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Seasons in a Small Town Book 3: Fall

Meet Josh Kincannon, high school principal, single father of three, and thus, as he reminds himself ruefully, essentially celibate back into misty memory and forward into the foreseeable future.

After three months of trying to work with Vanessa Irish via phone and e-mails on a project to help tiny Drago, Illinois, Josh believes he has an accurate picture of Zeke-Tech’s CFO:

Conscientious? Oh, yeah.

Intelligent? Absolutely.

Agreeable? Not so much.

Then he catches sight of her wild, vibrant robe and begins to wonder what other elements might form a portrait of Vanessa Irish. Every time she goes into her I’m-so-boring-I-disappear-against-white-walls act, he remembers that vibrant, wild fabric hanging on the corner of a door and he gets curious.

And the more curious he becomes, the more he discovers about her that has him feeling things a whole lot hotter than curiosity. Things that shake up life with his three kids, scrape against his job as high school principal and — oh, yes — definitely threaten his stretch of celibacy.

*  *  *  *  *

Writing a book is always an education – a different education with each book. What’s striking about Falling for Her is how the education continued after publication.

The book was originally titled Principal of Love, which tickled my smart-aleck humor. I realized fairly soon that other people didn’t agree, especially those who emailed me that there was a typo in the title. Having had my fun with the title, I changed it to Falling for Her, which I love, and which celebrates Vanessa, as well as Josh.

Josh brought me another bit of education, when I received an email from a real-life Josh Kincannon. I assured him that my Josh was a great guy who only added luster to the name.

I hope you’ve enjoy Vanessa and Josh’s story, and that you might consider writing a review sharing your reactions with other readers . . . spreading the education a little wider. <wg>

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

“A woman’s bedroom is the window to her soul.”

Since women’s bedrooms were not something Josh Kincannon let himself dwell on these days, he tried to ignore that statement from the man following him up this narrow stairway.

As a high school principal and single father of three, Josh was, as he ruefully reminded himself, essentially celibate back into misty memory and forward into the foreseeable future.

“It’s a sitting room!” Mrs. Richards called from the foot of the stairs. “Don’t you say I sent you to that young lady’s bedroom, Malcolm Cottle. That’s the sitting room. With a place to sit while you wait for her.”

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“We see it, Mrs. Richards. Thank you.” Josh eyed a spindly-legged settee tucked under the attic room’s sloping roof, and opted to stand for however long they had to wait for Vanessa Irish.

Needing to wait for her was a surprise.

He’d had the Chief Financial Officer of Zeke-Tech pegged as obsessively prompt. Especially for this first face-to-face meeting, which she’d set, here in the rooms she was renting while she was in town.

Add another notch on his Wrong About Women belt.

At least this one was minor.

Huffing after the steep climb, Malcolm called “Beg pardon” down the stairwell toward Mrs. Richards, then resumed his topic. “I read a study on the subject this past Wednesday. Or was it Tuesday?”

A study on women’s bedrooms as windows to their souls? That stretched the limits of even Malcolm’s odd studies.

“The study shows,” Malcolm pursued, “that by observing an individual’s bedroom, strangers more accurately assessed the individual than long-time associates did. Indeed, assessments by strangers — based solely on a brief observation of what was in plain sight in a bedroom — were more accurate than self-assessments. Truly, a study you would find invaluable.”

Right.

Invaluable.

For all the women’s bedrooms he encountered these days.

“I’m sure you’ll be more comfortable in Miss Irish’s sitting room,” came Mrs. Richards’ voice again, “what with everything in an uproar down here from the painting.”

“We’re fine, Mrs. Richards.” A half step brought Josh to a dormer window overlooking the Drago River.

He needed to block out Malcolm, Mrs. R, and thoughts of women’s bedrooms. He needed to focus on the coming meeting.

“Wednesday. Definitely Wednesday,” Malcolm said from behind him. “It reminded me that Wednesday’s child is loving and giving, which made me think of Zeke, in light of Darcie and the computer lab.”

Loving and giving. Wouldn’t Zeke-Tech’s founder love that?

Darcie — Zeke’s fiancée and a Drago cop — would tease, while Zeke would become as tongue-tied as he’d been when Josh tried to thank him for providing the site and funds to set up a community computer lab.

Considering all he was doing, Zeke’s insistence that Zeke-Tech be represented on the project in the person of Chief Financial Officer Vanessa Irish had seemed inconsequential.

Until Josh tried working with the woman.

“…provide an uncannily accurate window into the subject’s openness to experience, extroversion, emotional stability, conscientiousness, and agreeableness,” Malcolm droned on.

After three months of phone calls and emails, Josh didn’t need to see Ms. Irish’s bedroom for a view through that window.

Conscientious? Oh, yeah.

Intelligent? Absolutely.

Agreeable? Not so much.

Not disagreeable, exactly. More like businesslike on steroids.

“Ah, and here is that very window to Ms. Irish’s soul,” said Malcolm.

Josh turned. Drago High School’s senior guidance counselor was peering past a partially open door to the next room.

“Very interesting,” Malcolm murmured.

Crossing to the door, Josh reached past the older man for the handle. Which presented him with a view of the entire room he could only miss by closing his eyes.

He didn’t.

One dormer held an upholstered chair backed by a lamp, another a desk. A dresser and double bed completed the decor. But if Malcolm’s study was right, they were a view into Mrs. R’s soul.

On the other hand, the laptop computer precisely centered on the desk and not another personal possession in sight reflected Vanessa Irish’s.

As Josh started to swing the door closed a beat slower than he should have, a flash of color pulled his head around to a swirl of blues and greens so rich and vibrant they left peacocks in the dust.

A robe.

Draped from the corner of the open bathroom door.

Josh Kincannon — high school principal, single father of three, and thus essentially celibate back into misty memory and forward into the foreseeable future — swallowed hard.

Celibacy suddenly didn’t seem the least bit funny.

The robe wasn’t filmy or see-through and, unless Vanessa Irish was seven feet tall, it would cover her from neck to toes. And yet—

“Josh. Your phone.”

Malcolm’s voice brought Josh to the abrupt realization that he’d stopped in mid-door-closing, staring at the robe, oblivious to his phone ringing.

“Mr. Kincannon,” came the crisp voice when he answered. “I scheduled our meeting for three-forty-five.”

He yanked the doorknob, slicing his view into the bedroom in half, and turned his back on it for good measure.

“Yes, we did, Ms. Irish.” Damn. Was she trying to back out? “If you’re delayed, Mr. Cottle and I can wait for you here.”

There was a slight pause. “Wait where?”

“At Mrs. Richards’.” Without any input from his brain, his head turned back toward the robe. “In your rooms.”

“My rooms.”

The hairs on the back of Josh’s neck came to full alert.

It was his personal early warning system and it came in very handy for tuning in to students’ emotional issues rumbling under the surface. It also helped greatly in deciphering all the nuances of a teenager’s “yeah,” from guilt to ecstasy to uncertainty to grief.

But this…

Vanessa Irish’s words conveyed no emotion at all. Yet those hairs were at full attention.

Odd.

“Yes.” Carefully, he added, “Your sitting room at Mrs. Richards’.”

“You were to come to the lab site. I’m there now.”

He pulled out a crumpled pink “while you were out” note student aides still used because letting the kids on the school computer system was not happening.

The note clearly said 3:45 p.m., Mrs. Richards’ house. On the other hand, the message-taker had been a sophomore girl he’d found sobbing over a boy who hadn’t said hello.

“We’ll be there in five minutes, Ms. Irish.”

He ended the call, hustled Malcolm out — ignoring his and Mrs. Richards’ questions — and reached the computer lab site in four minutes flat.

Not waiting for Malcolm, Josh jogged up concrete steps fronting a row of mostly boarded up storefronts and into what had once been the shoe-repair shop run by Zeke’s late father.

A figure at the back of the long, narrow main room turned to face him.

Vanessa Irish.

The woman he’d failed to get a reading on during these three months.

The woman he needed to work with so this project happened fast and right for Drago.

The woman who wore that peacock’s robe when she was alone in her room at night.

“Less than five minutes,” she said, absolutely neutral.

She wore a suit the color of tree bark. Glasses hooked into the high neckline of a matching blouse. She had her hair up, smooth and contained.

If she had any peacock in her, every feather was carefully hidden.

Although even this boxy suit couldn’t completely mask rich curves.

“Mr. Kincannon—” she started.

“Call me Josh.” He extended his hand and smiled.

Some women connected with only their fingers. Not her. Her handshake was palm-to-palm and full wrap-around fingers. As businesslike as her voice.

He introduced Malcolm as the man who would organize programs at the lab once it was built.

“The contractor should be here shortly,” she said. “Two Zeke-Tech employees are also coming,”

She hadn’t invited him to call her Vanessa, hadn’t unbent at all. No matter. He’d make this work.

He had to so the computer lab would meet Drago’s deep and varied needs.

As for the hairs at the back of his neck indicating Vanessa Irish was hiding something — something he’d glimpsed in a robe, heard in a subtle tone — that was irrelevant.

Though it sure was interesting…

*

More than an hour after the local contractor and Zeke-Tech’s electrical and IT experts joined them, Vanessa adjusted her glasses and acknowledged that Josh Kincannon made her uncomfortable.

Recognizing and fully acknowledging her reactions to people was necessary, according to her executive coach.

He made her very uncomfortable.

She quelled a useless longing for her former state of complete unawareness of such matters.

Josh.

What kind of name was that for a high school principal? High school principals were Mr. Castro, Mrs. Albertson. Or Mr. Schmidt.

Not Call-me-Josh. And not — definitely not — accompanied by a smile rippling lines up his cheeks and revealing a triangle of white teeth.

Yet that couldn’t be why he made her uncomfortable. She’d gotten over the nonsense of attractive men making her uncomfortable a long, long time ago.

He’d been in her rooms.

No. Absurd. That space at Mrs. Richards’ house was no more hers than a hotel room was.

She straightened.

Recognizing and acknowledging was all well and good, but she had a job to do. She checked her list. “Next is accommodation for wiring.”

“Looks good,” said Larry, a Zeke-Tech IT representative she often worked with. He gave the local contractor an approving nod. “It’s got one-hundred percent more space for the big pipe and the radius turns look good.”

She fought the urge to cut them short as he, the electrical expert, and the contractor talked trench, conduit, and coaxial cabling. Larry had answered in his first two words. If she didn’t trust his assessment, he wouldn’t be here.

But her coach emphasized letting people expand beyond yes or no.

As inefficient as that was, employees did seem happier when she followed the practice.

To this point, Zeke-Tech’s primary responsibility for the lab had been writing checks. Now that the local contractor had replaced doors and windows, added sprinkler, air conditioning, and heating systems, and created a bathroom from a storage area, the next step was melding space and technology.

She’d lined up these experts. They needed to be on-site. She didn’t.

Except Zeke wanted her here, saying she needed a change of scenery. She’d told him she couldn’t afford any distraction with the end of their fiscal year approaching. Zeke hadn’t budged.

She swallowed a sigh. And encountered Josh Kincannon’s gaze.

That was why he made her uncomfortable.

He kept looking at her.

Not brief, polite glances. Not the bored, uninterested looks of a certain class of male. But long, searching surveys. Like she was a puzzle.

“What about wall space for a blackboard?” the high school guidance counselor asked.

“No. Chalk dust and computers don’t mix. A whiteboard. It will double as a screen for an overhead projector.” Vanessa added that to her list.

Looking up she met Josh Kincannon’s gaze again. She held it, lifting one eyebrow.

He didn’t look away, instead returning her look with a shifting of his mouth she couldn’t immediately translate.

“Excellent,” the counselor said. “An overhead projector will be useful.”

“That brings up how we’ll control natural light.” Josh gestured toward the original storefront window and a glass-topped door that together occupied nearly the entire front width.

“Remove the glass and make it a solid wall. Replace the door,” she instructed the contractor.

“And block all that great natural light?” Josh objected. “Then — what? Put in fluorescent?”

His mouth shifted again.

A smile, maybe.

“Natural light causes screen glare,” she said.

“Any light can cause glare,” Larry said.

“Artificial light’s easier to control,” she said.

“Natural light’s better. And—” Josh’s eyes glinted with what might have been amusement or challenge or something else entirely. People’s emotions were so … imprecise. “—it’s free.”

Larry coughed, the other Zeke-Tech employee shuffled his feet, and the guidance counselor cleared his throat.

Yes, she had brought them back to costs several times in this discussion. That was her job.

“I’ve been thinking about the entry,” the contractor said. “You don’t want the door opening directly into where the computers are because of temperature regulation.”

“Good point,” Larry said.

“And interrupting classes,” the counselor added.

“I could build a wall, about here.” The contractor gestured to a spot away from the door. “That would form an entryway, leave room for a desk for signups or business stuff without interrupting folks working on computers in the main area, like Malcolm said.”

“Great idea, Todd,” Josh said. “What about making the wall solid partway up, then the top part from glass blocks to let light in, but filter it.”

The contractor nodded. “Sure.”

“We’d have to check angles, but it could diffuse the light enough to leave very little glare,” Larry added.

After a few minutes of their pacing off distances, discussing angles, and predicting effects of glass block at various levels, Vanessa said, “Fine. You—” She nodded at Larry, then the contractor. “—explore this, pull together comparative cost figures, and report back to me by—”

“And me,” Josh inserted easily.

“—Tuesday,” she concluded.

If the cost wasn’t more than her solution, fine. And if Josh wanted an update, fine. She had the final authority.

Her mind zeroed in on another aspect. “There need to be privacy partitions between the stations. Cubicles, with a door to access each.”

The five men — contractor, tech expert, electrical expert, guidance counselor, and principal — turned and looked at her. After half a dozen seconds, only Josh kept looking.

“Cubicles? Why?” he asked.

“For privacy when a user is at his or her computer.”

“For classes everybody needs to see the instructor. And besides,” he added, “who wants to be cut off from everybody else in a little cubicle?”

“Anyone who’s sane.” Vanessa couldn’t believe she’d said that aloud.

But Josh smiled, quick and bright. “Nah. Everyone’ll want it open, so people can kibbutz.”

She saw two things: He thought she’d been kidding and he believed what he’d said.

Before she absorbed either observation, movement caught her attention. Three small figures stood outside the old storefront, the larger two with hands cupped to the window, the smallest pressing its entire face against it.

Josh released a low groan. “Excuse me.” The next instant he was out the door. The three figures moved to him, the smallest hurtling itself at his legs.

“Josh’s kids,” the contractor murmured, and exchanged a look with the counselor, who said, “Josh has full custody. Nothing comes before his kids.”

Admirable in theory. But her responsibility was to Zeke-Tech, and the two Zeke-Techers had a flight out of Chicago to catch.

“We have a tight schedule, and more to cover,” she said.

More looks zipped around.

The counselor nodded at the contractor then walked to the door, holding a low-voiced conversation with Josh.

With the door open, she saw the smallest child as a genderless blob masked by an oversized jersey and dirt from the window smeared over its face. It had one hand wrapped around Josh’s leg and the opposite thumb in its mouth.

The middle child, a boy, was thin and wore glasses, peering inside with curiosity.

The tallest, a girl, stared directly at Vanessa with the intensity of her father but without any of his apparent inclination toward amusement.

Detaching the smallest from his leg with a smile, Josh moved to the door while the counselor stepped out. Before the door closed, Josh said, “Be good, and I’ll see you at dinner.”

He remained watching as the children and the older man headed off. At last he returned to the group.

“Child-care emergency,” he said. “Malcolm’s pinch-hitting. Now, back to the spacing. Folks need room to put papers and books. And sometimes they’ll want to use a computer together…”

The others picked up the discussion.

Uneasily, Vanessa recognized a deepening of an odd impression she’d had since arriving this morning.

If forced to define it, she’d say something was closing in on her. Which made no sense. Drago, Illinois sat in the middle of cornfields, with nothing but space around.

She straightened her shoulders and weighed into the discussion.

The sooner she wrapped up this project, the sooner she left Drago and returned to her office.

*

“This will be great,” Josh Kincannon said.

It was after six, and they were the only two left. For the past half-hour, they had thrashed out adjustments to a schedule that allowed just three months before the lab’s scheduled opening in early December.

“The general contractor has done an admirable job,” she said.

“Todd’s more of an all-around guy. Did most of the work himself.”

He slowly turned around the empty shell coated in construction dust. Then he faced her, as if expecting something.

“It’s going to be great,” he repeated.

His mouth slowly widened. His lips parted, revealing that triangle of straight, white teeth. Lines echoed up his cheeks like … like ripples in a pond overjoyed to have a rock thrown into it. His eyes, shining, narrowed slightly as his cheeks rose.

He was grinning.

At her.

With delight.

She couldn’t begin to think of a response. But he didn’t seem to need one. He began another circuit of the space, this one with a wider radius.

She’d had people smile at her, of course she had.

From polite to placating to pleased to distracted. And, back before she knew better, lasciviously. She’d also had people laugh around her, sometimes at her, occasionally with her.

But she counted the number of men who had grinned at her in delight on two fingers — Zeke Zeekowsky and Peter Quincy, the third original member of Zeke-Tech.

And their delight generally stemmed from her work, especially her ability to figure out how to make dimes stretch into dollars.

“This is what this town has sorely needed.” Josh looked over his shoulder at her, then, slowly, turned the rest of his body without taking his eyes off her. “Don’t get me wrong. Zeke moving a division of Zeke-Tech here is fantastic. It’ll bring people and business in like Drago’s never seen. But that’s from the outside. This — this will let people pick up skills to help themselves. You know the saying about feeding people is nice, but teaching them to fish means they can eat forever. This will let the people of Drago fish. It will give them skills to stay here and still earn a good living.”

She shook her head. “No. It will give them the skills they need to leave.”

His grin died.

COLLAPSE
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