High-pitched squeals and childish laughter drifted through the partially opened
windows into the first grade classroom. Tommy heard every happy cry and wondered
if his little girl was sharing in the innocent joy. He glanced over at Gina, who
sat stiff and unyielding as she listened to Ciarda's teacher drone on and on. From
the looks of it, she wasn't convinced by Miss Walker's psychobabble any more than
"…So you see that Ciarda's withdrawal is her attempt at getting attention-"
"Wrong," Gina said with a firm shake of her head. "Our daughter is upset about something. She's not attempting to get attention. She's crying out for help."
Miss Walker sat up straight in her chair. Her knuckles were white as she gripped a stick of chalk in her hand. Even though he was attuned to happenings on the playground, Tommy's watched the middle-aged woman's every move. She rarely made eye contact with him and when she did, she would quickly look away. She would then direct her gaze to Gina and hold it there; and he would continue to watch her and wonder why he unnerved her so.
"Well, perhaps things aren't harmonious in the home. I can only do so much here-"
"Our family is fine, Miss Walker," Tommy interjected, keeping his voice calm and neutral. The teacher jumped at his words anyway, causing Tommy to roll his eyes and shake his head. "We're not here to point fingers at you. We want to know how Ciarda responds in the classroom…with you and her classmates."
"We've noticed that over the last few weeks, she hasn't brought any papers home. When Miss Atkins was her teacher, Ciarda's bag was filled with her drawings and other homework assignments," Gina added. "We wonder if Ciarda's withdrawal may have something to do with the sudden change in teachers."
Miss Walker lifted her shoulders and shrugged. "I suppose. Some teachers encourage the younger students to become closer to them than they should which later proves difficult for the child."
"Ciarda was really fond of her first teacher," Tommy said, directing his gaze to his wife. "She chattered about her all the time. She rarely mentions Miss Walker."
Gina nodded in response to Tommy's observation. "I hadn't picked up on that until now… I suppose she could be sad about Miss Atkins' abrupt departure."
"There you have it," Miss Walker said, releasing an audible sigh. "If there isn't anything else…"
Tommy cocked an eyebrow at the woman's brazen attempt to end their meeting. When Gina looked at him to see if he had anything else to add, he decided to bite his tongue. His concerns about the teacher could wait until he and his wife were alone. "That's all. Thank you for your time."
Gina's hand slipped inside Tommy's and the couple headed for the door. As they reached it, Tommy looked back at the teacher and offered her faint smile. She returned the gesture, but the smile didn't quite reach her eyes. Before Tommy could ponder the reasons why, Gina tugged on his hand and the two were out of the door.
"She seemed…efficient," Gina commented as she and Tommy went outside in search of their daughters.
"Yeah," he responded, slowly. "I don't think she likes me."
Gina frowned. "How could anyone not like you? Of course, she likes you. You're a concerned father. Female teachers adore that and find it incredibly sexy."
Tommy chuckled softly. "That woman did not find me sexy and I thank the Lord for it!" They neared the playground and this time, Tommy pulled Gina back. His hand rested at her waist and he turned her towards their playing children. "Look at them. Alanna is having the time of her life and Ciarda is hanging back. Do you really think that Miss Atkins made that big of an impression on her?"
"I don't know what to think," Gina replied. "The answer seemed so simple a second ago and now, I don't know."
"Yeah, me too." His hand squeezed her waist and they stepped onto the playground. Sidestepping balls, helmets and other discarded toys, he asked, "What's our next step?"
Gina released a deep sigh. "We talk to her about Miss Atkins and explain to her that it's okay to miss someone. But that life goes on…"
"And if that doesn't work?" he asked, wanting to make sure that they had a back up plan in place just in case. He had a strong feeling that their little girl's happiness was at stake and he had no intentions of failing her.
"We'll have her spend some time with Auntie Keesha."
Tommy groaned softly. "Therapy at age 6. Where did we go wrong?"
"Ssh," Gina said. She gave him a smile that was meant to reassure them both. "Children have their ups and downs. We love them and we haven't gone wrong with that. Besides, she likes Keesha. If anyone can help us, it's my girl."
"Yeah, I suppose you're right," he agreed, "but in the meantime, it wouldn't hurt to run a background check on Miss Walker, now would it?"
Gina laughed at first. When he didn't join her, she quickly looked up at him. His green eyes were void of humor. Stunned by his reaction, she slowly nodded. "No, I guess it wouldn't."
A mug of steaming herbal tea and a plate of dry wheat toast were placed just within arms reach. A playful scowl creased Keesha's brow as merriment danced in her eyes. Leaning back against her chair, she smiled up at her attentive husband. "You're spoiling me."
"It's my right," he said with a shrug. "I can spoil you if I want to. And if you don't like it…"
"What?" Keesha asked, giggling at the defiant tone of Jason's voice. She tilted her face and asked again, "What would you do?"
Jason shrugged. In a dangerously low voice, he answered her. "I have connections, you know. I'll do whatever I have to."
"Ooh!" Keesha felt a tingle swirl through her body. His electric blue eyes bored into her brown ones, and somehow all of her senses were heightened. "That sounds like a threat," she responded in a throaty voice.
He crouched down beside her chair. One hand rested on her knee while the other slipped down to gently massage her lower back. "It's more like a promise, and one that I fully intend to keep. Whatever you need or want, the children or I will get. You're not to do anything."
Mildly irritated by his insistence, Keesha groaned. "You've said this before…"
"And I'll say it again until it sticks in that hard head of yours." He grasped her chin in gentle grip. Pulling her face towards his, he brushed his lips across hers. "You have a stubborn streak, my wonder woman, and a head like a brick. The next time you need something from the top shelf, tell me. No more climbing ladders. Do you hear me?"
Flashes of guilt darkened her chocolate brown eyes. "How did you know?"
"That's for me to know," he responded. "Just don't do it again."
She found herself bristling at his tone. She knew that his firmness was born from his love of her and their unborn child, but still something about it bothered her. He continued to look at her, as if he was waiting for her submission. In any other circumstances, Keesha would question his behavior. This time, she held her tongue. Instead, she changed the subject. "Have the children come home from school?"
Confusion flitted across his face. His stare became less determined until he finally lowered his gaze. After a few seconds, he looked back up at her. "What did you just say?"
"Sweetie," Keesha began, pressing her small hand to jaw, "are you okay?"
"I feel fine," he quickly assured her. "I just lost my train of thought. You asked me about the kids or something, right?"
"Yeah," she said, speaking slowly. "Are you sure that you're feeling okay?"
He gave her a smile that made her stomach flip flop. The tingles returned as his hand caressed her lower back again in long, sensuous strokes. "I'm feeling fine. Really. My mind just drifted off. It happens as you get older, you know."
"I wouldn't know," she said teasing him. "I'm still young."
"You'll always be my young, beautiful bride." He kissed her cheek and stared towards her mouth again. The sound of feet and returning children delayed his progress.
"Oh, wow," George announced as he entered his mother's office, "they're at it again."
Grace punched her brother's arm. "It's romantic," she told him.
"It's mushy," Ben decided, giggling as Jason rose and went after him. The little boy gave up without any struggle at all. He hugged Jason's neck as he was given a piggyback ride.
Keesha smiled at her family. "How was school today? Did you all behave?"
"Not me!" Ben said, giggling even more as Keesha wagged a finger at him.
"He's kidding, Mom," George replied. He went to Keesha and kissed her cheek. "How are you feeling?" He pointed at her tea and toast. "Is that lunch? You really should eat."
"Stop with the fussing," Keesha said, raising her hand. "I've already had one lecture today and I don't need another one."
"But you did eat today, right?" Grace asked. She frowned as she sat on the edge of Keesha's desk. She reached for her mother's hand. "Mama, tea and crackers aren't enough."
Keesha squeezed Grace's hand and reached for George's. "I'm fine. Don't worry, and just to set your mind at ease, this is a before dinner snack. Morning sickness isn't nearly as bad this time around. I promise. And speaking of dinner, what do you guys want?"
"For the next year, dinner isn't something that you'll have to worry about," Jason said after he lowered Ben to the floor. "George and Grace will take care of that," he said with a chuckle.
"Thanks, Dad," George groaned good-naturedly. "Grace can't boil water let alone make a meal."
"I do okay!" Grace said, defending herself.
"You sure do, princess," Jason said, wrapping his arm around Grace's shoulder. "Just remind me to up your allowance for the delivery guy's tips."
"Oh, Daddy!" Grace's laughter joined that of the rest of her family's.
"Hey, what's going? I haven't heard from you. Call me."
Footsteps rustled behind her and Dawn lowered the cordless phone down onto the end table. She turned around just in time to see her son move away from the doorway. "Dominik!" she called, leaving the library to go after him. "Why did you leave?" she asked as she caught up to him.
"You were busy," he mumbled. He dropped his head down, cleverly averting his gaze from her inquisitive eyes.
Dawn was not to be so easily fooled. She gently placed her fingertips underneath his chin and tilted his face upwards. The sadness in his brown eyes mirrored the pain that she had seen in his father's eyes. Stunned, her breath caught in her throat. She cupped his young face between her hands and with urgency asked, "Baby, what's wrong?"
"Nothing," he said, trying unsuccessfully to pull himself free.
"Yes, there is," she said, putting full confidence in her maternal instincts. "Talk to me."
"You were calling Uncle," he said, disapproval coloring his voice. "You miss him."
Dawn frowned. He obviously knew about the 'affair' with Lorenzo. Grief and regret pierced her heart. She never wanted her babies to believe that she loved anyone other than their father. She should have realized that Dominik was older and more than likely would want answers for abandoning their family. She hadn't realized that Nikolas would tell him about her and his brother, though.
She wasn't sure what would be her best approach with him. She couldn't tell him the complete truth, but it hurt her to think that he believed the worst about her. She hated to think that he would never fully trust her again. She decided to win his trust again, that she would have to trust him…with some of the truth.
Dawn nodded. "Yes, I was calling your uncle and yes, I do miss him."
"You'll leave again-"
"No," she interjected. She lowered hands to grasp his thin, young shoulders. "I am here to stay."
"Papa won't like that you called Uncle," Dominik told her. "You can't call him anymore, Mama. Promise me that you won't."
"Dom," she sighed. She knelt down so that they were eye level. "Your Papa understands that I have to talk to your uncle sometimes-"
"No," the young boy vehemently shook his head, "Papa doesn't understand. He'll think you'll leave again. He will be sad again. He won't forgive you again, Mama. I know that he won't!"
"Dominik!" she said, sharply when she feared that he would become hysterical. "Nikolas and I… Baby, there are things that happen between us that you… Your father and I have an understanding. Your uncle is his brother, and they love each other. Your uncle knows that I am here with you, your sister and your father. He won't interfere with that."
"I don't believe you," he said as water began to wet his eyes. "You were with us before and he didn't care. He took you away from us. I hate him."
"Oh, Dommie," she cried, pulling him into her arms. Silently she cursed the people who continued to torment her family even as she crooned words of understanding to her son. "Don't hate him. He didn't mean to hurt you, and he loves you very much."
"I don't love him."
"Maybe not right now," Dawn admitted, "but maybe one day you will again. Remember how he used to sing to you…play basketball…teach you the guitar. He's the same man, and he always will be-"
"I won't forgive him," the boy sniffled as he made his admission. "Ever."
Continuing to rock him, Dawn asked him quietly, "So do you hate me, too?"
Dominik buried his face in her neck, but didn't answer her. His tears fell faster.
Dawn patted his back, as she held him. "I would understand if you did. And if you didn't forgive me, too. I would understand, Dominik. I hurt you, and I'm sorry. If I could take it all back, I would. I would rather die than hurt you-"
"Mommy, don't say that!" Dominik pulled himself from her arms to look at her. Tears streamed down his cheeks and he brushed them away in quick, hurried strokes. "I don't want you to die, Mommy!"
"Ssh. Come here," Dawn said, opening her arms to him again. He went back into her arms and they held onto each other for dear life. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. Of course, you don't want me to die. I just meant that it hurts me to know that I've hurt you. It was the last thing that I've ever wanted to do. I love you so much. You and your sister mean everything to me."
"And, Papa?" he whispered. His breath was hot against her cheek. "You love Papa, too."
He phrased it as a statement, but Dawn didn't miss that he was asking her a question. And judging from the way his arms tightened around her, she knew how much the answer meant to him. "Very much," she told him. "Everything and very much."
His quiet sigh of relief caused her soul to tremble. He had forgiven her.