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His guard unit's tour of duty in Afghanistan had prepared Neal Hazard to face just about anything. Except, evidently, returning to the classroom after seventeen years. He looked down the hall of the main building of the Ticonderoga campus of North Country Community College and wiped his hands on his jeans. How had he ever let his daughter, Autumn, talk him into starting college?
"Hey, Dad," Autumn called from behind him.
Just what he didn't need, more of her help.
She hurried over, followed by a young man and woman. "This is Sean and Lindsay."
He nodded to the couple. He wanted to know Autumn's friends, but he wanted to get this advising meeting over with.
"So, did you meet with your advisor?"
"No, I'm on my way to her office now." He took a step toward the room.
"Have you gotten your books yet?"
Autumn's voice took on the oh-so-patient tone he'd often used with her when she was small. "You know NCCC has a virtual bookstore. You could order them online and have the books shipped to the house. I could stop by later and help you."
"I don't even have my schedule finalized yet. But I'm sure I can handle it." I handled the transport of supplies for hundreds of troops. I can order a few books online.
Autumn wrinkled her nose.
"Bummer," Sean said. "That happened to me my first semester. The schedule thing. The biology book had to be back ordered, so I didn't have it for the first few days of classes." He squeezed the hand of the girl next to him. "Fortunately, Lindsay let me share her book until mine came." The boy gave Neal a knowing look.
Neal coughed to hide the chuckle that erupted deep in his belly. He didn't think he'd be making the kind of social connections Sean was intimating.
"And, Dad," Autumn said. "Keep next Friday night free."
Neal racked his brain for what they had going on next Friday and came up blank.
"Us upperclassmen are hosting a get-together for the freshmen at the Saranac Lake student center." She grinned at him with the smile she'd used a thousand times before to wheedle something out of him.
She must be razzing him. She couldn't think he'd go to a party for a bunch of eighteen-year-old kids.
"Or, if you can't make it, maybe your truck could? Jack's scheduled to be on call with the tow truck that night, so I don't have any transportation."
Jack was Autumn's longtime boyfriend and nearly constant companion. Her socializing without him wasn't a bad idea, even if it involved Neal's truck. "Sure, I can't see any reason why not. I don't have any plans."
"Thanks, Dad." She hugged him.
He pulled away with an uncomfortable feeling that people were staring at them.
"You could come with me. You know, since you're not doing anything anyway." Again with the smile.
Why didn't he have a normal kid who was embarrassed by her parents and avoided them in public? "I'll think about it."
Neal Hazard. Anne Howard read the pop-up on her computer alerting her to her next student appointment. Her thoughts went back to her sophomore year of high school. She and her mother had spent that year with her grandmother in Paradox Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, not far from North Country Community College. Her parents had separated—again.
A Neal Hazard had been her practice partner for the Schroon Lake High School Science Olympiad team. She did the math. Her student appointment could be Neal's son. If so, he was taking after his dad. Anne remembered that Neal had wanted to be an environmental engineer.
A knock on her open office door drew her attention.
"Dr. Howard?" An attractive man about her age strode across her office and offered his hand.
Anne rose to accept it.
"I'm Neal Hazard."
Her hand went limp in his, and his smile stiffened.
Of course. The sandy brown hair, short and neat in an almost military style. Hazel eyes that had held hers in a virtual vise. He was taller, broader than the last time she'd seen him. But he'd been seventeen then. He must be thirty-six now.
She tightened her grip and finished the handshake. "Anne O'Connor Howard." She waited to see if the use of her maiden name would elicit a reaction.
He blinked. "Annie? Annie O'Connor?" His smile widened.
Her heart quickened. He did remember her.
"I never would have recognized you."
"It's been a long time." She motioned him to the seat in front of her desk. "We can catch up while we wait for your son."
She wouldn't have pegged the Neal Hazard she'd known in high school to become a helicopter parent, but who was she to judge—as long as he didn't interfere with her curriculum. If he'd followed his college plans, he'd have as many years of environmental engineering experience as she did. But the new environmental studies program was her baby.
"My son?" Confusion spread across his face. "You mean Autumn, my daughter? She's not meeting me here." His expression cleared. "She's a second-year nursing student, not environmental studies."
"Then, why…the appointment?"
He shifted in the chair and tapped his finger on the metal binder he'd placed on her desk in front of him. "For my student advisement."
This Neal was her student Neal Hazard. "What happened?" she blurted, and immediately wanted to crawl under the desk. Michael had schooled her—successfully she'd thought—on curbing her impulsiveness. To be professional at all times.
"I mean, you talked about going to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute." That wasn't any better. Obviously, her training had completely deserted her. But the Neal she'd known had such big plans.
He set his jaw. "Autumn happened. Not that I regret that for a minute."
"I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to be rude." She modulated her voice into her most professional tone. "You're here to have your class schedule approved?"
His masculine features hardened into a neutral expression. "Yes. I took a couple of math and science courses online. The credits transferred, but I need your signature to substitute them for the program requirements to take the 200-level conservation course."
He flipped open the binder and pulled out several papers that he pushed across the desk to her. "My transcripts and proposed schedule."
She scanned the schedule. The only class on it that she was teaching this semester was the conservation one he needed her permission to take. Her gaze moved to the transcripts. Maybe the courses wouldn't match the prerequisites. Then she wouldn't have to have him in her class. Teaching someone she'd dated, even if it was years ago and only a couple of times, wasn't something she was prepared for. Her North Country environmental program was a clean slate, something she wanted to do all on her own, with no baggage from her past.
Her stomach dropped. The classes were interchangeable with the North Country requirements. "The classes look fine. Let me check online registration to see if the conservation class is filled. It was close to full yesterday."
Anne clicked into online registration. The class was closed to additional students, with a waiting list that wasn't long enough to add another session.
"Sorry, it's full," she said a tad too brightly.
Neal raised an eyebrow.
"I can put you on the waiting list. We might be able to work out an independent study if there's not enough to add another session." Preferably taught by someone else.
"Do that." He held her gaze, adding a belated "Please."
She focused back on the computer screen and typed in the necessary information.
"Here you are." She signed his schedule and handed the papers to him. "You can register at Admissions while you're here on campus or do it online."
He stood. "Thanks." Neal paused, his lips parting slightly like he was going to say something else.
"It was good seeing you again," she shot out to fill the momentary silence.
"Yeah, see you around."
Anne slumped in her chair as he turned to leave. She'd been so sure that heading up the environmental studies program had been God's plan for her to get past Michael's sudden death, his infidelity and the shaky business practices it had exposed. A chance to succeed on her own. Neal Hazard was a complication neither her hard thinking nor her prayers could have taken into account. But, as she'd come to understand, she'd read God's desires wrong before.
Neal walked into the kitchen of his parents' house. His home. The familiarity soothed him. But it was time—past time—for him to get a real place of his own. Before Autumn had gotten an apartment in Ticonderoga with her best friend, Jule, living here had made sense. Now, even though he had his own apartment over the garage, it struck him as just plain juvenile.
"Hi." His mother breezed in. "How was school? Did you get all the classes you wanted?"
"All but one." He winced at how similar the conversation was to their usual interchange when he'd come home from high school. Deciding to make up for lost time, to do some of the things he'd missed by becoming a father so young, hadn't meant he wanted to regress to adolescence.
He stopped himself from rummaging in the refrigerator for an after-school snack. "You'll never guess who I ran into."
"Someone from high school? I told you you wouldn't be the only older student."
"That sweet girl you took to the prom?"
Neal tried to remember Anne as she'd looked then. They'd been more friends and teammates than boyfriend and girlfriend. What had attracted him to her was her quick mind. All he could picture was her beautiful waist-length strawberry-blond hair and the ugly glasses that she'd had a habit of repeatedly pushing up on her nose when she was nervous. A far cry from the poised woman he'd met with this afternoon. Her shoulder-length hair had darkened to a rich light brown. And without the glasses, her expressive dark-fringed eyes transformed her looks from average to beautiful.
"Yep, only she's Dr. Howard now, my student advisor."
Mary Hazard made a choking sound and covered her mouth with her hand before bursting out in laughter. "Oh, Neal, seriously? Was it terribly uncomfortable for you?"
Neal scratched the back of his neck. At thirty-six years old, he wasn't up to after-school sharing time with his mom. "Not any more than it was for her. She thought I was my son."
His mother's forehead creased in confusion.
"Now that's an interesting proposition." His very pregnant sister, Emily, waddled into the room. "Like that riddle. Brothers and sisters have I none, but that man's father is my father's son."
"Hey, Jinx." He purposely called her by her childhood nickname to irk her.
She lowered herself into a chair at the table. "Go ahead."
"When Annie—Anne—saw my name, she thought the Neal Hazard she had an appointment with might be my son."
"Oh, no," Mom said.
"So, old man," Emily teased, never missing a chance to point out the eight-year difference in their ages. "Was she surprised when you walked in?"
"No. She thought I was there to meet my son and sit in on her meeting with him. Can you imagine what Autumn would do to me if I tried that?"
Emily faked a shudder. "I don't even want to think about it."
"Me either," their mother added. "I've got to run. I'm taking Edna Donnelly to her doctor's appointment in Ti-conderoga. You'll have to bring Annie by sometime now that you've reconnected." With a quick wave, she left.
"Looks like Mom has that all mapped out for you, probably right down to a playmate for this guy." Emily rubbed her belly.
"Hardly. She's Dr. Howard, not Dr. O'Conner. Her husband might have something to say about that."
"Or maybe not. The interview with her that I read in the Press Republican didn't mention her husband. She could be divorced or widowed, I suppose."
"Still not a chance."
"Not a chance of you going out or not a chance of you helping me fulfill Mom's dreams of a houseful of grandchildren?"
"I've done my part already with Autumn. No more kids for me."
"So you say now. But, with the right woman… Want me to do some digging? Find out for sure if Anne is single?"
"No. Dr. Howard is the head of the environmental studies program and my advisor to boot. Even if she is single, I'm sure the college has rules against instructors and students fraternizing."
"Fraternizing?" Emily laughed. "I think that's officers and enlisted personnel. Remember, you mustered out of the National Guard after your tour in Afghanistan."
He wasn't likely to forget that.
"But you are interested. I can see it in your eyes."
What was it with women that they were always interpreting everything into feelings? His mind flashed back to Anne. At least, to the Annie he used to know. She thought more like a guy.
"You're not the typical North Country student. I'm sure it wouldn't be any problem if you are interested."
He glared at his baby sister.
"What? Assuming she's single, you're her peer."
Age-wise, yes. Career-wise, not by a long shot. And it bothered him. But the fact he was bothered bothered him more. He'd been perfectly happy with his electrician business until Autumn had put the idea of going back to college in his head.
"No, I don't think Dr. Howard and I will be traveling in the same social circles."
"Come on, big brother. You can't tell me you're not a little interested."
Emily was right. He couldn't tell her that.
Anne dabbed on a little mascara and lip gloss and inspected her face in the mirror. What had possessed her to let her next-door neighbor Jamie talk her into going to the Singles Plus group Bible study at Jamie's church? Since relocating to the Adirondacks, Anne had been looking for a church to attend, but she wasn't ready for any kind of singles' scene. Michael's betrayal and death were still too fresh for her, even though it had been over a year.
She ran a comb through her hair and tucked it in her bag. Jamie had insisted the group was all about fellowship, not people looking for spouses. In fact, Jamie wasn't even single. Her husband was in the army and had recently deployed back to the Middle East.
Anne heard a knock at her back door, followed by Jamie's friendly, "Hello."
"Be right there," Anne called back. She stopped and checked her reflection in the full-length mirror one more time before heading downstairs to join Jamie. She pushed the bridge of her nose, an old habit left over from when she'd worn glasses. Michael had insisted she wear contacts. Her tailored slacks and short military-style jacket were all wrong. Maybe a quick change into her blue linen dress.
"Anne?" Jamie called.
"Coming." The suit would have to do.
Her fears of being overdressed were confirmed when she saw Jamie in her jeans and a hooded sweatshirt over a bright pink T-shirt.