SYNOPSIS

Gail Fernhill, newly appointed of principal of Queen Anne’s Girls’ School in Dunedin, New Zealand is haunted by her past but befriends new property manager Neil Goodall. Neil pierces her reserve to support and help her when he discovers that as a teenager, she killed her abusive father in self-defence.

However, the case is reopened after the discovery of her father’s rifle. Inspector Peter Carrington attempts, by fair means or foul, to build up a murder case against Gail and directs Tania Brogan, an undercover police officer employed by the school as a teacher, to find evidence. However, after an accident involving a bus load of pupils on a ski trip Tania switches her allegiance to help Gail but unwittingly plays into Carrington’s hand.

Intertwining with Gail and Neil’s growing love and the conflicts of school life, the problems deepen when John McKendrick arrives at school and attempts to abduct his daughter Penny. Gail and Neil intervene but Gail is wounded and, with Neil and Penny, abducted.

Is Gail’s successful life as a principal about to be cut short by her past? And what of her abduction? Is Neil’s love enough to help the blemished jewel through these trying times?

EXCERPT

“Tell us, Miss Fernhill.” Lindsay fixed his eyes on the next candidate on their shortlist. “Being principal at Queen Anne’s School involves working in a different environment from state schools. If you were appointed, what would you see as one of your first duties?”

He inspected the attractive brunette woman sitting opposite. Dressed in a light brown suit and cream blouse she appeared almost too young for the position. However, her credentials were of the highest quality and there was an air of confidence about her. Whereas the last candidate they interviewed clutched her purse and talked too much, this young woman was very precise in all her replies.

“Get to know the people here; trustees, staff and the pupils,” Gail Fernhill answered.

The five people on the committee glanced up from their notes and waited.

“Is that all?” one woman finally asked.

“No, of course not,” Gail continued with a slight smile. “I believe the people in a school are more important than bits of paper. A principal of a school is beyond the classroom, so to speak. Staff morale and loyalty are of the highest importance. One has to know her staff before formulating programs, find out how previous school policies operated and so forth. It would be foolish to rush in with masses of theory that may not suit the school.”

“I see,” replied Lindsay in a neutral tone and jotted some notes on a piece of paper. His eyes met Gail’s deep blue ones. “I notice that you passed your Masters Degree in Business Administration. Was there any reason for this?”

“I wanted to broaden my interests,” replied Gail. “Taking purely educational or academic subjects can be restricting.”

“I noticed you passed with honours. Congratulations,” Sally Kingsley added.

“Thank you” The woman responded modestly but didn’t elaborate.

The interview continued for another fifty minutes with set questions and several personal queries made. Gail answered with confidence and those present noticed she wasn’t afraid to give an opinion if it was called for.

“That concludes our interview, Gail,” Lindsay finally stated. “You will be advised of the outcome within the next two weeks. Thank you for coming. Please feel free to have another look around the school. Janice, one of our seniors on the student council will be your guide. As well, you’re welcome to have afternoon tea in the staffroom before you leave.”

“Thank you,” Gail said. “I saw some of the school before the interview and I am very impressed. I’d love to see the rest.”

She rose, shook everybody’s hands and left the room.

*

 When  the school’s deputy principal, Sharon was asked the set interview questions, she was back to being her old blunt self.

“We need to tighten up on our girls,” she said. “In the modern environment we must offer something the public schools don’t and one of these is tight discipline that leads to high academic results we can be proud of.”

“What about staff morale?” prompted Sally after she’d reread the notes taken when Gail discussed the same question.

“Of course that’s important,” Sharon retorted. “With good discipline, this will follow.”

“I see,” replied Sally.

Before the interviewing process, she’d supported Sharon but some of their replies at present coming through made her feel the other woman might be a stronger candidate. She knew, too, there had been rumblings about the D.P. being too forceful in the school. Yet the other woman was so young. Almost absentmindedly she drew a large question mark on the paper in front of her and decided to wait to see what the other members thought.

*

“Gail Fernhill presented herself well,” Sally commented as the members shuffled through their notes and began to evaluate the candidates.

“Hell, she looked younger than thirty-two,” muttered Bob Smith, a stout bald man in his fifties. “I’d have trouble picking her out from our senior girls. Good looker, too.”

“Trust you to notice that, Bob?” chided Sally.

“Well,” replied Bob, “Her references were excellent. Mind you, it would be a big step here after being a dean at a state school.”

“Yes, I admit she is relatively young,” added Sally. “If it wasn’t for Sharon, I’d probably recommend her.”

Lindsay coughed. “I would like to oppose Sharon’s selection,” he said quietly and took out a brown folder. “I believe she has the wrong personality for the position…”

“Come on,” protested Ted Quigley, another Board representative. “Sure she’s strict but isn’t that what we need?”

“No,” replied Lindsay. “Not when it’s at the expense of individual initiative. Senior pupils are treated like Year 10s and staff are stressed out.”

“Okay,” interrupted Ted. “I get your point.”

Lindsay opened the folder. “I have here, letters from parents complaining about Sharon’s treatment of their girls. In the last term we received at least a dozen addressed to either our retiring principal or myself.” He glanced around the table. “Only last week, Gavin McLean phoned me to complain.”

“Okay.” Bob sighed. “I see it is not a foregone conclusion to select Sharon. I suggest, therefore, we go back to our job description and rank the candidates as we originally agreed.”

“I agree,” answered Lindsay. “Let’s begin. Now, part one is…”

For several hours the discussion continued with three candidates being eliminated for various reasons until it was finally time to make the decision.

“This seems to be it,” Lindsay began. “The final selection is between Sharon Thomas and Gail Fernhill. Shall we take a vote?”

Five hands went up to nominate Gail. It was unanimous.

*

When Lindsay walked into Sharon’s place early the next morning he wished his visit was over but he’d decided at least give Sharon the curtsy of telling her the news to her face, rather than over the phone.

“Come in, Lindsay,” said her husband Gary after he’d opened the door. “I’ll get Sharon.”

“Oh, hello, Lindsay,” Sharon said pleasantly when she walked in the room. She stood waiting with an expectant gaze.

Lindsay glanced at her. “I came to say, I’m sorry but you missed out in the principal’s position. It was very close but…”

“Missed!” Sharon’s hand went to her mouth. “How could I?”

Lindsay sighed. “Another candidate was considered a better choice. We discussed your relative merits for hours but finally it was decided to give the position to Miss Gail Fernhill.”

“I see,” replied Sharon. “Which one was she?”

 “Miss Fernhill was the dark haired woman. She’s thirty-two”

“Thirty-two!” Sharon’s voice grew louder. “You gave the position to a thirty-two year old?”

Lindsay nodded. “When all of your relative merits were taken into account she, in the appointments committee’s opinion, came out the strongest.”

“How?”  Sharon retorted.

“She has an honours degree but you don’t want me to go through every reason, do you?”

“No, of course not. I’m disappointed, that’s all.”

“Of course you are,” replied Lindsay. “You have every right to be but I’m sure once you get to know Gail you’ll find her a very mature and approachable person.”

“No doubt,” replied Sharon with a trace of sarcasm in her voice. “Thank you for your personal approach, Lindsay. I appreciate it.”

She turned and left the room.

*

Gail Fernhill studied the large white envelope that had arrived in the morning’s mail and noticed the blue coat of arms above ornate gold lettering reading Queen Anne’s School in the left top corner.

“Oh well,” she muttered to herself as she slit the envelope open. As she read the first page her eyes opened wide.

‘Dear Miss Fernhill

‘It gives us great pleasure to advise you that the appointments committee of Queen Anne’s School…”

Gail read the rest with increasing excitement. My God, she’d won the position! She flipped through the other sheets and turned back to the first page to reread the last paragraph.

‘Could you please advise us by the end of this month if you are prepared to accept the position to take affect as from…’

“Yes, oh yes,” she said and ran inside to phone her mother.

*

 Jennifer Pearson received her daughter’s information with delight.

“I always knew you’d do it, sweetheart,” she replied. The still youngish looking woman in her mid fifties glanced across at her husband, Lance and repeated the news.

Lance smiled. He was thrilled as well. Since meeting and later marrying Jennifer he had always related well with Gail though she had been a hard young woman to befriend. There was a sort of barrier around her, beyond which nobody could go.

 “Here, let me speak to her,” he said. “Congratulations, Gail,” he said with a genuine excited voice. “Like Mum, I had no doubt you’d win a job like this. You certainly deserve it. Are you doing anything tonight?” He smiled and knew his conscientious stepdaughter wouldn’t be going out. “…Well, how about a big shout? I’ll book us into one of those cosy restaurants downtown…. Fine. See you about six. I’ll hand you back to Mum. Bye.”

After Jennifer took the phone, he smiled and continued to think about Gail. In all the time he’d known her, she had never gone out with men. It was almost as if she was scared to build up a relationship. He remembered the graduation night she had received her M.A. After she’d been capped he’d walked over and given her a big hug. She had literally stiffened in his arms and had stepped back with a flushed expression. Yet they were really the best of friends. Often they would talk for hours about common interests.

*

“Listen everyone,” said Mary on the final Wednesday before the end of Term One “I’d like to introduce your new principal. This is Gail Fernhill,” She turned to the visitor and smiled. “You’ve met Sharon earlier so if we start on the left, we have….”

Gail walked around, shook hands with the staff and purposely made a mental reference so she could remember the names. The staff were predominately women with only two men present, a young teacher called Boyce and the property manager.

“I’m really just the caretaker,” Neil Goodall said as she shook his hand. He was a tall; well built man in his thirties, clean shaven with short dark hair.

Afterwards, Gail made a point of moving between groups and asking questions to put the staff at ease. When the bell rang for classes to recommence she watched as everyone filed out.

“They’re keen,” she said pleasantly to the deputy principal.

Sharon looked at her and retorted. “It’s what we expect here, Miss Fernhill.”

“Please, call me Gail.”

“Yes… err, Gail,” replied Sharon and appeared to relax a little.

Gail observed the deputy principal and tried to interpret the body language. Some mistrust and resentment was evident but that was only to be expected. Apparently, Sharon was an efficient teacher and administrator and would be needed in the new term.

“I want to know what you consider the school’s priorities are,” she said. “Mary’s told me everything as she sees it but we’re the ones that will be working together.”

“You mean you’re interested in my thoughts and ideas?” asked Sharon with a tint of amazement in her voice.

“Yes,” replied Gail. “Why not?”

“No reason,” answered Sharon. “I didn’t expect it, that’s all.”

“I look forward to your help,” Gail replied and walked over to where Mary was waiting for her.

*

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About Ross

Ross Richdale is a New Zealand author of over 40 novels, both science fiction and contemporary that are sold as ebooks at all the major outlets.

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