Seventeen years later
No dictionary contained the precise word to describe the scene unfolding before Kate Kilpatrick.
Oh, there were plenty of words all right. Peculiar. Sweet. Bizarre. Touching. Unreal. Heartwarming. Hokey. Sensational.
But not one of them fit, not exactly.Worse yet, there was no way on earth she knew how to incorporate the indescribable, personal scene into a news article. Her notepad and pen dangled at her side in a mitten-covered hand. The camera, its strap slung over her shoulder, rested against her hip, adding dead weight to the already heavy jacket. Like steam in a kettle curling toward its whistling hole, pressure mounted in her chest. With a loud puff that jiggled her lips and fanned her bangs, she released it. Welcome to the big time, Kilpatrick, she thought ruefully.
Kate stood inside the Valley Oaks High School in an area which just that morning she learned was referred to as the commons. The term was new to her. Though the place was large and airy, the dominant odor was distinctly school, as if its walls were made of books and paper and pencils and cafeteria food and gym shoes. Evidently all doorways led to the commons. On her way in she had glimpsed a ring of entrances: hallways, gym, glassed-in office, back parking lot. The location also appeared to be the gathering place for unusual events.
Unusual. Poignant. Quaint. Singular events.An expert in the fine art of elbow-prodding, Kate had pressed her way through a sea of bodies and now stood at its center. The sea was comprised predominantly of adolescents. Quiet adolescents, standing on tiptoes, their faces expectant with O-shaped mouths and raised brows. That in itself would be curious enough, but that wasn’t the main event. The students’ attention was riveted on two adults in the center, surrounded by the crowd. Those two were the main event.
She knew the man was Joel Kingsley, principal of the high school, because he had been the one who called the office. He said that at precisely 8:37 A.M. he would be centrally located in the commons and that he fully expected a newsworthy event to unfold there at that time. It wasn’t only his voice, trim body, and nearly buzzed black hair that hinted at military. A soldierly aura emanated from him even as he smiled during an intense, hushed exchange of what must have been personal words. The aura remained now as he planted a knee into the linoleum.
He held the hand of a woman Kate recognized as Britte Olafsson, girls basketball coach. She looked as if she’d just stepped off the plane from Scandinavia, from her height to her blonde hair to the slightly shell-shocked appearance about her eyes that anyone would exhibit after a ten-hour flight. Kate suspected her dazed expression wasn’t due to jet lag. The man had just proclaimed in a voice for all to hear, “Miss O, I’d like your permission to court you.”
The red-faced coach glanced about, maybe in search of a hole to climb into. At last she cried out, “All right! Yes, you have my permission!”
The crowd of quiet adolescents burst apart at the seams, whooping and hollering. If Kate closed her eyes, she would believe herself inside a gym at a sporting event. But she wasn’t. She wished she were because that she would know how to describe. But this… This was a public display of pure romance. Tender, but incomprehensible on an early Monday morning in a rural high school two days before Valentine’s Day.
The man stood now, clutching the woman’s hands between his against his chest.
Kate felt a nudge against her arm and turned. A guy, more mature-looking than the students, pointed at her camera. The cheering drowned out his voice. She read his lips asking, “Take a picture?”
She could not realign her face into anything other than a blank stare. What did he think? They were witnessing news?
He held his hand out, palm up, toward her shoulder. In a glance she took in his expensive, ecru cable-stitched sweater, likely hand-knit in Ireland. He had the build of a husky fisherman, but his olive skin tone, dark eyes, and wavy black hair grazing the top of the sweater’s neckline declared his ancestors didn’t fish off the coast of Ireland. More plausibly it would have been in the Mediterranean.
Kate shrugged the camera strap off into his waiting hand and thought, Go for it, buddy.
She turned back to the main attraction, where an intense but inaudible conversation flowed between the couple. Kate predicted the scene had to end in a kiss because two people could not look at each other in that way without giving physical expression to their love. Even if they were being watched by roughly 400 pairs of eyes.
* * *
Tanner Carlucci removed the camera’s lens cap and grinned to himself. Britte, the fire-breathing varsity coach and no-nonsense math teacher, was blushing. Joel, the ex-Marine and by-the-book high school principal, had knelt on bended knee. It was a priceless moment, and the woman with the camera had stood stock-still and missed it! Well, he’d snap a shot of the kiss that no doubt was coming to seal whatever it was they were discussing now about courtship.
He aimed the camera, noting with approval that it was a manual focus. The woman had nice taste.
She was a stranger to the school. Though Tanner was only a substitute teacher and freshmen girls basketball coach, he would have noticed her before now. She was by far the quirkiest character he had ever seen in real life.
First off was her red hair. Not flaming, not orangey, not purplish nor dark. Just a nice shade of shiny copper penny red that resembled a mop head caught up in a clip, its ends sticking out every which way. She was small, but she had easily hustled her way through a rampart of hearty teenage boys and whispering girls. She wore rectangular, tortoiseshell glasses; a bulky, deep green jacket three sizes too large; a long skirt; clunky boots; and one mitten.
He had no idea what she was doing there, but she carried a camera that he felt could be put to better use than to decorate her shoulder. He clicked a shot now of the principal and coach, their heads close together, hands clasped, their expressions absorbed in each other. He clicked another shot, catching their emerging smiles.
Joel called for attention, though his eyes never left Britte’s face. The noise abated some, and in that commanding voice of his he said, “What you are about to witness is inappropriate behavior for students in the halls.”
Tanner had the camera ready. The kiss was gentle, brief. He captured it only once.
The kids erupted again, but Tanner knew that with Joel Kingsley in charge things were under control. He turned to the redhead. There was a pained expression on her face as if she couldn’t process what she was witnessing. He understood the feeling. She must be new to Valley Oaks.
He looked again at Joel, who was now raising his arms and directing everyone back to class, his broad grin not in the least diminishing his effectiveness. Tanner couldn’t help but chuckle at Britte. Always-in-control Miss O looked dazed and confused. He took one last snapshot and turned.
The redhead was gone. Tanner peered between the blabbering students as they slowly departed from the center of the commons. He saw her through the glass doors of the entryway. She was already climbing into an old model, light blue Volkswagen parked at the curb.
He shrugged. She would remember her camera eventually.
* * *
Kate parked her Bug on Second Avenue outside the tiny Valley Oaks Weekly Times office. Despite the fact that the Pizza Parlor next door was closed on Mondays, the aroma of garlic hovered. It always hovered, defying the physics of old brick walls, concrete sidewalks, and arctic breezes. It was the best advertising going. Why did the owners bother to take out an ad in the weekly? She’d been in town 17 days and eaten there a total of 13 times. And that wasn’t counting coffee breaks. Her stomach rumbled.
A cowbell clanked above her head as she opened the Times’ front door. She lingered in the doorway a moment longer than necessary, allowing a cloud of cigarette smoke to escape. The office consisted of one room that was just large enough for a counter, two desks, and a worktable. A faint glimmer of winter sunlight filtered through dirty venetian blinds covering the lone window.
At the far back corner desk, the managing editor pecked away at an electric typewriter, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. Kate knew the woman was finishing up an in-depth study of the sewer system for tomorrow’s deadline and hadn’t even heard the cowbell. Still, they needed to talk. “Rusty?”
Kate hung her coat on one of the wooden pegs attached to the front wall. She walked around the counter to her desk, rolled her creaky wooden chair over near the other desk, and plopped into it. “Rusty?”
“Yeah, kid?” It was the older woman’s way. Sixty-two with short, straight, iron gray hair, she resembled a news reporter from the original black-and-white Superman television series. Clark Kent’s boss, not Lois Lane. She had the personality down flat. She only needed a 1950s-style man’s hat, gray suit coat, and narrow tie.
“Rusty, you have got to be kidding.” The woman’s chuckle was a gravelly rumble that more often than not deteriorated into a cough. It did so now as she swiveled away from the typewriter to face Kate, removing the unfiltered cigarette from her mouth. She nearly managed to get it to the ashtray before the ash fell onto the floor.
Kate sighed inwardly. She prayed daily for the woman’s health as well as her own.
Rusty found her voice, as low and gravelly as the chuckle. “What’s that Marine up to now?”
Marine. That validated her hunch about the principal. “He just—in front of the entire school population—asked Britte Olafsson for permission to court her.”
Rusty roared like a lion with bronchitis.
“It’s not news.”
“Welcome to Valley Oaks, kid.”
“It’s not news!”
Still chuckling, Rusty took a drag on her cigarette. “Then make it news, kid. It’s what’s happening in town this week. It’s a big deal. Joel Kingsley has turned that high school on its ear with a slew of policy changes. And he’s got the hutzpah to enforce them. A lot of folks don’t like it. This could be one more nail in his coffin. Was Bruce Waverly there?”
Kate blinked. “School superintendent. Dapper little guy.”
“I don’t know.”
“Track him down. Find out what he thinks. Of course, you’ll want to ask Kingsley what he’s up to. Get some parents’ opinions. Interview a couple of students, two or three school board members.” She dug through a pile of papers on her desk. “Here’s a list of them. Be sure you talk to Norton Pinsky. He always goes against the grain. We want to get all sides quoted.”
Kate took the paper from her and stood. “Okay.”
“What was Olafsson’s answer?”
“She said yes.”
Rusty smiled. “Good for her. We need to get this in Thursday’s edition. It’s timely, related to Valentine’s Day.”
“We can do a follow-up article next week.” Kate rolled her chair out of the way and shuffled toward the door. “What they did on their first date. What they wore. Did they go Dutch treat? Did they double with another couple?”
She unhooked her coat from its peg and turned. “
Lesson number one. You gotta pay your dues. Nobody makes it to DC without ’em.” Rusty swiveled back to her typewriter. “Did you get a photo?”
Photo! Oh, fiddlesticks! The camera! “Uh, I think so. At least, the camera clicked. See you later.”
Outdoors on the sidewalk Kate stood a moment and inhaled the garlic-scented frigid air. I’m sorry, Lord. Was that a lie? It felt like one. She’d better hustle over to the school and find the Sweater. Hopefully the guy knew how to take a decent picture.
Excerpted from The Winding Road Home by Sally John. Copyright © 2003 by Harvest House Publishers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.