Melanie grabbed each of the boys by an arm and pulled them to a stop. Letting go to adjust the satchel she'd slung over her shoulder, she leaned down and looked them in the eye. She forced herself not to raise her voice. "You two, settle down. Now."
When a teller gave them a disapproving look, Melanie feared her harsh whisper hadn't been as quiet as she'd intended. Staring at her wide-eyed, the boys nodded and said nothing.
"Okay, then." She tried to put on a happy face, even though nothing was going as planned today. She guided the boys to a couple of navy leather chairs situated against a wall near the bank offices. "Sit here."
Andrew and Ryan settled on the oversized chairs, and
she handed them each a book. Ryan surveyed the book, then looked up, wrinkling his nose. "Do I have to read this? It looks boring."
"I'll read it." Andrew snatched it from Ryan's hand.
"Hey, I want that." Ryan grabbed it back.
While Melanie tried to take charge of her warring sons, a stern-faced woman approached. "May we help you?"
Melanie took a calming breath and met the woman's critical gaze. "Yes, I'm Melanie Drake and I have an appointment with Nathan Keller at three-thirty."
"Mr. Keller should be with you shortly." The woman glanced at her watch, then toward the office where Nathan Keller was clearly visible through the large window. She looked down her nose at the boys before turning her attention back to Melanie. "You're welcome to wait right here."
"Thanks." Melanie sat on one of the chairs opposite Ryan and Andrew and breathed a sigh of relief as the unsmiling woman resumed her position behind a desk at the far side of the lobby.
"Mom, he touched me." Ryan pushed Andrew's arm.
Standing, Melanie glared at her sons and pointed to the chair next to hers. "Ryan, over here."
"Okay." Ryan jumped up and obeyed her orders.
After he was seated, she hunkered down between them. "I know you guys don't want to be here, but if you can't behave while I have this meeting, I won't hesitate to make my excuses and leave. You'll both be grounded, and I won't unground you until I see improvement in your behavior. Do you understand?"
They nodded, their little faces solemn, but Melanie wasn't sure they believed her. She sat down and plucked a paperback novel from her satchel. Although she tried to read, her thoughts wandered to her children. Some of their bad behavior was the result of her lax discipline since their father had
died. She was working on being a better disciplinarian, but sometimes she found the task difficult. She knew how much her little boys missed their father and hated to make them feel worse by scolding them.
A single mom, she had all of the parental responsibilities, making for extra stress in her life. People from church stepped in from time to time to help her out, but it wasn't the same as having Tim there to share the parenting duties. She tried to remember that God was with her and would see her through, but she sometimes forgot that one important truth.
Every day was another step toward learning to deal with her grief. She wasn't going to let that sadness keep her from being the best parent for her boys. Loving them and caring for them was her top priority.
She'd been putting on a brave face for her sons, but some days were really hard. She'd made a lot of progress in the past two years, maybe not as much as she would have liked. She wanted Ryan and Andrew to have a bright future, and part of that meant having this meeting with someone who knew investment strategies and could help her make the first move in getting her financial life in order. That's why she was here.
Melanie glanced toward the office where Nathan Keller talked with an older couple. Could he help her? His sandy brown hair, cut in a neat short style, gave him a business-like appearance. Did his serious demeanor mean she could trust him to give her the advice she needed?
Although she was a friend of Nathan's cousin, Juliane, and they attended the same church, Melanie didn't know him very well. His father was the bank president, and his mother taught at the local college. They were prominent people in the little town of Kellerville. According to Juliane, Nathan was being groomed to take over the bank when his father retired.
Melanie had to believe Nathan could answer her financial
Her stomach churning, she looked back at Ryan and Andrew and hoped she could get through the afternoon without another outburst from them. If the boys misbehaved during the meeting, she would be mortified. Would Nathan look down his nose at her the same as the woman behind the desk had?
Melanie felt as though she'd spent most of her life dealing with people who looked down on her because of her upbringing. Her late husband's parents were people like that. Ever since she'd met them, she'd been trying to show them she deserved their respect, not their disdain. She didn't want to think about them and forced herself to concentrate on her book.
"Mrs. Drake." A deep male voice startled her. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting. It's nice to see you."
"That's okay, and it's good to see you, too." Standing, Melanie looked up into Nathan's brown eyes—brown, the color of her morning tea. They exuded warmth. Despite the kindness in them, her thoughts skittered. She hadn't realized she was so nervous, but the notion of making the wrong decision about the money she'd inherited had kept her from making any decision at all. "Thanks for meeting with me."
"The bank is here to serve you."
As he shook her hand, she tried to ignore the little prickles that raced up her arm. Melanie looked over at her sons. "These are my boys, Andrew and Ryan. I didn't intend to bring them, but my sitter cancelled at the last minute. I didn't have time to find another one."
Nathan looked over at the youngsters. Melanie watched to see his reaction. He smiled. Kindness radiated from his smile just as it had from his eyes. "Hello. Which one is Ryan?"
"Me." Ryan sprang from the chair.
Not to be outdone, Andrew pushed his way in front of Ryan. "And I'm Andrew."
Melanie wanted to scold Andrew, but she'd done enough scolding already. Besides, she was too embarrassed to correct her sons in front of this man, who was a VIP in Kellerville.
Nathan shook hands with each of the boys. "I'm glad to meet you, Andrew and Ryan."
The tension in Melanie's shoulders eased as the boys politely returned Nathan's handshake. At least they remembered some of the manners she'd taught them.
Nathan escorted them into his office and indicated that Melanie should sit in the wood-frame armchair at the side of his desk. Grabbing two armless chairs, he set them in the corner in front of a small desk containing a computer. "You guys can sit here, and if you promise not to tell anyone, I'll let you play one of my games."
"We won't tell." Ryan glanced at Andrew. "Will we?"
Shaking his head, Andrew looked at Melanie, then back at Nathan. "I won't, but what about our mom?"
Winking, Nathan grinned at her. "What about it, Mom? Will you keep our secret?"
"Sure. Your secret's safe with me." Melanie noticed for the first time how Nathan's grin made a nice-looking man twice as handsome. But this wasn't the time to let a heart-stopping grin make her realize the way his broad shoulders filled out his gray-pinstriped suit. She'd barely been aware of him when they'd met in passing at church during the last two years. Why was she noticing so much about him today?
While Nathan gave the boys instructions about the game and outfitted them each with a set of headphones, Melanie tried to collect her thoughts. Despite Nathan's affability, her mind whirled. She shouldn't be this nervous. He was trying to put her at ease, but for some reason, his smile had her thoughts scrambled. She gripped the satchel and took a shaky breath. Finally, she squared her shoulders and looked at him as he settled on the chair behind his desk.
"What can I do to help you?" He smiled again.
Her heart hammered. She didn't want him to think she was a complete dunderhead, but she felt out of her league talking about investments. Trying to remember the little speech she'd practiced, she pulled a folder from the satchel and laid it on the desk. "You know I'm a hygienist in your uncle's dental practice. Dr. Joe told me that I should see you about some financial advice."
"Yes, good ole Dr. Joe. He's always looking out for his employees." Nathan patted the folder. "What do you have here?"
"My financial papers."
"What kind of financial advice are you looking for?"
"I'm not sure."
Nathan picked up the file. "May I look through this?"
Studying Nathan's demeanor as he thumbed through her papers, she hoped she hadn't made a mistake in following Dr. Joe's advice. Her boss was like the father she'd never had, and she trusted him to steer her in the right direction. But as she watched Nathan's eyebrows knit in a little frown, she worried that she'd made the wrong decision.
Finally, Nathan looked up. Warmth still radiated from his eyes, but she detected a little curiosity, as well. "There's a lot here. Do you want me to draw up a financial plan for you?"
"What exactly does that mean?"
"I can give you ideas about where to invest your money." He glanced at Andrew and Ryan, who were thankfully quiet and busy with the video game. Looking back at her, Nathan nodded his head in the boys' direction. "I imagine you want to put some of this in a college fund for them."
"Yes." Melanie nodded. "I'm sure you're wondering why it's taken me two years to do something about this."
Nathan shook his head. "No, I imagine you've had to collect yourself after a shocking, life-changing experience. Sometimes, it's better to do nothing than to make emotional decisions that you might regret later."
Melanie placed a hand over her heart. "Oh, you do understand. I just couldn't bring myself to tackle the job. Every time I thought about it I would…"
Closing her eyes, Melanie pressed her lips together. She wouldn't fall apart now. Tim was gone. She couldn't bring him back. He would always have a place in her heart, but she had to pick up all of the pieces of her life and move on. That included the money from Tim's life insurance that she'd let sit in the bank and his other investments that she hadn't paid enough attention to.
She summoned her courage. The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. The words from a Psalm she'd recently memorized as part of her grief recovery group flitted through her mind, giving her peace for the moment. When her husband Tim had died from an aneurysm at the young age of thirty-four, she'd started the group as a church ministry. Somehow she felt as though she should have it all together by now, rather than letting memories of Tim make her feel weepy two year later.
"Are you okay?"
At the sound of Nathan's soothing voice, Melanie opened her eyes and tried to smile. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to let this affect me. I'm doing better, but as you see, looking at this stuff brings back all the sorrow."
"So you've been putting it off?"
"Exactly. Thank you. Thank you for recognizing the difficulty I've been having." Melanie smiled. This time it was genuine, not forced. "I'm trying to move on with my life."
Nathan nodded. "You are. Just the fact that you came to see me shows that."
"Dr. Joe has been such a help to me. He and Juliane suggested that I get your financial advice. You've made me feel better already."
"Good. I'm here to help you." Nathan closed the folder. "Do you mind if I keep this and look it over more fully? That'll give me time to formulate some recommendations for you. Then we can meet again and get a better understanding of your needs."
"Okay. When would you like to get together?"
"At your convenience."
What would another meeting with Nathan bring? Melanie couldn't forget how this initial encounter made her heart race, but that was from nervousness, wasn't it? She barely knew the man. How could there be any other reason?
"Mom, he's cheating." Andrew's voice made Melanie jump, short-circuiting her response about another meeting. Embarrassed, she hurried to the corner to negotiate the peace. She'd been doing a lot of that lately.
"I'm not cheating. He's just a sore loser." Jerking off the headphones, Ryan stared at her.
Andrew also removed his headphones. "I wouldn't lose, if he didn't cheat."
"The game is over for both of you." Melanie didn't want to turn and face Nathan. What must he think after he'd been so nice to allow them to play? She couldn't slink away, although she wished she could. Gathering her courage, she turned to Nathan. "I'm sorry about this. I'd better take them home."
"That's okay. I'll give you a call after I've had time to study this." He held up the folder.
"That would be fine. Thanks." Melanie could hardly wait to make her exit as she moved toward the door.
Nathan accompanied her and opened it for her. "I'll call you in a few days."
"I'll be waiting to hear from you." As Melanie ushered her sons out of Nathan's office, she couldn't imagine what he must be thinking. It all had to be awful—everything from her sons' misbehavior to her inability to keep her emotions in check had shown her in a bad light. He must surely think she was a basket case with a couple of brats on her hands. How was she going to face him again? Maybe they could work out the details of her investments by phone and email, and she wouldn't have to see him again. But whatever happened, she wasn't going to let the investments fall by the wayside again, no matter what she had to do.