I glanced across the field of pumpkins; the last leg of our pre-school field trip. It was a crystal clear fall day, the air crisp and fresh. An insistent tug on my hand drew my attention.
Allison Morrison frowned up at me, her blond curls bobbing. “Miss Bailey, Josh left.”
“What?” I spun my head around, looking for the dark-haired boy. He was one of my charges.
Besides Allison, two little girls and one boy stood gaping at me. Where was Josh?
“Julie?” I spotted my assistant teacher herding her group of five, but she had no extra charges tagging along. “Have you seen Josh?” I called.
Julie shook her head, her red-gold hair flailing over her back. “No. Is he missing?”
“Maybe he’s with one of the parent groups.”
“I sure hope so.” Just my luck two of the parents who’d signed up to help with this field trip couldn’t make it. Because of that. Julie and I had to keep five four-year-olds in check instead of the usual three or four. The parents who’d come along lagged behind us. I’d only given them three children apiece, including their own.
I turned around. “Gather everyone together. We need a head count.”
After gathering all the parents and children together, we counted, and sure enough, we had one missing child. And it was Josh.
My heart raced as I envisioned a police investigation of the teacher who’d lost a child on a field trip. How could this have happened? I’ve always been extra careful.
I was in full panic mode by the time Julie raced up to me. “Look, Kate.” She smiled, pointing toward a line of pine trees.
Glancing up, a sigh of relief escaped me. A man led Josh by the hand. A hunk of a man. He was tall and lean-muscled, with chestnut-colored hair and a close-cropped beard.
Leaving my other charges in Julie’s care, I raced up to them. “Josh,” I reprimanded. “Where did you go? You had us all worried.”
“I wanted to see if there were bears in the woods.” Josh grinned up at the man, who smiled back.
“We’ve been talking about how the forest helps the earth. Josh, here, is a very perceptive young man.” He rubbed the boy’s dark head.
Suddenly, I felt a bit uneasy. Who was this guy? What if he was a pervert?
I snatched Josh’s hand. “Well, thank you for finding him, Mr. . . .” I waited for him to introduce himself.
He dropped Josh’s other hand and extended it to me. “I’m Neil Holloway. I work here.”
“Oh.” I flushed, my worries eased. “I’m Kate Bailey, Josh’s pre-school teacher.”
He nodded. “You’re the school tour. I saw you all go by, but I was working in the nursery. I’m to be your guide for the trip to the pumpkin patch.”
“Oh, well that’ll be fine.” Anything coming out of my mouth seemed to be lame at this point. Neil stood close and his spicy, woodsy scent held great appeal.
Get a hold of yourself, Kate; he’s probably married with four kids.
He gestured to the left. “Here’s the hay wagon. If you’d all like to climb aboard, we’ll be on our way to the pumpkin patch.”
The kids cheered as well as a few of the parents. Besides three moms, we also had one dad and a grandma.
Neil took charge, urging everyone into the two wagons. Each had a strong gelding hitched to it, instead of a tractor—one a beautiful cream-colored, the other black. The children chattered excitedly at the sight of the animals.
I gathered the group together and took another head count. Can’t be too careful. Neil lifted the children and assisted the moms and grandma on. After the first wagon was full, he started to guide the rest into the second wagon. I was the last one left.
He turned and smiled. “I’ll help you up.”
I flushed, hoping my face wasn’t beet red. He grasped me around the waist and hefted me up into the bed of the wagon, then jumped up to sit beside me. He waved and the wagon ahead moved off. Ours followed with a jerk. Unable to stop myself, I slid practically into the man’s lap.
He laughed. The spicy, woodsy scent of him threatened to overwhelm me.
Whoa there, I told myself. I’m on a field trip with my students and some of their parents. This is no time to lose myself in a man, even a virile, great smelling one.
Once the wagons came to a halt, Neil jumped down and lifted me to the ground. My face heated yet again.
As we gathered the children for their jaunt to pick the perfect pumpkin, I turned to find Neil speaking to one of the drivers. He glanced my way and his lips curved into a smile.
Get a grip. He’s probably a happily married man and just likes to be friendly to tour groups.
Julie crept up beside me. “Pick a good one,” she called out to her charges. Then she elbowed me. “Nice, isn’t he?” I followed her glance at Neil.
I shrugged, not wanting to betray my feelings. This was ridiculous anyway—a full-grown woman ogling a guy.
He bent over the wagon bed to retrieve something.
“Ooh,” Julie crooned. “He sure has a cute butt.”
I smiled. I couldn’t exactly deny I’d noticed.
Neil led the children through the patch, so each and every one could find the perfect Halloween pumpkin. I watched as he interacted with the kids. He’d make a great dad, if he wasn’t already one.
Josh returned, apparently impressed with Neil. “See my pumpkin, Miss Bailey? Neil helped me pick it.”
“Did he now?” I grinned, and Neil returned a smile. He really did seem like a perfect guy.
I clapped my hands so my group would all gather around. “It’s time for lunch. After that, we’ll visit the petting zoo.”
As I settled at the picnic tables with my bag lunch, I couldn’t help but steal glances at Neil. Since college, I’d stayed away from men, wanting to concentrate on my studies. My last steady relationship was in high school. Brad and I had been an item until he broke our date for the prom. I found out later that he’d dumped me for a girl in the junior class. I’d wasted three years on Brad and had vowed that was it. When I was ready to settle down, I’d go looking for a better man, but now the time had come, and I had no clue about how to find the right guy.
My family and friends all seemed to be on the lookout for the one for me, but none of their picks measured up. Over the years, I’d retreated into spending time alone with a good book.
After lunch, I led the group over to the small petting zoo. Goats and sheep grazed in a fenced-in pasture. The kids all screamed with delight and prodded the adults to give them change so they could feed the animals. I rounded up my charges and set them free inside the fenced area, keeping a sharp eye out to be sure none of them wandered away or got hurt by the animals.
I leaned against the fence and sighed when a presence jolted the fence beside me.
Neil stood practically arm to arm with me. “Having a good time, Teach?”
I grinned. “Well, it’s a nice change from the classroom. But I can tell you I’ll be good and tired when I finally get home.”
He laughed. It was a hearty, masculine sound. I liked it. “Where to after this?”
“The gift shop, of course. I’ve a hunkering for fresh apple and pumpkin pie. My mother requested an apple too, so I’ll be buying three, I guess.”
“What kind does your husband like?” He glanced down at my empty ring finger.
“I don’t have one yet.”
“Boyfriend then.. .”
“Nope.” I shook my head.
“Just what I wanted to hear.”
Before I could reply, one of the workers called Neil away. I figured we’d catch up before we headed home. A thrill ran through me when I realized he was interested in me. I’d be sure to catch him before our trip was over.
But as fate would have it, the buses were loaded and there was no sign of Neil. I was heartbroken, but shrugged it off. It probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway. But I had sure been ready to give it a try. In my line of work, the only men I met on a regular basis were the fathers of my students. Although some were divorced, they didn’t hold much appeal for me.
Neil had seemed like a really nice guy who was great with kids. Just the type of guy I’d want to meet.
Julie sauntered up, a pie in each hand. “Guess it’s back on the road.” She glanced around. “Where’s Mr. Hot?”
I smiled. “I suppose you mean Neil? I don’t know where he is. It’s a big place, and he’s likely back to work at whatever it is he does.”
“Did you give him your phone number, at least?”
“Didn’t have a chance to.” I shrugged. “He’s likely married, anyway.”
Julie scowled. “Yeah, the good ones always are. Tough break.”
We boarded the bus, did a final head count, and I sank back into the seat for the ride back to school.
Hours later, I sank into a fragrant tub of bubbles. Field trips always exhausted me, but I tried to schedule as many as I could throughout the school year. It was a great treat, as well as a unique learning experience for the kids.
As I soaked my tired muscles, an image of Neil drifted over me. Maybe I should have gone looking for him before we left, but there hadn’t been time. Besides, the last thing I wanted to do was come off as needy.
No, it just wasn’t meant to be.
A few weeks later, we held our Halloween pageant, the children decked out in their Halloween finery. Apples, candy, and decorations—including spider webs and witches’ brooms — adorned the classroom. The pumpkins we’d collected at the nursery were lined up on the windowsills. The painted faces had been our project over the last couple of days. The kids would be taking their finished projects home today to decorate their own homes.
Julie grazed past me as I tied strings on the take-home bags of candy. “You going to the party at Dave’s?”
I shrugged. “I got an invitation, but I don’t know. I have no idea for a costume.”
“Oh, you’ve got to go, Kate! I’ll come over after school and help you look for a costume. In fact. . .” She clicked her fingers. “I have a costume from last year that would fit you perfectly.”
I frowned. “What kind of costume?”
Before she could answer, a gaggle of kids romped up to collect their bags. The school day was nearly done. “Don’t forget your pumpkins,” I called out.
“I’ll bring it over this afternoon,” Julie said.
At my answering scowl, she added, “You’ll like it, Kate. Stop being such a spoil sport. It’s Halloween, after all.”
I was decorating the window of my condo when Julie drove up. She pulled a garment bag out of her car. I bit my lip, wondering what she had in store for me.
The dress had ruffles and frills and a really low neckline. “What am I supposed to be?” I asked, examining the material.
“A serving wench.”
“You know, like in an 18th century pub. You could be a pirate’s woman.” She grinned.
I wasn’t amused. “I don’t know.”
“Oh, come on.” She poked my arm. “Live a little. I guarantee there’ll be hot, single guys there, all decked out in costume. Think of the mystery.”
I groaned. The only mystery I wanted right now was a good novel I could curl up with. I sighed. “All right.” I gathered the costume to take to my bedroom. I’d try it on there.
The gown fit like a glove, maybe a bit too tight. The top of my breasts heaved out the top. I flushed in embarrassment. How could I show up for a party in front of strangers wearing this? But I had no time to look for something else. I’d have to bite the bullet and wear it.
That night I adjusted my costume, trying to push the top up to cover me better, but the corset waist wouldn’t permit it. I grabbed a wool shawl from my closet. At least it would give me coverage until I got to the party. And then what?
I hopped into Julie’s car. “You look great!”
“So do you.” Julie was dressed as a vampiress in a long black gown, her red hair flowing and streaked with a white line. Her makeup was excellent—cheeks a pasty white, contrasting dark eyes and red lips.
She pulled from the parking spot. “I can’t wait to get there. We’ll have so much fun.”
I bit my lip, but resigned myself to go along. It would only be one night. I just hoped I wouldn’t attract any needy creeps. I yanked up the bodice of my gown again, feeling extremely self-conscious.
Julie knocked on the door of the townhouse and was greeted by a guy in a bear costume. I swallowed a laugh as we squeezed past into the living room. Although the house was fairly small, it was jam packed with bodies in all kinds of getups. I spotted a few gray faced aliens, a number of vampires, cheerleaders, a fireman, and a guy in a trench coat. I didn’t want to imagine what he wore—if anything—under it.
Julie broke away from me to greet one of her friends. I glanced around the room, my gaze settling on a tall, well-formed man in the corner of the room by the staircase, dressed as a pirate. Something about him looked familiar. He wore a black eye-patch, had chestnut-colored long unruly locks, and a matching colored—although well-trimmed — beard.
As his eye settled on me, he lifted the patch and grinned. “Well, I’ll be…” He eyed me up and down.
“Isn’t this a coincidence?”
“It sure is.” I flushed self-consciously as his gaze roved over my costume. “Julie insisted I wear this,” I said lamely.
“Well…” He lifted his arm. “I’d say a pirate needs a good serving wench by his side. What do you say?”
I smiled. He took my arm and guided me through the crowd to the buffet.
“It looks like we came together.” His warm breath in my ear sent shivers down my spine.
The woodsy scent that had attracted me at the nursery was still with him. Apparently, it wasn’t just because he’d been working among the pines. I inhaled deeply. Pressing his hand possessively against the small of my back, he escorted me to the buffet table. Snacks of all kinds filled the tabletop. He lifted two plates in one hand, then let go of me to settle a plate in each of his hands.
“What would you like?” His head swiveled to look oveiritle array.
“Oh. . I don’t know.” I suddenly felt self-conscious again and wasn’t sure I could eat anything at all.
He handed me a plate and started filling the other. He piled chicken, spooned potato salad, and grabbed me a large pickle and a roll. After he’d finished, he handed the filled plate to me and started again. When I hesitated, he glanced at me sidelong.
“Is it okay?”
“Sure. I love all this. It smells delicious.”
He smiled and I felt like the smile was just for me. He gestured with a nod. “Let’s find a place to sit.”
As we settled on a couple of folding chairs in the living room beside the coffee table, I spotted Julie. Her eyes widened and she nodded. I almost expected her to give me a thumb’s up.
“So,” my pirate escort said, “what do you do when not escorting groups of kids through the pumpkin patch?”
I shrugged. “Oh, you know, the usual pre-school teacher things. We do finger painting, learn about letters of the alphabet, play games. . .”
“But what do you do when you’re out of school?” He spooned potato salad into his mouth, then watched me expectantly.
I flushed. What did I do? “Nothing exciting,” I said. “I read a lot.”
He nodded. “Reading’s good.”
“I guess you do all kinds of outdoorsy things.” I glanced away shyly. He must think I’m a boring person.
“Well, I work outdoors most of the day, so when I get free time, I like to spend it at home, but it would be nice to have somebody there with me.” He eyed me. “Maybe a good serving wench.”
I flushed again. “I don’t know if I’m all that good. I can do your basic cooking, but I’m not that great around a kitchen.”
“Never fear, madam…” He leaned toward me, so close I could almost feel his lips brush mine. “I do know my way around a kitchen and a grill.” He straightened and waved his fork. “In fact, I’d like to invite you over for a barbecue.”
“A barbecue? But it’s the end of October.”
“I’ve been known to barbecue past Christmas. . .providing it doesn’t snow.” He flashed that enticing grin again. “What do you say, m’lady?”
I laughed and lifted the skirt of my costume. “I’m a serving wench.”
“Then what do you say, wench?”
I smiled. “I’d like that very much.”
He reached for my hand and drew me to my feet, then gathered the plates for disposal. “Be right back. Don’t you go away.”
I nodded and stood, waiting for his return. He slid one arm around my waist and led me through the house to the back. A deck stood off the kitchen. Although it was a bit chilly, we stepped out into the starlight. A full moon shone off to the right.
“It’s beautiful,” I breathed.
He gathered me close. “Is it too cold out here?”
“Oh, no. It was getting a little too hot inside anyway.” I glanced sidelong at Neil. His presence beside me sent a thrill through me. I hadn’t felt this way with any other man, including my high school boyfriend.
He lifted his hand and cupped my chin. The roughness of his callused hands excited me. He was a man who worked for a living. A strong man. How could I not be intrigued? I started to wonder what his kiss would feel like.
Before I knew it, his mouth was on mine. His kiss was light and tender, then when I opened to him, he deepened it, pressing against my lips, my breasts flattened against his chest. So lost was I in this first kiss, I didn’t notice the doors slide open to another couple.
“Oh, sorry,” a woman’s voice apologized.
We broke away and I glanced over at the couple dressed as a mobster and a flapper.
“It’s okay,” Neil said with a glance at me. “We’re going in anyway.”
I swallowed my disappointment, but we really couldn’t continue the way we were in this setting.
Neil led me back inside. The party was in full swing. Heat rushed to my cheeks at the press of people all around, laughing and conversing. Rock music blared from the speakers in the living room. I suddenly wanted to be alone with Neil, but that wasn’t possible now.
I spotted Julie with her arms around a masked man’s waist. It had to be her current boyfriend, Alex.
As if in answer to my thoughts, he caught my gaze. “Great costume, Kate!”
Julie hit his arm. “Don’t you remember that costume?”
His grin widened. “Ah, yeah…last year, when I dressed as Captain Hook.” Julie shook her head.
“You look good too, Alex.” He wore a long black cape and a puffy shirt. “Zorro, I presume?”
He took off his hat and bowed. “Very perceptive.”
I turned to Neil. “Neil, this is Alex, Julie’s friend. Alex, this is Neil. He works at the nursery.”
Alex nodded and the men shook hands.
A half hour later, I fought to stifle a yawn. It was going on one in the morning, way past my usual bedtime.
“You tired, Kate?” I glanced up to find Neil hovering at my side. He’d hardly left me all night long. Nice to have a man so attentive.
I smiled. “Guess it’s time for this wench to turn into a pumpkin.”
“Can I drive you home?”
I hesitated. The thought was tempting, but I didn’t want to leave my car here. I’d need it tomorrow. I explained to Neil and he nodded.
“Drive safely then. And I’ll call you about that barbecue. If you’d like, I can pick you up.”
“That would be nice, Neil. I look forward to it.”
All the way home and as I got ready for bed, my thoughts drifted to Neil, his scent, the feel of his muscular arms under his shirt sleeves, the thrill of his lips on mine. I very much looked forward to that barbecue.
Neil called the following day to get my address. He promised to pick me up at three. I paced my condo, anticipating being alone with him for the first time. How far would it lead?
Neil picked me up and drove me to his home on the north side of town. He lived in a modest townhouse that had a charming front porch and a fenced-in garden in the back. A deck was set off the dining room and kitchen, a floor above the garden.
He led me onto the deck and invited me to sit. The grill sat just past the glass doors opposite the seating area. A large tree provided shade for the deck, and potted plants sat around the rails, giving a variety of scents and color.
“It’s beautiful out here.” I glanced around. “And not too cool today.”
He nodded. “Be right back with some drinks. You like iced tea?”
“It’s my favorite.” I sank into a padded lounge chair while Neil returned to the kitchen for our drinks. I wished my place had an area like this. All I had was a small balcony off my tiny kitchen.
Neil grilled steaks and brought out a garden salad and potato salad he’d purchased at the grocers’. “Not skilled enough to make my own potato salad, I’m afraid.”
I grinned. “Can’t blame you there.” I took a forkful. “This is very good.”
“I think so, too.” He glanced at my plate. “How’s the steak?”
“Excellent. You’re right, you are a good cook.”
He smiled. “We’ll have dessert inside. I’m afraid it gets too chilly to sit out here long this time of year. It’ll be getting dark soon, anyway.”
I agreed and helped Neil clean up and get everything inside. We sat at his small dining table to sip coffee and eat pumpkin pie for dessert.
After the first bite, he inclined his head. “Store bought, too.”
“I kind of guessed that.” I nudged his arm. “Didn’t think you were the pie-baking type.”
“No?” He leaned toward me. “Just what type am I then?”
“The grilling steaks, chopping trees, and spreading mulch type.”
He laughed. “This pie reminds me of the first time I saw you.”
“It was only a week ago. How could you forget anyway?”
He reached his arm to cover the back of my chair. “I could never forget someone like you, no matter how long ago I met her.”
I moistened my lips. “Even though we’ve basically just met, I don’t think I’ll easily forget you either.”
He smiled. “I’m very glad.” He reached for my hand. “Come into the living room.”
We settled on the couch. Anticipation threaded its way through my stomach. I knew what was coming next, and boy did I want it. We kissed for what seemed an eternity, and my core melted into a puddle of pure heat. This was even better than the kiss we shared at the party with all those people around.
After a while, he offered to drive me home. We made plans to see each other again in a few days. We caught all the current movies, went out to dinner, and spent time in each other’s places. By mid November we’d become more intimate, but still hadn’t made love. Neil said the time would come when we were both ready, and he was right. As much as I cared for Neil, I didn’t want to rush things.
On Christmas Eve, Neil told me he was falling in love with me and I told him the same. A week later, we sealed the deal by making love for the first time. It was wonderful, and I was glad I’d held out for him. With my high school boyfriend, I’d never let him get that far, and there was really no one after. . .until Neil.
A year later, on Halloween, we took our marriage vows. He joked about showing up dressed as a pirate with me as a wench, but I was adamant. We were having a traditional wedding. I’d waited long enough and wanted this, as well as my mom. She wouldn’t have stood for anything less.
I sold my condo and now live in Neil’s townhouse. I still teach preschool, but will gladly give it up to start a brood of my own. Neil can’t wait for the first addition to our new family, either. He’ll be the ultimate perfect dad.