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The Widow's Rules of Engagement
Jamie Glasser has two ironclad rules: raise her kids the best way she knows how and no more military men! The widowed mother of three lost to the army her late husband—and her faith in God—but she can't avoid former air force lieutenant colonel Eli Payton. The handsome high school guidance counselor is committed to helping Jamie's rebellious teenage son. But it's Jamie who's tested when she's irresistibly drawn ...
The Widow's Rules of Engagement
Jamie Glasser has two ironclad rules: raise her kids the best way she knows how and no more military men! The widowed mother of three lost to the army her late husband—and her faith in God—but she can't avoid former air force lieutenant colonel Eli Payton. The handsome high school guidance counselor is committed to helping Jamie's rebellious teenage son. But it's Jamie who's tested when she's irresistibly drawn to Eli. Here, in the family-centered community of Paradox Lake, can a woman at a crossroads find the courage to reclaim her faith and give love another chance?
Not when she'd finally gotten her family through the worst. It had been a rough eighteen months. But Jamie Glasser thought her son, Myles, was on track and life back to normal. As normal as could be under the circumstances.
She replayed the voice mail message as she pulled her crossover SUV into the Schroon Lake Central School parking lot and steeled herself to meet the new guidance counselor.
She got out and slammed the vehicle door shut. The guidance counselor's curt summons had put her on edge almost as much as imagining what Myles had done to prompt the call.
"Jamie," Thelma Wood, the ageless office manager, greeted her as she entered the K-12 school's main office to sign in. The older woman's cool tone clearly said she hadn't gotten over her displeasure with Jamie having given up her position as school nurse to join the midwife practice at the Ticonderoga birthing center.
"Thelma." Jamie wrote her name, the time and her in-school destination on the clipboard on the counter separating Thelma's business domain from students, parents and the rest of the general public.
"I expect you're here to see our Mr. Payton."
Our Mr. Payton. The new guidance counselor must be really something to have Mrs. Woods claiming him as her own after being on the job only a month.
"He and Myles are in the guidance office."
Myles? The phone message hadn't said that the guidance counselor had kept Myles after school. That meant he wouldn't be there with the girls when the bus dropped them off.
Jamie turned the clipboard so that Mrs. Woods could read the sheet, left the office and pulled out her cell phone.
"Hello," her friend Emily Stacey answered on the second ring.
"Hi, it's Jamie." She hesitated for a moment. Since she'd lost her faith and dropped out of the Singles Plus group and everything else connected with Hazardtown Community Church after her husband was killed in Afghanistan, Jamie hadn't seen much of Emily. But Emily was the only person she could think of who would be home. "Any chance you could run over and meet the girls' bus?"
"Sure. Is everything okay?"
"Myles is in some kind of trouble—again. So he won't be at the house when they get off the bus."
"I'm sorry. Any problem with my bringing them over here?"
"Not at all." Gratitude flushed away the guilt Jamie harbored about neglecting their friendship these past few months. "Thanks so much."
"Not a problem. You'd do the same. Good luck with Myles."
Considering some of her son's antics last year, she might need it. "I'll come get the girls as soon as I can."
"Whenever. I'm planning on putting them to work entertaining Isabelle and Ryan so I can finish an ad mock-up I need to get out to a client today."
"Good plan. See you soon." I hope.
Jamie hung up and headed down the familiar hall. The knot in her stomach tightened with each step. She slowed her pace as she neared the guidance office, postponing the meeting as long as she could.
After a trying school year, where Myles seemed to be in some kind of trouble every other week, he'd had a good summer as a junior counselor at Camp Sonrise on nearby Paradox Lake, where she'd been the camp nurse the three previous summers. Before she'd had to take a better-paying, year-round job at the birthing center. Jamie had been a little jealous of Myles. She'd really liked being with the kids at Sonrise full-time during the summer months.
The guidance office door was ajar. Jamie paused. She couldn't go through another school year like last year. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open to see Myles sitting in front of the guidance counselor's desk with his back to her.
"Mrs. Glasser?" The man seated at the desk didn't wait for her to answer. "Please come in and sit down."
She shot Myles a look before turning her attention to the counselor. His strong-featured masculine good looks at least partly explained fussy Mrs. Woods's warming to him so quickly.
His glance at the wall clock and the fleeting frown that marred his ruggedly handsome face muted any welcome in his deep voice and polite words.
"I'm Eli Payton." He rose in a smooth, controlled manner and offered her his hand.
Something in the way Eli moved and spoke—his brisk handshake and curt phone message—reminded Jamie of her late husband, John. She gave Eli a quick once-over. The high and tight hair. The way his off-the-rack suit hung on his fit figure as if it were tailored especially for him. His clean, neat desktop devoid of any unnecessary personal items. After a spark of attraction, bile burned the back of her throat.
Eli Payton was a soldier, a career soldier. Someone who wasn't used to being around military personnel might not see it, but Jamie did.
So why was he working as a high school guidance counselor?
She pulled her hand back as soon as he released it and unbuttoned her coat. She slipped her coat onto the back of the chair next to Myles, sensing Eli's eyes on her. What was she doing? She didn't know he was former military. She just had a strong feeling he was. And if he were, that wasn't a good reason to dislike him.
As she turned back toward him and took her seat, Eli glanced at the clock again. Jamie rechanneled her irritation. It wasn't her fault that it was well after the close of classes. She wasn't the one who'd called the meeting. If he had somewhere to be, he could have asked her to come in tomorrow morning.
She planted her feet firmly on the floor, her white Crocs squeaking as she pressed them to the polished tiles. And no matter how many times he checked the clock, he wasn't going to make her feel that she was in the wrong because she'd been doing her job and hadn't gotten his phone message until after she and the midwife had finished the delivery. Except she did feel uneasy, and his dismissive perusal of her hospital scrubs didn't help. It wasn't as if she'd had time to go home and change.
"As you know from the incident notice Myles brought home for you to sign yesterday—"
Jamie pinned her gaze on her son who had evidently found something riveting on the floor between his chair and the guidance counselor's desk. "What incident notice?"
Eli raised an eyebrow and pushed an all-too-familiar yellow form across the desk to her. She read down to her signature. Except it wasn't her signature.
"I didn't see or sign this." She moved the paper a few inches away from her.
"So I gather," Eli said with a wry smile that would have normally appealed to her sense of humor. But there was nothing humorous about this situation.
"Myles. Seriously? What were you thinking?"
"Aw, Mom. It isn't that big a deal."
"Stealing exam answers and selling them to other kids isn't a big deal? Since when?" Jamie tried to keep the screech out of her voice but failed.
"I didn't steal the answers. I went back into Mrs. Norton's room to get my iPod." He waved his hand at her. "I know. I'm not supposed to take it to school. When I was leaving, there was this paper on the floor."
"The exam answer key was on the floor?" Eli's voice had an edge to it that Jamie wouldn't want used on her. She felt sorry for Becca Norton, Myles's history teacher, if Myles was telling the truth.
"No, it was just a paper. I crumpled it up and shot it across the room at the trash can." Myles grimaced. "I missed, so I went over to toss it in the can and I saw the test in there. It wasn't the final test. It didn't have the answers, and Mrs. Norton had scribbled through the questions. I told you, I didn't steal the answers."
"The answers, the test. Not a lot of difference," Jamie said.
Jamie glanced at Eli to see if Myles's explanation had had any effect on Eli's reaction to Becca throwing out her preliminary test rather than shredding it. The set of his jaw said no.
Her stomach roiled. Jamie felt a kinship with Becca. The woman needed her job. She was a single mother, too. Becca's husband had abandoned her when he'd accepted a promotion and job transfer to his company's home office in Hartford and had taken his secretary—not Becca and their son—with him. Jamie hated that her son's stupid act might jeopardize his teacher's job.
"I took the test and looked up the answers myself and sold them," Myles finished, as if his providing the answers somehow made it right.
At one time Jamie thought her raising Myles and his sisters in a Christian home had provided a better influence on them. John's death in Afghanistan had corrected that misconception. God wasn't there for her or her family.
"What do you think the consequence of your action should be?" Eli asked.
"A week's suspension?" Myles voice rose at the end of the last word.
Eli nodded. "Sounds fair."
Jamie's temperature ticked up. He was going to punish Myles by letting him stay home for a week? "I don't think " A spark in Eli's steel-blue eyes and twitch of his mouth cooled her temper, if not her temperature.
"In-school suspension. Here in the guidance office, with me." Eli focused on Myles. "You'll do all of your class work and write Mrs. Norton a letter of apology. I'm certain she put a lot of work into developing that test, and she'll need to create a replacement one."
"I guess. Can we go now?"
"Yes. Report to me when you get off the bus on Monday."
"Thank you," Jamie said. "Doing my job."
Jamie knew better. Babysitting her wayward child was going above and beyond a guidance counselor's duties. For a fleeting moment, she let herself imagine what it would be like to have a commanding man like Eli Payton in Myles's life. In her life.
"Feel free to call me any time you want to check up on Myles. I saw from the notes in Myles's file that you worked closely with my predecessor, Erin Ryder."
"Sure. Thanks again." Jamie pulled her coat from the back of the chair. She had an unsettling feeling that working closely with Eli Payton would have a completely different dimension from working with Erin.
Eli tapped the spine of the file folder against the palm of his hand. Myles Glasser and his mother were another example of what an absent father did to a family. Not that he was faulting Myles's father for serving his country and making the supreme sacrifice. But too often, he'd seen what consecutive deployments did to families, to some of his closest friends' families. What Eli's father's job as a long-haul trucker had done to his mother and him and his sister. He opened his file cabinet and shoved the folder in.
Seeing how hard it was for some service families, and the memories of his father's frequent absences from their Paradox Lake home, had convinced Eli to put off starting a family until he'd left. One of many things he and his ex-fiancée had disagreed about.
Family was important. More people needed to make it a priority. He'd meant what he said to Mrs. Glasser about working with her to get Myles on the straight and narrow. It certainly would be no hardship for him. Myles reminded him of himself at that age, before he'd gotten into more serious trouble. And Myles's mother was pretty in a fresh girl-next-door way. He appreciated that she wasn't model-slim like so many women aspired to be, and liked the way her curly dark hair framed her heart-shaped face. A face that had run the gamut of emotions from annoyance when she'd first entered his office to exasperation when her son explained his transgression to anger when she'd thought he was going to let Myles off with a suspension.
Eli pushed the cabinet door closed. Myles seemed like a good kid who needed a little guidance. The youth group he and Drew Stacey led at Hazardtown Community Church could give him some direction. Eli searched his memory. Had he seen Jamie and her family at church? No, he would have remembered her. Didn't matter. Several of the youth group's members didn't belong to Community. He'd touch base with Jamie after Myles's suspension was over and mention the group to her.
Eli lifted his jacket from the coat tree by the door and switched off the lights. Maybe if someone had given his mother a hand, helped her organize her own and their family life His thought trailed off unfinished. He could do that for Jamie and Myles. Eli smiled as he pictured the way Jamie had bit her bottom lip when she'd thought he was going to let Myles get off with a week out of school. Yes, he could give her a hand and enjoy every minute of it.
"Uh, Mom. Aren't you forgetting something?" Myles asked as Jamie flicked the signal to turn onto their road.
"Rose and Opal."
Jamie lifted her foot from the brake and straightened the wheel. "Oh, yeah." She'd forgotten about the girls being at Emily's.
"You're not all upset about this, are you? It's no big deal, or else Payton would have done more than suspend me for a week."
"That's Mr. Payton," she corrected him. "And you stole the exam and helped other kids cheat—for money. That is a big deal. You know better. Whatever prompted you to do it?"
He rolled his eyes. "The money."
The force of his words sent a chill through her. She gave Myles a reasonable allowance for helping around the house and yard, and he'd been shoveling snow for several of their neighbors.
"What do you need more money for?"
"You don't want to know."
He was right. Part of her didn't want to know, but she should. She swallowed. "Yes, I do. Talk to me about it."
"Dad's Miata. I'm trying to buy it back from the Hills. We were going to restore it. Then you had to go and sell it."
"I had to." John's military pension wasn't enough for them to live on, and finances had been tight before she'd left the school to work at the birthing center. She'd fallen behind on the rent-to-buy lease payments on their house and hadn't wanted to upset their family life more by having to move.
"Right. But your new job pays more. So why don't you buy it back?" he challenged her.
Because seeing the car in the garage every day was too painful. And she'd been so mad at John for dying. Selling the car he'd taken such pride in had been cathartic. She couldn't tell Myles that, though.
"There are other things we need more."
Myles clenched his fists. "You have other things you want more. You don't care what I need. Like you didn't need Dad around." His words jumbled together. "But I did. You didn't want him around, so you could be boss of us."
His words sliced into her heart. Her son had no idea how much she'd missed John when he'd been deployed, and how hard it was for her to be the only parent to Myles and the girls.
She gripped the steering wheel and cut a too-sharp turn onto Hazard Cove Road. "Myles! You and I talked about this before. I'm sorry you feel that way, but I always wanted your dad around."More than you'll ever know.
She pulled into the driveway of the camp lodge where Emily and her husband lived.
"I am not buying you the Miata." She took a deep breath. "But I won't stop you from buying it as long as you earn the money legally."
Posted July 2, 2013
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