Authors: Serenity Woods
To Tony and Chris, my Kiwi boys.
“You are going to have wild, passionate, swear-out-loud sex with the next man who walks through the door.” Mia read the prediction aloud from the astrology section of her magazine.
“Even if I did believe the position of the stars could tell my future, I’d know you made that up.” Grace continued to study the latest batch of science exams. “And anyway, that doesn’t sound remotely like something I’d do.”
Grace put a big red cross against the answer she’d just read. “Very funny. I meant swear. I would never swear during sex. Very unladylike.” She read the next question.
What happens to your body as you age?
And then the answer.
You get intercontinental.
Massaging her forehead, she drew another red cross. Jodi Rutherford barely appeared to have retained enough information from her biology lessons over the past ten weeks to fill a postage stamp.
“That explains a lot.”
Grace shot the teacher sitting next to her an exasperated look. “What’s that supposed to mean? And will you please stop trying to distract me? I want to get these finished before I go home.”
Mia grinned. It was nearly seven o’clock on a typically cool New Zealand October evening, and moths had started to flit around the strip lighting. Even though the parents’ evening had been the busiest of the year, the stream of visitors to the auditorium was starting to wane, and the teachers sitting at the rows of tables were beginning to pack up their laptops and books. Neither she nor Grace had seen a parent for fifteen minutes, and she was quite clearly bored. “I meant that your reaction to my prophecy accounts for why you’re still a spinster at the ripe old age of twenty-nine. If you’ve never been with a guy who could make you swear out loud during sex, it would explain why you haven’t come close to settling down.”
“Don’t call me a spinster,” Grace grumbled, turning over the page. “And anyway, I’m only a year older than you. You make me sound like I’m eighty-five.”
“You dress like you’re eighty-five,” Mia said impatiently.
“What’s wrong with the way I dress?” Grace frowned as she looked at her clothes. Her neat pencil skirt and white shirt were hardly retirement-age clothing. Okay, maybe the flat, sensible shoes, hair in a bun and glasses were a bit more “traditional schoolmistress meets university librarian”, but she hardly looked as if she should be vacationing with the over-fifties.
“You’re practically Victorian.” Slim and pretty, with thick, shiny black hair, Mia always wore the latest fashions.
“Because I don’t have a skirt above my knees and my shirt unbuttoned to my cleavage?”
“Grace, honestly. You’re beginning to worry me. You really should try to have sex at least once each decade, you know, or you’ll forget how to do it.”
Grace stared at the floor in front of her desk and tipped open her hands in protestation. “Mia…do you mind?” When her colleague remained quiet, she tried to concentrate on the paper in front of her. Then she groaned. “God, listen to this. ‘If conditions are not favourable, bacteria go into a period of adolescence.’ I mean, honestly.”
Mia laughed. “Whose paper is that?”
She put another red cross on it. “Jodi Rutherford’s.”
“Ooh.” Mia perked up. “The medium’s daughter? I didn’t know you taught her.”
Grace sighed. “Oh Lord, don’t you start. What is it with the women in this school? One mention of that guy and I swear their bodies undergo some kind of chemical change, turning them into goo.”
“Grace Fox, seriously, have you not seen him? What the hell is wrong with you?”
Grace put her pen down impatiently. “Of course I’ve seen him. Well, a photo of him. You can’t avoid it. His picture’s been plastered over half of Wellington for the last week, for crying out loud. But he’s just a guy. Two arms, two legs. Nothing that warrants all the mooning about.”
Mia shook her head. “Now I
there’s something wrong with you. Sweetheart, Ashton Rutherford is sex on legs.
He’s, like, six-foot-four and played lock for the Hurricanes.”
“That means absolutely nothing to me, Mia.”
Mia rolled her eyes. She was an avid Rugby Union fan. “They’re the tall ones who jump up at the line-outs.”
“Is that supposed to impress me?”
“Don’t you find him a little bit intriguing? A rugby-playing doctor who became a clairvoyant—don’t you think that warrants even a little bit of interest?”
Grace snorted. “Any man who gives up a serious profession after years of training to become a fortune teller needs his head tested.”
“He doesn’t tell fortunes. He’s a medium. He speaks to dead people.”
Grace gave her a look. “This conversation does not sound like something I’d be even vaguely interested in. I’m packing up now. It’s nearly seven.”
Mia sighed and started logging off on her laptop. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me he could have been coming to see you tonight.”
“I honestly didn’t expect the guy to turn up. I’m sure interest in the welfare and progress of his only daughter is way beneath such a superstar. On my to-do list, informing you which students’ parents were coming tonight was right at the bottom.”
“He wouldn’t be at the bottom of my to-do list,” Mia mumbled.
“You sound just like your mother when you talk like that.”
The ultimate insult.
“Don’t mention it. You seriously need to get laid, though.”
Tell me about it
. She didn’t say that, however. Instead, she said, “For the love of…will you desist?”
“Next guy that walks through the door, I’m telling you. Look—the door’s opening…”
“Please don’t let it be Professor Michaels,” Grace muttered as she got on her hands and knees to pull the plug of her laptop out from underneath the wall heater, making Mia laugh out loud at the mention of the overweight, balding, officious deputy principal who drove them all to distraction.
Mia’s laughter turned abruptly into a gasp. “I don’t believe it.”
“What?” The lead was stuck. Grace pulled it hard, but it had somehow got wedged against the plug of the heater and refused to come out.
“Well, this is going to be interesting.”
Grace took the plug in both hands but it still failed to move. “Sweetie, I don’t care if he’s Robert Downey Junior, I am
having sex with him.” She leaned all her weight on the lead, and all of a sudden, it gave and pinged out of the wall. She fell backward, banged her head and ended up sprawled in a most ungainly fashion facing the parent who was waiting at the foot of her desk.
“If you’d turn down Robert Downey Junior I guess I don’t stand a chance,” he said, amused.
Grace looked up at the face of the man she’d seen plastered on billboards all across town and then turned slowly to face Mia, whose eyes were practically falling out of her head. Mia stared at her and made a slight gesture with her hands, bringing them together, making Grace realise she was facing the guy with her legs open, giving him a splendid view right up her skirt.
She pulled her legs together with a snap. He’d fixed his gaze politely on her face, but she was sure she saw a hint of a smile on his lips as he offered a hand to pull her up. Sighing, she accepted it, and his large, warm hand gripped hers as he lifted her easily to her feet. “Thank you,” she said breathlessly. She stood before him and straightened her skirt, then tugged the hem of her shirt.
“Ah, the Picard Manoeuvre,” he said, and smiled.
She stared at him.
He scratched his head. “Sorry. It’s a term from
Star Trek: The Next Generation
. Captain Picard always tugs his jacket—”
“—when he stands up, yes I know.” She looked up at him, meeting his stormy-blue-eyed gaze. The guy was huge. Built like a brick shit-house, as her father used to say. Wide shoulders in a dark blue shirt, a greenstone
around his neck. Long legs in dark jeans. Dark blond hair cut short at the back, slightly longer on the top. Much younger than she’d thought—most of the parents she saw were in their forties or even older, but he couldn’t be more than thirty-two or -three. And he had a smile that none of his photographs had been able to capture.
Grace blinked. The man was also a nutcase. She had to remember that.
“I was just packing up to go home.” She wrapped up the computer lead and put it in the case. “It’s gone seven, Mr.…er…”
“Rutherford,” he said, looking amused that she didn’t appear to know who he was. “Ash Rutherford, Jodi’s dad?”
“Ah, yes. Well, I’m sorry, I’ve had a very long day, and I’d really like to go home now…”
“Can you just give me five minutes, please?”
“Look, I’ve been sitting here for the past fifteen minutes with an empty chair before me,” she said, irritated that, because he was famous, he obviously thought she’d do anything he wanted. “I don’t see why…” Her voice tailed off as she looked up at him. His smile had faded and he looked tired and worried.
“I’m sorry I’m late. My appointments with Jodi’s English and Maths teachers over in the other block ran over. They…had a lot to say about her.” His lips twisted wryly.
Grace sighed. “Take a seat.” Ignoring Mia’s unbridled look of glee, she sank back into her chair.
“Thank you. I do appreciate it.” He pulled out the chair opposite and sat, crossing a knee over his ankle. “So…you’re a
She opened her register. “Yes. I have every episode in all five series.” Why had she told him that? Now he would think she was a right dork. Not that she cared what he thought of her.
He laughed. “So have I.
’s my favourite—what’s yours?”
was hers too, but she wasn’t about to tell him that. She looked at him over the top of her glasses, a glance known to wither the most confrontational students from across the classroom. “Did you come here to talk about my DVD collection or your daughter, Mr. Rutherford?”
It was downright rude, but he grinned and picked up her nameplate from the table. “Jodi told me Miss Fox was strict.” His eyes twinkled.
There was something about the way he said it that gave her a vivid image of handcuffing him to the bed.
Oh good Lord.
She looked down at the register on the desk to try to cover up her embarrassment. “I keep a tight rein on the class,” she said. “I find good behaviour conducive to a productive learning environment.”
“Absolutely.” He was clearly amused.
She pushed her glasses up her nose. “Let’s have a look at Jodi’s progress since she started this year.” Running her finger along the entry in her book, she pretended to read, although she already knew her students’ marks by heart. “Her attendance is satisfactory, but I have noticed she’s frequently absent on a Friday afternoon.”
“Yes, sorry about that. I often have a show to do over the weekend, and we normally have to fly out Friday.”
That excuse was not going to impress her. “It does make it awkward because she has science last period on a Friday. That means she’s missing a quarter of all her lessons. Is it not possible for someone else to pick her up from school on that day?” Surely, he must be able to afford to pay for a babysitter. The guy must be rolling in it.
“No. I promised myself when her mother died I wasn’t going to hand over her care to anyone else. She’s my daughter. She stays with me.”
Grace looked up. He’d set his jaw. Clearly, he’d already had this argument with some of her colleagues. She didn’t agree with Jodi missing lessons, but for some reason his insistence softened her. “I think that’s admirable,” she said more gently. “Family has to come first.”
He studied her. Suddenly, he smiled. “Thanks. I think that’s the first time anyone’s agreed with me about that. My mother’s always nagging me about getting an au pair to do more for Jodi, but I’ve tried to fight it. She’s in Norway, so I guess she feels guilty she can’t do more.”
“Ah. That explains a lot.” The words were out before she could stop them. She’d meant that it clarified his looks. Quite clearly, Ash Rutherford had been a Viking in a previous life. As he raised an eyebrow, however, she added hastily, “I meant your name. In Norse mythology the world tree is an ash.”