Kristen trembled as they waited. "I think I'm going to be sick," she muttered, and Mark squeezed her hand.
"Be calm, love. They can't hurt us."
"I hate him," she confessed in a guilty whisper. "Even if he is a preacher. He scares me to death. I didn't know he was going to be here tonight." She shivered, and moved closer to Mark.
"I'm not too fond of him, either," Mark said. "But they can't do anything to us. We haven't done anything wrong."
"I know. He's just always scared me, ever since I was a kid." She laughed humorlessly. "I think I have a phobia."
"No," Mark said, smiling. "A phobia is an irrational fear."
"You said he couldn't do anything to us," she pointed out. "So it is an irrational fear."
Shortly, the board members started filing back in, taking their seats and watching the front table expectantly. Eventually, the secretary finished counting the votes. The mousy little woman bit her lip, then nervously whispered to the Reverend, wincing at his thunderous scowl.
He stood, calling for attention. "Well, the people of this board have decided. Mr. Hasseran retains his employment despite his breach of contract and his amoral behavior. I am, frankly, shocked, but the vote is clear. This meeting is hereby adjourned."
Kristen looked up at Mark in shock, and he smiled down at her. "Told you so," he whispered, and she ducked her head, blushing, then smiled up at him, her eyes shining.
"I... um... I love you," she whispered. "I was so..." At a loss for words, she squeezed his hand, and gave him another bright, happy smile. "I was so nervous. Wow. Um, I'll be right back," she said, pointing towards the restroom, and he nodded understandingly.
While he waited for her, Emily Rogers approached, reaching out to shake his hand. "Congratulations, Dr. Hasseran," she said warmly.
He returned her smile. "Thank you for speaking up for us in there," he said. "It's fairly obvious that the Reverend had his mind made up before hearing the first word."
"Unfortunately," she said, "you are almost certainly correct. However, our chairman is chosen by lot, not by vote of confidence. It was pure bad luck that his name was picked tonight. Not that he's not always one of the louder voices, but that doesn't mean that everyone agrees with him."
"That makes me feel better," Mark said.
"Don't get me wrong... not everyone approves of a man your age marrying a 14 year old girl," she said. "However... well, the changes in her have been obvious to many people, and if you're the reason behind them, then her father's right; you are good for her." She smiled fondly at Kristen, then her face sobered. "Were I you, though, I'd be prepared for more of a fight, though. It'll be rough for a couple of weeks. Rumors, accusations. Likely there'll be a petition to get her expelled and you fired. However, the board's decision is final."
Mark smiled wryly. "Would it help if I said I wouldn't normally approve? Most of the time, it wouldn't be about love. In this case... well, to be honest, and not to insult her, but if I'd been after what most men would be, I wouldn't have had to marry her."
"That is another point that was in your favor," Emily said. "If you'd just been sleeping with her, you'd be fired and in jail so fast your head would spin."
He met her eyes squarely. "If all I'd wanted from her was sex, and I didn't care about her, just used her that way, that's exactly where I'd belong."
She smiled again. "You've chosen a rough path, Dr., but I think you've done the right thing. I am delighted to have my daughter in your class."
"Thank you. Stephanie is, to be honest, something of a teacher's dream. Literally," he said. "She does her homework and pays attention in class!" He grinned. "Though I do have a few tricks up my sleeve to help with that last. Nothing like minor explosions to get attention." Then he sighed. "There is one aspect of this I'm not particularly happy with, though. I have a bad feeling that many of the parents will no longer feel comfortable allowing their children to come over and use the telescope."
"With you safely married to the most beautiful girl in town? Why would you even look at any of their daughters?" She shook her head. "Don't worry. As many will be relieved as worried. Though I'm not going to lie and say there won't be an uproar. Prudence is a very conservative place, and likely Sunday's sermon will be very... targeted. But if you ride it out, things will go back to normal soon enough. A lot of the more conservative ones are old enough that 14 doesn't seem all that unlikely an age for a girl to get married to 'a nice older man, a good provider, someone who can keep her in hand'. It'll be okay, eventually."
He raised his eyebrows. "Well, that makes me feel better. I'd worried... I was afraid it would be bad for her."
Emily sighed, looking at the girl sympathetically. "It will. But it always has been, and it will get better."
He nodded solemnly. "And I'll be there for her if it gets too bad. Worst comes to worst..."
"Worst comes to worst?"
He sighed. "We can move. But I'd hate to do that. She's finally started making friends as opposed to... well..." He shrugged awkwardly.
Emily nodded comfortingly. "Indeed. Just hang in there. I'm sure it will all work out." She patted him on the shoulder, and left him to wait for Kristen.
She came bouncing up shortly, smiling. "Ready to go?"
He nodded, reaching for her hand. "Let's go home, love."
Hesitantly, she took his hand, and he smiled down at her. She looked down at the floor. "It's... weird... things not being a secret, anymore," she said, then looked up at him. "I suppose developing a case of the flu and staying home for the next two weeks isn't an option, huh?" she asked wistfully.
He shook his head. "No, it's not, I'm afraid."
"Damn." She sighed. "Let's go home, then. I think some heavy duty comforting in in order."
He bent and kissed her hair, then led her out of the building.
Tuesday morning came way too soon. Kristen moved about the house in her normal routine, but was very, very quiet, nervous. She didn't say a word on the drive to the school, but once they were parked, she looked up at him.
"How do we do this?" she asked. "Do we pretend nothing's changed, or what?"
He squeezed her hand. "It'll be bad, love, but will it be as bad as it was last year?" he asked gently. "I say we stop hiding. We be ourselves... and in love."
She trembled as she stared up at him, then nodded and took a deep breath. "Okay. Let's go then," she said, making it sound like more like, "Okay. Let's engage the heavily armed, bulletproof enemy with these salad forks."
He grinned down at her, then reached into his pocket and pulled out the wedding band he'd purchased over the weekend to match hers. He handed it to her, then held out his hand.
She bit her lip as she slipped it on his finger, then threw her arms around his neck and kissed him soundly. "You're worth it," she whispered. "I hope I am."
He held her tightly. "You are."
He'd been a bit of a coward. He hadn't told her that the reason he wanted to come in early was to have a talk with the counselor before school. When he finally did tell her, and asked her if she wanted to come in with him, she stared up at him, frightened.
"I... god, Mark! I don't want to leave you, but I don't want to talk to her either," she said. "I guess... I'd have to leave you to go to class anyway, so... it's just a little early. I'm sorry." She looked down at the floor, ashamed. "I'm going to hide in the library til classes start."
He tilted her chin up so he could see her eyes. "It's your choice, love. But I can tell you she really regrets hurting you."
"I just can't Mark. It still hurts. I know it shouldn't matter, but... I just can't."
He pulled her into his arms. "It's okay, love. It's okay."
He left her with a final kiss in the library.
Angie looked up as he opened the office door. "Mark! What are you doing here this early?" she asked.
He closed the door behind him, and sat down in the chair by the desk. "Well, actually, I came to apologize to you," he said, a sheepish look on his face.
"Huh?" She looked totally confused. "What on earth could you have to apologize for?"
He sighed. "A couple of weeks ago, we had a conversation. Everything I told you was precisely true, but it was calculated to mislead you, which it did. As of the school board meeting last night, the reason I misled you no longer applies."
Her eyes grew angry, and she started to look suspicious, and when Mark held up his left hand to show her the ring, she shook her head angrily, mistaking the gesture. "Wait for what?" she snapped. "If they fired you, why aren't you in jail? Hell, why aren't I in jail by now?"
He shook his head, and turned his hand over. "Look more closely."
"What..." She broke off, blinking. "Oh. Oh, I see," she whispered, turning pale. "All right," she said. "The second question still stands, then."
"What do you mean?"
"You're sleeping with her legally," Angie said. "You have nothing to hide. Why haven't you turned me in, then?"
He shook his head. "Because I think you regret what you did, and because I don't think you're a threat to anyone."
"How can you say that?" she demanded. "You know what I did!"
"I know what you did." He sighed. "But you've never done anything like it before or since, have you? Or even been tempted?"
She stared at him for a moment, then her face crumpled, and she started to cry.
"What's wrong?" he asked, started. He had no idea what he'd said that could cause such a breakdown, but it was obviously something. She sobbed brokenly, hopelessly, and turned her face away from him.
"Angie?" he asked, confused.
"Yes!" She shuddered as she looked back at him. "Yes, damn it. I've been tempted."
"Who?" he asked softly.
She moaned, wrapping her arms around herself, shaking. "Your wife," she whispered. "Why do you think I haven't even tried to apologize to her. I'm tempted every fucking day."
He stared at her, turning the possibilities over and over in his mind, knowing, on an instinctual level, that this wasn't something natural. "Is it very bad?" he asked weakly.
"It's an obsession," she whispered, closing her eyes, and he felt a sudden surge of anger. Not jealousy, but protective violence. The sudden urge to dismember her was one of the most intense things he'd ever felt.
Mark clenched his jaw, fighting the irrational anger, and managed to suppress it, to shove it away so that he could think again. Once his mind was clear, he looked down at her thoughtfully. "Can you give me a few minutes?" he asked. "Promise me you won't leave here?"
She nodded miserably. "Are you calling the police? I won't run."
He just shook his head. "Trust me."
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