When she least expected it, Mike rose from his seat and walked forward. With a bit of flare he added his name to the list, the first boy in class to do so.

“Oh sure, Mike,” Malcolm called sarcastically. “You should be so lucky to get laid.”

Why the others chose to taunt Mike, Brynn didn’t understand. She liked Mike and appreciated the courage it had taken for him to step forward. The desire to defend him was strong, but she realized that would only make matters worse for the youth.

“Mike’s more of a man than you are,” Pearl insisted. “A hell of a lot more than Denzil will ever be.”

Emilio sat on his seat, frowning. After a couple of moments he stood and trekked the short distance to the blackboard.

“Emilio, are you nuts, man?” Modesto asked.

Emilio turned around and faced his friends. “You know what? Miss Cassidy is right. My brother’s always talking about what it means to be responsible, and really that’s all Miss Cassidy is saying, too. I ain’t no priest, but the way I figure it, women will respect me if they know I ain’t after nothing.”

After Emilio listed his name, three other male students added their promise.

When they’d finished, Brynn took the chalk, stepped to the blackboard, and wrote i will practice safe sex. Then she drew a line beneath the words and waited.

“Next we’re going to discuss protection,” she said.

Later that afternoon, after her class had been dismissed for the day, Brynn felt good about the spontaneous way in which they’d discussed the subject of sex. It might have gone differently had she planned it. Instead the students themselves had contributed their feelings and insights, and because she’d listened to them, they had been willing to hear her out as well.

She studied each name on the two lists and prayed that their talk would make a difference in how they chose to live their lives.

“Miss Cassidy.”

Brynn looked up to find Suzie standing in the doorway. “Am I disturbing you?”

“No, of course not.” Brynn stood. “How did your session go with Mrs. Christian?”

“All right, I guess. She made an appointment for me at the health clinic.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

“My baby’s healthy,” Suzie said with a shy smile. “I feel him kick and move all the time now.” The teenager’s gaze moved to the blackboard. “I . . . I heard about what you did. It’s all over the school. You talked about birth control and responsible sex because of me, didn’t you?”

Brynn couldn’t very well deny it. “I didn’t break your confidence, Suzie. No one knows what you told me.” She felt it was important to assure Suzie of that.

“I knew you wouldn’t say anything.” Suzie studied the list. “Emilio signed his name.” Although it was a statement, the surprise in her voice made it a question.

“Several of the young men in class did.”

“Do you think I could add my name?” she asked, diverting her eyes from Brynn’s. “Or is it too late?”

“I’d be proud if you did,” Brynn told her.

Suzie walked up and added her name to the first list. “I’m going to talk to my mother this afternoon. She’ll be angry with me and she’ll want me to tell her who the father is, but I won’t.”

“You can’t protect him forever,” Brynn said gently.

“I know. Mom will be angry, but not nearly as much as my father.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Brynn asked.

Suzie considered the offer, then shook her head. “No, but thank you for volunteering.”

No sooner had Suzie left than Brynn was asked to come down to the office. It was the first time she’d received such a request. She wasn’t left to wonder at the reason.

She knew.

If what Suzie said was true, then Mr. Whalen, the principal, had heard what she’d done.

Allen Whalen invited her into his office, and after she’d stepped inside, he closed the door firmly. The sound of it clicking alerted her to the fact that this wasn’t going to be a friendly chat.

Brynn respected Allen Whalen. He was a big, no-nonsense man and a fair disciplinarian. He had zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol and didn’t shy away from confrontations, often suspending students for fighting or other disruptions. Emilio could testify to that.

“Sit down, Brynn,” Allen said, and motioned for her to take a seat on the other side of his desk. More than likely this was the identical chair in which Emilio had sat the first day of the quarter following his fight with Grover.

“First off,” Allen said, leaning forward, “I want you to know I’ve heard good things about you. The kids seem to feel kindly toward you, and that’s a plus. I understand you’ve made a point to visit the families of your students.”

“Yes, I—”

“While your efforts are commendable,” Allen interrupted, “I don’t feel it’s a good idea for you to become emotionally involved with your students.”

Brynn opened her mouth to explain her purpose, but once again she wasn’t allowed to continue.

“You’re young, and idealistic. Perhaps a little too young to deal with the reality of our situation here.”

“Mr. Whalen, if you’d allow me to explain . . .”

He gestured with his hand, indicating that he wasn’t finished. “I had my doubts about this government project. As far as I’m concerned, the less the federal government has to do with the school system, the better. I would never have agreed to this program had I realized . . .” He paused and leaned forward, pressing his elbows against the top of his cluttered desk. “I don’t want to get sidetracked here. The reason I asked you to my office has nothing to do with the government or why you’re at Manhattan High.”

“Yes?” She sat straight, her back as stiff as a steel pipe.

“I received a phone call from two mothers this afternoon,” he prefaced, his face growing tight with displeasure. “Don’t tell me, Miss Cassidy, that you actually discussed birth control methods with your history class.”

Rather than hedge, Brynn answered him in a straightforward manner. “As a matter of fact, I did.”

Allen Whalen’s eyes drifted closed momentarily. “In your history class, Miss Cassidy?”

“It needed to be said.”

“And you felt you were the most qualified to advise a classroom full of young adults? I take it you’ve attended the course the district requires before teaching sex education?”

“No. The discussion was spontaneous. I certainly didn’t plan to spend the afternoon discussing the benefits of condoms.”

“In other words, you just decided this needed to be said and you were the one to do it?”

“If you put it like that, then I have no option but to say yes.” She had no defense and didn’t think it would help her case if she had.

Mr. Whalen mulled over her answers. “In case you weren’t aware of it, this community is largely Catholic.”

Brynn folded her hands on her lap. “I’m Catholic myself.”

“That is no excuse,” he said, then stopped abruptly. “You’re Catholic?”

“My name is Cassidy and my hair is red.” She didn’t mean to be sarcastic, but it should have been obvious.

“Then you must be aware of the church’s standing on the subject of birth control.”

“I am indeed.” She didn’t blink. Didn’t hesitate. Didn’t doubt for an instant that he was furious with her.

“I’m afraid, Miss Cassidy, that in light of this admission, I have no choice but to place a letter of reprimand in your file.”

Brynn swallowed tightly. “I’ve always known you to be a fair man. If you feel I deserve to be formally reprimanded for my actions, then I can only assume that you’re right.”

“You’re a history and English teacher. In the future please remember that.” He reached for a piece of paper and started writing.

Brynn sat where she was for several awkward moments.

After a while, he glanced up. “You may leave.”

When Brynn walked out of the office, she found three secretaries staring at her. Their looks were sympathetic as she whisked past. The whispers started the moment she was around the corner.

“Hello, Hannah.”

Hannah looked up from the novel she was reading. “Carl,” she said, unable to hide her surprise and her guilt. No one had told her he planned to stop by that evening. “How are you feeling?” She hadn’t spoken to him since his bout with the flu.

Her fiancé claimed the recliner across from her. “Much better, thank you.”

Hannah noted that her heart didn’t leap with excitement the way it did whenever she saw Joshua. Nor did she experience a twinge of pleasure just because they were together. Carl was Carl. Dedicated, devout, determined. But soon, if everything went as their mothers had planned, he would be more than an unexpected guest. He would be her husband.

“My mother stopped by to talk to your mother,” he explained with a wry grin. “They’re discussing the details of the wedding.”

Hannah’s gaze fell back to the pages of the novel. “My mother wants to hire a wedding coordinator,” she told him. “I heard her discussing the matter over the phone.”

“She must have been talking to my mother, because I heard her say something about it as well.”

Hannah smiled and looked away. She noticed with regret that they didn’t seem to have a whole lot to say to each other.

“I thought we should set a time to shop for the engagement ring,” Carl suggested, almost as if he were grateful for something to discuss.

“That would be nice.”

“How about after the first of the year?” he proposed.

“Great.” The further into the future, the better.

A disjointed silence followed, as though there were nothing left to say.

“Carl.” Her father’s face lit up with delight as he walked into the living room. “Ruth didn’t mention that you were coming.”

Carl stood, and the two men exchanged hearty handshakes. David Morganstern slapped Hannah’s fiancé across the back. “By heaven, it’s good to see you. You’ve been making yourself scarce around here these last few days.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“Ruth said you’d come down with a twenty-four-hour bug the other night.”

“I’m fine now.”

Hannah watched as the transformation took place in the man who was to be her husband. It seemed his face brightened as soon as her father walked into the room.

Soon the two entered into a lively debate over some political matter that didn’t interest Hannah. While they chatted, Hannah went into the kitchen, brewed tea, and served that along with freshly baked sugar cookies.

Helen Rabinsky and Hannah’s mother were engrossed in their own conversation and seemed unaware of her. As she expected, the women were debating the pros and cons of hiring a wedding coordinator.

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