Coming Home to Silver Leaf Falls
Noah had to wonder if his agreeing to sleep on the roof of the school as a reward to his students might’ve been the worst idea ever. But as he sat across his desk from Chelsea, Silver Leaf Falls Elementary School’s PTA president, he knew it was far too late to back out of it.
Perhaps he should’ve agreed to use a tricycle to make his way through the halls instead of walking for a day. Or dressing in a lobster costume for a day. Or letting them duct tape him to the wall. Even that probably would’ve been a better idea.
Chelsea tapped her pen on the paper containing the same meeting agenda that sat in front of him. She was only six or seven years older than him, but she had probably been married for close to fifteen years and had four kids. Sometimes, he wondered what it would be like if he had gotten an early start like that instead of the late one he was getting. It was strange to think that, at twenty-nine, he could have had a kid or two attending Silver Leaf Falls Elementary.
“I have to tell you,” Chelsea said, “that I think this was the most brilliant idea this school has ever known. I’ve volunteered in PTA since Cade was in Kindergarten, so nine years now, and I’ve never seen our reading minutes this high.”
Okay, so maybe it was actually the best idea ever. This was only his second year as the school’s principal, and he’d had his share of mistakes and triumphs. Sometimes it was easy to tell which category a particular idea fell into pretty quickly, and sometimes it took watching it play out to really know.
“I hope you have your tent and sleeping bag ready because these kids are on track to meet their goal in about the middle of next month.”
“Excellent!” If it was going to help them read that many pages in a record amount of time, he’d have been willing to have them turn him into a giant ice cream sundae.
He glanced back at the PTA president’s agenda—they’d already discussed all five items. If he was going to bring up his own item, it was now. He had a quick moment of hesitation but reminded himself that he wanted to let Chelsea know. She had served in practically every volunteer capacity at the school over the years, and she was likely to volunteer the next two years, too, before her youngest went off to middle school. She deserved the heads-up.
Besides, he’d entrusted her with sensitive information in the past, and she had proved that his trust hadn’t been misplaced. He took a deep breath. “I want to let you in on something that has to stay between you and me for now.”
Chelsea leaned forward in her seat, eyes glowing and alert. Sometimes he wondered if she was so trustworthy simply because she loved having the inside scoop and knew that locking secrets in a vault was the best way to get them.
“I got a job offer at an elementary school in Connecticut, and I’m thinking of taking it.”
By the way Chelsea jerked back in surprise, her manicured eyebrows shooting up, it was not the news she had been expecting. “Oh, wow. That is huge.” She seemed to be unable to find words for a moment, then said, “That’s why you were gone last Wednesday.”
“Why? I thought you liked it here.”
“Oh, I love Silver Leaf Falls Elementary, and I’ll have a hard time leaving. I wasn’t looking for another position. Do you remember Gary and Nancy Heinrich?”
“Yeah. I was the PTA treasurer the year that Nancy was the president, right before they moved. What was it? Two years ago?”
Noah nodded. “Their kids’ school principal is retiring, and I guess Nancy is the district PTA president now and recommended me, so they reached out. My initial response was no. But the more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a good idea. I love this school, but I don’t know—something’s missing in my life. And the school in Connecticut is great. I think I’d like it there.”
He didn’t know what was missing, exactly—he just knew that there was a void in his life and he needed to fill it. He wasn’t sure that moving to a school in another state was going to fill it, but it was definitely better than staying in Silver Leaf Falls and just learning to live with the void. The thought of a fresh start was exhilarating.
“Have you given them an answer yet?”
“I haven’t. They told me I could take up to six weeks to decide. That would give either school enough time to find a new principal.”
“So you’ll need to decide by about the time you’ll be sleeping on the roof.”
“And you’re going to say yes.”
Was he really that transparent? Yes felt like it was definitely the right answer. But he hadn’t officially made the decision yet. “Undecided.”
She scoffed, like she didn’t believe for a second that he hadn’t decided. Then she sat up straight. “Wait! We decided as a PTA board that we’re going to find you a wife! Oh my goodness, this really shortens our timeline. Now we basically have until the end of the school year.”
“You were what?”
“Well, obviously you need a wife.” Chelsea looked at him like he was a child who didn’t understand something that should’ve been very obvious. “And you don’t seem to be trying to find one yourself, even though it has been nearly a year since you and Marissa broke up. So, as a PTA board, we figured you just needed a little hand up.”
Her phone that had been facing down on the desk buzzed, and she picked it up. “Oh, joy. Remember how Cade stopped by on his way home from the middle school to pick up my younger kids? Well, apparently they decided to ‘take the shortcut’ through that construction site over on Red Oak and go across the creek, and now Cassie’s foot is stuck in some mud and they need to be rescued.”
She put her papers into her folder, stuffed it into her oversized purse, and grabbed her keys. “Sorry to buzz out of here so quickly. We’ll talk more soon.”
As the woman rushed toward the door of his office, Noah was still in shock and entirely uneasy about the fact that the entire PTA board had been talking about finding him a wife at some point and what might happen now that Chelsea knew they had a “deadline.” Just as Chelsea was walking through his office door into the main office, he called out, “Remember, that piece of news needs to stay between us.”
She waved him off and said, “You know my lips are sealed!” right before she was out of his line of sight.
He leaned back in his office chair and stared at the ceiling. Chelsea was on top of everything. Anytime he needed something, he knew he could tell her, and it would get done instantly either by her or by one of the parents of the kids in his school. He couldn’t imagine that having “Find Noah a wife” on her to-do list would go any differently.
It often felt like he knew everyone in Silver Leaf Falls, but it wasn’t that small of a town. Although the pool of single women within five years of his age certainly made him feel like it was. Between all the well-meaning people in town, he’d been set up on dates with pretty much all of them. He was convinced that whoever he was meant to be with wasn’t here.
Which meant that Chelsea and the PTA board would probably pull from the group of single mothers who had kids who went to Silver Leaf Falls Elementary. And after how things ended with Marissa, how awkward their breakup was, and how bad it made him feel that Marissa and her six-year-old son moved in order to end the awkward encounters, he wasn’t about to let the PTA line him up with a Silver Leaf Falls Elementary parent again.
Besides, he was moving. Not that it was official yet, but it would be soon. He needed to do something to stop Chelsea and the PTA board before it got out of control.
His phone buzzed, and the screen lit up with a text from his mom.
Mom: Hi, sweetie! Any chance you can help out at Sizzle and Sip tonight? Jack’s sick, and Carlos and Robin have a debate competition.
He quickly checked his schedule to make sure there wasn’t anything he was forgetting, and then he texted his mom back to say that he could. He liked being able to help out at his parents’ diner when they were in a bind, and he tried to ignore the heaviness in his stomach at the thought that he soon wouldn’t be around to help.
He had finished dealing with all the emails that had to be responded to before he left, rushed home, changed clothes, drove to the square, and found a parking spot that was nowhere even close. By the time he was cutting right through the middle of the Village Green, right between two red oak trees, past the gazebo, and to the sidewalk that led to Sizzle and Sip, Chelsea and the PTA was far from his mind. Until he pulled his phone out of his pocket when he felt it ring and saw it was Chelsea.
“First of all, don’t worry—I haven’t told a soul that you are planning to move to a different school. Not even my husband. I did call him on the way home, though, and told him that I felt like we needed to find you a wife and that it needed to be soon. He agreed that we should have an emergency PTA meeting to discuss it.”
“An emergency PTA meeting?” His mind scrambled to think of a way to stop her from having a meeting to discuss his love life. But she was talking so quickly that he didn’t have a second to respond.
“So I called the board together real quick and asked them to start brainstorming. We’ll meet in a day or two to discuss it further, but we’ve got some promising ideas on the list already! We’ve got the spring Sky Full of Stars Carnival coming up soon, and we are thinking of having a raffle. Only single women can enter, and the one who gets drawn gets a date with you. Doesn’t that sound so perfect? I’m getting goosebumps just thinking of it!”
“Perfect” wasn’t the word Noah would use. And he was getting a roiling stomach way more than he was getting goosebumps. He glanced up at the other pedestrians as he walked down the sidewalk toward Sizzle and Sip, trying to come up with a way to stop everything without alienating the entire PTA board.
“No, Chelsea, you really shouldn’t.” Okay, that probably wasn’t the best response to keep from alienating them.
“It’s the least we can do for Silver Leaf Falls Elementary’s beloved principal! Okay, listen, I’m here picking up Carter from tennis practice and things aren’t going—Carter! We don’t use racquets as a shield or a weapon!—I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you more later.”
He drew in a long, slow breath as he pressed the button to end the call. Okay, so he didn’t alienate them. But he didn’t even come close to stopping it, either. He needed to come up with a better way. He pushed the phone into his pocket and looked up just in time for his shoulder to knock into a woman’s shoulder as they passed each other, walking opposite directions.
He turned back toward the woman and said, “Sorry,” just as the woman turned slightly toward him. She was talking with another woman as they walked, so she gave a quick nod in acknowledgment and then kept on walking.
The woman’s face was so familiar, though. He slowed his walk as he tried to remember where he had seen her before. “Liz Jenkins?” he whispered as he turned back around to look in her direction as she disappeared into Authentically Timeless, the antique shop. Had that really been her? Wow, that was a blast from his past. He hadn’t seen her since the summer after eleventh grade. She had been a grade younger than him, but they had gone to the same schools practically since kindergarten.
He’d always thought she was cute—enough that he’d had a crush on her since about sixth grade—but “cute” didn’t even begin to describe her now. From the small glimpse he’d caught of her, it was obvious that the past dozen years had treated her well. She still had those beautifully intelligent eyes behind a pair of colorful glasses, the wavy chestnut hair that fell to her shoulders, and the walk that said wherever she was going, it was important. He wondered if she still only drank lemonade—never plain water.
He glanced at his watch. As much as a part of him was being pulled toward Authentically Timeless to say hello, he really couldn’t. He was already ten minutes late to his parents’ diner. After taking one last look at the building she’d gone into, he let out a breath and hurried down the sidewalk. He would have to just rely on fate—and hope that she’d be in town for more than a day—to make sure they ran into each other again.