Grace under pressure was Sarah's hallmark. Smashing antiques in her philandering ex-husband's brokerage firm lobby? Totally out of character. She's always been the one who coped. Who pleased. So how to explain tossing the valuables? And how to explain letting Charlie McNulty ride to the rescue?
Charlie hates mess—emotional mess, in particular—and this is a doozy. He can't afford to get involved—not when he's about to make partner and Sarah's ex has a vote. Maybe Charlie can do the chivalrous thing, then get away clean. Great plan…until Sarah—and her kids—work their magic on him. Now, suddenly, he doesn't want to leave.
About the Author
Ellen wrote much of her first novel in the back of a preschool classroom while she was trying to ease her younger son's separation anxiety. She had agreed to stick around for a day, maybe two. Somehow-the exact chain of events is hazy-one day turned into a full year of scribbling in a notebook on the bench in the corner. Her son is now a completely independent elementary school student (phew!), and that book became her first sale to Harlequin Books.
Ellen and her husband are both from Scranton, Pennsylvania. They met on a blind date on New Year's Eve in a mutual love-at-first-sight moment-which would make an awesome novel, if only her husband would agree to be "fictionalized." They live with their sons in a college town in New York State. Ellen is still employed as a writer, working at the local university. In her spare time, she writes romance, reads as much as she can and hangs out with her sons. You can visit Ellen at her website shown above.
Read an Excerpt
Sarah Finley examined herself carefully in the mirror on the back of the closet door in her front hall. The gleaming walnut woodwork surrounding the mirror provided a dark counterpoint to her "hip, yet involved and respectable mother" outfit—a knee-length charcoal skirt with a slight flare at the hem to soften it; crisp, white shirt patterned with pale pink circles from the newest Talbot's catalog; and a cropped black knit jacket with chunky, artistic buttons.
She was debating about the abstract print scarf. If she wore the scarf would it say "I'm taking this issue seriously" or "I've just come from shopping"? She'd never faced this situation before, wasn't confident she was approaching it correctly. She seriously doubted, however, if even Emily Post knew the exact dress code for meeting with the school principal to discuss the possible expulsion of your first-grader.
Sarah bit back a semihysterical laugh. She couldn't allow that laugh. Not now. That laugh had burst out inappropriately with increasing frequency ever since Erik left her eight months ago. For a while she'd thought she was managing. But the repeated appearance of the laugh and its distressing tendency to morph into a sob made her wonder just how well she was coping. Not well, she was beginning to suspect.
Which was bad.
Because Sarah was a coper. It was her claim to fame. Her hallmark. It was why she was always the vice-president or the volunteer coordinator rather than the president of groups like the PTA, the pool association, even the block-party committee. She fit in, she managed, she coped. Sarah Finley could cope with anything.
Except, apparently, her husband's infidelity, her resulting divorce, and the fact that Simon, her well-loved if perplexing six-year-old, was in danger of being chucked out of Carol Ryan Memorial Elementary before he'd mastered alphabetical order.
Sarah ripped the scarf off her neck and stuffed it into her mouth in a vain attempt to stifle the laugh. Which did turn into a sob. Which she was only able to control by thinking of Simon. Her baby. Currently in lockdown in the principal's office on what Jessica Jordan, the school secretary, had ever so sweetly informed her was a weapons violation.
Sarah dropped the scarf, grinding it under one tasteful black sling-back as she headed out of the house.
When she opened the door of Carol Ryan Memorial Elementary, she was met with the smells of kids and books and school lunches, familiar from her years of volunteering, but she was too nervous to find them comforting. Although her hands were shaking slightly, she managed to hang on to her self-control until she was startled into a shriek when her nine-year-old daughter, Lily, darted out from the girls' bathroom.
"Mom! What are you doing here?" Lily asked with enough obviously fake surprise to sink any attempt at subterfuge.
"I could ask you the same thing," Sarah said. But she didn't need to ask. Lily had been born with the type of sophisticated social radar many a Statlerville matron would have killed for. Of course she'd heard about whatever it was her little brother had done.
Lily held on to the door frame as she peered behind Sarah and then pulled herself back upright. "Going to spring Simon?"
"Please, Lily, go back to class."
Lily stood uncertainly, glancing from her mother to the door of the school. "Okay. But are you alone?"
"We'll talk when you get home," Sarah said before pressing a kiss on top of her daughter's blond hair and turning her toward the fourth-grade hallway. Once she was certain Lily was on her way back to class—no need to add truancy to the Finley troublemaking column today— Sarah took a deep breath and headed for the office.
Jessica Jordan looked up from her desk, and when she saw Sarah, cupped her hand around the receiver and whispered, "She's here. I'll call you back."
At least, Sarah thought, she'd made an attempt to cover up the fact that she was leaking the incident faster than a government staffer with an open line to FOX News. Since Erik moved in with the Snake in the Grass formerly known as Lauren Smiley, aka His Boss, the Statlerville grapevine had been fed a steady diet of Information about the Finley Situation. Simon's transgression was just the latest in a long string of stories.
"Sarah. How nice to see you. I mean…" Jessica, never anyone's candidate for Most Socially Adept, fumbled. Obviously school secretary training did not include a segment on how to greet last year's Tip Top PTA Volunteer on the occasion of a weapons infraction by her son.
"Where's Simon?" Sarah asked.
"In with Ted." Jessica punched a button on the phone and leaned over the speaker to say, "Mrs. Finley is here."
She nodded toward the inner office door and Sarah moved forward. She'd gone straight through school with Jessica, and she'd never known the other woman to be actively mean. She liked to gossip, sure, but she wouldn't have said that, said "Mrs. Finley," just to rub it in that Sarah was here alone and Erik was in Bermuda on a yacht with His Boss. Would she? Sarah felt the bad laugh coming again, but she stifled it.
She needed to keep her thoughts here because none of that other stuff mattered. What did matter was Simon and what Sarah would need to do to spring him, thank you very much, Lily.
She pulled open the office door, expecting to see her son dejected or terrified. Angry would have been more understandable than what she did see—excited? Simon was perched on the edge of a wooden chair, his sneakers curled around the rungs, and the look in his bright blue eyes was exactly the same one he wore on Christmas morning before he tore into the presents.
"Simon?" she asked, wondering if somehow Jessica had mixed up the message. Maybe he wasn't in trouble. Sure, he'd had kind of a rocky start to his school career and his performance in first grade so far hadn't been stellar. But that could have changed. Maybe he'd won an award—best reader or best listener—heck, at this point she'd take best scissors operator if it meant he hadn't…
"Sarah, I'm sorry to have to call you," Ted Bryant, the principal, said as he rose to greet her.
Simon looked from her to the door, his bright expression flagging. "Where's Dad?" he asked.
Sarah ignored him for the moment. Wherever Erik and Lauren were, it didn't matter to this discussion. The important thing was clearing this up and getting Simon back to class. She focused on Ted's lean, angular face. He'd been a rower in college, and it still showed in the defined planes of his body and the slight tilt to his posture. She sat in the chair next to Simon, not looking at the empty seat, which was clearly meant for the other parent, and prepared to hear the details and then cope with them.
Ted started with "carving knife," moved through "threatening gesture," and was starting in on "serious consequences" when she had to stop him. Simon had gradually shifted forward in his chair, his eyes fixed on the door as his sneakers swung gently back and forth. With the softly curling brown hair and blue eyes he'd inherited from Erik, he looked every inch the adorable, lovable little boy whose face she'd washed that morning.
Had the knife been in his backpack while she'd put the double knots in his size-one Nikes? Somehow, something was seriously wrong. Sarah Finley's children were normal, ordinary suburban Philadelphia students getting an expensive private-school education from what was supposed to be the premier school in their district. Her children did not introduce weapons to the first-grade classroom. If she was going to get this sorted, she needed facts.
"Simon, why would you take a knife out of the house? You could have hurt yourself or someone else."
Ted leaned forward. "That's the reasoning behind the zero tolerance."
"I don't mean that he'd do it on purpose, Ted. Please. He's a six-year-old child, not some miniature hit man." She turned back to her son. "The knife could have cut through your backpack and really hurt someone. What were you thinking?"
"Where's Dad?" Simon repeated, his tone less hopeful, edging into stubborn.
"Sarah, we have a lot to discuss, but I'm not sure you understand. Zero tolerance means he's suspended. You'll have a disciplinary hearing within five days to review the options, which range from no further action straight up to expulsion. Simon's been having enough problems fitting in here. After this… you need to prepare yourself."
Suspended hit her like a slap in the face right before expulsion landed like a rock in her gut, and then Simon's problems cut the legs out from under her. Ted was serious. But surely there were contingencies, ways that children with the proper explanations were allowed to circumvent… what had he called it? Zero tolerance?
"Ted—" she started, but Simon interrupted her.
Maybe she hadn't heard Ted right? Would he really suspend Simon, her Simon, for something that was clearly a mistake? She knew that Simon's teacher had issues with his behavior in class and that he didn't seem to be exactly fitting in perfectly. But he was Simon. Not someone who needed to be expelled.
He tugged her sleeve and she looked at him. Okay. One thing at a time. She answered Simon more to feel like she was accomplishing something than because she cared about Erik's whereabouts. "Simon, you know Dad's on a trip."
"No. Lily said if I brought the knife to school you'd come together. She said if it was big trouble, Dad would come, and we made sure it was the big knife, so where is he?"
"Lily said…" Ted began before looking away. Sarah felt renewed hope. He really was a kind man. Considerate. Please God, discreet. Now that they'd gotten to the root cause, things could be cleared up. Lily had quite a lot to answer for, but under the circumstances, they must be back to a sane place where this would be treated like the first-grade error it was. Good for a laugh, not suspension.
But then Ted spoke again, and instead of explanations, he'd homed in on conspiracies. Ted pegged Lily as the mastermind and as such she could no longer be tolerated at Carol Ryan Memorial Elementary, either. He was surprised that a student of her caliber would be involved in this behavior, but he once again invoked zero tolerance, this time for inciting violence. He was very sorry. Very matter-of-fact.
He was also very mistaken if he thought Sarah was going to listen to him malign her children for one more second.
Afterward, she congratulated herself on her control. Sarah hadn't gouged Ted's kind eyes out with her French-manicured fingernails. She hadn't whacked him with one of his rowing trophies. She hadn't even raised her voice. She'd merely stood and tucked Simon's hand into her own. Picking the knife up off Ted's desk, she'd examined it briefly. It was the large carving knife from the set Aunt Deirdre had given her at her bridal shower ten years ago.
"I imagine you'll need this as evidence," she'd said before she jammed it point down into a stack of pink tardy notices on Ted's desk. The knife was still quivering in the wood as she stalked out of the office to collect Lily from her fourth-grade classroom.
Ted had kept talking to her and she'd kept ignoring him while Lily unwisely protested about a test that afternoon. She explained in an exceedingly calm voice that they were leaving immediately and she didn't care if the test was an entrance exam for Harvard, Lily had ten seconds to get her backpack and come with her now.
All in all, Carol Ryan Memorial Elementary had gotten off easy. One useless, rule-bound administrator's desk suffering one stab wound was nothing, nothing when weighed against the rage she felt.
The children sat white-faced and silent in the back of her Volvo SUV. She didn't miss that they were crammed together into the farthest seat, leaving the middle one empty. Wonderful. She'd terrified her own offspring. That only added to her anger.
Not at Simon. Not at Lily. Not even at Ted Bryant or the imbecile who'd invented the concept of zero tolerance. No. She was rational enough to aim the full force of blame exactly where it belonged. At Erik. Former husband. Father of her criminal brood. Root of all evil.
Erik wasn't in town. She knew that. He was somewhere off Bermuda on Lauren's yacht, celebrating. Sipping Cristal, no doubt, while he snuggled up to the Snake in the Grass and…ew. She did not need to imagine what they were doing together.
Sarah was clear on just one thing at the moment. Erik needed to pay. He needed to pay right now. And since he was out of reach, she turned the car toward the investment firm of Baxter Smiley. Founded by Robert B. Baxter, currently run by his great-great-granddaughter, Lauren Smiley, Baxter Smiley handled the portfolios of high net worth individuals and families looking for a discreet investment firm with an impeccable track record. Luckily the firm's services also included a kind security guard named Donny who would watch her children while she "popped upstairs."
She didn't wait for the elevator. The beat of her shoes chanted Baxter Smiley, Baxter Smiley as she ran up the stairs.
Erik was a senior partner. The firm provided his income, his stature in the community and, she'd recently found out, a revolving pool of junior associates for Erik to…ew. And, of course, it had provided Lauren. His Boss. Soon, if she read the signs right, to be his new wife.
Yes, Sarah thought, as she reached the fifth floor. If Erik and Lauren were unavailable to answer for their crimes, she would find someone else who could. Baxter Smiley was the diseased root of everything wrong with her life, and she was ready to reap some satisfaction. She deserved a little something special today, anyway. It wasn't every day a girl received her final divorce decree on her tenth wedding anniversary.
Charlie liked his office door closed. Especially these past two weeks. With Erik and Lauren gone, and, goddamn, he still couldn't believe that had played out the way it had, it was like the rest of the firm had gone giddy. Which was saying something, because Baxter Smiley was normally much closer to morgue quiet than giddy. He hated to think who might be following Lauren and Erik's example—messing around with your co-workers was wrong in too many ways for him to count.
So he kept the door closed. The crazy stayed out in the hall and he got his work done. Today it seemed like the crazy was louder than usual, though. If Lauren didn't get her cheating ass back to town soon, she was going to have trouble reining her staff back in.
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