Read an Excerpt
She'd moved with confidence on some pretty exclusive Vegas stages. Had entertained moneyed and powerful men. With and without her clothes.
But as she walked down the hushed elementary-school hallway lined with short lockers that Friday afternoon, twenty-seven-year-old Talia Malone had never felt more uncomfortable in her life.
No one at that school was going to know that the ten-year-old boy in the classroom midway down that hall was her son.
She'd given birth once, ten years before, but she'd never been a mother.
Had no idea how to be one.
You were a mother when you were his age. Tanner's words from earlier that morning played over and over again in her head, much like his words had always done when she'd been growing up and her big brother had been a demigod in her life.
Before she'd grown deaf and dumb to his wisdom, slept with one of her high-school teachers and ended up pregnant.
She slowed her step, eyeing a deserted alcove hosting a water fountain that was so low to the ground she'd have to bend in half to take a sip.
She hadn't technically been a mother at ten. Tanner, of all people, knew that. But she'd been ten when their baby sister, Tatum, had been born. Between her and Tanner and their brother Thomas they'd managed to make sure that baby girl was protected and loved.
But then Talia had run off. Abandoned the family. Abandoned Tatum. And her sweet baby sister had ended up a victim of domestic violencedrugged and pretty much raped, tooall because she'd been so desperate for love and acceptance that she'd believed the young rich creep who'd told her he loved her more than anyone else ever would.
She'd believed his hitting her had been her own fault
Talia didn't want the water she sipped. And didn't leave the alcove immediately, either.
Used to waiting in the wings for "showtime," Talia stood between the fountain and the wall, watching the quiet hallway for signs of life. A janitor crossed the hallway several yards down from her, on his way to a different part of the Santa Raquel, California, elementary school.
She was there to facilitate a class. Not teach.
Her class didn't start for another half hour. She'd arrived early. On purpose. Kent Paulson, adopted son of widower Sherman Paulson and his late wife, Brookewho was killed in a car accident, her obituary had saidwasn't in the sixth-grade art class she'd be visiting. He was only in fourth grade. Two doors down from where she was standing.
All she wanted was a glimpse of him. She wasn't there to claim him.
She just needed to know that he was okay. Happy. Better off than he would have been growing up the bastard child of a teenage mother, and a drug-addicted, sometimes homeless prostitute grandmother. Or knowing that his biological father, who'd served time in prison for a host of crimes including statutory rape and child endangerment, was a registered sex offender and unable to work any job that would put him in the vicinity of minors.
"I don't care!" There was no mistaking the very adult anger in the childish voice as a door opened and a small arm pulled away from the larger hand that was holding it.
"Keep your voice down." A woman reached for the boy's hand.
"Ouch!" he cried, snatching his hand back before she'd even touched him. "You're hurting me and that's against the law. You aren't allowed to hurt me."
"Why? So that all the other kids don't figure out that life sucks?"
The words struck a chord. One that hadn't played inside her in a long time, but was still achingly familiar. Growing up as the mostly destitute offspring of a prostitute, she'd learned quickly that she wasn't like the other kids. Wasn't naive. Or innocent.
Retreating farther into the alcove, Talia watched as the middle-aged, short-haired brunette escorted the small-boned, dark-haired boy past hernot even seeming to notice that she was there.
"This makes it four school days in a row that you've disrupted class. You're going to get yourself into some serious trouble here. I'm doing my best to help, but you're going to tie my hands if you aren't careful." The woman's words were hushed, but brimming with intensity. And, Talia kind of suspected, sincerity, too.
"I don't care," the boy said.
"You do, too, care, Kent."
Surely there weren't two of them in the group of fourth-grade classrooms lining that hallway.
The couple had passed out of hearing range, and Talia stepped out from her alcove far enough to watch them until they turned a corner out of sight.
Had that little, short-haired preppy-looking boy in need of anger management been her kid?
Biologically only, of course. She had no parental rights to him.
If he was even Kent Paulson. The Kent Paulson. She had to find out.
And if he was? If that troubled young man was the one she'd put here on earth? Had she just witnessed that scene for a reason? Her being there, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, right when he was acting outthat couldn't be a coincidence. It had to be fate, right?
She'd have to figure that out. She wasn't walking away, though.
Not until she knew for certain that he was getting help. If that boy was hers, the chip on his shoulder could be hereditary.
There was no way any progeny of hers was going to end up like her.
Not while she had a breath left in her body.
"Mrs. Barbour is on line two, Mr. Paulson."
Not again. "Thanks, Gina." He waited for the door to close behind his administrative assistant.
Loosening his tie enough to release the top button, Sherman Paulson pondered the blinking button on his phone console for several seconds.
As campaign manager for a couple of up-and-coming voices vying for careers in California politics, he was used to problem solving. Exceled at it, actually.
"Mrs. Barbour? Sherman Paulson here." As he usually did when faced with adversity, he feigned a cheerful tone.
"I've got Kent in my office again, Mr. Paulson." His son's principal did not sound at all happy.
Pinching his nose between his eyebrows, Sherman asked, "What has he done this time?" Kent had promised, when Sherman had dropped him off that morning, that there'd be no more trouble.
"He pushed another student into a wall," the school principal said. "The other boy has a bump on his head."
"Did you ask him what the other boy did first?"
"I know what he did." Mrs. Paulson's tone didn't change. "The boy cut in front of him in line. Your son didn't use his words, Mr. Paulson. He didn't try to resolve the situation in a healthy manner. He went straight into attack mode."
Sherman wished like hell he couldn't picture exactly what Mrs. Barbour meant.
"We're willing to work with you, sir. We understand the difficulty of your situation and we sympathize, wholeheartedly "
Yada, yada, yada, she might as well have been saying. In the two years since his wife's sudden and unexpected death due to a drunk driver, Sherman was accustomed to hearing similar sympathetic sentiments. And wasn't sure what any of them meant in real life where pain was a burning hell that never let up.
" but my hands are tied on this one," the woman said, her tone changing, empathy losing out to authority. "I'm afraid that I've had to suspend Kent for the next week."
"But " What in the hell was he going to do with the boy? He had to work. Had appointments and power lunches, schmoozing calls to make, and only six months to make miracles happen if he wanted a hope in hell of winning the position he sought as a state senate campaign manager. A job that paid far more than his current position working for local politicians.
"I'm sorry, sir, but policies are policies. Kent was the first one to make physical contact and the other boy has a visible wound as a result. I have no choice but to suspend him."
Sherman wouldn't have his job for a day if he accepted "no" at face value. "I understand your policies and support them completely," he began. "I'm not asking or expecting you to make an exception in our case." He continued the soothing litany he'd learned to employ in situations like this. "I understand that Kent has to be removed from his normal classroom for the requisite number of days "
Deal with the problem at hand, he reminded himself, his steel-like mental control serving him, as well, as always. One step at a time.
"But I don't think a week's vacation from school is the reward my son needs at the moment," he continued, homing in on the meat of the problem because it was the only way to find a workable solution. "Is there someplace else there he can sit for the five days he's earned of solitary confinement?" he asked. "A guidance counselor's office or."
Your office, he was thinking. He had a goal in mind.
Keep his son at school. And safe.
In an environment where he couldn't possibly get into any more trouble. At least for a few days.
"Just a little desk someplace where he won't have anything to distract him from the schoolwork he's there to do. If he gets to leave school, he's going to view this as a win."
Sherman might not know how to control Kent's personality change since his mother's tragic death, but he knew his son well enough to know that Kent wanted out of school more than just about anything else on earth.
Other than knowing that the drunk who'd killed his mother was paying for the crime. They just had to find the guy first.
Sherman was working on that, too. When he could. As he could. However he could. But Kent, in his ten-year-old way, didn't yet understand that a political science degree didn't give Sherman the tools to find a killer who'd eluded the police. He had to identify him first, and that was something no one had been able to do as of yet.
All they knew was that he'd been driving a stolen car. And there'd been an almost-empty fifth of whiskey in the vehicle.
The pause on the line had grown in the space of Sherman's mental wandering.
Big mistakeallowing his mind to wander in the middle of a negotiation.
A bid for help and support.
The principal sighed, relaxing Sherman's spine just a tad.
"All right, Mr. Paulson. Starting Monday, for one week, I'll see that Kent gets his education from here, in our office, but I don't think for one second that his time with me is going to solve his problems."
Of course it wasn't. She was just a step.
To provide the way to get to the next step.
Or, in this case, to give him time to figure out what in the hell the next step would be.
* * *
While she had a joint degree in fashion merchandising and design, Talia still had more than a year of work left on her degree in psychology. She was due to graduate in December and was determined to make that happen. She'd thought maybe she'd teach someday, if she could find a school system that would hire an ex-stripper, but somehow her life had once again redefined itself. Without any conscious direction on her part, she'd become someone new. A collage expert.
The idea had come to her after spending time with some of the residents at the Lemonade Stand, the domestic violence shelter her little sister had lived at the previous year.
Inspired by the notion that she might be able to help some of the women who'd befriended Tatum, she'd designed a program that used collage as a means of self-expression. To her surprise she'd discovered that the same skill that served her well in the fashion industryan ability to see past the clothes on a body to the person they reflectedwas an asset for collage reading, as well. Through her collage work, she'd been hoping to help women find their value within rather than relying on their outer beauty to give them their sense of worth. If victims could let go of their negative self-images and replace them with visuals of things that spoke to them, things that made them feel good, things that they liked, perhaps that would help them on their way to starting a new life. Her hope was that once the women realized their inner beauty they would gain the confidence to express themselves and make positive outward choices. Her work jibed with the Lemonade Stand's philosophy to give battered women a sense of their value to counteract the damage abuse had done to their psyches.
And somehow, the program had branched out. She was working with kids now, too. Test-running the concept in a total of six elementary schools. Her initial plan had been to present a variation of her Lemonade Stand workshop to high-school girls, with the idea to help them love their inner selves so they didn't give in to the pressure to feel that their value came from how they looked. So that they could make fashion and life choices that expressed their personalities rather than their sexuality. Such a class might have saved her life in high school.
And could have helped Tatum, too.
But the school board wanted her to start on a smaller scale, with both girls and boys, in elementary-level art classes. She'd been thrilled to win that much support and knew that a reference from her new sister-in-law, Sedona Malone, who was a well-respected lawyer in their community, had gone a long way to making this happen.
Collages were glimpses into the soul of those who made them. Or at least glimpses into their lives, their perspectives.
So what would a collage Kent made look like?
At an isolated desk against the far wall in the outer area of the principal's office, the little kid from that morning sat up straight with attitude emanating out of every pore of his body. Talia glanced at the woman by her side, Carina Forsythe, the art teacher in whose classes she'd been working all day.
"That's him," she said, having told the woman about the disturbing scene she'd witnessed that morning, wondering if maybe she could help. As a professional.
The boy might not even be her Kent. All day she'd wondered, going back and forth in her mind with certainty that he was, and then with just as much certainty that the chance of him having been in the hallway at the exact moment that she'd been wondering about him was little more than nil.
"Kent Paulson." Carina's young brow furrowed as she identified the student. Talia noticed the little details of those lines on the woman's forehead. Focused on them as her lungs squeezed the air out of her body.
He was her boy her son. She'd found him. No one could know.
" should have seen him a couple of years ago. He was everyone's favoritenot that we really have favoritesit's just that he was precocious, smart and so polite, too. But after his mother was killed "
His adopted mother.
Talia had no idea if Kent knew that Brooke wasn't his biological mother. Oh, my God. My son!
She glanced at the boy again. And couldn't look away. Was it possible that an invisible umbilical cord ran between them? One that hadn't been severed when she'd picked up that pen ten years ago and signed her name, severing her rights to her own flesh and blood?
She tried to speak but her throat wouldn't work.
"Anyway, you'd said you wanted to work with troubled kids, and I think it sounds like a good idea. Mrs. B.'s in her office. Why don't you go talk to her?"
"I will " The dryness in her throat choked her, and she coughed. Until she started to choke. Carina led her to a nearby drinking fountain. She sipped. Coughed some more.
And was finally able to suck air into her too-tight lungs.