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The bad news glared at her from the computer screen.
With her spine stiff and her muscles tight, Nola Shannon stared at the monitor.
She'd dropped by her office at the university to pick up a couple of books, and made the mistake of answering the phone when it rang. Now
Was she insane? What had she just agreed to?
"Nola?" A hand jiggled her shoulder. "Nola? You okay?"
She jerked her head around to look at the man standing next to her. "Oh, Ted. Hi."
He frowned at her, his high forehead wrinkled in concern. "Hi, yourself. I looked in and you were sitting there like you'd been hypnotized."
"I, um " She pressed her fingertips against her eyelids for a moment, trying to make her brain work. "I had a phone call."
Ted braced a hand on the arm of her chair and leaned in to study the Web page. "Hawkridge? What's that?"
"The Hawkridge School." Nola leaned against the opposite arm of the chair to give herself some space. "That's who called. The headmistress asked me to fill in for a teacher on maternity leave."
Straightening up, Ted propped a hip on the corner of her desk. "Headmistress? What kind of college has a headmistress?"
"Not a college." Nola eased her rolling chair back from the desk. "I'll be teaching math to grades nine through twelve."
"High school? She wants you to teach high school?" He shook his head. "That's some nerve, asking an Ivy League Ph.D. to fill in as a substitute teacher."
"I graduated from Hawkridge," Nola explained. "They sometimes approach alumni to help them out in emergencies like this."
"I still don't get it. Most high schools are glad to see the last of their students."
"Hawkridge is different. Their students have more at stake than just grades and a diploma."
Stepping sideways, Ted settled his six-foot-four frame into a spare chair by Nola's desk. "Explain?"
More than anyone Nola knew, Ted had the right to ask. They'd been friends since graduate school, but over the past few months, their casual evenings together had taken on an aura of romance. He held her hand now, when they went to see a film, put his arm around her as they strolled along the sidewalk. His good-night kisses were lasting longer and longer.
And Nola had recently decided to cooperate. Ted Winfield was a very nice man, a colleague nearly as successful in his field, history, as she was in mathematics. They were both on tenure-track at the university, which would mean employment there for life. Tall and thin, with his blond hair receding slightly but still plentiful, he looked exactly right for the part of a considerate easy-to-live-with husband. Together, they could produce intelligent, easy-to-care-for children.
"Hawkridge is a school for girls with problems," she told him. "Emotional problems that are leading them into dangerous behaviors."
"You went there?"
"Yes." She nodded as he gazed at her, his jaw hanging loose in shock. "By court order. I'd gotten into trouble once too oftencheating, drinking, fighting at school. Shoplifting, driving without a license " Ted's blue eyes grew rounder with every word. "My guardians couldn't control me. The judge ordered me into a rehabilitation programotherwise I'd have been sentenced to juvenile detention. And so I ended up at Hawkridge."
"Wow." He removed his wire-rimmed glasses and cleaned the lenses with a fold of his shirt. "I had no idea." Replacing them, he took a deep breath. "I guess the program worked, huh? I mean, you're a model citizen at this point. Not to mention a math genius." His grin didn't seem to have changed.
Nola relaxed her weight against the back of the chair. "Hawkridge is a good place. Structured, but caringthey changed my life. If they ask for help, what can I say but yes?"
"I see your point." He stared at his hands, twiddling his thumbs for a moment, then looked up again. "When do you leave?"
"The girls go on spring break this Friday, so I'll arrive the following weekend, before school resumes on Monday."
"Good thing you're free of classes and working on research this term." Ted gave her his usual sunny smile. "Where is this place? Can I visit on the weekends?"
"North Carolina, west of Asheville. In the Great Smoky Mountains."
"On top of ol' Smoky," Ted warbled, putting a painful twang into the words. "That's too far for a weekend jaunt from Bostonexcept for rich people like you. So you'll be hanging out with these hillbillies until when?"
Nola managed to swallow her irritation at his narrow-mindedness. There was no sense in starting an argument. "Graduation is the first week in June."
He sobered, and reached across the desk to take her hand in his. "I'm going to miss you, Nola." His thumb stroked across her knuckles. "That's a long time. How about dinner tonight?"
She was glad to think her troubled past didn't bother him. "That sounds good. Where shall I meet you?"
"Why don't we eat in, for a change?" The intensity of his gaze, a certain resonance in his tone, conveyed more than the words. "We can relax, be comfortable."
Nola looked down at their clasped hands. Apparently, he'd decided it was time for them to have sex. Something about her going away had compelled Ted to stake a claim. An hour ago, Nola would have considered that an appropriate next step, too.
An hour earlier, however, she hadn't been thinking about Hawkridge. About Mason Reed.
She manufactured a sudden gasp of surprise and pulled her hand away to pick up her palm computer. "Ted, I'm sorry. I just remembered, I've already set up a dinner meeting with " She pressed a couple of buttons and discovered she actually did have a dinner meeting scheduled. "With my graduate advisees. Talking over their projects, that sort of thing."
He groaned. "Using mathspeak?"
An old joke between them. Nola smiled. "I'm afraid so."
Ted pushed himself to his feet with a sigh. "As you know, I don't do mathspeak. So I'll let your students have you to themselves." He bent down as if to kiss her cheek, but his lips lingered next to her ear. "I'll call you later tonight, so we can clear the calendar and get together." She expected a kiss, but he flicked her ear with his tongue instead. Then he left her office, whistling.
Wincing and wiping her ear with her sleeve, Nola got up and closed the door behind him, then returned to her desk and recalled the window on her computer. The Hawkridge Web site filled the screen again, with its faculty photograph and list of corresponding names. Among the faces of thirty or so women was one masculine countenance. Mason Reed.
He'd been a first-year teacher during her senior year of high school, advising her as she worked through college applications and acceptances. She hadn't seen him since her graduation day. But the torch she'd carried for him had burned brightly for a long, long time.
"He's a ghost, that's all," she told herself throughout the following week while choosing clothes and packing suitcases. "A phantom from the past. You'll see him, put the memories to rest, then get on with your life. In a few months, you could have a wedding to plan."
Despite her resolution, however, she somehow managed to evade Ted's attempts at seduction every night before she left.
And yet he woke up at 4:00 a.m. on Friday to drive her to the airport. "Don't work too hard," he said in a hoarse voice, looking rumpled and grouchy and sweet all at once.
"I won't." She kissed him, out of guilt and gratitude. "Go home, get back in bed. I'll call you tonight." He backed up several steps, waving feebly, then turned to trudge toward the parking lot.
In the next moment, he'd vanished from her thoughts. Briefcase in hand, Nola headed toward the security checkpoint, already bracing herself for the return to Hawkridge.
Bracing herself for the ordeal of facing Mason Reed.
In her dream, they sat on a stone wall near the top of the mountain, staring into the mist that cloaked their view of the valley below and talking about colleges she might choose. He'd given her his perspective on the pros and cons, but the choice was hers. Where would she go when she finished high school?
After a long silence, she finally said, "I don't want to leave. I want to stay here." Swallowing hard, she kept her gaze on his face. "With you."
His dark brown eyes widened and he gazed at her for a stunned moment. Then his fingertips touched her cheek.
"Darling " His southern accent dropped the g. "I was afraid to ask. You shouldn't sacrifice a brilliant career for me."
She covered the back of his hand with her palm. "You're all I want. You're all I need."
In the next instant, he pulled her against his chest and took her lips with his. She kissed him back with all her heart, locked her arms around his waist and swore she'd never let him go
"Ms. Shannon?" An unfamiliar voice wove its way into the scene. "Ms. Shannon? We've arrived."
Nola blinked, then pried apart her scratchy eyelids. "Um thank you." Her dream vanished like mountain mist under a summer sun, and she was relieved to let it go. Who could spare the time for useless dreams?
Speaking of time, a glance at her watch showed that her appointment with Jayne Thomas, the headmistress of Hawk-ridge, was scheduled for twenty minutes from now. Immediately afterward, Nola would attend her first faculty meeting, which meant she'd be introduced to the other teachers and staff. Some of them were new since her days as a student, but others she knew quite well. Including Mason Reed.
Was he still so charming, so courtly? Would he still make her laugh even while making her think? Maybe he'd gotten fator bald. Maybe he was tired, boring, dull.
Or he might still be damn near perfect.
Nola realized her hands were shaking. She gripped them together and stared out the window of her hired car, trying to divert her thoughts with the scenery. All along the winding mountain road, white dogwood flowers fluttered around the tall pine-tree trunks, and patches of purple rhododendron blossoms brightened the dappled shade. Some long-gone gardener had planted drifts of daffodils in the grass at the edge of the forest, and now their cheerful yellow trumpets nodded in the breeze. As a teenager, Nola had spent hours wandering these woods in all seasons and weathers. Judging by today, spring was still her favorite time of year.
The mileage signs on the narrow road up to the school were falling behind, but not fast enough. Nola leaned forward and put her hand on the front seat, but before she could ask the driver to speed up, the car decelerated. In another moment, they'd stopped altogether.
She changed the question. "Is something wrong?"
The driver turned around, looking past her through the rear window. "There's a kid back there on the side of the road."
Nola shifted to follow his gaze. "He's walking oddly. Do you suppose he's hurt?"
"If you don't mind waiting a minute, I'll go and check."
"That will be fine."
The worry on his grandfatherly face eased into a smile. "Thanks."
Nola watched as he walked back down the road. The boy came to a stop as soon as he saw the man approaching. There was a moment of hesitation as they faced each other. Then the driver returned to the car alone.
Nola rolled down her window. "Is he all right?"
Taking off his cap, the man scratched his head. "He's carrying a huge turtle. That's why he's walking strangely."
"This big." He rounded his hands, indicating a circle at least a foot in diameter. "But he won't talk to me at all. Won't say a word. Backs away, if I come closer." Smoothing down his thick gray hair, he replaced his cap. "I guess he's been told not to talk to strange men in cars. My kids and grandkids always were."
"Oh." She looked at the boy again, seeing how he struggled to keep hold of the agitated turtle. To judge by the size of that shell, the animal had to be heavy. "Do you think he would talk to a strange woman?"
The driver looked worried again. "I don't "
A glance at her watch told her they couldn't afford much more delay. "Let's find out." She released the door latch and the driver jumped forward to pull it open for her. Together, they headed toward the boy and the turtle.
The day was warm for March in the mountains, the sunlight strong. A light breeze stirred her hair and cooled her cheeks. Nola stopped about ten feet away from the unlikely pair. "Are you okay?"
He nodded. "Yes, ma'am." Dark, silky hair fell across his forehead and into his brown eyes. His cheeks and arms were pale and freckled, his jeans, shirt and boots, filthy. "Just trying to get this fella home."
The turtle's arms and legs flailed, exposing sharp claws that came close to scratching the boy's hands. Its head and tail poked out and retreated into the shell repeatedly, and with each move the boy was forced to adjust his stance to compensate.
The driver glanced at the forest surrounding them. "Couldn't you just put him down in the woods somewhere along here?"
"I found him down on the highway. He almost got runned over twice before I could pick him up. He needs water and someplace safe. We have a pond out back of the house I think he'll like."
"How far do you have to go?" Nola asked.
"What are you doing so far from home? And on Hawkridge property? This is private land, you know."
"My dad works at Hawkridge. He'll take me and Homer to the pond."
"I've never heard of homer turtles." Nola glanced at the driver, who shrugged.
"Me neither." The boy flashed her an amused look, displaying a deep dimple near each corner of his mouth. "This is Terrapene carolina carolina. A common box turtle. Homer's his name. After the Greek poet."
With its black-and-gold patterned shell and wizened, enigmatic face, the creature was, in its own way, fascinating. "How do you know it's a male?"
"Males have red eyes." Closing the distance between them, the boy lifted the turtle toward Nola's face. "See? Females have brownish eyes."
"Ah." She had a feeling he could give her a college-level lecture on the habitat and habits of the box turtle. And she might have been willing to listen, but then she'd be late for her appointment. "Well, if you're okay " She turned toward the driver. "We should be on our way."