Leaning forward, she propped her elbows on the kitchen counter and pushed the hair away from her forehead. She tried taking in short breaths, followed by deep ones. Nothing seemed to help.
Damn it all, she was going to cry. Trey would see, and then he’d want to know what was wrong. She didn’t know what she would tell him.
If Michelle came home, perhaps her friend could distract him until Jenny had collected herself.
She felt the first tears slip from the corners of her eyes. She’d held them back for so long that it was as if a dam had burst inside her. The tears marked more than Trey’s return home. They represented the frustration, the disappointment, of three hard years of her life. Three long, fruitless years.
“Jenny, is something wrong?” Trey stood directly behind her. She could feel the warmth of his body so close to her own.
“I’m fine,” she answered in a strained voice. She straightened, wiped the telltale moisture from her face, and reached toward the bread box.
“You don’t sound fine. Turn around.” His hand fell gently on her shoulder.
She might have been able to pull it off if he hadn’t been so tender with her. The moment he touched her, she knew she was lost. The sob was a painful tightening in her chest that worked its way up to her throat.
She turned in his arms and let his torso muffle her cry. Her shoulders shook as he wrapped her in his embrace.
“Jenny, my heaven, what is it?”
She didn’t answer him; she couldn’t.
His hand stroked her hair, and Jenny was confident he had no idea what to do with her. She feared her tears embarrassed him as much as they did her.
“Oh my,” she said, breaking away from him. She smeared the traces of tears away from her cheeks and from some hidden reserve of strength offered him an apologetic smile. “I wonder what that was all about.”
Trey didn’t respond. Instead he tucked his finger beneath her chin and lowered his mouth to hers. They’d kissed before, and the hot sensation between them had shocked Jenny. He kissed her again and again, each kiss gaining in intensity and momentum until she was struggling for control.
“Jenny, sweet Jenny,” he whispered, his voice husky and low. “I don’t think you know what kissing you does to me.”
“I do know, because you do the same thing to me.” She ran her tongue along the underside of his jaw and felt his body tense against hers. She’d never experienced such a powerful sense of control over a man.
He cupped her face between his hands for another deep, breath-stealing kiss.
“Tell me why you were crying,” he whispered.
Jenny closed her eyes. Her hands bit into the material of his shirt, her hold so tight that her fingers lost feeling. “I . . . I’m going to miss you, Trey.”
He stiffened, and she wondered if she’d said something wrong. “You don’t need to worry,” she hurried to assure him. “I’m a big girl, really.”
He led her into the living room and sat her down in the chair, then he started moving around as though he needed to sit himself but couldn’t find an available seat.
He held out his hand. “I’ve got something to ask you. I was going to wait until tonight at dinner, but now seems as good a time as any.”
“Ask me what?”
He looked decidedly uncomfortable. “I’m not sure how to do this. I’ve never done it before, and hell”—he paused and dragged a deep breath through his lungs—“I damn well never plan to do it again.”
“You’ve never done what?”
“Propose,” he snapped, then seemed to realize what he’d said. He ceased his roaming and stood directly in front of her. “I love you, Jenny Lancaster. I’ve loved you from the time you were fifteen years old. . . .”
“Fifteen? But you never let on . . . you never told me.”
He frowned. “If I’d said anything, your father would have had me arrested, as well he should have. I never wanted you to leave Montana, but you deserved your chance. You’ve had it, and now it’s time to come home. With me, with the promise you’ll be my wife.” His eyes grew dark and serious as he got down on one knee in front of her. “Come home with me, Jenny. Marry me, and mother my children. I don’t have a lot to offer you, except a heart that will always be yours.”
Jenny was too stunned to respond. She pressed her hand over her mouth and battled down a fresh batch of emotion.
The front door opened and Trey stood up abruptly and, irritated, glanced over his shoulder.
“Hello, everyone,” Michelle greeted as she whirled into the room like a prairie dust storm. She hesitated and looked from Trey and Jenny. “I’m not disrupting anything, am I?”
“Yes,” Trey answered before Jenny could.
“Oh, sorry. Do you want me to discreetly disappear for a few moments?”
“That would be much appreciated.” Again it was Trey who responded.
Michelle had just started to tiptoe from the room when the telephone rang. “I’ll get it,” she said, and then tossed Trey an apologetic look. “I’ve been waiting for a call all week.”
Trey rubbed his hand along the back of his neck and gave her an impatient nod.
Michelle answered on the second ring, and her gaze swiveled automatically toward Jenny. She placed her hand over the mouthpiece. “It’s for you.”
“Me?” Jenny asked.
Jenny leapt off the sofa and hurried to the phone. “Irene,” she said eagerly, unable to hide her delight. When her agent phoned it was generally with good news.
“Jenny.” Irene sounded excited. “I just got off the phone with John Peterman. He’s wants you for the second lead in his new play. This is it, kiddo. All your hard work has finally paid off. We couldn’t ask for better money or better terms. You’re on your way now.”
Dumbstruck, Jenny listened while Irene relayed the details of her contract. When her agent had finished, Jenny replaced the receiver and turned to Michelle, who stood beside her expectantly.
“I got the second lead,” she whispered, her voice revealing the extent of her shock. “John Peterman wants me.”
Michelle let out a wild scream and hugged her enthusiastically. Then the two of them did a dance about the room, laughing, crying, their joy spilling over like champagne poured too fast from the bottle.
A good five minutes passed before Jenny remembered Trey, and then she couldn’t find him.
“Where’d he go?” Jenny asked her roommate.
Michelle gave her a blank look. “I don’t know. He must have left.”
The minute Brynn walked into the school she knew something was very wrong. One of the secretaries sat at her desk, weeping silently. A handful of teachers stood in the corner of the office, talking in whispers. The tension in the room was thick enough to slice and butter.
Not knowing what was wrong, Brynn walked over to her cubicle and cleared out the space. As she suspected, there were a number of printed sheets detailing information about the winter break. The teachers’ Christmas party was scheduled for that evening. Since her surname began with a C, she was responsible for supplying a main dish. Another paper detailed the period schedule for the last day.
Brynn slipped the papers into her bag. A white envelope fluttered from her space and landed on the floor. It was addressed to her personally, and she wondered who had put it there. On closer inspection, she realized the handwriting was familiar. It took a moment to recognize it was from Mike Glasser.
“Did you hear?” Doug Keast asked as he reached for his own papers.
“Hear about what?” Brynn had never been particularly fond of Doug. Not since the day he’d been so eager to have Emilio hauled off to the office. She had no problem with the school’s policy regarding fighting, but she questioned the other teacher’s attitude. It seemed Doug had welcomed the opportunity to see Emilio expelled.
“What about him?” she asked.
“He blew his brains out.” Doug pointed his finger to his temple and pulled an imaginary trigger. “His mother found him late yesterday afternoon.” Doug hesitated. “Say, isn’t he one of the kids in your program?”
Mike, dead? A suicide? It was as if Doug had pulled the floor out from under her. The information came at her like a fist in the dark.
Brynn gasped and slumped against the wall. It demanded every ounce of strength she possessed to remain upright. Involuntarily she started to hyperventilate, and she reached out and grabbed hold of the back of a chair.
“Brynn?” Doug’s arm came around her. “Here, sit down. Do you need something?”
“Water. Could you please get me a glass of water?” A shocking, total numbness shrouded her.
“Of course. Listen, I’m sorry.” Doug steered her to a table and sat her down. “I guess I shouldn’t have told you like that.” His voice was full of apology.
Brynn was too numb to respond.
Dead. Mike, the young man she’d tried so hard to reach, was dead. There would be no more tomorrows. No dreams for Mike. No future.
The letter. Mike had written her a letter. A suicide note. No. No, please, please no. Had he written it to her as a desperate cry for help? Dear God, please no. She hadn’t collected her messages in two days.
Her hands shook so badly that Brynn was barely able to retrieve the long white envelope from inside her bag. She ripped it open and pulled out a single sheet.
By the time you read this, I’ll be dead. I’m not going to go into the reasons why I’m doing this because that wouldn’t solve anything. For me death is the only solution. This is what I want. Life is simply too fucking painful.
I imagine you’re wondering why I’m writing you.
There’s someone I care about, and she’s going to take this hard. I don’t know anyone who can help Suzie through this, except maybe you.
Suzie’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and I love her. She tried to help me, but she couldn’t. No one could.
My dad killed himself when I was a kid. I used to get upset about it, but now I understand why he did it. Dying is easier than living.
Unable to continue because her eyes had blurred with tears, Brynn paused long enough to search for a tissue, then returned to Mike’s letter.
You don’t owe me any favors, but I know you like Suzie.
Talk to her for me, would you? Tell her I’m sorry. Tell her . . . Shit, you’ll know what to say. It isn’t her fault. It’s no one’s fault. Not Suzie’s. Not yours. Not mine. It’s better this way for everyone.
I know I don’t have any right to lay this on you, but there’s no one else I trust. If you would, I’d appreciate it if you said something to my mother, too. You’re good with words and you’ll know what to tell her.
Since this is the last thing I’ll ever write, there’s something I’d like to know. I wish I could have traded places with Anne Frank. She wanted to live, when all I could think about was dying. You’re a good teacher, Miss Cassidy. You made me care.