Just One Kiss

 

Advised by his son’s school to up his game as a single parent, arrogant ex-baseball star, Rusty Reisse, takes a hiatus from his broadcasting career to spend the summer with his son.

Rusty hopes to bond with Tommy in rural Pine Grove. His plan blows up when Meg Gunderson, a brainiac schoolteacher, shows up with her son, claiming the house is hers. When police compare receipts, they discover Rusty and Meg have rented the same house.

A widow, Meg, schemes to get Rusty out. He’s equally determined to send her packing. Although a war of words ensues, the boys become friends. Obligated to share the digs for the duration, they’re forced to declare a reluctant truce.

While no longer openly hostile, they still snipe at each other, too stubborn to admit their growing attraction. When their vacation ends abruptly, will their chemistry vanish, too, with the summer sun and corn-on-the cob?

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Chapter One

Rusty shifted in his seat across the desk from the school social worker.

“Mr. Reisse, your son needs you,” said Sylvia Kaplan.

“He’s got me.”

She shook her head. “He’s acting out in the classroom, and at recess. If you don’t take some action, I’ll be forced to recommend services for him.”

“Services? Like putting him in foster care?” Rusty rose halfway out of his chair.

“Like sending him to spend time with me and the district psychiatrist. I’m sure you’d rather give him private care.”

“He doesn’t need a shrink. He’s just a normal boy.”

Again, she shook her head.

“Not exactly. Tommy’s good at heart—but he needs attention. With your wife gone to make films in Europe…”

“My ex-wife.”

“And you working twenty-four seven, the boy’s lonely. Do you read to him every night at bedtime, Mr. Reisse?”

“After the game, it’s too late. He’s asleep.”

“Who takes care of him while you’re away?”

“His aunt. Sometimes a babysitter.”

“He needs you, Mr. Reisse. His father.”

“I have to work.”

“I suggest you take time off.”

“How much time?”

“As much as possible. You’re not a poor man. Could you manage the summer?”

He raised his eyebrows.

“The whole summer off?”

“That’s right. Get a cabin in the woods. Away from the television and video games. Just the two of you. Read to him. Fish. Hunt, if you must. Teach him baseball. Anything. Just spend time with him.”

“What about my job?”

Mrs. Kaplan smiled at him. “Come now. You’re telling me the famous Rusty Reisse, two- time World Series MVP, can’t get a couple of months hiatus or sabbatical, or whatever you’d call it from your broadcasting job?”

Rusty swallowed. This woman was a ballbuster. She could take on any pitcher and hit it out of the park. What chance did he stand?

“Do you love your son, Mr. Reisse?” Her gentle tone turned harsh.

“Of course, I love my son.”

“Then try putting him first.” She pushed to her feet.

“But I—”

“The boy is not beyond help. But he needs it now. If you let this summer go by, I will take action in the fall.”

Rusty stood up. “And where do you suggest I find such a place?”

“You have many resources, I’m sure. You’re well off, you must know thousands of people. Find a place. Do it for Tommy.”

“And? If I do?”

“Let me know. I’ll expect weekly emails from you reporting on your progress. His progress, really.”

“Weekly?”

She bent over the desk and made direct eye contact. “Don’t you get it, Mr. Reisse? Your son is slipping away—heading to a bad place. I’m trying to save him.”

“Okay, okay. I admit he’s been a little difficult lately.”

She raised her eyebrows. “A little difficult?” She picked up a small stack of papers. “Do you know exactly how many times he’s been sent to the principal’s office?”

Rusty cringed.

“Of course, you don’t want to know. He’s only eight, Mr. Reisse. If you don’t pay attention to him now, those could be trips to juvenile detention by the time he’s thirteen.”

Fear spiked through Rusty. “Okay. I got it. Cabin in the woods. Weekly email.”

Mrs. Kaplan smiled at him. “Good. I know you can do anything you set your mind to.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” He attempted to smile, failed, and left her office.

Rusty made his way to his office, near Tommy’s private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He plopped down at his desk. Turning to face the huge windows behind him, he simply stared, trying to take in what Mrs. Kaplan had said.

His secretary, Bernadette, rattled off Rusty’s obligations for the week. “Here are your messages. And the schedule for next week. Five interviews. Also your schedule for training camp. Harry wants to see you.”

“Thanks.” Feeling numb, Rusty made his way into the head of the network’s office.

“Rusty. It’s about time. Where have you been?”

“At school.”

“What?”

As if someone had lit a match to his foot, Rusty jumped to life. “Harry! My kid’s in trouble. He’s failing. He’s losing it. I need to take off July and August.”

“July and August? What about training camp? What about the new season?”

“Get someone else to cover it.”

“But you’re Rusty Reisse.”

Rusty pounded his fist once on Harry’s enormous desk. “Didn’t you hear me, Harry. I said Tommy’s in trouble. I’m taking time off. He needs me. Fire me, if you want to. But I’m leaving now. I’ll be back in September.”

Harry leaped to his feet.

“Why you can’t do that! You have a contract with us.”

“Then sue me. It’s my kid, Harry. Nothing’s more important than Tommy.”

“You son-of-a-bitch.”

“Are you kiddin’ me? My son. My kid. I thought you’d understand.”

Harry sank down in his chair. “Really? You’re not shittin’ me? Tommy?”

“Yeah. I didn’t see it. But the social worker read me the riot act. So I’m taking time for him. That’s it. No compromise. No discussion. You’re a father. Don’t you get it?”

Harry’s tone softened. “I do. I do get it. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I’m gonna take him away for a while. Just the two of us.”

“Okay. Keep in touch. We’ll cover for you. We’ll figure something out.”

“Talk to Bernadette. She knows everything and everyone. Thanks, Harry. I appreciate it.”

“You’ll be back in September?” Harry stood up.

“I will.”

“Good luck.” The men shook hands

Rusty returned to his office, packed up, and stopped at his secretary’s desk.

“You can reach me by cell phone or email. But only if it’s a dire emergency. I’ll be gone until September.”

“September?” Her eyebrows rose.

“Yeah. Don’t ask. Keep it together for me,” he said, patting her cheek.

“I’ll try.”

Rusty headed for his favorite restaurant, “The Goal Line.” He sat at the bar and ordered Chivas Regal on the rocks and a burger. After knocking off one drink, he nursed a second, waiting for his food. A slap on the back drew his attention. It was Fred Carter, his old college buddy. The two men had gone through divorces together.

“Hey, Rusty. You’re here early.”

“Got some bad news.”

“What happened?”

Rusty explained his predicament. “It’s June fifteenth. Where the hell am I going to find a cabin in the country now?” He took a sip.

“I just might be able to help you.”

“You?”

“Roberta and I bought a little place in Pine Grove, years ago. It was supposed to be our weekend getaway. Yeah, back when we were still talking. Anyway. We’re still talking settlement, and she forgot about it. It’s community property. I have the right to rent it out, if I want to. And I’ll give it to you cheap.”

“How big is it?”

“It’s two bedrooms, fully furnished, and two grand for the whole summer.”

“Really?”

“Yep. For an old buddy.”

“That’s great. I’ll take it. Do you want a check now?”

“Why not?”

Rusty whipped out his checkbook and scratched out the rent. He handed it to Fred.

“Roberta can’t throw us out, can she?”

Fred shook his head. “Nope. Now you’re set. Hope you and Tommy have a great time.”

“Me, too.” Rusty rubbed the back of his neck.

 

* * * *

 

Across town, Meg Gunderson, second-grade teacher, sent her class out to recess. She busied herself putting away supplies, hanging up smocks, and tidying up her classroom. She had the neatest one in her grade. Smiling with pride as she put things away, she answered a knock.

“Roberta, come in.”

“I have the plans for the end-of-year party. Just wanted to run them by you,” Roberta Carter said, entering the room.

The two women huddled together by the teacher’s desk, examining papers. When they were finished, Meg sighed. “Looks great.”

Roberta stuffed the plans back in her shoulder bag. “How are you?”

“I’m okay. But summer is a big question mark.”

“I thought you were going to take a group of kids to the Adirondacks.”

“It fell through.”

“Weren’t you talking about going away with your boyfriend?”

“Changed my mind. Charlie doesn’t like him. It wouldn’t work.”

“Hmm. How about spending the summer in my cabin in Pine Grove?”

“You have a cabin?”

“Fred doesn’t know, but I’m getting custody of it in the divorce. It’s a lovely place. Two large bedrooms. Fully furnished. You know my taste.”

“I can give it to you for a bargain price. Twelve hundred for the whole summer.”

“Twelve hundred? That’s cheap.”

“You deserve a break. You’re the best teacher the twins have ever had.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s the least I can do.”

“It’s very kind of you. I’ll take it. Charlie’ll love being in the country.”

“And you, too.”

“Where is Pine Grove.”

“About two hours northwest of the City. Rural. Quiet.”

“Perfect. After this crazy year, I need the rest.”

“I’ll show you on a map.”

Roberta whipped out her phone and Googled a map of western New York state. The two women pored over the picture while Roberta filled Meg in on things to do in Pine Grove.

“Sounds ideal. Charlie and I need some down time.”

Roberta patted Meg’s arm. “It’s been hard for you, losing John. Raising Charlie alone.”

Meg sighed. Her eyes filled. “I miss him so much. So does Charlie.”

The children returned to the classroom, ending the conversation between the women. Meg couldn’t wait to tell her young son about their summer adventure.

She picked him up from his classroom, and they headed for home. On their walk, her mind conjured up projects and experiments they could do over the summer.

“And you’re going to love being in the country. We can test the water for bacteria. We can catch frogs to keep for the summer. Maybe even a snake.”

“A snake? Mom, how come you’re the only mother who isn’t afraid of snakes?”

She’d laughed. “Maybe because I grew up studying them. They’re really cool. You’ll see.”

Charlie asked a million questions on their way home. His interest in their new home for the summer lifted Meg’s spirits. Being a mother and father to her son weighed her down from time to time. This trip would be a relief.

Meg, a former high school science teacher, now taught elementary school. After her husband died in a car crash, she took time off to take courses in early childhood education. She went back to work in a public school where Charlie was enrolled.

Charlie watched “Bill Nye, the Science Guy” while she fixed dinner. While she stirred spaghetti sauce, she created a mental list of books and equipment to bring.

“Mom, can we get a dog?”

“A dog? Charlie, I have enough to handle as it is.”

The boy frowned.

“Maybe someday. But not now. Besides, you’ll have plenty of animals around when we get to the country.”

“When are we going?” He twirled some pasta with his fork.

“As soon as school is over.”

“How much longer?”

“Two weeks.”

He hung his head. Meg leaned over to hug him. “I know. But it’ll go fast.”

He looked up into her eyes and she smiled. For the first time since John’s death, she had something to look forward to.

“We’re gonna have a great time.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”