THE FIRST DAY OF KINDERGARTEN AT THE EXCLUSIVE BRIARWOOD School was the worst day of Regan Hamilton Madison’s life. It was such a disaster she made up her mind never to go back.
She had started out the day believing the new school would be wonderful. And why not? She’d been told so by her brothers and her mother, and she had no reason to doubt them. Seated in the back of her family’s limo for the ride to Briarwood, she proudly wore her new school uniform, a navy blue and gray plaid pleated skirt; a white blouse with mandatory pointed collar; a navy blue tie, knotted just like a man’s tie; and a matching gray blazer with a pretty gold emblem of the school’s initials on the breast pocket. Her curly hair was pinned back with school-approved, navy blue barrettes. Everything she wore was brand-new, including her white knee-high socks and navy blue loafers.
Regan had thought school would be fun. For the past two years, she and nine classmates at her posh preschool had been pampered and told how wonderful they were by teachers who never lost their smiles. She fully expected her first day at Briarwood to be about the same. Maybe even better.
Her mother was supposed to ride with her to the new school, just like all the other mothers—and sometimes even fathers—of new students did, but due to circumstances she assured her she couldn’t control, her mother had to stay in London with her new boyfriend and couldn’t get back to Chicago in time.
Grandmother Hamilton would have been happy to go with her, but she, too, was out of the country, visiting friends, and wouldn’t be home for two more weeks.
When Regan had spoken to her mother over the phone the day before, she’d told her she didn’t need Mrs. Tyler, the housekeeper, to take her to school. Her mother had then suggested Aiden. Regan knew that if she had asked her oldest brother, he would have done it. He was seventeen and wouldn’t like going with her, but he would have … if she had asked. He would do anything for her, just like her other brothers, Spencer and Walker.
Regan decided she didn’t want anyone to walk her to her classroom. She was a big girl now. The uniform she wore proved it, and if she got lost, she would simply ask for help from one of the smiling teachers.
School, as it turned out, wasn’t at all what she had imagined. No one had told her kindergarten at Briarwood lasted all day. She hadn’t been warned about the huge number of children attending the school, either, and she certainly hadn’t been warned about the bullies. They were everywhere. But she was most concerned about one older girl in particular who liked to torment kindergartners when the teachers weren’t looking.
By the time the school bell rang to dismiss the students at three o’clock that afternoon, Regan was so distraught and worn out she had to bite her lower lip to keep from crying.
There were cars and limos lined up in the circular drive. Evan, her driver, got out of the car and started toward her.
Regan spotted him but was too tired to run to him, so he hurried toward her, alarmed at her appearance. Her barrettes were dangling on strands in her face; her necktie was undone; her shirt-tail was out, and one of her knee-high socks was down around her ankle. The five-year-old looked as if she’d gone through a tumble cycle in the clothes dryer. Evan opened the back door for her as he inquired, “Everything all right, Regan?”
Head down she responded, “Yes.”
“How was school today?”
She dove into the car. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
That specific question was asked again by the housekeeper when she opened the front door for her. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Regan repeated.
The housekeeper took her book bag. “Thank you,” Regan said. She ran up the circular staircase and down the south hallway to her bedroom, slammed the door shut, and promptly burst into tears.
Regan knew she was a disappointment to her mother because, try though she did, she couldn’t keep her emotions under control. If she fell and scraped her knee and it stung, she just had to cry, no matter where she was or who was around to observe her behavior.
When she was unhappy, she broke all the rules her mother had tried to teach her. Regan had been told time and again to be ladylike, but she wasn’t sure what that entailed, except, of course, to keep her knees together when seated in a chair. She didn’t like to suffer in silence, no matter how golden that rule was in the Madison household. She didn’t particularly care about being brave either, and if she was miserable, then her family needed to hear all about it.
Unfortunately, the only family member home at the moment was Aiden. He was the least sympathetic, probably because he was the oldest, and couldn’t be bothered with the worries of a five-year-old. He hated it when she cried, but that didn’t stop her.
She blew her nose, washed her face, and changed her clothes. After she removed her uniform, she carefully folded it and then dropped it into the wastebasket. Since she wasn’t going back to that terrible school, she wouldn’t need those ugly clothes ever again. She put on shorts with a matching top and broke another rule by running barefoot down the hall to her brother’s room.
She timidly knocked on the door. “Could I come in?”
She didn’t wait for an answer but opened the door, ran across the room to his bed, and jumped up on the soft comforter he always tossed on the floor when he slept. Folding her legs underneath her, she pulled the dangling, school-approved barrettes from her hair and dropped them in her lap.
Aiden looked irritated. Dressed in his rugby clothes, he was sitting at his desk, surrounded by textbooks. She didn’t notice he was on the phone until he said good-bye and hung up.
“You’re supposed to wait until I say it’s okay for you to come in my room,” he said. “You don’t just barge in.” Then, when she didn’t respond, he leaned back in his chair, studied her face, and asked, “Have you been crying?”
She thought about it and decided to break another rule. She lied. “No,” she said, her gaze glued to the floor.
He knew she wasn’t telling the truth but decided not to press the honesty issue now. His little sister was clearly distraught. “Is something wrong?” he asked, knowing full well there was.
She wouldn’t look at him. “Nooo …” she said, drawing the word out.
He let out a loud sigh. “I don’t have time to guess what the problem is, Regan. I’m going to have to leave for practice in a couple of minutes. Tell me what’s wrong.”
She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “Nothing’s wrong. Honest.”
She was making circles with her fingertips on top of the comforter. Aiden gave up trying to find out what was worrying her. He bent down and put on his shoes. He suddenly remembered that today was Regan’s first day at Briarwood and casually asked, “How was school?”
He was totally unprepared for her response. She burst into tears and threw herself down, burying her face in his comforter and conveniently wiping her eyes and her nose on his duvet. She told him everything she’d been saving up since recess. The problem was, she didn’t make a lick of sense.
It all came out in one long, rambling, barely coherent, sentence. “I hate school and I’m never going back, not ever, ’cause they didn’t let us have snacks and I had to sit still for too long and there was this girl and the other big girl made her cry and the big girl said if we told teacher, she’d get us too and I didn’t know what to do so I went by the building with the girl at recess and I helped her cry and now I’m never going back to that bad school again ’cause tomorrow the big girl said she was going to get the girl again.”
Aiden was astonished. Regan was wailing for all she was worth. Had she not been so miserable, he would have laughed. Such drama. She got that trait from the Hamilton side of the family. All the Hamiltons wore their emotions on their sleeves. He and Spencer and Walker fortunately took after the Madison side. They were far more reserved.
Regan was making so much noise Aiden didn’t hear the knock on the door. Spencer and Walker came rushing inside. Both brothers were tall, lanky, and dark-haired like Aiden. Spencer was fifteen, and of the three brothers, he had the softest heart. Walker had just turned fourteen. He was the daredevil in the family and the most reckless. He looked as if he’d been through a war. His arms and face were covered with bruises. Two days before, he’d climbed up on the roof to retrieve a football, had lost his footing, and surely would have broken his neck if he hadn’t grabbed hold of a tree branch to slow his descent. His friend Ryan hadn’t been as fortunate. Walker landed on him and broke his arm. Ryan had been the junior varsity quarterback but now would have to sit out the season. Walker didn’t feel much guilt about the accident. He blamed the mishap on the branch that had trapped Ryan making it impossible for him to get out of Walker’s way.
Walker now was looking for bruises on Regan. None were visible, so why then was she crying? “What’d you do to her?” he asked Aiden.
“I didn’t do anything,” Aiden answered.
“Then what’s wrong with her?” Walker asked. He leaned over the bed and inspected his little sister, unsure what to do.
Spencer nudged him out of his way, sat down next to Regan, and began to awkwardly pat her shoulders.
She was finally calming down. Aiden let out another loud sigh. Maybe the storm was over. He finished tying his shoes as he said, “There, she’s feeling better. Just don’t ask her about—”
“So how was school?” Walker asked at the same time.
The wailing started all over again. “—school,” Aiden finished. He lowered his head and turned toward the desk so his sister wouldn’t see him smile. He didn’t want to hurt her tender feelings, but Lord, was she loud. Considering her size, the noise she made was downright impressive.
“She had a bad day,” he told his brothers.
“You think?” Spencer responded.
Regan stopped crying long enough to say, “I’m not ever going back there.”
“What happened?” Walker asked.
Regan recited her litany of complaints in between her sobs.
“You have to go back,” Spencer said.
It was the wrong thing to say. “No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do,” Spencer said.
“Daddy wouldn’t make me go.”
“How do you know what he would do? He died when you were still a baby. You can’t possibly remember him.”
“Yes, I can. I remember him good.”
“Your grammar is appalling,” Aiden remarked.
“Which is why you need to go to school,” Spencer pointed out. He had to raise his voice to be heard because his sister was once again crying.
“Damn, she’s loud,” Aiden muttered. He shook his head and added, “Okay. I’m going to be late for practice if I don’t leave soon, so let’s get to the bottom of this. Regan, stop wiping your nose on my sheets and sit up.”
He tried to make his voice stern. Neither his order nor his tone made any difference to her. She wasn’t going to stop crying until she was good and ready.
“Listen, Regan. You need to calm down and tell us what happened,” Walker said. “What exactly did the big kid do?”
Spencer dug into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled Kleenex. “Here,” he said. “Wipe your nose and sit up. Come on. We can’t fix this problem for you until we know exactly what the big kid did, okay?”
Aiden was shaking his head. “Regan’s going to fix the problem,” he said.
She bolted upright. “No, I’m not, ’cause I’m not going back to that bad school.”
“Running away isn’t the answer,” Aiden said.
“I don’t care. I’m staying home.”
“Hold on, Aiden. If some big bully is picking on our sister, then by God, we ought to …” Walker began.
Aiden raised his hand for silence. “Let’s get all the facts straight before we do anything, Walker. Now, Regan,” he said, his voice soothing, “how old was this big girl?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay. Do you know what grade she’s in?”
“How would she know that?” Spencer asked. “Regan’s just a kindergartner.”
“I do too know,” Regan said. “She’s in second grade, and her name’s Morgan, and she’s mean.”
“We’ve established that she’s mean,” Aiden said impatiently. He checked the time before continuing. “So now we’re getting somewhere.”
Walker and Spencer were both smiling. Fortunately, Regan didn’t see.
“You said that the second grader made another girl cry?” Aiden asked.
Regan nodded. “She made her cry, all right.”
“What did she do to make her cry?” Walker asked. “Did she hit her?”
“Then what?” Now Walker sounded as frustrated as Aiden did.
Tears welled up in Regan’s eyes again. “She made the girl give her her barrettes.”
“Was the girl in kindergarten?” Aiden asked.
“She’s a very nice girl too. She sits beside me at the round table. Her name’s Cordelia, but she said everybody calls her Cordie and I should call her Cordie too.”
“Do you like this Cordelia?” Spencer asked.
“Yes,” she said. “And there’s another girl I like too. Her name’s Sophie, and she sits at the same table with me and Cordie.”
“There you go,” Aiden said. “You’ve only been at the new school for one day, and you’ve already made two new friends.”
Believing the trauma was over, he grabbed his car keys and headed for the door. Walker stopped him. “Wait a minute, Aiden. You can’t leave until we figure out what to do about the bully.”
Aiden paused at the door. “You’ve got to be kidding. The bully is a second grader.”
“We still need to do something to protect Regan,” he insisted.
“Like what?” Aiden demanded. “You think maybe all three of us should go to school tomorrow and terrorize the kid?”
Regan perked up. “That’d be good,” she said. “Make her leave Cordie and Sophie and me alone.”
“Or,” Aiden said, “you could handle the problem on your own. You could stand up to the bully. Tell her you aren’t going to give her anything and to leave you and your friends alone.”
“I want the first one.”
Aiden blinked. “The first one?”