"Yes, I got the ham." He faced Althea. "Althea, that's my son, Jack." He turned to Jack. "Jack, this is Althea Johnson. As soon as I get these groceries put away I'm going to interview her to see if she can become your new teacher."
Taking a bag of cans to the pantry, Clark continued putting away the groceries. Big black dog by his side, Jack stood where he'd stopped, sizing her up.
Usually she wasn't afraid of a twelve-year-old boy, especially not one so handsome. Shaggy brown hair and big brown eyes like his dad's gave him an angelic choir-boy appearance. But he also had an odd expression on his face. Almost as if he were strategizing how to get her firedand she hadn't even taken the job.
Clark came out of the pantry. "Okay, I'll make sandwiches. Jack, you finish with the groceries and then I can interview" He stopped, faced Althea again. "I'm sorry. You'd said you hadn't eaten yet."
"Okay, here's what we'll do. I'll make cocoa for the kids and then coffee for us before I make the sandwiches. Jack and Teagan can eat out here. We'll take our lunches into the den and we'll talk while we eat."
She wasn't the kind of person who got cozy so quickly with strangers. But when she'd turned over the new leaf about her life a few months back, she'd promised herself she'd stop being so cautious. Plus she was extremely hungry. The thought of a cup of coffee and a sandwich made her taste buds dance for joy.
Clark walked to the counter, opened a rollaway door and pulled out a coffeemaker. Feeling odd with nothing to do, she said, "I could put on the pot of coffee if you show me how."
On his way to the counter to get the groceries, Jack snorted a laugh. Clark faced her with a smile. "This is a single-serve coffeemaker. I can make two cups of cocoa for the kids and an individual cup of coffee for each of us."
"Oh." And didn't she feel stupid?
While the first cup of cocoa brewed, Clark whipped around the kitchen, gathering bread and ham and retrieving milk for the coffee from the fridge, along with condiments for their sandwiches. Teagan crawled up on one of the stools beside the center island where Clark opened the deli meat and a loaf of bread. The dog clip-clopped over to her, soundlessly parking herself beside Teagan's tall chair. Outside, the snow continued to fall. Big, beautiful white flakes on a huge, silent mountain.
She glanced around. That's what bothered her. It was as quiet in here as it was outside. Jack had put away the few things his father had directed him to, but he said nothing. Teagan sat on one of the tall chairs by the center island, just watching as Clark raced around, going between the cof-feemaker and the refrigerator, gathering things for the sandwiches.
"Can I help with anything?"
"No. No. I'm fine. I'm accustomed to doing this."
Doing what? Getting lunch? Having quiet kids? Being a one-person whirlwind of activity? Because it was Tuesday, Althea suspected his wife was at work. So maybe when she was around everything was noisier?
With the ham, bread and condiments on the center island, Clark motioned for her to come over. "Fix yourself a sandwich while I make Tea-gan's cocoa."
She walked over, put bread on a paper plate and noticed Teagan watching her, her dark brown eyes cautious, curious. "I can make your sandwich first."
The little girl buried her face in the dirty pink bear she held. Though they'd been in the house ten minutes, she still wore her jacket with the hood on her head and her mittens on her hands.
Clark hustled over. She tugged on his shirtsleeve and he leaned down.
She whispered something in his ear.
He said, "Okay," and went back to the coffee/ cocoa maker. "We don't have that flavor."
Her lips turned down in an adorable pout, as she slid her hood off. Her hair was as dark as her eyes. The pale pink coat she wore accented both. As pretty as a princess, she blinked at Althea.
"I can help you with your coat, if you want."
Teagan's gaze whipped to her dad. He walked over with a cup of cocoa. "I'll get her coat. You just finish making your sandwich."
Teagan tugged on his shirtsleeve again. He leaned down. She whispered in his ear.
Baffled, Althea stopped slathering mayonnaise on her bread. Not only did the little girl think it normal to talk only to her dad and only in a whisper, but also Clark was so accustomed to it, he automatically leaned down to listen.
"Sure. We have marshmallows."
She almost asked Clark about it. But she knew kids hated it when adults talked about them as if they weren't in the room. Any minute now she and Clark would go into the den for her interview. She could ask him then. Delicately of course.
"Jack, do you want to make your sandwich now, too, so that I can put all this stuff back in the fridge before we go into the den?"
Jack walked over, grabbed some bread and ham and fixed his sandwich without a word.
Althea's eyebrows rose. She'd taught middle school for six years. She knew twelve-year-olds. They were sassy, moody, and the boys were always hungry. They didn't wait for an invitation to make a sandwich.
What was going on here?