Grading on Curves Coming June 2013 from Beachwalk Press!
One-on-one instruction never felt so right—or so wrong.
There’s nothing unusual about Mia Page’s attraction to the young science teacher at the middle school. After all, she’s not the only one who finds him enticing. But when he pulls her son aside to ask for her phone number, she knows she’s in serious trouble. Since her divorce four years earlier, she’s been out of circulation, choosing to focus on parenting instead, and she’s not entirely sure she can handle an entanglement with the sexy Mr. Walden.
There are also other reasons why getting involved with Curt would be a bad idea. He’s two years shy of thirty, and she’s on the downside of that unmentionable number. He’s adamant about never having kids, and she has a son. Even the guy’s romantic gifts are suspect. Energy saving light bulbs? He has to be kidding.
On the other hand, he’s fun, sweet, and smart. He stimulates her intellectually, emotionally, and Lord help her, physically, opening her eyes to life outside her comfortable world. Yet their differences quietly gnaw at Mia even while she succumbs to their undeniable chemistry.
As their romance deepens, so do Mia’s fears that Curt will eventually hurt her. On edge, all it takes is an innocent comment to provoke her into drawing first blood. Mia recklessly wounds Curt, learning only too late that this blade cuts both ways. Frantic to make amends, she fears it might be too late to admit the feelings she’s tried so hard to suppress.
Read the first chapter
“Would you wait?” Mia hissed. She shrugged apologetically to the barista behind the counter. “Sorry about that. I’ll have an orange mango smoothie please.” She turned to her companion. “What’s so important that you had to stretch out my sleeve?”
“Nine o’clock,” said Sally in an excited hush. “Look, look.”
Mia glanced casually over her friend’s shoulder. “Ouch.”
“That body’s tighter than my daughter’s braces,” Sally agreed in awe. “Nice face too. Is it too late to trade in Larry for an upgrade?”
“You love Larry.”
“I think I love this guy more.”
“You can build a lot on lust.”
Mia laughed and shook her head, still peeking at the man as her friend moved forward to place her order.
The dreamy customer glanced up from his laptop and caught Mia watching him. His left eyebrow arched, drawing the corner of his mouth up with it. He gave her an imperceptible nod.
Busted! Mia blushed and turned abruptly away. Shaken and embarrassed, she accepted her drink across the counter.
“Let’s take a table,” Sally proposed, picking up her iced tea.
“No, I want to get out of here—now.”
“Oh my God, that guy is watching us.” Sally peeked again. “No, he’s watching you.”
“Let’s just go.”
“No, let’s go talk to him.”
“But he’s so cute...and you’re so available.”
“He’s so young.”
“I’m leaving,” said Mia emphatically. “Are you coming?”
To Mia’s dismay, their hasty departure did not go unnoticed—or evidently misunderstood by the young man. He smiled at her once more before returning to his screen.
* * * *
Six days later the midday sun radiated off the baking bricks of Wrigley Middle School. The deep blue sky and rampant spring fever drew the kids outside during their lunch break in droves. There was a group of boys playing a disorganized game of football on an island of grass out front.
“I’m open, I’m open,” Casey yelled, waving his arms wildly for the pass.
The football made a wobbly arc into his hands, and he spun but before he could take off running he was tackled, the weight of another boy crushing him into the ground. It wasn’t until the bruiser climbed off of him that he felt the sharp stabbing pain in his wrist. Then it started to radiate up his forearm and he rolled away from the ball and onto his back, groaning and stamping his heels as he cradled his arm.
“This was supposed to be tag football, you moron!” he said, glaring furiously at the white-faced boy looking down at him.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I got carried away.”
“Holy shit, Casey, do you think it’s broken?” another kid asked, moving in so close his mass of freckles seemed to melt together.
“Feels like it.” He had to grit his teeth to hold back tears. There was no way he wanted to bawl in front of the guys but the longer they stared at him from this ever tightening circle the more touch and go it felt.
“What happened?” a man asked, his voice parting the group of boys to admit him into their huddle.
“It was an accident, Mr. Walden,” said the tackler.
“I’m sure it was. It’s going to be all right. What’s your name?” he asked Casey as he went to his knee beside him.
Just answering was a struggle for him. “Casey.”
Mr. Walden put a comforting hand on Casey’s shoulder. “Okay, let’s get you to the nurse.”
Casey fought back the pain and nodded gratefully at the teacher.
The bell sounded as they entered the building, calling the rest of the students back to class.
* * * *
Some days just seemed to drag more than others, particularly Fridays. Once Mia’s lunch break was behind her and half the office had bailed for the weekend, it was pretty hard not to wallow in self-pity just a little.
The sound of crickets chirping wouldn’t be out of place in this mausoleum of empty cubicles as she walked to the break room. She needed a pick-me-up and a minute away from her desk or she was going to chew all her nails off in frustrated boredom. A Diet Coke and a candy bar were just the things to chase away the doldrums, and yes, she knew how stupid that sounded.
She took a meandering route back to her desk, not in any hurry to shackle her ankle again. Why did she have recurring visions of a slave barge and giant oars on Fridays? Feeling a little resentful perhaps? Nah, not her—right!
She wasn’t the only one holding down the fort. Every department had one or two employees keeping chairs warm, but it was such a gorgeous day and she was knee deep in spring fever right now. It wasn’t easy coming back from lunch when almost everyone else got to hit the road, but since she chose these hours because they worked best with the school’s schedule she couldn’t bitch. Well, shouldn’t bitch anyway.
Zoning out in front of the computer screen earlier, she’d dreamed of seed catalogues and all the eye catching plants on sale inside and outside every store she passed lately. She was so ready to get down and dirty in the garden.
A phone rang somewhere ahead, intruding on the peace and quiet. Mia knew right away it was coming from her desk. She took off running the last thirty feet then cut a sharp right into her cubicle. Grabbing the phone, she clapped it against her ear so hard it drove the back of her earring into her skin.
“Ow,” she gasped, biting back a curse. “Mia Page, can I help you?” She worked a finger behind her ear, trying to erase the pain. Unfortunately, it made her earring rattle loudly against the plastic handset, interfering with her hearing. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
“Mrs. Page, this is Margaret Nixon at Wrigley Middle School. I’m calling about your son Casey.”
“What’s wrong? Is he okay?”
“The school nurse thinks he broke his wrist. There’s a lot of swelling and he’s in a good deal of pain. He needs to see a doctor.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting this. I’ll leave right now, but it’s going to take me some time to get there. I’m forty-five minutes away on a good day. Being that it’s Friday afternoon, it’s going to take me longer. Is there anything you can do for him in the meantime?”
“The teacher who brought Casey to the nurse is still with him. You have the Sterling Clinic listed as your primary provider on Casey’s emergency card. It’s so close Mr. Walden offered to run him over there now if that’s what you want.”
“He’d do that?” Mia breathed a sigh of relief. “Yes, please. I’ll phone the clinic and let them know they’re coming, then head straight to Sterling myself. Thank you.”
As soon as she disconnected the call, Mia phoned the clinic, shutting down her computer and desk light as she spoke with the receptionist. Time to make tracks. Shoving in her chair, she grabbed her purse, completely forgetting the unopened can of diet soda sweating on her desk.
The door to her boss’s corner office was open, but she stopped outside and peeked in first to see whether he was actually alone or on the phone before knocking. He glanced up with his reading glasses perched precariously on the very tip of his nose.
“Bill, I have to go. The school called and told me Casey may have broken his wrist.”
He set down the paper in his hand and frowned with concern. “Go.”
She turned to leave but remembered something and swung back around. “Don’t forget, Jane already left for the day so you have to listen for the phones out here.”
He shoved his glasses back up. “I’ll manage. Go get your kid.”
They shared a quick parting smile then Mia sprinted down the corridor as fast as her high heels could carry her with her purse bouncing against her back. One phone call, all it took was one stinking phone call to obliterate Mia’s boredom and send her heart into a panicky flutter. Ten minutes ago she was a clock watcher, desperate for an end to this miserable week of inconvenient meetings and training sessions on a new computer system that, as of Monday, would send the office into a chaotic transition. Now she was scrambling to find out if her only child was okay.
Burning rubber out of the parking lot, it struck her as funny, though probably inappropriate, that on this occasion there was no way Casey could tease her for driving like an old lady.
Holy hell, it was stifling in the truck. She hit all four power window buttons at once and sighed with relief. Dumb move leaving the windows closed on a day like this. Their parking lot didn’t offer much shade and those spaces were claimed early. She really should have cracked a couple of windows for some air flow this morning.
It wasn’t until she blew through the second intersection that the temperature dropped into the bearable range.
Mia plucked at the front of her blouse, trying to get a little breeze down her shirt. Changing lanes, her thoughts shifted seamlessly back to Casey.
What had happened? Scenarios played across her mind in old-fashioned Technicolor. The hard concrete steps in the school—now those had always made her nervous. What if he was running to class and lost it down the stairs? Or what if he got nailed by one of those heavy classroom doors? Then her eyes narrowed as an unwelcome thought occurred to her. What if he was screwing around with his friends and got hurt doing something he shouldn’t have been doing? Or worse—was he fighting?
Mia snorted at the idea. No way, that wasn’t Casey’s style.
Still, the more she tried to find an explanation the worse she felt. Plagued by an imagination that was rarely a comfort to her, Mia was good at chilling her own blood. She supposed that it was simply the curse of parenthood. Just an inkling of an idea could take on a life of its own. Like a parched cactus, a modest watering would revive it, all thorny and bloated.
Turning into the clinic parking lot, Mia pulled into a space, stopping a mere inch away from the bumper in front of her. She killed the engine and left all the windows open this time as she sprinted for the entrance.
Her heart sank when she saw the elderly woman with a cane hobbling toward the door at the same time. The distance between them forced Mia to adjust her speed because barreling in first and dropping the door behind her would be unforgivably rude. It wasn’t an option.
Reaching the door first, Mia pulled it open and stood back like a doorman, allowing the woman to shuffle through ahead of her.
“Thank you,” the woman said with a sweet smile.
“You’re welcome.” Mia masked her impatience with a smile of her own.
A second set of doors was right inside and she hustled around the woman, yanking the next open too. Nodding politely at the grateful smile, Mia was beside herself. Her anxiety had grown from a tickle at the back of her throat into a full-blown virus.
Without another word, she dashed around the slower woman and reached the front desk well ahead of her only to be thwarted when the receptionist held up her hand for patience while she finished with a phone call. Mia sighed in frustration.
Completely focused on the receptionist, Mia was easily startled when Casey snuck up behind her.
“Where did you come from?” she asked, looking past him.
He nodded at the far door. “There.” Then he broke into a big grin. “What are you doing here?”
“The school called. Are you okay?” She felt the blood drain from her face at the sight of his sling. Catching the old woman’s eye, Mia gave her a pained smile and turned Casey by the shoulder, moving him out of line. “We’re in the way. Come on.”
They walked away from the front desk and stopped among the chairs in the waiting area.
“Check it out.” Casey held up his right arm, modeling his cast for her, a note of pride in his voice. “What do you think?”
Her hand hovered tentatively over it before she ventured to touch it. “So it is broken.” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Yep.” He shoved a sheet of paper at her. “Care and handling instructions. They could have put ice cream on there.”
Mia snorted at that, scanning the form. “Quit kidding around. How are you feeling?”
“A lot better. Maybe next time it’ll be an ankle—if I’m lucky.”
Mia shook her head in confusion. “Hang on. You actually wanted a broken arm?”
“Well, yeah. I’m like the only one of my friends who hasn’t broken something yet. I can’t believe my luck. Anyone who shows up at school with crutches is an instant celebrity. But no, I’m stuck with a cast that doesn’t even reach my elbow. Stupid wrist.”
No doubt about it—boys were weird creatures. “Stay right here. I’ll check at the desk and see if there’s anything I need to do before we leave.”
Only a few people remained in the waiting area, and no one else was at the desk when Mia proffered her health insurance card to the receptionist. “Quiet in here today,” she remarked.
“It was crazy this morning,” said the woman as she typed the numbers into the computer. “Your son lucked out. They took him back right away.”
“I didn’t expect him to be ready so soon.”
A nurse walking through set a file on top of a stack on the desk then glanced at Mia. “Oh, you’re Casey’s mom?”
“We were just back from lunch when he came in. No waiting for the x-ray. He’s probably going to find holding a pencil feels a little awkward at first, but that’s common. It shouldn’t stop him from doing his schoolwork.”
Mia laughed as she accepted the return of her card. “Thanks for telling me. I’ll be ready for excuses.”
Their business concluded, Mia turned back to Casey and reeled as a rush of effervescent energy shot through her bloodstream. Mr. Coffee Shop Guy was standing with him.
He looked just as startled to see her when he offered his hand. “Hi, Curt Walden. I’m a teacher at Wrigley Middle.”
Mia’s initial surprise was elbowed roughly aside by outright gawking. She was drowning in the most potent bedroom eyes she’d ever seen, a heady blend of perfection and depth. Heaven help her, here she thought he was incredible from a distance. Fool. She was horrified that she was staring but since she couldn’t help it, she decided to keep her expectations more realistic. Closing her mouth would be a good start.
Then they clasped hands and Mia’s body temperature shot from ninety-eight point six to boiling. That one touch plunged her into a mental abyss that jettisoned a good fifty IQ points in the process. His fantastic kissable mouth was moving but all she could hear was white noise. Then he stopped talking and looked at her expectantly.
Oh hell. What did he just say? Crap, crap, crap! She had absolutely no idea. How was she supposed to respond now?
With little choice, she ignored his question and blundered on in her own direction. “I’m Casey’s mom, Mia Page. Thank you for looking after him for me.” She felt weak with relief when her words came out sounding normal and not as incoherent gibberish.
“My pleasure.” He glanced down at their joined hands and a lengthy beat passed before he finally released hers.
Mia wanted to dry her sweaty palm on her skirt but she stopped herself in time. No need to make it any more obvious that she’d suddenly gone from complete indifference to men after her divorce to a full-body arousal. Who could predict when or where something like that would hit? Never in a million years would she imagine herself this close to a sexual swoon in a clinic of all places, standing right next to her kid. Yet there she was. Heat flared across her face, and her mouth hovered somewhere between a smile and an embarrassed grimace.
Curt’s smile deepened with her heated flush, and they simply stared at each other for a full minute, like two lunatics transported to a place all their own, where time was completely irrelevant—at least for them.
Looking back and forth between the two spellbound adults, Casey began to fidget. “Can we get out of here now?” he asked her impatiently.
Startled yet again, Mia pulled herself together. “Yes. We’re all set.” She risked a quick glance at Curt. She knew now it wasn’t smart to dwell on him. “I suppose you need to get back to school?”
Curt seemed to shake himself before saying, “I do. Oh…” He snapped his fingers. “The doctor said if his arm starts bothering him, ibuprofen should do the trick but he should avoid rough play for a while.”
On their way out, Casey finally told Mia how he got hurt. She was surprised. That was one scenario she hadn’t pictured.
Pausing on the sidewalk, Mia faced the teacher. “I just wanted to thank you again for staying until I could get here. I appreciate it.” She ruffled Casey’s hair affectionately and he squirmed out of reach. “I hope he didn’t completely foul up the rest of your afternoon.”
Curt shook his head, his easy laugh decidedly forgiving. “Actually we were watching the second half of a film we started yesterday with the other science class so it worked out okay. I should make it back in time to see the kids onto the buses.” He gave her a smile capable of charming the pantyhose right off of her. “See ya.”
Both males peeled away, going in opposite directions, leaving Mia alone on the sidewalk.
Struck by anxious desperation, Mia scrambled to find anything, anything at all, to prolong the moment. “Hey! Excuse me? Does Casey need to go back to school for any reason?”
Lame, lame, lame.
Curt stopped and turned. “No. I’ll square it with the office. Take him home and have a nice weekend.” He flashed another heart-melting smile then set off again.
Casey was almost to the Explorer, but Mia barely noticed. Her entire focus was centered on the sexy teacher instead.
She could feel the beads of perspiration popping out all over her at the way his lightweight shirt caught the breeze, billowing out of the back of his sexy-assed pants. Was that linen? It couldn’t be. It draped like rayon but without the wrinkles. Whatever it was, he wasn’t exactly dressed to roam school hallways or stand with his back to a class while he wrote on a chalkboard. She envied and pitied the poor adolescent girls who had to look at that supremely scrumptious derriere every day then suffer each night in a private torture all their own.
No, this guy belonged on a beach, seated at an umbrella shaded table with his long masculine fingers curled around a glass of wine.
Okay, putting Curt on a beach was probably a mistake. In a flash she had him bounding out of the surf in low slung swim trunks as water ran down his sun-kissed body. She moaned softly at the damp line of glittering hair bisecting his chest. It tapered away across his solid abs then picked up again at his navel as a solid arrow plunging inside his waistband. Mia’s fingers twitched as she did a virtual walkthrough, quite willing to follow that trail wherever it led. Exploration was highly underrated these days.
“Mom! Are you coming?”
Casey’s call jolted her back to reality. Well, one thing she could say for certain, this fantasy was galaxies better than the usual gloom and doom.
Hurrying to the SUV, Mia climbed in and drew her seatbelt across her lap. “Did I hear Mr. Walden say he teaches science?” Silence followed her question. Looking up, she caught Casey giving her a strange look. “What?”
“Don’t even think about asking me to pass him a note at school,” he said flatly.
Mia broke into a startled laugh. “Are you kidding?”
The boy shook his head slowly. “I know that look, Mom. I’ve seen it a hundred times this year, and I’m not doing it. Don’t even ask.”
* * * *
Curt threw his arm over the passenger seat as he turned to back out of his parking space. Jolting to a stop, he shook his head and shifted into drive, heading for the exit. He needed to calm down, get a grip. Shit.
What were the odds? He’d actually faltered at the sight of her, suddenly blown away by a gale of emotions—elation, gratitude, longing, and hope. Then he’d seen her ring and the wind abruptly died and sent him spiraling back to earth with a mighty crash. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t even want to calculate how many quiet, distracted hours he’d spent thinking about that woman recently, hoping to see her again. Now his heart sank with disappointment. Clearly the powerful yearning he felt at their brief yet innocent encounter in the coffee shop was nothing but a fantasy. He could easily see the resemblance between mother and son now. Maybe his subconscious recognized it too. Is that why he’d insisted on taking Casey to the clinic himself?
Curt groaned at how close he’d come to making a total ass of himself. He’d been one second—make that one nanosecond—away from asking her out without giving a rip about her marital status—and in the lobby of a health clinic too! Not to mention that her kid was standing right there. He gave himself a mental belt to the head, thoroughly disgusted. Luckily Casey inadvertently saved him from himself and for that Curt would be forever grateful.
But damn it, life had a cruel sense of humor. No matter how strong a temptation Mia Page was, Curt was not a home wrecker.