E.J. Haney is running from a promiscuous past. Involved with the wrong guy, when she makes the decision to make a new life for herself, she goes to the extreme. Hiding behind the facade of a prim and proper small town schoolmarm image, she vows never to love again.
Jacob Ransing is hot, sexy and divorced. He’s also the new guy in town, moving to E.J.’s town as the new principal. Despite all her reservations, E.J. can’t help but fall for his looks, charm and personality. But there is one problem, her belief she’ll never be good enough for the sexy man with the reddish-brown hair. Jacob decides a firm hand is the only way to turn her around and it’s working until the past rears its ugly head. Can the new lovers move on to find the love that was meant to be, or will the past come between them?
Erica Jo Haney sat behind the desk in her classroom grading the day’s papers handed in by her fourth grade students at Lincoln Elementary. She pushed a stray strand of hair behind her ears, finally giving up and removing the clip holding her long brunette locks into a tight coil at the base of her neck. As she pulled the loose strands back to place them into the clip, there was a knock on her door.
“Come on in,” she said as she hurriedly finished her hair and looked up to see who had entered the room.
“Honestly, E.J., when are you going to drop the spinster schoolmarm look? Your hair is beautiful and you should wear it down,” fellow teacher and friend, Michelle Marks said as she sat down at one of the desks.
“I am not out to impress anyone with my looks. If I want to make my way as an elementary teacher, I need to look the part,” Erica retorted.
“This is not the sixties, get with it,” Michelle replied wearily.
“So did you stop by to harass me or is there a reason for this visit?” she asked as she looked at the stack of papers waiting to be graded.
“I won’t keep you; I just wanted to remind you of the game Friday night. You and I are working the ticket booth. All teachers have to take a turn,” Michelle said with a grin.
“I’ll be glad to have my turn over with early in the year. The pre-season warm up game is as good a time as any. Friday night ballgames aren’t my idea of relaxation after a long week of school and fourth graders.”
“When are you going to get a life?” her friend asked in an exasperated tone.
“I had a life, not a great one, but a life before I decided to change my ways and do something constructive with my life. You know that. You’re the only person in this town I’ve confided to about my past.”
“But you gave it up, got your degree and moved here to start a new life. That doesn’t mean you have to become an old maid. You should be getting out, dating, and meeting nice men.”
“Do nice men really exist?”
“Sweetie, you got a raw deal. But that’s in the past. Don’t you think it’s finally time to move on? What happened in Chicago with Dane shouldn’t define the rest of your life.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to move on, to be honest with you. Dane hurt me. The fact that he was never going to change, made me realize I’m not worthy of a good man’s love. If I wasn’t enough for him, how could I be enough for a decent guy? I’ll always be the girl who just isn’t quite up to par.”
Shaking her head, Michelle added, “I heard the new principal from the junior high will be working with us at the game. I’ve also heard he’s pretty hot.”
“I still haven’t figured out why someone like him would leave a city like Chicago to settle in a small town like this.”
“You should talk! Isn’t that exactly what you did?”
“I doubt his reasons are the same as mine,” E.J. answered with a grimace.
“You’d be surprised how many people have skeletons in their closets, my friend. I’ll let you get back to your papers. Don’t stay here all night. You can grade papers at home, you know.”
“Yes, I know, and I’ll be leaving soon. See you tomorrow.”
When Michelle had gone, Erica turned back to her work. Finally giving up, she stuffed the stacks of papers into her brief case and locked her classroom. On the half hour drive home to her small apartment, thoughts of the life she’d left behind came flooding back. A life in a city far away, with a man she had thought she loved, who hadn’t loved her in return. The lifestyle they’d led would have shocked her friends and family. The parties, the cheating, and the job she had held as a dancer in a club would have made many of her new acquaintances blush. How had it happened? She had met Dane in school. She was floundering with her classes, trying to decide on a major when the best looking thing she’d ever seen had entered her life. They’d met at a party, of course. He was fun and full of energy and ideas. He knew all the right people, had all the right connections for the fun life. She had quit school and moved in with him within a month. It soon became apparent it wasn’t in the cards for it to be a monogamous relationship. The first time she’d caught him cheating, she’d been devastated. But as time went on, she learned that if you can’t beat them, join them. And that’s exactly what she did. They continued to live together, continued to be lovers, but it was an open relationship. She took a job dancing in a club to make ends meet. Dane was an artist, a free spirit. He was talented, but they needed income to carry them through his lean times. So he painted, she danced, they lived together and partied often. She took numerous lovers in an attempt to make Dane feel the hurt she felt each time he had cheated on her. But he didn’t care. He was okay with an open relationship. He may have loved her in his own way, but it would never be the type of relationship Erica craved. One day he had come home and announced to her that he had been offered an art show in New York by a big name gallery. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and one he couldn’t afford to pass up. He asked her to accompany him. When she had asked him point blank if he was asking her to go with him as his wife or as his roommate, she got the answer she expected. He saw no reason to change things. The relationship worked for him and there was no reason to change what wasn’t broken. It was in that moment she had made a life-altering decision. She didn’t want to continue the lifestyle she had been living with Dane. She knew he would never change, but she could if she set her mind to it. So she had said goodbye to Dane, and watched silently as he packed his belongings and moved to New York. He was out of her life for good, and it was time for her to make a new life as well. The pain in knowing she didn’t mean as much to him as he had meant to her would remain with her for a very long time. The things she’d done in an attempt to win his love now made her feel ashamed. She was the classic good girl gone bad for the love of a man who didn’t deserve her. Picking herself up and dusting herself off, Erica returned to school, earned her teaching degree and sought a job in a small town close to home. She wanted a fresh start in a place where no one knew about her partying days with Dane. The fourth grade position had opened up unexpectedly in the small town of Lincoln, and she applied for and got the job. She was now in her third year there and during those three years she had not dated, had not partied, nor had she mingled with anyone but Michelle. She and Michelle had become good friends almost immediately. The other girl was always trying to get her to go out, but Erica, or E.J. as she was known around school, was adamant about keeping a low profile. She wanted nothing to do with the kind of life she had fallen into in her youth. She was now a responsible adult and she had to maintain a reputation. So she wore her glasses instead of her contact lenses, kept her long, thick hair rolled into a clip at the nape of her neck and she dressed very conservatively. Anyone who met her would think she had always been a mousy type and that was just the way she wanted it. As for Dane, she never heard from him, but knew from the news that he had made it big in the art world and was now married, living in New York City. Had he changed? She doubted it, but if he had, she was happy for him.
When she arrived at the tiny apartment she had rented when she’d moved to town, she wearily made her way to the door, unlocked it and went inside. Kicking off her shoes, she walked down the hallway to the bedroom she threw her purse and briefcase on the bed. Changing into a pair of flannel pajama pants and a t-shirt, she went to the kitchen to warm up the leftover meat loaf from the night before, threw a baked potato in the microwave and tossed a small salad. After dinner, she did the dishes and went back to her papers. Working until midnight to finish grading them, she finally fell into bed, exhausted, and fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
The next morning the alarm clock next to her bed blared in her ear much too soon. Thank goodness the week was almost over. It was Thursday. She opened the blinds, pulled back the frilly, feminine Priscilla curtains at her window and looked outside. The sun was shining, but being late fall she knew it was deceiving, so she pulled a crisp, white blouse, blue sweater and black skirt out of her closet before hopping into a hot shower. She stepped out of the stall a few minutes later, briskly toweled herself dry and threw on her clothes hastily. Applying minimal makeup and pulling her hair into the usual clip, she grabbed her coat, purse and briefcase and ran out to the car. She would eat donuts and drink coffee in the teacher’s lounge when she got to school. The teachers at Lincoln Elementary took turns bringing in donuts and the first one to arrive always made a fresh pot of coffee to start their day. She loved all of her co-workers. They had made her feel very welcome and her three years at the school had been extremely rewarding. Her fellow teachers thought she was a bit odd in the fact she kept to herself outside of school, but they respected that. She was well-liked and would be welcome at any gathering should she change her mind and decide to attend at any time.
She was greeted with smiles as she entered the lounge.
“Hi, E.J.,” the fifth grade teacher said as she sat sipping her coffee.
“Good morning,” E.J. replied. She sat down after pouring her own coffee and added, “Ready to start the day?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be. We’re testing today, so it should be fairly quiet, how about you?”
“I’ll be handing back the tests my kids took yesterday. I got them all graded last night.”
“That’ll be my night tonight, I’m afraid. Oh well, at least I’ll have it done before the weekend and I can play. Are you going to the big game tomorrow night?”
“I have to work the ticket booth, so I’ll be there,” she replied.
“The pre-season game is a big deal around here so you’ll be busy.”
“Great,” she groaned as she looked at the clock on the wall. Standing up, she said, “I’d better get going. Have a good day.”
“You too, maybe I’ll see you at lunch.”
As she walked down the hall to her office, she saw an unfamiliar face talking to the principal. The man was tall, with reddish-brown hair and he was dressed impeccably. He smiled at her as she walked by and spoke to her in greeting. Putting her head down, she mumbled a response and hurried to her classroom. When she was seated behind her desk, she let out a long, deep breath. That man was the hottest looking guy she’d seen in the whole three years she’d been at Lincoln. Who was he? What was he doing here? And more importantly, why did she care? Get a grip, Erica Jo, she told herself sternly. Her new life didn’t include looking at strange men and thinking they were hot. That was all in the past and that was where it had to stay. Didn’t it?
She made it through the morning, forcing thoughts of the strange man out of her head. Visions of him popped up occasionally, but she made them disappear almost as soon as they appeared. She had to stay strong. No falling back into the old lifestyle now. She’d worked too hard to mess things up now. She was no longer a promiscuous twenty-something. She was nearly thirty and a respected member of the community and that’s how it had to be.
She went to the teacher’s lounge at lunchtime and ate the ham and cheese sandwich she’d packed while chatting with some of the other teachers. No one mentioned the man who’d been in the hallway that morning so she didn’t either. Either they hadn’t seen him or they knew who he was and thought nothing of it. She could have asked about him, but that would be out of character for her so she remained quiet and listened to the others talk about their weekend plans.
When the day was over, she hurried home. She planned to have an early evening since she’d been up late the night before and she’d be at the game the next night. It sounded like she would be putting in a full night’s work selling tickets. She relaxed in bed with her kindle, finished the book she’d started the weekend before and turned out the light. As she slept, the man with the reddish-brown hair invaded her dreams. They were together, strolling in the moonlight. When they stopped, he’d turned to her and kissed her gently. A feeling washed over her she’d never experienced before. It was a feeling of contentment and wonder. It was as if it were the most natural thing in the world for the man she’d seen earlier in the day to lean over and kiss her lips ever so gently. No one had ever kissed her gently before. It was a new and enlightening experience, and it seemed so real that when she awoke in the middle of the night, she had to look around to make sure she wasn’t outside in the moonlight. But she was alone, in her bed, in the dark. Yes, alone, in her bed, in the dark, just as she was every night these days. The reality of that hit home for the first time. She’d thought that was what she wanted after sharing a bed with so many different men during the dark time she was with Dane in the city. She thought she wanted to be forever alone. But now, after the dream, she wasn’t so sure that was what she wanted after all.
On Friday, she was more quiet than usual. She told her class to take some time to study and do their assignment with the promise of no homework for the weekend if they behaved. While they were doing that, she let her mind wander again since she couldn’t concentrate on any work. Did she really want to spend the rest of her life alone? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could find the one man who was her soul mate? Did he even exist or was he a figment of her imagination? Surely not all men were like Dane? Shaking her head, she chastised herself for even letting her thoughts go there. Never again, she had told herself. Never would she ever let a man drag her down the way Dane had. She had loved him in the beginning, or thought she had. But his kind of life was not what true love was supposed to be about. It worked for some couples, she knew that, but not for her. She had fallen for the wrong guy and now she was too afraid to try again. Her interest in the strange man was a fluke. She really could care less who he was. So he was good-looking. Looks weren’t everything. Dane had been hot and handsome too and he had known it. She really had no desire to get mixed up with another hot guy who thought he was God’s gift to women. By the time she went home to get ready for the game, all thoughts of the hot guy with the reddish-brown hair were banished from her mind. Or so she thought.