Saturday, August 1, 2009

Head Over Heels by Jenna Byrnes

"You don't have to raise your hand to use the restroom, honey, just go." Catlin McCall smiled at the little blonde haired girl in front of her.

Suzie Brighton beamed in response.

"Thanks, Miss McCall. We'll be right back." Suzie's mother took the child by the hand and left the classroom.

Catlin exhaled and returned to the front of the room. It was back-to-school night, two weeks into the new term. Parents and students gathered in the classroom to hear her speech about what would be happening in second grade this year. Catlin taught at Roosevelt Elementary, located in the medium-sized community of Marshall, Kansas. After three years, her back-to-school speech was repetitive and, she thought, boring. But it was her best opportunity to scope out the parents.

There were three types, she'd discovered. The first-timers clung to her every word, sometimes taking notes. They looked at her with respect, which was amusing but appreciated.

The next group had braved second grade before, and while they listened politely, she knew that some felt like they knew as much about it as she did. Catlin liked their laid-back attitudes.

The third type of parent could care less and would rather be anywhere but sitting in their child's classroom. Many of them weren't there. Those people tested her patience.

She turned, scanning the sea of faces. Eager parents looked on with anticipation, while zealous children dragged item after item from their desks to show proudly to their parents. Most seven- and eight-year-olds still enjoyed school, and that was one of the reasons she chose to teach that grade. There was something heartwarming about these enthusiastic folks, little and big, and she smiled.

The Brightons returned to their seats, and she began her talk about second grade. The children were well-behaved, the adults seemed interested and asked good questions. Catlin relaxed and continued her presentation until she glanced up and saw a man in the doorway, peering around nervously.

She caught her breath. He was incredibly good-looking, with tousled, wavy brown hair that brushed mid-collar. His blue suit was stylish, and there seemed to be muscles filling it out in all the right places. The askew necktie implied that he'd been tugging at his collar. Catlin wondered if it was fatigue or nerves that plagued him. The look on his face showed both.

Their eyes caught and he smiled helplessly. "Is this the second grade?"

"One of them," she replied, her voice shaky. For some reason she was mesmerized by his deep, chocolate eyes. "Who are you looking for?"

He raised his eyebrows hopefully. "Tessa Naughton?"

"Excuse me for a moment," she said to her students and parents. Catlin stepped to the doorway and lowered her voice. "Tessa's in Mrs. Noll's class. Down the hall in Room 106." Motioning in that direction, her arm brushed his sleeve. "Sorry," she mumbled, embarrassed.

"I'm the one who's sorry for interrupting your class. I have two children, and I spent the first half hour with my son in Mrs. Diamond's third grade. I was supposed to meet Tessa in her room at eight—" he trailed off and grinned. "You don't need to know all this."

"That's okay." She smiled and nodded down the hall. A dark-haired child with nervous eyes like her father's stared out of room 106. "But I believe you're needed down the hall."

He glanced over and smiled at Tessa, waving. Looking back at Catlin, he said, "That's my girl. Thanks so much Miss—"

"McCall. Catlin McCall."

"Miss McCall." He nodded, then smiled impishly. "It is Miss, right?"

She grinned back. "Yes, it's Miss. Nice to meet you, Mr. Naughton." Catlin glanced quickly at his left hand and spotted a silver band on his wedding ring finger. Her heart deflated for a moment, and then she realized how silly that was. He had children, for goodness' sake! Of course he was married. "Goodnight." She took a step backwards.

"Thanks again." He winked at her, turning and hurrying to his daughter.

Catlin clutched her stomach briefly, and tried to compose herself. Damn, he was good looking! Why are the great guys always taken? She heard a small crash from her classroom and saw a stack of tissue boxes hit the floor. The natives were getting restless. "Sorry about that," she said loudly. "David and Ronnie, can I ask you to pick those up? We're going to talk a little about mathematics, and then we'll see if there are any more questions."

* * * *

Catlin was grading math papers after school the next day, frowning. The children forgot so much over the summer. She was contemplating how long it would take on review work before she could get into new lessons, when there was a knock on her classroom door. She glanced up, surprised to see Tessa's father. The amazing-looking, but very married Mr. Naughton, was again standing in her doorway. "Hi," she said simply.

"Hello." He smiled at her. "Are you busy?"

Catlin stood and gave a little shrug. "The usual. Three plus six is not seven, so apparently I've got more work to do than I thought."

A look of surprise crossed his face. "It's not? Shoot, I've been telling Tess wrong all this time. Thanks for straightening me out."

She chuckled and he took a step inside her room. "Thanks for straightening me out last night, too."

"No problem." She shrugged again. "I hope you didn't come all the way over here to tell me that."

"I had to pick up the kids, anyway."

She felt a heated blush spread across her face. Of course he did. He hadn't come to speak to her. "Sure," she replied, wondering why this man flustered her so easily.

"But I also hoped to speak with you." He glanced back out in the hall and said loudly, "Give me two minutes. You guys wait right there, okay?" He turned back to Catlin. "Look, I don't have a lot of time, so I'm going to cut right to the chase. I think you're beautiful and I suspect you're funny and fascinating, too. I'd like to know if you'll go out with me."

She was dumbstruck, and glanced down at his ring finger again. It was empty, save a thin tan line. "That's really sweet of you, Mr. Naughton—"

"Steve," he interrupted.

"Steve," she repeated, nodding. "But didn't I see a ring on your left hand last night?"

He glanced back at his children, then leaned against her doorway. "Yes, you did. I'm a widower, Miss McCall. My wife's been gone a little over two years. It's taken the kids and me a long time to get over her death.

"But now, we're in a new town, with a new job and school; a fresh start. I should have taken the ring off earlier. I knew that the moment I caught a glimpse of you."

Catlin's heart melted. She wasn't sure how to respond.

Another look out in the hall and he said, "I'm sorry this is so rushed. Perhaps I could get your phone number and call you. We can talk awhile before you give me an answer."

"No," she said, and he looked crushed. "I mean, yes! I'll give you my phone number! But I don't need to think about it." She smiled. "I'd love to go out with you."

He grinned with apparent relief. "Thank you. I think we'll have a great time." He patted his chest pocket and pulled out a pen but no paper.

Catlin took the pen and reached for his hand. She wrote her number across his palm. His hand was smooth and for a moment she wondered what he did for a living. It obviously wasn't construction or hard labor. She was about to ask when a young voice from the hall interrupted.

"Dad!" a boy called.

"Be right there!" Steve yelled back, and looked at her sheepishly. "Can I call you tonight?"

"I'll look forward to it." She released his hand, and they smiled at each other.

"So will I." He winked before slipping out the door, and she grabbed the door frame to steady herself. A wink from those killer eyes was deadly, and sent a jolt straight to her core.