AMBER IN AUTUMN
SEASONS OF DESTINY SERIES (BOOK 3)
Max Burnett growled as he drove his car into the pull-out at the side of the winding road. “What a day!” he mumbled aloud. First the load of ore delivered to the Sacramento plant had been credited improperly, and then his order for chemicals had failed to show up, apparently due to some mix-up on the other end. Both situations needed someone to clear things up in person and, because he was in charge of the mine’s supply chain, he was the obvious choice.
Unfortunately, everything had taken longer than it should, which meant he was running late for the appointment at his kids’ school. The twins had only been in school for a week. How much trouble could they be in? Starting late meant he’d been speeding, which was undoubtedly the reason for the siren and the bright lights he saw in his rear view mirror. Max pulled over at the side of the road, put on the emergency brake, rolled down his window, and waited.
The officer got out of her car and approached the driver’s side, ticket book in hand. His heart sank when he saw she was a woman. Max had been dealing with unreasonable women all day, starting with the one who'd messed up the receipt for the ore.
Then he’d gone to the chemicals vendor and had been directed to another woman. This one insisted the latest order went out just as specified. He’d had to talk her through the whole process five times before she actually looked at the order and realized it had not yet been filled.
His ex-wife and her mother had given him enough of dealing with unreasonable women and his day had already been full of them, but he knew better than to hassle a police officer. She had nearly reached his window when he pasted on a pleasant smile. “Good afternoon, Officer.”
She did not smile. “Do you know why I stopped you?”
Max chose to play dumb. “Uh, do I have a problem with a brake light?”
She pursed her lips. She seemed to be struggling to keep from rolling her eyes. “The limit here is forty-five. I clocked you at sixty-two.”
“Forty-five? I didn’t realize that. I’ve just recently moved to Destiny and—”
“And you need to understand the law,” she said, cutting him off. The officer asked for his license and registration and began scribbling in her book. Precious minutes later, Max pulled back onto the highway, driving at a careful forty-five until he saw the officer turn the other direction, heading down the mountain. Even then he didn’t punch it. Who knew if there might be more than one officer patrolling today?
Max blew out a breath in sheer exasperation and pushed his speed up to fifty. He was going to be so late to this appointment. He only hoped he wouldn't have to deal with another irrational woman.
At her desk in the principal’s office, Amber checked her watch. She stepped into the front office, glancing at the wall clock to be certain her watch was correct. “No word from Mr. Burnett?”
“Nothing yet.” Liza, her secretary, glanced at the clock. “If he gets here now, he’ll be nearly half an hour late.”
“Good thing he’s my last scheduled appointment. If he gets here soon, I may still be able to meet with him.” She let out a sigh as she locked her hands behind her, stretching her back, arms, and neck.
Liza looked sympathetic. “Long day.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Long week,” Amber answered. “The days all seem so long at the beginning of the term.”
“True, but I’ve noticed it’s tougher on you when you’re talking with the parents of troubled kids.”
“You’re right, of course.” She smiled. “You know the parents I really feel for? The stepmothers. They always seem so nervous or even defensive. It’s worse when they show up by themselves, without the children’s fathers. That fairy tale cliché of the wicked stepmother seems to dog them all. The poor women are afraid to discipline a child who isn’t their own or to make decisions about their schooling. Their husbands often stick them with both those jobs.”
“Then, as the kids get older, they get mouthier and tougher for the stepmothers to handle,” Liza said.
“You’ve noticed it too?”
“Oh yeah.” The secretary grimaced. “If there’s one thing I never want to be, it’s a stepmother to a mouthy sixth-grade boy.”
“Or girl.” Amber shook her head. “But even the little kids can give a reluctant stepmother a wagonload of stink.” She glanced at the clock. “I’m going back to my reports. If Mr. Burnett finally arrives, show him in."
Amber returned to her office, stewing on the thoughtlessness of some people. It didn't seem likely there could be more than one Max Burnett in a town the size of Destiny, so the very late parent of twins must be the same Max who had once been her neighbor and could also be the same Max who had come to her rescue at Sunny's reception.
The various pictures weren't coming together well. Or at all.
Max Burnett fumed as he pulled his car into the parking lot at Destiny Elementary. He was half an hour late. This was not the way he did things! He could have looked up a number for the school office and called to let them know he was delayed but doing that would have made him even later. Now he wished he'd taken the time to call. Better yet, he could have rescheduled for a different day. Why did he have to be here, anyway? The kids had been in school five days. They were first graders, for heaven’s sake! Slamming his car door, he jogged to the front office.
The woman behind the desk had to be a secretary. She looked like a kid “Hello?” he said.
“Oh hello! Are you Mr. Burnett?”
“Yeah. Sorry I’m late.”
“We’ve been hoping you’d get here. Ms. Reyes is in her office. Please tap on her door and go on in.”
Max tried to squelch his sour expression as he tapped on the door. He didn't understand how his kids could already be in trouble, and he didn't want to have to deal with another woman, let alone a female principal.
He decided the woman behind this desk must be the principal’s secretary. Like the first woman, she had her back to him, and she looked like a kid. “Hello? I’m here for Principal Reyes. Am I in the right place?”
“I’m Ms. Reyes.” The woman turned to look at him and smiled in recognition.
Max and Amber spoke at the same time. “It’s you,” Max said.
“Well, hello,” said Amber.
For a moment, they stared at one another in silence. Amber recovered first. She stood and gestured toward the empty chair beside her. “Please, have a seat. Let me start by thanking you again for your timely rescue last Saturday.”
Max, still recovering from the surprise of recognizing this woman and realizing she was the principal, said, “Yeah. No problem. I guess you want to see me about my twins, Will and Kate?"
“Yes. Your children have interesting names, like the duke and duchess of Cambridge."
"Their mother's homage to the royals, but you didn't call me here to ask about names."
"No, I didn't. I thought it would be good to talk right at the beginning of the school year—”
“They’re little kids,” Max said. “How much trouble can they have gotten into already?”
Amber smiled. To Max, it looked like an indulgent, placating expression, which only wound him tighter. Principals were supposed to be cranky old men, not sassy, beautiful women. And this one was young. What could she know about working with children? And why was she giving him that look, like he was the one who didn’t know what was going on?
“Mr. Burnett,” she began.
“Max.” He remembered how he’d said it under other circumstances just a few days ago.
“All right then, Max. I called you in here to talk about your children because—”
"Cut to the chase. What's the problem?"
He watched as the principal took a deep breath, clearly put out by his response—or maybe by his interrupting. She offered that tight, indulgent smile again. “Your children aren’t in any trouble, Max. I wanted to talk with you about them because they seem so unhappy here and—”
"Wait! You dragged me In here because you think my kids are unhappy?"
“They’re also behind the other children—”
“How can they be behind? School just started!” He could hear his voice becoming louder with his growing frustration, and he ordered himself to calm down.
“Three weeks ago,” the woman said, correcting him. “School started three weeks ago.”
“My job just changed a week ago.” He hoped he wasn’t glaring as hard as he wanted to. “We didn’t really have a choice about—”
“Please understand,” Amber cut in. “I’m not talking about the last three weeks. Kindergarteners here in Destiny are reading and writing simple words by the end of the year. They recognize all letters, both upper and lower case, practice learning to write those letters, and know their numbers up to 100. Your children are behind in all those skills. Did Will and Kate attend kindergarten last year?”
He swallowed down his first answer, recognizing that additional rudeness would not help. “They went to a private preschool. It was what their mother wanted for them.”
Ms. Reyes straightened in her seat. “Perhaps I should be speaking with Mrs. Burnett.”
Max swallowed hard. “That won’t be possible.”
“We can arrange a special time, make it easy for her to get here—”
“My ex-wife died last year.” Max bit off the words.
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Amber paused. The look on her face was apologetic—or was it straightforward pity? He’d seen that look way too many times. “That might explain their hesitancy and why they always seem so sad.”
“Now we’re back to you thinking my kids are unhappy." Max emphasized the word.
“Mr. Burnett,” the principal began again, and this time Max let it go. “We pride ourselves on giving Destiny’s schoolchildren the best. We try to keep them happy, well-adjusted, and learning at or above grade level. I believe we can catch your children up to the rest of their class if you can help us at home—”
“Fine.” Max stood. “Send home whatever you want us to work on. We’ll work it into our evening schedule. Not that it will be easy…" He stood and took one step toward the door.
“We’re not done? I need to get back to work.”
“No, we are not done.” He could see the temper building behind her eyes and hear it in her tone. He sat.
“We’d also like to help your children be more comfortable here. We have some exercises we do with children suffering from PTSD. Of course, what we do here is just a start. I also recommend you arrange for professional counseling. Since they lost their mother last year—”
Max stood again. “Are you a psychiatrist? Even a psychologist?”
The woman took a deep breath. “No, I'm not. That's why I recommend that you see someone professional. In the meantime, I’m an educator. We are trained to work with—”
"My kids aren't crazy, and they aren't unhappy at home. If they’re unhappy here, maybe you need to fix that on your end.” He turned, starting for the door.
“Max.” The principal stood, her tone commanding.
Reluctantly, he turned. “We don’t need your permission for the exercises we’ll be doing here. They’re simple art exercises. Please understand that I’m not asking. I’m letting you know what we will be doing starting next week.”
Max cursed under his breath. “Then I don’t know why you even bothered to ask.” He was almost to the door when he heard her speak again.
He blew out an exasperated sigh but turned. “Yes?”
“Do you still ride a motorcycle?”
“I thought perhaps you’d recognize me.”
He almost growled his response. “You’re the woman from the reception last Saturday, the one the drunk was hassling.”
“I was also your next-door neighbor, though it’s been many years.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You are the Max Burnett who lived next door to the Reyes family when you were a teen, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” He could feel his forehead wrinkling. “Wait! You’re Tyler Reyes’s little sister?”
“That’s right. I’m Amber Reyes. Your brother, Keith, was in my class.”
He paused, considering his words, and then he said exactly what he felt. “I knew you were too young for this job.”
Growling to himself, he stomped from the office.
Amber sat at her desk, stunned. She took a deep, cleansing breath, trying to calm herself. Had she ever met anyone as arrogant or as rude? And here she'd been thinking so well of him since his timely rescue in the park.
Liza stuck her head around the door. “Did he just say what I thought he said?”
Amber’s voice shook as she answered. “I’m afraid he did.”
“I’ve never heard anyone—”
“When did people stop respecting their kids’ principal?”
“Around the time they started teaching their kids to disrespect all authority figures, I suspect.” Amber steadied herself, finally able to stand. She shook herself, releasing some of the energy her anger had generated. “Starting Monday, we’ll have Kate and Will Burnett in the office during the time the first graders are doing art projects. They can draw their art in here.”
“Good.” Liza made a note. “I’ll tell Mrs. Nguyen.”
Liza stood. “Those kids sure are cute, all that coppery red hair. The little boy’s hair is even naturally curly. So adorable! And they have those gorgeous brown eyes.”
Like their father’s. Appalled at herself, Amber said, “Yes, they are. They’re adorable.” She returned to her desk, still too upset to concentrate on her report. Instead she went to the books she’d gathered on children, art, and post-traumatic stress. She determined to help the Burnett twins settle in whether their father liked it or not. Calming herself, she looked up a chapter on healing after the loss of a parent.
More than two hours had passed since he left the principal’s office and Max argued with himself as he left his office at the mine.
You didn't have to be rude, his inner voice chided.
She had it coming, Max thought as he got into this car. Who does she think she is, anyway, trying to psych out my kids?
The kids did suffer when their mother had left. Then, when they found out she died…
Maybe they really could use some help. his inner voice suggested.
But from her? She looks like she could still be in school herself! Max snorted as he pulled out of the parking lot.
Admit it. She may look young, but she's a full-grown woman, and that makes her old enough to be a principal. You noticed how good she looked even when you were angry, his inner voice countered. Maybe that's why you were so very rude? So you wouldn't show you are attracted to her?
Yeah, okay. Max blew out a breath. She’s a beauty, no question. But she’s Tyler Reyes’ little sister, for heaven’s sake! What is she? Maybe twenty years old? She shouldn’t even be out of school!
Do the math, his inner voice shot back. Tyler was three years younger than you and his sister wasn’t more than four years younger than that. Duh, Max. She said Keith was in her class. He’s twenty-five. Then she’s probably at least that old.
Ugh. That’s still young for a principal. Max merged onto the main road.
True, but maybe a town like Destiny doesn’t have a lot of options. Maybe they hire good people even if they’re younger and have less experience, his inner voice added.
Max scratched the side of his face as he waited for the light to turn green at an intersection. I hadn’t thought of that; it makes sense…
He pulled into Mrs. Larsen’s driveway where his kids attended an after-school program.
His inner voice still argued the point: She did seem to have things in order in that office, and the school runs efficiently.
Max cursed. Okay, I get it. I should apologize.
Yes. That would be wise, his inner voice teased.
Max cursed again, louder this time, and shut off the engine.
His inner voice had one more bit of advice: Better put on a happier face before you see the kids. And try to act excited when you talk to them about— On second thought, better not talk about it at all. Let art therapy seem like a natural part of being in school.
“Good point,” Max growled aloud. He put on his happy face and went to pick up his children.
Amber knocked on the door of her mother’s kitchen. “Mom? You busy?”
“Not too busy to see you, chica.” Olivia Reyes waved her daughter in. “You can keep me company while I roll these enchiladas.”
Amber took a seat on the other side of the island and began helping with the process, putting chili sauce and cheese on each tortilla as Olivia put it into the pan.
Amber looked around. “Is Dad here?”
“Not at the moment. He went into town to run a few errands.”
“Good.” Amber sighed. “I need some girl talk.”
Olivia grinned. “I’m all about girl talk. Tell me.”
Amber began by talking about the wedding and reception. “Did you happen to see that drunk hassling me?”
“Yes, but I’m glad your father didn’t see it.”
Amber lifted an eyebrow. “Me too. Someone else noticed, though.”
“I saw that too.” Olivia looked speculative. “A nice-looking man. I didn’t recognize him. Is he new here? Or a wedding guest from out of town?”
“He’s new here, sort of."
Olivia raised a brow. "Sort of?"
"He's Max Burnett. His family lived next door to us when--"
"Oh yes. I remember the Burnetts, and I remember Max. He's moved back?"
"Yes. He has six-year-old twins in my school.”
“So he’s married now.”
“He was married. He told me today that his wife died last year.”
Olivia’s expression lifted again. “You saw him today?”
“Yes, but I’d hardly call it a pleasant experience.” Amber told her mother the whole story, starting with his late arrival half an hour after their appointment time and ending with the insulting way he left her office.
“Ouch. I’m glad your father didn’t hear that.”
“Right. Dad hasn’t gotten used to the idea that his little girl is a big girl now and can fight her own battles. That’s why I wanted to be sure he wasn’t here before I said anything. Having Dad hunt this man down wouldn’t exactly help the situation.”
“You know your dad is like a chihuahua, right? All bark and very little bite?”
Amber chuckled. “Yeah, I know. Still, I’m glad—”
“Me too.” Olivia rolled another enchilada. “You’re sure he’s the Max Burnett who used to live next door?”
“Certain. He remembered Tyler. He even remembered Tyler had a little sister.”
“You sneered just now when you said that.”
“He made me angry.”
“Because of what he said? Or because you find him attractive—when he's not being a jerk."
Amber blew out a breath. “You do have a way of getting to the point.”
Olivia raised an eyebrow.
“Maybe that has something to do with it,” Amber finally acknowledged. “It’s been a couple of years since Chad left and I haven’t dated much. I haven’t found anyone to date. This is Friday night and I’m planning to watch an old movie. Alone.” She tried not to pout.
“The right man is out there. Maybe not this one—”
“Almost certainly not this one. And if the right guy is out there somewhere, that means he’s not in Destiny, which is where I am.”
“You’re still young.”
“And still single.”
The kitchen door opened as Enrique Reyes stepped in. “Hola, mija. Are you here for dinner?”
Amber and her mother glanced at each other. Both answered, “Yes.”