Chapter 1 scene 2
Gina breathed in and an out, allowing only her clenched fists, hidden behind her desk, to be the sole outward manifestation of her emotion.
She knew she’d run into Zach sooner or later. She’d thought she would be ready for it. She even thought that the encounter would mean nothing, after all these years.
But it did mean something. A lot of something.
It meant her pulse sped up. Her stomach fluttered. Her head throbbed. And her heart regretted.
But none of that was important now.
As she’d been doing all her adult life, she compartmentalized and focused on the issue at hand.
“Thank you for coming in.” That’s how she started all her meetings, on a positive note.
“Sorry to be late. A cow went into labor and—,”
She waved away his excuse. “It happens. Ranching life, right?”
“You remember?” He sounded surprised, as if she could forget a lifetime of waiting for the work to get done first.
“City life isn’t so different. There’s always something making folks late there, too.” But in the city, in her life, she wasn’t waiting on the birth of a calf. She was waiting for the bars to close, waiting for her husband to come home, waiting for the sound of the door closing so she could judge his mood.
Project calm. Project control.
She was usually good at it. Seeing Zach had her off her game.
If only he had aged poorly, or looked slovenly. If only he didn’t bring back memories of that one turning point in her life that she would turn back time to undo.
Her father had said Zach was like a wild stallion. He hadn’t meant it to be a compliment, but teen-aged Gina had taken it that way.
Today, Zach was unbent by the past decade and a half. His shoulders were broader and stronger since they’d last said goodbye. His shadow of stubble and dark brown curls only made him look unbroken, wild and spirited. The exact opposite of how she had turned out.
His jaw was stronger than she remembered, testimony that he’d had to grit his way through some tough times. But his eyes, those amber eyes, could still look into her soul if she would let him.
But she’d said no too long ago to take it back now. Besides, she wasn’t sure he’d like what he saw there.
She put her hands in her lap to hide her twitchy fingers.
“I’ve called you in today to discuss some issues with Cade.”
His eyes narrowed. He shifted in his chair and gripped the armrests like he was holding himself in. He uncrossed his legs and braced his feet firmly on the floor. “The kid with the black eye?”
Gina wasn’t sure who Zach was readying himself to defend, but he had gone full predator mode.
Her first inclination was to shrink in on herself in full armadillo defense.
Deep breath in through her nose, then out through barely parted lips.
She was safe here in her office just a shout out away from the reception desk.
And then her adrenaline drained and she could rationalize that she had overread his reactions. Another person wouldn’t have even noticed the subtle body weight shift, much less assumed an imminent attack.
And this was Zach.
She may not know what kind of a man he had grown into, but she was certain he would never hit her, or any other woman.
She took a deep breath. “That kid is mine. The black eye? Nothing to do with Cade.”
She was rather proud of herself for her calm delivery, even though every time she thought of her son being hurt, an inferno of rage burned through her.
She took a more distanced look at Zach. He still sat forward in his chair, but his face now showed surprise.
That she had a son? She’d figured that the Sagebrush grapevine would have revealed that tidbit a long time ago. But her mother had never been a gossip and she’d left behind everyone else she knew here, so maybe the town didn’t know that much about her life in San Francisco.
“This discussion is about Cade’s school performance. I was expecting Cade’s father, though.”
“Adam is out of town for a while.” The way Zach bit off the words, Gina wondered what was behind them. But then, it wasn’t any of her business, was it? Cade was her business. Not Zach or Adam.
“Cade isn’t doing well in his classes, when he bothers to attend them.”
“He’s been skipping out? How? He doesn’t even have a way to get off campus.”
If things were truly like old times between them, she would have smirked and asked, This, from the master of missed classes?
Instead, she worked at keeping a professional face when she answered, “Students have been figuring that one out for decades.”
“You’re right, of course.” His self-deprecating grin said he’d caught her unsaid thought. Then he got serious. “How bad is it?”
“He isn’t passing any of his classes.”
“Because he’s not showing up and not doing the work.”
“Why? When?” Zach leaned forward, looked down at the floor then up again. “When did this start?”
“I’ve asked around. His grades last year were fine. Not great, but acceptable. However, it seems that most of his teachers padded his grades even though he wasn’t doing passing work in sympathy with his circumstances. One of the teachers mentioned that one of the coaches said he would entice Cade to study better by promising him a position on the football team if he got his grades up.”
She shrugged. “It works for a lot of the boys.”
“Only if the boy wants to play football in the first place.”
“Noted.” Neither the coaches nor the teachers had mentioned that Cade might not be interested in their sports enticement. “Plan B then.”
Zach wasn’t ready to move on yet, though. “So he started off behind this year. No one mentioned this to Adam?”
“From what I understand, Adam wasn’t very accessible last year.” While medical information wasn’t supposed to be public, in a town this small, everyone knew everyone else’s circumstances.
Zach nodded in agreement. “To tell you the truth, last year is just a blur in my mind. All of us were barely hanging on.”
Gina blinked. Had Zach just admitted to a vulnerability?
If so, old Judge Rivers must be twisting in his jail cell right now. Excuses or weakness of any sort was never to be admitted to in the Rivers family.
So many secrets. So many lives poorly lived because of them.
“How do we fix this?”
“First, I’d like to strongly suggest that Cade’s vision be tested.”
“What?” Zach blinked a few times. “He can’t see?”
“We might have an easy answer in glasses, or we might have a more complex one in learning disabilities.” She wanted to mention another possibility, emotional trauma, but too many folks didn’t take that one well, especially for their children. She would ease into that suggestion.
Zach ran his fingers through his hair, a gesture she remembered too well.
“He might be having trouble with his vision? I should have noticed.”
Still same old Zach, carrying the weight of the whole family on his shoulders.
She used her clinical instructional tone. “In puberty, especially in growth spurts, the eyeball grows and elongates quickly just like other body parts. This can cause temporary near-sightedness which may work itself out when growth slows down or stops. This may have just happened, practically overnight.”
“Okay. Glasses. That’s the easy part, isn’t it.”
“Yes, that’s the easy part. I’ve spoken with his teachers. Pulling him from Geometry and putting him back in Algebra I would be the smart thing for math. We can arrange his credits to include General Math instead of pre-Calculus his Senior Year. His English teacher is also the Drama Club sponsor. The play this year is Macbeth which also happens to be the required reading that Cade has failed to test for. She has agreed that if Cade will be part of the production, she will accept his participation as his Macbeth grade. Those are the two main subjects we have to get him caught up in. The rest, he may be able to pull up with excellent test grades and extra credit.”
Gina paused, giving Zach a moment to process the plan.
Braced for the anger or denial or blame that too many parents reacted with, Gina was shocked to see Zach smile instead. A big, honest smile that reached his eyes.
“I take it that you’re good with this plan?”
“Cade as a theater kid.” Zach grinned. “Yeah. I’m good with it.”
“Your part will be taking care of the eye exam and taking care of the truancy problem.”
“Cade will have to agree to the plan, too.”
“So you think he’ll cooperate with the Drama Club part?”
“I’m sure he will.” Zach had determination in his voice, but also a spark in his eye.
Gina wanted to launch into an educator’s textbook lecture about teens and cooperation instead of coercion. She wanted to caution Zach about making the Drama Club sound like a silly punishment instead of an enlightening opportunity. She wanted to find out what he’d been doing these last years since they’d been apart, while his voice did funny things to her spine.
But then the bell rang, signaling the last bus and Zach took that as his signal to stand up, readying himself to leave.
Which was for the best, because, after all these years, she really wanted him to stay.