Reluctant Housemates

Reluctant Housemates

A Pilgrim Cove novel - Book 3

In the coastal town of Pilgrim Cove, strangers are welcomed, and everyone else takes a front row seat to watch a love story unfold.

Pilgrim Cove native Rachel Goodman has come home for one good reason: to prove to the town and her family that she’s not a loser. She’d graduated from high school—barely—and gone to college on a swimming scholarship. And now the swimming jock is the new assistant principal for academic studies at Pilgrim Cove High. Her uphill battle to win over the teachers and improve test scores might have gone well except….

Marine biologist Jack Levine has a woman in every port and his boat, The Wanderer, is his most prized possession. When he winds up teaching science in Pilgrim Cove, he finds that he likes the small town very much. So what if he doesn’t follow the rules at school? So what if his boss finds him difficult to work with? As for being housemates at Sea View House…? Well, that’s nearly impossible. Except for the sparks that fly whenever he and Rachel are together.

And then Jack and his boat go missing…

5 ***** Stars 

"RELUCTANT HOUSEMATES is a breathtaking page turner that will scoop you right up and carry you to a most pleasing ending. It is a brilliant stand-alone read, but if you haven't read any of the other books in the Pilgrim Cove series, then you must get them also because you are in for a treat."

Donna Zapf, CataRomance Reviews

5 ***** Stars 

"Linda Barrett is an astonishing contemporary author!...I could easily believe the town and all its inhabitants were real. I came to feel I was part of this close knit town. This accomplishment is something all authors strive for, but few actually achieve. Linda Barrett is one of those few! Do NOT miss out on Pilgrim Cove!"

Detra Fitch, Huntress Reviews

Chapter One

Total devastation. No roof. Barely a wall. Not a single classroom remained intact.

Rachel Goodman stared at what used to be the high school, trying to visualize the neat brick building that had stood on the spot just yesterday. Before the tornado had struck.

“It’s unbelievable,” she murmured to the police officer assigned to the site.

“Maybe to an easterner,” the cop replied. “But Round Rock, Kansas is in Tornado Alley. Twisters happen all the time during the season.”

Rachel’s hands fisted at her side as a shiver raced through her. She managed, however, to cling to one happy thought. “Thank goodness it’s summer, and the school was empty.”

The man nodded. “But the building’s done for, Ms. Goodman. Not much left.” The cop scanned the area once more, his expression bleak. “Can’t be used.”

Rachel followed his gaze. The man was right. Her students would have to attend somewhere else when classes resumed after the summer break three weeks from now.

She waved to the officer and walked to her parked Ford Explorer. Creative planning would be needed to insure the students’ education. As one of the high school’s three assistant principals, she’d be very much involved. In fact...she glanced at her watch and realized she had barely enough time to try reaching her parents again before her three o’clock meeting with her principal and the other assistants.

Sitting in the front seat of her vehicle, she punched the auto dial on her cell phone. The landlines in town were down, and every time she’d called Pilgrim Cove, Massachusetts on her mobile, she’d been unable to get through. Her folks were probably frantic by now.

Or maybe not. If they’d listened to the news, they’d know that no lives had been lost. Maybe she was worrying for nothing. Her dad would probably think that not contacting them was typical of Rachel. He’d expected little of her while she was growing up, and that’s exactly what she’d given him—very little. C’s and D’s were good enough. How could she possibly compete with Alex? Ten years older than she, her brother had been the perfect one. A straight A student, president of the student council and universally popular with adults. Alex also had loads of friends and was certainly the pride of her father’s heart.

Rachel had recognized a no-win situation and communication between father and daughter had never been strong. After Rachel had entered college on a swimming scholarship plus some good SAT scores, she’d stuck out on her own, returning home only for brief visits.

 But tornadoes required some consideration on her part. She listened to the normal ring at the other end of her cell and felt relieved. Finally--the promise of connection.

“Hello, hello.” Her dad’s voice. Tense.

“It’s Rachel. It’s the first...”

“Rachel! Rachel. Hold on. Don’t go away.”

Then she heard him call, “Pearl, pick up the extension. Rachel’s on the phone. She must be fine. She’s talking.”

Guilt threatened to overwhelm Rachel. Of course her parents would be worried about her. She took a breath when he came back on. “I’m fine, Dad. The phone lines were down here, and I have a new cell phone. Just got it a couple of days ago. So, you don’t have the number. I’m sorry. I’ve been trying every half hour....I’m fine, Mom. Truly. Yes totally in one piece. There were no casualties. Except for the high school—which was completely destroyed—there was remarkably little damage to the town.”

“Thank God.”  Her dad’s utterance was heartfelt.

She had more news to convey. “Listen, folks. About my visit home next week. I may not be able to leave town. I have no idea  what my principal has in mind or what the school board will decide for the next term. Whatever it is...I’m sure I’ll have to stick around here.”

Her parents’ disappointment was audible. Rachel chatted for little while and promised to let them know the outcome of today’s meeting. Maybe she’d still be able to fly home for a quick visit. They could hardly know that she referred to her yearly treks east not as a vacation, but as her pilgrimage to Pilgrim Cove. Her mixed feelings about going home plagued her each time she went.

Her teenage years had been difficult. In fact, her memories of high school gave her hives. She’d been too tall, too gawky. Her breasts had forgotten to develop, and the heavy braces on her teeth hadn’t helped. All she wanted was to fit in. Before she found her salvation in swimming, she’d tried joining a club, but felt out of place. She’d tried basketball because of her height, but she was clumsy, dropping the ball, falling. Her teammates had groaned, and the opposing side had laughed.

She hadn’t cared about schoolwork and grades at all. She’d only wanted friends. Some teachers had felt sorry for her. Some had tried to reassure her father, the school librarian! There’d been one old biddy.... She automatically squeezed her eyes shut, intentionally dismissing the memory. Darn it!  She wasn’t a sensitive fifteen-year-old anymore. She was beyond that hurt now.

Her school memories weren’t the only bad ones. She’d disappointed her folks throughout her childhood, and again as an adult, by choosing to live far away. And her brother still resented her. She sighed and shook her head. Family relationships were often  complicated. Well, she and Alex would never be close, but she was crazy about his kids! And she’d miss seeing her niece and nephew this summer if she didn’t take her vacation.

Turning her key in the ignition, Rachel scanned her surroundings. She’d been very happy in this landlocked part of the country since arriving as a college freshman. She’d been happy at her university, happy being on her own with no family history dogging her. She’d been so content with her life that after college graduation, she’d decided to stay in the Midwest.

The last two years as Assistant Principal in Round Rock had kept her busy. Most of the time, she had no regrets. But lately, sometimes...when the nights were long and she had no one to share them with, she was lonely. At thirty-one, she’d had a couple of relationships that had gone nowhere. Always her decision, but the results were the same. She spent her nights alone.

And occasionally, when her Sundays stretched long with no family to visit...to have dinner with...to talk with...she wished Pilgrim Cove weren’t so far away. In the next moment, however, her stomach would tighten, and she’d laugh at herself.

She’d been on her own for thirteen years now, and an unhappy truth hit her with recurring regularity: she was alone. Her stomach often tightened at this thought, too, but somehow, she couldn’t manage to laugh the idea away.

She glanced at her watch as she headed back to town for her meeting. In the end, Pilgrim Cove, Massachusetts was her past.

Round Rock, Kansas was her future. She had no intention of leaving the Midwest.

#

Notebook and pen in hand, Rachel sat on the end of the sofa in John Thompson’s living room. For a man who was usually organized and direct, he seemed to be fumbling for words. Of course, the shock of the destroyed school could account for his loss of equilibrium, but Rachel didn’t think that was the explanation. The principal was well seasoned in his job.

Rachel glanced at the other two assistant principals in the room. Both older than she, both married with families, and both looking as concerned as Rachel felt.

“You’re wearing a hole in your carpet, Mr. Thompson,” said Rachel with a smile. “No one was hurt, and that’s the most important thing.”

The principal paused in his step and sat down in a club chair opposite Rachel and her two colleagues. “You’re absolutely right. And I hope you keep that in mind when I tell you what the School District has decided, in fact, why I called this meeting as soon as I learned their plans.”

“Go on,” said one of the assistants.

The man took a deep breath. “In a nutshell, our students will be divided and bussed to two other high schools. A few portable classrooms will be erected at each facility to prevent overcrowding. Our teachers will be reassigned to these schools to work with the faculties there.” He stopped talking for a moment.

Suddenly Rachel’s stomach sank to her toes. She knew where this conversation was going. “And we administrators are out of jobs?” she asked softly.

No one moved. The silence in the room made her ears throb, wiping out the birdsong coming from the trees outside the window.

“I’m afraid so,” replied Thompson with a heavy sigh. “At least for now. For this year. Or whenever a new school is built.”

“I’ve got a family to support!”

“Is there unemployment insurance? John, are there any alternatives?”

The exclamations of dismay from her colleagues washed over Rachel while she faced her own situation. Completely self-supporting since college graduation, she’d saved enough money to tide her over for a little while, but she needed a job!

“I’ve done some preliminary research, and there might be good news for some of you,” said Thompson, “if you want to return to the classroom on a teacher’s salary.”

“We need to work,” said the woman next to Rachel. “And until our school is rebuilt, of course I’ll go back to the classroom.”

“Then you’re in luck. There’s an opening for a high school math teacher,” said the principal, looking a bit more relaxed. “I can make another phone call and arrange a meeting. You should be all set.”

But there wouldn’t be an opening for a physical/health education teacher or coach. Rachel knew it just as surely as she knew the sun would rise the next morning. Math and science teachers were always in demand. No community had enough specialists in those subjects.

“I’m a licensed guidance counselor,” said the third assistant principal. “Any openings in schools within fifty miles? Elementary, middle or high school. I don’t care which.” The man’s voice was strained, his hands clenched on his knees, as he stared at the principal.

Thompson nodded. “I’ve been inquiring for all of you. There’s a counselor going on maternity leave in the middle school right here in town. A last minute change.”

“Thank God,” said the man, shaking his head. “My own wife’s pregnant with our second and...to be unemployed....” He closed his eyes and leaned against the back of the couch.

“Any rabbits in your hat for me?” asked Rachel quietly, hoping that her instincts were wrong.

John Thompson just stared at her, sorrow in his eyes, crushing even the faintest of hopes. “You’ll have the strongest letter of recommendation I can write,” he said. “In your two years with us, you’ve been a great asset. And I want you back next year if you’re available.”

“Count on it,” said Rachel, suddenly finding it difficult to speak. She swallowed a few times, trying to absorb the implications. “I...I’ve enjoyed working with all of you.” She looked at her colleagues. “You’ll watch out for our kids...check up on them...? They’ll have so many adjustments.”

They reassured her. She turned toward her boss. “I’ll do whatever I can to help, but right now...”

“Right now, you need some time to catch your breath. Go home!  Update your resume. I’ll be in touch.”

Rachel stood. “Thanks, John. Excuse me, everyone.” She left the room.

When she reached her Explorer, she collapsed against it and focused on breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Two tornadoes within two days. And no warning for either.

What lousy timing! She loved her job. Loved working with high school kids. And now, just when she’d settled in and started making her mark in Round Rock, she’d have to do a job search and relocate.

She opened the car door and got in, her mind still whirling. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time she’d moved. But there was one big difference now. In the past, she’d been the one initiating the change. She’d wanted a school management position after earning her master’s in educational administration. She’d chosen to build her career out of the classroom, and she’d loved her work at Round Rock. If the high school was rebuilt by next year, and if John Thompson called her back, great. But there were too many “ifs.”

She pulled out of her spot and headed toward her apartment. Looking backwards never helped—only caused pain. Now it was time to go forward, to find a new position. Time to call Pilgrim Cove, explain the situation to her folks and cancel her flight home. Finding a new job was priority now.

#

“Don’t give up that ticket, Rachel!”

Her dad’s voice boomed in her ear, and Rachel jerked the receiver away from her head. What was that all about?

Lou Goodman rarely boomed. Her mild-mannered father, the retired librarian of Pilgrim Cove High School, took life in stride. She couldn’t remember him ever raising his voice, not even to her when she screwed up. Between her lousy grades, arguing with teachers, picking fights with her brother, and being angry at the world in general, she’d given him plenty of cause. But her dad had never said much, just always looked...sad. Or maybe disappointed.

She paced the floor of her large kitchen, and cautiously placed the receiver to her ear again. “Dad? I can visit during Christmas or something. But now I have to find another job.”

“Then pack your interview clothes and take that flight.”

What had he said? “Interview clothes?  What’s going on?”

“Plenty’s going on, my dear. The timing’s perfect. And you’ll be perfect in the position.”

She sat down. Hard. “Uh...what position?”

“Isn’t it quite remarkable how some things seem to work out? Yes, indeed. Truth is surely stranger than fiction.”

“Dad, what are you talking about? What things are working out?”  Either her father was losing it, or had had an extra glass of wine.  Overindulging was not a normal Lou Goodman trait.

“I was going to tell you about it when you came home, but then again, it’s not really good news. But since it’s about our alma mater....”

Her dad’s voice trailed off for a moment, and in her kitchen,  Rachel chuckled. He wasn’t losing it. He was merely talking about Pilgrim Cove Regional High School, a subject which evoked emotion in him. He’d loved his career there. The school had lost an outstanding educator when he retired. He loved helping students with research and introducing them to wonderful writers. He fought for up-to-date technology, so the students would have up-to-date skills. Lou Goodman considered Pilgrim Cove High his alma mater as well as hers and her brother’s.

“Want to start over, Dad?” she asked.

Now, it was her father who chuckled into the phone. “I’ll give it a whirl,” he said. “Remember the standardized tests you used to take when you were in school?”

“Sure. We took them every spring.” Oddly enough, she’d always done well on them. She handled standardized testing a lot better than regular schoolwork.

“The students’ scores came in two weeks ago,” her father continued, “and they were not good. In fact, it pains me to say that our students’ scores have been decreasing over the last three years. Extremely disappointing.”

“Oh, dear. I didn’t know. I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“Of course you are,” said Lou, his voice more cheerful, “and that’s why you’re going to interview for the new position the board approved last week. They acted fast. Only took three years.”

“Dad! Is that sarcasm I detect from the man who keeps his cool?”

“Cool, my petutie! In the face of this performance? But here’s the important part.” He paused, and despite herself, Rachel focused on what was coming next.

“We now have an opening for an assistant principal of academic studies,” said Lou. “Right up your alley. The application’s online. Fill it out and attach your resume. Bring a hard copy with you when you come home.”

Her dad sounded so excited, but images of her unhappy high school years flashed through Rachel’s mind. Yes, she needed a job, but, Pilgrim Cove High? The place she’d left with barely a backward glance?  The place where her family lived? Short stays worked well for her. Despite her occasional longing, she’d be safer maintaining that pattern.

“Can people really go home again, Dad?” she asked softly.

Silence on the other end. A ringing silence filled with hurt. She could feel it vibrate through the wires and wanted to retract her words.

“Try it,” said Lou. “You might be surprised.”

Had her dad forgotten the distress of her teenage years? Could he not see how much happier she’d been in recent times? “Tell you what,” began Rachel, “I’ll stick with my vacation plans and come home, and I’ll think about the job, but--I’m not making any promises. Definitely not.”

“That’s good enough for me,” replied her dad. “We want to see our beautiful daughter.”

Beautiful? That was a joke. “Then I must have a sister somewhere!  This daughter of yours is built for distance swimming--tall and skinny with bony elbows and the delicate fragrance of l’eau de chlorine surrounding her half the time.”

“Rachel...Rachel. You’re just slim, not skinny. Have you looked in the mirror lately?”

Rachel laughed into the phone. “Every day. And the mirror doesn’t lie. But I’m not going to argue with you. Let’s just agree that with the right clothes and cosmetics, I can make myself presentable.”

The fact that she was ordinary-looking didn’t bother her as much as it used to. Her career was what mattered; her administrative and communication skills, and her ability to relate to students. These talents were the ones that counted, and she’d worked hard to develop them.

After saying good-bye to her dad, she walked to the computer in her den, pulled up her resume and started revising. When she was satisfied with the result, she printed the document and studied it.

“What the hell?” she finally murmured. “Might as well take a look and see what he was talking about.”

She accessed the job posting for Pilgrim Cove Regional High School and stared at the application form. What a joke it would be!  Pure O.Henry. She could imagine the lead story in the Pilgrim Cove Gazette. “Swimming jock and underachiever, Rachel Goodman, returns to Pilgrim Cove High charged with improving the academic performance of the entire student body.”

Laughable. Painful. Pitiful. She didn’t need it.

What she did need was a swim, and the community center was open, keeping to its normal schedule. A great decision, Rachel thought. Routine countered catastrophe. She glanced at her watch as she grabbed a bathing suit and towel. She’d be at the pool earlier than usual. She wondered whether or not any of the girls would show up for the training session. While no one had been hurt by the tornado, everyone had probably been scared. Her young team, however, had to prepare for a local meet this weekend.

Rachel locked the door behind her and headed to the community center. Time to get back into the water.

#

In his comfortable kitchen in Pilgrim Cove, Lou Goodman turned to his wife. “I think you’re wrong, Pearl. I really think I hooked her. The job is perfect.”

But Pearl shook her head. “She’ll come for a week, and then she’ll be gone.”

“But...”

“When was the last time Rachel allowed herself to get hooked?” interrupted Pearl. “Never. She swims away like a smart fish. And not only from us. Every time a decent boy--I should say ‘man’--gets serious, she runs in the other direction. So, don’t get your hopes up. She’s coming home because she didn’t want to disappoint you. That’s all.”

 Lou felt his smile slip as he walked to the woman with whom he’d spent forty-two years of his life. He loved her and knew her well enough to know that she was usually right about these things. He reached for her hands as she stood at the counter preparing a simple lunch.

“Pearl” he whispered. “Where did we go wrong when we tried to do everything right? How did this happen?” His head drooped. “My fault. My fault.”

When she looked up at him, her eyes were shiny, her mouth trembled. She didn’t speak, just leaned closer and wrapped her arms around him. He embraced her as he’d done for a lifetime, loving how she nestled into his shoulder--how she felt against him. He’d hold her for many more years, God willing, as many as they were given on this earth.

But he was seventy-one years old now and still had unfinished business.

#

Rachel walked the length of the pool, assessing the performances of each member of her team. To her delight, all twelve girls had shown up that evening, each one eager to swim. Seemed they needed to be in the water as much as she did.

She wouldn’t mention the probability of them getting a new coach. Not yet, anyway. Not until she knew for sure where she was going next.

“Looking good, ladies,” she called to them. “And time’s up.”

“Already?”

“No way!”

Rachel grinned. Her kids loved the sport.

“Think we really have a chance to place at the meet?” asked one of the girls as she got out of the pool.

Time for a pep talk. The girls were only nine and ten years old. Still learning. Still needing confidence. “Everyone, listen up,” said Rachel.

The girls gathered around her, towels slung over their shoulders. “You have each improved tremendously this year because you worked very hard. And I promise you that your chances of placing in the events are as good as anyone else’s.”  She eyeballed every girl. “Maybe better.” She paused. “Believe me?”

Slowly, they nodded, one at a time.

“You’re swimming because you love the sport. You want others to love and respect the sport. And no matter what happens at the meet, you’re still going to love to swim.” She paused a moment. “And who knows? You might save a life one day because you swim well. That’s something more important than a meet. Isn’t it?”

They nodded again, and Rachel watched their expressions change as they processed her words.

She leaned forward as if to share a secret. “In my book, you are winners right now. Every one of you.”

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