Christmas in Connecticut by Jasinda Wilder


Chapter 1

“Miss Cole!” A young boy’s voice calls my name. “Miss Cole! Miss Cole!”

“We were chased by a dog, Miss Cole!” A second voice joins the first, and now the two boys, Jake Tormey and Dane Woolsey, are running pell-mell down the hallway toward me, backpacks bouncing, voices overlapping as they both try to tell me the story at the same time.

I hold up my hands to quiet them. “Boys, hush.” Their jaws clack closed. “That’s better. Now, perhaps you were chased by a wild, rabid dog, or perhaps not. But, I need you to be on time, okay? Can we do better, do you think?”

They both nod.

Dane, towheaded, short for his age, and likely undiagnosed and -treated ADHD, glares up at me. “There was a dog, Miss Cole. He escaped-ed his yard and chased us. He was big as me and had big lion teeth and every time he barked he got this big drool everywhere. He almost got me, too. See?” He turns around and awkwardly lifts his left foot up behind himself while trying to see it at the same time. “Look!”

Sure enough, the cuff of his jeans is ripped and damp, very much as if a slobbery dog had gotten its teeth in the fabric.

I blink in surprise. “Well, I’ll be—you’re telling the truth, it seems.”

He puts his foot down and nods vigorously. “Told you.”

“Is there an adult that can walk with you?” I ask.

Jake shrugs. “Nah. Our dads work together and our moms do too, and they all have to be at work at the buttcrack of dawn. Before school even starts. So we gotta ride our bikes to school on our own.” His eyes widen as if he’s realizing he’s saying something he probably shouldn’t. “But, um, it’s only like two blocks, and we been riding our bikes to school since forever.”

Sounds like a tricky situation, indeed. I sigh. “Well, I don’t like you being chased by mean dogs. Maybe there’s a route you can take that won’t make you go past that dog’s house.”

Dane considers. “Maybe? We’d have to go around the other way, and that’s lots longer.”

Jake shoves him. “Nuh-uh. We could go through the other school.”

“The gates aren’t always open.”

“During school they are. That might be even faster than the way we usually go.”

I put my hands on one each of their shoulders. “We’ll look into it—I’ll help you. For now, let’s get settled for class so I can start the lesson.”

They trudge in and find their desks—at the same table together, while I stand outside my door and wait for the rest of my first-grade class to arrive.

Like the kids, and my fellow teachers, I have a case of the first day jitters. I don’t ever let the kids see it, of course, but I feel many of the same things they do—what’s it going to be like this year? Will the class be fun, challenging, weird? I have thirty-two first-graders whose names I have to learn, whose learning styles I have to figure out, have to sort out the needy, clingy ones from the stubborn, independent ones, the ones who can already mostly read on their own from the ones who need a little more work yet.

But, overall, getting to know the kids is my favorite part. I mean, I think at least in part, I became a teacher because I like kids more than I do adults. They’re honest, for one thing. Brutally so, sometimes, maybe, but you know where you stand with them. Their needs are upfront, and mostly easy to meet: be kind, provide structure, and make sure they have fun. There’s a little more to it than that, of course, but that’s the general idea, and if you can get those three things in place, the details tend to be the easy part.

My classroom is prepped, initial seats are assigned—things always shift around a little in the first few weeks…such as Jake and Dane, for example; I foresee myself having separate them. I clutch my mug of coffee and stand outside my classroom as I hear the squeaks of sneakers and chatter of voices as the busses begin dropping off the children.

Saugatuck Elementary is bustling and noisy as the kids arrive. I wave and smile at faces I saw yesterday, and spend a moment chatting with a mom dropping her son off for the first day of kindergarten—she’s nervous and emotional and he’s clingy, and I reassure both her and the child; his teacher, my classroom next-door neighbor, Susan Delahay, is already busy comforting another nervous first-timer.

My kids start showing up, as most of them are on the second bus to arrive. I make a game of trying to remember their names as they arrive, greeting them with intentionally the wrong name—it makes them laugh and sets them at ease, and then they tell me their name and I win both ways. They find their desks and put their lunches in the lunch bin, and hang their backpacks in their lockers, and some find a book or a stack of blocks, and I’m filled with the eagerness to start a new year.

I have a few stragglers I’m waiting for, according to my seating chart, and since these are the same kids who were last to show up for orientation last week, I’m guessing they’ll be the ones who always show up a few minutes late. I’m keeping an eye on the classroom from the doorway while the kids get started on our first assignment—a Tell Me About Your Summer Break writing prompt to tell me where the kids are in handwriting and spelling, and to get to know each one a little better—when a scene down the hall catches my eye.

A little girl with her father, slowly trudging down the mostly empty hall, hand in hand, not speaking. She looks nervous and he looks no better. The girl is about seven, I’d say, making her a second-grader; my guess is confirmed when they stop together outside Kelly Fratelli’s second-grade classroom, two doors down and across the hall. They look a lot alike. She’s tall for a second-grader, with jet-black hair that has been inexpertly put into a ponytail—it’s uneven, and there are flyaways already wisping into her wide dark eyes. She’s pretty, with delicate, fine features. Jeans, sneakers, and a pink T-shirt with a unicorn on it, all brand new.

He’s gargantuan.

And handsome, in a rugged, almost brutal way. I’m a tall woman at five-ten, but he’s a good half a foot taller than me, making him at least six-four. His shoulders are broad and rounded with hard muscle—his shirt isn’t tight or fitted, but still clings to his powerful physique. Jet-black hair, like his daughter’s, curls up under the back of a faded, battered tan Carhartt ball cap; his beard is thick, curly, and a little unruly. Deep-set eyes, very dark, almost black. Like his daughter, he wears jeans and a T-shirt, but his are aged and faded, and he’s wearing heavy work boots.

He drops to one knee and holds her shoulders in huge, weathered, scarred hands. Mutters to her. She nods, eyes downcast. He hugs her, and she hugs him back, and he rises to go.

Makes it approximately ten steps before she launches into a run. “Daddy, wait!”

He turns and catches her as she slams into him. “I gotta go, sweet pea. Can’t be late for work.”

“Daddy, I’m scared.” Her voice is small, but it carries.

His is quiet, deep and rough, gravelly, almost hoarse. “I know, Riley. But it’s going to be okay.”

“I don’t know anyone. What if no one likes me?”

“I don’t know anybody here either, babe.”

“But you’re a adult. It’s different.”

“Just because I’m an adult doesn’t mean I’m good at meeting new people. I got a new boss, new coworkers. Shi—uh, shoot, honey, it’s a whole new job I’ve never done before. So guess what? I’m nervous too.”

“You are?” Her eyes are wide and her voice awed.

“Sure. It’s normal to be nervous starting something new.”

She shifts side to side, clutching his hand. “You’ll pick me up?”

“Sure thing. Right on time, guaranteed.” He kneels again and kisses her forehead. “Now, I really gotta go. You’re gonna do fine. Just…you know what I do? I think about just making friends with one new person. Not even make friends, just…talk to them. Get out of my shell, just a tiny bit. Can you do that?”

She nods, hesitantly. “I can try.”

“That’s all you can do, sweet girl, just try. So how about this—if we both talk to one new person today, we’ll get ice cream on the way home.”

She brightens at this. “Well…if there’s ice cream involved, it’s a different story.”

He laughs, rubs a big thumb against her cheek. “Yeah, I thought so. Now, you go on in, okay? I really have to go.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

“Love you, stinky pickle.”

She wrinkles her nose. “You can’t call me that in public, Daddy.”

He snorts and backs away. “Fine. Farewell, Riley Kerr.”

She rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “You’re ridiculous.”

“You know it.” He winks and walks backward until it appears she’s heading into her classroom.

The bell has long since rung. The man waves once more, and then pivots and fast-walks for the exit, long legs eating the space quickly.

The little girl, Riley Kerr, stands outside the classroom, watching him go. It’s clear, now, she was putting on a brave face for him so he could leave, but she’s still struggling. She brushes her hair out of her face, watching him round the corner and vanish, and then she lets out a little breath.

Glances at me, as if noticing me for the first time.

I wave. “Hi.”

She gives me a shy wave back. “Hello.”

I glance in at my class—they’re all being quiet and good, and my two tardy students still haven’t shown up. I cross the hall and offer my hand to Riley. “I’m Miss Cole. I teach first grade.”

“My name is Riley.” She takes my hand and shakes it, firm and decisive. Definitely taught how to shake hands by a man.

“Nice to meet you, Riley.” I crouch in front of her. “You know, Mrs. F, your teacher? She’s really, really nice. Plus, I had most of the kids in your class last year, and they’re all really cool kids. I bet you’ll make some friends in no time.”

“But I’m new.”

“I was new here just a few years ago myself, so I know how you feel.” I smile, glance behind her at Kelly. “But just be yourself and be brave, okay?”

She nods. “Okay.”

“And if you ever need anything, you can come to me, too, even though I’m not your teacher.”

Kelly nods at me, and ushers Riley into her room. Kelly hasn’t ever quite warmed up to me, for reasons I’m not entirely sure about. She’s super conservative, favoring tailored slacks and blazers, blond hair in a neat, pin-straight bob, and has a very traditional, straightforward teaching style. Whereas I’m…pretty much the opposite in every way; if I had to guess, I don’t think she approves of me. But, she’s a good teacher and so am I, so we keep it to a cordial, professional nod in the hallways and break room.

I finally decide my last two students, Mackenzie Dean and Ellis Warren, are either absent or simply very, very late, and head into my classroom.

Throughout the day, though, I find myself thinking about the little girl, Riley. And her dad.

I’m not sure why, but whenever I have a moment to think, my mind wanders back to their interaction. His reassurance, his admission that he’s nervous too—they’re new to Westport, and while this little town is friendly and welcoming, it’s also the kind of place where new people kind of stand out. Which can be hard.

Single dad in a new town. Yikes. That must be tough.

But…how do I know he’s a single dad? I don’t. But there are little clues that make me certain I’m right.

Her hair, for one thing. Her clothes, for another. It all smacks of “Dad” rather than “Mom.”

None of it is out of place or concerning. But I’d be willing to bet he’s a single dad.

And it makes me curious.

Which is, in itself, curious.

Because I haven’t been curious about a man in…

Well, ever.