Shades of Love
by Dorien Kelly and Barbara Dunlop
Claire Sablan had a schedule to keep. Actually, not so much keep as wrestle into submission. With the school year just ended and a little over a week until the summer program began at Riverside School, she had no time to waste. There was too much to be done, both for herself and for the group of gifted—yet underperforming—ninth graders she taught.
But it was an early June Friday, the sun was shining, and even though she had the self-discipline not to look, she was sure that the Detroit River shone like a sleek silvery-blue ribbon between the school's parklike setting and Windsor, Ontario, on the opposite shore. Determined to vanquish her lesson plan, Claire narrowed her gaze and focused on her computer screen. Whatever was outside would be there when she was done. She needed to find a way to pack a semester's worth of education into the seven weeks she would have her summer students, and she needed to do it in a way that would keep them engaged without burning them out.
"Where's a miracle when you need one?" she murmured to herself.
Two quick raps in succession sounded at her partially closed classroom door, but Claire knew that miracles didn't come knocking. The best she usually found was Rochelle Lyons, the school's principal, asking if she ever planned to go home.
"Yes?" Claire replied, eyes still trained on her computer screen.
"Are you Ms. Sablan?" asked a whiskey-smooth, deep male voice.
This was clearly not Rochelle.…
"I am, at last count," she said, then looked her visitor's way.
Claire's sharp breath was involuntary, and the jolt that shot through her wasn't only because the man was gorgeous, though he was. His rich brown skin and almost amber-colored eyes made for a compelling combination. He stood around six feet tall, and from what she could see without even more overtly checking him out, he was in fine shape, too. She refocused on his face instead of letting her gaze wander to areas it shouldn't.
That jolt of surprise was turning into a tingle of excitement, or maybe nervousness. Claire felt as though she knew him from somewhere…or perhaps had been destined to know him. She shook her head to clear it of that last impractical and too-flighty-to-fly thought.
"Ms. Lyons told me I'd probably find you here," he said. "Do you mind if I come in?"
Claire stood and stepped away from her desk. "Of course not. What can I do for you?"
"I'm here to talk to you about Sam Morgan."
She had met fifteen-year-old Sam's grandmother on many occasions, but she'd never met his parents.
"Are you his father?" she asked.
"No." He held out his hand to her as he neared. "My name is Derek Garner, and I know Sam through a youth program I run."
So much for recognizing her destiny; she should have recognized Derek Garner. Since retiring as a NASCAR driver a couple of years ago, he'd become a staple on Detroit's high-powered business and social scenes. And for a lifetime before that, he'd been known as the eldest son of one of the city's greatest professional football legends. Derek's father had been one of the first African-Americans in pro football to negotiate a series of highly lucrative contracts with his team. And since the Garner family had stayed in Detroit after his retirement and built an empire founded on auto dealerships and rental car franchises, they were akin to local royalty.
Back in Claire's preteen days, when her girlfriends had been drooling over pop stars, she'd harbored a secret crush on several-years-older Derek. She'd never given it a thought that he was black and she wasn't. She'd been taught to look past skin color. After all, her mom and dad didn't look a whole lot alike and might as well have been from different planets when it came to personality.
Finding news about Derek had been easy. His rookie year as a NASCAR Nationwide Series driver had been well covered in the local papers. She might not have had a glossy Derek Garner poster on her bedroom wall, but she had clipped and kept articles about him in an old heart-shaped Valentine's Day candy box under her bed, right up until her two older sisters discovered her cache. Rather than admit the indignity of a crush, she'd thrown out the box as "no big deal" and broken her own heart just a little. To have him standing in her classroom today bordered on the surreal.
Claire took his offered hand. His grip was warm and firm, but she quelled the sensual tingle still dancing through her. She was a grown woman of twenty-eight, after all, and he was a man obviously already acquainted with his sex appeal.
"Hello, Mr. Garner," she said.
"Call me Derek, please," he replied as he released her hand.
Smooth. Definitely smooth. Claire, however, had experienced her share of smooth, and knew that what really counted came from the heart and soul. She would keep her distance, even if she would continue to enjoy the damn fine view.
"I understand from Sam and his grandmother that he's being required to participate in summer school with you," he said.
She gave a slight shake of her head. "I'm sure you know I can't discuss Sam with you unless I have his grandmother's permission."
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it to her. "I had thought of that. Feel free to call Mrs. Morgan if this note isn't enough."
Claire unfolded the sheet of paper. She immediately recognized Florence Morgan's handwriting; since gaining custody of Sam in January, Florence had been actively involved in her grandson's academics. And not a moment too soon, either. Sam was off the charts when it came to raw brainpower. He was also a great boy: quick, thoughtful and funny.
Upon his arrival at the beginning of the school year, Claire had felt an instantaneous connection. He was the sort of kid who was either going to set the world afire as an adult or flame out in a big way before then. She wanted him to be a huge success—the sort she'd look at decades from now and say, "I had a small part in that"—but he'd been chafing under the structure that Claire and Riverside School insisted on. Sam's grades had not yet rebounded, though he had improved since moving in with his grandmother, who kept a close eye on him.
Claire folded Florence's permission note back into quarters and handed it to the man in front of her. "What can I do for you, Mr. Garner?"
The corner of his mouth quirked, no doubt at her insistence on keeping things formal. "Sam is scheduled to be part of my summer program at Green Flag Racing. Have you heard of us?"
"Yes. I know you run a summer camp at the old boat club on Belle Isle," she said, referring to the island in the middle of the Detroit River that was about a mile upstream from Riverside School's location. "I saw a segment about it on the news a few months ago."
"Then you know that Green Flag is more than a summer camp."
"I'm sure it is," she replied in a noncommittal tone. She doubted he was here to debate the merits of his program, and, honestly, she wasn't all that interested. After she'd thrown away that heart-shaped box of clippings, auto racing in any form had not been a part of her world.
"I'm accustomed to convincing doubters, Ms. Sablan," he said after giving her a full-out smile that she had to admit kicked her pulse up a notch.
"And I'm sure you're very successful at it," she replied. "I just don't know what this has to do with me."
"It has to do with Sam. I want to see if there's any way he can miss two weeks of your classes so he can participate at Green Flag."
Now that took some serious nerve. "Did Mrs. Morgan know you were going to ask me to do this?"
"Yes, and she said something about my having a better chance of balancing the city's budget than getting you to agree to Sam missing class."
"She was right," Claire said. "One of the summer session's rules is consistent attendance. Sam cannot be promoted to the tenth grade unless he's here and completes all of his class work. Isn't there a later session at your camp that you can place him in?"
She could tell by the way his mouth tightened that the word camp wasn't among his favorites, but she had a point to make about the clear distinction between academics and summer fun…and which currently needed to take priority in Sam's life.
"Unfortunately, there are no other program openings," he replied. "We've had more qualified applicants than we can serve and we're wait-listed for the season."
Okay, so much for the easy route, though she had to wonder why they were going down this path at all. Florence Morgan was well aware of Riverside's rules; Claire's conversation with this man should not be taking place.
"When did Sam apply for the program?" she asked.
"Sam and his grandmother sent in the paperwork nearly five months ago, and the final letters of recommendation from community sponsors arrived a couple of weeks after that."
Claire bit back a sigh. Five months ago, Sam had just been settling in with Florence. She couldn't have had a sense of how demanding the program was. Heaven knew that Sam's mother wouldn't have shared that information with her; she'd been an absentee parent, at best. Claire doubted that the idea of summer school had even crossed Sam's or Florence's minds as they applied for Green Flag. She hated being the one to kill summer fun, but there was nothing to be done for it.
"I'm sorry, but there's really nothing I can do," she said to the man who watched her with an expression of supreme confidence.
"There must be something. I hate to see Sam miss this opportunity just because his grades aren't quite what they should be."
They were nowhere near what they should be, but she didn't feel this was any of her visitor's business.
"Mr. Garner, Sam is struggling academically, and if he doesn't catch up now, the odds that he'll succeed decline dramatically. Add to that some changes in his life circumstances, and you have a student in need of focused and detailed help."
"Which is what we can give him at Green Flag. Our participant-to-counselor ratio allows for more support than I'm sure you're able to give him here." He gestured at the rows of long tables, and she knew he was right about that. All of her classes this year had been beyond full.
"And I guarantee we can provide him the boost in self-confidence he needs," he added.
Unfortunately, Sam's needs were more than just a boost to self-confidence. Riverside School was funded by a consortium of private donors, and all students attended on a tuition-free basis. With that privilege came the expectation of a higher level of achievement. Students like Sam, who came into the program at a later age, were expected to step up to the appropriate achievement level in a short time. In order to attain that goal, a team of teachers worked with those students each summer. Claire was in charge of the freshman/ sophomore transition team.
"Can you also teach him about the Revolutionary War, simple equation solving, and get him through Romeo and Juliet?" she asked her visitor.
She shook her head. "Then there is no but. There is only the simple fact that Sam needs to make up class work in order to succeed next year."
He moved a step closer, close enough that she could smell a spicy scent she recognized as a very expensive men's cologne. He gave her an intimate smile. "You have to be able to make an exception."
She would not be bent by a little flirtation. Neither would she use her looks as a tactical weapon, as he just had.
"Sam already is an exception," she said. "The fact that he was moved from his school to attend Riverside's special program also means that he's exceptional. Now he needs to learn to adjust to our structure, or he's never going to achieve his full academic potential."
"Look, I know Sam is exceptional. There's just something about him…" He trailed off and shook his head. "I can't fully describe it, but it's obvious he's smart, too. He'll get there. We both know that. And in the meantime, there's more to life than grades."
Claire found that sentiment was most usually voiced by people who had never tried their hardest in school. "Of course, but without those grades, Sam's avenues for success will be narrowed."
"Possibly, but not always."
She knew she could end this conversation with one chilly comment, but there was something about Derek Garner that engaged her, even if she wasn't going to allow herself to be pulled in.
"You teach about car racing at Green Flag, correct?" she asked.
"Among other things."
"Teamwork, self-care, self-respect and, yes, what a life connected to NASCAR, and not just driving, can offer. And we do all of this at no cost to our participants' families."
"All of which is to be applauded," she said. "But it's not right for Sam…not right now, at least. Learning about ‘go fast' cars isn't worth being held back in school. It's not as though he's going to grow up and be a professional driver. You of anyone should know the odds of that. Why set up expectations that are a one-in-a-million shot, at the expense of Sam grabbing on to the education he needs?"
Her guest shook his head. "Sorry, but with all due respect, your perspective is off."
Even spoken with all due respect, those words didn't sit well with Claire.
"My perspective? What about yours? I'm aware of who you are and the privileged youth you must have had."
He hesitated for a moment, and Claire got the sense she'd struck a nerve. Not that she cared just then. But when he spoke, he was calm.
"You're deflecting, Ms. Sablan. We're talking about Sam, and not the advantages I might or might not have had."
He had her there. Claire drew a steadying breath. This was her classroom, and she refused to surrender control by losing her temper. She'd learned that much in her years as a teacher.
"All I'm saying is that a college scholarship is worth more to Sam in the long run. I agree that I'm not Sam any more than you are, but between the two of us, my life has come closer. My family couldn't have afforded college for me, but hard work in high school got me to Harvard," she said. "Something like that can still happen for Sam. If you distract him, you're not doing him any favors."
"And you won't be either, if you dismiss my program without even knowing what it's about. We might not quote Shakespeare, but the man's been dead for a long time. Modern life calls for different skills."
Claire waved a hand around her classroom. "This is hardly medieval."
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