He understands angry teen boyshe'd been one himself
As the local high school principal, Peter Stone knows troubled student Sean Williams needs someone to talk to, and Peter wants to help. Then he meets the boy's beautiful mother and he starts yearning to be the one she can rely on.
Laura, a widow caring for her four children and ailing aunt, has no time for romance. She's determined to start over in Cimarron City, and she doesn't need Peter to do it. Yet somehow, despite her protests, Laura finds herself and her brood frequent visitors to Peter's ranch, a refuge for abandoned animals. As Peter tries to show Laura she can still be strong and accept his help, he hopes she'll accept his love and unite them all as a family.
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Laura Williams had never once, when she was a girl in school, been sent to see the principal. Today, she was standing in front of her son's Cimarron High principal's door. They'd only been in town for two weeks, and her oldest was already in trouble. Probably some kind of record. Her hand shook as she knocked.
When the door opened, she took a small step back. The tall, broad principal filled the entrance to his office. Her mouth went dry. With her small, just-over-five-feet stature, his large presence overwhelmed her.
She swallowed hard, drew in a deep breath and stuck out her hand. "Yes. You must be Peter Stone."
His fingers closed around hers, a warm, firm grip. "Come in. I'm sorry we're meeting for the first time under these circumstances." He moved to the side to let her enter. "I wanted to talk with you alone before I bring Sean back in." He closed the door and rounded his massive desk, gesturing toward a chair in front of it. "Please have a seat."
"I can't believe Sean was fighting. He's never done anything like that before."
The principal flipped open a file and scanned a paper he'd picked up. "I see youall moved here a couple of weeks ago. How did Sean feel about the move?"
She looked into the man's dark brown eyes and saw kindness and concern. For a moment she wanted to tell him the whole story of how she and her four children had ended up in Cimarron City, Oklahoma. But the pain was still too fresh, and she didn't confide in many people, even one who gave off empathetic vibes. "We're adjusting."
Doubt entered his eyes. "When I asked Sean about the fight, he was silent. He hasn't said more than a sentence or two. I didn't know if the anger I was sensing from him went beyond the argument he had with the other boy."
"What was the argument about?" Laura clutched the handle of her zebra-striped purse tightly, her fingernails and leather straps digging into her palms.
"The other boy told me Sean cheated off him in English."
"What did Sean say?"
"Nothing. I talked with his teacher and their test answers were remarkably similar."
Until recently her oldest had always been a good student. "Could the other boy have cheated off Sean?"
The principal frowned. "I don't think so. He's at the top of his class."
Dread blanketed her in a cold sweat. She'd hoped coming to Cimarron City would be a fresh start. "Who started the fight?"
Laura sat forward on the edge of the padded chair. "Are you suspending him?"
"That's our policy. Three days, until next Monday."
"Is the other student being suspended, too?"
She closed her eyes for a few seconds, thoughts of the hostility that was so much a part of her family since No, she couldn't go there. That wouldn't change what was happening. She pushed to her feet. "Very well."
"Let me bring Sean in." He stood and walked to the door.
Laura faced her son as he trudged into the office, his eyes downcast. She didn't need to see them to know the defiance in their green depths. His clenched hands shouted his anger, always present since his father had passed almost eleven months ago.
The intense, churning emotions coming off the boy struck Peter with their force. The teen held his tall, thin frame in a rigid stance as though daring anyone to come near him. He was screaming for help. He'd seen the signs before. The anger. The silence. The defiance.
"Sean, as I said before, you'll be suspended for three days for fighting. When you come back, you'll retake the test." The tightening of the boy's mouth prompted Peter to add, "As will the other student, since we can't determine exactly who cheated. The test will be different, harder."
Laura stepped forward. "Thank you, Mr. Stone. He'll be prepared to take it." She waved her hand for her son to leave first. At the door she glanced back at him. "I appreciate the way you've handled the situation."
Peter watched the mother and son until they disappeared from his view. He turned back into his office, his gaze settling on the chair where Laura Williams had sat only a few minutes ago. The haunted look in her green eyes tugged at his heart. A troubled soul.
And Sean was a troubled teen. He'd seen all the signs because he had been one himself years ago. If truth be told, he still feltunsettled. He couldn't change what had happened, yet he couldn't quite put his past behind him. Peter strode to his desk and sat. The best way to help himself was to help someone else.
Seeing the pain in Laura and Sean Williams confirmed in Peter's mind what he should do. For the past six months he couldn't shake the feeling that he should do more with his life. Being the principal of the high school and being involved in his church as a deacon weren't enough. He expected something else from himself. He picked up the phone and placed a call.
Laura unlocked the door to her side of the large duplex and tossed her purse on the entry hall table while Sean stomped up the stairs. On the drive home from school, her son had only mumbled a "yeah" to the question, "Do you understand you're grounded until you go back to school?"
The sound of Sean's bedroom door slamming vibrated in the air. Half the town probably heard that, especially Aunt Sarah. Thinking about the occupant of the other side of the duplex turned Laura around. She hadn't had a chance to check on her aunt this morning. She went out onto the long front porch they shared and walked the few feet to her aunt's. She let herself in and made her way through the small living room, crammed with years of items from Aunt Sarah's world travels, to the back where she usually was at this time of the day, drinking her third or fourth cup of tea and nibbling on what little she ate for a late breakfast.
"Child, what's going on over at your house? Is everything all right?" The seventy-nine-year-old woman with salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a severe bun put her china cup on its saucer.
Nothing was all right, but Laura didn't want to burden her aunt with any more of her problems. "That was just Sean. I had to pick him up from school."
With a trembling hand, Aunt Sarah held up a plate with several scones. "Want one? I don't know why I fixed both of these. I can hardly eat one."
Her stomach in knots, Laura shook her head and sank into the chair across from her aunt at the table for two in front of the bay window that looked out over the large backyard.
"Is Sean sick?"
"No." Laura slid her gaze away from Aunt Sarah's perceptive one.
"We're family. I was a teacher once. A student went home during the day for two reasons. He was sick or had gotten in trouble. What happened?"
The firmness in the woman's voice belied her frail appearance. Laura's gaze reconnected with her aunt's sharp, assessing one, her dark eyes in striking contrast to the pale cast of her skin. "Sean got into a fight at school and was suspended."
"Oh, my." She brought her cup to her lips and sipped. "I've been hoping that he would adjust to his new home."
What good was hoping? Laura peered away, not wanting her aunt to see the conflict in her eyes. Aunt Sarah wouldn't understand the confusion she felt. She'd hoped things would improve for the past year, and nothing had changed. Now she was having to accept charity from her aunt just to make ends meet and be able to take care of Sean, Alexa and the twinsMatthew and Joshua. She didn't want to be indebted to anyone, even family, after spending so many years of her marriage feeling dependentalmost helpless in her situation.
Laura's gaze fastened on to the slightly overgrown backyard with leaves still strewn over the ground from last fall. "I'm gonna have Sean start working on the yard while he's home. I want to keep him busy." So he doesn't spend all his time sulking in his bedroom. He's done too much of that lately.
Her aunt looked out the window. "I've kind of let things go since my illness. This time of year is so beautiful. I love working in the garden in the spring and don't like that I can't."
"Just tell me what you want done, and Sean and I will do it."
"Well, thank you, dear, but you don't have to."
"I want to." Again Aunt Sarah's sharp gaze fell on her, her head held high, her posture straight. Her aunt had always appeared as though she could do anything, and while growing up Laura had wanted to be just like Aunt Sarahindependent, confident, strong. For a few seconds Laura wondered just how ill her aunt was. Had she really needed my help? One moment she seemed delicate, easily broken; the next she seemed capable of battling the world.
Then the older woman's shoulders sagged and a deep sigh drifted from her. "I've got to get used to the fact I can't do everything I used to."
That can't be easy for her to admit, Laura thought.
Aunt Sarah sighed. "I'll make a list for you."
"And speaking of lists, I'll be going to the grocery store later. Just jot down what you need and I'll get it." Although she was living in the other side of the duplex rent-free, she was determined to do everything she could to help Aunt Sarah. She was the reason Laura had uprooted her family and moved here after her aunt had triple bypass surgery. Who was she kidding? She hadn't been able to pay her debts living in St. Louis. Her aunt's invitation had been the answer to her problems after she had gotten the eviction notice.
"That's sweet of you. Before too long I'll be able to go with you to shop for myself. Each day I feel stronger and stronger." Aunt Sarah reached across the table and patted Laura's hand. "I'm so glad you and your children are here. Our family is a small one. We've got to stick together."
"We appreciated the invitation to live next door."
"Since my tenants moved out in January, it's been empty. It's ridiculous for the duplex to remain that way when youall could use it. You're doing me a favor by living in it."
"Just as soon as I can, I want to pay you rent."
"No! I won't accept it from family. End of story." Her aunt's mouth set in a stubborn line.
"But don't you need the money?"
She shook her head. "Money isn't important. Family is."
Laura agreed with her aunt, and yet the lack of money was causing all kinds of problems in her life. "I want to pay my own way. That's what you've done all your life. You've stood on your own two feet. I'm thirty-five. It's about time I learn how."
"Everyone needs help from time to time, even me." She waved a hand down her thin body, clad in her gown and robe. "Have you started job hunting yet?"
Relieved by the change in the topic of conversation, Laura looked at the plate of scones, her hunger now bubbling to the surface. "I've been scanning the paper the last couple of days, but everything requires skills I don't have." She'd learned that while looking for a decent job in St. Louis and having to settle for a temporary, low-paying one. "Now, if someone wanted a mommy, I'd be perfect for that job. Or a housekeeper. Or a chauffeur."
"You're pretty good with the computer. Didn't you keep your husband's books the first few years of your marriage?"
After the business had started making money, her husband hadn't wanted her to work there anymore. "Yeah, but I don't have any formal bookkeeping training." Laura eyed the scone again, her stomach rumbling now.
"Go ahead. If I know you, you didn't eat much for breakfast. I heard you moving around unpacking right after the kids left for school."
Laura lathered butter and strawberry jam on the scone. "I only have a few more boxes to empty and I'll be completely finished. Hey, I could work for a moving company."
"I talked with my friend in the counseling office at the high school this morning. She's always checking on how I'm doing. She said they're looking for a part-time secretary. Why not apply for that job until something better comes along?"
After the meeting with the principal an hour ago, Laura had had her doubts she could get the job. But the prospect of working at Sean's school appealed to her. That way she could keep an eye on him and maybe prevent something like today happening again. "I'll think about it."
"You're good with people. You'll be off when your kids are. It's twenty-five hours a week with health insurance and a few benefits."
"I can't do anything until Sean goes back to school on Monday."
"Child, he's fifteen."
"And I don't know if I can trust him to do what he's supposed to do." Like father, like son. She shivered with that thought.
"I can keep an eye on him."
"No," Laura said with more force than intended. "You're still recovering and don't need the added stress of keeping him in line."
"Sean and I get along just fine."
It was she and Sean who didn't get along. Laura didn't want to be reminded of that fact. Ever since her husband had died, her son had been angry at the world but mostly at her.
"If I'm meant to have the job, it'll be there next week when Sean goes back to school." Laura pushed herself to her feet and took the empty plate to the sink.
"Do you want me to make a call? I know it's been fourteen years since I retired, but I still know quite a few people who work for the school, since I was a teacher there. Many of them go to my church."
Laura had to swallow the yes before she blurted it out. She needed to begin standing on her own two feet, like her aunt had all her life. She could no longer accept help if she was going to be able to face herself in the mirror each morning. She was tired of depending on others. "I've got it, Aunt Sarah. But thanks for the offer."
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