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Prudence, Chapter 44

Their weekend was spent quite pleasantly. A nice hotel suite in Dallas, complete with a jacuzzi by the bed, made a comfortable home base, and a dance club that allowed all ages wasn't too hard to find, either. They spent quite a bit of time in bookstores, too, buying books on paganism and witchcraft. After picking up those books, though, he called Steven to suggest a installing a decent safe in the basement.

Kristen's fitting for her new wardrobe went smoothly, as did Kayla's measuring, despite her protests. Aaron obeyed meekly when Mark told him he was to be fitted for a suit, and Johann eyed him slightly lasciviously. "Ja, we can do that just fine," the old man said. "Wish I were younger, though. Come along young man." He stopped and grinned at Mark. "You, as well. Mr. Davis said."

Mark sighed. "I should have expected it, I suppose."

"Ja, you should have."

Sunday night they returned to a house that was, as promised, completely unlivable. Floors were torn up, walls had holes in them, machinery and supplies were everywhere.

Kristen frowned, looking at the devastation. "I hope we're not hurting the ghost with all of this."

Mark winced with the sudden pang of guilt. "Oh... I didn't think of that. On the other hand... maybe it will set her free?"

"I... don't know," she said. "But I guess if the renovations ten years ago didn't hurt her, this probably won't, either."

They gathered what they needed as quickly as possible and headed for Steven's house to spend the night.

Monday morning was surprisingly calm, though there was a bit of gossip going around the school about the emergency meeting of the School Board that had been called for that night. Mark wasn't surprised to receive the note that the principal wanted to see him.

"I'm meeting with the School Board tonight," Ward said without preamble. "If you want there to be a chance of this working, you'll need to be there. She and her father should be on-hand, as well."

Mark nodded. "What else do I need to know?"

"We need to decide on a tact to take. Was it love at first sight, did she seduce you and then honor and guilt forced you to make an honest woman of her, did her father arrange your meeting and encourage the relationship in hopes of marrying off his difficult offspring, or what?"

Thoughtfully, Mark stared at the desk for a moment. "Which one do you think will go over best with them? The truth is love at first sight, but I don't know if they'll buy it."

Ward shook his head. "I honestly don't know. Love at first sight is hard to believe, but might appeal to some of the more romantically inclined on the board. A combination of that, which caused you to stray from the moral path and thus feel honor-bound to propose marriage, might be the best strategy." He shrugged. "On the other hand, it might be best to avoid any hint that you were sexually active with her before marriage, even though no one will believe it."

Mark chose to ignore the slight sneer to the man's voice.... for now, anyway. "How about love at first sight, but me not doing anything about it, and her father noticing and encouraging the relationship to get her safely married?"

"Within a month?" Ward asked. "Endangering your career? They'd want to know why you didn't simply avoid her."

"Hmm... What do you suggest then?"

"I suggest that it has to be your choice," Ward said. "Which part can you most convincingly play?"

"Most convincing would be the truth -- love at first sight."

"Then we'll play it that way. You saw her, you loved her, she felt the same." Rolled eyes showed what Ward thought of the likelihood of that. "You tried to fight it, but you couldn't help yourself when you saw how miserable your rejection of her was making her. Her father would do anything to make his daughter happy, and was delighted to give his blessing to the marriage. You never even considered not marrying her... you're just that kind of guy."

"I shouldn't have any problem with that," Mark said coolly, "considering that it is, in all respects, the truth."

"Right," Ward said with a skeptical look. "Whatever you say. Make sure her and her father will back up your little story, and just be here tonight."

Mark reminded himself that they needed the man for this, and just nodded. "I shall."

***

The meeting started at 7:30, but they were asked to wait in the library for the first thirty minutes or so, while Ward explained the situation to the Board. The wait did nothing to soothe Kristen, who was a mass of nerves from the beginning. When they came to get him, asking Kristen and Steven to wait further, she released him reluctantly, trembling and looking up at him with pleading eyes.

He smoothed her hair. "It'll be okay, love," he whispered. "No matter what. I promise." She tried to smile, but he could feel her unhappy eyes on his back as he followed Ward out the door.

Upon entering the cafeteria, where the meeting was being held, he was greeted by a tall, thin, balding older man standing behind the podium. "Mr. Hasseran, I don't believe we've met. I'm Reverend Marshall. I'm chairing this meeting." He went on to introduce the other members of the School Board.

Mark nodded pleasantly. "It's good to meet you."

Marshall folded his long, thin hands in front of his chest, in what seemed to be an unconscious gesture of prayer. "I wish it could have been under other circumstances. You do realize, I'm sure, why you're here tonight?"

"Yes, I do."

"And you realize that under most circumstances, such a thing would be cause for immediate termination of your employment? A blatant contract violation, especially one so morally questionable as this, usually requires no hearing."

"I do understand it's unusual," Mark said. "But... Can you really choose who you fall in love with?" He shrugged. "I couldn't. I tried."

The look Marshall gave him was full of disapproval. "No. Perhaps you can't. But you can choose how you act upon your feelings. When one has inappropriate feelings towards a child... one of his own students, he should seek out help."

Before Mark could answer, a grey-haired woman in the front row interjected, "With all due respect, Reverend, a girl of Miss Davis'... I mean Mrs. Hasseran's... um... sophistication, should perhaps not be considered a child."

"In the eyes of the law, Emily, a child she is," he replied.

"In the eyes of the law, Jacob, their marriage is perfectly legal," she retorted, and they glared at each other for a tense moment.

Mark decided the wisest choice was to stay out of it, so instead took the opportunity to study the other members while their attention was focused on the pair. They seemed to be pretty evenly divided in their support, though, with as many nods of approval as frowns and head-shakes.

Finally, Marshall turned back to Mark. "Perhaps you would like to give us your side of this sordid little story, Mr. Hasseran?" he asked, his voice dripping with disapproval.

"Certainly," he said, with a polite smile. "It may sound... well, corny... but it truly was love at first sight, Reverend. For both of us. I tried to deny it, but all that did was make Kristen miserable. Her father is more than just a little observant, and figured out why she was upset. When he told me that not only would he not object to our marriage, but that he actively approved of the idea and was willing to help us with the legalities..." He shrugged, spreading his hands with a smile.

Marshall raised an eyebrow. "The father of the girl gave her to you? Just because she thought she loved you?"

"Reverend, are you denying that she knew her own mind?" Mark asked.

"A child must be gently guided to adulthood, Mr. Hasseran. Kristen was a particularly lost little lamb, lacking a mother, with a father who was constantly away on 'business', and not even the comfort and counsel of the church. I can't imagine a heart more vulnerable to the silken promises of an older, wiser man."

Mark frowned, his eyes narrowing. "I'm not sure I like the implication in that, Reverend."

The older woman, Emily Rogers, spoke up. "Neither do I. We're not here to slander the young man, Reverend. We're just here to see if circumstances warrant a waiver of our policy. Frankly, according to the other teachers, and my daughter, he's the best science teacher Prudence has ever had. I have no idea how we enticed him out here in the first place. If he really loves the girl, then he did the right thing by marrying her. I don't see why he should be punished for it. Yes, he should have waited." She smiled, the light of fond memories in her eyes. "But sometimes, love just can't wait. He sought out the blessing of her father and the law, which is more than many men would do."

Marshall frowned irritably. "I can see we are divided on this issue," he said. "Mr. Hasseran, tell me... did you expect to keep your job after this rash act?"

"To be blunt, Reverend?" He regarded the man calmly. "It wasn't a major concern. I enjoy teaching; that's why I do it. I was privileged to have several very good teachers when I was in school, and I want to be able to provide the same inspiration to my students. But if I had to choose between Kristen and teaching..." He shook his head. "Frankly, it wouldn't even be a choice. She means more to me than any job, no matter how satisfying."

"There," Emily said. "I think that is quite strong evidence that his feelings for the young woman are quite genuine, Reverend."

"Very well," Marshall said, his face twisted as if he'd bitten into something nasty. "Before we vote on the issue, we should hear from her and her father. Please retrieve your... wife... and her father, Mr. Hasseran."

Mark caught the hesitation, and his hands tried to clench, but he forced them to relax and just nodded with apparent amiability before heading for the door.

Kristen jumped up as he entered, whirling to face him. "Mark? How's it going?" She sounded scared.

"Not that badly, love. Just try not to get rattled."

She nodded nervously, and Steven squeezed her shoulder. "C'mon, honey. It'll be fine," he said.

Mark took her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze, and let them back to the cafeteria. She flinched visibly under the glare the Reverend leveled at her as they entered.

"Miss Davis, do you know why you're here?"

Her jaw tightened. "It's Mrs. Hasseran," she said stiffly. "And yes, I do."

"Kristen, dear, you're not on trial," said Emily, more kindly. "No matter how melodramatic certain parties seem inclined to be. We just want to ask you a couple of questions."

She nodded. "Of course, Mrs. Rogers. I'm happy to help."

"How did it come about that you found yourself married to your science teacher, Kristen?" Marshall demanded.

"I love him, Reverend. I don't care who or what he is."

"Don't you think you're a bit young for that sort of commitment?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Why, Reverend, what on earth do you mean? Biblically speaking, I'm practically an old maid. I should have two kids by now!"

He flushed angrily as a few people laughed, and Kristen turned away from him. "Mrs, Rogers, it wasn't on purpose, and Mark tried hard for it not to happen. We both did. He was terrified of taking advantage of me, and I was scared to death I was going to ruin his life. He..." She blushed, looking down at the floor. "He first offered to marry me when he thought I was pregnant. By someone else. He didn't want me to have to have a baby on my own, without a husband."

Several Board members gasped, and Mark was surprised himself. He hadn't expected her to mention that. That hadn't been part of the plan. But apparently, she didn't care... if it made him look more noble, it didn't matter to her that it made her look worse.

"So you TRAPPED him into marrying you when you're carrying some other man's bastard?" Marshall roared, jarring Mark out of his shocked stupor.

"Reverend, I'll thank you to be civil to my wife," he snapped. "And for the record, she refused me."

Kristen was trembling, barely perceptibly but Mark could feel it. "I did refuse him. I wouldn't do that to him. Not when there wasn't even a chance of it being his. It was only later, well after we found out that I was not pregnant that I couldn't stand not being with him anymore." She glared. "He did not take advantage of me. Not ever. If anything, it was the other way around. I wouldn't leave him alone. I just couldn't. No one else in the world is like him, no one ever cared fro me like he does."

The preacher sniffed skeptically. "Mr. Davis? Do you have anything to add to these proceedings?"

"I do," Steven said, firmly, stepping forward. "Since the start of the school year, I've watched my daughter change from an unhappy, insecure little girl into a happy, self-assured, young woman. She's taken firm control of her own life, and learned how to determine her own heart. I've never seen her happier. I owe this change to Mark, entirely, because I never knew how to bring it about myself. Of course I let her marry him. He's the best thing that ever happened to her. She would have been miserable if I'd made her spend the next four years without him. Not being with him was breaking her heart. He's not the kind of man who could let that happen to the woman he loved, no matter what the stake." He smiled. "I am extremely happy and proud to have him as a part of my family."

Marshall banged his little hammer once Steven was done, the sharp crack echoing loudly in the quiet room. "Very well. Having heard all parties involved, as well as the principal's testimony on Mr. Hasseran's behalf, we will now vote on this issue. Please indicate your vote by placing either an X if you feel Hasseran's employment should be terminated, or an O if you feel we should retain him to teach our children despite the example he sets. Place your votes in the bin, and Ms. Shawning will tally them. We'll reconvene in fifteen minutes." He banged the hammer again, glaring at the three of the before marking his paper with exaggerated motion and tossing it in the bin, then stood and stalked out of the room.



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