Andraya removed her suit cover-up and kicked off her sandals as soon as she hit the beach. The mid-September sun beat down on her head and face, making the day bright and beautiful. She smiled as she walked halfway down the sandy spot, out of the prying eyes of the palace guards. Because of that, she’d worn a two-piece yellow bathing suit Annie had given her. When she her destination, she dropped down on one of the many chaises the royal family attendants had set out. Umbrellas dotted the area too, but Andraya allowed herself one half-hour in the sun. Renata insisted she swim here.
Darling Andraya, of course you must use our beach. Your father would skewer Alessio if we let you use the public one.
Renata, my father does not control my life over here.
Then do it for the school. Do you really want to sunbathe with students?
And you shouldn’t swim alone. I’ll have a female guard far enough up on one of the cliffs for privacy but close enough for her to jump in and get you, if need be.
Eventually, Andraya had given in. Eventually, everybody gave in to the queen who, at sixty, was imposing and lovely.
Lying flat on her back, she rubbed her arm to make sure she had enough sunscreen on her body. Satisfied she did, she took a book out of her backpack. By Elena Ferrante, The Lost Child, had won the Strega Award. If Andraya thought it was age appropriate and interesting enough, she planned to teach it next term.
She began reading. The book was interesting, but her eyelids began to close. So, she set it down, got up and headed into the Mediterranean Sea. Sand squished between her toes and still-warm water lapped at her feet. She went out further and further then dove into the water.
When she got back on land, she felt great. She laid back on her chaise, picked up the book, and began to read again. Her family wondered why she’d moved to Casarina. Was anything better than this?
What the hell? Ben Moretti stopped short inside the door of the Agricultural wing. He walked up close to the color picture of a woman sunbathing plastered on the wall. No, not any woman. Dio mio, Andraya Manwaring.
A prank? Damn it, he hoped his kids weren’t responsible for this. They’d asked to stay at friends’ houses overnight so he came in early on the first day and didn’t drive them to school.
For a few seconds, he stared at her curves. Wow! He had no idea she was so…sculpted. Her dark hair was up on her head and she had her eyes closed. The amount of skin revealed made him swallow hard. Shrugging off the reaction, he pulled down the first one headed up the hall. Outside every few rooms were more of copies of the photo. He yanked at them. His heart beat fast in his chest. This was so unfair of her. She’d be embarrassed to hell.
His phone buzzed. Renata. “Moretti.”
“Are you at school yet?”
“Are there photos of Andraya up in your wing?”
“Yep. I’m taking them down as I go.”
“When you’re finished, could you come over to the Humanities wing and head off Andraya. I’m having the building scoured. If you can, get them down in her hallway first, but tell her what’s happened.”
He wondered why Renata called him. He hadn’t spent that much time with Andraya. They’d met during the summer for some preplanning, and he’d talked to her about the kids. He’d also have to confess some of the reasons for their behavior. And she was understanding of their issues. He owed her “Sure, I’ll help out.”
“She parks in her designated spot outside the Humanities wing.” Teachers had their own spaces in the faculty lot.
Making quick work of ripping down the rest of the flyers in this wing, he jogged down to her hall, grabbing pictures. He got to the outside door and found her just entering the building.
“Hey, Ben. Are you waiting for me?” She looked like a daisy in a pretty yellow dress.
“Yeah. Renata asked me to meet you.”
“Let’s talk on the way to your room.”
She stopped. “Tell me now.”
Sighing, he handed her a copy of the picture. She stared at her photo then lifted her gaze. “Hey, it’s a pretty good shot of me, don’t you think?”
“How can you joke about this?”
A small line marring her brow. “I’m not ashamed of how I look.”
“Why would you be? You’re gorgeous.”
Now those light brown brows shot up. “Why…thank you.”
She took another glance. “Where’d you get this? I was sunbathing on the palace property.”
“I’m afraid someone took a picture of you there. Copies were posted all over school.”
“Seriously? Why would anyone do such a thing?”
“I…” He glanced away.
“I’m afraid my kids did it. They stayed overnight at a friend’s house, so they could have come in early without me knowing it.”
“Let’s not overreact. Or assign blame just yet.”
Now, he frowned. “I didn’t expect you to be…all right with this.”
“I’m not. No one did this with kindness in his or her heart. But I’m also not going to melt into a puddle at the sight of it.” She took a bead on him. “You know, anyone could be responsible.”
“You don’t have enemies. You’re too nice.”
“There’s resentment among some of the faculty because I’m so close to Renata. And all my life, people have been jealous of me being the daughter of the U.S. president.”
“This looks more like kids’ doing to me. They had to sneak on the palace property over the weekend to take the photograph, then somehow get the flyers up when school opened early.”
“Walk me to my room, would you?”
“Sure.” On the way they passed teachers who were arriving.
A woman stopped them. “Andraya, I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you. But it’s not the end of the world, so don’t worry about me, Iliana.”
They went further and bumped into the new member of her department. Ben said, “Domenico.”
Andraya held his gaze boldly. “Dom.”
“Lookin’ good,” he said with a seedy smile.
She gave him a dazzling one. “Why, thank you, Dom.”
He recoiled back. If the stronzo thought he was going to get a rise out of her, he was swimming in the wrong fish tank.
They kept going. Finally, he couldn’t keep it in. “You know, you’re something else. I wouldn’t have handled this as well as you are.”
“Why, you have a great body?”
Holy hell. He kept himself from being embarrassed. And worse, turned on by her comment. All he said was, “Ha!”
The kids were fourteen and they looked so young with their new sneakers and recent haircuts as they walked into her classroom. They were whispering and giving her sly looks. Just as she thought, she’d have to deal with the photo right away. Once they were seated, she greeted them. She was heartened to see several students frowning or sad even. Some, though, were grinning a lot like Dom.
“I’m sorry to have to start the first day like this, but hello, I’m Professoressa or Prof Andraya, if you like. I met some of you this summer, others not. But, before I can greet properly, I’ll address this.”
She held up one of the copies Ben had given her and with a bland expression on her face, she silently walked down one aisle and up the another, until she’d covered the whole room.
Once back up front, she said, “These were all over school this morning. If you know who did this, tell that person I’m not embarrassed. I know this is a flattering picture of me.
“I also know whomever did this was trying to hurt me, and I’m very sad about that. Again, I’m not angry, not embarrassed, but sad.
“With that, I’d like to forget about this…” she crumpled the paper tossed it into the trash “…and go on to our first day together.”
A pretty little girl raised her hand. “Do you have something to say, Serina?” The kids wore name tags until their teacher learned their names.
“Yes, Professoressa. I hate that stupid person who did this to you. Lots of students will be sorry, like me.”
“Thank you for telling me that. Now I’d like to have the first class I planned.” She picked up a stack of journals. “I’m handing these out for you to use at home then bring back in case we need them in class. Like right now. In either English or Italian, you’re to write about your expectations for the class. How you’re feeling about it. Be honest. You have fifteen minutes. No one else will read it but me. I’ll comment on each one.”
They got to work. Most of them. The two dark-haired Moretti twins looked at each other. She saw Meliora shake her head at Matteo. Huh, she was the dominant one. Their journals remained closed. Andraya walked to them. Bent over, so they both could hear. “If you don’t do this now, you’ll have to come after school to complete the paragraphs.”
“Can’t,” Meliora said. “No ride home then.”
“Not an excuse. You’ll have to find one. And since you’re new this year, I’ll tell you that it’s rule at the Marcello School that a teacher can keep kids after school any day of the week. Even Saturday. Parents have to agree to accommodate them before you enroll.” Italy had classes on Saturdays.
Meliora glared at her with hateful dark eyes. Then she opened the journal and wrote, No expectations. Feeling like shit now.
“Three paragraphs are required.” She glanced over at the boy. He’d opened his journal and started writing.
“Mattie!” Meliora whispered harshly.
“Come on, Meli. You know what Papa said.”
“And if you insist on preventing your brother from doing assignments, Meliora, I’ll separate you in the room.” She arched a brow. “Or we’ll transfer you to a different classroom and another teacher. For the whole year.”
A glare that could freeze hell came from the girl now. But she started to write. And Matteo did the same. Andraya couldn’t wait to read what they had to say.
All of her classes consisted of the same speech, and similar statements from the students. But she did get to the journals activity and some other get-to-know-you activities.
At the end of the day, after the students left, Ben appeared in her doorway. “Hey. How are you holding up?”
“I made it through. Come on in.”
He walked to the front. Now she noticed how big and attractive he looked in black and white shirt rolled up at the sleeves and khaki pants, his hair tousled. He hitched a hip on the edge of one desk.
“From what I hear, it was more than that. The kids told me what you did. Good for you.”
“Thanks, but as I said, it was tedious and tiring. And marred our first time together.”
“For what it’s worth, some kids told me directly that they didn’t like the prank. And as they worked, I overheard even more of them discussing it, saying the same thing. You’re well liked, Andraya.”
“Thank you, Ben. Do you still think it’s your kids?”
“I don’t know. I can usually tell when they’re triumphant over something bad they did, and I didn’t get any vibes of that when their nonno picked them up.”
“I hope it wasn’t them.”
He checked the time. “Are you up to going to the meeting?”
“Of the assessment team. We’re picking up from what we did this summer on the new courses.”
“Renata would excuse you.” The queen was conducting assessment, as she was responsible for the curriculum. Otherwise, the facilitator would have been Luciana DeLuca, the upper grade principal.
Andraya pushed back her chair. “I told you, Signor Benito, that I’m not a wilting flower. I’m ready.”
“You said you wouldn’t dissolve into a puddle and now you’re not wilting flower.” The corners of his mouth turned up and his deep brown eyes crinkled. “I guess you are a force to be reckoned with.”
Another smile. “Let’s go.”