True-Blue Texan

True-Blue Texan

A Starting Over Novel - Book 1 is FREE!
STARTING OVER…

Brave. Bold. Brainy. One woman reached for the gold, one for the law, one for the university, and one ran as far from home as possible. But often, the best laid plans fall apart, and Starting Over is the only thing to do.

A fish out of water. University instructor, Katherine Kirby, reluctantly faces a new city and a new job. How could she, who was used to teaching eager undergraduates at a prestigious college, relate to a class of adult high school dropouts seeking an equivalency diploma. She has no family, no love in her life, and no choice but to jump into her new position and do the best she can. After all, it’s only temporary while she gets her career back on track.  

Her new students, however, begin to touch her heart.  Especially the tall, dark Texan in the second row. Successful business owner, Nick Martinelli’s presence in her class is a secret--from his parents, his customers and the entire city. But his interest in Katherine is no secret. In his desire to teach the teacher, however, Nick learns a little something himself.

Coming Soon!
 
 
Prologue

Katrin Kowalski darted between the sliding glass doors of the emergency room, barely waiting to clear the metal edges, before accosting the first pair of scrubs she saw.

“The Kowalskis? Where are they? There was a car accident.” She heard the fear in her voice, tasted it, and ignored it as she’d ignored the wind and snow on this frigid Chicago night.

“You’re the daughter?”

Katrin nodded.

“Let’s go, honey,” said the female with the stethoscope. “You might get to see your mother. The doc’s with her now.”

What about her father? The thought flitted in and out of Katrin’s brain, but she focused only on moving quickly through the corridors of the trauma area, past the cries, the moans, the odors of alcohol, ammonia, and blood. She wrinkled her nose, shoved her uncombed hair under her knit hat and couldn’t wait to get back to the dorm.

“Wait right here a moment, Ms. Kowalski,” said the medic as she opened a door to a separate room off the main emergency ward. “I’ll tell the doc you’re here.”

But Katrin almost stepped on the woman’s heels as she followed her into the room...and then wished she’d taken a moment to prepare.

Tubes, wires, monitors, mechanical beeps measured the pulse of her mother’s life. Helen Kowalski lay beneath a labyrinth of medical devices, almost unrecognizable, her face swollen with purple bruises, the bandage around her head stained with blood. But it was her stillness that clutched at Katrin’s heart. Her mom was never still. Always bustling. Always doing. Always wanting to do for her daughter.

Katrin looked at the doctor who stood at her mother’s bed. “What...what...?”

“Her injuries are very bad,” he began. “Come outside where we can talk.” He glanced at the assistant and then at the bed next to Helen Kowalski, a bed with a sheet drawn over the person who lay there. The assistant shook her head ever so slightly.

“What?” asked Katrin, as she looked from one to the other. “What’s going on?” Her breath hitched in her throat as understanding broke through. And she knew she’d never see her dad again. Never hear his booming, old-world-accented voice filled with pride for his beautiful daughter. As though no other man had ever fathered a child.

“It’s Papa, isn’t it?” she asked, reverting to the familiar title from her childhood.

The sympathy in the eyes of the medics answered her question. She took a deep breath and willed the pain aside. There wasn’t time for it now. She walked to her mother and gently stroked her hand.

“She’s in critical condition, Ms. Kowalski. Her injuries are massive. She’s bleeding internally; her blood pressure’s dropped. We’ve got an IV going with whole blood, antibiotics, and nutrition, and we’ve made her more comfortable, but that’s all we can do now. She won’t survive an operation at this point.”

The doctor’s words twirled inside Katrin’s brain, medical mumbo-jumbo that she understood only superficially. Healthy nineteen-year-olds didn’t often think of death.

“Mama, Mama,” she cooed, hoping her voice wouldn’t crack. She rubbed Helen’s arm over and over again. “Wake up. It’s Katrin.”  She twined her fingers with her mother’s and willed her young strength into the older woman. “Please, Mama, wake up.”

She felt an answering squeeze and turned at once to the doctor. “She knows I’m here. She knows.”

“Maybe,” he replied. “She’s in a light coma. Her head hit that windshield straight on.”

She didn’t care what the doctor was implying. Her mother was a fighter and she’d get well. She would. Katrin started talking again, the same words over and over. “It’s Katrin. I’m here. Wake up.”

“Yes, yes,” murmured Helen, opening her eyes. “I waited for you, my Katrin.”  Her eyes closed again and she seemed to doze.

“Please, Mama....”

“Der’s insurance money for you,” she whispered. “Enough for college and more. Sell the house. You’ll get a little money. You don’t come much anyway. I like dat you call me Mama again.”

Shame washed over Katrin. She felt the heat of it climb from her neck to her face. Since junior high school, she’d been on a campaign to Americanize her Polish-born parents. Helen had become Mom.  Papa had become Dad, even Daddy at times.

“You get better, Mama. I’ll be with you.”

The corner of her mother’s mouth lifted, but her eyes remained closed. “You’re my gutt girl, Katrin,” she whispered. “No time for me. You finish school. Get married. An educated man. Education is every...thing. But also a good man. A man like your papa. Listen to your mama.”

Katrin gripped her mother’s hand. “Yes, Mama. I know. I’ll do it.” She would have agreed to anything by then to ease her mother’s mind. She bent closer and heard Helen’s words of love trickling and fading from her lips in the old language, until the beeping of the monitor changed into an unbroken whistle and there were no more words.

“I love you, too, Mama,” she sobbed, unconsciously translating and replying.

But Helen couldn’t hear her, and Katrin knew it.

She raised her head and stared wildly around the room. A white blur. Nothing was real. Her mouth opened and closed, but no words emerged. She reached...she stumbled to the other bed. Please. Please. Maybe it was someone else. Anyone, except her strong, adoring Papa. She lifted the sheet...and howled.

 

Chapter One

Ten years later...

The elegant blonde moved through the crowd with natural grace, like warm golden honey flowing from a jar. Smooth hip action and a gently rounded derriere, with a pair of legs that didn’t quit. And that was just the back view.

A beautiful feast for a man’s tired eyes.

The thought surprised him. Except for his sisters, women weren’t part of his personal life anymore, not since his world had come to a screeching halt two years earlier. His stomach tightened at the memory.

Nick Martinelli took a deep breath and paced himself as he followed the blonde down the busy corridor of Houston Community College. He ignored the excited chatter, the ebb and flow of fellow students searching for their rooms on this first night of the summer session. He felt his mouth twist into a wry smile.  Summer session be damned. It was his first time inside a school building in eighteen years, and he felt about as comfortable as a non-swimmer tossed into the deep end of a pool.

He saw the blonde pause and tip her head back, checking the numbers on the classrooms they passed. Her profile lived up to the promise. Creamy complexion, short straight nose, and light eyes—blue or perhaps green—framed by thick lashes. With her slim, straight posture and perfectly arranged features, she exuded class with a capital C. An uptown girl.

He checked his watch again and picked up speed. The woman had intrigued him for the moment, and he’d remember her face, but he couldn’t afford to miss a minute of class time. Not if he finally wanted to earn his high-school diploma.

When he looked up, the blonde was gone, and he felt himself relax. Man, he was still raw. The old Nick would have gobbled her up in a minute, but now?—now he’d stick to running the family business and studying for his GED. He’d surprise his folks with that diploma. They’d waited long enough.

He’d figured it all out. With more than full-time job responsibilities during the day, and part-time classes in the evening, his life would be brimming with real challenges. Very complete. Very busy. Just the way he wanted it.

He found the right classroom, paused on the threshold, and felt his steady heartbeat accelerate into a wild tarantella, before a reluctant smile spread across his face.

There she stood in front of the room, spine straight, looking like royalty with her hair swept up in some sophisticated style. A pale cool goddess. He nodded, took a seat at a worn narrow table in the middle of the second row, and studied her again.

With her fingers laced tightly at her waist, the tips were turning white. A pulse throbbed in her neck, beating as rapidly as a hummingbird’s wings. His thoughts raced until there wasn’t a doubt in his mind. The goddess was scared to death.

He settled back in his faded green plastic chair and stretched his long legs out in front of him. Yes, sir. Returning to school was becoming more interesting with each passing minute.

“My name is Katherine Kirby and I’ll be your instructor for this review class for the GED exam. If you pass it, you’ll have earned your high school equivalency diploma, which will give you the same rights and privileges a traditional high school graduate has.”

Clutching a pencil in one hand, Katherine reached for the scratched wooden desk in front of her and gripped hard. Then she gulped for air. Pathetic. She was pathetic. After four years of teaching at impressive Chicago schools, she was now falling apart in this community college with a bunch of dropouts. Never before had she felt this nervous on the job. Not on the first day of her first university assignment, not while being monitored by supervisors, not when being evaluated by students, and not when teaching complex and challenging literature courses. So what pushed her over the edge today?

She studied the group assembled in front of her. Seated three to a table, they were a motley crew of all ages, dress styles, and ethnic backgrounds, and they hadn’t been to school since who-knew-when. No wonder she was nervous. Teaching in this unfamiliar environment was a last resort, not what she’d wanted at all. But she’d needed a job and she’d taken it. And she’d certainly do her best for the class, but...but in her heart she knew she didn’t belong here. She belonged working with eager learners at a university, fresh faced and curious, energetic readers with bright minds.

Before her sat twenty-six tired-looking people whose minds had probably shut down for the day. They needed a teacher committed to a basic-skills education, described in school catalogs as educational development. Katherine’s dreams focused on the challenge of higher education.

“Class starts promptly at four o’clock and ends at seven, four nights a week, Monday through Thursday. Three absences are allowed. There’s a No Lateness policy.”

A low murmur traveled through the room at her announcement.

“Sorry, Ms. Kirby. That won’t work.”

It was the dark-haired man in the second row, with the mahogany eyes and the jaw that spelled trouble. A pair of broad shoulders didn’t help. Neither did his muscular chest. Not her type at all. She preferred the academic cut. Lean and learned.

“And you are?”

“Nick Martinelli. And I’m telling you straight out, Ms. Kirby, folks are going to be late sometimes. Almost all of us are coming from work.”

“You should have made arrangements with your employer before now, Mr. Martinelli,” she replied. “The class schedule was listed in the bulletin.”

He chuckled in response, his eyes twinkling, his rugged features relaxed as he answered her. “I am the employer, Ms. Kirby. Martinelli Construction. I put in more hours than any of my crews, and I’ll do my best to be here on time, but that’s all I can promise.”

“Me, too,” said another student.

“It’s hard, ma’am,” said a third.

She had to establish the rules at the beginning or there would be constant confusion and no progress made. Students didn’t understand that a lecture couldn’t be made up by reading the information in a book. They’d lose the opportunity to ask questions and explore ideas with others. In her classes, the only excuse for absence was illness.

“Today is June the first. We have just ten weeks to cover an enormous amount of material before you sit for your exam in August. My job is to get you through the curriculum successfully. Your job is to be here on time.” She eyeballed each student for a full second before continuing to the next one. “Every minute counts; there’s no time for make-up classes. If you miss class, you’ll have to work with a classmate, or struggle on your own. Do I make myself clear?”

One deep voice responded. “You’ve made yourself so clear, Ms. Kirby, I can see right through you.”

Crack! Her pencil snapped. She looked down at the pieces in her hand, then at Nick Martinelli. His gaze fastened on her and she couldn’t move, could barely breathe. Those gleaming, observant eyes seemed to prove his statement. For a moment, she felt totally exposed. Then the corner of his mouth lifted, a slow smile emerged, and suddenly the spell was broken.

She turned swiftly and walked to the board on trembling legs. “Shall we begin?”

In the next hour, she focused only on her work, sharing her recent knowledge of the GED testing requirements. She outlined the format of the class on the white erase board, and distributed five dog-eared soft covered books to each student, one for every subject on the exam. For the first time in years, she’d be involved with science, math, and social studies. She’d need to refresh her own algebra and geometry skills. High school chemistry and physics would be an equal challenge, so she’d be only about one step ahead of her students.

She sighed. This class would be an even bigger disaster than she’d first thought. And she had only herself to blame.

#

“Thank Heavens,” murmured Katherine at eight-thirty that evening as she turned into the driveway of her friend’s apartment complex. Finally home after an hour’s effort to find the place. Getting lost at night in a strange city might be understandable, but also unnerving. Possessing a sense of direction would have helped. She sighed in disgust. That particular gene seemed to be missing from her DNA. She’d need to buy a GPS.

Suzanne’s high-rise condo was a beautifully sculpted building on lushly landscaped grounds, with a shaded outdoor track, walking paths, a man-made lake, and an indoor spa. A grand lifestyle that Suzanne could well afford, not on her university salary, but because of a hefty trust fund bequeathed by her grandparents. Katherine’s safety net fell far short of her friend’s.

She gratefully pulled her dependable Honda into a guest parking spot and shut off the ignition. After walking into the elegant lobby, she took the elevator up to the third floor.

“So how’d it go?” Suzanne Baxter stood on the apartment threshold, dark eyes twinkling, curiosity written on her gamine face.

Katherine glared at her long-time friend with whom she had shared a dorm room, clothes, and tragedy. They’d never discussed the last part—Katherine’s rules. But the affection she had for Suzanne remained as steady as a drumbeat. Katherine walked past her now and tossed her heavy bookbag onto the foyer table without saying a word.

“That good, huh?” prodded Suzannne.

Katherine turned and met her friend’s gaze. “I should have stayed in Chicago.”

“Wrong!” said Suzanne. “You needed a change, a new beginning. The fact is, you needed a job. You had no chance of getting another university position without a doctorate, no matter how good you are with the students.” She walked into the kitchen and took a lasagna out of the oven—the frozen kind—then tossed over her shoulder, “You should have moved down here five years ago when I did.”

Katherine smiled and shook her head. She’d heard variations of the same refrain since Suzanne had returned to Texas.  “Houston’s your hometown, Suze, not mine. Maybe I did need a change of scene, but I never should have let you talk me into this job.”

Katherine joined Suzanne in the kitchen and reached into the cabinet for plates. “I knew a community college would be different than a university, but I was supposed to have a full-time schedule of freshman English classes. Instead I wound up with the GED prep course at night and only one English Comp course during the day.” She paused and stared at a vacant spot on the wall. “I’m disappointed, Suze, both for the sake of the work and for the loss of income.”

In a flash, Suzanne was at her side. “It’s no one’s fault, Kath. Sometimes not enough students enroll and classes are canceled.”

“Oh, I know that, but—”

“And don’t you worry about money,” interrupted Suzanne. “I’ll write you any size check you need.”

But Katherine shook her head, smiling at her friend’s concern. “I know you would, Suze, just like you’ve offered, maybe, fifty times in the last ten years. But my own nest egg is still intact. Not to worry.”

Suzanne threw her friend a measuring glance. “The schedule is just for the summer,” she encouraged. “In the fall, you’ll have lots of regular English classes, literature and composition, maybe day and night. I’m glad you didn’t know about this change in advance, or you’d never have taken the job, and you’d never have come down here.”

Suzanne knew her too well, thought Katherine as she grabbed her heavy bookbag from the hall table and brought it into the kitchen. She’d never have been brave enough to relocate without the absolute security of a good full-time position. She’d have continued her job search in Chicago and hoped for the best.

“It’s going to be a very long summer,” she said, pointing to her books, now sharing the table with the lasagna. “Inside those volumes are the secrets of ionic bonding and the Pythagorean theorem, as well as prosaic fractions, percentages, and decimal problems.” She put her hands on her hips. “Look at me, Suzanne. Do I look like a person who remembers the Periodic Table of the Elements?”

Suzanne giggled as she’d done when they’d been eighteen, and suddenly all the years in between disappeared.

“You look,” she said, “like you always do when you’re thrown off balance. You’re scared, but you come up fighting. Always. You’re a wonderful teacher. You’ll review the material once and you’ll remember it. In fact,” Suzanne continued with a smug expression, “you’ll thank me for arranging the job interview in the first place.”

“Is that the same as saying, ‘It’s for your own good?’ And would you please stop laughing?” But Katherine knew the edge was gone from her voice. Suzanne was good medicine. The dark eyed, dark haired ball-of-fire could exasperate her more than anyone else, but was the sister she’d never had. If exasperation was the price for a sister, Katherine would gladly pay it.

“You really should thank me.” Suzanne smirked as she transferred a portion of lasagna to each plate. “I got you out of the harsh, cold north and introduced you to a new way of life.”

“You introduced me to highway loops that go in circles, Houston heat that’s unrelenting, and...”

“...the best margaritas this side of the Rio Grande.”

Katherine grinned at her friend and took her seat at the table. “True enough.” She raised her hands in defeat. “Okay. You win. I’ll finish this summer session, but I’ll also mail resumes to every four-year college and university in Texas, and then, we’ll see.”

Suzanne’s eyes twinkled. “You don’t really mean that,” she said. “El Paso is almost 800 miles away!  You’d be as close to Los Angeles as you are to Houston.”

Katherine gently slapped her own forehead. “I keep forgetting how big this place is. I guess I’ll start with a three-hundred-mile radius.”

“Wonderful!” said Suzanne. “I was starting to get worried, Kath. You push yourself too hard. You don’t have any fun. Which reminds me, what ever happened to what’s-his-name from the university?”

“The John Donne wannabe?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, well, umm...he wished me a lot of luck.”

“What a dork! Forget him and stick with me. I’ll introduce you to lots of great guys. Handsome guys, brainy guys, and guys with tight buns.”

Like Nick Martinelli. The thought flashed through Katherine’s brain and she slammed her eyes shut. She wished she could shut down her mind, but his image remained etched there, every feature clearly limned. Damn! She didn’t need this. She didn’t need more complications in her already confusing life.

She looked at Suzanne, noted the determined gleam in her friend’s eye, and knew that she had just become one of Suzanne’s infamous projects. She groaned silently. Time to find her own apartment ASAP.

“At least get the priorities right, Suze. Brainy comes first.”

But Suzanne continued as though Katherine hadn’t interrupted. “A job and a man. That’s what you need, and not necessarily in that order. I’ll do what I can.”

Katherine rolled her eyes, then concentrated on her food.

“Jobwise, the truth is not pretty,” Suzanne said. “Without a doctorate, you’ll never get hired on the tenured track anywhere. That’s why I took two years off and finished the damn thing. And now students at the University of Houston call me Dr. Baxter.”

“Unfortunately, I can’t do the same.” Katherine knew her voice sounded crisp, a little defensive, even a little jealous. She’d give almost anything to be able to focus only on her dissertation and get that degree. “But I’ve made some progress. My course work is completed. All I have left is the dissertation.”

“But that’s the hardest part. It could take another two years.”

“Or longer,” Katherine said. “But I have to get the degree. If I could get an instructor’s position at a good college and write my dissertation at the same time, I’d be set.”

“Maybe. But what’s your Plan B?” asked Suzanne. “You know what they say about the best laid plans, don’t you?”

“I know what Robert Burns said about ‘the best laid schemes o’ mice and men...” replied Katherine with a smile.

“That’s the one” said Suzanne. “They often go astray. I don’t give a fig for the mice, but let’s talk about the men.”

“Do they go astray, too?” Katherine asked, trying to keep a straight face as she cleared the dishes from the table and repacked her books.

“My man had better not. Not if he wants to retain the manly equipment he’s so proud of!” Suzanne joked with the confidence of someone who knew she had nothing to worry about. David Carter was topsy-turvy in love with her and didn’t hide it.

Suddenly, Nick Martinelli’s image flashed through Katherine’s mind again. A confident, outspoken, all American male, long legged with tight buns. “The men grow too big in Texas,” she murmured, while recalling the dark-haired man moving with sure-footed grace through her classroom during the ten-minute break. By the end of the evening, he’d chatted with over half the class, but not with her. Which was fine. After all, she was the instructor.

“Nah,” replied Suzanne, rising from her chair and stretching her arms overhead. “They only think they’re bigger and better than everyone else.”

“No comment.”

#

Thirty minutes later, Katherine stood in front of the mirror in the guest bathroom brushing her hair. Released from confinement, her thick mane fell past her shoulders and halfway down her back with barely a wave. Totally unchic. And after she wove it into one thick braid for the night, she’d look about twelve years old. Certainly not the image of a college professor!

She should just lop it all off. Be done with it. She’d lifted the scissor so many times in the past, but faint echoes of her papa’s voice always stilled her hand.

“Can we make my Katrin beautiful today?” he’d ask every morning with a twinkle in his eye. “Is there a hope for it?”  And he’d take the hairbrush and perform the morning ritual, fixing her long hair into a ponytail or braids, perfect for an eight-year-old.

She closed her eyes, put the brush in her lap, and massaged her temples. Maybe now was the right time to cut it. A new look. She was twenty-nine years old, at a crossroads in her life. The path behind her had been strewn with exploding land mines, and ahead of her...?

She looked into the mirror once more. Ahead of her lay enormous challenge and no guarantees. Her head started to pound. She’d lost two positions already for not having the right credentials, eclipsed by individuals with higher degrees than hers. Yes, she’d known it might happen, but she’d hoped to be lucky. Lucky enough to earn her doctorate and step into the tenured faculty track in Chicago. But her luck had run out twice.

And here she was in Houston, clinging to a less-than-wonderful job. And when she finally earned her advanced degree?  There’d be no guarantees even then.

So what? Impatiently, Katherine left the bathroom and started to pace the bedroom floor. Life had no guarantees. She loved working with college students, so the only course open was to charge ahead as planned. Her hands fisted at her side. Why was she doubting herself? She could certainly handle whatever the future held.

Images of her mom flashed through her mind, as clear now as they were years ago. Mama would be so proud of her educated daughter.

Katherine closed her eyes, and for a moment became young Katrin again. “Yes, Mama,” she reaffirmed softly. “Education is everything. It won’t be easy, but that doesn’t matter. And if I have to teach this summer course to earn a living, so be it. Besides, I don’t have a Plan B.”

#

Nick whistled a lively tune under his breath as he parked his truck in the school lot and made his way to the classroom. He’d actually looked forward to returning on this second night. He grinned outright at the thought. “Nick Martinelli” and “student” had been mutually exclusive concepts for the thirty-four years of his life.

But now he wanted to attend class, and the reason had little to do with keeping himself busy or with surprising his parents. Maybe the truth had been simmering for a while, but it had hit him squarely in the mid-section last night when he returned to his empty apartment. He needed something more, something meaningful in his life. Not the obvious; not a woman. But a personal goal to aim for. Instantly, his old dream had teased him again, a dream that required a high school diploma to become a reality.

He chuckled wryly. He’d come a long way—from a kid who’d hated school so much, he’d repeatedly run away from home, to a man who was using it as a lifeline. Now he was more than willing to put up with classes. And not because of the intriguing woman who taught them, he thought as he increased his pace toward the classroom.

Nick crossed the threshold, looked at his instructor in front of the room, and froze in his tracks.

“What the heck do you think you’re doing?” he roared. He sprinted from the classroom doorway in time to prevent his glamorous teacher from tumbling headfirst to the floor from the desk she stood on. Heart racing, he held her for a moment, an extra moment, shocked at his enjoyment—the fragrance of her light perfume, the soft curves of a woman in his arms—and uneasy about it, before setting her gently on her feet.

“I wanted to hang this map of Houston,” she replied as she shimmied out of his hold. “How was I to know this old desk was alive? But, thank you.” The picture of embarrassment, her voice shook, and she avoided his eyes.

He glanced at the huge city map now tilted on an angle, and then at the legs of the desk. Too bad about the embarrassment. The woman had no sense. She could have been hurt, hurt badly.

“This desk is an unstable piece of junk,” he explained in a tight voice. “Look at the legs. Two are off the ground, the other two have cracks in them a mile wide. A ten-year-old would have noticed.”

He watched, fascinated, as a light pink flush stole up her pale cheek. Her cool, northern colors seemed strange to him. Donna had been warm Sicilian, filled with fire and fun. His heart squeezed. What was he doing, yelling at this woman who meant nothing to him?

“Maybe a ten-year-old would’ve noticed, but I’m not ten years old.”

“I noticed.”

Now she blushed a deep, dusky rose, and he couldn’t tear his gaze from her. She was such an easy target. He should be arrested for teasing her.

“What you should be noticing,” she said tartly, “is that class is about to start.”

He looked around at the others in the room. All three of them. He turned back to the dangling map.

“I think we can afford a few minutes deferment while my new assistant and I fix your map. Hey, Jeremy,” he called to a grunge-outfitted teen. “Ms. Kirby needs a little help up here.”

He chuckled as Jeremy shot out of the chair so hard it toppled over. The sixteen-year-old, a juvenile on probation who was living in a group home, had been moonstruck ever since he’d laid eyes on Katherine Kirby yesterday. Nick almost felt sorry for the kid and his raging hormones.

“Let’s get this piece of cra...garbage out of the way, before you climb up on that solid, strong, four-legs-on-the-floor table and attach this impressive map to the wall.”

“No problem, Nick.”

“Thanks, sport. Sometimes teachers just have to learn from their students.” He winked at Katherine and had the pleasure of watching her laugh. And relax for a moment. And look so damn lovely, he wondered how it would feel to stroke her cheek. His fingers twitched and he refocused his eyes on Jeremy’s progress.

“Ms. Kirby,” said Jeremy, “I’ve never seen a street map this big. How’d you make it?”

“I enlarged it piece by piece with a photocopy machine. I’m new to Houston, and need all the help I can get. But you’ll see that this map is going to help everyone in the class, even folks who’ve lived here all their lives. Thanks for hanging it.”

Jeremy blushed redder than the teacher. Nick’s eyes narrowed. The kid was in love, or in lust. Painful, either way. “I think you can start class now, Teach,” Nick said. “The seats are full, it’s ten past four, and the world didn’t come to an end.”

“Stick with construction, Mr. Martinelli, where projects rarely come in on time. I’ll stick to our schedule and produce a lot of graduates.”

“I hope you do. Myself included.”

“And one more thing,...”

Nick raised his brow in expectation.

“...don’t call me Teach.”

He grinned. “Katherine’s a lovely name.”

#

Katherine waited for Nick to take his seat, and then looked out at her class. Teaching such low achievers scared her. Some hadn’t been to school in many years. Some had dropped out only last year. Each one had a unique history, and she had no real idea how to reach any of them or where to begin, but she had to try. The standard college lecture was out. But a map could be a tool.

“Fifteen percent of the GED exam is based on interpreting graphics such as maps, political cartoons, illustrations, and charts. I’ve highlighted our campus on this map. I’d like each of you to find your street and highlight it. Then we’ll work on  using directions.”

She stepped aside as students found and marked their own streets; then listened as they discovered new neighbors, and winced as the noise level escalated from the excited voices. No, these students were nothing like her old ones.

“How about you, Jeremy?” asked Katherine as she handed him a marker. “Can’t forget about the fellow who hung the map.”

The boy shook his head.

“Can’t find it?  I’ll try to help. We’ll all help.”

“No.”

“No?” she questioned.

“I...I...don’t live near here. It’s not on the map.”

“But it’s a map of the whole city, Jeremy.”

His hands gripped the desktop. He glanced at the door, poised to bolt.

Now what? Katherine looked at the map, then back at the youngster. “Let’s say you had a cousin on West Alabama that you were visiting after school. How would you get there from here?”

She saw him visibly relax, loosen his grip on the desktop, and finally walk toward the map. He studied it for twenty seconds and then explained precisely how to get to the designated street.

“Excellent, Jeremy.”

“Just one problem, sport.”

Katherine twirled toward Nick. “There’s no problem. He found it perfectly.”

“It’s a one-way street, and too far to walk to from here. So if you were driving, Jeremy, how would you get there?”

The boy looked from one to the other, but his gaze came to rest on Nick. His eyes sparkled, his face came alive. He stared at the map and rattled off two alternatives with a third possibility in case the second choice was blocked by construction.

Katherine shook her head. What was a sixteen-year-old boy, a bright teenager, doing in this class for adults? And how about the women in the back? Fifty years old if they were a day. And why was a man like Nick here? Okay, he wasn’t her type. But she couldn’t fault his obvious intelligence. And why was he taking an interest in Jeremy?

Undercurrents swirled through the class. Stories. Twenty-six of them—each unique and yet each looking for the same ending. Suddenly she longed to know more about her students. Maybe she could assign autobiographies. An idea began to take hold. Maybe she could gather enough stories for a book. She felt a smile start. Maybe this was one way she could impress the academic community. The tips of her fingers tingled. Yes, she could execute such a project and do a darn good job with it. She’d get permission from the students, of course. She liked the whole concept. She liked it very much.

As long as she didn’t get too involved with her subjects.

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