Not that Marzie Spencer noticed the man who crossed the sidewalk in front of her, but his pleasant, dignified appearance drew her attention, to say the least. The well-dressed gent sent a glance in her direction while she assisted Patricia Wingate in getting her second-grade class from the school to the park. Of course, she noticed him, but what would he have to do with her? Marzie, you've spent your life resisting the song within. Have you grown to be no more than a wrinkled bead of bittersweet catering to your cynicism and regret?

He stood out in Pleasant Tides, Georgia, where a growing number of men her age hid potbellies under their polo shirts and catered to their quest for youth by riding Harleys and buying big boats. Nevertheless, even this specimen of perfection reminded her of the imperfection of men.

Patricia glanced back at the group of twelve students who were sandwiched between Marzie and three other grandparent mentors from SKAP, the Skilled Assistant Program. The group had formed in order to teach underprivileged kids how to read. Patricia slowed while Marzie caught up with her. "Who's that man, Marzie?"

Embarrassed to the core that anyone would notice her watching a strange man, she redirected Patricia's attention. "No one I know, but Gabriel DuBois is quite a shrewd fellow for a second-grader." Marzie brushed a lightning bug from the leg of her khakis while the group continued across the park to the playground.

"Be very careful how you react to him, Marzie. He's smarter than you think. Just because he can't read, doesn't mean he's not intelligent. He's learning to work the system and us. I've known him to outsmart me on many occasions."

Marzie understood why. The Creole mix child with light-brown skin and curly blond hair had learned to fend for himself with an absentee father and negligent mother. "I'll be watchful. It takes a good deal of trickery—especially from an eleven-year-old—to fool me. I'll help him learn to read, but he won't wrap me around his finger. I promise you that."

Together, the mentors led their brood of children up the brick sidewalk that framed the perimeter of the city park in Pleasant Tides. When they reached the mulched area of the playground, Patricia raised her right hand in the air. The little group came to a halt, and she turned around to face the children. "Everyone is holding a piece of paper in his or her hand. Each piece of paper is numbered. To make it easier, I've color-coded each number. For instance, all the number ones are on blue paper." She pointed her finger to Marzie. "Miss Spencer, will you hold up your blue card?"

Marzie gazed off in the distance to the man dressed in Sunday garb. He probably wouldn't look twice at her today with her blondish-gray curls plastered to the sweat on her face.

"Miss Spencer?"

"Oh, sorry." Marzie lifted her slightly damp and wrinkled square of construction paper that she'd clutched in her hand since they'd left the school.

Patricia continued. "Miss Spencer has everyone who is number one; I have number two or yellow; and Mr. Wright has number three or green. Mrs. Pine and Mr. Jensen will be group assistants today."

All the mentors spread about five feet apart to give the children space to gather around. Before long, Marzie felt someone mold his moist, grubby hand into her hand. "I'm with you, again. Looks like we're supposed to be together." Gabe squeezed her hand and fixed his blue eyes in studious attention, as if he had practiced in front of a mirror to perfect the role only he could portray.

Marzie choked back a burst of compassion. She had just viewed an academy award performance. She knew of his distress, that his father popped in and out of the home at will, and his mother worked two jobs, one of which employed her at night on the streets of a nearby town. Only God could alleviate Gabe's pain, but Mar-zie wondered if even God could. He hadn't made any appearances lately to Marzie. "We're together today, Gabe."

Just then one of Marzie's girls stomped her foot down on a wind-borne paper cup. With the litter trapped under her tennis shoe, the girl pinched the drinking edge of the cup between her fingers. "Miss Spencer, look. I'm picking up this litter and dropping it into this waste can for you." She wrapped her palm around the rim of the metal container and tossed the paper inside.

"Oh! Here, Lisa." Marzie pulled a small bottle of strawberry-scented hand sanitizer from her pocket. "Good job. That's a great way to keep our community clean, but let me squeeze some of this into your palm. You must keep your hands clean, also."

Lisa widened her eyes as she rubbed her hands together. "Smells like something good to eat."

Marzie directed her back to the other children. "You're going to pass out if you keep drawing those deep breaths into your nose."

Gabe wrinkled his forehead and pouted. "Is there something I can pick up?"

"No, Gabe, but hold out your palm. I'll give you a little squirt. I'm positive you can use some." While Gabe rubbed the evaporating gel into his hands, Marzie caught her group's attention and motioned to the gray plastic tubing on the jungle gym that created several mazes of hiding places.

Gabe lingered with her until she laid her hand on his back and guided him in the direction of the swings and the other children. When he hung his head and trudged away, Patricia made her way over. "See what I mean? He's still trying to dawdle as long as he can."

"He's just being a kid. I know my boundaries. Besides, I'm sure the state wouldn't allow a fifty-seven-year-old woman, like me, to go through the adoption process with a little boy like Gabe. There's a mother out there somewhere for him."

Patricia slid the bridge of her glasses down her nose and peered out over the top of them at Marzie. "You sure about that?"

Marzie gave a half laugh and watched Gabe back up to a swing, grasp the chains in his fists, and hoist himself up on the straplike seat behind him. He bobbed forward and backward a few times until he settled into a steady pulsing rhythm. "I'm as sure about that as I am that I'm going to win this debate over whether that northerner has the right to build his home on the marsh across the road from my house."

"I thought the deal went through."

"Oh, he purchased the land all right. That doesn't mean I'm going away peacefully. The problem is, the whole Save the Marsh committee backed down and left me to face this alone. I don't understand."

"They're probably tired of losing the marsh battle against Jill Wilder."

Marzie stiffened then bundled her shoulder-length, naturally curly hair into a mass on top of her head. "Jill has long been a proponent of protecting the marsh. Something or someone has changed her mind. It's hard to imagine we were such good friends a few months back. Nevertheless, she hasn't seen the last of me."

"Marzie, I've seen you hurt too often when you've gotten involved in all these legal issues. Maybe you should back off, too."

Marzie pursed her lips and shook her head. "I was born in that tide-weary shack sitting on the far end of the property. I'm more interested in my first home than anything else. I'll guarantee you, that new owner will tear it down before he does anything else." She let her hair fall back down to her shoulders. "Besides, I've won more battles with this city than I've lost. It's impossible for me to back off, at this point. That land rightfully belongs to me."

While they bantered about the shack on the marsh, a shrill screech cut into their conversation. All the mentors had begged Mr. Wright not to use it, but he puckered his lips against the air hole of the whistle that hung as a permanent ornament around his neck and blew once more. Recess had ended, and he wanted everyone to know. Marzie automatically raised her hand for her group to gather around.

"We can talk later if you want, Marzie." Patricia raised her right hand to signal the children to find their groups and raised her voice to get their attention. "Take your places in line, and we'll head back to the classroom."

Gabe took Marzie's hand while his voice squeaked higher than normal. "It's too hot to go back in that room. Can't you fix it so we can stay out here?"

Marzie took a glance at Patricia and recognized her "I told you so" look. Nevertheless, Marzie remained firm on her commitment not to allow the boy to win her over. "Gabe, it's May. You have to expect it to be hot once in a while in Georgia in May. I encourage you to obey Mrs. Wingate so we can move on with our day."

She felt him squeeze her hand one more time before he withdrew it, and she made every effort to ignore it. Even though staying single her whole life had prevented her from having the children she longed for, she could never relinquish her dream to open a pottery store in Savannah, just to take in a kid.

Marzie kept step with Patricia to lead the children across the azalea-laden park and down the three blocks to the historic brick building converted to house the school. At the same time, the sophisticated-looking gentleman she'd seen earlier strolled back across the park and headed up the sidewalk in front of them. Marzie leaned closer to Patricia. "Very elegantly dressed for this sultry day, wouldn't you say? He's probably sweltering in that navy woolen jacket."

"And those black dress shoes must be killing his feet. I vote for tennis shoes."

Marzie nodded. "Nevertheless, there's a briefcase tucked under one arm. Must have a business meeting. I saw him here the other day, too."

Patricia's eyes sparkled. "Oh? You didn't tell me."

Marzie caught the inference. "No, I know what you're thinking. I only noticed him because I hadn't seen him around here before."

Suddenly, Gabe spit out his disapproval. "Will one of you please tell that man up there to hurry? We never walk this slow."

Marzie sucked in a quick breath and covered her mouth as if she'd uttered the harsh but truthful words. She edged her hand away, prepared to acknowledge the regrettable discourtesy, but the man turned around with a beaming white smile and tipped an imaginary hat.

Patricia thrust her arm up into the air in a precise karate motion. Some of the children tripped into one another when they focused their childlike wonder on the man and tried to stop at their teacher's signal.

First, he eyed Marzie. "That young man reminds me of me when I was that age. Never hurts to speak your mind, once in a while." Then he exaggerated stepping into the magnolia petals that were scattered across the grass. "I believe that was my cue to get out of the way."

Marzie brushed the hair from her face, wishing the man had seen her in the morning, fresh from the shower, hair halfway fixed, and clothing neat and clean. On second thought, she knew the heat in her cheeks didn't come from the 85-degree temperatures outside. Not many men could take her breath away the way he managed to. She raised her brows, shrugged, and moved past him then looked to Patricia for her reaction.

Patricia did an about-face, and the chatter dropped to an awkward silence. "Now, I'm sure someone in this charming crowd would love to offer his apologies to this kind gentleman who was minding his own business and didn't deserve the unkindness he received."

Marzie watched Gabe out of the corner of her eye, as his head retracted into his shoulders much like the land turtle who lived in the glass bowl in Patricia's classroom. Never had these children stood in such stillness. Everyone waited for Gabe to make his amends. After a few minutes, he gained his courage and walked forward. He took Marzie's hand and focused his teary blue eyes directly at the well-preserved man. "I did it. It popped out before I got a chance to stop it. I won't do it again."

Patricia touched his shoulder. "And… ?"

"And…I'm sorry." He dropped Marzie's hand, skittered back into line, and shot his eyes toward the bricks.

The man held his hand out to Gabe. "It's my pleasure to meet you. You are forgiven, and I have been put on notice never to get in your way again."

Marzie froze, but the man's eyes filled with laughter. He shot a glance at her, making her forget her first inclination to offer her own apologies for Gabe acting up in front of such a nice man.

Gabe gave his hand to the man just long enough to give a quick pump then yanked it away. The man winked and turned to walk away, but not before Mar-zie got a glimpse of his flawless skin and a whiff of his heavenly aftershave. She widened her eyes when she noticed Patricia staring at her. "What?"

"Nothing." She made no attempt to hide her smirk when she turned around. "Come on, children."

"You needn't pretend that you don't know why I'll never look at another man. His kindness to Gabe simply threw me off guard."

"If you say so."
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