The wheels of the Harley skidded over the school parking lot as Lacie rounded a tight corner and vaulted over a curb, spitting mad. She cut the thundering engine right in front of the main office, looking like she’d been blown in by a biker gang bent on revenge. When secretaries spied her from the window, their eyes grew wide and they thrust the entrance into lockdown with a loud metal click.
Lacie swept back long, windblown strands of hair from her face and slid off the bike with fists clenched, a vision of black-leathered fury. The people inside scurried in panic. One man held up a digital camera to take a shot, like he was ready to turn her in to authorities. Lacie rolled her eyes, grateful that cell phones never seemed to work in this backwoods vortex an hour and a half from any cell tower. The last thing she needed was someone emailing video footage of her to the sheriff that would put him in her face within the hour. Counting to twenty, the way prison anger-management counselors taught her, she resisted the urge to punch through the front door window and haul her ass inside. Instead, she attempted a fake smile and rapped on the door.
The office staff argued loudly about whether to let her in, when a tall, dark-haired man in a brown corduroy blazer stepped into the office. He turned to regard Lacie, making her mouth drop. God as her witness, he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen. His wavy chestnut hair framed his strong cheekbones and jaw to perfection, and his hazel eyes had an extraordinary depth to their warm tones of brown and green. Rather than register alarm at her intrusion, his gaze indicated something else. Something Lacie couldn’t quite name.
Déjà vu, maybe?
Abruptly, he froze in place, absorbing her face as though he’d seen her long ago in a dream. Scanning her straight blonde hair, the angle of her nose, the curves of her cheeks and chin, he lingered on her soft brown eyes that matched Winchester’s. Lacie blushed while he shook his head, as if to break a spell.
He held up his hand to halt the staff’s chatter. Disgruntled, they returned to their seats, and he headed for the entrance.
The lock unclicked.
“M-Ms. Blade?” He swung open the front door.
“Um . . . yeah,” she hesitated, startled that he knew her name. She figured Winchester was the spitting image of her, so maybe he’d put two and two together. “Are you the principal? If so, we need to talk.”
Murmurs from the staff filled the air like a swarm of bees.
“Oh my God, how did that woman ever get out of prison?”
“I heard she killed somebody.”
“Nah, she got caught cooking meth.
Big surprise with the reputation of her family.”
Lacie ignored the gossip and marched past them, making a sharp right to head down the hall to the principal’s office. She knew this building like the back of her hand from all the times she and her cousins had been sent to the principal for fighting. Just as she expected, the man followed her. He motioned to a chair before stepping behind his desk to sit down.
“I have a feeling I know the purpose of your visit.” He perched his elbows on the desk and folded his hands. His hazel eyes bored into hers without a hint of dismay at her painted-on black leather or her criminal record. “Let me tell you something, Ms. Blade. I don’t expel children from Bender Lake Elementary for merely rassling on the playground with too much pent-up energy. Your son Winchester shoved Jenny Coop’s head into the dirt and proceeded to knock her senseless. She had to have stitches.”
“Did you see his face? She gave him a black eye—”
“It was the fourth time, Ms. Blade. And not just with Jenny.”
“Kids’ remarks can be cruel, Mr., um . . .”
“Winslow.” The man tapped his chipped nameplate on the desk. “Jackson Winslow.”
Next to the nameplate, Lacie spotted a picture in a mahogany frame. It was of Jackson accepting a trophy in high school, wearing the classic blue blazer from the Breton Boarding School for Boys in Cincinnati. Sure enough, there was the school’s gold insignia embroidered on his chest pocket—she’d recognize it anywhere. Full of privilege and entitlement, Breton boys were notorious for sneaking out and heading to Bender Lake to party on Friday nights toting any illegal substances they could find. Then they crashed their expensive cars into trailer parks or the lake and blamed their skirmishes on the locals, who were left to clean up their messes. Their daddies, of course, always bankrolled them out of any trouble with the law. On a nearby wall, Lacie also spied a brass plaque with Jackson Winslow etched in regal script beneath the words Princeton University. His award was in social justice, of all things.
Lacie wanted to vomit.
“What is this,” she narrowed her eyes, pointing at the plaque, “your flipping Peace Corps stint? A chance to prove you can do a year in the trenches before you accept some golden headmaster job at an elite school? Well I have news for you, Mr. Winslow,” Lacie leaned forward, her studded leather bracelet clicking against his desk. “Half the kids here are on welfare. The other half eat rabbit and squirrel because their folks are too proud for assistance. Most of them have relatives in jail at one time or another—just like Winchester. Every single day is a struggle, so they don’t need anybody, whether it’s Jenny Coop or the Pope, pointing out what they already know is crappy about their lives.”
Lacie turned over the Breton photo before it made her so angry she wanted to take a swing.
“If you really want to be a leader,” she hissed, “you’ll stop bullies from making it intolerable for a kid like Winchester to show his face around here. Because believe me, most of your student body knows exactly the kind of pain he feels—”
“Principal Winslow!” A shrill voice cut Lacie off. A gray-haired woman burst into his office with a smoking computer in her hands. She laid it on his desk like a heap of smoldering coal. “This is the last one we had that worked!” she reported, nearly hysterical. “What are we going to do? Bus the kids half an hour away to the county library? We don’t even have the money for gas!”
A trickle fell down the woman’s cheek, but it wasn’t from sweat or tears.
Lacie glanced up at the drops of rain leeching through the ceiling tiles.
Too upset to move, the woman stood her ground, blinking back any moisture that dribbled onto her face. She looked like she was used to it.
Jackson buried his head in his hands. After a pause, he picked up the receiver to a 1970s-style phone and began to punch the number pad, giving off odd melodic tones. The woman wagged her finger.
“Won’t do a bit of good to call the head of the PTA for more fundraising,” she warned, wiping a few drops from her brow. “Because she just quit. ‘Hopeless’ I believe is the word she used.”
“Patty Coop quit?” Jackson set down the receiver. With a long sigh, he tilted back in his chair and glared at Lacie. The fact that his eyes were so beautiful made her uncomfortable.
“As you can see, Ms. Blade,” he pointed out, “no one is more aware than I am about how hard things are at Bender Lake Elementary. And unless you happen to have a magic wand, I suggest you go home to your son, tell him to grow a thicker skin, and teach him to stop beating on other kids. Now if you don’t mind, I need to call every county and state resource I can find to ask for more funds—”
“Unless . . .” Lacie countered with a gleam in her eye.
“Unless what?” he replied, impatient. “I don’t mean to cut you short, Ms. Blade. But I have to get a hold of the Department of Education in Columbus before five.”
“Can you excuse us for a minute?” Lacie said sweetly to the woman, who’d taken to staring at the growing puddle beside her feet. With a nod, she brushed off the ashy stains from her arms and turned to head down the hall.
Lacie leaped to close the door. A sly smile surfaced on her lips.
“Unless I can get you the cash.”
Jackson did a double take.
“W-What are you talking about?”
“Money, for Christ’s sake.”
Lacie plopped down in her chair and stared the principal in the eye. “Serious money. You need funds, and I need my child to go to school. Deal?”
“But I don’t see how anyone could possibly . . .”
Lacie turned a deaf ear to his rationale, enjoying the befuddlement on his face while he kept talking. He was so good looking she found herself wondering what it would be like to run her fingers through his hair, and it was hard not to stare into his striking hazel eyes that flared whenever he got passionate about the school. But what really got to her was the tenderness in his gaze, even when stressed or angered, as if he was always prepared to let lost souls and children into his heart. Lacie shook her head. Don’t believe it for a minute, she reminded herself. Every Breton boy you’ve ever met was a secret sociopath—no different on the inside than cons in the pen. They just come from softer circumstances. He’s probably perfected that sensitive look to climb up in the world.
“Maybe it’s high time somebody taught you a thing or two about how Bender Lake really operates,” Lacie crossed her arms, interrupting Jackson. “Because what we’re dealing with here is an underground economy. Trade, swap, barter—that’s how folks get along. And pardon my French, but sometimes the real assholes will pony up hefty wads of cash if you know something about them they don’t want nobody else to know. Especially the law.”
Lacie sat up straight in her chair.
“So here’s what I propose: If I manage to get enough, uh . . . donations . . . to cover a new roof and a computer for every student, then you let Winchester back into school for good. Just give me two weeks, Mr. Winslow, and don’t ask any questions.” She gazed straight into his eyes that were way too pretty for a grown man’s face, let alone anyone’s good. “If I fail, the deal’s off. You game?”
“A-Are you talking about becoming president of the PTA?”
“If that’s what you want to call it. Sure.”
Jackson had to brush his hand over his mouth to hide his smirk.
Lacie couldn’t help noticing the twinkle in his eyes. It made him even more handsome than before, especially when he attempted to stifle the full-on laughter that was bubbling up inside.
“Oh Ms. Blade,” he swallowed down a chuckle, “imagine the hue and cry I’d have to deal with at the superintendent’s office if I allowed the head of the PTA to be somebody who, um, you know—”
Lacie fell silent.
But the shame that seared through her heart felt like an electric scream.
Without a word, she reached for her purse.
To her surprise, Jackson’s eyes arrested hers, registering the deep pain from her prison experience that was still too raw. All at once, he seemed vulnerable, like Winchester—someone who knew the humiliation and abandonment of losing a loved one to the system, who’d been forced to navigate the rollercoaster of courts and sentencing. And who’d learned the hard way that soul resignation was the only way to survive.
Jackson grasped her hand. His palm felt warm and comforting.
“I-I’m so sorry, Ms. Blade. What a thoughtless thing for me to say.”
Lacie nodded, wishing she could surrender for a moment, but she yanked back her hand. This man’s pity felt both good and horrible at the same time, like a street drug she had no business messing with. She couldn’t decide whether to thank him or deck him. What would a trust-fund, former prep-boy like him know about the hell she’d just been through? And had he ever considered the term “falsely convicted”?
“I don’t cook meth,” she blurted in a low tone full of venom. “Let’s get one thing straight: I love Winchester more than my own life. And I don’t give a damn how many times you’ve heard this from cons—I didn’t do it. I was making candy, Mr. Winslow.”
Lacie’s cheeks simmered, body trembling, but she couldn’t stop spilling the truth.
“I was trying to cook peanut brittle to sell at the Moo N’ Brew Drive Thru for extra cash beyond my shift with Jed’s 24-hour Tow Trucks. My crummy gas stove blew up. They found me unconscious ten feet from the carcass of my trailer.”
Lacie pushed up her leather coat sleeves to reveal the burn scars.
“When the fire department came, they found money scattered everywhere. Ten thousand bucks my asshole ex-boyfriend apparently stuffed under my mattress before he got arrested a year ago. I had no idea—the locks didn’t work on my trailer anymore. Law enforcement assumed I’d been running a meth lab. It didn’t help that the sheriff had the hots for me and decided to get even after I’d refused to go to his place.”
Lacie shook her head, blinking back tears.
“You’d think investigators could tell the goddamn difference between chemicals and sugar compounds. And why, oh why, wouldn’t I have spent that ten grand on a better trailer with good locks if I’d known I had it? But Judge Bent and the sheriff are buddies, so he decided to make a quick example of me with the false evidence the sheriff planted. Let’s just say I couldn’t afford the highest quality lawyers.”
Lacie’s hands had balled into fists. She rolled down her sleeves and stood up to leave.
“We’re never going to breathe a word of this again,” she warned. “Got that? There are only two things you need to know.”
She held up a finger.
“One: I will do whatever it takes to secure my boy’s future.”
She held up another finger.
“And two: if that means bringing in a lake-load of money for the PTA, so be it.”
Lacie stole a glance at the wall.
“So you can take down your Princeton plaque and hug it inside your fancy house tonight and chew on that for a while.”
Lacie swiveled to march to the door, her thigh-high boot heels clicking against the hard tiles.
“I don’t have to,” Jackson called after her.
Lacie halted. Refusing to turn, she held her breath, bracing for the inevitable dismissal.
“’Cause what happens in Bender Lake has always stayed in Bender Lake,” Jackson said. “And as long as you don’t target anyone innocent, I won’t pry into your business. Just promise me one thing.”
Lacie could practically feel Jackson’s gaze drill into her back.
“Keep it legal. Okay? No roughing anybody up. No blackmailing anybody who was just trying to provide for their kids. And Ms. Blade . . .”
“Yes, Mr. Winslow?”“Looks like you got yourself a deal.”