Authors: Metsy Hingle
my husband, my lover, my friend
shes to ashes, dust to dust...”
Michael Grayson could barely make out the words of the muffled prayer as the priest's voice broke and faded in the brisk January wind.
“We commend our sister to you, Lord...”
Michael swallowed as he caught the word. He stared at the coffin. Rose petals escaped from the floral wreath positioned nearby and scattered across the ivory casket, creating bright splotches of color in the bleak New Orleans cemetery.
“Now that she has passed from this life...”
He glanced down at his seven-year-old niece. Dressed in the navy blue wool coat and white leggings he'd purchased for her a few days earlier, Summer stood dry-eyed and silent beside him. A strong gust swept over the grave site and she shivered. Michael moved behind her to block the wind.
“May she live on in your presence, oh, Lord...”
Michael shifted his gaze to the waiting tomb...the dark, lifeless crypt where Sara's body would soon rest.
His beautiful, free-spirited, younger sister. Michael squeezed his eyes shut. Images of Saraâlaughing, painting, holding baby Summer in her armsâraced across his shuttered lids like frames from a movie projector. The pictures slowed, stopping on his last memory of Saraâher face filled with defiance and fear. She'd been afraid when she'd left. For Summer, for herself, for him.
After six long years she'd come homeâin a coffin. And Summer... He opened his eyes and looked down at his niece. Summer had returned a strangerâto him and to the Western world.
“In your mercy and love, forgive whatever sins she may have committed...”
The attendants moved the granite slab away from the vault entrance. Michael took a deep breath. The ache that had taken root deep inside him when the call had come from India spread.
“Grant her eternal rest, oh, Lord...”
At the tug on his hand, Michael looked down into a pair of familiar green eyesâeyes identical to those that had viewed him and his family with such coldness, eyes he'd learned to hate.
“Uncle Mike,” Summer whispered again.
Michael shook his head to clear the image. Guilt surged through him as he studied the pale, heart-shaped face of his niece. She's a Grayson, he reminded himself, dropping down on one knee. “What is it, sweetheart?”
“Who's that lady?” She pointed to a tall woman standing across from them. “She's staring at me.”
Michael looked past the circle of mourners and sucked in an angry breath as his eyes locked with Martha Winthrop's. Even with the dark fur hat shadowing her face, he recognized the avaricious gleam in Martha's green eyes. Regal in her full-length ranch mink coat, she gave no indication of her sixty-eight years or the heart of ice she possessed.
“Nobody important,” Michael said, slanting a glance to the slender blond man standing beside Martha. He watched as Bradley Winthrop leaned closer and whispered something to his aunt.
important. Maybe she was a friend of my mother's.”
“No,” Michael said, his voice sharper than he'd intended. “She's not a friend.”
Moments later the service ended. After thanking the priest and small gathering of friends who had come to pay their respects, Michael looked one last time at the tomb. Turning away, he took Summer's hand and headed toward the waiting limousine. When he reached the car, the chauffeur opened the rear door. “Give me a minute,” he told the dark-suited driver, and the man obediently retreated.
Stooping down, Michael brushed a tangle of dark curls behind Summer's left ear. “Honey, you do understand that your mother's...gone, don't you?”
“You mean, she's dead,” Summer said matter-of-factly.
“Yes.” Once again, he marveled at the child's calm acceptance of her mother's death.
Michael stiffened at the sound of Martha Winthrop's voice. Slowly he rose to his feet and drew Summer to his side.
“I was sorry to hear about Sara's accident.”
“Were you?” Michael asked, making no attempt to hide his bitterness.
Martha's lips tightened, etching deep lines at the corners of her mouth, but her voice was cool, controlled. “Despite what you believe, I never wished your sister any ill will.”
“No. Not as long as she stayed away from your precious son.”
“If you'll recall, I did offer to help her before she ran off.”
“You mean you tried to buy her off! And when that didn't work, you used threats. If I had knownâ”
“That's enough, Grayson!” Bradley took a step toward Michael.
“Stop it,” Martha commanded. “You'll frighten the child.”
Bradley stilled, but his eyes flashed dangerously. Michael could almost smell the other man's anger.
Martha glared openly at both men before turning toward Summer. “Don't pay any attention to them, dear,” she said gently. “I'm Martha Winthrop and you must be Summer.” She held out her gloved hand.
Summer hesitated. She looked from Martha to Michael and back again. Tentatively, she shook Martha's hand. “You were staring at me,” she said.
A flicker of surprise crossed Martha's face. “Yes. I suppose I was.”
“Probably because I was so glad to see you again.” Martha stooped down in front of Summer and touched her cheek. “You were such a little thing the last time I saw you. You're even prettier now than I remembered.”
“You know me?”
“Did you know my mother, too?”
“Yes, dear.” Martha smiled. “I knew both of your parents.”
She shot Michael a triumphant look and he fought the urge to strangle the woman.
“I'm hoping now that you've come home, you and I can become friends. Would you like that?”
Anger and the beginnings of fear raced through Michael. He grabbed Summer's hand. “Come on, Summer. We have to go.” He ushered her inside the car and shut the door, then turned back to Martha. “I'm warning you. Stay away from her. There's no place in Summer's life for you or any Winthrop.”
“I have rights, Michael,” she whispered. Her voice dropped lower. “Or need I remind you that she's myâ”
a Grayson.” Michael took a menacing step toward her. “You may have been able to frighten my sister, but I don't scare so easily. If you come within so much as a mile of her...” He shot a glance at Bradley. “Either of youâI swear, I'll make you wish you'd never been born.”
Before she could respond, Michael marched over to the other side of the car and jerked open the door. He slid onto the seat beside Summer. As they pulled away from the cemetery, he looked in the side-view mirror. He recognized the determination in Martha's expression.
Gradually the figures grew smaller in the distance as the car moved slowly down the road. Curling his hands into fists, Michael looked over at his silent niece.
Don't worry, Sara. I'll never let her have Summer. Never.
ow did the kid do it? Michael wondered as he stepped inside the reception area of Saint Margaret's Grade School. How could one pint-size little girl manage to get into so much trouble?
Quickly he took in the familiar surroundingsâthe wall lined with file cabinets, bulletin boards crammed with colored bits of paper, an ever-changing assortment of parents and students waiting to meet with counselors and teachers. He glanced over at the closed doors leading to the offices of the principal and the school's administrative staff.
Bracing himself, he moved across the worn, beige tile and tried to ignore the annoying hum of the fluorescent lights overhead.
The silver-haired receptionist greeted him with a smile. “Can I help you?” she asked in a voice as thick and sweet as molasses.
“I'm Michael Grayson. Sister Mary Grace is expecting me.”
“I thought I recognized you, Mr. Grayson. You were here last week to see Sister Mary Grace, weren't you?”
“Yes, I was.” The truth was, he'd been to the principal's office four times in the six weeks since he had enrolled Summer.
“I thought so,” she said, obviously pleased at her recognitive ability. “You're little Summer's father.”
“Uncle,” he corrected. Impatient, he looked at the closed door to the principal's office again. “I'd appreciate your letting Sister know that I'm here.”
“Of course, but I'm afraid she's running a bit behind schedule today. She shouldn't be too much longer, though. You can have a seat if you'd like.” She gestured toward the row of metal chairs positioned along the wall. Two chairs were occupied by students who looked a bit green around the gills. A third seat was taken by a woman resembling Florence Henderson on the old “Brady Bunch” sitcom who was busily chatting with a pregnant brunette.
Michael eyed the two remaining seats. They looked small and uncomfortable. “Thanks, but I think I'll just stand,” he said, feeling extremely large and decidedly out of place.
“I guess you're here because of Summer's problem in Mrs. Green's class this morning,” the receptionist said.
Michael snapped to attention. “What problem?”
Amanda Bennett winced at the edge in his voice as she watched the exchange from the doorway.
So this is Michael Grayson.
Amanda took in the crop of dark hair, the navy jacket that spanned his wide shoulders, the large hands braced on the reception desk. One of the younger teachers had described him as a “hunk... Six foot plus of muscle and sex appeal.” Seeing him for the first time, she could understand the other woman's reaction.
“Oh, my.” The receptionist's face turned a bright pink. “I assumed Sister Mary Grace had told you...”
“Told me what?” he demanded.
Obviously, the “hunk” had a temper, Amanda thought, frowning. She studied the stiff lines of his body, his thunderous expression. And Gracie expected
to allow his niece to participate in the school's counseling program?
“I mean, I thought that was the reason you were here...because of what happened.”
He loomed over the desk and glared at the receptionist; the woman paled under his ferocious scowl.
No, Amanda decided. Michael Grayson definitely didn't look like the kind of man one “persuaded” to do anything. In fact, she suspected he did exactly what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it.
“Why don't you just tell me exactly what happened,” he commanded.
“Mrs. Evans,” Amanda said, stepping forward. “I believe Sister Mary Grace can see Mr. Grayson now.”
The other woman's shoulders slumped in obvious relief as Michael Grayson swung his angry gaze from the nervous Mrs. Evans to her. At the sight of those flashing blue eyes, Amanda immediately wondered at her wisdom in rescuing the older woman.
His gaze skimmed the length of her and suddenly Amanda felt as though her tailored lemon suit was much too daring.
Dismissing her reaction as foolish, Amanda tipped up her chin. “If you'll come with me, Mr. Grayson, I'll show you in to Sister Mary Grace.” Without waiting for his response, she turned and started toward the principal's office.
To Amanda, the few yards to Gracie's office seemed like a mile with
walking behind her. She could almost feel his eyes trained on her back, watching her movements. She tapped on the door.
“I didn't catch your name, Miss...”
Amanda turned to look at him and swallowed when she found him so close. She fought the urge to step back. “Bennett. Amanda Bennett,” she said, her voice more breathless than she would have liked.
“Come in,” Gracie called out.
Relieved at the prospect of putting distance between them, Amanda opened the door and entered the room. Michael followed.
“Mr. Grayson.” The tiny nun came bustling from behind her desk, a flurry of energy in a religious habit.
“Sister.” Michael shook her hand.
“I see you've already met Amanda,” Sister Mary Grace said.
“Yes, I have.” Cutting a glance to her, Michael smiled.
The simple movement of his lipsâslight though it wasâ softened the harsh lines of his face, warmed the coolness of those blue eyes. Amanda's pulse skittered in response.
“And of course, you know Mrs. Green.” Sister Mary Grace gestured toward the woman seated in front of the desk.
Michael's smile dissolved immediately. “Mrs. Green.”
Yes, Amanda decided, confirming her initial impression. Michael Grayson was definitely going to be difficult. She could only hope that if he loved his niece as much as Gracie seemed to think he did, he would listen to reason.
“Why don't you have a seat?” Sister Mary Grace motioned to the chair beside Mrs. Green's. When the nun had resumed her own seat, Amanda slipped into the chair adjacent to the desk so that she could observe him.
“I know how busy you are, and I appreciate your coming so quickly,” Sister Mary Grace began. “I wish all of our parents were as responsive as you.”
“Anything concerning my niece is important to me, Sister. What seems to be the problem?”
“The problem, Mr. Grayson, is that your niece insists on disrupting my class,” Frances Green informed him.
“Frances, please,” Sister Mary Grace admonished.
Michael narrowed his eyes. “And just how did she manage to disrupt your class this time, Mrs. Green?”
His voice was soft. Too soft, Amanda thought, noting the rigid line of his jaw.
“Well, for starters, she pretended to go into a trance in the middle of my lesson, and then sheâ”
“A trance?” Michael repeated.
“Not a trance,” Amanda corrected, noting the way his fingers had tightened around the arms of the chair. “She was meditating.”
“Call it whatever you like,” Frances Green countered, her too thin shoulders stiff with indignation. “All I know is the child kept staring off into space, pretending she couldn't hear me.”
Michael gritted his teeth. He hadn't thought it possible to dislike the sour-faced teacher more, but he did. “Maybe she didn't hear you,” Michael offered. He certainly wouldn't blame Summer if she had pretended not to hear the woman.
“Oh, she could hear me, all right. Why, if it hadn't been for Amanda...”
Michael moved his gaze from Mrs. Green to the blonde, trying once more to place her name and face among those staff members he'd met at the last PTA meeting. He took in the waterfall of blond hair, the trim waist and long legs. She had great legs, he thought, unable to resist looking at them again. No, Amanda Bennett hadn't been at the PTA meeting. If she had, he would certainly have remembered her.
“...And that awful humming sound she kept making,” Mrs. Green continued.
“Mantras,” Amanda explained.
He caught the New England accent again and his curiosity escalated another notch.
“Whatever,” Mrs. Green said. “All I know is that it gave me goose bumps.”
Pulling his attention back to Mrs. Green, Michael half listened as the woman droned on. He'd heard a similar tale last week when Summer had brought the talisman to school.
Frustrated, Michael wanted to demand once again that Summer be transferred to another class. But any such demand was pointless. Frances Green was the only religion teacher for the third grade. And if he wanted Summer to remain at Saint Margaret'sâand he didâshe had to take the class.
“As I've explained to Sister Mary Grace, I have nothing against your niece, Mr. Grayson. But these disruptions she's causing are affecting the other students.”
“I'll speak to Summer, Mrs. Green. You have my word, it won't happen again,” he assured her, biting back his frustration for Summer's sake.
“Thank you, Frances,” Sister Mary Grace said. “You can return to your students now.”
The birdlike woman stood primly. “Thank you, Sister. Amanda.” She inclined her head toward him. “Mr. Grayson.”
Michael nodded, still too irritated by the woman's lack of empathy to even speak. Didn't she realize what Summer had been through? The death of her mother? The adjustments she had had to make? He swallowed. Hell,
still hadn't gotten over the loss of his sister. And he wasn't a vulnerable seven-year-old. He glared at the teacher's retreating back.
“Don't be too hard on Frances,” Sister Mary Grace said after the woman had left the room. “She really is an excellent teacher, and she cares about her students.”
“I'm sure you'd be a better judge of that than I would, Sister. At any rate, I'm sorry about what happened today. It's my fault for allowing Summer to continue the meditation at home. Obviously that was a mistake. One that I intend to rectify.”
Amanda looked at Sister Mary Grace, then back at Michael. “Forgive me, Mr. Grayson. I realize this isn't any of my concern, but given Summer's background, do you think it's wise to discourage her from meditating?”
“You're right, Miss Bennett. It isn't any of your concern.”
He heard the nun draw in a sharp breath and Michael realized he'd gone too far. But before he could apologize, Amanda was shooting back.
“That may be, but considering all that she's been through and the adjustments she's having to make, your taking a hard line on her meditation now could prove damaging.”
“You seem to know a great deal about my niece, Miss Bennett,” he said, suspicious.
“She and I spent some time together after this morning's incident. We talked for a while.”
“I see,” he said in a voice that was deliberately calm. He didn't like the idea of Summer being questioned by anyone, particularly about her background. Questions had a way of leading to more questions. And some questions were best left unanswered. “And based on a few minutes of conversation, you think you're in a better position to judge what's right for my niece than I am?”
She didn't so much as twitch an eyebrow. “Perhaps I am. Perhaps not. But then, I hardly think six weeks as a guardian constitutes
being an authority.”
Michael frowned, wondering once more exactly who Amanda Bennett was and why she was so interested in his niece. “Obviously, Summer wasn't the only one who confided in you.” He glanced over at the silent nun.
Before Sister Mary Grace could speak, Amanda rushed on. “I assure you, Sister only spoke to me out of concern for your niece.”
“Listen, Miss Bennett, I don'tâ”
“Actually, it's Dr. Bennett,” Amanda informed him.
Michael narrowed his eyes. “Doctor?”
“Amanda's a child psychologist,” Sister Mary Grace explained. “She works with some of the children here at the school. Naturally, I called her when Frances told me what had happened.”
“I didn't realize Saint Margaret's employed a child psychologist on its staff,” Michael said, making no attempt to keep the coldness from his voice.
“It doesn't,” Amanda countered.
“Heavens, no,” Sister Mary Grace added. “Saint Margaret's could never afford to pay for Amanda's services. We're simply grateful that she's willing to give us a few afternoons each week.”
“That's very admirable of you, Dr. Bennett.”
“Not at all,” she returned in equally cool tones. “Since I'm not yet licensed to practice in Louisiana, volunteering at Saint Margaret's allows me to keep my feet wet while I study for the state exam. Besides, I find the work gratifying.”
“As Frances told you, Amanda was a tremendous help to us this morning,” Sister Mary Grace added. “She's the one who brought Summer out of the meditative state.”
Michael cut her a glance. “It seems I'm in your debt, Dr. Bennett.”
“Not at all. I was glad I could help.”
“Given the circumstances, I took the liberty of discussing the problems Summer's been having in school with Amanda,” Sister Mary Grace informed him. “I thought it might help to get a professional's perspective. I hope you don't mind.”
But he did mindâand very much. Forcing his voice to remain even, he said, “Sister, I know you meant well, but don't you think you're jumping the gun? I mean, just because Summer's had a few problems adjusting to the school doesn't mean she needs a child psychologist.”
“What would you consider reason enough?” Amanda asked.
Michael tensed. He could feel the muscle twitch in his left cheek. “To be honest, I can't think of any reason Summer would need a shrink.” They certainly hadn't helped his sister, he added silently.
Amanda bristled. She'd heard the term often enough, and there was no reason why having Michael Grayson call her by the unflattering name should bother her. But it did.
Sister Mary Grace sighed. “I'm sorry you feel that way, Mr. Grayson. I had hoped that perhaps with Amanda's help, we would have been able to allow Summer to remain at Saint Margaret's.”