Forever Fall

Forever Fall
Elizabeth Sinclair

October 2012 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-203-3

Books 3 in the Hawk's Mountain series

 
Our PriceUS$12.95
Code978-1-6194-203-3
 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

 

Back Cove

Suddenly they’re in charge of testing a "robo baby” designed to show teens how hard parenting really is. Will playing house lead to the real thing?

"I think we should give the ‘robo babies’ . . . a test drive.”

Catherine, a leading member of the Carson school board, nodded her approval at Mandy. Mandy hid a smile and grasped at the thread of hope. As both a social worker and a survivor of a harsh upbringing as an unwanted child, she wanted the robo-baby program to have a chance.

"My suggestion is that the baby simulator be put to the test in a real family setting,” Catherine continued. "Once that’s completed, we can use the findings to make an informed decision.”

Reverend John Thomas leaned forward. "And exactly who would you suggest do this testing, Catherine? All the board members, having already experienced the dubious joys of parenthood, would know what to expect. Thus making us the guinea pigs would prove nothing. And I’d like to go on record as saying that until the board makes a decision, I strongly object to bringing anyone in from the outside.”

"Exactly, John.” Catherine smiled sweetly and turned back to Mandy and the hunky Carson High principal Lucas Michaels. "That’s why we need a couple who can keep this discreetly confidential and who have no parenting experience. The obvious choices for the test are Ms. James and Mr. Michaels.”

Elizabeth Sinclair is the award-winning, bestselling author of numerous romance novels and two acclaimed instructional books for writers. Her novels have been translated into seven languages and are sold in seventeen countries. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida, with her husband and two dogs. Elizabeth is the mother of three children and "brags constantly” about her grandchildren.

Visit her at www.ElizabethSinclair.com


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Excerpt

Granny Jo’s Journal

Fall

Hi there!

I’m so glad you could stop back and see my mountain in all its fall finery. It never ceases to amaze me how the good Lord finds time to make His Earth so beautiful with each passing season. This fall He seems to have outdone Himself, dressing up the trees in bright orange, red and yellow. Why, the mountain seems to just glow with all that color.

Fall is definitely in the air. All the signs are there. The men are already starting to talk about the World Series and who’s gonna win. The pumpkins are ripening in the fields; the corn is ready to harvest; Bessie has decked out the town square in a rainbow of chrysanthemums; and the smell of burning leaves is perfuming the air. Even though it’s only the beginning of September, Sam Watkins reports that he’s gonna have a fine pumpkin crop, and the young’uns are already trying to decide what to wear for Halloween. The apple crop seems to be extra fine this year, too, all red and juicy. I’ve already made a few pies for Becky and Nick, and I think I’ll do candied apples for the kids for Halloween. I don’t get many trick or treaters up here on the mountain. Only those that their parents don’t mind totin’ up here in their cars. But I always look forward to the little ones coming by and showing off their costumes.

Lydia Collins says Davy wants to dress up like the huntsman from Red Riding Hoodand take his pet wolf, Sadie, along with him. Lydia’s not too sure that’s a good idea. Despite Sadie acting like a big, old, gentle dog with Davy, there’s some folks still scared witless of that big wolf.

School starts next week, and Becky says that her new social worker, Amantha (she goes by Mandy) James, will be showing up at the first school board meeting with her idea for cutting down on the teenage pregnancies in town. Should be quite a show. Most of the town’s planning on turning out for it. Poor Lucas Michaels, the principal, is gonna have a tangle to sort through. I’m sure if Asa Watkins, the School Superintendent, has any say in it (and I can’t feature him not adding his two cents), Mandy is gonna have a fight on her hands.

I hear tell the house that Jonathan Prince fella is building outside of town is finally done, and it’s a regular palace from all reports. I can’t figure why anyone would want a house that big, unless they were married and had a slew of young’uns to fill it up. But, as I always say, to each his own. He and his family have moved in, and I wish them well.

I guess we all have our reasons for what we do. Some talk about it, others keep it hidden deep inside so only they know about it.

They tell me that the phone company has put up a cell tower on the outskirts of town, so most folks in the valley can use those little phones they carry around with them like a lifeline. Guess it’s true, ’cause now, when I go to Keeler’s Market, I see people walking up and down the aisles with those things glued to their heads like a third ear. Personally, I still like face-to-face conversations. If I wanted to talk to some gadget, I’d have long heart-to-hearts with my refrigerator. Becky’s always tellin’ me I need to keep up with times. She might be right. But I sure do love a nice chat over a cup of tea. I can’t imagine getting the same warm feeling from talking into some gadget. Besides, you can learn a lot looking at a person eye-to-eye.

Well, it’s time for Lydia’s radio show, so I best get into the parlor and turn on the radio so I don’t miss it. You all can stick around and see what’s developing. If it’s action you’re looking for, I promise, Carson won’t disappoint you.

Love,

Granny Jo


 

 

Chapter 1

"It’s simple, Luc, if this woman gets her way, I’ll see to it that your contract as principal of Carson High School isn’t renewed.” Asa Watkins, the Superintendent of Carson High School’s Board of Education, folded his hands over his thickening middle, crossed his legs and assumed a self-satisfied demeanor.

For Lucas Michaels, the high school principal, the posh offices of Carson Savings and Loan seemed suddenly stifling. He adjusted his position in the cushy, leather chair. Until this moment, Asa had toyed with Luc, hinting at the consequences of not supporting him in his bid to stop the introduction of baby simulators into the school’s family planning classes. Now, the gloves were off, and there was no mistaking the superintendent’s intent.

"And exactly how do you plan on doing that? I believe it takes the vote of the entire board to dismiss my contract renewal.”

Asa smiled, his expression reminding Luc of a cat that had just finished a big bowl of rich cream. "I’m not without influence on the board. I hold a number of the mortgages in this town.” The smile faded into an expression of self-assured arrogance.

It sickened Luc that Asa had no qualms about using his financial hold on the other board members to achieve his goal.

Asa waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal. "They’re all lemmings. They follow the leader where ever he chooses to lead them.” The look of arrogance intensified. "In this instance, I am the leader, and I do not intend to take them in a direction that will drain funds from the athletic department’s budget.”

"If your influence is all that great, why not just cut to the chase and talk them out of supporting it?” Luc struggled to keep his absolute distaste for this arrogant, pompous jerk under wraps and not bound across the desk to pop him in the mouth.

Asa’s dark brows arched. His beady, gray-eyed gaze bore into Luc. "I don’t have to tell you that the people of Carson put great stock in our outstanding record of obtaining athletic scholarships. Why, half of them wouldn’t be able to send their kids to college at all without them.” His expression grew hard. He leaned forward and glared at Luc over his pristine oak desk. "I intend to run for mayor in the upcoming election, and I don’t want my record blackened by wasting money on something as asinine as buying dolls for teenagers to play house with. That said, neither do I want to go down in Carson’s history as the man who condoned teenage pregnancy.”

Luc flashed him a sardonic grin. "You’d rather it be me who holds that distinction.”

In every situation, his military father had told Luc, there is always someone who is expendable. It seemed Luc had been assigned that role. Still, the bad taste that had flooded his mouth about the same time he’d received Asa’s summons returned and intensified.

"If I agree to do this... .” In an effort to keep his true feelings hidden, Luc casually brushed a piece of lint off the cuff of his navy suit jacket. "Exactly how would you suggest I go about it?”

Asa’s smile held an almost fiendish satisfaction. "I’m sure that between now and the board meeting next week, you’ll come up with some solid arguments against Ms. James’ hare-brained notion of spending bundles of money on her robot dolls.”

It would seem that if Luc wanted to keep his job, he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Though he hated himself and Asa Watkins for the position in which he found himself, Luc had to consider the consequences of not complying with Asa’s demands.

Luc treasured the life he’d made for himself in Carson: the first stable home he’d ever known, good friends, a job he loved. Could he give all that up for the sake of a woman who wanted to introduce some dolls into the curriculum? After all, there were already effective forms of birth control and family planning taught in the school. It wasn’t as if he’d be leaving the kids with nothing. Still, he hated buckling in to Asa. However, left with little choice... .

Luc forced a smile. "I’ll do my best.”

Asa’s hard expression melted into a satisfied grin. "I knew I could count on you, my boy.”

Of course you did, you arrogant jerk. You backed me into a corner and left me no escape route.

Asa stood, signifying an end to their meeting. He extended his hand. Luc stuck his in his pocket. Asa let his hand drop back to his side. "In three weeks, it will be my distinct pleasure to recommend to the board that they renew your contract, pending the outcome of the board meeting, of course.”

Luc should have been relieved, but he wasn’t. He left the bank and headed for his car. His stride alone told anyone passing him that he was not happy. When people began to give him a wide berth, he decided that, for the most part, his expression must have verified his state of mind. He hated being backed into a corner. It reminded him all too vividly of the times his by-the-book Army general father had done just that to him. Luc had wanted to lash out at Asa and tell him he could put the principal job where the sun didn’t shine, but he hadn’t. Instead, he’d buckled under.

Why?

Instantly, a vision of his house, his friends and his adopted hometown came into his head. Even though he’d only been here for three years, he loved Carson and the people who lived here. Having led a nomadic life as a child, when Luc moved to Carson, he’d settled down and made friends he wouldn’t have to leave behind for the first time in his life. He’d held on to these things with a greed only a man who had grown up following his military father and socialite mother from Army base to Army base, leaving friends behind and acclimating to new schools, could. Giving up his position as principal would mean moving to a new community and starting all over again. He couldn’t do that for anyone. He could not give up the only real home he’d ever known. Then again, as his father had been fond of saying every time that young Luc had bristled about moving to a new location... nothing is forever.

If this old maid social worker had been doing her research, she would know that Carson already taught abstinence in the family planning classes and, at great expense, had installed condom vending machines in all the bathrooms. How could she expect them to spend yet more money on these robo babies of hers?

By the time Luc reached his car, he wasn’t any happier with Asa, nor with the task he’d given Luc, but he had made a modicum of peace with his own conscience about what he had to do.

I’m dead meat!

Amantha James forced herself not to squirm in the hard, straight-back, oak chair. She raised her gaze to survey the cause of her unrest. Like five hungry vultures sitting on a fence, the Carson School Board studied her from behind the long library table. All but one, the only woman on the board, looked as if they’d already made up their minds, and their decision didn’t look promising.

Keep your cool. Don’t start jumping to conclusions. You haven’t even presented your case yet. Besides, this isn’t the first time you’ve come up against a wall of opposition, nor will it be the last.

Easier said than done, however, considering that, with every loud tick of the school clock behind her, their concentrated gazes shot tiny arrows of doubt into her confidence, deflating it at an alarming rate.

She gathered her courage around her and sat a little taller. She’d be darned if she was going to let five people, who would obviously rather be somewhere else, deter her. Very few causes in her life had carried the importance of this one, and she would see it through to the end. All she had to do was hold on a little while longer.

"So, Bill, I didn’t see you in the stands at the game Saturday. Last game of the season. Too bad you missed it.” Asa Watkins, president of the Carson Savings and Loan and Superintendent of Schools, addressed the man Mandy had already identified as Bill Keeler, owner of the local supermarket.

From the tone of his voice, Mandy decided that Asa’s statement held more of a reprimand than a casual interest in the other man’s weekend activities.

Bill shook his head and studied his hands. "Mildred and the girls wanted me to take them to the mall down in Prescott.”

Asa raised a brow. "Mildred drives, doesn’t she? Why couldn’t she go herself?”

The man still kept his face averted from his questioner. "She doesn’t take to driving in heavy traffic. Always has me go along to take the wheel.”

"Well,” Asa said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his hands over his ample middle, "you missed a great game. That Jeb Tanner’s some ballplayer.”

The man to Asa’s other side, the youngest member of the board, leaned into the conversation. Becky Hart, Mandy’s superior at the social services office, had told her the young one would be CharlesHenderson, the board’s accountant.

"His dad told me that he’s about certain Jeb will get the athletic scholarship to UCLA.” Henderson smiled. "Boy’s got some throwing arm on him.”

All three men laughed. The skinny man not quite as exuberantly as the rest, almost as if it was expected of him.

Mandy sighed to herself. Becky had been right. This town had sports tattooed on their brain cells, and Asa Watkins ruled this group with an iron fist. She was going to have to talk herself blue to get past using money from their over-endowed athletic department to fund her project.

"Jeb’s an ace quarterback, no doubt about that, and a sure thing for a football scholarship from one of the big schools. I told his father last spring that Jeb’s lateral pass would be the key.” Asa smiled at his companions, his chest expanding to indicate his part in this potential victory. "When that UCLA scout came to the first game, I just knew from the look on the guy’s face that Jeb will have it in the bag. Before the scout left, he indicated he’d be back at the end of the year.”

"How many scholarships does that make now?” The speaker this time was a man with a clerical collar and a ruddy face, Reverend Thomas, the minister of the local church.

Asa closed his eyes in thought. When they popped open, he grinned like a cat with a fat mouse in his sights. "Five in all. With Jeb’s scholarship added to the total, it’ll make it six. I may have to get a bigger trophy case for my office.” He laughed and transferred his attention to Mandy. His gaze sent a silent message.Don’t mess with me, lady.

Mandy met it head on with her own silent challenge. You don’t scare me.

She looked away. Glancing around the old schoolhouse’s library, she wondered when the one absent member of their solemn gathering, the school’s principal, would show up. She glanced to the open window which admitted a late fall breeze perfumed with the sweet odor of burning leaves that overrode that unique smell of chalk, paper, books and rubber-soled sneakers that hovered in the air in every school. Forcing calm to her jangled nerves, she inhaled deeply and peered at her watch. Eight thirty. Half an hour late. How much longer would he make them wait?

Appearing composed and confident got harder with each passing moment. Her back hurt from sitting so straight, the hard chair seat had stolen the feeling from her backside almost twenty minutes ago, and her good mood, along with her patience, was dwindling rapidly. Her stomach rumbled in protest of the supper she’d missed to get here on time. She tugged the sleeve of her red plaid suit jacket over the watch face and tried not to show her agitation.

"Mr. Michaels will be here shortly, Ms. James. You must understand that this meeting made it necessary for him to rearrange his evening to accommodate us.” The explanation came from Asa Watkins.

Watkins, a single, fortyish man, who had been keeping a close eye on the height of Mandy’s skirt hem, had caught her agitated movements. As unobtrusively as possible, she pulled her skirt lower over her knees and smiled.

"I understand.” What she wanted to say and didn’t dare was that, having known about the meeting for weeks, she found the principal’s tardiness rude and inconsiderate. But why shoot herself in the foot before she’d had the opportunity to present her case?

To keep her mind off her growing irritation with the absent Lucas Michaels, she scanned the five people at the long library table. She tried to guess their voting preference, but a cool, feminine voice interrupted her before she could start.

"While we wait, why don’t you fill us in on your proposal, my dear?” Catherine Daniels, the only female member and the town matriarch, drew Mandy’s attention. The older woman smiled graciously from beneath a navy, feather-encrusted hat, no doubt custom-designed for her by some exclusive New York City milliner.

She returned Catherine’s smile. "If it’s all right with the board, I’d rather wait until Mr. Michaels is here, so I don’t have to cover everything again.”

Just then the door at the rear of the school’s small library opened on squeaky hinges. She turned to see a very tall man in a gray business suit, white shirt and a conservative, burgundy tie enter the room, briefcase in hand, his forehead creased in a frown. As he walked slowly to the front of the room, his spit-polished wing-tips clicked rhythmically across the oiled hardwood floor.

Mandy’s breath left her lungs in a painful whoosh. Oddly enough, she seemed unable to replenish it. For the first time that night, gratitude for the hard, uncomfortable chair seeped into her. Without it, she wasn’t at all sure her legs would have held her body weight.

With his dark, good looks, the principal of Carson High School could have just stepped off the cover of Hunk of the Month. Mandy had seen him around town and had to admit that, like most of the single women and the high school girls, Lucas Michaels demanded closer female scrutiny. And if she wanted to be totally honest, she’d taken her share of glances at the handsome principal, and maybe even fantasized about him a bit. However, she had no plans to become another notch on his bedpost or, for that matter, any other man’s.

"Ah, Luc, finally. Now, we can get started.” Asa’s greeting interrupted her musings. She noted that his tone held a hint of rebuke, which seemed to roll off Lucas Michaels like rain off a greased windowpane.

Mandy gave herself a severe mental shake. Ogling the principal wouldn’t sell the board on her idea to cut down the alarming rate of teenage pregnancy in their small town. If the determined set of Lucas Michaels’ expression meant anything, convincing him wouldn’t be an easy task. But, if it meant saving one teen from experiencing the life Mandy had lived as the illegitimate daughter of an embittered, single, alcoholic mother, she’d face the devil himself.

She issued a silent affirmation to his stiff profile and to her own psyche. I am not a loser, Mr. Michaels.

Being ordered to do anything went against Luc’s grain. The visit he’d made to Asa’s office days before still had the power to rankle him. Making no apologies for his tardy arrival, he took a seat in the unoccupied chair facing the board table. Putting his briefcase on his lap, he clicked it open, extracted a fat, manila file folder, closed the lid, and then placed the leather case beside him on the floor.

He deliberately avoided looking to his left at the woman who had urged Asa to call this meeting, a device Luc often used on a student to unsettle them enough to get to the bottom of a matter.

Luc crossed his legs and folded his hands on the file, then smiled at the board members. "Good evening.”

"Good evening, Luc. Thank you for coming.” Asa fumbled through some papers, never really meeting him eye to eye.

Was he feeling a bit guilty about what he had planned for this evening? Luc laughed inwardly. He couldn’t envision Asa feeling one ounce of guilt for anything he’d ever done in his life.

Asa pounded the table with his gavel, and all conversation in the room ceased instantly. "Now that we’re all here, shall we get started?”

Luc made no reply. No sense pretending courtesy had anything to do with his appearance here tonight. He’d made Asa fully aware that he hated what they were doing. The other board members nodded in Luc’s direction.

He could hear the woman stirring in her chair.

He smiled inwardly.

Lack of composure would cause her to make a slipshod presentation, giving the board good reason to turn her down. With any luck, he might not have to play the heavy in this. Being cast in the role of the bad guy was not new ground to Luc. This wasn’t the first time Asa had used Luc and relied on him to not only side with Asa, but also to turn the tide in their favor. This was, however, the first time Luc’s job depended on it, and the first time his conscience really bothered him.

He hated the control Asa exerted over him, but looked at it as a part of the job, even if, in his own mind, he knew it to be out and out blackmail. There was a pecking order in all occupations, and unless you occupied the top seat, you learned to take orders without question. His father had ingrained that in Luc early in his childhood.

Asa Watkins interrupted Luc’s thoughts. "Ms. James, I don’t believe you’ve met Lucas Michaels, our principal.”

"Mr. Michaels.” Though somewhat stiff, her voice held a very pleasing quality, the kind a man could listen to for hours and not tire of.

Continuing with his calculated plan to unnerve her, while keeping his gaze fixed on Asa, Luc merely nodded in the direction of the feminine voice.

"If you’re ready, Ms. James, you can get us started by filling us in on your proposal.” Asa smiled toward the source of an enticing perfume drifting in Luc’s direction. Flowery, soft. Not overpowering. Subtly suggestive.

Calculated, he added with a brisk shake to his imagination. If she thought she could make points with her feminine wiles, then she was sadly mistaken. He’d seen his mother do this many times when trying to get his father to cave on some issue.

"Thank you, Mr. Watkins.” The raspy quality of her voice raked over Luc’s nerve endings, bringing tiny pin-pricks of pleasure to his senses.

A bedroom voice.

"As you all know, I’m the new social worker assigned to the Carson office. I’ve been here for three months, and in that time I’ve come across some alarming statistics about the rising number of teenage pregnancies, mostly concerning unwed, high school students. In the information I will give you tonight, I’ve noted the precise percentage and relevant data that will speak for itself.”

Reverend Thomas emitted a loud hiss of air. Mandy couldn’t ascertain if it indicated his agreement with her statement or his displeasure with the reality of the facts.

"I have done some research into preventatives and, if you’ll allow me, I’ll pass out some information I have gathered for a possible answer.”

Asa nodded his permission.

From his peripheral vision, Luc had a shadowy image of the woman standing, carrying a pile of papers, and walking to the table, where she passed out several sheets to each board member. Then she turned to Luc, papers in her outstretched hand.

He looked up into the face of one of the most gorgeous women he had ever seen. His breath snagged. So this was Amantha James. So much for the old-maid-social-worker image.

Instantly, he recalled having seen her several times at the school. He’d had no idea why she was there, and just assumed she had a sibling or a child enrolled and had come to see them for some reason. What he did recall is the astounding effect she’d had on his libido. It had taken days to erase her image from his mind.

"Mr. Michaels?”

Dragging his attention from her mesmerizing, coffee brown eyes and deeply implanted dimples, he accepted the papers. "Thank you.”

Was that squeaky voice his? He cleared his throat and gazed at the paper clutched in his hand. The words blurred. Feeling as if he’d been kicked by a horse, he drew in a labored breath.

After blinking several times, he was finally able to make out the words at the top of the page, Baby Simulators.

"Robo babies,” he mumbled under his breath.

"Mr. Michaels, until I’ve explained, please don’t make any snap judgments.” Her voice betrayed a hint of impatience.

Keeping his gaze trained on the paper, he shrugged. "Be my guest.”

This was ridiculous. Was he going to let some ego-driven social worker rattle him? He’d never felt so completely off track in his life, at least not since his last bout with his father. Luc made it a point to keep his footing in any and all situations. Not doing so meant stepping into uncharted territory, and Luc never ventured into anything of which he wasn’t fully aware. He mustn’t forget that it was his plan to rattle her. He sat straighter, marshaling his forces for his attack.

"The baby simulator is a device to aid in family planning for teens. As you can see from the pictures in the flyers I just gave you, it resembles a real baby in every way, appearance, weight and temperament, as well as being anatomically correct.”

"Do you mean to say these... robo babies have... well, that they... .” Having been raised around a prissy mother who just didn’t talk about such things in mixed company, he couldn’t force the words to emerge. Luc glanced up to see several of the board members hiding a smile behind their hands. Luc felt like a complete fool, an adolescent too embarrassed to discuss sex in clinical terms.

"Yes, Mr. Michaels. As I said, they are anatomically correct,” the James woman said, a smile playing around her luscious mouth. He quickly averted his gaze. "The manufacturer made certain that the simulators would resemble real babies in everyway. And I can safely say that I doubt if these characteristics will not come as a shock to any of the teens who will participate in this project.” The hint of laughter in her voice told him she obviously found his discomfort with the subject amusing.

"If it is approved,” Luc added pointedly.

"Ifit is approved.” A small concession on her part. She smiled at the board.

"Thank you,” he said, stiffly.

"I don’t understand how these simulators are going to prevent pregnancies.” Catherine Daniels studied the paper in her hand and then glanced at Mandy. "Wouldn’t this be akin to letting the students play with dolls?”

"No. It’s much more complicated than that. I might add here that we must think of them as babies and not dolls to get the potential caregivers to think of them in those terms as well.

"Now, if you look closely at the picture on page four of the information, you’ll see that each baby is equipped with a care monitor implanted in its back. This allows the teacher or project supervisor to monitor the type and frequency of care given the baby.” Mandy waited for the board to review the information.

"But why couldn’t we just continue to use the sack of flour or an egg? It’d be a whole lot cheaper, and I’m sure Bill would appreciate the business.” Reverend Thomas smiled and leaned his arms on the unopened folder resting on the table in front of him.

Laughter bubbled up around the table and then died.

"The simulator has some distinctly human-like qualities that the egg and the flour sack don’t. The baby is programmed to cry at unpredictable intervals, twenty-four hours a day, just as a real baby will. Its disposition can also be adjusted from mild to very cranky. The head must be supported, and the baby cannot be allowed to cry too long, fall or be treated roughly. If any of these events occur, then that registers on the care monitor, and the caregiver earns demerits.” Mandy resumed her seat and waited for more questions.

"As amazing as this technology is, I don’t understand how these robo babies are going to cut the number of teenage pregnancies, Ms. James?” Mandy tried hard to overlook the hint of suppressed amusement coloring Lucas Michaels’ voice.

Taking a deep breath and ignoring the muffled agreement from the board, Mandy faced the principal. She set her expression to reflect the serious nature of her subject, rather than her irritation with him. "Each baby comes with a key to be inserted and held in a slot in the back of the simulator, then anywhere from one to thirty minutes will elapse before the baby stops crying. This is to show the caregiver that food or diaper changes are not always the reason a baby cries.”

"I still don’t see how this can be a deterrent. The caregiver can simply leave the key with a parent and go about their normal social life.” Luc knew firsthand about how easy it was to hand off responsibility and care for a child to someone else, even a robot child.

She addressed her explanation to the entire board. "Not in this case, which is part of the beauty of this simulator. The key is attached to the caregiver’s wrist permanently for the duration of the project, much like a hospital bracelet is attached. He or she is the only one who can minister to the baby. Therefore, if the caregiver leaves the house for whatever reason, the baby must go along. If he or she doesn’t take the baby, and it cries in her absence, the baby will cry until the battery runs down, and the caregiver will get demerits for neglect.” She turned toward Luc.

"Think of yourself as a teenager with a social life, Mr. Michaels. Taking this baby with you everywhere can be a real drag. Studies have shown that after caring for this baby for as little as a week, many teens have decided to wait to become parents, and some have even opted out of parenthood altogether.”

A grunt and a nod of agreement came from Bill Keeler. The board stared at Mandy in rapt attention. Catherine Daniels concentrated on the information sheets.

Seemingly encouraged by their silence, Mandy went on. "The inconvenience of caring for the baby and the restrictions it puts on the social lives of the teen parent can be very effective arguments for not having children. Rather than having an adult preach to them about the responsibilities that go along with being a parent, they’ll actually live with it every day for a prescribed period of time. Of course, classroom re-enforcement will be given also, but the hands-on experience will validate what they learn in the classroom, bringing it home as no amount of preaching could.”

Luc realized that this woman had obviously done her homework. Tripping her up was not going to be easy, if they could at all. Her arguments held well-thought-out logic. How could he argue with logic? New respect for Ms. James surged through him. This was not some empty-headed twit that Asa could snowball.

He had to find a crack in her argument that would allow the board to vote this suggestion into the ground. And he knew just where to look for that flaw.

"Let’s look at the bottom line here, Ms. James. What will it cost the school to get this program started?” Luc leaned back in his chair.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noted that Charles Henderson, ever the accountant, had readied his pencil to write down the figures he expected to be forthcoming from Mandy.

If the board had to take money from their precious, inflated athletic department budget to finance this scheme of Ms. James’, there would be no baby simulators coming into Carson High. And having access to the budget and its allotment, Luc knew Asa had been right in that respect anyway. He could see no other venue from which to get the money. He glanced at Mandy and waited for her bottom line.

"To be effective, the program should start out fully equipped to provide at least half of the students in the class with a simulator to care for during the first phase of the project. The simulators would then go to the other half of the class for the second phase.” She took a deep breath. Her next bit of information would either make or break the entire project. "Please look at the amount I’m about to quote as an investment in your youth and in the future of this community.” She named the price per baby.

With a sinking heart, she watched their collected faces register everything from shock to absolute rejection—everyone except Catherine Daniels. Was she going for the idea, or did money mean so little to her?

Charles Henderson’s accountant’s mind clicked in. "And exactly where would you suggest we access the funds to buy these... baby simulators?”

This was the one stumbling block in her plan. She had no idea if the school had money for unbudgeted purchases, but she was aware that they had a huge athletic budget. However, Becky Hart had advised her strongly to allow the board to find their funds without any prompting from her.

Mandy shook her head. "I’m sure you can answer that better than I can. Since I’m not privy to the school’s operating budget... .”

Asa Watkins, who had been ominously quiet until now, looked pointedly at Luc. "Perhaps we should get some input on this point from Luc.”

Luc stared at Asa for a long time, hearing the words the superintendent had said as Luc had left Asa’s office the week before.

It’s simple, Luc. If this woman gets her way, I’ll see to it that your contract as principal isn’t renewed.

Luc had gotten the message loud and clear. If this proposal went through, the only logical place to get the funding was to cut back the athletic department’s lion’s share of the school budget. Support anything that would jeopardize the athletic scholarships, and he’d be history in Carson.

Though it grated against his better judgment, Luc was not about to give up the life he had so painstakingly established and start all over.

He straightened in his chair and looked directly at Asa. "Well, the athletic budget has already been strained by adding a new chemistry teacher to the faculty. I really don’t think—”

Becky had warned her, but Mandy still couldn’t believe her ears. "The athletic budget?” Mandy fought to control her anger. "When did sports become more important than the welfare of your children?”

Lucas Michaels glared at her. "That’s not the case at all. If you’ll allow me to finish, Ms. James.” Mandy leaned back in her chair, her arms crossed over her chest, her expression clearly exposing her efforts to control her temper. "The welfare of our children is, of course, uppermost in our minds. However, the athletic scholarships that our students earn are immeasurably helpful in getting them into colleges that would otherwise be financially out of the question for them. It occurs to me that we are already doing a sufficient amount of preventative teaching by supplying condoms and teaching abstinence—”

"Abstinence?” That was the last straw. Mandy jumped to her feet and faced him. "Abstinence, Mr. Michaels? You want to preach abstinence to a bunch of teenagers with raging hormones? Hormones they’ve just discovered and are chomping at the bit to experiment with?”

"Aren’t you being just a bit over-reactive?”

Mandy couldn’t believe this. They might as well put a bottle of whiskey in front of a confirmed alcoholic and say don’t touch. If it wasn’t so sad, she’d have laughed out loud at the absurdity of his statement. What was wrong with him? Didn’t he care about these kids?

As far as abstinence went, who was Michaels kidding? What could a man with his good looks and obvious charm know about abstinence? He probably had women coming and going from his bed with all the regularity of planes at Charleston’s Yeager Airport.

That the board would put sports before the welfare of a child enraged her. The collective lack of logic and caring for their own children displayed by the board and the school principal severed her already strained composure, along with any attempt at caution.

"And, of course, you know all about abstinence, right, Mr. Michaels?” Sarcasm dripped from Mandy’s words.

A collective gasp rose from the board table.

Asa smiled.

Instantly, Mandy knew she’d overstepped her bounds and may have made a fatal mistake in attacking Luc, but her frustration level had imprudently pushed the words from her lips before she’d been able to stop them.

Slowly, Luc uncrossed his legs, then targeted her with a dark, censoring glare. "As a matter of fact, Ms. James, I grew up in all-boys military schools, which left little opportunity for anything but abstinence.” His gaze grew colder. "So, to answer your question, yes, I do know about abstinence.”

"I’m very sorry. That remark was beyond rude, Mr. Michaels. I can only blame it on my passion for the subject.”

Luc raised an eyebrow and nodded. "Passion, huh?” The corner of his mouth quirked up in a suggestive half smile, then immediately relaxed into a firmly set expression of censure.

Passion? She didn’t like the way he’d said that or that smile.

Before Mandy could say anything, Catherine Daniels intervened. "Please, let’s leave personalities out of this.” She glanced at her fellow board members and favored them with a smile. "If the board will allow me, I have a suggestion that might settle this whole matter.”

The members looked at each other and then back to her. Collectively, they shrugged, then nodded in agreement to let her voice her plan.

"I think we should give the babies... a test drive.” She looked at Mandy. "Do you have one of these simulators available?”

A glow of hope rose in Mandy. Had she found a sympathetic ear in Catherine? "I don’t have one with me, but I know we can borrow one from the company. They assured me that because of the huge investment, testing the system is quite common.”

Catherine smiled. "Good.” She leaned back in her chair and extracted a white handkerchief from her purse. Carefully, she used the handkerchief to brush a spot of dirt from the lapel of her pristine navy suit.

"Can we get on with it, Catherine?” Bill Keeler obviously had grown impatient with the entire process. Mandy had to agree with him. "I promised Mildred I’d be home by ten.”

"Patience, Bill, patience. I want to get everything straight in my mind before I present it. This young woman’s suggestion has merit, and I think we need to give it more than cursory consideration. As for you hurrying home, I’m sure you’d rather be anywhere but 47 Elm Street, so don’t use that as an excuse to get to Hannigan’s Bar for your nightcap.”

Bill sat back in his chair, his cheeks glowing bright red.

Mandy hid a smile and grasped at the thread of hope Catherine had thrown her. Maybe she hadn’t ruined everything with her outburst.

Asa looked around at his fellow board members. "Let’s give Catherine a chance to explain what she has in mind.” His tone held reluctant resignation rather than enthusiasm.

"We seem to have two distinctly different viewpoints here, neither of which any of us are equipped to make judgments on. My suggestion is that the baby simulator be put to the test in a real family setting. Once that’s completed, we can use the findings to make an informed decision.”

Reverend John Thomas leaned forward to address Catherine. "And exactly who would you suggest do this testing, Catherine? All the board members, having already experienced the dubious joys of parenthood, would know what to expect. Thus making us the guinea pigs would prove nothing. And I’d like to go on record as saying that until the board makes a decision, I strongly object to bringing anyone in from the outside.”

"Exactly, John.” Catherine smiled sweetly and turned back to Mandy and Luc. "That’s why we need a couple who can keep this discreetly confidential and who have no parenting experience. The obvious choices for the test are Ms. James and Mr. Michaels.”

 


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