by Kenna White
Ros McClure knows that she’s well-qualified and deserves the promotion the university has promised. But she didn’t expect that the good ol’ boys network would be standing in her way. She’s willing to stubbornly wait a little longer, but a family emergency is drawing her back to a time and a place she’d rather leave in her past.
Stacy Hagen has been a high school biology teacher for nearly three decades. Living in a small Kansas farm town, she can multitask like nobody’s business. Farmer, tennis coach, part-time housepainter—she can do it all. What she hasn’t been able to do is find the love of her life.
When their paths cross again after twenty-five years, will old secrets finally be exposed? Or will hearts be broken once again…
FROM THE AUTHOR
"A little piece of family heritage fit so perfectly into the book I couldn’t ignore it. The reference to the Ash Rock Church, its location, and the details of its history are all true. Although I changed his name, my great-grandfather built it on the Kansas prairie nearly 150 years ago and it still stands today, a testament to the simplicity of its design and the dedication of the craftsmanship."
Pin's Reviews - It is a quite nicely done slow-burn age gap romance with believable and likable main characters. Kenna White writes about real and down-to-earth problems (too much work, aging, loneliness, illness...), and because of that, all of her characters also seem real and it is easy to recognize ourselves in them. Overall, a good book, and I will continue to read further books by this author.
Ros McClure finished her speech welcoming department members to Carla Sweeney’s retirement reception. As Mrs. Sweeney’s assistant it was her job to lavish praise on her accomplishments and years of service to the university. That didn’t mean she had to like doing it. Giving speeches wasn’t the issue. Accepting a new boss was. When Dean Chang stepped to the microphone to welcome Steve Hansinger as the university’s new chief internal auditor Ros moved through the crowd and out the door into the hall. She had done her duty. She didn’t need to stay for punch and appetizers. And she certainly didn’t need to stay for the inevitable questions about her status with the university and how long she had been with the department.
Carla was an intelligent, dedicated, demanding at times but charming woman. And a pleasure to work for. When Ros came to the university, fresh out of college herself, Carla was already a force to be reckoned with. When she became head of the department she had been the one to recommend Ros for the job as her assistant. Now she was leaving and the entire department would be the lesser for it.
Ros walked to the end of the hall, pressed the elevator button, and waited for it to whisk her to her office on the eighth floor. A few hours of work would hopefully return her jovial mood and put this day behind her. If nothing else it offered a safe haven from the anger she felt.
“Come on, come on, come on,” she muttered under her breath and pressed the button again. Ros wasn’t a drinker but if there was ever a time for a stiff one, this was it. She would now have to answer to someone with little to no experience with internal auditing, someone the university seemed to think was the man for the job.
“That was fun,” a woman said, joining Ros to wait for the elevator.
“The buffet was nice,” the woman said after an awkward silence.
“Yes, nice.” Ros clenched her jaw.
The door opened to an empty elevator. They stepped in and pressed the six and eight buttons. Distant refrains of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” could be heard until the door closed and they started up. It was a slow ride to the sixth floor accompanied only by the hum of the motor and the chime of the passing floors. When the door opened the woman stepped out, but before it could close she reached out to stop it.
“Ros, I’m really sorry. It’s not fair,” she said with a pained expression. “That job should have been yours.”
“Thank you,” Ros said with quiet reserve. She pressed the button for the eighth floor as if signaling her to release the door.
Once at her desk, Ros sat staring at her computer screen. She usually left her office door open to encourage the circulation of fresh air, but doing that today meant she would be able to see across the hall into Mrs. Sweeney’s office. Or rather what would soon be Steve’s office. No, she wasn’t ready to think of him as Mr. Hansinger. He hadn’t reached that pinnacle. He would be her boss and she’d show him respect. But he had been promoted despite Ros’s obvious qualifications and experience to the job she assumed would be hers.
He needed to put in two more years at the university to pad his pension and Social Security and the good old boys network found the perfect place to hide him until his retirement. He had been assistant to the assistant in the Student Financial Aid Department long enough. Carla Sweeney’s retirement had provided the solution. Carla had told Ros how much the university appreciated her work ethic and knew she’d carry on that tradition. Meaning Ros would be assistant to a man who knew nothing about the internal auditing department, her workload would increase, and he would take credit for everything that went well.
A tap at her door brought her back to reality.
“Did you know Dean Chang has a long hyphenated name? Beson-Thorpe-Chang or something like that. Can you believe it?” a young woman said as she entered Ros’s office with an armload of papers. “I wonder if I should put a couple of hyphens in my name.”
“I beg your pardon.” Ros was trying to read an email.
“I could be…” She thought a moment. “Laurel Marie Anderson-Rink,” she announced and placed the papers on Ros’s desk. “My mother’s second husband was John Rink. I didn’t like him, but she seemed to. That’s why I just use Anderson. But hey. If a hyphen gets me attention, why not?”
“You can add that to your résumé for your next employer,” Ros said without looking up at her. Laurel seemed to read the disapproval on Ros’s face as she tried to concentrate and returned to her desk without another word.
“Ros, are you in your office?” a male voice called.
“Yes, I am,” she replied without much interest. She was busy.
“There was a call for you. They called twice. No, three times, but didn’t leave a message.” When she didn’t reply, he added. “It was a woman. Older woman, I think.”
“Did you get a name?” Ros stepped back into her shoes and headed to his desk in the office lobby. She had been nursing a stress-driven headache for three hours and didn’t feel like playing twenty questions with a graduate student more interested in texting his friends than doing his job.
“Uh, I don’t remember. Barbara? Betty? Brenda?”
“Rick, the key to answering a phone call is to get a name, a message, and perhaps write it down. Now, let’s try again. What did the woman say?”
“Okay, she sounded sort of, you know, frustrated and a little, you know, scatterbrained. When I told her you weren’t here she wanted to know where you were and when you’d be back. I wasn’t sure that was any of her business so I said I didn’t know.”
“Was it someone on campus?”
“I don’t think so. I got the idea it was someone out of town. She said something about a different time zone.”
“And you didn’t think to ask who it was?” Ros rubbed her fingertips across her forehead at the twinge of pain vying for her attention. “Could it have been Bonnie?”
“Bonnie? Yeah, yeah, it could have been,” he agreed, pleased with himself for the revelation. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was Bonnie.”
“My Aunt Bonnie from Kansas? Do you remember what she wanted?”
“Ya know, I don’t think she said. She was a little aggravated you weren’t here. I remember that.”
“Did you ask her what she wanted?”
“I’m sure I did.”
“So, my Aunt Bonnie called three times, didn’t leave a message, and seemed upset about something.”
“Is she the one who sent the five pounds of buffalo jerky for Christmas?” he asked through a chuckle.
“Yes.” Ros returned to her office.
“If she calls again, do you want me to ask what she wants?” he shouted.
“Absolutely.” But she was already pressing the contact button on her cell phone. After several rings the voice mail picked up. “Aunt Bonnie, this is Ros. I’m sorry I missed your call. I was in a meeting. You should have my cell phone number on your phone if you want to call back. I’ll be in my office until six thirty today. That’s five thirty your time. Again, I’m sorry I missed you.”
Ros was always sorry when she missed one of Bonnie’s calls although sometimes her timing was lousy. The reasons for her call could be anything from world apocalypse to spilt coffee grounds on the carpet, but Ros felt a pang of guilt nonetheless. There was no doubt Bonnie would call back.
It was well past six thirty when Ros shut down her computer and decided to call it a day. She hadn’t been as productive as she intended, but between the retirement reception, Bonnie’s fruitless attempts at contacting her, and the headache small accomplishments were better than none. The office was empty when she turned out the light and closed the door. Most of her coworkers who attended the reception hadn’t returned to work that afternoon. It was just as well. She accomplished more when she wasn’t bothered by incessant questions and banal chitchat.
As she waited for the elevator she contemplated calling Bonnie again. She’d probably be eating dinner. It was Friday. She’d be with her friends at the Welcome Home Café on the south side of town having the senior chicken fried steak plate with mashed potatoes. It was tradition. Four women, all retired and widowed, sharing a weekly get-together to gab about weather, local events, and family.
Ros slipped her phone in her jacket pocket, resigned to calling Bonnie later. They had talked twice this week and about nothing urgent. Bonnie had been trying to decide on a new trim color for the front porch and vacillating between white walls with sage green trim and yellow walls with white trim. Ros didn’t know why her approval was needed.
Ros stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the lobby. As always, it would be a slow methodical descent to the ground floor. She normally considered it wasted time, but on stressful days like today, it gave a few moments to gather herself together and decompress. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead as her headache deepened. Home. That’s where she wished she was. Home, in her baggy sweatpants and T-shirt, curled up in her chair with a cup of herbal tea. Before she could finish the thought, the lights blinked and the elevator jerked to a stop. She braced her hand against the wall as it gave another jerk.
“Oh, come on. Don’t do this. Not today,” she grumbled, tapping the lobby button repeatedly. “I’ve got places to go and things to accomplish and they do not include being stuck in an elevator.” She pressed the button again and held it, but the elevator didn’t move. “I don’t have the patience for this today.” She waited a moment, expecting something to happen. But there was only silence.
“Damnit,” she shouted as if someone could hear. “Damnit, damnit, damnit,” she repeated systematically pressing every button on the panel. When still nothing happened, she opened the door on the control panel, expecting to find an emergency phone connected to the campus police or fire department. But there wasn’t one. She pressed the red emergency button, expecting to hear an alarm. Nothing. She pressed it again, assuming it sent a warning signal to the powers that be. “Okay, this isn’t fun anymore. I’d like to be rescued,” she called out. “Today, if possible.”
She pulled out her cell phone, pressed the main number to the campus switchboard, and listened to the automated system offer her choices.
“Campus Security,” she said and listened while the system connected her call.
“Security, Damon Stewart speaking.”
“Mr. Stewart, this is Ros McClure. I am stuck in the elevator between the sixth and seventh floor. Would you please notify the campus fire department so they can extricate me?”
“You’re in an elevator on your way to the seventh floor?”
“No, I’m stuck in an elevator. Elevator number two.”
“On campus. I work in the Auditor’s Office. Could you please get me some help?”
“What building?” The man seemed overwhelmed with too much information and it was adding to Ros’s exasperation.
“Mr. Stewart, how many buildings on campus have more than five floors?”
“Oh. Just the Maxwell Administration Building I guess.”
“And you want me to call someone to get you out?”
“That’s right. Very good. Now, I’m going to hang up so you can use your phone to call the fire department and get me some help. How does that sound?” she said, unable to hide her sarcasm.
“Is there a fire in the elevator?”
“No, Mr. Stewart, I am in the elevator. The fire department is trained for this kind of rescue.” This man’s ineptitude was eroding the last of her tolerance for the day.
“I’ll get this reported right away, ma’am,” he said but without much conviction. He hung up. Ros would have been more reassured of a timely rescue had he asked for her phone number so she could be kept apprised on what to expect and when.
Thirty minutes had passed with no word. No tapping on the wall. No shouting from the elevator shaft. No reassuring communication of any kind. Ros wasn’t surprised but still frustrated. She was poised to call Security for an update when an incoming call flashed across the screen. She didn’t mean to answer it, but her finger pressed the Accept button.
“Hello, Aunt Bonnie.”
“Hello, honey. I got your message. How are you?”
“I’m fine. How are you?” She’d give her aunt two minutes to find out what she had called about earlier, in case it was important. Then she’d excuse herself and hang up.
“My daffodils are blooming like crazy. I love yellow flowers in the spring.”
“No, it isn’t. They’re predicting temperatures to drop overnight. It’s going to nip those blooms, I’m sure. Do you have any spring flowers yet?”
“Not that I’ve noticed. My apartment building doesn’t have much green space.”
“When are you coming to visit, honey?”
“I’m not sure. Things have been busy at work. It may not be until late summer or maybe in the fall.” Ros pressed the elevator buttons again for good measure.
“You’re coming for the class reunion I assume. Meredith Eason had a thing in the paper about it. She’s the editor, you know. She said it’s your twenty-fifth reunion.” Bonnie gave a wicked little laugh. “I remember you and Meredith had a slumber party and snuck out the bedroom window. You got caught putting toilet paper all over someone’s yard.”
Bonnie was wafting. And as much as she’d like to entertain one of her aunt’s strolls down memory lane Ros didn’t have time or tolerance for it while stuck in an elevator after having to congratulate an unqualified man for being given a job that should have been hers. And memories of Meredith Eason and high school weren’t anything she wanted to take a stroll with today either.
“Aunt Bonnie, I’ve got to…”
“What do you think of the color beige?” Bonnie asked.
Before Ros could exit the conversation Bonnie had found a new path that seemed to demand an answer.
“Beige for what?” Ros tried to show patience.
“The house, of course. On my way home from dinner with the gals this evening I drove by that new house out on South Franklin. You know the one with the circle drive. The grass is finally coming in, but they need to plant some shrubs. That yard is as bald as a wheat field in December. Anyway, I noticed they painted the trim a light beige. I always liked beige. I think beige would look good, don’t you?”
“Beige is okay. A light sandy beige maybe. Aunt Bonnie, I’ve got to go.”
“Sandy beige. That sounds better. Wet sand. I like that.” Bonnie took hold of Ros’s suggestion as if it was gospel. “Oh, yes. Wet sandy beige.”
“I thought you decided on yellow walls and white trim.” Ros wasn’t sure why she mentioned it. Being stuck in an elevator was more pressing than arguing over paint colors. She leaned her forehead against the wall, praying for an opening in the conversation so she could end it.
“Yes, yellow and white is so fresh looking. I’ve always liked yellow with white trim. Maybe you’d like your bedroom painted yellow with white trim. I remember in high school you wanted every wall in your bedroom painted a different color. That was the wildest assortment of colors I’d ever seen.”
It was Bonnie who had thought painting each wall a different color might be a fun thing to do, but Ros wasn’t going to bring that up. Not now. There was no point in arguing with her.
“Aunt Bonnie, I’ve got to go. You know how it is when you’re busy.”
“Indeed I do. I’ve got a load in the washer, one in the dryer, and clean sheets that won’t make the bed themselves. Now you’re coming for the reunion, aren’t you? It’s an important year. You can tell a lot about people after twenty-five years. Remember that boy in your class with the retarded sister? Johnny something or other. Everyone thought he was going to do great things. Well, he’s in county jail for stealing a pickup truck.”
“John Hock. And his sister wasn’t retarded. She had muscular dystrophy. It was great visiting with you, Aunt Bonnie. I’ll talk with you again soon. Bye-bye.”
Ros hung up before Bonnie could steer the conversation in a new direction. If there was important news, she would have already mentioned it. Beige paint and her high school class reunion didn’t warrant further conversation. Later she’d decide how best to tell Bonnie she wasn’t attending the reunion. But not today.
She placed another call to the switchboard, asked again for Campus Security, and waited for Damon to answer.
“Security, Damon Stewart speaking,”
“Damon, this is Ros McClure again. I’m the one stuck in the elevator. Remember me?”
“Oh, yes. I reported it to the campus police. They’re supposed to be taking care of that.”
“Did you call the fire department also?”
“I report directly to the campus police.”
“So, no, you didn’t.” She took a deep exasperated breath. “Is everyone conspiring against me today?” she mumbled. “Okay, Damon, open your computer screen to the telephone registry and read me the number for the campus fire department.”
“But I already reported your incident.”
“It has been forty-six minutes since I called you and I have heard nothing. So I want you to read me the phone number for the campus fire department and I want you to do it now,” she said in a soft but demanding tone.
Sure enough, the fire department had only just received notice someone was trapped in the elevator, leaving her to wonder how long Damon had waited before reporting it.
“We’ll have someone there in ten minutes, ma’am. Will you need an ambulance?” the dispatcher asked.
“No. No ambulance. Just an open elevator door.”
“We can do that, ma’am. Don’t worry. We’ll have you out of there before you know it. Would you like to stay on the line with me until they arrive?”
“If you mean am I claustrophobic and ready to pull my hair out, no.”
“No, Ms. McClure, that’s not what I meant,” he said with a chuckle. “Although some people do have a problem with tight spaces.”
Ros was encouraged by the man’s professionalism and attentiveness to her situation. Maybe rescue was on the way.
True to his word, within a few minutes the elevator door had been pried open and several firefighters in helmets and rescue gear were staring down through the gap between the door and the floor above.
“Ms. McClure?” A woman lowered herself through the partial opening. “Are you okay, ma’am?” Another fireman handed down a folding chair.
“If you’re here to get me out I am.”
“Will you need assistance? We can hoist you through the opening.”
“No, you hold the chair and I think I can make it.”
Thankful she was wearing slacks and top that didn’t make for an embarrassing climb, Ros didn’t take long to scramble up and out of the elevator even though she wasn’t necessarily athletic. She thanked the rescue team, descended the staircase to the lobby, and crossed campus to the parking lot as the last glimmer of sunlight faded from the evening sky. She started her car, buckled her seat belt, and switched on the headlights, but before pulling out she closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the steering wheel. It had been a long, tiring, and frustrating day. One of those days that curdled her nerves. It dawned on her she’d probably have to climb the stairs to her office on Monday. She shook her head and began to laugh.
“T G I F!” she shouted.