The Long Hot Summer (Chapter One)

"Who the hell are you?"

Startled by the voice below where she stood on a stepladder hanging a colorful border of zoo animals above a corkboard – a booming voice sounding as if it had come from the bowels of the earth – Kelly Andrews lost her balance and fell backward. Her fall was halted as she found herself cushioned against the solid chest of the man who had silently entered the schoolhouse.

A swooshing rush of breath escaped her parted lips at the same time her eyes widened in surprise. Glaring down at her under lowered lids was the man who was her tormentor and rescuer.

There was no doubt he was a Blackstone. The angular, raw-boned face was the same as Sheldon Blackstone's. His eyes were gray, not the silvery sparkling shade of his father's, but a dark gray that reminded Kelly of a wintry sky before a snowstorm.

She wondered which Blackstone son he was – Jeremy the DEA agent or Ryan the veterinarian. Whoever he was, the black stubble on his jaw made him look formidable. Her startled gaze settled on his sensual full lower lip, wondering if it ever softened in a spontaneous smile.

Ryan Blackstone's expression mirrored that of the woman in his arms: shock. He'd just returned to Virginia and Blackstone Farms from the Tuskegee University of Veterinary Medicine where he'd taught several courses as a visiting professor for two semesters.

Minutes after he'd parked his car in the garage near the main house he had noted the sly grins and muted whispers from long-time employees, but chose to ignore them because he had been anxious to reunite with his father. His four-year-old son had spent the drive from Alabama to Virginia chattering incessantly about returning to the horse farm and seeing Grandpa.

Sheldon had warmly welcomed his son and grandson home, then told Ryan that he wanted him to meet the teacher for the new child care center, at the same time extolling the woman's credentials and experience. This news pleased Ryan because now the young children who lived at Blackstone Farms would have a structured daily environment. For years they had become free spirits, wood sprites with the horse farm's property as their backyard. They ran barefoot in the grass, climbed trees, swam in one of the two in-ground pools and raced in and out of the dining hall several times a day for snacks. Establishing the Blackstone Day School was an ideal situation, but only if the woman in his arms wasn't its new teacher.

Kelly placed a palm on his chest, pushing against solid muscle. "Please, put me down, Mr. Blackstone."

The sound of her husky voice jolted Ryan. The soft, perfumed body pressed against his was so pleasurable that he'd almost forgotten how good it felt to hold a woman – especially one who was certain not to share his bed.

Dark gray eyes narrowed slightly under raven eyebrows. He held his breath before letting it out slowly. "Who's asking?" He had tightened his grip under her knees.

"Kelly Andrews, Blackstone Farms Day School's new teacher. And I hope you don't make it a habit of using profanity around children."

Ryan glared at Kelly. Who did she think she was? "What did you say?"

"Mr. Blackstone, if you're hearing impaired I can sign for you. I'm certified in American Sign Language as well as certified to teach nursery through sixth grade. Now, I'm going to ask you again to put me down or I'll be forced to show you what other certifications I have."

Ryan decided he liked holding Kelly. He liked the husky timbre of her voice and the way her curvy body melded with his; he also liked the smell of her hair and skin.

"Are you warning me that you're trained in martial arts?"

Smiling, Kelly admired the masculine face inches from her own. Slanting cheekbones, a strong nose with slightly flaring nostrils, and a square-cut chin made for an arresting visage. His eyes were beautiful. They were a striking contrast to his brown skin.

Slowly, as if in a trance, Ryan lowered Kelly until her sandaled feet touched the newly installed oak flooring.

So, he thought, she was the one everyone had been whispering about. She was the teacher who would assume the responsibility for socializing the farm's young children. Studying her upturned face, Ryan stared down into eyes the color of newly minted pennies with glints of gold. They were framed by long, thick black lashes, which seemed to enhance their vibrancy. Her delicate copper-brown face was exquisite: sculpted cheekbones and a delicate chin with a hint of a dimple. A slight smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Kelly Andrews was lovely; no, he mused, she was stunning!

When Ryan had walked into the schoolhouse, he'd stood there mutely, staring at a pair of incredibly long legs under a pair of cutoffs, a narrow waist and slim hips. The hem of her sleeveless white blouse was tied at her midriff, offering a glimpse of velvety flesh at a waist small enough for him to span with both hands. Her dark chemically relaxed hair, cut to graze the back of her long neck, was secured off her face by a wide red headband.

"How old are you, Miss Andrews?"

Kelly took a quick breath of utter astonishment. Counting slowly to herself, she bit down on her lower lip. She had to choose her words wisely or she would walk away from this position.

Staring up at the tall man looming over her, she forced a smile she did not feel. "In case you aren't aware of it, Mr. Blackstone, but there are laws against age discrimination in the workplace." A spark of satisfaction lit her eyes when a rush of deep color darkened his tanned gold-brown face.

Ryan's right hand tightened at his side. "I'm very much aware of the law, Miss Andrews," he said. "And you can call me Ryan. My father is Mr. Blackstone."

Even though Sheldon Blackstone was legally listed as owner of the horse farm, it was Ryan who had eventually assumed responsibility for its day-to-day operation. His father had resumed the role this past year only because Ryan had been teaching as a visiting professor at his alma mater. In Ryan's absence Sheldon had advertised, interviewed and had hired Kelly to teach the children of Blackstone Farms.

And given Sheldon's penchant for beautiful women, it was obvious why he had hired Kelly Andrews.

Pulling herself up to her full five-foot-eight-inch height, Kelly flashed a confident grin. "If you're that versed in the law, then why did you inquire about my age?"

Aware that he'd been caught in a trap of his own making, Ryan struggled to extricate himself from a terminal case of foot-in-mouth.

"You look so young that I…I," he stammered, unable to complete his statement. There was something in her gaze that tightened the muscles in his stomach. It had been a long time since a woman had excited him with just a glance. Not since the first time his gaze met the woman's who had eventually become his wife and the mother of his son.

Kelly lifted an eyebrow and decided to let Ryan squirm a bit longer. It would serve him right if she turned her back on him and went back to decorating her classroom. She had wanted to finish by the end of what had become a very long day.

But there was so much to do. She still had to unpack and catalog books, games, art supplies and videos before she'd be ready. She had hoped to open the school on Monday – exactly one month since her arrival at Blackstone Farms.

"I can assure you, Ryan," she said, stressing his name, "I'm old enough and qualified to teach."

"That may be so, Miss Andrews, but I intend to monitor you closely during your probationary period."

Gazing up at him, Kelly noticed a sprinkling of silver in the thick, close-cropped wavy black hair. There was something rakish and sophisticated in Ryan. His dark skin and light colored eyes reminded her of lightning in a bottle.

"Ryan?" Her voice was soft and layered with a sensuality that jerked his head up like a marionette manipulated by a puppeteer.

His eyes darkened until they were nearly black with an indefinable emotion. "Yes, Kelly." It was the first time he'd called her by her given name.

Tilting her chin, she gave him a captivating smile. "I don't have a probationary clause in my contract."

Ryan closed his eyes, silently cursing his father for being taken in by her pretty face. It was Sheldon who had vehemently insisted that everyone employed at Blackstone Farms sign a contract – one that always included a clause detailing a probationary period.

He opened his eyes to find Kelly staring at him, while at the same time the curvy pout of her sexy mouth taunted and challenged him. "What did you promise my father?"

Her smooth forehead furrowed. "Excuse me?"

Ryan leaned closer. "You heard me the first time, Kelly. Don't make me have to sign for you." His gaze roamed leisurely over her body. "I hope when you begin teaching you'll be wearing more clothes."

Without giving her an opportunity to come back at him, he turned on his heels, walked out of the schoolhouse, and closed the door softly, leaving her to stare at a pair of broad shoulders that seemed almost too wide for the doorway.

She sat on the stepladder, her shoulders slumping in resignation as the enthusiasm she had felt earlier that morning dissipated. It did not take the intelligence of a rocket scientist to know that Ryan Blackstone did not like women. And apparently it wasn't all women – just the younger ones.

At thirty, she had experienced what most women her age hadn't: widowhood. Several months before she'd celebrated her twenty-eighth birthday Simeon Randall had been killed by a hit-and-run driver when he'd pulled off the parkway to fix a flat tire. Simeon, mercifully, had died instantly from massive head trauma.

The appearance of two police officers at her door, asking that she come to a local hospital because her husband had been killed in a traffic accident had changed her and her life forever. She'd lost her first love, soul mate and life partner. Even after she had buried her husband she refused to accept that he would not walk through the door each night to share dinner with her. She'd continued to set the table for two. When her mother, who had come to see her without calling first, asked about the extra place setting, Kelly broke down and sobbed in her arms the way she'd done as a child. Camille Andrews stayed the night, holding her daughter in her arms while they slept in the bed Kelly had shared with her son-in-law.

The following day Kelly walked into the principal's office at the school where she'd taught third grade, and resigned her position. Two days later she got into her car and headed for Washington, D.C. to spend time with her sister and brother-in-law. A month's stay became two, and eventually twenty-three.

She had returned to New York City to clean out her co-op apartment, sell items she did not want, place heirloom pieces in storage and list the property with a real estate agent. The apartment was sold six months later, and Kelly deposited the proceeds into a Washington, D.C., bank account. She continued to pay to store her furniture until she received official documentation of her hire as a teacher for Blackstone Farms Day School. The antique mahogany sleigh bed, armoire, heirloom linens, quilts and the wrought-iron table and chairs that had once sat on her grandmother's patio now graced the charming bungalow she would call home for the next year.

She sat on the stool until the door opened again, and this time it was Sheldon Blackstone who had come to see her. "Don't bother to get up," he said, as he came closer. Leaning against the wall, he crossed his legs at the ankles. "It looks nice, Miss Kelly."

She nodded. "I should finish decorating tonight."

A slight frown marred Sheldon's lined forehead. "Why don't you put that off until tomorrow?"

Kelly studied the older man's profile, finding him quite handsome. Tall, solidly built, with brilliant light-gray eyes in a face the color of toasted pecans, she knew the widowed horse breeder could easily attract a woman from thirty to eighty.


"Everyone's gathering in the dining hall tonight at six to welcome my son and grandson home." Since coming to Blackstone Farms Sheldon noticed that Kelly rarely took her meals in the dining hall with the other employees.

She nodded. "I'll be there, Mr. Blackstone."

Straightening, he wagged a finger at her. "I told you before that we're pretty informal here. Please call me Sheldon."

"If that's the case, please call me Kelly."

"No," he said, shaking his head. "I'll call you Miss Kelly in front of the children. There's an unwritten rule here. The children aren't allowed to address adults by their given name, especially women. I know it may sound outdated and quite Southern to a Northerner, but it is a Blackstone tradition."

Kelly smiled. "I may be from New York, but I do claim some Southern roots. I have some Virginia blood on my daddy's side and South Carolina on my mama's."

Sheldon flashed a rare smile. "Where in Virginia?"

"Newport News."

"The best seafood I've ever eaten was in Newport News."

"I have relatives there who are fishermen."

Sheldon took a quick glance at his watch. "I expect to see you later."

"You will."

Kelly had to smile. I expect to see you later. It was Sheldon's way of ordering her to eat with the other employees. Since she had come to live on the farm, she had eaten at the dining hall twice, both times for breakfast. Sheldon had informed her that breakfast and lunch were served buffet-style, while dinner was a sit-down affair where everyone who lived or worked on the property shared in this meal – all except for her.

She usually prepared a light dinner, cleaned up the kitchen in the bungalow before throwing all of her energies into her craft projects. She'd worked practically nonstop to ready her classroom for the projected first day of school, which was now only three days away.

Curbing the urge to salute her boss, she watched as he walked across the floor of the spacious outbuilding that had been converted into a schoolhouse. She wanted to say like father, like son, but decided to reserve judgment on the Blackstones. After all, they were responsible for an enterprise that included thousands of acres of land, millions of dollars in horseflesh and a payroll for more than thirty employees.

After seeing an ad in The Washington Post for an experienced teacher certified in early childhood education to teach on a horse farm in the western part of Virginia, Kelly had searched the Internet for information on Blackstone Farms. She had learned that Blackstone Farms was one of a few owned and operated African American horse farms in the state.

She liked this part of Virginia. It was so different from New York City and Washington, D.C. Although it was early summer, the heat and humidity were noticeably lower. The property, west of the Blue Ridge and east of the Shenandoah Mountain ranges, lay in a valley like a shimmering emerald on blue-black velvet, was to become her home for the next year.

She glanced at her watch. It was almost four-thirty. She would finish putting up the banner, then go home to prepare for dinner.

Twenty minutes later, the border in place, Kelly walked out of the schoolhouse, closing the door behind her. Sheldon had introduced her to some of the other employees, but tonight would be the first time she would interact with all of them socially. It would also be the first time she would meet the parents of the children who would become her responsibility.

Attending the dinner would also bring her face-to-face with Ryan Blackstone again. He'd caught her off guard when he'd entered the schoolhouse undetected, but she made a solemn promise it would be the last time he would catch her off guard.