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Baby Steps Mothers of the Year Anthology Anna DeStefano

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Chapter One

"Lily, the chicken's bottoms aren't fat enough. Do you have any more stuffing?" "If I had a dollar for every time someone's asked me that..." Lily Brooks looked up from her portable sewing machine and handed over a bag of cotton batting. "And for the last time, Ashley. They're hens. Happy mothers, all." The stars of her Mother's Day surprise for Silent Springs Elementary's upcoming Spring Fling. "Okay, then." Ashley Lawson crammed a brown, corduroy bottom with more fuzzy, white filling. "I don't think topheavy hen's toppling over and smothering live chicks is what Ms. Emory had in mind when you suggested doing something special for the K-3rd grade moms." "Good point." Lily grabbed a handful of cotton, plumped


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the nearest chicken's tush to find the hidden Velcro seam and pried it open. "I'm going for memories the families can look back on and cherish. Not scarring children for life." She'd pitched the assistant principal a booth where carnival attendees could stop and play with baby chicks, then smile for commemorative photos that the younger kids could decorate for a Mother's Day present. Another fabulous idea, Gayle Emory had cooed. I'm sure you'll pull it off as effortlessly and successfully as you do everything else. Lily stuffed and sighed. She'd lined up a local farmer to provide the chicks, arranged to rent a tent from the same company providing the dunking booth, and she and her best friend Ashley would be spending their lunch hours for the next two weeks effortlessly sewing and painting a picturesque barnyard motif for other women to enjoy with their kids. A perfect idea that would take forever to execute. She glanced around the cluttered, colorful art room. Ashley put her energy into exploring and enjoying the school day. Getting the most out of each moment. Not so much with the planning and worrying that everything be perfect. Lily had the corner on that obsession. She tossed a chicken at her carefree friend. Ashley giggled and lobbed the lovingly-stuffed bundle


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onto its growing pile of peers. "So, what's next?" "Mr. Palmer offered to bring enough animals for a petting zoo, if we could find the space for him to set up a corral." Last year, Lily had been his granddaughter's third grade teacher, and she'd encouraged Molly's parents to test her for Dyslexia. Since starting treatment, the formally shy, withdrawn child had blossomed, and the Palmer family was convinced Lily was their angel's fairy godmother. "But I'm not sure—" "Do it!" Ashley ran her hand over at the bolts of bargain-bin fabric Lily was morphing into easily controlled replicas of living, breathing, pooping stable inhabitants. "Sewing everything would be a safer solution, especially once the chickens—hens—don't look like the bad end of a funhouse mirror. But a little chaos is a good trade-off. It might get crazy, mixing things up with the kids and real animals, but everyone will love it!" Crazy...mixing things up... Panic surged through Lily at the mere suggestion. She was starting to hate that about herself. "Maybe... Maybe it wouldn't be so out of control," she agreed, when she'd promised a calm, picture-perfect photo op. "As long as we're careful about which animals Mr. Palmer brings."


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"Dakota, stop running in the hallway!" a familiar voice boomed, a split second before a whirlwind dressed in jeans, tee-shirt and a Atlanta Falcons cap blurred through the doorway and took aim for Lily and Ashley's poultry assembly line. "Look out!" Ashley dove left. Lily ducked right. "Ah!" The boy hit his knees and slid beneath the table, catching a table leg with his sneaker. Corduroy and butt stuffing flew into the air. The table clattered to its side. Their hen-assailant kept on sliding, until he'd crashed into the easel Ashley had set up to teach the second graders coming in after lunch. "Ow!" he yelped. The wooden frame collapsed on top of him. "Are you ladies okay?" His pursuer's emerald gaze connected with Lily's. Tyler knelt on one knee, held out his and helped her to her feet. His frown warmed to a heart-tugging smile in response to her nod. When he turned toward Ashley, Lily forced herself to let go and head for the struggling heap of little boy and art supplies in the corner. "Nice touchdown, kiddo." She extricated the easel, then the blank canvas that had been propped on top of it. The kid's


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shaggy, dark hair partially obscured the bright green eyes glowering up at her. "I bet you're a champ on the ball field." "What do you know about it, stupid!" His insult missed it's mark. His scowl was simply too adorable to pull it off. "Dakota, you know better than that!" Silent Springs, Georgia's impossibly tall, impossibly handsome PE teacher corrected. He stepped to Lily's side. "Apologize to Mrs. Brooks for your bad manners." The child struggled to feet that were covered in unlaced, hole-riddled sneakers that didn't square with the rest of what appeared to be spanking new clothes. Lily caught a hint of embarrassment, maybe even regret, touch his hostile expression. Then everything but anger disappeared. "Why do you care how I treat to your wife?" Dakota demanded. "Everyone in school knows you two aren't even living together anymore." *** "Because she's a teacher," Tyler Brooks explained to his gym class truant. Lily was also the most beautiful woman Tyler had ever met, not that now was the time to make that point. "And even if she wasn't, she's an adult. Don't talk to adults that way, period, and you might tunnel out of detention before the end of the school year." "Oh, okay," the kid spat back. "But Nathan Grover can


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call me a bastard all he wants!" "Of course he can't." "Nathan called you what?" Lily stepped closer. A petite dynamo, she was barely taller than the kids she taught. "Some of the boys were playing four square, and Dakota's our new all-star." Tyler dragged his attention away from his wife's peaches and cream complexion and dark auburn hair, and nudged Dakota's shoulder. "Seems Nathan doesn't take kindly to losing, so—" "So! He cheats. And he calls me names when you're not looking. And—" "You kicked him, Dakota, right before you bolted out of the gym without a pass." Tyler watched his wife circle a gentle arm around the fourth grader's shoulder. Caught up in the day's latest injustice, the child forgot to resist the nurturing that came as second nature to Lily as breathing. "No matter what someone else does, there's no excuse for—" "Defending myself?" Dakota's gaze slid to where Lily's hand rested on his shoulder. He sidestepped until they were no longer touching. "There's no excuse for hitting." Lily wrapped her arms around her chest. She caught Tyler's smirk and shot him an eat me look, because she knew that he knew how much she wanted to still be hugging the kid. "And there are smarter ways to


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defend yourself. You let Nathan goad you into losing your cool, and you're the one who gets caught. Meanwhile, he looks clean as a whistle?" "Screw you!" Dakota made a bee-line for the door. Luckily, Tyler had the reach of an albatross. A handy thing on a basketball court, where he'd made many of his best high school memories. An essential for a career in corralling hyperactive school children into organized physical activity. He snagged Dakota and turned him around. "First." He tightened his grip when the boy tensed for another sprint. "Apologize to Mrs. Brooks and Ms. Lawson. Second, help clean up their..." Tyler gazed at the piles of fuzzy white stuff, brown fabric and what looked like overweight chickens strewn about the floor, "...whatever. Then you and I are meeting Nathan at the AP's office for a little chat." "Nathan?" Dakota peered up at Tyler. "He started the fight, didn't he? He's going to stand up for his part in what happened." Mr. Confrontation looked younger, suddenly. Confused. Stunned, even. Tyler smiled over his student's head, catching his wife's nod of approval. He squeezed Dakota's shoulder and shoved him forward. "S...Sorry," Dakota said to the two ladies he'd sent


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crashing to the mint green floor. Sincerity and belligerent ten-year-olds... An unnatural combination, if Tyler had ever seen one. The kid began clearing his mess, mumbling under his breath. Something about how stupid adults were. That kind of spunk was a good thing, Tyler reminded himself, not a pain in the ass. A child like Dakota learned to be tough from the cradle. Had to stay that way just to get through the day. Tyler understood that better than most. More than he cared to. Lily motioned him closer to the door. "New student?" Her chocolate brown eyes drank him in. When they were in their nineties, she'd still be able to bring him to his knees with just one look. "Dakota started with Alma Rushing's class on Monday. He's having a little trouble settling in with the other kids." "So it would seem." Lily held his gaze until he was the one to look away, hiding the need to pull her closer. "Sounds like he and Nathan's problems are more than just boys being boys in PE. You're going to make sure that Ms. Emory gives him a break?" "Yeah, I'll handle it." "You always do." He frowned at the accusation, then started when she took


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his hand, reaching for him for the first time since she'd moved out. Their fingers tangled together out of habit. A perfect fit. "You're amazing when you're fighting for one of your kids." Her smile was hesitant, as if she wasn't sure of its welcome. "You're going to make a great father." Tyler's throat stung against the urge to start a conversation they couldn't have. Not there. Enough of their personal issues had already followed them to school, if even his newest student knew about their separation. Temporary separation. It had only been two weeks. It just felt like forever. He squeezed her fingers and kissed them. Kept the rest to himself. The sparkle in her eyes dimmed at his non-response— eyes he'd once read so easily. "Ready for our appointment at four?" she asked. It wasn't really a question. "How about I meet you there, as soon as I get things settled in the gym?" It wasn't really an answer. With a worried nod, Lily turned to help clean up whatever she and Ashley had been working on. Tyler dove in, too, his mind racing with the two battles looming before him that afternoon. And he'd be damned if he felt ready to tackle


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either. He had to find a way to motivate a little boy to fight for the second chance only Dakota could make for himself. Then he had to convince his wife to accept the truth that had come as a crushing blow to them both, before what was left of their marriage slipped away.


Mothers Of The Year: Baby Steps excerpt by Anna DeStefano