Clandestine, Book 2
“You know why, Ms. Finch. Now if you would please sit down, I will explain more fully.”
Kelly Finch sat heavily in the leather chair across the desk from her boss, Mr. Hallstrom. As principal of Lowell High School, Mr. Hallstrom had a lovely corner office complete with not one, but two big windows allowing copious amounts of natural light to shine on the large wooden desk and dark brown leather office chairs. She could see a few January flurries flying about outside.
Kelly, on the other hand, would have killed for one lousy peephole to the outside world in her fluorescent hell of an English classroom. Her metal teacher’s desk was so battered and beaten she would swear it had gone ten rounds with George Foreman and, as a result, only two of the four desk drawers closed completely. Her desk chair was the straight-back wooden model with no wheels. Every time she stood up, it scraped across the vinyl floor with an ear-piercing shriek that made her teeth ache. And with the lack of windows, she never knew what the weather was. Hell, a monsoon could hit and she wouldn’t know.
“Mr. Hallstrom,” she began, but her comments were cut short by the look of impatience on her usually mild-mannered principal’s face.
Oh shit. That was a sure sign she didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this argument. Mr. Hallstrom never used anyone’s first name. He didn’t feel it was professional. The faculty liked to joke that he probably even called his wife Mrs. Hallstrom in bed at night. Turn off that light and give me a kiss, Mrs. Hallstrom. Kelly attempted to stifle her grin at the thought.
“I know you are well aware of our problems with gang activity within the school,” he continued.
She simply nodded. She’d have to be a fool not to know about the gangs taking over the hallways. In the last week, she’d broken up two small skirmishes outside her classroom. Another teacher had been injured badly enough breaking up a fight three weeks ago that he’d had to be taken to the hospital and treated for a sprained wrist and mild concussion.
“The superintendent is breathing down my neck to get the situation under control. The best way to do that is to bring in people who are more experienced in dealing with gangs.”
“I understand that, sir,” she answered. “But that doesn’t explain why I have to play host to a cop in my classroom.”
“Ms. Finch,” Mr. Hallstrom answered sternly. “By your own choice, you teach most of the students we suspect are taking part in these illegal activities. Quite frankly, I don’t know how you deal with all of them but that’s neither here nor there. Lt. McNally will be placed in your classroom under the guise of student teacher. No one will know he’s a police officer except you, me, the superintendent and the gang task force he’s working with. Is that understood?”
“Yes sir,” she grumbled.
“Ms. Finch.” Mr. Hallstrom returned to his usual stoic self now that he had secured her agreement. “The gang task force was opposed to you being privy to this investigation, but I insisted upon your involvement. I hope you will not disappoint me in trusting you with this extremely sensitive information.”
“No sir,” she answered. “I won’t tell anyone. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about it though.”
“I didn’t think you would be,” her principal admitted. At the sound of his tired voice, she looked—really looked—at his face for the first time since entering the room. No doubt his claim about the superintendent’s anger was true. There were dark circles under his eyes and a tightness around his mouth that wasn’t normally present.
It wasn’t his fault the composition of the student body had changed so rapidly. Rising housing costs in the nearby city had driven folks out into the suburbs, bringing with them the gangs so typically associated with much larger urban populations. As a result, Lowell High School, her alma mater, no longer resembled the small-town school she’d loved as a teenager.
“He isn’t a teacher,” she argued, though she knew it was a lost cause.
“No, he isn’t,” Mr. Hallstrom added. “However, by posing as a student teacher, he can get away with observing for a few weeks. If it’s necessary for him to remain longer than that, perhaps you can walk him through a few easy lessons for appearance’s sake. The students won’t suspect anything and it shouldn’t really affect your teaching at all. Do what you would normally do.”
“While the good lieutenant sits in the back of my classroom like a spider collecting flies?” she asked, her temper rising. Maybe her students weren’t saints but she thought if she had enough time, she could pull some of them back from the lure of gangs. Most of her kids came from broken homes with oft-absent parents and unbelievable poverty. It was only natural they would flock to a group that promised them a loyal family and the chance to make money. Most of them were hungry and would do anything for a full belly and a little bit of attention.
As a result, she’d specifically requested the high-risk students be placed in her English classes and had begun an after-school tutoring program. She knew the hours right after school were the times when kids were at the highest risk because most parents, if they worked, were still toiling away. She was able to entice students to remain at school by feeding them. Her motto with the kids was simple. “We don’t eat, we don’t meet.” By providing snacks, she ensured her room was usually packed with kids who were willing to discuss an extra poem or read silently for another hour if it meant they got a peanut butter and banana sandwich or giant chocolate chip cookie.
“Ms. Finch.” Mr. Hallstrom rose from his chair and moved to stand before her. “No one knows better than I do how hard you work for those kids, but the fact of the matter is we are losing this battle.”
“The battle,” she interrupted, “not the war. Wars take time. Battles—mere minutes.”
Mr. Hallstrom continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “It’s time to ask for help. Lt. McNally and his team can provide it. Later this week, we’re having a faculty meeting in which some members of McNally’s team are going to help us identify gang clothing, symbols, etcetera. We’re going to crack down on dress code rules that prohibit bandanas, hats and other gang-related attire. We are adopting a zero-tolerance attitude. In a couple of weeks, there’s a one-day conference in the city for educators and the police. It discusses ways to eradicate the threat of gangs in schools. I want you to go.”
“Me?” she asked, startled.
“You’ll be our faculty liaison. Go to the conference with Lt. McNally, learn all you can, then come back and do a presentation for the faculty.” He smiled kindly at her, as if by treating the idea like a privilege she would be fooled into thinking she hadn’t just had a ton of extra work dumped into her lap.
“I hate Mondays,” she muttered, wondering why she’d bothered to get out of bed.
“I said why me?” she asked, repeating her earlier question.
“You know why, Ms. Finch,” he replied again. “Because you really care about the kids here and I know you want these gangs stopped as much as I do. I’ve certainly noticed your efforts toward that goal.”
A knock at the door stopped her from responding to Mr. Hallstrom’s unexpected praise. She’d always suspected she was actually a bit of a thorn in her harried principal’s life. She tried to be a team player, but more often than not she found herself in the role of protector, coming up against administration time after time in order to help one of her kids.
She’d spent her entire planning period earlier in the day trying to get Maria, a pregnant teen in her third period, out of a one-day suspension. The pregnancy had so far been a difficult one for the young girl in terms of morning sickness. For weeks she’d begged Kelly to keep her pregnancy a secret, which she’d agreed to only on the condition that Maria see a doctor. Maria did, but despite her embarrassment over the situation, her blossoming midsection was going to give her away very soon. After receiving her fifth unexcused tardy to school, Maria was issued the suspension. Kelly had finally convinced the girl to explain her condition to the guidance counselor and the school nurse—then pleaded with the assistant principal to forgo the suspension, given the fact her tardies were due to morning sickness.
Voices at the doorway disrupted her thoughts as she watched the most stunning man she’d ever seen walk right out of her dreams and into the principal’s office.
Ooh la la!
He had light brown hair—a bit long and tousled in a just-rolled-out-of-bed look—and his face had a five o’clock shadow. He wasn’t what she would call a pretty boy, but he had a chiseled jaw and honest-to-God green eyes. His breathtaking face, however, was just the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that was his body.
Tall and muscular and built exactly the way a man ought to be.
Man, oh man.
Scratch the dream part—she would never have been so bold as to create this Greek god in any of her suddenly lackluster fantasies and she silently prayed she wasn’t drooling.
Mr. Hallstrom turned to introduce her.
“Kelly Finch,” he began, “this is Lt. Jared McNally.”
“You’re the cop?” she blurted in disbelief. This perfect specimen of a man was going to be sitting in the back of her classroom for God knew how long and she was supposed to teach as if she weren’t thinking incredibly naughty thoughts?
The lieutenant had the audacity to merely smirk at what must have seemed like a rude remark.
“Yes, Ms. Finch. He is,” Mr. Hallstrom said rather sharply, but McNally extended his hand.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Finch.” His voice was smooth as silk and made her feel like an even bigger ass. “Your principal speaks very highly of you.”
“Nice to meet you too, Lieutenant.” She took the hand he proffered, but she didn’t expect the firm handshake to rattle her the way it did. Touching this man was like touching a live wire. Electricity sparked throughout her body and she wondered if this was what people meant when they talked about spontaneous combustion.
When was the last time she’d had sex?
Oh yeah, that’s right, I live in Loserville.
She thought it had been at least a year, but in reality it may actually be closer to double that. No wonder the sexy cop was getting to her.
“That’s Mr. McNally,” he corrected her. “It’s very important that you never refer to my rank, Ms. Finch. I’m just a poor, lowly student teacher.”
“Of course.” She quickly pulled her hand away when she realized she was still clinging to his.
“I assume Mr. Hallstrom briefed you on our operation.” He was attempting and failing miserably to hide a smug grin that let her know he knew exactly how much and in what way he was affecting her. She cursed her flushing cheeks.
She hated him already. Could you hate someone in a lustful way?
“It’s imperative that you keep the true reason for my presence in your classroom a secret. No one must know—not your mother, your best friend, your husband.”
She noticed his brief hesitation as he asked about a husband. Maybe she wasn’t the only one feeling the heat between them.
“My mother is in Florida, my best friend is a cat and I’m not married.” This time her answers were cool and she felt as if she’d redeemed herself a bit. “I’m perfectly capable of keeping a secret, Mister McNally,” she said, stressing his title. “If you were so concerned about my involvement, I’m surprised you bothered to tell me at all. Why not keep me in the dark?”
Mr. Hallstrom answered quickly, his voice soothing as he replied. Obviously he sensed the tense undertones between her and Mr. Arrogant. “As I said earlier, I insisted you be included, Ms. Finch. There was no way, given Lt. McNally’s lack of educational training, that he would be able to fool you for long.”
“Besides,” McNally added, “I need the time to focus on my investigation and not waste it planning lessons to con one teacher.”
“Planning lessons to educate children isn’t a waste of time.” She was painfully aware of how bitchy she was coming off in this whole conversation, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. Mr. Lieutenant was making her so hot, she was sweating.
McNally’s retort was calm and non-confrontational and once again, she cursed her wayward tongue. “Let’s just say I’m here for another purpose and leave it at that.”
Frustrated with the whole situation, she saw an out and took it. She looked at her principal. “If you have nothing else for me, I have some papers to grade in my classroom.”
“Actually,” McNally said, “I was hoping to spend some time briefing you in more detail about how I plan to proceed.”
“Why don’t you accompany Ms. Finch to her classroom?” Mr. Hallstrom was clearly seeing his own way to escape the entire scenario. “If you need anything else, Lt. McNally, please feel free to ask.” He walked them to the door. “Ms. Finch, I’ll e-mail you more information about that conference. Have a good afternoon.”
With that, he closed the door to his office, leaving her alone with McNally in the hallway.
“Looks like we’ve been dismissed,” McNally joked.
She merely raised her eyebrows at his words before turning and walking toward her classroom. If he wanted to continue their discussion, it would have to be somewhere much more private, even though the thought of being sequestered in her small classroom with the hot cop left her cheeks flushed and her insides squirming.
God, she really needed to get laid. Her reaction to this man was overblown, ridiculous.
Catching up to her, he kept pace and continued talking as if unaware of her attempts to lose him in the hallway.
“My friends call me Mac.”
“How nice for your friends, Mr. McNally.” She was unwilling to give up her immediate dislike of the man and the entire situation, although she knew she was fighting a losing battle.
He seemed unmoved by her frostiness. “And your first name is Kelly?”
“My friends call me Ms. Finch.” She struggled to contain the slight grin crossing her lips but it escaped before she could call it back.
“Kelly will be fine then.” He flashed an all-too-charming smile and she knew she was lost.
Hell and damnation.
“Mr. McNally—” she started.
“Mac,” he insisted, cutting her off.
“Mac, then. I don’t want you to misunderstand me when I say—”
Again he interrupted her. “I would prefer we not continue this conversation until we get to your classroom.” He was looking around the hallway. There were still a few students lingering by their lockers and two math teachers talking outside their classrooms.
“Fine.” She picked up her pace. The sooner she said her piece, the better.
As they approached her room, she unlocked the door before entering.
“Do you always lock the door when you leave?”
“Yes,” she answered. “My desk won’t lock and I leave my purse in the bottom drawer. I’m not rich, so I generally like to hang on to the couple of bucks I’ve got.”
He smiled at her response, closing the door as he followed her into the room. She sat on her desk chair and then gestured at one of the student desks for him. Rather than attempt to fold his tall, muscular frame into the tiny seat, he perched himself on top of it, leaning against the writing surface. She silently admired the way his strong thighs were encased in tight-fitting denim.
Geez, the man is built.
Glancing up, she realized he’d caught her staring at him. Damn, if she was this distracted by his body and that chestnut-colored hair that just begged for a haircut—or at least her hands running through it—how was she going to keep her hormone-driven teenaged girls under control?
“Listen,” she sighed. “I’m sorry to come off like a grade-A bitch here. It’s not you personally.”
“Glad to hear it.” Once again, he graced her with that charismatic smile she was becoming all too fond of.
“It’s the situation,” she continued. “I’m uncomfortable with the thought of you holding a stakeout in my classroom.”
“You don’t need to worry about me. As I said, I’m here to observe the kids, not you or your teaching.”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” she quickly corrected. “I don’t care who watches me teach. What I do care about are these kids. Having you come in here undercover is a bit like inviting the fox into the henhouse. That’s what I don’t like.”
“By referring to me as the fox,” he said, eyebrows lowered, “it sounds as though you consider me to be the bad guy.”
“I’m not saying my kids are saints, but they aren’t exactly living ideal lives. I don’t think we’re doing them any favors by throwing them in prison or juvenile detention.”
“Listen, Ms. Finch. I think maybe we need to clear up a few misconceptions here.” Mac’s use of her title clued her in to his offense at her words. “Despite what you think, I’m not the criminal. I’m not trying to trap or trick these kids. The fact of the matter is, some of your students are doing some pretty shitty stuff and one thing we don’t have is the luxury of time—time for you to save them all with your feel-good books and chocolate chip cookies. I live and work in the real world, Pollyanna.”
She exploded, furious at his belittlement of her attempts to help her students. “How dare you make fun of me! You don’t have a clue what I’ve been accomplishing with these kids. You wanna call me Pollyanna? Fine! I’d rather be thought optimistic than walk around with your ‘attack first, ask questions later’ approach to life, Attila.”
“Optimistic?” he ground out. “Oh no, sweetheart. When I said Pollyanna, I meant naïve, and I’m not sure how you can call me Attila for simply doing my job.”
“Don’t call me sweetheart. And given that your job consists of judging kids at first glance, according to attitude and attire, and then ruining their lives without a backward glance then yes, I think I’m merely calling it as I see it.” Her temper was rising to dangerous limits. The idea of this man sitting in her classroom passing judgment on her kids was more than she could tolerate. “Have you ever stopped to consider the factors that lead these kids to gangs? You think I’m naïve because I concentrate my energy on finding them more positive outlets for their time?”
“I think you may have blinders on where some of your students are concerned.”
“And I think you are willing to believe the worst in all of them without giving them the benefit of the doubt.”
“In my experience,” he replied, “the worst is usually true. I spend my days tracking down thieves, rapists and drug dealers and nine times out of ten, the culprit is a teenager in a gang who does his hustling at school. These are some pretty upstanding citizens you’re teaching.”
“This isn’t going to work.” She slammed her hand down on her desk as she rose to leave the room. “I’m going to tell Mr. Hallstrom to find another class for you to observe.”
“Oh no, you’re not.” Mac grabbed her arm as she passed him. “No one else is going to be privy to this investigation. You’re the teacher he blabbed the truth to, so that’s it—you’re the teacher. Besides, given your attitude toward my job here, I don’t intend to take my eyes off you for one minute. There is no way I’m going to let you jeopardize my work. I have a feeling you’d start slipping warnings in their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches just to thwart me.”
Startled by his grasp on her arm and by how much he knew of her work, she stumbled in her attempt to break loose. He pulled on her arm to stop the fall, directing her until she tumbled into his chest before wrapping his arms securely around her back.
Her fists gripped his shirt for a moment before she loosened them and pressed against his chest with the flat palms of her hands. Looking up, she was unnerved by how closely the lieutenant was holding her. For a second, she thought she could see undisguised lust in his pale green eyes and she felt herself answering the pull before she could think.
She fought the overwhelming desire to lean forward just a bit and kiss him. Instead, she pushed away from him—hard. Turning back toward her desk, she sat heavily in her chair, unable to look him in the eye, her now-lucid mind screaming Idiot!
She wasn’t this kind of person. She was usually so easygoing, friendly, nice.
Well, okay, she did have a bit of a temper, but she could usually keep it under control. Most days anyway. And “easygoing” might be pushing it as she did tend to be a bit stubborn about getting her way, but she was definitely friendly. Sort of.
Now in the course of less than an hour, she’d insulted and been insulted by this man and then actually considered kissing a virtual stranger. Her whole world felt like it had tipped on its axis and she couldn’t quite determine what to do next.
“Kelly…” There was a kindness in his tone that was mixed with confusion and, strangely, it comforted her. She wasn’t alone in her feelings.
It was her turn to stop him. “No,” she started. “Forget it. Mr. Hallstrom made it perfectly clear that he fully supports you being here and I’m obviously not going to change his mind. I suggest that we start over and pretend the last hour never happened.” Rising, she was pleased by the steadiness of the hand she extended.
“Hi,” she said with a strained smile. “I’m Kelly Finch.”
“Jared McNally.” He approached her and accepted her proffered hand—before surprising her by using the handshake against her. He continued to pull her across the desk and didn’t stop until their noses were nearly touching. “I think we should start over too.”
“Mac.” She tried to pull back, but his strength and size were far superior to her own.
“Kelly,” he murmured. “I think I’m going to enjoy teaching you a few lessons for a change.”
Uncomfortable by his smoldering look and infuriated by his smug words, she stopped trying to escape his grip and instead moved closer, allowing her lips to barely brush against his.
“Careful, Lieutenant.” Her whisper was husky and she could sense his growing arousal at her sensuous tone. “As someone with educational training, I’m the one who has every intention of instructing you about a few things.”
“Is that right?” he murmured seductively, an invitation to let the games begin reflected in his hungry gaze.
She let his words linger and felt his hot breath wash across her face. She gave him her sexiest smile. As he leaned closer, she matched his forward movement with a backward one, pulling away before his lips found their target.
“Do me a favor and lock up on your way out.”
She giggled at his annoyed groan as she quickly escaped to the hallway.
“Child’s play,” she said once she was outside the door. Kelly made sure she said it just loud enough for Mac to hear. She was somewhat disappointed when he didn’t take her up on the dare and follow her.
She walked toward the parking lot, her grin growing. She was actually looking forward to tomorrow and to giving him a run for his money. Maybe it hadn’t been such a bad Monday after all.
“So how did you get so lucky?” Meg asked when Kelly walked into the English Department’s office the next morning.
“Did I miss something?” She was confused by Meg’s comment.
“Hello? Earth to Ms. Finch. Are you blind, girlfriend? I know you met your new student teacher yesterday. Perhaps you remember? Six and half feet of tall, tan and handsome with a stacked body most women would sell their souls for? And he’s not some wet-behind-the ears frat boy fresh from college either. He’s a man—a fully-grown man. Must be one of those career switchers. So I repeat, how did you get so lucky?”
She rolled her eyes over Meg’s drooling comments.
“Pardon me, Meg, but I could have sworn you just recently married Mr. Perfect. Honeymoon over so soon?”
“Puh-lease,” Meg drawled. “You know I love my husband but I didn’t gouge my eyes out at the altar. I can look.”
“Maybe I should tell Rob about your roving eye,” she teased. Her best friend, Meg had been married less than a year to Rob Madison. No one on earth had been more surprised than Kelly when Meg had returned from a dream vacation with not only a tan, but a hunky, rich boyfriend. Fresh from maternity leave, Meg was struggling with the choice of continuing her career or staying home as a full-time mom.
“Don’t you dare,” Meg scolded. “Man has a jealous streak a mile wide.”
“How’s my beautiful goddaughter?”
“Manipulative,” Meg replied.
Kelly laughed at her quick response. “She’s not even two months old. How can she be manipulative?”
“I swear she knows the second Rob walks in the door. She’ll be crying her damn head off all afternoon and the moment Daddy comes home, she turns on the charm, cooing and smiling. Rob thinks she’s an angel come down to earth because he never hears her squalling loud enough to shake the shutters.”
“I think maybe she has both your numbers.” Kelly grinned. “She knows you can’t stand for her to be sad, so she piles on the tears so you’ll carry and rock her and sing to her. And she knows Rob is a sucker for a sassy grin, so she gives him his money’s worth. I seem to recall Rob mentioning at the wedding reception that it was your grin that sealed the deal on his heart.”
Deep dimples claimed Meg’s lovely face as she conceded Kelly’s point. “She’s such a doll. Rob and I stand by her crib at night for hours just watching her sleep. Oh Kelly, I can’t wait for you to have a baby! The experience is so much more than you could ever imagine.”
“I think maybe I should focus my attention on the husband part first.”
“Which leads me right back to my original conversation. Perhaps Mr. Right will be sitting in your classroom this very morning.”
“Actually, you can forget about the student teacher.” Kelly stumbled over the lie, uncomfortable with keeping a secret from one of her dearest friends. If she was being honest with herself, she was incredibly attracted to Mac. If she was being equally truthful, she also knew they were like oil and water and destined to butt heads from now until the end of this assignment. “Go ahead and strike him off your list of men you plan to set me up with. We’re simply not compatible.”
“How on earth do you know that?”
“I talked to him yesterday afternoon and he’s not my type.”
“Who’s not your type?” The same deep voice that filled her dreams last night startled her.
Groaning, Kelly turned slowly, struggling to catch her breath as it was knocked out by the sight of Lt. Jared McNally dressed for school. His T-shirt and jeans the prior day had been deadly enough to her libido, but the image of Mac in dress khakis and a buttoned-up shirt and tie were fatal. She slowly closed her eyes and prayed for strength in an attempt to retain the smallest part of her waning self-control.
“Welcome to Lowell High School,” Meg’s cheery voice rang out. “I’m Meg Madison. I teach Special Ed.”
“Jared McNally, but most folks call me Mac.” He reached out to shake Meg’s outstretched hand.
“Nice to meet you.” Meg grinned in a way that let Kelly know she was aware her previous words had been a damn lie. She could see her best friend mentally moving Mac’s name to the top of her set-up list. Damn woman probably had it bolded and underlined as well.
“So, what kind of guy is not your type?” Mac asked again, no doubt loving the fact he was keeping her on the hot seat.
Raising her chin, Kelly felt her face flush before gathering her wits. “Oh, you know.” She looked him straight in the eye, unwilling to let the man intimidate her. “Arrogant and overbearing, opinionated. That type.”
He grinned at her answer. “I can’t imagine that type of guy would attract any woman. What do you think, Meg? Would you date a guy like that?”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Meg started. “Of course, my husband, Rob, is rather overbearing. You remember how he was when I was pregnant, Kelly. Never let me do a thing. And I’m sure more than a few of his employees think he’s arrogant, but really that’s just self-confidence. He’s a very intelligent fellow.” She added the last comment as if confiding some great secret to Mac, and Kelly stifled a groan. Meg was honest to a fault and thought far too much. “And in all fairness, he does feel very strongly about his opinions, so I suppose that must mean he’s opinionated… Oh hell. I married that kind of man. What do you think of that, Mr. McNally?”
Kelly and Mac both broke into laughter at Meg’s rambling diatribe about her husband.
“Call me Mac, please, and I’m not sure being opinionated is an insult or else the person would be an uninteresting slob. Personally I think anyone who can’t make up their mind about a subject and stick to it is boring.”
He was grinning directly at Kelly. Perhaps he wasn’t as turned-off by her strong feelings about her students as he’d insinuated yesterday. Her heart started to beat a bit faster at his smile. It was friendlier today, as if he actually liked what he saw, and she wondered about the sudden change.
“Well, there you have it, Kelly. You’ve just described Rob perfectly and I adore every inch of that man. Guess it’s a good thing he’s not your type. Don’t have to worry about you stealing my husband.”
“As if anyone could pry him away from your side, even with a crowbar.” Her friend had truly found herself the world’s most devoted husband. In spite of the fact she was happy for Meg, she couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy in the face of her friend’s newfound love. Meg had always been the quiet, reserved one. The one who rarely dated. She, on the other hand, had pretty much worked her way through most of the male population of the town in terms of long, unbearable first dates that never led to a second—and she still hadn’t found Mr. Right.
Mac rejoined the conversation. “You know there’s this theory that people hate characteristics in others that they secretly fear may be their own faults.”
Kelly narrowed her eyes, angrily glaring at Mac. “Are you implying that I’m arrogant, overbearing and opinionated?”
Meg snorted back a laugh before walking toward the door. “That sounds like my cue to leave.”
Kelly raised her hand. “Freeze! What are you implying, Meg?”
“Not a thing. I really need to go to class.”
“You think I’m arrogant and opinionated?” She was unwilling to let Meg off the hook. This was news to her.
“Listen—” Mac started. He must have sensed the tense undercurrent and was clearly hoping to break up the fight he’d started.
“Butt out.” She turned back to Meg. “Do you?”
“I think you’re an extremely self-confident, self-assured woman with a strong sense of right and wrong.”
“Good God.” She thought perhaps Mac’s comments were closer to the mark than she’d realized. “You think I’m a bitch!”
“Kelly,” Meg laughed. “Sweetheart, I think you’re the bee’s knees and you know it. You are just what I said.”
“Yeah, but all those words you used are synonyms for arrogant and opinionated and bitchy.” She frowned.
“Lord save me from English teachers,” Meg joked. “Tell you what, Mr. McNally—sorry, Mac. You started this so I’m going to let you finish it. Have a nice first day. You couldn’t ask for a better cooperating teacher than Kelly, by the way.” Meg walked out of the room. From the hallway, they could clearly hear her add the words, “Even if she is arrogant and opinionated!” Her jest was followed by her own loud, pleased laughter.
Kelly rolled her eyes, accustomed to Meg’s teasing manner. Turning around, she found Mac studying her closely, no doubt expecting her to blow up at her friend’s words.
“Meg has a rather twisted sense of humor.” She grinned despite the fact she was once again alone with the man who seemed capable of tying her insides in knots simply by entering a room.
“I don’t know.” He leaned back against the counter, drawing her attention once again to his muscular thighs. She couldn’t help but wonder what he looked like in swim trunks, or better yet a Speedo. Not that she’d ever find out, of course. After all, it was the middle of January in Virginia. He waited until her eyes returned to his face. The cocky look in his gaze let her know she’d been busted again. She shook her head for being so transparent. Damn man was reading her attraction to him like a book. “Meg seems to be an extremely intelligent and astute woman.”
“Such big words, Lieutenant.”
The immediate disappearance of his smile clued her in to her mistake. Glancing around quickly to make sure they were alone, she held up her hand to ward off the chastisement she read on his lips.
“Sorry. Slip of the tongue. It won’t happen again, I promise.”
He stalked toward her and she found herself backing up involuntarily at the anger she saw in his face. In four steps, she found herself cornered in the book room off the office, backed up against the wall and watching him kick the door shut with his foot. The room was tiny at best and finding herself in such close proximity to him left her struggling to take a deep breath.
“I said I was sorry.” However, he simply continued to glare at her.
“Sorry isn’t really enough, Kelly,” he said sternly. “If Meg or anyone else had been in that room, my cover would have been blown in an instant. Not only would you have ruined my chances of working here covertly, you would have made it next to impossible to sneak someone else in without raising suspicion.”
“I understand all of that.” She was unhappy with being treated like a child by this infuriating man.
“Do you?” he asked hotly. “Do you really? Because from where I’m standing it seems to me you’d be very happy to see this investigation fail.”
“That’s not true,” she retorted. “I don’t like the underhanded way you’re going about it, but I do realize the need for change. I don’t like my students being in danger and I’m perfectly aware of the fact that gangs are dangerous. Hell, I broke up two fights just last week outside my classroom door! I’m not an idiot.”
At his deepening scowl, she feared her words weren’t soothing his temper at all. “What do you mean you broke up two fights?”
She was taken aback by the quick change of topic. “Verbal altercations and a little shoving. Not fights, really.”
“Well, you won’t be doing that again.”
She was appalled by the man’s conceit. Surely he didn’t think he could solve all the school’s problems in one day? “Well excuse me, Mighty Miracle Worker, but I hardly think you can claim there won’t be any more fights simply because you’re in the building.”
“Oh there are bound to be more fights, but you won’t be breaking them up. Good God, woman, what were you thinking? Tiny thing like you? You could have been hurt.”
She was confused by his immediate about-face. One minute he was yelling at her for nearly blowing his cover and the next he was yelling at her for endangering herself. Infuriating, frustrating man. Anxious to recover the upper hand, she dismissed his words with a shrug of her shoulder. “It’s part of the job. Besides, as I recall, you were brought here to put an end to gangs taking over the hallways, not to act as my personal bodyguard. If trouble starts up again, I’ll step in.”
He leaned toward her as a smile she immediately distrusted claimed his handsome face. “Perhaps it’s time for us to establish some ground rules.”
“Rules?” His lips hovered mere inches from hers. The temperature in the small book room shot up and she fought the impulse to fan herself.
“You’re a teacher.” He moved even closer, although she wasn’t sure how that was possible given the fact it already felt as if he were taking up every available square inch of the room. “No doubt you have rules in your classroom and consequences if those rules are broken. That might be a good idea for us as well.”
“Fine,” she choked out. “Rule one, you can’t keep—!”
He interrupted her. “Oh no, sweetheart. You misunderstand. I make the rules.”
Fury rippled through her at the thought of Mac attempting to impose a bunch of rules on her. Did the pompous male chauvinist pig actually think she would consent to such foolishness?
“You can kiss my ass if you think—”
“Careful, Kelly, you might not want to give me that particular permission. You see, there’s nothing I’d like so much as to kiss your…” He reached back to envelop her rear end in his strong hands, letting his fingers fill in the blanks.
“Get your hands off me!” She was shocked by the liberties he was taking. And in the English office, first thing in the morning. “Someone could walk in!”
Rather than remove his hands, he started lightly stroking her buttocks through her dress slacks. “So you wouldn’t mind me doing this if there weren’t a chance we’d get caught?”
“God.” She drove both her fists against his rock-hard chest. “You are the most annoying, irritating man I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet!”
Taking his hands away from her bottom, he smiled and moved them until he gripped the shelf of the bookcase right above her shoulders. “You played with fire yesterday, Kelly, and now I think it’s important you realize how dangerous that was.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you?” He leaned forward and, taking her earlobe in his teeth, he nipped lightly. “We had a name for a girl like you when I went to high school. A cock-tease.”
Offended by his words and insult to her reputation, she started to protest, but he bit her ear again, this time hard enough to sting.
“Rule one,” he whispered as his tongue dabbed the sore spot briefly. “The next time you undress me with those sexy eyes or tease me with that husky voice, I’m going to give you exactly what you’re asking for. Rule two, if those lovely lips of yours call me ‘lieutenant’ again, I’m going to fill them up so you can’t speak at all. And rule three, if you put yourself in danger and attempt to break up another fight, I will turn you over my knee and spank that lovely ass of yours, then I’ll take you up on your invitation and kiss it better. Understand?”
She was overwhelmed by his powerful words. She knew she should be appalled by his rough treatment, yet she was incredibly turned-on. God help her, what did that make her? She wasn’t some weak-willed woman who let a man order her around and yet, the idea of taking orders from Mac in the bedroom made her so hot and bothered she could barely breathe. The temperature in the damn book room must have been pushing at least a hundred and ten.
When she failed to respond, he pushed away from her and looked at her face. “I said, do you understand, Kelly?”
Gathering her wits about her, she replied with as much strength as she could muster. “I’m not one of your subordinates, Lieu—”
His lips devoured the rest of her words as he demonstrated exactly how he intended to silence her. His tongue thrust inside her mouth, exploring and touching. She swayed slightly and secretly relished the feeling of his arms wrapping around her waist to steady her. He was pure muscle and, for the first time in a long time, she felt a true spark of desire run through her. She’d never met such a virile, powerful man. She’d given up thinking guys like Mac even existed. So many of her failed dates had been with weak-minded men who constantly waited for her to make the first move.
The sound of the bell ringing brought her back to her senses and she managed to push him away and escape the small room. Thankfully, no one else was in the larger outer office—they would have known in a second what she’d been up to with her new student teacher in the book room. Her face was flushed and as she ran her tongue across her lips, she could feel an unfamiliar puffiness there. She didn’t look back at him as she spoke over her shoulder.
“I think you’ll find I have a definite problem with following rules, Mr. McNally.” She walked out the door toward her classroom.
Unfortunately, before she could make good on her getaway, she clearly heard Mac mutter, “That’s what I’m hoping.”
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