The last place black sheep Colin Reese wanted to be was home for the holidays. But when Emily Stanfield, good girl of their small home town, offers to put him up, he realizes he might get a better Christmas gift than he’d ever imagined…
Sixteen Years Ago…
“Colin Reese, you disappoint me,” Mrs. Norton, the principal of Tall Pines High School, said with an exaggerated sigh.
Colin shrugged. He’d developed shrugging into a highly complex sign language. This shrug said: I’d love to care, but I really can’t.
“You’re a senior, Colin. I would have thought you were old enough, and mature enough, to have moved beyond these juvenile pranks.”
Colin sent her a slight grin and shrugged again. You’d think, wouldn’t you?
“Defacing school property.” Mrs. Norton patted her hair, making sure her bangs were still lacquered in place, a sign that she was really upset. Colin had been in the principal’s office on and off for the past four years, long enough to read her like a comic book. “We could have you arrested, Colin.”
“Oh, come on, Mrs. N,” he protested, the statement outrageous enough to prompt more than a shrug from him. “Dressing up a statue of Eamon Stanfield in a dress isn’t defacing school property.”
“You made him look like a hooker.”
“No, I made him look like Sexy Mrs. Santa,” Colin corrected, quoting the mail order catalog. “It’s Christmas. I thought it’d be festive.”
“You put make-up on him,” Mrs. Norton added. “The janitors are having a hard time getting the lipstick off.”
Don’t laugh, he warned himself. His latest prank may have gone a bit too far. “I’ll wash off the old guy myself,” he volunteered.
Mrs. Norton sighed heavily. “You continually pick our towns most honored and cherished traditions to poke fun at, Colin. Last summer, you put pickled herrings in the planters at the Ladies’ Auxilliary Orchid Show…”
“That was never proven,” Colin said.
“Then there was the incident with the Otter Lodge fountain being filled with Jello…”
Colin opened his hands in a gesture of innocence. “Again….”
Mrs. Norton frowned. “And the bronze plaque that had the names of all the town’s founding fathers, including Eamon Stanfield, went mysteriously missing last semester.”
“Hey,” Colin protested, “I had nothing to do with that one. I don’t steal.”
“What I want to know is: when is all this nonsense going to stop, Colin?”
Colin felt a surge of anger. “When I get the hell out of this town.”
Mrs. Norton looked surprised, then supremely saddened. Colin immediately felt like a jerk.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to hurt anybody. I’m blowing off a little steam, that’s all. They’re stupid little jokes, meant to be funny, not destructive. I mean, I see the absurdity in a lot of our traditions, and nobody else seems to.”
“What you see as absurd,” Mrs. Norton said stiffly, standing up, “a lot of us see as sweet, and comforting. And every little act of rebellion you commit doesn’t make you look sophisticated. It makes you look mean-spirited and petty.”
Colin grimaced, roiling in his own unhappiness. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he meant it.
“I’m suspending you for a week, Colin,” she said, gesturing to the door.
He nodded. He’d been expecting that. “I’ll head on home.”
“No, you’ll wait here,” she said. “Your mother’s on her way to pick you up.”
“My mother?” He winced. “Why? I just live a few blocks away.”
“I had to call her, Colin.” Now Mrs. Norton seemed smug. “Besides, I wanted to talk about plans for the Spring Fling and then the Grad Night Party, since she’s head of the committee.”
Of course she is, Colin thought, and wallowed in his misery.
“She was very, very upset to hear what you’d done to the statue,” Mrs. Norton added. “I imagine she’ll have some words for you when she gets here.”
He nodded unhappily. Some words. A mild way to put what promised to be a very unpleasant episode.
He sat out in the lobby of the administrative office, wearing his best trademark scowl.
“Oh, Colin,” Ruthie, the front office secretary, said with a small shake of her head. “How can such a sweet kid get into so much trouble?”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t giggle just a little, seeing Eamon Stanfield all tarted up,” he coaxed.
Ruthie glanced at the principal’s office, making sure the door was closed. Then she broke out into a wide grin. “It was funny,” she admitted. “Especially since, from what I understand, Eamon Stanfield would keel over dead before wearing ladies’ clothes.”
Colin grinned back. “Exactly.”
“Which is why we’re in so much trouble,” Ruthie said.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
Before he could get an answer, the door opened. A young girl, about sixteen years old, walked in. She was wearing a navy blue plaid pleated skirt, the type that had one of those big safety pins in it, and a moss green sweater set. She was also wearing stylish boots, a nod to the weather. Her pale cheeks were rosy from the cold, and she wore her long auburn hair in a simple pony tail.
“Hi, Ruthie,” she said. “Just wanted to drop off the money for the Spring Fling fundraiser from the booster club. We raised even more this year than we did last year.”
“Emily, you are a doll,” Ruthie said with approval, taking the envelope. Then Ruthie looked pointedly at Colin. “Never in here for any trouble.”
“I know,” Emily said, her voice soft. If Colin didn’t know better, he’d think she sounded annoyed by the comment.
Ruthie’s voice dropped. “Is your father still upset about the… statue incident?”
Colin sank lower in his seat. Emily Stanfield. Of course he knew her. She was only a living, breathing legacy of Tall Pines, Connecticut. Her family had been in the town since the beginning: it was her great-grandfather’s statue that he’d dressed up in a red mini-dress. She was on almost every committee or volunteer organization imaginable. As a sophomore, she’d already been voted onto the homecoming court. She was also on the school newspaper and yearbook committee. She might as well wear an entire wardrobe with “I Love Tall Pines” emblazoned in big sparkly letters. Like all her forbears, she’d probably live in this little town till she died.
She was the complete opposite of Colin, the angel to his devil. She even looked angelic. Which might explain why he couldn’t stop staring at her when he thought she wouldn’t notice. He chalked it up to a perverse fascination: as if, by studying her, he could figure out how she dealt with the frustration and rebelliousness that the town of Tall Pines seemed to invoke in him on a daily basis.
Emily nodded. “I told my Father it was a senior prank,” she said, her voice low and musical. She shot a quick glance over at Colin, her blue eyes meeting his green ones. “I said it was a tradition. He’s still sort of steamed, but he’s calming down.”
“So… no police?”
“No police,” Emily assured her, and Colin felt his muscles unknot with relief. Then she shot him another glance, only this time, the smallest ghost of a smile haunted her lips.
He found himself smiling back with approval. She was awfully cute for a sophomore. Not to mention cute for a Tall Pines poster child.
“Colin Reese, are you insane?”
He blinked, wondering the same thing himself, although he was still staring at Emily as he thought it. He turned his attention to the woman yelling at him. “Mom?”
His mother stormed into the lobby, looking like the Angel of Vengeance in a lavender blue pantsuit. “I have had it with you, Mister,” she said sharply. “I swear, if you weren’t so close to graduation, I’d send you off to… to military school!”
He sighed. This was going to be a bad one, he could tell.
“You’re coming with me,” she said, holding the door open. “And you wait till your father gets home!”
Colin sighed, rolling his eyes. Ruthie sent him a look of sympathy. Emily, he noticed, had a mischievous smile. Then, to his shock, she winked at him.
Which is why he was smiling as his mother yanked on his arm and dragged him out the door. He barely heard her as she launched into yet another tirade on the problems of his behavior, and why he couldn’t be more like his sister and brother, and why in the world he had a problem with the small town.
“For God’s sake, Colin,” she said, exasperated, “can’t you think of one thing, just one thing, that represents Tall Pines that you don’t feel like mocking and making fun of?”
He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking hard.
Emily Stanfield, his mind supplied. Given the chance, he got the feeling he’d take her very, very seriously. But he couldn’t admit that, so he stayed silent and let his mother continue her litany. He’d be out of here by June anyway, and then all of this, including Emily Stanfield, would be a thing of the past.
Emily watched as Colin Reese stalked off, his mother lecturing him in a growing crescendo of chastisement.
“That kid.” Ruthie let out a long breath. “It’s hard to believe he’s Ava Reese’s son, you know?”
Emily didn’t say anything, although she knew what Ruthie meant.
“So, have you decided who you’re going to the Spring Fling with, Emily?” Ruthie asked.
Emily cleared her throat. “Not yet,” she said. “Too busy, and it’s not for months yet.”
“Still dating that Rothchild boy?”
It was funny, Emily thought. Ruthie knew about everybody in the school. Granted, it wasn’t that big a school, but Emily wondered half-heartedly if the kind woman didn’t have better things to do with her time than track the little social dramas of teenagers.
“I wasn’t really dating him,” Emily demurred, her voice almost prim. “Anyway, I’d better get going. Don’t want to be late for biology.”
She fled the office, heading up the hallway. She couldn’t stop thinking about Colin.
She’d had a crush on him for years, since she’d been in elementary school. It wasn’t just that he was good looking, although he was, devastatingly so. It was that he was so… reckless. Daring. He’d been voted “Most Likely To Do Anything” two years in a row by the yearbook committee. He was in trouble a lot, but she also knew that he was very sweet: she’d seen a bunch of bullies picking on a younger girl, because of her thick glasses and braces, and Colin had sent the bullies away with the mere threat of physical violence. He’d then made sure the girl was all right, saying a few quick words and sending her a lightning fast smile. The girl had stared dreamily at Colin, and so had Emily, touched by his thoughtfulness.
It was silly. Everyone knew that Colin was practically building a tunnel to get out of Tall Pines, and Emily doubted she’d ever leave. But it didn’t stop her from dreaming.