Valentine Charms

by

Anne McAllister

Twenty-three second graders were on a mission!

Her students were convinced Jane Kitto needed a man in her life. A ‘real man’ – not the Secret Admirer who had, every Valentine’s Day for years, sent her a tiny charm. Jane appreciated their enthusiasm, but not their choice. Football star Zack Stoner was the last man on earth she’d fall for. Handsome as sin, tough as nails, and more appealing than she wanted to admit, Zack made Jane want things she never imagined wanting–with him.

Zack Stoner had never forgotten Jane. When they were younger, he’d been confused, unnerved and fascinated by the sweet and generous Jane. It wasn’t all that different now, except he was a man, and knew he wanted her. But would Jane take a chance with someone like him?

Twenty-three cupids said yes.

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“Look!” Jane heard the high-pitched, childish gasp the moment she started to write on the classroom’s white board.

“It’s gone!”

“Gone? Naw.”

“Yes, it is. D’you suppose she lost it?”

“Duh. How could she lose it? It was on her finger, stupid.”

“I’m smarter’n you, Jeremy Proctor. I bet she gave it back.”

“Maybe he dumped her.”

“Miss Kitto? Dump Miss Kitto? He wouldn’t dare!”

Jane hesitated for an instant, then continued writing, her hand moving steadily across the board printing in big square letters NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS.

When she’d finished, she turned around and smiled determinedly into the sea of curious, upturned faces.

There were twenty-three of then, all belonging to the gap-toothed, grinning innocents who comprised half of the second grade at St. Philomena’s Catholic School is hilly San Francisco. Jane’s class.

Jane adored them, and they thought that their Miss Kitto was Ella Enchanted, Wendy Darling and both Madonnas, the spiritual and the material, all rolled into one.

For the most part Jane tried not to disillusion them.

“I know you’re all thrilled to be back after Christmas vacation,” she said brightly.

Her words were met by a chorus of groans.

“And I know you’re all ready to get a good start in the new year. That’s why I’ve written three words on the board – New Year’s Resolutions. Can anyone tell me what that means? Jeremy?”

Jane often called on Jeremy first, thereby – she hoped – taking the joy of interrupting away from him.

“How come you’re not wearin’ your ring?” he blurted.

Jane had been afraid of that.

Her students had shown an avid interest in the progress of her engagement to Paul Crawford ever since school had begun. What was Paul like? How had Jane met him? When was the wedding going to be? How many bridesmaids was she going to have? Where were they going on their honeymoon?

And most important of all: were all her students going to be invited to the wedding?

And now, where was her ring?

How was Jane, having previously assured both her students and herself that Paul Crawford was her idea of her perfect man, going to explain to them that the wedding was off?

“We’re talking about resolutions, Jeremy,” she said, hoping to deflect their interest through sheer willpower.

“Don’t know nothin’ ’bout them,” Jeremy said flatly. “Where’s your ring?”

So much for willpower. There was a low murmur of questions coming from the group. Every one of Jane’s students looked equally curious and expectant.

Leticia Morely raised her hand.

Jane smiled her relief. Leticia Morely, with her long, black braids and her patent leather Mary Janes, could always be counted on to stay on task and know the answer. She reminded Jane of herself at that age. She nodded at Leticia, encouraging her reply.

“Resolutions are decisions,” Leticia recited. “We make them to make ourselves better.” She barely paused, then, “You gave your ring back, didn’t you, Miss Kitto?”

Jane sighed. She wanted to run her fingers through her hair. She twisted the bracelet on her wrist instead.

The children waited, just looking at her, not even squirming. There was no hope for it.

“Yes, Leticia. I’m afraid I did.”

Jeremy folded his arms across his chest, scowling. “Well, he coulda dumped her.”

“Why did you do it?” twenty-three voices demanded.

Where, Jane wondered, was it written that she had to explain her life to a hoard of seven- and eight-year-olds?

Still, she knew she would try. It was the sort of relationship she’d had with her students from the start of the year.

“We…decided we wouldn’t suit.”

“Didn’t you love him?” Leticia asked.

Jeremy made a gagging sound.

Jane gave him a reproving stare. The question was a fair one. Certainly, she had thought she loved him. Had hoped she loved him.

When handsome, successful, Bay City lawyer Paul Crawford had asked her to marry him last December, Jane had been thrilled. He was intelligent and refined, clever and well-read, quiet and conservative, not to mention spit-and-polish handsome. In other words, everything she had assured herself she wanted in a man.

Now she tried to think how to explain her change of heart. “We didn’t value the same things.”

“Like what?”

She sighed. “My bracelet.”

Twenty-three horrified faces stared at her. “He didn’t like your bracelet?” they gasped in unison.

The entire second grade at St. Philomena’s thought Jane Kitto’s charm bracelet was close to magic.

She wore the bracelet every day. A simple silver chain with a variety of charms, it had been Jane’s prized possession since she’d received it the Christmas she was seven.

Her grandmother had given her the chain and the first charm, a sterling silver ballerina because Jane was taking ballet in those days. The nineteen others had appeared one after another, each succeeding Valentine’s Day.

From whom Jane didn’t know.

“Your secret admirer,” her best friend, Kelly, whom she’d grown up with, had teased her for years.

Jane had always laughed, but deep inside she had hugged the thought close to her heart, knowing that somewhere out there was a person who understood her, cared about her, loved her, who gave her charms that spoke to what was happening in her life, what she needed, what she dreamed of.

She’d dreamed of him for years!

“You don’t even know it’s a boy,” Kelly, the pragmatic, had said more than once. “It might be your grandmother!”

But the charms had kept coming even after her grandmother died five years ago. And Jane had hugged the notion of her perfect man even more tightly after that.

Her students couldn’t have cared less about him.

The charms were what intrigued them. One or another of those little mementos frequently became the starting point of a class discussion, provoking conversations about occupations or places, hopes, dreams, desires.

The notion that someone might not actually appreciate such a prize was unthinkable.

“It’s just as good you dumped him then,” Jeremy said bluntly. “You need a better guy.”

And Leticia added piously, “He wasn’t worthy of you.”

Privately Jane thought so, too. But if not Paul, who? She was twenty-seven. She taught second grade. Where was she going to meet her perfect man?

It wouldn’t matter if she were one of those women who didn’t want a man in her life. But Jane knew she did. She was all right on her own. She knew that. But deep down she was sure she would be better if she and the right man ever found each other.

It wasn’t something she was going to discuss with her students, though! She smiled at them now. “I appreciate your confidence in me, but we really must get back to work. Who can think of a good New Year’s resolution?”

Hands waved. Voices shouted.

“Not to beat up my sister!”

“To eat my broccoli!”

“To say my prayers!”

“Whoa, one at a time.” Jane wrote all the resolutions on the board. “Everyone take out a piece of paper and make a list, too. That way you’ll know what we each want to improve on, and you can encourage each other along the way.” It wouldn’t hurt their handwriting practice, either.

When at last there were twenty-three resolutions written and copied, Jane said, “Father Morrissey has suggested that we make a class resolution as well. Something that will really make a difference.”

There was silence in the room. A little scuffling of feet.

“How about trying to have the whole class get As in spelling?” she suggested.

There were grumbles and shaking heads.

“Or resolving to be quiet in line when Sister Clementia takes us down to the lunch room. Or is that not just hard, but impossible?” Jane grinned at them, and they giggled. Then she glanced at the clock. “Well, you just think about it for a while. Let’s get out our math books now. Then after recess we’ll discuss it.”

There was a bit more muttering as the children got out their math books. Jane refreshed their Christmas-vacation-fogged memories about the concept of renaming, then turned them loose on an assignment in their workbook.

They settled down to work. She saw Jeremy mumbling something behind his fist, and Leticia’s foot snuck out to connect with his ankle. Jane ignored them. She sat behind her desk and stared out the window. She had enough to think about.

Paul.

Marriage.

Love.

What the future held.

All of the above.

Last year at this time everything had seemed so clear.

She had come back from two years spent studying art history in London. She had loved the time on her own, had been delighted to indulge her academic interests. But when the two years was over, she’d been happy to come home again. She had known what she wanted in life, and she’d been determined to get a teaching job, find her perfect man at last and begin a family.

She’d been offered a job at St. Philomena’s, which delighted her as it had been where she’d gone to school herself. Then she’d met Paul, and their immediate rapport had seemed almost preordained.

Their courtship had been quick and painless. No bumps. No angst. And on Christmas a year ago, she had blithely accepted his ring.

Things were perfect, she’d thought. Everything was right on schedule.

And things had gone swimmingly.

Until last Valentine’s Day.

She’d looked forward to her Valentine charm. And she’d felt a thrill of anticipation when she’d come home one day in early February to find a small brown box waiting for her.

She’d hurried into her apartment, dumping everything else willy-nilly into the chair, while she’d fumbled to open the box, smiling and eager to see what her secret admirer had come up with to celebrate her recent engagement. She expected to find a wedding cake, a miniature engagement ring, a pair of turtle doves.

What she found was a tiny silver mask – the tragic one.

She had stared at it, stunned.

Her mind grappled with the implications of the tiny charm. What did it mean? Was her secret admirer disapproving of her engagement to Paul?

The moment the thought entered her mind she rejected it. What was there to disapprove of? Paul was everything a man ought to be. And he was perfect for her.

Her fingers had closed around the little charm, smothering it in her palm. She felt the cold silver bite into her flesh the way the sight of the tragic face bit into her heart.

She set her mind to groping for another significance to the charm, and finally she found one.

Right before Thanksgiving the year before, she had had a role in a small community production of the play A Thousand Clowns. Her secret admirer could have known about it. He might even have seen her in it. A play. A mask. A clown mask.

Yes, that made sense.

And when she showed the charm to Paul, that was the significance she imparted to it. Even so, Paul hadn’t been thrilled.

“Another charm on that heavy, clunky thing?” He’d made a face. “You need something small and elegant, Janey.”

But Jane was attached to this bracelet.

She had shrugged him off, busying herself with flower choices and china patterns, bridesmaid dresses and guest lists. She hadn’t let Paul’s attitude or the tragic mask bother her at all a week and a half ago.

Until Christmas Eve.

That evening, she and Paul had snuggled together on the sofa, kissing softly, touching. And then Paul had pulled back slightly. Still with one arm around her, he had used the other hand to reach into his pocket and pulled out a small, shiny red package which he put in Jane’s hands.

“Open it.”

Fingers fumbling, Jane did. She was curious. She already had a ring. She couldn’t imagine what it would be. The shiny paper gave way to a black velvet jewelry box.

Carefully Jane opened it, nestled inside she found a narrow gold chain bracelet with one charm. A tiny woman in flowing robes, a balance scale in her hand. The emblem of justice. The symbol of lawyers.

Jane glanced up to see Paul looking at her expectantly.

She ran a finger over it, but somehow couldn’t lift it out of the box. “It’s…lovely.”

“A new beginning,” Paul said, his fingers fumbling with the clasp of the silver bracelet already on her wrist. “To replace this one.”

He worked the clasp loose and the bracelet fell into Jane’s lap. Her wrist felt barren, naked.

“B-but,” Jane began, but couldn’t find the words. Her heart started hammering. And when Paul took out the new gold bracelet and picked up her wrist, Jane abruptly pulled back, clutching her wrist with her other hand and shaking her head. “I can’t.”

“What?” Paul’s brows drew together.

She swallowed. “I appreciate the gesture. Really, I do, Paul. But I like this bracelet. It’s a part of me! It’s made me who I am.” Her face was burning, and she knew it.

He simply stared at her. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Jane. Don’t be sappy.” He seemed to draw himself together and looked at her squarely. “If you love me, Jane, you’ll wear mine.”

And Jane, looking back at him, knew he was right. She felt her dreams crack and crumble, saw them begin to collapse, and understood what she hadn’t wanted to understand for the past ten months.

Paul was not the right man.

“I’m afraid you’re right.” She slipped out of his arms, rose from the couch and went to stand by the window. His gaze followed her, a mixture of consternation and faint alarm.

“What are you saying, Jane? What sort of nonsense is this?”

She eased the ring off her finger and looked at it for a long moment. Then she crossed the room and held the ring out to him. “It’s not nonsense, Paul. It’s true. You said it yourself.”

He stared at her. “You said you loved me.”

“I thought I did.”

The clock ticked. The tap dripped. The trolley clanged down on the corner, then started up the hill.

Paul waited. Jane didn’t speak, didn’t look at him again.

Finally, he rose and pulled on his jacket. He pocketed the ring and picked up the box with the bracelet. “I presume you won’t want to keep this,” he said stiffly. “Good-bye, Jane. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

She hadn’t seen him since.

Math ended. Recess came and went. Jane stopped thinking about Paul, about dreams, about the future.

She pulled herself together and prepared to begin a unit on social studies.

The kids were squirming, chattering among themselves. She gave them a stern look. Most quieted.

Jeremy kicked Leticia. “Tell her!”

“No.”

“Why not?” Jeremy rocked his chair onto its back legs. “She said she wants to know.”

“It isn’t tactful!” Leticia hissed.

Jeremy sputtered. The chair came down with a crash. “Tactful? What’s that?”

Leticia rolled her eyes.

“Then I’ll tell her. We got you a resolution,” he said to Jane, blue eyes flashing defiantly.

Jane had forgotten all about her request that they think of a resolution. “Have you?” She smiled. “Wonderful,” she said, even as she was surprised that it was Jeremy who had been giving it so much thought. “What is it?”

“We’re gonna find you a man.”

End of Excerpt