“COME ON, Mr. Bowerman,” Joe said with what he hoped was a charming smile. It wasn’t easy to be firm and still pleasant, wasn’t easy to seem respectful but still go after what he wanted. This was the sort of job he’d always sent his twin brother to do, and there was a reason for that. But Will had his own concerns now. This was Joe’s problem. “I know it’s not as tidy as it could be, but we’re working on it. The elementary school didn’t have a problem with the setup.”
“You’re asking us to register a student for whom you are not legally responsible and who has no fixed address.” Mr. Bowerman shook his head as if he were saddened by Joe’s irresponsibility. The man had been a vice principal at the school when Joe had attended, and then been transferred elsewhere, to the town’s general relief. Now he was back as principal, inching his way toward a retirement that couldn’t come soon enough for his students. He hadn’t been flexible when Joe had been a student, and he certainly didn’t seem to be mellowing with age.
Joe tried to be calm as he repeated what he’d already told the man three times. “She has a fixed address. Our address. She’s staying with us.”
“Staying,” Bowerman said pointedly. “Not living. That doesn’t sound like a fixed address to me. We can’t create schedules for every couch surfer in the district, you know.” He pronounced “couch surfer” as if simultaneously proud of his use of the vernacular and somewhat disgusted by its feel in his mouth.
“Lacey’s not couch surfing. She’s here for the rest of the school year, at least.” Joe wanted to make his point a little more vehemently, probably with a bit of volume. The school had a legal obligation to educate the students within its catchment area, and Bowerman should just admit that and stop wasting Joe’s time. Yeah, it’d feel good to do a little yelling right about now. But Bowerman seemed like the sort of guy who’d hold a grudge. Joe wasn’t worried about himself, but Ally still had most of a semester in the school and would be needing support for scholarships and graduation awards. There was no point in making things more difficult for her. “We’re hoping to have the paperwork sorted out in the next few weeks. Jean Carpenter’s the social worker on the case, Andy Stark is onboard—”
“We don’t take instructions from the provincial police,” Bowerman scoffed.
Joe tried to ignore the interruption. “The aunt down in Sarnia has said she’s happy to be rid of both girls. There’s nowhere else for them to live and nowhere else for them to go to school. Lacey needs to get registered here.”
“Once the paperwork’s in place—” Bowerman started, but now it was Joe’s turn to interrupt.
“They’re saying weeks for that, at best. It could be longer. Lacey’s already missed too much school, and this is her last year—her marks really matter.”
Bowerman looked pitying again. “Lacey Walton’s marks don’t really matter. She’s not heading for postsecondary education. She’ll be lucky to pass.”
“Okay, well, maybe her marks weren’t great in the past, but she’s a smart kid. She can do better if she gets more support at home. But if she is a weak student, that still means she shouldn’t be missing a ton of school while we wait for things to get formalized. She needs to be in class.”
“We’re not a day care, you know. We’re not here to solve your childcare issues.”
Joe frowned in confusion. “She’s seventeen. She doesn’t need a babysitter.” He wished Will was there. Or Mackenzie. Yeah, Mackenzie would definitely understand what was happening here. The guy could read people like Joe could read animals. If Mr. Bowerman were a stubborn steer refusing to go into a chute, Joe would know how to handle the situation. He wouldn’t push too hard, he’d try to figure out what the steer was thinking. Was the animal scared of something? Was he seeing an obstacle in the chute that Joe hadn’t noticed? “Lacey was okay when she was here last time, wasn’t she?” Joe didn’t know about any problems, but he’d mostly heard Ally’s stories, and it was quite possible his sister had cleaned things up to protect her friend.
Bowerman raised an eyebrow. “Well, here we get into one of the problems with a casual arrangement without paperwork. Until I have documentation of your legal relationship with Lacey, I’m afraid I cannot discuss any aspect of her history with you. The privacy legislation is quite clear. I also couldn’t discuss any aspect of her current behavior. So if she acted up and needed to be suspended, who would I contact? If a teacher had a concern…?”
“The teachers aren’t going to be stubborn jackasses about it,” Joe said. His calm was definitely slipping. “They’d call me. If you want to follow the letter of the law, I guess you could call the aunt in Sarnia, but good luck getting through the alcoholic haze—apparently she drinks worse than her brother did. That’s why Lacey’s back up here, and that’s why she’s going to stay up here, and that’s why she’s going to be attending this school.” Joe had tried to see things through the steer’s eyes, but cattle had never tried to use privacy legislation to defend their stubbornness. But if the animals were just being stubborn, if Joe had done everything he could to figure out the problem and still couldn’t see it, well, then he just needed to be firm with them.
He straightened up out of the uncomfortable plastic chair on the visitors’ side of the principal’s desk. “Lacey will be here tomorrow morning, ready to go to class.” Joe had already talked to the guidance counselor, a shy girl who’d been a student at the school the same time he was, and she’d assured him she could put a schedule together for Lacey in no time. But he wouldn’t mention that to Bowerman. Instead, he glowered. “She needs to be here. You’re legally required to educate her, so stop wasting everyone’s time. If she isn’t in class tomorrow, I’ll be in your office again, and I’ll wait out in the front for as long as it takes to get her registered, and I’ll tell every parent who comes in just why I’m there, and then you can try to explain to them why you’re trying to deny a teenager her education.”
Joe remembered too late about Ally’s scholarships and awards. Well, he’d just have to work extra hard to make sure there was enough money to make up for their loss, because he wasn’t backing down now. He stared at Bowerman, letting the principal see that he was dead serious, and then, when he was sure the point had been made, he shrugged. “I hope it doesn’t come to that. I’ll tag along with Lacey tomorrow to make sure she’s set up okay, and if she is, everything’s good.” He decided against offering his hand and instead just smiled politely and said, “See you in the morning,” as he headed for the door.
His phone rang as he was striding through the parking lot. He pulled it out, saw the name on the call display, and felt his shoulders relax. “Hey,” he said quietly.
“Hi,” Mackenzie said. Joe heard a lot of noise in the background, and Mackenzie raised his voice as if to drown out the din. “I’m still in the city. This job is going long. I’m not going to make it back tonight.”
And Joe’s shoulders tensed again. But he forced himself to keep his voice calm. “Oh. That’s too bad. You’re going to stay at Kristen’s?”
“No, they’re putting us up in a hotel. Hopefully a good one.”
Joe leaned against the side of the truck. “Did they say why they couldn’t get it done? Did something go wrong?”
“Nothing big. Just one of those things.” Joe could almost hear Mackenzie’s shrug. He obviously wasn’t too worried about this. He wasn’t upset about spending a night in a hotel instead of coming home to Joe.
So Joe shouldn’t be worried about it either. Things were going well with Mackenzie, but that didn’t mean the two of them had to be together all the time. Independence wasn’t a sin. “Okay, have fun. We’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“Or maybe the next morning,” Mackenzie amended. “If tomorrow goes long, I’ll be too tired to drive that far. I’ll stay with Kristen if they don’t put me up again.”
Joe swallowed hard. It felt like the beginning of the end. He’d known it all along. Mackenzie was only visiting the country; he belonged in the city. Joe was going to get his heart broken. It was coming.
Or, just possibly, he was insecure, paranoid, and neurotic. “Sounds good,” he said. “Drive safe.”
“You bet. Hey, how did it go at the school?” But before Joe could answer, he heard a voice in the background, and Mackenzie said, “Oh, they’re ready. I’ve got to go. Give Griffin a good-night kiss for me, okay?”
And that was it. The call disconnected. Joe looked at his reflection in the blank screen and tried to find his confidence. Mackenzie wasn’t starting to slip away. He just had a modeling job, and he was wisely choosing not to spend hours on the highway if he wasn’t going to be alert. Everything was good. When the phone rang again, Joe smiled in anticipation, but it wasn’t Mackenzie’s number displayed on the screen.
He hit the button to talk to his youngest sister. “Ally, are you calling from class?”
“Are you standing in the parking lot of my school staring at your phone?”
“I was standing in the parking lot of your school talking on my phone.”
“That’s not what I saw. But anyway, did you get it all figured out? Is Lacey coming to school tomorrow? What’s her schedule?”
“I’m working on it.” He looked up at the school, trying to find his sister’s face in one of the windows. “Seriously, though, are you calling from class? Your teachers let you get away with that?”
“Bathroom break,” she said unconcernedly.
“I’m pretty sure those are supposed to be for going to the bathroom.”
“I’m in the bathroom. So there.”
“You’d better not be peeing.”
“Okay, I agree. Now you should go back to class. But before you go, can you tell me—is there any reason the school wouldn’t want Lacey back? Were there problems last year?”
Ally’s answer took longer than it should have. “Not problems, exactly. I mean… she did not have a stable home life, you know! She had a lot of challenges!”
Joe groaned internally. “Ally, listen to me, okay?” He paused for her to object, but she didn’t, so he continued. “I’m on her side. I want to help. But I’m not going to be able to do a very good job of that if I don’t have all the facts I need. Okay?”
“Yeah,” she said reluctantly.
“So you should make one more call before you go back to class. Get in touch with Lacey, let her know that we’re going to be having a talk this afternoon. Me and her, and you can be there if she wants. Okay?”
“Yeah. But be nice, okay? You know that family was a mess! Can you imagine living with them and not having some issues? I mean, it’s not easy to get to school on time when your parents are passed out in the bathroom so you can’t shower! And then if you do make it in and somebody gives you attitude for being late, maybe you’d slip up and give a bit of attitude back, right?”
“It’s not going to be a trial. I’m not looking to change the past or punish anyone for it. I just need to know what we’re dealing with.”
“In a nice way,” Ally tried.
“You bet,” Joe said with enthusiasm he wasn’t feeling. “So call her, briefly, and then get your ass back to class. And if anyone gives you attitude for talking on the phone when you said you were going to the bathroom, you had damn well better not give them any attitude back.”
“You’re no fun,” Ally groused.
“I’ve got errands to run this afternoon. Pick up Austin at the end of the day, and I’ll meet you at the elementary school, give you both a ride home. Okay?”
“Okay. But you should call Austin’s school and let them know the plan. The new secretary over there doesn’t really understand our family dynamic. I think she thought I was trying to kidnap him the last time we didn’t get on the bus.”
“Excellent,” Joe sighed. “Okay, I’ll call. Have a good last class.”
He was in the truck and about to pull out of the parking lot when his phone rang again. He didn’t recognize the number. “Joe Sutton,” he said into the phone.
“Joe, it’s Margaret Varney. We’ve got cattle in our hayfield.” The Varneys owned the farm next door to the Suttons’ place. They didn’t raise cattle.
“Damn it.” His mind raced, trying to find a way this wouldn’t be his problem. “They’re black?” he asked. There was one other cattle operation in the area, and they raised Herefords. If the cattle were red and white, they belonged to that farm. If they were Black Angus….
“They’re black,” Margaret confirmed. “It’s not a big deal—it’s the field we sell to you, anyway. Your guys are probably leaving some nice organic fertilizer behind. But that field isn’t fenced, and the road’s got some blind turns right around there. I wouldn’t want them to get out on the road and get hit.”
No, Joe wouldn’t want that either. “I’m in town, but I’ll be out there in twenty minutes or so. They’re in your side field, the one by the maple bush?”
“I’m going to stop at the house and get a horse and a dog to help me round them up, so that’ll add a bit of time. Less than forty-five minutes, okay?”
“I’ll keep an eye on them,” Margaret promised.
She was a good neighbor, lucky for Joe. Still, this was a nuisance. His errands obviously weren’t going to happen that day, but he’d be back in town the next morning to drop Lacey off. Assuming that went well, he’d have time afterward. If it didn’t go well, he supposed he’d be pretty damn busy with his threatened campaign against the school.
He got stopped by a train at the level crossing on the edge of town and pulled his phone out to call Ally. She wouldn’t be getting a ride home that afternoon. He should have known better than to plan it.
Should have known better. The words played in his mind, and he tried to relate them to cattle and picking kids up after school. They had nothing to do with Mackenzie. Things with him were fine. Joe hadn’t made a mistake there.
He tried to ignore the nagging voice that told him he had made a mistake, a huge one, and he was going to suffer for it. Every day that passed, every extra drop of affection he let fall into the already huge pond of his feelings for Mackenzie. Every drop was going to burn like acid when Mackenzie left him.
“Shut up,” he growled to himself, forgetting he’d dialed the phone and was holding it to his ear.
“That’s charming,” Ally replied. “You called me to tell me that?”
“Sorry,” Joe muttered. He needed to pull himself together. The whole world didn’t need to know about his insecurities. “And why aren’t you in class?”
“I was visiting! And maybe I could sense that you’d be calling me back.”
“Stop visiting and get to class. I thought I’d be leaving a message. I just needed to tell you that plans have changed.”
“Don’t they always?” Ally replied. The attitude was close enough to Joe’s own that it startled him. Was his cynicism rubbing off on his little sister, or were they both just realists who saw the world as it truly was?
But he didn’t have time for philosophy; the train was almost past. “Take the bus home, okay? I’ll explain later.” He hung up the phone once he heard her assent and started driving as soon as the crossing gate lifted. He needed to keep moving. He’d learned that long ago, when he’d first taken responsibility for the younger members of his family. If he stayed still and let himself think, it would all start pressing down on him. The responsibilities he’d never asked for, the pressures he didn’t need, the goddamned cattle in the neighbor’s hayfield… it could be too much, unless he kept moving and refused to think about it. This was his life, and there was no escape, so he might as well just get on with it.
Thinking about Mackenzie made things better. Sure, Joe was up here and Mackenzie was a couple hundred miles away, living the glamorous life, but he’d come back. Joe kept his brain moving past the little voice reminding him that one of these times Mackenzie wasn’t going to come back, because there was no point dwelling on that, either. This time, at least, Mackenzie would probably be back. Joe could just focus on that, and it made everything else a little easier to accept.