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What Daddy Doesn't Know
By Tara Quinn
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"MS. MCNEIL, your daughter spit at her teacher. We don't tolerate things like that at Tyler Elementary."
After one quick exchange of glances with her eight-year-old daughter, Juliet McNeil understood that Mary Jane's story was different from the principal's. She fought the feeling of dread seeping through her. If Mrs. Cummings kicked Mary Jane out, Juliet's child would be facing the fourth new school in her brief, three-year educational career.
"Mary Jane will apologize to her teacher," she said for the third time that Friday morning. "And she and I will speak more about this when we get home."
The woman leaned forward, not a strand of her clearly dyed reddish-brown hair moving out of place. Probably didn't dare to. "I hesitate to say this in front of the child, Ms. McNeil ..."
Juliet looked at the raised face of her simple but elegant gold watch, trying to distract herself from the panic that threatened to make her sound harsher than she intended.
"Anything you have to say to me regarding Mary Jane can be said in front of her," she said calmly. That calm was hard to come by when what she wanted to do was yell. Or cry. "I try not to hide things from my daughter and it seems to work well for us."
Mary Jane had only been in this San Diego public school since the January semester change, and after two months the writing was already on the wall. The child was too intelligent for her own good, a free spirit, too outspoken - all of which made it hard for her to fit in with other kids her age.
She also had a father who didn't know she existed.
"Yes, well, then." The principal turned from Juliet to the fine-boned child sitting in a vinyl chair next to her mother, her skinny legs, mostly covered by an ankle-length denim skirt, sticking straight out in front of her. Mary Jane, her hands folded across her stomach and her short dark hair a riot of curls framing her cherub cheeks, looked the epitome of innocence. And in Juliet's opinion, that was exactly what she was.
"The thing is, Ms. McNeil," the woman started again a full thirty seconds later, "I'm not so sure these talks you have with your child are doing much good. Nor do I think a simple apology will do it this time."
"Spitting was wrong, I agree," Juliet said in a conciliatory tone. As a private defense attorney, she'd had a lot of experience reading jurors' faces. Mrs. Cummings had already made up her mind on this one. Juliet brushed an auburn curl over her shoulder and continued anyway. "It's also not something Mary Jane has ever done before. I wonder, has anyone asked her about the incident?"
The older woman, her forehead creased in a clear expression of impatience, said, "Yes, I have the complete report from Mrs. Thacker."
"What reason did Mary Jane give for spitting at her teacher?"
A heavy sigh came from the seat next to Juliet. Her daughter's ankle-length black boots bobbed. Juliet didn't dare look over. She couldn't afford the distraction.
She also didn't have time to find another school right now.
But even without that look of confirmation from her daughter earlier, Juliet couldn't believe Mary Jane would really do such a thing. Drop something and break it, spill something, trip over something, probably. But spit at her teacher? The child was never deliberately mean.
"She spit on her teacher!" Mrs. Cummings said.
"I really think the reason is irrelevant."
Mary Jane could take the truth, but she was still a child. Her feelings could be hurt by thoughtless adults passing judgment without knowledge or understanding.
"Do you mind if we just ask her?" The whisper brush of hose against hose as Juliet crossed one ankle over the other sounded loud. "The first amendment to the Constitution of this country states that everyone has a right to a trial."
Her hands locked on the top of her desk, Mrs. Cummings didn't move. Though her smile was rather ghostly, it remained in place as she studied Juliet. Then, slowly, she turned her gaze to the little girl whose wide-eyed look almost lost her mother the ground she'd just won.
"Okay, Mary Jane, can you tell me why you spit on Mrs. Thacker?"
"I didn't actually spit on her." Mary Jane's voice, though somewhat subdued as she stared her principal in the eye, was her usual peculiar combination of childhood lisp and adultlike delivery.
Mrs. Cummings sat up straighter, her lips pinched with disapproval. "We have witnesses, several of them."
"I did spit and it did get on her," Mary Jane explained, eyes sincere. "I just didn't mean it to get on her. She walked around the corner and I couldn't make it stop coming out."
God, Juliet loved this child. "Why did you spit at all?" she asked.
Mary Jane glanced down, moving her boots back and forth against each other. "Jeff Turner said that I was backward because there were lots of things I don't know how to do 'cause I don't have a dad to teach me."
She and Mary Jane were happy together. Why couldn't the world just let them be?
"Things like spitting?" Juliet asked.
Mary Jane nodded. "So I told him I could too spit, as good as anyone with a dad. And he told me to prove it, so that's what I was doing when Mrs. Thacker came to call us in from recess."
Trying not to smile at that image, or to think about the hurtful things kids did to each other, Juliet looked back at the principal. And waited. This was her call.
"The point is -" Mrs. Cummings, hands together, leaned toward Juliet "- that your daughter, whether she meant to or not, spit on her teacher in front of all the other children. We can't just ignore that fact. Maintaining the discipline required to prevent mayhem with six hundred students all in one building for six hours every day takes diligence and carefully protected boundaries."
"I understand, but -"
"I was quite willing to sign the necessary forms to allow Mary Jane to attend this institution even though she lives outside our boundaries, but she has not lived up to her side of the agreement. I'm going to -"
She couldn't bear to see Mary Jane become the outsider again as a new kid in yet another school. "Please, Mrs. Cummings." Juliet sat forward. She'd beg if she had to. She was just beginning jury selection on the biggest trial of her career - opposing Paul Schuster, a prosecutor who put far much more value on winning than on truth.
Excerpted from What Daddy Doesn't Know by Tara Quinn Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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