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Paris Cutler pulled into her grandmother’s driveway and honked as she parked. “I’m home!” she called from the open window of her car. The breeze carried the rich scent of pine, spruce, and fir. Leaving the unpacking for later, she bounded up the back steps and turned the knob on the kitchen door, startled to find it locked. Only then did she notice the note.

Running a few errands. Back soon. Jess has your key at the school. Love, Gran.

Locks? Keys? When had that started? Though it wasn’t the homecoming she'd hoped for, the setback was small and a detour to the high school no problem. She hopped back into her car and cruised a two-lane side street, the up-mountain side thick with evergreen forest, the opposite side home to the town’s schools — elementary, middle, and high school built side by side, no more than six-hundred students in all three, and even that was an increase since she’d been a student here.

The next surprise came when she reached the high school parking lot to find it almost deserted, the only cars in the row reserved for staff and faculty.

“Hi, Mrs. Bailey,” she called as she entered the front office. The school secretary seemed as permanent a fixture as the painted prospector grinning down from the wall of the gym. Mrs. Bailey had been the front office guardian for as long as Paris could remember. She still looked just as Paris remembered except for her graying hair.

“Oh, hello there, Paris. You’re looking well.” The secretary seemed genuinely pleased to see her. “Can I help you with something?”

“I’m here to see Aunt Jess. I guess this must be a staff development day?”

“Oh yes, right you are. Professional development today, staff only. The students return on Monday.” She turned the guest register toward Paris and laid a pen on its surface. “Go ahead and sign in, dear. The faculty should be finishing their afternoon session. I expect you’ll find Ms. Kerr in Room 18.”

“I remember.” Paris signed her name. “Thanks, Mrs. Bailey.”

“Have a good visit.” The woman turned back to her computer screen and Paris closed the office door behind her.

Memories assailed her as she walked the familiar halls. She’d started here as a sophomore, fifteen years old and the new girl among students who’d known one another since preschool. Though she’d known them briefly, for most of sixth grade, she’d arrived again as a stranger, already bearing a chip on her shoulder because of her mother’s cancer. Too ill to work, her mom had given up her job. That meant losing their condo in the valley and moving to Destiny in the Sierra Nevada foothills to live with Gran.

Torn from her home and friends and terrified for her mother, Paris had been prickly, introverted, and angry, putting on a tough-girl attitude that made her difficult to befriend. Amber Reyes had befriended her anyway. Paris smiled, remembering the kindness of one of the more popular girls in school, Amber had seen through her toughness, her ‘who-cares’ veil of indifference, and had done her best to bring Paris into her social group.

By junior year, Paris had begun to fit in. That was when she’d first embraced her love of writing, thanks in part to the encouragement of Mr. Frantz. He’d come to Destiny High as a student teacher in Mrs. Elam’s English class. He sure didn’t look like a teacher, at least no teacher Paris had ever known. Twenty-two, tall and handsome, he won the attention of every girl in school, including Paris, who couldn’t help her crush. Little Petey Wells, the class clown, joked that if Paris and the teacher married, her name would be Paris Frantz. “Get it? Paris, France!” Other kids joined in the teasing, calling her Frenchy when they passed her in the halls. Thank goodness that ended when Mr. Frantz left at the end of the school year.

She passed the art room and rounded the corner to room 18. Seeing her aunt at the desk was a bit like looking in a mirror. Jessica and Paris shared the same slender, long-legged frame of all the Kerr women, with the same brunette hair and blue eyes. “Hey, Aunt Jess! How’s California’s best math teacher?”

“Paris! It’s so good to see you!” Jessica Kerr leapt up and slipped around her desk to clasp Paris in a bear hug “How was your drive up?”

Aunt Jess’s concern was predictable, though disconcerting. “It gave me time to unwind.”

“Are you okay?”

“Bruised but not broken. I just need to regroup.”

“What she did to you was so wrong. I’m sure you have grounds to sue—”

Paris held up a hand. “Jess, if you don’t mind, I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t even want to think about it.”

“I’m sorry, sweetie. On to more pleasant things. Gran is over the moon that you’re staying with us. Have you seen her yet?”

“No. She left a note about running some errands and said you’d have my key. What’s that about anyway? I don’t recall that kitchen door ever being locked.”

Jess sighed. “The modern world has finally found Destiny in both good and bad ways. We’ve had some break-ins lately.”

“Break-ins? Real home invasions?”

“Yep. No one hurt, at least not so far. There usually isn’t very much taken, and the sheriff thinks it’s probably kids messing around. People are starting to be more careful, though. Speaking of which…” Jess dug into her purse and came out with a keyring. “The square silver key unlocks the front door, the smaller silver is for the kitchen door, and the little gold one is—”

“The post office box, right?”


“Still Box 214?”

“You remember.”

“It hasn’t been that long.” Paris almost added that remembering one’s post office box number was essential in any town too small to have mail delivery.

“No, I guess it hasn’t.” Jess gave her a long, assessing look. “Have you had lunch? We may have some leftover soup at the house—”

Paris grinned. “Don’t worry, Aunt Jess. I’ll be fine.” She tucked the keys into her pocket. “I’ll catch you later, okay?”

“Sure, sweetie. Welcome home!”

“Thanks.” Paris leaned in for another quick hug, then threw a wave over her shoulder as she dashed out the door. Only six years older than Paris, Jess seemed more like the big sister she never had rather than an aunt, but that didn’t keep Jess from trying to take care of her.

Would it be so bad to let Jess and Gran pamper her for a while? Paris turned that thought over. Maybe it would help her get over the stress left from her recent work debacle. Deep in thought, she smacked squarely into a solid wall of human muscle. Startled, she looked up into the man’s face. “Mr. Frantz? What are you doing here?”

“Nice to see you too, Ms. Cutler.”

Paris felt a blush heat her face. “Sorry if that sounded rude, and I’m sorry I smashed into you. Guess I had my head in the clouds.”

“No worries. Hey, do you have a minute to catch up?” He inclined his head toward the quad.

Paris nodded. “Lead the way.”

They sat on the half-wall that separated the school office from the student quad. Greg Frantz, now Destiny High’s principal, filled her in on his last eight years. He’d completed his credential and begun teaching at an inner-city San Jose school. “Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the classroom and that feeling of being able to reach students one-on-one, but I soon realized I could have more impact elsewhere. I started taking night classes to prep for administration. Then I heard Mrs. Elam was retiring, and I applied to be the new English teacher.”

“So you left a big school to come…” Paris gestured around her. “Here?”

 “I had good memories here and enjoyed the school.” He shrugged. “Easy choice.”

“But you were planning to get into administration—”

“And Mrs. Elam was the part-time vice principal, so replacing her was a way in.”

Paris frowned. “I still don’t understand why someone working in a big city would come to a dying Gold Rush town. I could hardly wait to get out of Destiny.”

“Hey! Destiny isn’t dying. Far from it. There’s quite a bit going on…but you can hear about that late. What brings you back?”

“I’m not back. At least not permanently.”

“I hear you have a promising career of your own. Technical writing, isn’t it?”

She arched a brow. “How did you hear that?”

“Mrs. Bailey tries to keep track of all our alumni. Besides, your Gran is quite the cheerleader.”

“Sounds like Gran.” Paris quirked a smile. “But go on with your story. How did you move to the front office?”

“It had only been a year and a few months when Bill Ross announced he was taking a teaching job in San Diego. I applied for the principal’s job that same day. The school board interviewed half a dozen by telephone, then brought two other candidates and me in for personal interviews. The first one bowed out after she saw the town. I guess I impressed them more than the other guy. Rumor has it you’re staying?”

Paris sighed. “Rumor. That’s one constant about Destiny, but yes, I’ll be staying a while. How long, I can’t—”

Mrs. Bailey poked her head around the office door. “Mr. Frantz? You’re needed on the phone. Oh! Sorry to interrupt.”

“No problem.” Paris stood. “I need to get going anyway.”

“Hang on, Paris.” Mr. Frantz turned to the school secretary. “Mrs. Bailey, please tell the caller I’ll be right there.”

“Oh. Yes. Will do.” She nodded and disappeared inside.

He turned back to Paris and grinned. “Hey, sorry to cut our chat short. Maybe we can get together soon?”

“Sounds good. I’ll be around.”

Mr. Frantz grinned, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Great. I’ll be in touch.” He gave her a little wave and stepped into the office.

Paris ambled toward the parking lot, her thoughts buzzing. Who’d have thought the gorgeous Mr. Frantz would return to Destiny? As she drove toward Gran’s, she was still befuddled. One thing was certain: The years had been good to him. Mr. Frantz looked every bit as marvelous as he did when he was a student teacher, even better. Back then, he didn’t appear much older than the senior boys, but the years had given his boyish good looks a rugged maturity.

Mr. Frantz had always been kind and encouraging, especially about her writing. And he wanted to catch up? Paris wasn’t sure whether to take his offer seriously. She sighed as she turned onto Gold Pan Road. She hadn’t planned to stay more than a few weeks, just enough time to decompress and figure out what to do next. With her favorite teacher now living in Destiny, she would no doubt run into him again, and that made her feel better about coming back.



From his office window, Greg Frantz watched Paris leave, her shiny brown hair swinging behind her, the rest of her swaying attractively. His student teaching stint in Mrs. Elam’s English class had been his first time in front of a classroom. He’d been so nervous, barely twenty-two and not that much older than the senior boys.

He remembered almost every student he’d taught then. Sixteen-year-old Paris Cutler had been a mixture of angry stay-away vibes and a vulnerable need to be sheltered and included. He remembered how prickly she’d been when she lost her mother in mid-year, orphaned at sixteen because of her father’s earlier death. He also remembered her talent for writing. In his new-teacher idealism, he’d wanted to encourage and develop her ability.

Mrs. Elam had lectured him about the importance of maintaining professional distance—wisdom he'd heeded. He knew the horror stories about teachers losing their jobs due to improper conduct with young students, or sometimes, just the kids’ accusations.

He couldn’t help feeling flattered when girls giggled as he walked by, but he’d kept his distance. When he started the lunch-hour writing club, almost all those who came were girls, and some went to great lengths to get his attention. He’d made sure to meet them in a group setting with the door open and always discouraged flirtation. Paris had never been among the gigglers and had generally withdrawn from the flirting and the who’s-dating-whom gossip. He’d been drawn to her because of her sad situation, yet even in her sorrow, she’d been pretty with her lovely blue eyes and delicate features. Now that childish prettiness had matured into adult beauty.

He blew out a breath and flipped open his agenda, trying to recall the details of the phone call he’d just finished. He hoped to run into Paris again. Maybe he’d even try to arrange it.

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