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"Wakey-wakey, eggs and bakey." The ridiculous rhyme rolled off Mark Hathaway's tongue from habitit had been the way Jess used to cajole their daughter out of bed for preschool.
Although Vicki had more practice getting up early and getting ready for school, she was no more cheerful about it now than she had been at three. Muttering something that was no doubt a variation of "go away," his first grader scooted farther beneath the pony-print comforter. Not even the curly top of her head was visible.
With a sigh, he flipped back the corner of her blanket. "Up and at 'em, Vicki-bug. You have school, and Daddy has an important meeting this morning. Tomorrow's Saturday, we'll both sleep late then, okay?" If today's breakfast meeting went well maybe he'd finally be able to get a decent night's sleep.
"Don't feel good," she muttered. It was her standard second line of defense, after hiding beneath the covers.
"What hurts?" When she didn't answer, he placed a hand over her forehead. "You don't have a fever. Come on, hurry up so you can help me pick out your clothes.
your orange bathing suit with some polka-dot socks?"
Some mornings, his attempts at humor were only met with a sleepy glare. Today, he was rewarded with a half giggle.
"I can't wear a bathing suit to school, Daddy! And plus it's winter." She sighed, clutching her stuffed horse close. "Do I have to get out of bed?"
"Hug first?" she pleaded. Of all her regular procrastination techniques, this was his favorite.
"Absolutely." He sat at the foot of her bed, leaning back along the wall, and she scooted into his lap, snuggling against him. He kissed her on top of the head, breathing in the apple-scented detangler he'd combed through her unruly hair last night. Even with the spray-conditioner, she still winced when he hit a knot. And he was completely hopeless when it came to fixing her hair for ballet classhe barely managed simple pony-tails and barrettes for school. The coppery curls were untamable. No matter what style he attempted, it ended up lopsided.
With his everyday shortcomings, it was little wonder the poor kid had been dropping hints for the past few months. Mark was not oblivious to the fact that his daughter yearned for a mother figure. Thank God for Dee, Jessica's older sister. How would he have survived the past two years without his sister-in-law's help?
If the store closed, would Vicki have to move away from her aunt and uncle? The knot of dread which had recently taken up residence in his chest tightened. She's already lost too much. No little girl should have to grow up without a mother. How could he possibly take her away from her friends and family in Braeden, North Carolina, the only home she'd ever known?
He tried to shake off the omnipresent worry. Extra stress wouldn't change the outcome of today's meeting. Besides, he'd been working quite a few extra hours lately, and Vicki deserved the benefit of his full attention.
"You know I love you, right, Bug?"
"Love you, too."
"We make a good team, you and me."
"Teams can be lots of people," she said. "Like when Coach B splits us up to play kickball at school. Two isn't very many."
Her words sliced through him, her delicate suggestion that, much as he loved her, he wasn't enough.
Mark chose his response carefully. "Two might not sound like very many, but when you think about it, we have plenty of other people who love us. Aunt Dee, Uncle Frank and Bobby, Mrs. Norris, Lucy at the store, Cade
Cade Montgomery had become Mark's best friend since Jess diedbecause the sometime white-water-rafting guide, sometime carpenter was single. It was so much less awkward to hang out with Cade than all the married couples Mark and Jessica had known. Cade was about as confirmed a bachelor as a man could get, but he was surprisingly good with Vicki. He'd even promised to come to her ballet recital.
Of course, he'd later asked Mark if any of the little ballerinas had hot single moms.
Mark sighed. "Honey, is this about wanting a mom?"
"Will I ever have one?"
He knew the answer she wanted to hear, but the few dates he'd had in the past two years had left him cold. And even if he had more interest in the idea, he would put it on the back burner right now while he tried to sort out his job situation. Providing a stable home and financial security for his daughter were his priority.
"Someday, maybe." It was the best he could offer her without being dishonest.
"Are you shy?" she asked. "We talked about shy at school, like when you don't know how to make a new friend or are nervous to sing in music class. If you feel shy with girls, I can help!"
He grinned at that, imagining his six-year-old coaching him through first-date nerves. "You can, huh? Well, that's very nice of you, but it will have to wait until later. Right now, you need to get ready for school. We're already running late."
"Okay." She sat up, patting him on the shoulder. "But don't worry, Daddy. I have a plan. A good one."
Oh, boy. Part of him was amused and curious, wanting to ask his inventive daughter for details. On the other hand, he'd rather not encourage her Mommy Quest. It had wrecked him when he opened the letter to Santa she'd given Mark to mailthe one she'd insisted on writing all by herself. Mark had tried throughout November and December to get her to tell him what she wanted for Christmas, but she'd coyly refused to answer. Anxious to make sure "Santa" met her request, he'd finally seen it spelled out in green crayon. As a result, he'd over-compensated in the toys he'd bought her. She'd seemed delighted with them on Christmas morning, but after a week had passed, she'd turned pensive again.
Maybe if they didn't discuss her "plan" to overcome his supposed shyness with the ladies, she'd eventually forget about it. Yet even as he wanted to cling to that hope, he knew better. Vicki had inherited her mother's curly locks and big brown eyesbut she had Mark's stubborn streak.
The store Mark ran was called Up A Creek, a tongue-in-cheek name for a place that sold sporting goods and equipment for outdoor recreation. Right now, however, up a creek seemed entirely apt for his situation. This breakfast felt too much like a last meal.
Across the table, Bennett Coleridge, owner of the dozen or so Up A Creek locations, looked sympathetic as he picked up the syrup pitcher. "Understand, if I do close the store, there are still opportunities in the company for you. We have other sites. The one in South Carolina is closest, although if you wanted a complete change, our two stores in Colorado stay busy all year round."
And busy meant profitable.
When Up A Creek had first opened in Braeden, North Carolina, there had been a campground just outside of town and a popular lodge half an hour beyond that which offered hiking and kayaking excursions. Both had unfortunately closed in the past couple of years. Now it seemed as if the store Mark managed might be next to succumb to tough economic times.
Bennett had mentioned the possibility of Colorado if the Hathaways "wanted a complete change." But Vicki had been born here, had spent her entire life in the same house. For her, anything outside Braeden limits would be an overwhelming change. Mark knew that his personal lifeor lack thereofdisappointed his daughter. How could he tell her that he was a failure professionally, too?
That she'd have to move away from her school and her friends?
He swallowed hard, determined to sound calm. Businessmen like Bennett were swayed by numbers, not desperation. "I know the store's profits have dipped." Around here, some folks were working two jobs to make ends meet, sacrificing their free time for recreation; others had been laid off, without the funds to maintain a hobby.
"But I have some ideas that might help turn things around," Mark said. He sounded passably convincing.
Bennett raised an eyebrow. "Such as?"
"Well, a few months ago I spoke to Principal Ride-nour about sponsoring a booth at the elementary school's spring Fitness Fair. It's an all-day event local coaches and doctors started last year to educate parents on the risks of childhood obesity. In addition to the information, they provide stations that demonstrate fun ways the kids can keep in shape. It's a perfect platform for us. I can do a small-scale climbing wall, remind parents about the importance of bike helmets and staying hydrated, give out promotional coupons for items that will pull them into the store.
"Speaking as a dad," he continued, "parents are more willing to spend on their kids during lean times than on themselves. Especially if it means keeping the kids healthier."
Belatedly, Mark recalled that Principal Ridenour had retired over the holidays. He should really get in touch with the man's replacement.
"I'm all for this fitness fair thing," Bennett said, "but increased sales in canteens and junior knee pads aren't"
"Also, I recently read a business article," Mark said quickly, "about how people who used to travel to luxury resorts or other countries are looking for less expensive domestic vacations. Let's face it, not many of us can afford to go to Aspen or Vail. People who live right here or in neighboring states, however, might be able to indulge in a day at Sugar Mountain more easily than they realized. There are several ski resorts within a hundred-mile radius of Braeden, but the newest one, Hawk Summit, is only a forty-minute drive. Their projected grand opening last year got delayed twice due to construction and when they finally did open for the season, unusual weather conditions hurt their bottom line. They're in their second season now and I'd guess they're struggling."
Bennett set his fork down with a reproachful sigh. "So you think a fledgling ski resort that's in danger of going under itself is somehow going to save a store that's going under?"
Mark felt his jaw tightening and forced himself to relax. "I think we can help each other, yes. And because they are, as you say, 'fledgling,' they have a bigger incentive to participate in some of the cross-promotional discount ideas I have. Bennett, I know I can turn the store around. I just need time, and"
"Until the end of April," the other man interrupted, his tone final. "My wife and I are coming to the area for her high school's twentieth reunion. You and I will look at the numbers that week to determine whether or not there's been significant improvement over last spring.
Mark wouldn't let the reprieve go to waste. For the next three months, he would bust his butt and try everything he could think of to make Up A Creek a success. He owed it to his employees, who needed their paychecks, and his boss, who was giving him this chance. But most of all, he owed it to his daughter.
Shay Morgan pulled her car into the slot marked Reserved For Principal. Just a few weeks ago, seeing those words had filled her with enthusiasm and pride. While she was still proud that she'd been appointed the interim principal to finish out the year, well
it had been a long week. But today was Friday, which meant she'd soon have forty-eight hours to recharge, minus the stress of a family dinner Sunday evening.
Maybe the roads will be too icy for me to make the drive.
What she wanted to do was hole up in the cozy warmth of her house with a good book, free from pointed looks from a staff and faculty who were testing her authority, free from "helpful advice" from well-meaning parents who had limited knowledge of the county policies Shay was required to follow and free from the quiet disapproval of the school secretary, Roberta Cree.
Roberta had been at Woodside Elementary since it first opened its doors in 1987 and had outlasted all four previous principals, including Shay's immediate predecessor, the Esteemed Jonathan Ridenour Who Could Do No Wrong. The corridor that led from the main reception area to Shay's private office was lined with gold-framed portraits of the prior principals. She swore their eyes followed her whenever she passed. And the principals of yesteryear probably shook their heads at her when no one was looking.
All in all, her first month at Woodside hadn't gone as smoothly as expected. Even though years had passed since she'd first voiced her ambition to become a principal, she could too clearly hear her father's words in her head. You don't need those administrative headaches, sweetie. Why not stay a teacher, with only your classroom to worry about and summers off to focus on your own kids?
Not that Shay had any kids. Or a husband. Or even a steady boyfriend.
She was currently between relationships, which seemed to worry her parents. After climbing out of the car, she shut her doorresisting the juvenile urge to slam it. Her brother, Bastien the M.D., didn't have a girlfriend. He practically lived at the hospital, and both parents applauded his lofty career goals as building a solid foundation for the future. When Bastien had declared he wanted to go to medical school, their father had never once suggested he settle for being a school nurse and take the summers off! So why the heck couldn't Shay get the same support for her professional aspirations? After all, it was a lifetime of listening to her mothera retired elementary school teacherthat had inspired Shay in the first place. Mrs. Morgan and her teaching colleagues had been full of great ideas but lacked the power to implement them. Shay had decided early that she wanted to work her way up the scholastic ladder so that she could one day help teachers.
But so far, it was slow going at Woodsidean elementary school too small to have an assistant principal who might have been an ally in easing the transition. Maybe some of the faculty felt that warming to Shay too quickly would be disloyal to Esteemed Principal Ride-nour. Everyone had been shocked by his heart attack in November and sorry to see him leave the school when he took early retirement midyear. Perhaps Shay's eagerness to tackle her new position after the winter break had come across as unseemly, as if she were seizing on someone else's misfortune.
I will win these people over, she promised herself. After all, she was pretty darn likable. She was also truly passionate about providing a wonderful environment and the best education possible for the students of the small elementary school. In theory, her advocacy for their well-being gave her common ground with everyone else who set foot inside the door.
Like, for instance, the PTA president.