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The past ten years had been kind to her former fiance.
Though Brianna Benson scrutinized Zac Ender's lean, tanned face, she found no sign of aging to mar his classic good looks. Even more surprising, his espresso eyes still glowed at her with warmth in spite of their past.
"Good to see you," Zac continued, inclining his head to one side, a smile flirting with lips that once, long ago, she'd kissed. He bent slightly to thrust out a hand, which she shook and quickly released.
"Good to see you, too," Brianna replied.
Zac had always bemoaned his height because an incident in his childhood to his knee left him unable to play basketball. To extra tall Brianna, Zac's height was an asset not often found among the boys she'd known in high school.
That was only one of the things she'd once loved about him.
"How are you?" he asked.
"I'd be better if you hadn't called me out of a session with one of my clients," Brianna grumbled. She'd been back home in Hope, New Mexico, for two months. She'd been the psychologist at Whispering Hope Clinic where the high school referred their students for counseling for almost that long. So why had Zac waited until today, at ten past eleven, to renew their acquaintance?
He leaned back on his heels, studying her. "You look great."
"Thanks. You're director of education, huh?" Brianna's nerves skittered at the way he studied her. Why was Zac back in Hope? More important, why was she reacting to him like some teen with a crush? "I didn't realize you'd given up teaching."
"I haven't given up teaching. Just changed my focus to administration." His unblinking stare rattled her. "It's been a long time." He said it as if they'd parted the best of friends when actually she'd run away from him on the morning of their wedding.
She raised one eyebrow. The only defense she could summon to battle the emotions he raised was disdain. "That's why I'm here. Zac? To reminisce?"
"No." His head gave a quick negative shake. "Of course not."
Frustrated that her traitorous pulse was doing double time, that her palms still tingled though she'd released his hand, that yet again she couldn't control something in her messed up world. Brianna sighed.
"So would you please tell me what is so important that I had to leave work on my busiest clinic day to come here?" she asked, except she really didn't need him to tell her because she knew with heart-sinking certainty that it was Cory. It had to be. She'd expected returning to Hope would give her troubled son the fresh start he needed to turn his world around.
"Let's discuss this in private. My office is this way." Zac stood back, waiting for her to precede him.
The warmth stinging Brianna's face had nothing to do with the late-September heat outside and everything to do with the curious eyes of the office staff now fixed on her. She walked past Zac toward the office at the rear of the hall. As she passed, her nose twitched at the familiar pine scent of his aftershave. Some things never changed.
"Have a seat." He sat down behind his large, austere desk only after she was seated. That was Zac, manners all the way. His mother's influence. If only her mother had been like thatcaring instead of trying to force her daughter to give up her dream for a business she detested.
You can do anything, Brianna. You just have to believe in yourself.
Zac's words echoed from those halcyon days. But there wasn't much else to remind her of the shy, geeky boy who'd tutored her through junior and senior year so she could win a scholarship to college. Even his bottle-bottom glasses were gone, revealing the hard straight lines of his face. This mature Zac was confident and completely at ease.
"I don't want to say this, Brianna." he began, tenting his fingers on his desktop.
Her fingers tightened on the arm of her chair.
"Your son, er, Cory." He paused.
"Zac, I know who my son is." She steeled herself. "Get on with it, please." Her heart cried at the thought of Cory messing up this last opportunity.
"He was on drugs in school today."
"What?" Brianna gaped at him in disbelief. This was the very last thing she'd expected.
"Yes. In fact, Cory was so wound up, he hit another student in the hallway. Or tried to. Fortunately he missed and passed out on the floor." Zac's voice dropped forcing her to lean forward to hear. "I was really hoping drugs would not be one of the issues here."
What had she brought her son home to?
"Cory doesn't do drugs."
"He took something today." A touch of irritation dimmed Zac's dark brown eyes.
"Is he all right?" She breathed a little easier at his nod and began summoning the courage to go to battle for her sonagainwhen Zac continued.
"He's a little groggy, but the school nurse assures me the drug has almost completely worn off."
"Cory doesn't use drugs. I mean it, Zac." Brianna held up a hand when he would have spoken. "You've seen his record. He's made a lot of mistakes, but drugs are not one of them."
"Yes. Cory said that, too." Zac leaned back, face inscrutable.
"He did?" She narrowed her gaze. "When?"
"When I talked to him a little while ago."
"Without me present?" she asked sharply.
"I was acting as guardian for the child. Brianna." Zac defended. "Not as an enforcer, or policemanto give him a penalty. I need to get to the bottom of this, and Cory provided some perspective." He paused. "What I'm going to tell you now is off the record."
"Okay." Brianna nodded, confused.
"I believe Cory was tricked into taking something. He said someone gave him a drink. I discussed his symptoms with a doctor friend who works with emergency-room overdoses in Santa Fe. He suggested Cory may have been given a powerful psychotic." The name of the drug made her gasp.
"That's a prescribed substance!"
He nodded. "The police tell me they haven't seen it in town before."
In spite of the word police, something about Zac's attitude reassured her, though Brianna wasn't sure why. "What happens now?"
Zac was silent for several moments. His steady brown gaze never left her face.
"Are you suspending Cory?" she demanded. "Not at the moment."
"Then" She arched her eyebrow, awaiting an explanation.
"I've been through this before. Brianna."
"Through what?" She'd expected anger from Zac. Loathing. Disgust. Something different than thisunderstanding. "You mean you've seen drugs in school before?"
"Yes." Zac nodded. His jaw visibly tensed. The words emerged in short clipped sentences. "Several years ago I taught a student who was also given drugs without his knowledge."
"Oh." She waited.
"Jeffrey had a lot of difficulties at home and at school. The high he got from that one time made him feel he'd escaped his problems. I guess." Zac shook his head, his voice tight with emotion. "It wasn't long before he became addicted."
"I'm sorry." she said to break the silence. Zac clearly struggled to tell her his story.
"Jeffrey called me the night before he died." Zac licked his lips. Beads of moisture popped out on his forehead. "I think he was looking for a reason to live, but I couldn't talk him out of committing suicide." His ragged voice showed the pain of that failure lingered.
"How sad." She ached for the anguish reflected in Zac's dark gaze. He'd always been determined to help students achieve. This tragedy would have decimated him.
"Jeffrey was the brightest kid in the school." Zac's mouth tightened. "He'd already been accepted at Yale. He had his life before him, but because someone slipped him that drug, his potential was wasted."
Brianna didn't know what to say so she remained quiet, silently sharing the grief that filled his eyes and dimmed their sparkle. Suddenly the earlier awkwardness she'd felt didn't matter.
"It's okay." She offered the soothing response she often used at the clinic.
"It's not." Zac's shoulders straightened. His chin lifted and thrust forward. "It's not okay at all. That's why I have to nip this in the bud now."
"Nip thisI don't know what you mean." Dread held her prisoner. Something was going on behind that dark gaze. Would her son be expelled? Would Zac punish her son because of what she'd done?
"I refuse to allow drugs to ruin another young life. Not Cory's. Not anyone's." Zac blinked. His eyes pinned hers. "I'm going to need your help. Brianna."
"My help?" She gaped at him. "I'll certainly talk to Cory, get the whole story and help him understand how easily drugs can cause damage we never expect. But what else can I do?"
"More. A lot more. I hope." Zac rose and began pacing behind his desk, his long legs eating up the distance in two strides. Nervous energy. He'd always been like that. "Let me explain. I came hereactually I specifically chose Hope because school test scores are rock-bottom, the lowest in the state."
She listened attentively as he haltingly told her of the purpose he'd set for himself since Jeffrey had died. Zac spoke of making a difference, of helping kids find their own potential so that drugs weren't even a consideration. His words reminded Brianna of his youthful eagerness to teach when they'd both been students at college, when their goals had been the sameto help kids uncover their potential.
"You must have seen the test scores in the files of the students you've counseled at the clinic." he said.
"Yes." Brianna nodded. "Pathetic."
"Last year was my first year in this job and it was an eye-opener. I found a major lack of initiative, total boredom and a host of other issues. But I never found drugs."
Brianna grew engrossed in his story of trying to create change until she glanced at her watch and realized she didn't have much time to see Cory before her next appointment.
"I'm sorry it's been so difficult. Zac." she interrupted, rising. "Though I don't know the first thing about combating drugs in schools. Education is your field." His slow smile and those bittersweet-chocolate eyes, glittering with suppressed excitement, made her pause. "What?"
"You know a lot about motivating people. Brianna. You always did, even before you started practicing psychology. Inspiring people is in your blood." He held her gaze with his own. "I doubt that's changed."
Surprised that he'd harked back to a past that could only hold painful memories for both of them. Brianna frowned.
"Remember when there were no funds for our school choir to go to that competition?" Zac's grin flashed. "You were the one who roused everybody and got them to pitch in and raise money for the trip."
"You want me to raise money?" she asked dubiously, confused by his excitement.
"No." he said and continued as if she hadn't interrupted. "When Jaclyn's sister died, you were the one who made a schedule to ensure her friends would be with her during the first hard days after the funeral. You were the one who helped Jaclyn solidify her goal for Whispering Hope Clinic, and you were the one who kept that dream alive even though your other partner left town."
"It wasn't just Jaclyn's goal. Jessica was my dearest friend. I vowed to keep her memory alive by making sure no other kid ever went through what she suffered because of a lack of medical help. That's why I came back to Hope, to help kids." she said.
"I know." Zac smiled. "You're an encourager. Brianna."
What was with the trip down memory lane? It sounded as if Zac was praising her, but that couldn't be. Brianna had jilted him!
"You're a motivator who inspires, and you're very, very good at it. I've always admired that about you."
Admired her? Brianna bristled, irritated that his memory was so selective. The words spurted out without conscious thought.
"If you admired me so much, how come you betrayed me the night before our wedding?"
That was so not the thing she wanted to say to Zac Ender after ten long years. Brianna clapped a hand over her mouth and wished she'd never answered his summons this morning.
"Iwh-what?" Zac's face was blank, his stern jaw slack. Brianna had to escape.
"Look. I have to go. I have another appointment." She grabbed her purse and headed for the door. "Perhaps we can talk about this again another time." she murmured.
"Count on it."
The firm resolve behind his words startled her into turning to look at him.
"We're not finished. Brianna."
She wasn't sure whether that was a threat or a promise and she didn't want to consider either at the moment. For some reason she couldn't figure out. Zac still got to her. She needed time to get her defenses back up.
"I'll talk to Cory." she promised and left.
Brianna breathed deeply as she headed back to the clinic.
Once there she paused a moment to study the exterior of the building that housed Whispering Hope Clinic and to remember how the dream had started. Jessica's cancer had been diagnosed too late because of a doctor shortage in Hope. As they watched the disease decimate her. Jessica's sister. Jaclyn. Brianna and their friend Shay had made a pact to one day return to this little town in New Mexico and open a medical clinic for kids to ensure no child ever went without help again. Jaclyn was now the pediatric physician at Whispering Hope Clinic. Brianna was a child psychologist and hopefully Shay would soon join them to offer physiotherapy.
Brianna's mother had never understood how deeply Jessica's death had affected her daughter, or how that death had prompted Brianna to volunteer in the hospital's children's ward. But it was there Brianna had learned to listen. That's what she'd been doing on the school steps one afternoon with Shay and Jaclyn. A teacher had later commented on her ability to encourage, and then urged Brianna to consider becoming a counselor. Desperate to escape her mother's expectation that she take over the family business. Brianna focused on her own planattend college, get her doctorate and return to Hope to keep her vow. Her mother's refusal to help her reach that goal sent Brianna to seek help from the smartest kid in school. Zac. Once she'd thought he loved her but his perfidy had sent her away from Hope and she'd struggled to achieve her goal on her own.
Now that she was finally back in Hope, fulfilling the dream she'd cherished for so long. Brianna could not afford to get sidetracked by handsome Zac Ender.
Zac ran every evening after sunset, when the community of Hope was nestled inside their houses with their families around them. Usually he used the lonely time to review his progress in reaching his goals. But tonight his thoughts wandered back ten years to a time when he'd been so certain life couldn't get any better; when Brianna Benson said she loved him and he'd loved her.
Zac knew now that he'd been deceiving himself. What did he know about loving a woman? He hadn't had a father growing up, nobody to teach him anything about relationships, especially how to be the kind of husband Brianna needed. He'd always had a social disadvantage. Those first few years after the car accident that had killed his father had left Zac so badly injured he'd had to endure ten years of surgeries just to walk again. Maybe that's when the lingering feelings of abandonment had taken root; maybe he was a loner because he'd never had a role model to show him how to become a man who could open up to a woman, to expose his deepest fears and his worst scars and trust that she would still care for him in spite of everything. Maybe that lack of inner harmony was why he never felt God had any particular use for a man like Zac Ender.