Taming Natasha Page 6

What if the driver was careless and drove off a cliff? How could he be sure someone would make certain Freddie got back onto the right bus that afternoon?

The bus rumbled to a halt and his fingers tightened instinctively on hers. When the door clattered open, he was almost ready to make a run for it.

“Hi, there.” The driver, a large woman with a wide smile, nodded at him. Behind her, children were yelling and bouncing on the seats. “You must be Professor Kimball.”

“Yes.” He had excuses for not putting Freddie on the bus on the tip of his tongue.

“I’m Dorothy Mansfield. The kids just call me Miss D. And you must be Frederica.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She bit her bottom lip to keep from turning away and hiding her face against her father’s side. “It’s Freddie.”

“Whew.” Miss D gave another big grin. “I’m glad to hear that. Frederica sure is a mouthful. Well, hop aboard, Freddie girl. This is the big day. John Harman, you give that book back to Mikey, less’n you want to sit behind me in the hot seat the rest of the week.”

Eyes swimming, Freddie put one foot onto the first step. Swallowing, she climbed the second.

“Why don’t you take a seat with JoBeth and Lisa there?” Miss D suggested kindly. She turned back to Spence with a wink and a wave. “Don’t worry about a thing, Professor. We’ll take good care of her.”

The door closed on a puff of air, then the bus rumbled ahead. Spence could only stand on the curb and watch it take his little girl away.

He wasn’t exactly idle. Spence’s time was eaten up almost from the moment he walked into the college. He had his own schedule to study, associates to meet, instruments and sheet music to pore over. There was a faculty meeting, a hurried lunch in the lounge, and there were papers, dozens of papers to read and digest. It was a familiar routine, one that he had begun three years before when he’d taken a post at the Juilliard School. But like Freddie, he was the new kid in town, and it was up to him to make the adjustments.

He worried about her. At lunchtime he imagined her sitting in the school cafeteria, a room that smelled of peanut butter and waxy cartons of milk. She would be huddled at the end of a table scattered with crumbs, alone, miserable, while other children laughed and joked with their friends. He could see her at recess, standing apart and looking on longingly, while the others raced and shouted and climbed like spiders on jungle gyms. The trauma would leave her insecure and unhappy for the rest of her life.

All because he’d put her onto that damn yellow bus.

By the end of the day he was feeling as guilty as a child abuser, certain his little girl would come home in tears, devastated by the rigors of the first day of school. More than once he asked himself if Nina had been right all along. Perhaps he should have left well enough alone and stayed in New York, where at least Freddie had had friends and the familiar.

With his briefcase in one hand and his jacket slung over his shoulder, he started for home. It was hardly more than a mile, and the weather remained unseasonably warm. Until winter hit, he would take advantage of it and walk to and from campus.

He had already fallen in love with the town. There were pretty shops and rambling old houses all along the tree-lined main street. It was a college town and proud of it, but it was equally proud of its age and dignity. The street climbed, and here and there the sidewalk showed cracks where tree roots had undermined it. Though there were cars passing, it was quiet enough to hear the bark of a dog or the music from a radio. A woman weeding marigolds along her walkway looked up and waved at him. Cheered, Spence waved back.

She didn’t even know him, he thought. But she had waved. He looked forward to seeing her again, planting bulbs perhaps, or sweeping snow from her porch. He could smell chrysanthemums. For some reason that alone gave him a shot of pleasure.

No, he hadn’t made a mistake. He and Freddie belonged here. In less than a week it had become home.

He stopped on the curb to wait for a laboring sedan to pass, and glancing across the street saw the sign for The Fun House. It was perfect, Spence thought. The perfect name. It conjured up laughter and surprises, just as the window display with its building blocks, chubby-cheeked dolls and shiny red cars promised a childhood treasure trove. At the moment he could think of nothing he wanted more than to find something that would bring a smile to his daughter’s face.

You spoil her.

He could hear Nina’s voice clearly in his ears.

So what? Glancing quickly up and down the street, he crossed to the opposite curb. His little girl had walked onto the school bus as bravely as any soldier marching into battle. There was no harm in buying her a small medal.

The door jingled as he entered. There was a scent, as cheerful as the sound of the bells. Peppermint, he thought and smiled. It delighted him to hear the tinny strains of “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” coming from the rear of the shop.

“I’ll be right with you.”

He had forgotten, Spence realized, how that voice could cruise along the air.

He wouldn’t make a fool of himself again. This time he was prepared for what she looked like, sounded like, smelled like. He had come in to buy a present for his daughter, not to flirt with the proprietor. Then he grinned into the face of a forlorn panda. There didn’t seem to be any law against doing both.

“I’m sure Bonnie will love it,” Natasha said as she carried the miniature carousel for her customer. “It’s a beautiful birthday present.”

“She saw it in here a few weeks ago and hasn’t been able to talk about anything else.” Bonnie’s grandmother tried not to grimace at the price. “I guess she’s old enough to take care of it.”

“Bonnie’s a very responsible girl,” Natasha went on, then spotted Spence at the counter. “I’ll be right with you.” The temperature of her voice dropped a cool twenty degrees.

“Take your time.” It annoyed him that his reaction to her should be so strong, while hers played tug-of-war at the opposite end of the spectrum. It was obvious she’d decided to dislike him. It might be interesting, Spence thought, while he watched her slender, capable hands wrap the carousel, to find out her reasons.

And change her mind.

“That’s 55.27, Mrs. Mortimer.”

“Oh no, dear, the price tag said 67.”

Natasha, who knew Mrs. Mortimer juggled expenses on a fixed income, only smiled. “I’m sorry. Didn’t I tell you it was on sale?”

Prev Next