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Marina Weiss was the happiest woman in Tyler. Of course, she was the only person who recognized that particular truth. She was sure other women were happy, too. Her boss, Amanda Trask, an efficient and popular lawyer, certainly smiled a great deal. Even on days when work piled on their desks and the telephone wouldn't stop ringing, Amanda remained amazingly good-natured. Marina had met other women in town, women who were in love with their husbands and satisfied with their work and content with life in general.
But Marina knew, deep down in her Midwestern heart, that no one was happier than she was. She knew it without a doubt; she made a mental list every day when she drove down the quiet street from her house to the Trask law office. Sometimes she even walked, relishing the fact that she didn't have to watch for muggers or hug her purse tightly to her chest. She didn't have to worry about her son being threatened by gang members or her apartment being robbed. Chicago was a zillion miles away, as far as she was concerned, and a zillion miles was about far enough.
Tyler, Wisconsin, was paradise, and Marina Weiss, al-most-forty legal secretary and single mother of one handsome, brilliant teenager, knew she was a lucky woman. Lucky because she now owned her first home, a sweet Victorian in the heart of town. Roses would be blooming against the white picket fence come summer.
Lucky because she lived alone with her son in a pleasant town with pleasant people and tree-lined sidewalks.
Lucky because her life finally was just the way she'd always dreamed it could be. Coming to Tyler had been the right move, she knew. So on a lovely spring afternoon in early April, when the phone rang at her desk, Marina wasn't too concerned to learn she was wanted at the high school to meet with someone there about her son. Even when the woman calling mentioned an ''incident'' that needed her ''immediate attention.''
Marina put the telephone back in its cradle and turned to Amanda, who stood in front of her desk with a sheaf of papers.
''What's up?'' her boss asked.
''I'm not sure. I've been called to the principal's office,'' Marina explained, swiveling her chair away from the telephone. She tucked her shoulder-length hair behind one ear and rested her chin on her hand.
Amanda chuckled. ''What did you do?''
''There's been an 'incident' involving my son. The secretary said that Mr. Stanford wants to meet with me at my earliest convenience, but it's not an emergency.''
''Clint Stanford isn't scary,'' Amanda assured her, dropping the papers onto Marina's desk. ''Especially if you like handsome men with shoulders the size of Texas. He's a real charmer. Haven't you ever met him?''
Marina shrugged her own petite shoulders and reached for the papers. ''I don't think so. Maybe I did and I don't remember.''
''You'd remember,'' Amanda assured her. ''He's caused quite a commotion in town. He's from Texas and he has an interesting accent.''
''Do you need these right away?''
''Not until Friday morning. That will give me time to go over them before I meet with the client Tuesday.'' ''All right.''
Amanda hovered near the desk. ''When are you going over to the high school?''
''I said I would either come over this afternoon or call back to make an appointment in the morning. It could be about Jon's transcripts, but I thought that had been resolved. I can't imagine why anyone at the school would want to see me.''
''Whatever it is sounds important. Go over there now,'' Amanda suggested. She gestured toward the pile of paperwork stacked on Marina's wide desktop. ''All of this can wait for a while. Besides, you're going to worry until you do. Do you think your son is in some kind of trouble?''
''I don't know. He's not exactly the troublemaking type.'' Marina's worried expression softened. ''He's more into science and his computer than anything else.''
''Clint's a friend of Ethan's, by the way. He seems like a pretty nice guy. If he wants to see you it must be important.''
''You wouldn't mind if I took half an hour?''
''I'll dock your pay if it will make you feel better,'' Amanda teased, and moved across the wide, airy room to her own office.
Marina looked at her watch. ''I'll try to get an appointment with him right away and be back by two.''
''Marina, don't worry. That's not a problem,'' her boss called, and disappeared into her office. Marina picked up the phone and dialed the number the school secretary had left her. If there was something going on with Jon, she wanted to know about it. It hadn't been easy raising a boy all by herself, but she'd managed. And Jon had been an easy kid, the kind you didn't have to worry about doing anything stupid or irresponsible.
Ten minutes later she was in her four-year-old Oldsmo-bile heading through town toward the high school. She could have walked, she knew, but there wasn't time for a casual stroll through town, despite the fact that it was a beautiful spring day and the air smelled like flowers for the first time all winter. She rolled her car window down and took a deep breath as she turned onto Main Street. It was a quiet afternoon in Tyler, but then every afternoon was quiet in Tyler. She drove the three blocks and took a left, then parked in the visitors' lot near the high school. Swallowing a sudden nervous lump in her throat, Marina slung the strap of her purse over her shoulder and entered the wide double door of the building. A sign on the inner door said All Visitors Report to the Office, so Marina followed an arrow. An older woman smiled at her as Marina stepped up to the desk.
''I'm Mrs. Weiss. I have an appointment with Mr. Stanford.''
''Are you Jonathan's mother?'' Marina nodded. The woman pointed to one of the doors across the room. ''Go right on in,'' she said. ''He's expecting you.''
Marina scooted around the copy machine and hesitated at the doorway of a bright, window-lined office. A large man sat behind the wooden desk, his dark head bent over a manila folder full of papers. Marina cleared her throat. ''Mr.
Dark brown eyes met hers as he lifted his head to face her. A slow smile crossed an attractive, square face and the little lines at the corners of his eyes crinkled.
He stood slowly and held out his hand. ''Mrs. Weiss? I'm pleased to meet you.''
''Thank you,'' she said, stepping into the room. She could see why Amanda called him a charmer, accent and all. She shook his hand, wondering how hers could disappear into someone else's so easily. He stepped around his desk and shut the door, then gestured for Marina to take a seat in the chair that fronted his desk. He did look vaguely familiar, in a Western-movie kind of way.
''I'm glad you were able to get over here so quickly.''
''Your secretary said it was important.'' Cowboy boots, she realized. The man wore chocolate-colored leather cowboy boots, which quickly disappeared behind the desk as he took his seat and faced her. Those giant hands closed the folder and pushed it to one side. ''Is there something the matter with Jon?'' she queried.
Clint Stanford leaned forward. ''I don't know. That's what I wanted to ask you. Is something going on at home that the school should know about?''
We could have done this over the phone. Marina stopped herself from fidgeting with impatience. This big man with the soft Western drawl acted as if he had all the time in the world. ''I'm not sure what you mean.''
''Divorce, illness, death in the family? I know you're new to town. Any changes that would cause Jon to be upset?''
''I'm not aware of anything wrong with my son.''
''I wish I could agree with you.''
Marina frowned. She didn't think that Jon was having trouble with his classes. He'd never had problems with his schoolwork before, except for that one time in English. ''Is this about his grades?''
''No. Your son doesn't seem to have any trouble with his schoolwork. I'm just concerned '' The principal stopped, drummed long fingers on the desk blotter and eyed Marina with concern. ''Ever heard Jon talk of a kid named Brad Schmidt?''
The name didn't sound familiar. ''I don't think so.'' ''He's a senior. He was on the science team with Jon, on the F and M project, until it was canceled.''
Marina remembered the morning after the fire at Ingalls Farm and Machinery, when the townspeople had realized what losing the plant could mean to the town. And since then, that was all anyone could talk about. Amanda had spent hours trying to come up with an answer to how to rebuild her grandfather's business without the insurance money. ''That's been a real tragedy. I've always thought it was a miracle that the kids weren't working there at the time.''
''Yes,'' he agreed. ''We were lucky no one was hurt. So you don't know Brad?''
''I'm pretty certain Jon's never mentioned him. What does he have to do with my son?''
''I'm not sure. There was a confrontation in the hall this morning. I'm still trying to figure out what's going on.''
''Jon is not exactly the fighting type.''
''Anyone can be pushed too far, Mrs. Weiss.''
''And you think Jon is being pushed?''
''Or he's doing the pushing. He's the new guy in town this year. That can't be easy.''
''No. It's not.''
He seemed to take her reply very seriously. ''Tell me about why you moved to Tyler. Do you have family here?''
This time Marina looked at her watch. She didn't want to be away from her work for longer than necessary. The law office was always busy and there were three case files sitting on her desk right now. Besides, she wasn't used to chatting with strangers about her life, so she ignored his question. ''Just what exactly do you mean by a 'confrontation,' Mr. Stanford?''
''I don't know who started it, but I think someone would have gone home with a bloody nose if a couple of teachers hadn't stepped in as quickly as they did.''
''Jon isn't the kind of boy who picks fights, Mr. Stanford.''
The principal didn't comment on that observation. ''I've called Brad's father, too. I think both of you need to be aware that there was a problem here. Both boys received detention for the rest of the week. If there is any more violence of any kind, one or both boys will be suspended. I thought it was best that you should be informed.''
Marina's stomach twisted nervously. Suspension would surely hurt Jon's chances for a college scholarship. She stood up, anxious to leave. ''Thank you. I'll talk with Jon tonight and find out exactly what happened.''
The man stood and held out his large hand. ''Thanks for coming in.''
Marina shook it briefly. Mr. Stanford was large, warm and solid; she could understand why he held a job dealing with teenagers. One look at him and a kid would think twice about taking him on. ''You're welcome. I'm sure it won't happen again.''
''I hope so, too,'' he murmured. ''Jon seems like a nice kid. I worked with him on the science team for a couple of months and''
His telephone rang, giving Marina the perfect opportunity to back up. ''Goodbye,'' she said, anxious to leave.
''I'll be in touch,'' he assured her, seeming in no hurry to answer his phone.
''Thank you,'' Marina said, hurrying through the doorway. She walked past the secretary's desk and toward the front door, where she took a deep breath as she stepped out into the sunshine. She felt as if she'd escaped a dragon, and she didn't know why. The man was only doing his job, and if Jon had actually been involved in some kind of fight she certainly wanted to know about it. What would possess her mild-mannered son to behave so strangely?
''Bad timing, Ethan,'' Clint drawled into the telephone. He watched through the window as Marina Weiss crossed the parking lot to her car. She looked worried, and he didn't blame her. She also had a great pair of legs. ''I was in the process of ending a meeting with a very attractive woman.''
''You're always in a meeting or prowling around that school,'' Ethan Trask replied. ''And attractive women have been making moves on you for the past year and a half without much success. Who is she? Anyone I know?''
''Probably.'' Marina stepped into her car and disappeared from sight. Clint turned from the window and moved to his desk. ''But she wasn't interested in me. It was strictly business.''
Ethan chuckled. ''Guess you didn't turn on the famous Texas charm.''
''What can I do for you?''
''I don't know if you're still interested, but one of Amanda's clients mentioned that he was thinking about selling some land out by Timber Lake. The house is just a fishing cabin, actually, but the property is a real gem. I don't deal in real estate, but I told Amanda you were looking for something by the lake and she told him. Are you interested?''
''More than you know,'' Clint drawled. ''I'm having a hell of a time living in the middle of town. How do I get in touch with this person?''
''He's in Milwaukee until next week, but he gave Amanda the keys and permission to show you around. I've been there a couple of times to fish, so I think I can find it.''
''Do you have time today?''
''I'll check.'' Clint heard his friend's deep voice as he talked to his secretary and then he came back on the line. ''Sorry. I'm in court all week. How about Friday? I should be back from court by three.''
''I'll meet you at Amanda's office,'' Clint volunteered, eyeing the manila folder on his desk. ''If that's convenient.''
''Fine. Amanda can handle the legal work for you, if you decide to buy the place. She'll have to tell you the price, too. I don't have any of the details.''
Clint didn't bother to hide his excitement. ''I appreciate this, Ethan.''
''Anytime.'' With that, Ethan, one of the best-known prosecutors in Wisconsin, ended the call.