“So, you think the tests went well?” Matt asked as they made their way home.
“What about the schedule?”
“What about it?”
Matt gripped the steering wheel harder. “I mean what do you think about the classes and the schedule you got?”
“Looks fine. I might take another class, though.”
“Yeah? Like what?” He glanced over to see Brady’s familiar noncommittal shrug.
“I don’t know. Something fun.”
“Any ideas?” Matt pulled into the drive-thru lane of the burger place closest to his house. After ordering, he looked at Brady again. “Brady, tell me what you’re thinking. Just spit it out.”
“They’ve got a lot more classes to choose from than Freeburg does.”
“So you want to talk to Dr. Shaffer about cutting back on the sessions so you can take more classes?”
Quelling his frustration with Brady’s uninformative answers, Matt looked down at the papers in Brady’s lap, and tried again.
“What’s all that?”
“Some stuff the principal gave me. Things to do at the school.”
Matt handed the attendant some cash.
“She’s kinda hot,” Brady said.
Matt glanced at the stout fifty-something woman in the drive-thru window then over to Brady. “What?”
“Ms. Austen. She’s pretty hot.”
A sudden tightening shot through Matt. Holy crap, was his son going to have a crush on Kate? That could be awkward. “Right,” he said, sucking in his breath. “She is.”
He took the bags from the woman in the window, passing them over to Brady. “Hang on to these, will ya?”
Brady took the bags and nosed into them. “Smells great,” he said. “I’m starving.”
“You’re always starving.” Matt pulled the car onto the street, his thoughts back on school and its lovely principal. “So, what did Ms. Austen, who you should not refer to as ‘hot,’ give you?”
Brady leafed through the papers and shrugged. “Information about clubs and stuff.”
“Anything you’re interested in?”
“Maybe. A couple of things sound kind of cool.”
“Come on, Brady. What are you interested in? Is there something you need money for? Do you need to get signed up?” Matt’s patience wore thin when Brady spoke in one-word sentences and grunts.
“I haven’t had a chance to look at everything yet. Debate might be cool, or robotics.”
“Debate?” Matt nearly veered off the road. “You do realize debate would require getting up in front of people and talking, right?” It would probably be a good thing for him, make him feel more confident. And he certainly could use some practice at speaking clearly, and in real sentences. But Matt would be very surprised if Brady would go through with it. Debating would call way too much attention to his face.
“Yeah, Dad, I know. Maybe I’d get some sympathy votes.”
“I haven’t decided, anyway. She said I could talk to some people next week.”
“Did she introduce you to any of the coaches?”
“No. I just talked to her, and then took the tests.”
Matt pulled the car into the garage, and got out. “Did she give you any information about the sports programs? Anything you could do to be involved?” he asked, reaching over to take the bags so that Brady could climb out.
Brady shook his head, a puzzled look on his face. “No. Was she supposed to?”
Matt sighed. “Not necessarily, but I was hoping she would. I talked to her about it when I first met with her about getting you enrolled.”
Brady stopped on the stairs into the house. “You asked her about getting me into sports? Dad, she’s gonna think we’re crazy. You know I can’t do any sports there.”
“Brady,” Matt said, opening the bags and setting a burger in front of Brady’s chair. “We’ve talked about this. You could be an assistant or something. I’d at least like to get the schedule for coach’s night and info sessions. That kind of stuff.”
He leafed through the papers Brady had tossed onto the table. Nothing related to sports at all. Dammit. He’d been very clear on that. He sighed. Maybe everything was online.
“Just eat before your food gets cold,” he told Brady, his voice resigned.
But Matt couldn’t get the subject out of his head. Was Kate deliberately steering Brady away from sports after he’d specifically requested her help? He couldn’t imagine her being duplicitous. That just didn’t sound like her. Still, as he thought back to their conversation, she’d been rather skeptical about the sports potential.
“You know, we also discussed the possibility of swimming,” he spoke up again, ignoring Brady’s withering look. “The guys at the center said you have great upper-body strength. I think you could do it.”
“Dad.” Brady crammed several French fries into his mouth, and shook his head, glaring at Matt in obvious disgust while he chewed. “I’ve never done competitive swimming,” he said finally. “I’d need a ton of practice and coaching.”
“We can get you that,” Matt said. “I’ll talk to–”
Brady’s hand slammed the table. “No! Just stop talking to people. Don’t talk to anybody.”
Matt sat back, clenching his jaw. “Fine. I understand you want to re-invent yourself, Brady. I do. I get it. But I also know that sports were a big deal to you before the accident. Are you really ready to give it all up? Just think about whether you’re being true to yourself.”
How could he make Brady understand that he’d be more accepted if he were able to prove himself in sports somehow? Right or wrong, for high school boys, sports were a status symbol that offered a little insulation from some of the crap kids threw at each other.
He stood up, grabbing the trash and shoving it into the bin. “I’ve got to get back to the office. Spend some time looking online at the schedule and programs if you want.”
Brady didn’t respond, but when Matt glanced back, he saw him reach for the papers Kate had given him. Matt closed the door with a firm snap.
He rested his head on the steering wheel, not sure he’d handled that very well. Jesus, how could things go from fine to total meltdown that fast?
Backing out, he deliberated which way to turn. Brady had demanded that he not talk to anyone, but should he confront Kate? Ask her about the activities and the lack of sports information? He knew the issue would fester and gnaw at him if he didn’t. But, then again, maybe it would all blow over next week.
He couldn’t help it. Almost on auto-pilot, he steered the car toward Western.
Without an appointment, he’d have to charm his way past Kate’s secretary. Surely he could manage that. Just as he was preparing to be charming, and open the door, Kate and the counselor he’d met in San Francisco rounded the corner.
“Matt!” Kate said, surprise in her voice. She turned to Jill. “Jill, you remember Mr. Dalton?”
“Of course. Nice to see you again. Kate, I’ll talk to you later.” She stepped around Matt and went into the counseling office.
Kate turned puzzled eyes to him, her brows furrowed. “Is something wrong?”
Matt shoved his hands into his pockets. “Can I talk to you a minute?”
“Sure. Want to go outside or back to my office?”
“Office is fine.”
Kate sensed the question in Beth’s eyes as she led Matt Dalton to her office for the second time in one day. What in the world was this all about? Maybe he was still upset about the car. Damn. She didn’t know what else she could do about it.
She deposited her planner and papers on the desk, then turned to face Matt, who was still standing. “Didn’t think I’d be seeing you again so soon. Is Brady still upset?”
Matt raked a hand through his hair. “Listen, Kate, you gave Brady all that information about extra-curricular activities, and we were talking about them on the way home.”
A sinking feeling hit Kate in the stomach. She knew exactly what the issue was.
“Uh-huh. What’s he think?” she asked striving to keep an even tone to her voice. “Anything sound interesting?”
Matt loosened his tied before meeting her eyes with a steady gaze. “I’m just curious. There wasn’t anything in there about the sports programs. Did you talk to any of the coaches? Are they not willing to consider working with Brady?”
“Matt, let’s sit down, please.” She dropped into a chair and clasped her hands in her lap. “I did mention Brady to a few of the coaches. No one made any commitments, but they’re all quite willing to visit with Brady once school starts.”
“But you didn’t say anything to Brady about it this morning.”
“No. I didn’t. I guess I was concentrating on activities that link to classes, because if there’s something he’s interested in, we’ll need to get him into the class right away.”
“Yeah. Well, do you happen to have a list with all the names of the coaches for the different sports?”
“I don’t. All of that information is easily accessible online. There’s a whole separate website for Western sports. We offer all the usual high school sports. I’m sorry, I thought you’d probably already been on the website. But, Matt, we also have lots of other activities and programs that might not be as obvious to a kid coming from a smaller school. Don’t you want Brady to look at those things as well?”
“Sure, but not as a replacement for sports.”
Her face warmed at his bluntness. She stood up and leaned against her desk, trying to keep an edge out of her voice. “Look, I’ll admit, I believe kids should be well-rounded, exposed to as many fields and subjects as possible. And I also believe the school’s first responsibility is to educate students. I’ve never tried to hide that. Sports are only one piece of a much larger pie.”
“Surely it’s up to the students and parents to decide which activities are right for them,” Matt countered.
“Of course. But, it’s our job to help, and make students aware of the possibilities.” Exasperated, she glared at Matt. “Okay, tell me this, why are sports so important?”
“That’s just the way it is for guys. And it’s who Brady is.”
“But things have changed for Brady, Matt. Maybe you should get him some therapy to help deal with that.”
“He’s had therapy almost every single day for the past three months, Kate.”
She met his eyes. “I’m not talking about physical therapy.”
His eyes narrowed. “What do you mean? A shrink? You think he needs psychiatric therapy?”
She sighed, but didn’t back down. She wanted to shake the guy. With a jolt, she realized she’d also like to run her hands across his rigid shoulders. He was so uptight.
Kate cleared her throat. “I think that’s possible. He’s gone through emotional as well as physical trauma. Don’t you think his mental well-being is as important as his physical condition? Maybe he needs someone to help him deal with a new reality, sort out his feelings.” She bit her tongue to keep from suggesting that his father might benefit from some as well.
Matt stood up, and paced the floor. She waited. Finally he turned back and braced his hands against the back of the chair he’d sat in earlier.
“He’s had psycho-therapy. He saw a psychiatrist for several weeks after the accident. It was part of the rehabilitation program.” Dalton crossed his arms, looking down at her. He cocked an eyebrow. “They determined that the best thing for Brady’s mental health would be overcoming some of the physical limitations. That would help his self-esteem. And if I became a stable, reliable fixture in his life, which I have tried to do, then that would help alleviate the abandonment issue.”
With a hand on her hip, she frowned. “Abandonment? What’s that supposed to mean?”
He sat back down, resting his arms against her desk. When his eyes met hers, she was taken aback at the pain she saw there.
“Kate, I’ve known Brady less than a year.”
“What?” Kate stared at Matt. He wasn’t making sense.
“Before the accident I didn’t know he existed. He was abandoned by his mother several years before that and raised by his grandparents.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, rubbing her temples. “Brady’s not your son?”
A look of regret flashed across his face.
“He is my son.”
She listened with growing trepidation as Matt told her the story of his becoming a father. Her concern changed to empathy as the emotional impact became clear. She could imagine the turmoil for everyone involved. When he finished and waited for her reaction, she struggled for words. What could she say?
Impulsively, she reached out and touched his hand. “Matt, I’m so sorry. That’s– I don’t know what to say.” Abandonment. What an ugly word.
“Pretty incredible, huh.”
“Wow. I wondered about his mother, since you’d never mentioned her.”
“We don’t know where she is, and I have legal custody of Brady now.”
“He’s lucky to have you,” she said softly.
Matt gave a harsh laugh. “I’m not sure he’d agree with you. He’s angry, and confused. I’m sure you can understand that. Angry at me, angry at his mother, his friends, the system – everything.”
“How could he not be?” she asked, wiping tears from her eyes.
They were both silent for a moment. Kate regretted adding to Matt’s anxiety. “God, that’s a lot of shit for one kid to deal with.”
Matt rubbed a hand along the back of his neck. “Yeah.”
“Thank you for telling me. Like I said before, everyone at Western is going to do everything we can to help Brady. I want him to be happy here.”
Matt flashed her a sheepish smile. “I know. I feel like a complete schmuck questioning you about the activities. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I understand. Listen, I had Brady’s tests graded right away. He got an eighty-two and an eighty-six, so he’s all set. He should be proud to do that well after everything he’s been through.”
Matt nodded. “Thanks. That’s good news.”
He lingered in front of her, and Kate shot him a questioning look.
To her surprise, he reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “Kate . . . would you like to have dinner with me sometime?”
She braced a hand against her desk. Heat rushed to her face as her heart pounded. She swallowed hard before attempting to answer. “You mean . . . as in a date? A dinner date?”
A lazy grin spread over his face, causing her heart to slam against her chest.
“Yeah. Like a date. Dinner out. You and me.”
She looked at the floor, very aware of his warm hand still on her shoulder, and his eyes watching her.
Slowly she looked up, and shook her head. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I’d love to Matt, but I’m sorry. I just can’t.”
He hadn’t moved. Instead, his hand moved up and down her arm. When she started to take a step to the side, he stopped her with his other hand.
“Why not?” he asked. He bent his knees to look into her eyes. “Is there someone else?”
She chewed her lip a moment before answering. “No, but I can’t date the parent of one of my students.”
“What?” His eyes narrowed as they bore into her. “Is that a school policy?”
She looked away. “No. It’s not an official policy. But it’s not the way I operate.”
“Kate, I’m not married. It’s not like we’d be having an affair or something.”
“It just doesn’t look right, and I don’t ever want any suspicion of favoritism or inappropriate behavior.”
“Ah. I see.”
He was quiet for a moment. When she finally looked up, his mouth claimed hers.
Heat surged through Kate, and her mind reeled, as his lips moved over hers, warm and searching. His hands pressed her back, and he stepped closer, deepening the kiss.
Dazed, she tightened her grip on his arm when he abruptly pulled back.
“Might be time to re-think your position,” he said, lightly brushing his thumb against her lips.
Her lips were still buzzing when he closed the door behind him.
Holding on to her desk for support, she twisted around, and sank into her chair, her head spinning. Damn! Why now? Why couldn’t she have met him two or three years ago?
Re-think her position? She couldn’t. She absolutely could not get involved with a student’s parent – especially the parent of Brady Dalton. Not when the school would be doing so much for him. She’d never hear the end of it. The speculation alone would be enough to get her hauled in front of the Board, and possibly fired.
She couldn’t risk it. Wouldn’t risk it. Not now.