Shayna Cavanay had just moved her fingers back to her keyboard when one of the three multi-line phones on her desk rang. Again. As receptionist/secretary for all three businesses in the Kaleidoscope Office Building, distributing calls was her job. From the time she'd come in that morning, through part of the afternoon, the phones hadn't been quiet for longer than a few minutes. She'd completed almost none of her other work. She needed to finish typing this financial report for one of Rob and Billy's largest corporate accounts so she could mail it before she left for the day. Tonight of all nights, she didn't want to be late getting home. Ty had had such a hard weekend...
Swinging her chair to the other side of the wide reception desk, she picked up the phone for Two Brothers Accounting. She put on her most friendly voice to answer and barely got out her standard greeting before the woman burst out in a panicked tone.
"Mrs...Mrs. Krich...Mrs. Krich, calm down please," Shayna intercepted. "Mr. Channing would be more than happy to assist you, Mrs. Krich. If you'll just hold for a moment... You're welcome."
Puffing, she stabbed her finger at Rob's line. He answered more than a moment later, sounding distracted.
"Mrs. Krich is having a fit on Line 1," Shayna said in her sweetest voice.
"Couldn't you tell her I'm gone for the day?"
She might have laughed if she wasn't so harried. But she knew her boss was serious, and telling his client he was out would only make Mrs. Krich's panic her responsibility. "No!"
Without waiting for his comment, Shayna punched the button to transfer the call to him and promptly hung up. Under her breath, she mumbled, "I just need ten minutes and I can finish this document. Ten measly minutes."
Pushing back her waist-length hair with determination, she turned back to her computer, positioned her fingers on the keyboard... and the phone rang again. Shayna closed her eyes and clenched her teeth. Why were Fridays always so impossibly busy? Ugh!
She turned to see that the phone ringing was her own cell phone on the desktop next to the other phones. She'd set her ring tone to match that of a standard phone ring because she couldn't stand all the cutsie ones--mostly because she never took them as the signal that a call was coming in.
Shayna frowned and picked up the cell only to see the phone number for her seven-year-old son's school. Panicking slightly, she pressed the talk button and brought the phone to her ear. "Shayna Cavanay."
"Ms. Cavanay, this is Dakota Loring, your son's teacher."
"What's wrong? Is anything wrong?" she demanded.
"It's not an emergency. Ty isn't hurt. I'd just like to talk to you and your husband."
Ty's okay. Not an emergency. Everything's okay. Thank you, God. Take a deep breath. In, out. In, out. Good. Okay. "Mr. Loring, Ty's father is no longer my husband."
"I'm sorry. I do know that. You see, I've tried calling Mr. Sackski about this, to no avail."
"You tried calling Mason before you called me?" Shayna asked in surprise.
"This concerns him."
"I have custody."
Mr. Loring sounded chagrined. "I'm going about this in the wrong way, I think. I don't mean to offend you, Ms. Cavanay, but I think you'll understand once we talk why I called Ty's father first. Is there any way you could contact Mr. Sackski about having a private conference? I'd like to talk to you and Ty's father first, then we can all talk to Ty together and see if we can come up with some viable solutions to the problems I'm seeing."
The panic edged back into Shayna's chest, and she found it hard to breathe. "Concerning what, Mr. Loring? Please tell me if something is wrong. Is Ty in trouble?"
"He's had a hard day...acting out this morning. Actually, you know that's not something he does infrequently. This has been a tough year for Ty. We've talked about this before."
Talked. Thoroughly unpleasant talks because I want to tell Ty's teacher the truth about what's going on. How long do I have to protect my lying, cheating, deadbeat husband to the world? Do I do it for him or so I don't seem bitter? Whatever, Mason is the reason Ty has had a tough year. I want to protect my son, the way Mason would never consider doing. For anyone. But nothing I do seems to help my baby cope with Mason's many deficiencies as a father.
"Something happened today though?" Shayna asked quietly, unconsciously rubbing the place over her heart. "This morning?"
"Yes. I know you have a friend pick Ty up from school most days because you work until five, but could you come in one day this week with Ty's father? Around two-thirty, when school lets out?"
Fighting the hot tears that burned behind her eyes, Shayna took a deep breath. There was no way she would wait until it was convenient for Mason--it never would be. He refused to make anything Ty went through a priority. "I'll call Mason, Mr. Loring, but I honestly don't expect him to attend. You know he's never come to a single parent-teacher conference. This doesn't sound like it can wait. I'll be there today." She glanced up at the clock hanging above her desk. It was nearly two o'clock already.
"I don't want to inconvenience you. It can wait if it's any trouble."
"No, it can't wait. I'll be there today."
Mr. Loring paused, and Shayna rubbed at her eyes when he said, "Good. I appreciate it, Mrs. Cavanay. My classroom in a half an hour then?"
"I'll be there." One way or another.
Shayna hung up and picked up one of the other phones. She programmed a conference call for her three bosses, Rob, Billy LaPointe, and Angela Lewis-Mackenzie. When all three were on the line, she said, "Can I see the three of you in the break room in five minutes?" Of a technicality, all three businesses had their own break rooms, but the building employees met regularly in Lewis Designs' break room.
As soon as they agreed, Shayna hung up and grabbed her cell phone to call her ex-husband's phone number at the house he lived with his girlfriend Tatiana. As she expected, it went to the voice mail service and she left a message. Then she called his law office and spoke to his bone-stiff secretary, who said he was too busy to take her call--even if it was a semi-emergency--but that she'd relay the message as soon as possible. Iron secretary. No heart whatsoever. Mason sure knows how to hire his own kind. Shayna didn't bother calling Mason's cell phone--he almost never answered her calls there.
Next, she called up the number of her neighbor on her cell. Neela's seven-year-old was also in Mr. Loring's class, so she dropped both kids off in the morning and picked them up nearly every weekday, watching Ty until Shayna got home from work. "Neela, I'm getting Ty from school myself today."
"Is something wrong?"
"His teacher wants to have a conference."
"Oh. Do you need me to stick around? Do you have to go back to work after the conference?"
"I'll have to let you know when we meet up at the school. I'm going to talk to my bosses now. I don't think I'll have to go back to work." I hope not. I always need to be with Ty after these little conferences.
Shayna got up, ignoring the phone call that came in to Kaleidoscope Office Services. The calls automatically forwarded to the individual businesses if no one picked up at her desk after five rings. Aimee or Jolie would get this one.
She walked through the Two Brothers offices, noting that both Rob and Billy were out of their offices. Crossing into Lewis Designs, she saw Angela, who owned the Kaleidoscope strip mall, enter from the business on the left. Shayna wasn't even sure what it was--the motherly look about her?--but the second she saw this boss, the tears she'd been struggling against slammed into her eyes. Angela came to her with her arms open wide, pulling her against her rounded stomach full of a baby who would soon arrive. "What is it, sweetie?"
Shayna shook her head, motioning toward the break room. With her arm tight around her shoulders, Angela led her there. Rob and Billy were already there, and both rushed over, looking more than a little surprised when they saw her in tears. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Silly. Can't help it," she said, trying to control herself, and at least managing to shove out words between gulps. "Ty's teacher called. Wants to have a conference. When school is out. Today."
"Anything happen?" Billy asked, his brows furrowed in concern.
Shayna couldn't help looking at her two male bosses with watery affection. Without them and her other male friends--Dex Everett and Kiowa, Angela's husband--Ty would have no decent father figures in his life at all. Ty was crazy about the guys. Even still, his own father could hurt him so easily with his selfish disregard.
"Mr. Loring didn't say, but he said Ty's been acting out today. Ty had such a hard weekend and he didn't want to talk to me about what happened either."
None of them needed to ask why. They'd known on Friday it was Mason's weekend to take his son. As usual, he'd called at the last minute and bailed out. He no longer bothered with excuses anymore.
"You need to leave early?" Angela guessed.
"Is that all right? His teacher wants to have the conference at two-thirty."
Angela glanced at the apple clock over the break table. "You better get going then."
Shayna looked at Billy and Rob. "You're sure it's all right? I haven't finished typing that financial report you need mailed today."
"Go," they both urged.
"I'm sure Aimee won't mind typing and mailing it for you," Rob said, offering his wife's services.
"Don't worry about the phones, hon." Billy hugged her. "We can answer our own calls."
"I'll let the others know," Angela offered. "And you go ahead and take Ty home when the conference is over. We'll see you in the morning."
"You guys are the best. I'll work late another day this week to make up for it."
They didn't argue, knowing she needed the money. Shayna hugged them all, then ran to get her purse from her desk. She dropped her cell phone into the meticulously organized confines of her bag, located her keys, then went out to her nine-year-old car. She headed toward Ty's school.
She had a great job--jobs--and great bosses, she acknowledged, the best in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She actually had two jobs in one, worked eight hours total though she put in as much overtime as she could to make ends meet, and she got two paychecks every two weeks that allowed her to pay her bills, get groceries, and still have a little bit--not much--left over. Starting a savings account with so little to put toward it with every check was unimaginable to her, but she'd managed to set up a college fund for Ty last year. Mason was finally paying child support for his son, though it'd taken more than six years to get it all settled. Hard as she'd fought to get him to do the right thing, Shayna had found herself reluctant to use the checks that came in regularly now from her ex-husband. She'd bought some clothes and shoes for Ty, but lately she'd been depositing most of the money in the college fund.
I don't want to take anything from Mason. I wish I could forget that I ever did. She and Mason had married when she was only twenty. He'd been in college and she'd had stars in her eyes--surely that explained why she'd worked two jobs just to support them. At that time, her job with Billy and Rob had been part-time in the evenings, since the business had been too small back then to allow them to hire anyone full-time. She'd never expected to get pregnant when she was twenty-three--truly an accident, not planned, since she was on birth control--but she'd been happy when she learned of her condition from her doctor.
She would probably never forget Mason's reaction because he'd blown her out of the water. She'd been in love enough for the both of them, so she couldn't have foreseen his reaction. He'd shouted at her that she'd broken their agreement--no children until he was firmly established in a law firm. He wanted a divorce, no discussion, and he walked out. She got served the very next day and found out hours afterward that he already had a new girlfriend, this one rich and willing to support him in his fledgling law career. Needless to say, she'd realized he'd been using her the whole time... to fund his career and make it possible for him not to have to work in the meantime.
Up until Ty was born, Mason insisted their child wasn't his responsibility and he wanted nothing to do with either of them. Though he'd come to the hospital to meet his son the day after he was born, his visits until Ty was old enough to be his own little person had been short and disappointing. Now his relationship with his son could be described in no other way than sporadic and unreliable. In a month, he'd been allotted two weekends he could spend with his son. He rarely saw his way clear to complete even one of them. And, the few times he did pick Ty up, he usually dropped him back with Shayna within a few hours or a day.
She'd long since abandoned dating on the weekends she didn't have Ty. Most of the time, she never made it through dinner before Mason was calling to say Ty was at her apartment, waiting for her to get home. And I consider myself lucky that he bothers to call at all to inform me that our seven-year-old is home alone.
By the time Shayna arrived at the school, her teeth hurt because she'd ground them so much on the drive over. She ran-walked inside and through the halls crowded with kids leaving for the day with parents. Neela and her son Benjamin were just departing from Mr. Loring's classroom when Shayna got there, gasping slightly again because the agitated sensation had settled in her chest again.
"Do you need me to stay, Shayna? I'm happy to." Neela's Indian beauty was evident even in her worried expression.
Shayna shook her head, giving her neighbor and friend a quick hug as she said, "It's all right. Thanks, Neela." She ruffled Benjamin's hair. Taking a deep breath, she entered the open door of Mr. Loring's bright and cheery classroom. Her gaze flew around the room, scanning it for her son. She saw Ty on the oversized rainbow rug in the far corner of the room and went to him first. His usually smiling, adorable face was set in a grumpy expression that matched the Tolkien character he'd chosen to play that morning.
"Hey, Gimli," she greeted him, squatting down to cradle his face and drop a kiss on the top of his shaggy, blond head. "Everything okay?"
He looked across the room at his teacher, interacting with a mother and a little red-haired girl. "Mr. Loring wants to talk to you."
Shayna nodded, unconsciously stroking her son's hair as she watched Mr. Loring get down on the girl's level and say something to her that made her giggle. Shayna swallowed the lump in her throat, more than a little aware that part of her panic over this conference was Ty's teacher in particular. Mr. Loring was young--not much older than Shayna's thirty-one years. And he's tall, lean and muscular with that crazy blond-brown hair that's usually sticking up on all ends like Ty's.
Shayna's lips formed a helpless smile filled with affection. Okay, so the guy was incredibly hot with a rugged masculinity that could have turned a saint into a sinner. Combined with his obvious love of children, he was darn near irresistible. She could barely form two coherent words whenever he looked at her with those soft, hazel eyes. He's always so understanding. And he loves Ty. I can tell my son is special to him. Not simply because this guy is great with all kids. Ty has made an impression on him. That means something to me.
Shayna had known of Mr. Loring even before Ty became his student. She'd seen him whenever she and Ty were able to attend the church she knew Mr. Loring was a member of, and he'd been Ty's t-ball coach last summer. As if those weren't enough situations she saw him in, Mr. Loring had also been Ty's Tiger Cub Scout leader this year. He was a man who should have his own children, but he attended church alone, and none of the kids on his team or in Tiger Scouts were his own. She knew nothing else about the man, but there were rumors that he wasn't married although he may have been at one time. He's single; I don't have to feel guilty for finding him attractive. Plain and simple, I want to know more about him.
When the girl and her mother left, Shayna found herself taking Ty's hand and rising to her feet as Mr. Loring walked over to them with his hands in the back pockets of his not loose, not tight jeans. His adorable dimples were in full force when he smiled and said, "I appreciate the effort you must have made to come here today, Ms. Cavanay. Your ex-husband?"
Shayna flushed. "No. I don't think Mason is coming."
The gentle look in Mr. Loring's eyes infused her with her usual reactions to him: She became a nervous wreck and fought the odd urge to burst into tears and confess everything to him. He would give her a safe place to do that--a secure place to fall. And he could make her believe he truly cared about her and Ty. She just knew he would.
He let out an obviously pent-up exhale. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"So am I."
He glanced at Ty with such sympathy, Shayna pushed her fingers against her mouth to hold back a sob. How could she be everything Ty required in a mother--and a father? She knew she couldn't, and Ty needed a father. Mason would never be unselfish enough to put his son's needs before his own.
* * * *
Dakota Loring was used to dealing with mothers, fathers, kids, and the variety of up-and-down situations they went through. But he never got used to seeing Ms. Cavanay. She wasn't the only divorcee with a lousy ex who couldn't be bothered with his own son. But whenever Ty's mother looked up at him with her beautiful, fire-whiskey brown eyes, he had the urge to sweep her up in his arms and try to heal every little pain she experienced. The trust in her gaze nearly undid him every time. And that's why you have to distance her by calling her Ms. Cavanay even in your mind. Not the lovely Shayna. Ms. Cavanay...Tyler Sackski's drop-dead gorgeous mother. A woman who would shield her son from the slightest harm with her own heart, soul and body. But this time, he had to try to remember he was a widower--and the thought of ever getting involved again... No. No way.
"Why don't we talk over at my desk, Ms. Cavanay?"
She nodded, turning to look down at her child still holding her hand. Dakota knelt before Ty. "Hey, buddy, I've got The Hobbit pc game up on the computer over there. The headphones are there, too. I need to talk to your mother for a few minutes."
Ty's sweet face looked old almost, resigned. "You gonna tell Galadriel I hit Barry?"
Dakota glanced at Shayna and they shared a mutual understanding of Ty's love of J.R.R. Tolkien books. The boy liked to pretend that he and his mother, and sometimes Dakota, were the characters.
"I'm in trouble, aren't I?" Ty murmured.
Dakota kept his gaze level with the boy's. "I did tell you I needed to talk to your mom--and your dad, if he comes--about that, slugger. Remember?"
"He won't come."
Dakota swallowed, wishing Ty's voice didn't sound so sure and accepting. He put his hand at the back of the boy's neck and squeezed gently. "You're not in trouble, Ty. I promise."
"I told Barry I was sorry and I was."
"I know. And Barry appreciated that, and his mom said it was okay. 'Cause you're not going to do it again, are you?"
Ty shook his head. "So why do you need to talk to Mom?"
"Sometimes when a person gets a lot of anger built up inside him, he doesn't know what to do with those feelings. I think you're going through that, Ty, and me and your mom want to help you. We don't want you to be hurt and mad. We care about you. As soon as we're done talking alone, we'll all talk together? We won't leave you out. Is that all right with you?"
Shayna crouched beside Dakota, and the flowery scent of her perfume made him very aware of her. Of how well she took care of herself. Of how long, wavy and thick her chestnut hair was. How good it would feel to run my fingers through it...
She hugged Ty. "We won't be long, sweetie," she promised him.
The boy looked at her for a moment, then nodded.
"Love you, Ty," she murmured. "Go ahead and play."
When she rose, Dakota's gaze followed helplessly. Her legs were long and slim-- Okay, enough of that. This is about Ty.
Ty rushed off to the computer--what he loved most about school. Dakota watched him put on the headphones, then he rose with Shayna right beside him. "I'm really sorry I couldn't get Mason to come," she said, actually seeming to believe it was in any way, shape or form her fault.
"You're here, Ms. Cavanay. We'll handle this. Come on, let's sit down." He swept his arm toward his desk, then realized his mistake in inviting her to precede him there when Shayna headed that way. Her body was so petite, curvy and delicate in the nice slacks and form-fitting white top. More times than he cared to remember in the last year, he'd wondered if her skin felt as silken and soft as it looked. It'd been a long time since he'd touched a woman's skin, beyond friendly handshakes.
Shaking himself, he followed her to his desk. Force of habit, he grabbed his chair and set it about a foot from hers.
"Why don't you call me Shayna?" she said when he sat, leaning toward her slightly with his elbows on his knees. "I have a hard time responding to formal names. I guess I'm too young to think it fits me."
The formalities had to be swept aside sooner or later, but he wasn't sure he was ready for it. Why did she have to be so damn beautiful? Why did the mere scent of her make his insides quake violently? Dear God, I want to touch her. "Dakota," he offered, his jaw almost painfully tight.
She smiled, betraying just a hint of shyness. "Something obviously happened today, Dakota. Ty hit another boy?"
Dakota nodded, forcing himself not to react at the sound of his name rolling out in Shayna's husky voice. "Yeah. An incident with another boy over a computer terminal. I knew as soon as Ty got to school this morning that something was wrong. He was out of sorts, unwilling to participate in the morning welcome. Did something happen this weekend at home?"
Shayna's wide, full mouth tightened. She sighed as if she didn't want to tell him, but then said, "He was supposed to spend the weekend with his father. But Mason canceled at the last minute."
She didn't say "again". It was implied with her tense expression. Long, stunningly thick eyelashes swept down as she averted her gaze to the floor.
"He does that a lot, doesn't he?" Dakota murmured sympathetically.
She looked at him, her lips opened as if she intended to say something, but then a sob escaped and her tormented gaze met his. Her big, beautiful eyes filled with tears that spilled out without control. Dakota felt like his chest was collapsing as he watched her--and held himself back from all the things he instinctively wanted to do. He wanted to drag her into his arms and hold and comfort her. He wanted to cradle her face in his hands and promise he'd never let Mason Sackski hurt her again. I want to...
Dakota took a deep breath, then reached for the box of tissues on his desk. He pulled out two, took Shayna's small, fragile hand and pressed them there. Trying not to think about all the things he shouldn't, he squeezed her shoulder while she wiped her face and blade-thin nose. He needed to view Shayna Cavanay's situation with clinical detachment. He couldn't. He felt too much for this woman and her incredible son to do that.
"I'm sorry. I can't believe I'm doing this. I knew I'd lose it today."
She sneaked a peek at him, and Dakota grinned warmly. "Don't worry about it. We're both worried about Ty, Shayna. It's hard for us to imagine anyone could treat such an amazing kid with such shabby disregard."
Her eyes widened slightly, as though she didn't expect a teacher to express disappointment in one of the parents. "Ty is so..." she started. "Well, I can't imagine everyone in the world not loving him."
"I can't imagine it either, Ms. Cav...Shayna."
"I think you really mean that."
"I do." He put his hand on hers, but wouldn't let himself display any more intimacy in the act. "Listen, Shayna, I don't want to upset you more, but it wasn't just Ty hitting Barry today that made me call you and your ex."
Her wild expression proved he was going to upset her. A lot more. Probably a lot more than she even anticipates, and she's come to expect her deadbeat former husband to disappoint regularly.
"Ty said something that disturbed me so much, I had to talk to you about it."
Dakota lowered his voice, though Ty had the headphones on and couldn't hear them. "When I asked him if anything was wrong, he said his father 'wishes he was dead'."
Shayna gasped, just like he knew she would. "Oh my goodness! No! He didn't. He couldn't." Tears glittered in her eyes again. "But then how could Ty feel any differently? Mason has bailed on him for four weeks straight. Technically, he's only supposed to have two weekends a month, but we've never been strict about that. If Mason bails one week, he might decide to take Ty the next, though that would be my week. Anyway, Mason ducks out for no good reason that he feels he needs to give either of us." Shaking her head, she looked at him. "I try to make it up to Ty. My male friends are close to Ty, and they try to be there for him, give him... try to make up for... They're crazy about Ty, and he enjoys spending time with all of them. But it's not the same. For some reason, Ty just keeps expecting his own father to be interested in him, and Mason isn't capable of it. I'll never be enough."
"I'll never be enough." The sentence was a huge red flag. She didn't say Ty's father would never live up to Ty's expectations--Shayna took all the blame on herself. Dakota couldn't hold back now. He enclosed her hand between both of his. "You're doing an incredible job with Ty, Shayna. That's all you. But you can't give your son everything he needs. We're all hard-wired to need what each parent is supposed to provide. One parent can't do everything, and that's not your fault, honey." Dakota swallowed at his own use of an endearment that he couldn't seem to hold back. He'd never used anything like it with another woman except his wife. He could see Shayna had noticed it, too. He mumbled, "It's not your fault, Shayna."
"There's nothing I wouldn't do for Ty. But I can't change Mason. I've tried to talk to him about what the bailouts do to Ty, but he just doesn't get it. He's too selfish to get it. Even when he does take Ty for his weekend, he usually drops him off early, with barely a see-you-around at the door. I don't think he feels a bond with him. I don't know what to do anymore."
"Bastard," Dakota muttered under his breath, wishing it was Sackski's neck between his hands instead of Shayna's precious hand. He had to control himself so he held on to her gently.
She looked at him, her eyes soft and desperate.
"I'd try to talk to Ty's father, but he never returns my calls," he said a little desperately. "I'm considering sending a letter."
Shayna nodded. "You could try. But I'm not sure it's worth the trouble. Mason would probably ask his secretary to trash it."
"Ty's worth the trouble, so I'll do it for him. There's not much I wouldn't do for him myself, Shayna. He means a lot to me. This year...working with him here in my classroom, Cub Scouts, t-ball... I care about him like he's my own son, and I won't stand by and let him decline if there's something I can do to help him."
Shayna smiled, leaning forward to put her hand on top of his. He couldn't help noticing the creamy tan glow of her skin. Her neck was long and...sexy. Crazy, but it is. The white top had a lace insert that showed off her well-defined collarbones and allowed the gorgeous rise of her not-big, not-small breasts to peek through.
Dakota had experienced helplessness frequently in his life, and no other feeling could describe what he felt now. He was helpless not to notice lovely, fragile Shayna Cavanay. Helpless not to approve of her passionate, protective love for her son. Helpless not to want to draw her beneath the wing he wanted to shelter Ty in.