Hard Candy Kisses


New Year’s Eve is just around the corner and Legend Elementary teacher Patti Jo Baker has tried every trick in the book to land a date for the annual New Year’s Eve Bash at The Lodge. This includes setting up a kissing booth at the Legend Elementary Winter Carnival—a booth which Principal Jim Hamilton promptly shuts down. Because if Patty Jo Baker is passing out kisses, any kind of kisses, he wants to be both first, and last, in line—and he definitely doesn’t want to sample them in front of the student body.

Chapter One

“I need a man.”
Patti Jo Baker watched her best friend, Kate, turn her way and roll her eyes. “Patti,” she began, shifting her teacher’s bag full of papers on her shoulder, “You’ve been saying that for years.
If you need a man so darned bad, why don’t you go out and get you one?”
Feeling a little defensive, Patti shot up off her teacher desk chair and, hands on hips, glared at Kate. “It’s not like I haven’t been trying!”
Kate waved her off. “Oh, posh. Get serious. What have you really been doing besides draping yourself in tinsel and hanging out at Hooters in Pigeon Forge? I tell you, Patti, the men at Hooters are not there to find a date. At least not one to take home to Mama.”
“I know, they go for the wings.”
“And the breasts.” She grasped her arm. “Face it. They are just there to ogle. That’s not where you find a man.”
“So where do I find one then? You tell me. Because I’ve tried every online.com matchmaking service there is, and I’ve done them for years. You know, matched.com, singlemingle.com, marryarichguy.com, cuddleup.com and even that ebliss.com which costs big money. I splurged. And guess what? They hooked me up with a little Republican Jewish guy with small hands. I clearly stated that I was liberal and Baptist. What were they thinking? Besides, those places don’t work, and the same guys are on all of them, and they’ve been there for years.”
“Small hands? What does that have to do with anything?”
“I like a man who can handle me.”
“I mean, shoot. Small hands are dainty. Who the hell wants a man with small hands or, for that matter, feet? I can’t believe they matched me with that guy. My perfect-for-you match. Geez.”
Kate arched a brow. “That should tell you something.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those things don’t work.”
“But have you seen the commercials? And the testimonials?”
“How many years have you been on all of those sites?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. Five? Six?”
“I rest my case.”
Patti thought about that for a moment, glancing off over her empty classroom. How else was one supposed to meet a man in Legend, Tennessee? She knew every single man in town and there were no prospects here. None. She was forced to go out of her boundaries. She needed a man bigger than what Legend could offer—larger than life, worldly—one that would worship the ground she walked on and love her quirkiness unconditionally. But how far would she go? She’d heard of a woman once who found a husband by placing an ad in the magazine Mother Earth.
Maybe she should try something like that. Not Mother Earth, perhaps, but maybe something like A Man’s Cave or Alaskan Wilderness.
But not now. It was the end of the day, and she was tired. The classroom Christmas party was over, and the kids just left for their winter break. She had a mess to clean up in here, but she wasn’t in the mood.
Sighing, she looked back to Kate. “I guess I would settle for a date for New Year’s Eve.”
“Hire Suzie.”
“Suzie Matthews. You know, The Matchmaking Chef.”
Suzie. Of course, she knew Suzie. Everyone in Legend knows Suzie Matthews, hostess with the mostess, cookbook author, owner of Legend’s Landing Bed & Breakfast…her own television show to boot. “She’s not a real matchmaker.”
Kate shrugged. “I think she is. I’ve heard stories.”
Patti thought about that. “But I thought it was just a television show.”
“Don’t think so,” Kate drew closer and sat her bag on the desk. “Sometimes I think she’s subtly behind the scenes working, and other times I’ve heard she’s gone to great lengths to get people together.”
“Like who?”
“Well, Nash Rhodes and Mary Lou Picketts, for one.”
Patti gasped. Mary Lou! “I wondered how Legend’s Plain Jane had landed that big hunky country singing sensation!”
Kate nodded. “Yep. I heard that one was pretty intentional, planned right down to the proposal. And you know about Lyssa Larkin, right?”
Patti scowled. “Lyssa, too! Why, she was practically an old maid.”
“Practically as old as you.”
Playfully sneering, Patti said, “Watch it, sister.” Leaning her backside against the desk, she added, “She married that new guy in town, didn’t she? The one with the dogs?”
“That’s pretty cool.”
“I guess Suzie set up a speed dating lunch thing for her at the B&B.”
Patti’s brain spun with possibilities. “Seriously. I wonder how much she charges.”
Shrugging, Kate went on, “There are more I’ve heard of, like her cousin Sydney, and her sister Chelly, and the librarian, Katie Long, and I think she even did some work for someone in New York, someone she works with up there.”
Patti sat back down behind her desk. Perhaps she needed to take another tack and quit the online match sites. Perhaps, she should try out this thing with Suzie, just to make sure she is covering all of her bases…
“Well, I’ve got to get home. Michaela is waiting for me at the sitter, Danny is likely home from basketball practice already and hungry, and Mike and I have a get-together tonight at his office. Should be a rowdy evening with all those ATF agents. I need to get ready.”
Patti knew Mike had cute friends. And men in law enforcement turned her on a bit. Hm.
“Need a third wheel?”
Kate smiled and patted her friend’s hand. “Nope. Believe me, you don’t want to get tangled up with anyone in that crew. The testosterone and Alpha male attitudes will be hitting it hard tonight, I’m sure. They just solved a huge case, and Mike’s entire team is ecstatic.”
“But that sounds pretty fun.”
“Believe me, you’re better off doing…” She paused and looked into Patti’s eyes. “What are you doing tonight?”
She didn’t want to say ‘nothing.’ It was Friday night, the last day of school for almost three weeks. Everyone in Legend likely had some sort of Christmas plans, but not her. Not much of anything, anyway. “I’ve got a ton of work to do before the Winter Carnival on Wednesday, Kate.
I’m too busy to go anyway.”
She registered the look on her friend’s face immediately and knew that Kate wished she hadn’t made that last statement
“Hey, shoosh!” She waved her away and moved toward the classroom door. Kate backed up. “You’ve got things to do, and I’ve got to clean up this classroom. Be gone with you!”
“Patti, are you okay?” Kate’s worried look was getting to her.
“Fine! Skedaddle. Get a move on. You have a hunky ATF hubby waiting. Now, vamoose.”
After a held gaze, Kate nodded and turned toward the open door. “I’ll talk to you on
Monday. And I’ll be back here Monday night and all day Tuesday to get the carnival booths set up.”
“See you then.”
“Sounds good.”
And Kate left. Patti stared after the door for a moment, the silent classroom echoing the thoughts rolling around in her head. She wanted a husband, and a child to pick up from day care, too. Just like Kate. Of course, Kate hadn’t had it easy. She and Mike had had their own difficulties getting together, but in the end, it had worked out for them.
Could it work out for her, too?
She just wasn’t sure it was in the grand plan for that to happen.
Jim Hamilton perched his elbows on his desk, his head in his hands, and rubbed his temples. Hard. What a week. If any instruction had happened this past week, he would be surprised. The powers-that-be would be down his throat had they realized all of the ‘play,’ or extra-curricular, that had occurred, particularly if instructional hours were lacking. Between the music and band departments’ joint Christmas concert on Wednesday night, and the dress rehearsal for that during the day, and the new dance and drama club’s recital on Thursday evening, and the dress rehearsal for that during the day, and the Christmas party today that was supposed to be only on Friday afternoon, but pretty much was extended to the entire day…not to mention that it took Monday and Tuesday to get ready for all of the above.
He sure hoped that no one on the school board got wind of all that.
But truly, he wasn’t worried. Legend Elementary was a high-achieving school. He’d worked hard to ensure that the children in the school were scoring proficient on their mandated exams. The small school had received accolades for the academic achievement of the students, and sat high on the Tennessee list for making the required gains set by the state.
Besides, he believed in play. It was developmentally appropriate for kids to play, at any age. He was still a strong proponent for recess, no matter what federal standards—or someone’s interpretation of federal standards—indicated. And since his school was strong, he could get by with a little down time once and again.
His right temple throbbed like a mother. Play. He could use a little of that himself. He’d not played in…well, if you were talking about adult play, too damned long. Being principal kept him busy 24/7, and there were certain expectations set for principals who resided and worked in small Southern towns. But if he didn’t allocate some time for adult play, or at the very least adult conversation, soon, he figured this headache he’d been carrying around for the last two weeks wasn’t going to go away.
Besides, it was damned difficult for him to date in this town. One dinner and all the jowls in town would flap like geese flying south over the lake. One date and every busybody in town figured he was looking and strived to hold their single and lovely-on-the-inside daughters up as available and potential wife-material.
Not for him. Made a busy and complicated life that much more complicated.
Thank God it was winter break. He knew he’d be coming in to the office every day to catch up on paperwork, but at least he could sleep in, arrive on his own time, and didn’t have to deal with kids or staff.
A brisk knock sounded on his partially-open door. “Jim?”
He glanced up. Immediately, his shoulders jerked back, and he sat up a little straighter.
Speaking of adult play….
“Patti? I didn’t know you were still here.”
“Do you have a sec?”
“Absolutely.” He motioned to an old, overstuffed leather chair across from him. “Come on in.”
Down boy. His libido was doing a little salute. Patti Jo Baker had been getting to him lately. Unsure of exactly why, it didn’t seem to matter. Yesterday, he’d had to turn his gaze the other way and not intentionally watch her sashay down the hall and bend to pick up an errant paper off the floor.
How long had he known her? Five…six years?
She was dangerous. Not to mention kooky and smart and funny as hell to be around.
Lately he’d been wondering why someone hadn’t snatched her up.
Maybe they had and he didn’t know it. He tried not to get too involved in his teachers’ personal lives, but talk in the lounge often turns to family and relationships, and he’d not heard of anything new going on with her, but then you never know….
Certainly she was hooked up with someone; he was going to make that assumption, so she was definitely off limits.
Not to mention that he had this unspoken rule of not dating his teachers. Bad ethics. Bad idea. Nothing good could come from it.
“Jim, I have this big problem.” In all of his musing, he’d almost forgotten she was there.
“Well…” She paused.
“Jim, I’ll just be blunt. I need a man.”
Jim just about swallowed his tongue.
“I mean, I need a man’s help!”
Oh, shit. Shit. Shit. Shit! Blundering forward, she rushed out, “I need someone tall to help me put some decorations up in the gym, Christmas stuff, you know? On the basketball backboards and goals. Will you be here any next week?”
Trying very hard not to be embarrassed at her idiotic choice of words, Patti shut her mouth and breathed deep. Still, heat flooded to her neck and ricocheted up to her cheeks. Jim was an all right guy—a really nice guy, as a matter of fact—and he could usually rib and joke around with the best of them. But the look on his face right now was what was making her extremely uncomfortable.
His face was red!
And he shifted in his seat as if suddenly uncomfortable. Finally, he reached up and rubbed a hand over his forehead.
Oh, and he’d been rubbing his temples, too, when she’d rushed in.
“Long day, huh?”
“Long week.”
“You okay?”
“Oh, just tired.”
So was she. At the moment, though, she had this incredible urge to slip behind his chair and rub his temples for him. Where did that come from? Bad, bad idea. “Headache?”
He nodded. “Yeah. Nothing that caffeine and an aspirin won’t cure. Too busy today for much coffee, I think.”
Patti reached into her purse, fished around a bit, and then came up with a small bottle of aspirin. “Here you go.” She rose, leaned over his desk, picked up a bottle of water sitting on the corner of his desk, and handed him the aspirin. As the bottle descended into his outstretched palm, his brown eyes lifted to meet hers and held for a mite second too long.
She’d never realized his eyes had little gold flecks in them before. That was kind of cool.
Her fingertips grazed his palm, sending a slight tingle up her wrist, which she instantly acknowledged as something new and different, which also caused her to jerk her hand back suddenly and stand straight up.
“Hey, I’m heading home. I’ll be in here on Monday to get ready for the carnival. Maybe you can help me then.”
He snatched his palm closed over the aspirin bottle, rose and agreed. “Good idea. Let’s both get out of here. And you’re right; this can all wait until Monday. I’ll help you then.”
It felt like he was in a damned hurry to get out of there, and Patti, not wanting to be in his way or to delay him any further or add to the modicum of confusion that seemed to surround this entire conversation, said, “Sounds good. See you then.”
So she turned and left, heading back toward her empty classroom, and then subsequently, to her lonely apartment.
Being a singleton was a bitch.

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