Authors: Valerie Hansen
She suddenly realized her inattention was a mistake, because a large figure loomed in her path. She tried to dodge. Momentum foiled the effort. She smashed into a man's broad, solid chest with a thump and a stifled screech.
The boxes of crayons and loose drawing paper she'd been carrying sailed into the air. The whole mess rained down on them. Crayons rolled all over the sidewalk, making solid footing nearly impossible.
“Look out!” the man shouted belatedly.
Everything happened so fast, it took Rachel a few seconds to realize why she hadn't fallen when they'd collided. Her blue eyes widened and focused on the stranger whose warm, strong hands were clamped on her upper arms, steadying herâ¦.
The Wedding Arbor
The Troublesome Angel
The Perfect Couple
Love One Another
Blessings of the Heart
was thirty when she awoke to the presence of the Lord in her life and turned to Jesus. In the years that followed she worked with young children, both in church and secular environments. She also raised a family of her own and played foster mother to a wide assortment of furred and feathered critters.
Married to her high school sweetheart since age seventeen, she now lives in an old farmhouse she and her husband renovated with their own hands. She loves to hike the wooded hills behind the house and reflect on the marvelous turn her life has taken. Not only is she privileged to reside among the loving, accepting folks in the breathtakingly beautiful Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, she also gets to share her personal faith by telling the stories of her heart for Steeple Hill's Love Inspired line.
Life doesn't get much better than that!
For He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
My sister Audrey has suggested that I dedicate this book to our mother, Helen Hansen, who was a stickler for correct spelling and grammar, and probably taught me a lot more than I cared to admit, especially in my student days. Mom was also the one who laid the foundation of faith by taking us to Sunday school. So this one's for her. I wish she were here to read it.
achel Woodward's spirits soared the moment she stepped out the supply room door into the clear, warm Ozark morning. Pausing in appreciation, she took a slow, deep breath of fresh mountain air, noted the spicy, familiar aroma of the crayons and colored construction paper piled high in her arms, and smiled.
Another day in paradise. Life was as close to perfect as it could get.
Working with young children and seeing the world through their eyes made Rachel feel as if she were discovering new wonders every day. Their innocent enthusiasm was contagious. Why, if she were six instead of twenty-six, she might even give in to the urge to skip happily down the sidewalk all the way to her classroom!
She clasped the stack of supplies closer to her chest
and looked around furtively. Did she dare? What would it hurt as long as no one saw her? Few students arrived this early in the morning and the other teachers were either in the staff lounge discussing their summer vacations or already in their rooms finishing last-minute preparations. The coast was clear.
Rachel's grin widened. Why not? It seemed like a sin to suppress all the elation she was feeling, simply because society dictated that adults should behave more sedately.
Who wanted to be a stuffy adult, anyway? Certainly not
The moment she gave in and began to skip, her joy took flight. Her skirt skimmed her calves and her shoulder-length dark hair swung with every hop.
Squinting against the bright sunshine, she blinked slowly, reverently.
Thank you, Father, for finding me a job that blesses me so much.
That instant's inattention was a mistake. A large figure loomed suddenly in her path! She tried to dodge. Momentum foiled the effort. She smashed into a man's broad, solid chest with a
and a stifled screech.
Boxes of crayons and loose drawing paper sailed into the air. The whole mess rained down on them. Crayons rolled all over the sidewalk, making a solid footing nearly impossible.
“Look out!” he shouted belatedly.
Everything happened so fast that it took Rachel a
few seconds to realize why she hadn't fallen when they'd collided. Her vivid blue eyes widened and focused on the stranger whose warm, strong hands were clamped on her upper arms, steadying her.
Since Rachel was barely five-foot-two and slight, she'd often found herself at a size disadvantage. This instance, however, was much worse than usual. This man was so tall, so broad shouldered, so obviously muscular, she felt like the captive of a giant. Hopefully, a
Her mouth suddenly went dry. Heart pounding, she fought to catch her breath and compose herself in spite of the nervous fluttering in her stomach. She knew it was normal for people to feel a surge of adrenaline when they were startled the way she'd just been, but this was ridiculous. She was not one of those faint-of-heart women who swooned every time an attractive man looked her way.
And speaking of lookingâ¦ The man's chest, covered in a pale shirt and navy blazer, fell at her eye level. Following the line of his tie upward she saw a square jaw, firm mouth, hazel eyesâand an expression clearly filled with amusement.
She was too embarrassed to mirror his good humor. With a stubborn lift of her chin she did her best to appear unruffled as she asked, “Where did
“Cleveland.” A half smile lifted one corner of his mouth.
“I meant just now,” Rachel told him. “I didn't see a soul in the hall before you ran into me.”
“Yes.” She tried unsuccessfully to pull away. When he continued to hold on to her, she asserted her independence clearly. “That's enough. You can let go of me now.”
The man released her so abruptly, she staggered and almost wound up sitting at his feet amid the spilled crayons. Wouldn't
have been cute! As if being caught skipping wasn't bad enough.
“I didn't mean for you to throw me down,” she said.
“Make up your mind.” He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his slacks and struck a nonchalant pose.
Rachel studied his face and frowned, trying to place him. “Who are you, anyway?”
Watching the movement of her eyes, he must have guessed that she was casting around for something with which to write; he stooped and came up with a blue crayon and a piece of the drawing paper she'd dropped.
“I'm Sean Bates. But you don't have to bother reporting me, ma'am. I work here.”
“You do?” She paused, crayon poised. “Since when? I didn't see you at the in-service meetings last week.”
“That's because I just moved from up north.”
“You really are from Cleveland? It wasn't a joke?”
He laughed. “Not to me.”
So, this was the new school counselor she'd heard so much about. No wonder all the single women on staff were figuratively lining up to vie for his attention. He was not only good-looking, he had a charisma that was almost irresistibleâto anyone but her, of course. She wasn't susceptible to that kind of romantic insanity anymore.
Smiling up at him, Rachel said, “Well then, welcome to Serenity Elementary. If I can be of any assistance, please let me know.”
“Thanks. I do have one question.”
“Okay. Why were you skipping down the hall like a kid?”
“Shh.” She blushed, looked around furtively. “You weren't supposed to notice that.”
“It was kind of hard not to.”
“Then, why didn't you get out of my way?”
“I tried. Guess I was so surprised, I didn't move quite fast enough. Sorry.”
“Me, too.” Pulling a face, she lamented the supplies scattered at their feet, then gathered the hem of her skirt at her knees, holding it bunched in one hand so she could crouch down safely. “My poor crayons. They were brand new. I'll bet half of them are broken.”
Sean squatted to help her gather up the spill. “Hey, these are those big fat crayons. I haven't seen any of those since kindergarten.”
“Makes sense. That's what I teach.”
“You're a teacher?”
“Yes, I'm a teacher. Why?”
“No special reason. You don't fit my memories of the teachers I had when I was a boy, that's all.”
Rachel knew better than to acknowledge the backhanded compliment and open their conversation to more of his personal opinions. There was nothing he could say about her diminutive appearance that she hadn't heard many times before.
She continued to stack paper, barely glancing at him. “Do you have children coming to our school, too, Mr. Bates?”
“No. No kids.”
The answer was simple. It was the off-putting tone that drew and held her attention. The man had sounded as if he didn't even like children, which was a definite drawback since he was about to start a job where he'd be up to his elbows in them.
the new counselor, aren't you?”
Silent, she studied his profile, trying to determine if she'd read him correctly. He looked to be about thirty or thirty-five, with reddish brown hair and compelling green eyes.
He raised them to meet hers. “What?”
“Nothing. I was just wondering what brought you to a little town like Serenity. Being from the city, you're liable to have quite an adjustment to make.”
“I'll cope. It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision.” Straightening with an armload of loose supplies, he changed the subject. “Lead the way to your room, Teacher. I'll carry these for you.”
“I can manage by myself.”
“I know you can.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I just had a demonstration of how well. But I've already got this stuff balanced. If I try to hand it to you and you fumble it again, you'll have even more busted crayons. Let's go.”
That logic overcame Rachel's misgivings. She gathered up the last of the paper and started off. “Okay. Come on. I'm in building A. You may as well start learning the layout of the campus. Where's your office, anyway?”
“So far, I don't have one.”
“I'm not surprised. We aren't used to having a fulltime counselor on staff.”
“I'm not exactly full time. Not yet. I've told the boss I can fill in as a substitute bus driver, too, if they need me.”
Confused, she glanced back over her shoulder at him. “Bus driver? Why? I thought you were a psychologist.”
“Hey, I'm a versatile guy.”
“If you say so.” She paused to unlock the door to
her classroom, then pushed the door open with her hip and swept through ahead of Sean.
“I do say so.” He cast around for the best place to dump his load of crayons and settled on the top of a low cabinet. “Actually, I put myself through college by driving a school bus.”
She studied him further, frowning and questioning her deductions regarding his age. “How long did that take?”
Sean laughed. “It's a little complicated. Let's just say that counseling wasn't my first career.”
“Hmm. I was sure I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was seven,” Rachel said.
“I envy you. Most people aren't that decisive, even as adults.”
He looked her up and down as he spoke. She was petite, pretty, and so thin she looked like she'd blow away in a strong windâunless she happened to be tethered to the jungle gym. When he'd steadied her in the hallway, he'd noticed that he could easily encircle her upper arm with one hand. Good thing she'd chosen to teach very young children. The thought made him smile.
“What's so funny?”
“Sorry. I was just thinking.” His gaze traveled around the room. “Kindergarten was a good choice.”
“Why? Because children are so loving at that age?”
“No. Because you don't look like you could hold
your own in a pillow fight against anybody much bigger.”
Rachel's smile faded. “You'd be surprised what I can do.” She hustled him to the door, opened it and practically shoved him through. “Thanks for your help, Mr. Bates. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do before class starts.”
“Sure. No problem. Have a good day.”
Rachel closed the door behind him and leaned against it, eyes shut tight.
Not hold her own? Ha! She might not look tough on the outside, but inside she knew she was made of steel. Tempered steel. And the pain of the tempering process lingered. It probably always would.
An unexpected call summoned Rachel to the office right after the dismissal bell. She was anything but thrilled. The first few days of every school year were very tiring, and the last thing she wanted was to have to face the principal this late in the afternoon. Refusal, however, was not an option.
Sean was coming out of a classroom as she passed by. He beamed at the sight of her. “Hi.”
“Hi. So far, so good?” Rachel asked pleasantly, trying to ignore the jolt of awareness she'd felt the moment she spied him again.
“No problems,” Sean said.
“You okay? You look kind of funny.”
Did her unwarranted reaction show? Oh dear! Hedging, she made a silly face at him. “ThanksâI think.”
“Actually, you remind me a lot of a condemned man on the way to the gallows.”
What a relief.
“Probably because I feel like one. I've been called to Principal Vanbruger's office and I don't have the slightest idea why. That kind of thing always gives me butterflies in my stomach.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Who knows. It's a little too early in the year for me to have earned a commendation for exemplary teaching, so I have to assume that's not why he wants to see me.”
“You never know. Maybe you're about to get a blue ribbon for your skipping skills.”
“Let's hope not.”
He fell into step beside her. “I'm headed your way. Mind if I walk along? Keep you company?”
“Aren't you afraid to be associated with a terrible rule-breaker like me?”
“Not as long as I don't catch you running with scissors,” he quipped. “I do have my limits.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Rachel couldn't help chuckling softly. The man seemed to have the kind of nature that lifted a person's spirits. That quality made him more appealing to her than any superficial attributes, like the fact that
he was every bit as handsome as her friends had insisted during lunch, when she'd carelessly mentioned having met him.
She and Sean reached the door to the school office. Rachel paused. “Well, this is it. Here I go.”
“Want me to hang around till you're done?”
She was amazed at his sensitivity. “No. I'll be fine. I just hate the idea of hearing that I'm not perfect.”
Sean arched an eyebrow. “I don't know. You look pretty good to me. Tell you what. If that guy Vanbruger picks on you, tell me, and I'll go let the air out of the tires on his bicycle so he knows better the next time.”
Amused, Rachel looked up into his kind face and caught a glimmer of deeper concern. He'd apparently been trying to distract her with his silly banter and was now waiting to see if he'd been successful.
She assumed a pseudo-serious expression, made a fist and punched him lightly in the upper arm as she said, “Thanks, buddy. It's good to know you're standing by in case I need avenging. But I don't think he rides a bicycle, so that's out. Guess I'll just have to take my chances.”
Turning, she reached for the doorknob. So did Sean.
His hand closed gently over hers. Their inadvertent touch sent tingles zinging up Rachel's arm and prickled in the tiny hairs at the nape of her neck.
She quickly slipped her hand from beneath his,
hoping he couldn't tell how bewildered her unexpected, fervent response had left her. Or how close she'd come to actually shivering just now!