The Sweetest Song by Heather Ames
Chapter 1

Gerilyn Hampton padlocked her bicycle to a pole in the teachers’ parking lot of Winslow High School and unloaded a stack of books and papers from the basket.

“What in the world are you doing with that old bicycle?” Anna Wilkinson, Geri’s friend and fellow teacher, raised quizzical eyebrows above turquoise and pink tinted eyelids.

“I had trouble getting my car going this morning, so I dropped it at Bob’s Garage. If it’s not fixed by the time school’s out, then I’ve still got a way home.” Geri managed to balance her books on one hip while she swung her black leather attaché case over her shoulder.

“You’re going to ride that battered heap?” Anna shook her head, large hoop earrings swinging like twin pendulums. “I think I’m impressed. You’re either extremely brave or really dumb. It’s supposed to rain today, and the apartments are close to ten miles from here. Why didn’t you take the car to the dealership? You could have gotten the shuttle here, and you know I’ll give you a ride home.”

“My car’s so old the dealership probably doesn’t even stock parts for it anymore.” Geri looked up at the clear blue spring sky. “If there’s any rain in North Carolina today it certainly isn’t hovering over Asheville.”

“Maybe not right now, but you wait until you’re pedaling home with your hair stuck to your head and water running down the back of your neck.” Anna changed her heavy canvas bag to her other hand, multicolored bracelets jangling on her wrists.

Geri envied Anna’s outrageous sense of style and carefree attitude. Sometimes she wished she could be as forthright and opinionated. The experience must be downright stimulating. Or exhausting.

“I’m not going to pedal ten miles,” she assured Anna. “I’m spending the night at my grandmother’s.”

Pounding footsteps announced two teenage boys running between the rows of neatly parked cars. They squeezed through the small gap between the bicycle and the two teachers. The taller boy caught Geri in the back with his elbow, almost knocking her down.

“Sorry Ma’am,” the boys chorused. They didn’t stop to see if she was all right or wait for a reprimand.

“Walk!” Geri rescued her sliding stack of papers at the last moment. The boys slowed to a more sedate pace until they reached the corner of the building, then took off. “Kids,” she muttered. “They seem to get wilder the bigger they get. I should have chosen to teach grade-schoolers. I’m sure it would have been a lot easier on my nerves.”

“You’d get frustrated teaching English to grade-schoolers, and you’d never have had the chance to instruct a band, either.” Anna buttoned her jacket over her midriff-length top. “If you’re going to spend the night with Mary May, then I won’t feel insulted. Otherwise, let me tell you, I thought we were good enough friends for you to ask me to give you a ride home after work.”

“I gave up trying to carpool with you about a year ago, remember? You’re never home.” Geri looked at Anna’s barely knee-length leather skirt. She wished she could wear such a striking outfit herself, but shortly after Anna joined the staff of Winslow High, Geri came to the conclusion she would look like a bag lady in most of Anna’s clothes. She lacked the height and flair of the flamboyant art teacher. She even lacked the nails. Anna’s were long and painted bright fuchsia to match her lipstick. Geri’s broke frequently, and her polish always chipped five minutes after she had applied it.

Anna shook her head. “We didn’t get home until after two in the morning. I wasn’t going anywhere else after that except my bed. You should have called me.”

Geri sighed. “Sorry. I guess I’m just cranky from lack of sleep and the car problems. I thought you might be mad with me.” She thought of how many other people Anna could have asked to go with her to a rock concert. Most of them were men. “I’m sorry I was so negative about the concert,” she said.

“Negative? You were more than negative, honey. You oozed disgust.”

“I did not. I merely stated my opinion forcefully.”

Anna laughed. “I don’t know what you found so distasteful—John Price Maitland is a babe. Come on now—admit it.”

Geri bristled. “I’m not about to admit anything of the sort.”

As though to taunt her, the pounding rhythm of John Price Maitland’s music returned to assault her senses. Annoyed, she tried to push the memory of that outlandish rock star aside.

A babe he was not, she decided. Both he and his music were far too…too…she searched for the appropriate word. Sensual. No, that wasn’t the word she wanted. She fought the analogy, but it returned, in all its unsettling splendor.

The acknowledgment came with a flood of discomfort. She was an avid fan of classical music, not uninhibited, grandstanding show-offs. Especially show-offs like John Price Maitland. Her mind conjured up his image, as though to taunt her. Skintight pants and ridiculous face makeup. A voice that had brought involuntary tears flooding into her eyes with its clarity and beauty.

“I suppose, if you took him out of that ridiculous outfit he wore last night, he might look halfway decent,” she admitted reluctantly. “Of course, it was hard to tell with his face hidden under at least a pound of white makeup. These rock stars all look like freaks, if you ask me.” She shook her head. “He looked like he’d be a welcome addition to Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.”

“If you compare him to most of the other people around music today, he looks pretty conservative,” Anna said. “Of course, I’m forgetting that no one measures up to your ideal man.”

Geri shrugged. “I have high standards.”

“Your standards are too high.” Anna spoke without a trace of malice. “If you’d be willing to accept something less than Mr. Perfect, you’d have a lot more dates.”

“I know.” Geri sighed. Somehow their conversations always seemed to end up focusing on her non-existent love life. “You’ve lectured me before about this, but I can’t bring myself to date someone with irritating habits or worse.” The thought of a man who sat around whittling his teeth with a toothpick or one who two-timed her brought a shiver. “I’d be thrilled if Mr. Right came into my life.” If he ever does. “We’d better get a move on before the bell rings.” Talking about dating always depressed her.

“Maybe Mr. Right’s waiting for you around the next corner.” Anna smiled encouragingly.

Geri had no illusions or fantasies about being carried off by some knight in shining armor. “I doubt that. I’ve pretty much given up hope.”

“Maybe Gary, my boyfriend, knows someone,” Anna said as they entered the building through a side door. “I’ll see. We could double-date—it’d be fun.”

“Anna, the places you like to go and the places I like to go aren’t anywhere near compatible.”

They looked at each other and laughed.

“You’ve got me there,” Anna said.

Geri hoped Anna wouldn’t get too interested in analyzing her love life or even worse, matchmaking. No doubt Gary and his friends were lovers of rock music and wild parties. Her idea of an ideal date involved candlelight and soft music with meaningful conversation, not a six-pack of beer and Nine Inch Nails.

Emulating Anna would never be her style, which was probably why they were such good friends. Anna never needed to be worried about being outshone by someone who dressed in heather-hued woolen skirts and coordinating sweaters. Today Geri thought she had overdone her conservative image by wearing a grey-green skirt and matching cardigan. She should have been adventurous enough to wear a red sweater at least. Unfortunately, she didn’t possess anything as visually exciting as a red sweater.

Anna looked at her watch. “Gotta go.” She began to walk away. “See you at lunch.”

They were almost opposite the administrative offices. Geri needed to discuss something more important than dating with Anna. She grabbed her friend’s arm.

“Do me a favor?” She hated pleading, but her whole academic future might depend on Anna’s discretion.

“Sure, anything.” Anna looked hard at Geri, and her green eyes narrowed. “What’s wrong?”

“Please don’t tell anyone I went to that concert with you last night.”

“Why ever not?” Anna looked genuinely puzzled. “What’s wrong with you attending a concert?”

“I’m only an interim music teacher. I’d like to make the position permanent, if the budget and our beloved Crabtree will agree.” She rolled her eyes in the direction of the Principal’s office only a few doors away and drew Anna to a more secluded part of the hall. The crowd of students started to thin out, and the stairwell echoed with their tramping feet as they hurried to their classrooms.

“I don’t see what that has to do with keeping quiet about one lousy concert attendance.” Anna looked really confused.

“You know as well as I do that if Crabtree heard about me going to a rock concert, it’d blow my chances for a permanent transfer to the music department. He only agreed to let me sub because he knows I’m a classical music buff, and I minored in music. I don’t have any experience directing a band. He’s been looking for places to cut the budget, and, because he thinks most music is a waste of time, I bet he’s just looking for an excuse to close the program, even though there are only two months of the year left.” She nervously twisted the little garnet ring her grandmother had given her.

“Geri, that’s ridiculous.” Anna tossed her head. “He can see you’re doing a great job with the students. He’s not going to do any such thing.” She wrinkled her nose. “He looked at the art department earlier this year, but decided he wasn’t going to touch it after I sat down with him for an hour.”

Geri wished she had some of Anna’s spunk, but courage in the face of adversity wasn’t her strongpoint. Particularly adversity in the more-than-capable hands of Principal Crabtree. “Please,” she begged, holding tightly onto Anna’s arm. “If you ever tell anyone I went to that concert, I’ll never go anywhere else with you again.”

“Oh, very well.” Anna gave an exaggerated sigh. “I won’t tell a soul you had one sinful night in Atlanta, where you saw the last performance of the legendary John Price Maitland. Satisfied?”

“Yes, although I very much doubt it’ll be the last performance by that man.” Geri released her friend’s arm. Why their conversation had to keep reverting to that rock star was beyond her. “He’ll sit on his laurels for a few months while people go crazy buying up all his CDs and memorabilia, then he’ll come back out of retirement and stage a successful comeback. They all do it.”

“I doubt John will,” Anna said. “He’s publicly stated he’ll never perform on stage again. You’ll be able to tell the story of attending his last rock concert to your grandchildren.”

“If I ever have any.”

Geri turned away. She seemed to be revealing all her secret doubts that morning. The effect of all that soul-baring was draining. She wished she had eaten more than half a slice of toast washed down with a cup of coffee. Her stomach was tying itself in knots, either from the effects of the late night or the prospect of keeping unwelcome secrets. She should never have agreed to go with Anna to that concert—never.

“Yes, well, if you continue to feel guilty about enjoying yourself, then you certainly won’t ever have grandchildren.” Anna looked at her watch again. “You should go out more.” She shook her head when Geri opened her mouth to protest. “And I’m not talking about going to one of those boring symphony concerts with your grandmother, either. You’re climbing into bed at ten o’clock on a Saturday night while the rest of us are just beginning to party.”

Geri was just about to staunchly deny both statements when the warning bell sounded. The few remaining students scattered.

“See you at lunch.” Anna sped off, strangely graceful with her long legs and high heels.

Geri thought of a gazelle and clumped off dejectedly to her own class. Her head began to pound. Now she’d have a frown line between her eyes to go with the bags under them. How attractive. She wished that a lightning bolt would strike to make her beautiful and at least five feet eight inches tall.

Now that was a totally irrational thought. Angry with herself for all her defeatist remarks that morning, she pushed open the classroom door and walked briskly past the regimental lines of desks. Rustling movements followed her progress. Then someone tittered. She placed her attaché case and books on her desk before turning slowly. By then, several students were giggling behind their hands, and Geri’s raised eyebrows did nothing to quell the rising storm of laughter.

“Would you like to tell me what’s so amusing this morning, Sutton, or would you prefer to talk with the Principal?” Years of training kept her tone level as she stared unwaveringly at the red face of the boy closest to her.

Rodney Sutton struggled out of his diminutive desk, his defensive lineman’s frame dwarfing her. “Did you enjoy the concert, Ma’am?” he asked.

Geri wished the lightning bolt would make her vanish instead of giving her height and beauty. “What concert?” she managed to get out, her chest constricting painfully.

Foolishly, she realized, she had thought Anna’s gossiping was her only problem. How could she silence a roomful of twelfth graders? Dynamite, she thought longingly. A few sticks strategically placed and Rodney Sutton would be playing a harp along with a select group of his nearest and dearest friends.

“John Price Maitland’s farewell performance in Atlanta,” Sutton answered, breaking into her fantasy. “A big group of us were sitting a couple of rows back from you.”

Geri tried to look nonchalant. Her future with the school district could be in danger even as she stood there. Principal Crabtree might be able to live with Anna’s rock concert trip—after all, she was the avant-garde art teacher—but his mousy little English teacher? Miss Model Instructor? Miss Establishment?

Never. Geri cringed inwardly at a sudden vision of Crabtree’s apoplectic features when he was on one of his frequent tirades, and wondered if it was worth denying she’d ever been to Atlanta, let alone to a rock concert.

She decided it wasn’t. The more she made of it, the more the students would, too. She feigned indifference by arranging pens and pencils. “I went with Miss Wilkinson,” she said without looking at Rodney. “She had an extra ticket, and I decided to see for myself why John Price Maitland is so popular.”

“Didn’t you just swoon?” Melissa Day piped up from the corner. She rolled big, violet eyes as though she was in imminent danger of fainting. Her pale pink sweater strained in strategic places when she sighed. Rodney’s color deepened to a dusky rose.

“I never swoon over men, least of all those wearing tight pants and worn tennis shoes.” Geri glared at Melissa, who had the grace to straighten up in her chair. “Now, I think that’s enough about the weekend. Instead, we’re going to discuss Shakespeare’s plays.”

A collective groan echoed throughout the classroom.

•  •  •  •

Geri avoided the cafeteria at lunch, choosing instead to walk around to the garage and check on her car. As she had feared, it wasn’t going to be ready until the following day. The afternoon passed without incident, and she left the building by a side door to give the Principal’s office a wide berth.

She pedaled off toward her grandmother’s house. Anna honked her horn as she sped past. Geri waved and attempted a smile, even though she didn’t feel there was much to smile about, except that the rainstorm had already passed.

She wondered how long it would take for the rumors to reach the Principal’s ears. Why had she ever let Anna talk her into such stupidity?

The only time she’d liked John Price Maitland’s performance was when he played three soft, haunting ballads toward the end of the concert. Geri’s eyes blurred with sudden tears at the thought of that beautiful music. Now, if he’d played like that all evening, she’d have been a goner. Alarmed at her lack of grammar and of her unexpected admission about that man’s influence over her, she almost lost her balance. She thought about Melissa’s remark as she fought to stop the bicycle weaving from side to side. No, she decided, there was no way she’d ever be attracted to such a man.

She didn’t see the car until it was out of the driveway and directly in her path. Self-preservation forced her to react quickly. She braked and swerved. Her tires skidded on the wet road and she plowed right past a flashing barrier. Unable to stop, she tipped over the edge of a freshly-dug trench.

“I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you. Are you okay?” The car’s owner peered over the barrier.

Geri heard the rich timbre, but she was more preoccupied with her current predicament than wondering whether the rest of him matched the quality of his voice. “I think so.”

She pulled her ripped sleeve off the handlebar and wondered if she still had two shoes on her feet. With difficulty, she slid to the edge of the ditch and started to climb out.

What an end to a less than perfect day, she thought. She lost a precariously-gained foothold and fell back into the quagmire again, her foot wedging between the spokes of the front wheel. Abandoning her last trace of dignity, she got up on all fours and pulled her foot away. With an alarming sucking sound, she sank deeper.

“Here, let me help.” He grasped her firmly under the arms and pulled her out.

Before she could stop herself, she grabbed him for support.

Geri looked down at herself. Clods of mud clung to her legs and her skirt. Her beige pumps were ruined. Pushing her hair from her eyes, she realized that she’d probably streaked mud on her face, too.

The first thing she noticed about her rescuer was the condition of his obviously expensive jacket, now covered with stains. Then she noticed her muddy fingers still clutched his lapel.

“Oops.” She let go.

Now what? Should she tell him to be more careful backing out of his driveway, or offer to take his jacket to the dry cleaners? She glanced up at him and then ducked her head, completely at a loss.

Anna’s words echoed in her head. “Maybe Mr. Right’s waiting for you around the next corner.”

Geri wasn’t sure about whether she should consider a grey Porsche a substitute horse, but she knew one thing—this man was closer to a knight in shining armor than anyone she’d ever seen. When she least expected it, and when she looked her absolute worst, she’d met the man of her dreams.

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Copyright 2017 Heather Ames