Unexpected Temptation, page 3
“Vanessa, what happened today is the biggest story in the local news. Everyone knows. It might even have gone national. It’s not every day a person’s house gets blown up and they barely escape it,” Donna said, putting a calming hand on her arm. “Someone taped it on their phone, and it showed a guy pushing you out of the way—who was he? He was hot.”
Vanessa shook her head.
“Of course it would be news. I guess I wasn’t thinking.”
“You’re confused. You should be at the hospital or protected by the police. Who would do this? Is it that creep you dated last fall, do you think?” Juanita asked.
Vanessa’s head swam. “I don’t know, but no, I don’t think it was Kevin.”
Kevin was a high school–basketball coach who turned out to be married, much to Vanessa’s surprise. But he was a phys-ed guy, not an explosives expert.
“So who was that man who saved you?”
Vanessa took a deep breath, settling her frazzled nerves as much as possible. “I don’t know. I mean, I know now, but he was a stranger.”
She wasn’t about to get into her interactions with Luke Berringer.
“If he’d saved my life, I’d make sure he wasn’t a stranger for long,” Donna said with a humorous snort.
“Listen, you guys, I don’t mean to be standoffish, but it’s been a difficult day. We can talk about this later. Right now, I want to work. To do something normal. See my kids, talk about teaching, you know?”
“Oh, sure. We’re sorry. It’s all so incredible,” Juanita said understandingly.
“That’s not the word I’d use for my house being blown to smithereens,” she said, more sharply than she meant to. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. You’re right. We’re being insensitive. Where are you staying? You should stay with me and the kids tonight, and for as long as you want,” Juanita said, hugging her again.
“I have a room at a local hotel, and my insurance covers it. Right now I need some space and to get my bearings. But thank you. You guys are wonderful,” Vanessa said, and she meant it.
Her friends had been so supportive over the years. They worked together, went out to dinner, to exercise classes, and they saw each other through thick and thin. But right now, she needed to keep calm and avoid more questions.
“Let’s go. I think they’re about to start the orientation program in a few minutes.”
Relieved, Vanessa smiled for the first time since the afternoon as she walked into the small auditorium. The young people in the seats were laughing and talking as the adults organized their presentations and got ready to start.
This was her world. The one she had built for herself, full of activity, love and hope. She breathed it in, greeting some of the students who smiled back at her and who didn’t ask questions other than if they could be in her class. Taking in her cuts and scrapes, another little girl, Kayla, wanted to know if she had fallen down. Vanessa assured her she was fine.
The query made her choke up slightly as she made her way down to the front, near the stage. Vanessa knew she had a good reputation with students and parents, but right now, knowing these children wanted to be in her life, that they were concerned about her and that her friends would open their homes to her, made everything all right. She could rebuild her house, buy new clothes. What she really cared about was her family, and that included these kids and her friends. Everything else could be replaced.
The tightness in her chest finally eased, and she started to take her seat as her mind went over her presentation. Luckily, she was third in the lineup, so she would have time to prepare.
“Ms. Grant,” she heard and looked up to see their new principal, Mr. Edwards. His eyes took in her bumps and bruises, too, and she tried to smile.
“Could we have a word before we get started?”
Vanessa read the tension in his face as nothing good, and felt her stress rise. Edwards was a competent principal as far as they knew—he’d only been with the school for one year. He wasn’t as friendly and approachable as their previous principal—he didn’t socialize or get to know teachers personally like Mrs. Madeira had—but he cared about the kids and he was fair.
They exited through a door that led up to the back of the stage.
“Are you all right?” he asked, his eyes searching her face again. “We were all concerned when we saw the news.”
“I’m fine, thank you. Just some bumps and scrapes.”
Vanessa held his gaze, but almost caved, he was staring at her so intently.
“Do you know what I did before I came here, Vanessa?”
She blinked, surprised by his use of her first name. He always insisted on formal address.
“I was part of the search committee, so I know you were in the military, and when you came home, you went back to school and received your Ph.D. in Education, and then worked at a few very prestigious schools before you came here, yes.”
“That’s my résumé. But what I did was work in a bomb-disposal unit. I was exposed to explosions on an almost daily basis. Roadside explosions, mostly, but a few times we had close calls in structures. Buildings,” he clarified, and she saw his eyes darken in an emotional way that made her catch her breath. “Sometimes we got there too late, or it didn’t go well. I saw that, too.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I remember how long it took to get used to it. If you ever do. I still have nightmares about it sometimes.”
Vanessa blinked, unsure of what had brought on this sudden confession.
“I can only imagine how horrible—”
“No need to imagine—you lived through that today. The reporter said he wasn’t sure what was the source of the explosion, but I could see right away that it was set on purpose, from how it blew up. You were lucky, and we’re all very glad about that.”
“But you shouldn’t be here,” he finished.
“But I’m fine, really, and I have my presentation prepared already, and the kids expect—”
He placed his hands on her shoulders, surprising her again and cutting off her objection. She stiffened, and realizing he’d stepped over the line, he drew back his touch.
“Listen, Vanessa. I know how it feels. I know the need to close it out and want everything back to normal, but it’s not normal. Not at the moment. Likely you haven’t even begun to deal with what’s happened yet and being here is the last thing you should be doing. What if you break down on stage? Worse, someone tried to blow up your house—I won’t ask why—but you should be in police protection. I can’t risk whatever danger you’re in affecting the school, the kids—parents have already been calling about that.”
“But it was a mistake, I’m sure. Someone must have thought my house was someone else’s. It’s the only explanation. Who would want to hurt me?”
“I agree, but until that’s certain, I have to insist you don’t come to school. I’ve already cleared it with the board to put you on extended paid leave. Your job will be here for you when you are ready to come back. But that’s not right now. Go deal with this. Find someone to talk to—if you can’t, then here’s a number for a friend of mine. She deals with post-traumatic stress specifically. You’d like her. But you can’t be here right now. It’s not good for you, or the kids.”
Vanessa’s world was blown to bits for the second time that day. She held Mr. Edwards’s card in her hand, frozen, unsure what to do next.
“Let me get someone to help you with your things and walk you to your car. Are you okay to drive?”
“I’m fine,” Vanessa bit out, suddenly very angry. “You may not believe it, but I am. Why won’t anyone believe me?”
How could they do this to her? After everything she’d been through, they were taking this away from her, too?<
“It’s not permanent, Vanessa. You’ll be back before Columbus Day, I’m sure. But when the matter clears, you’ll see that I’m right.”
The anger receded as quickly as it had risen. She was completely exhausted.
“Okay, yes. I want to do what’s best for the kids.”
“I know. Go rest. Recover and get your life back together. I hope they find who did this so you can really put it behind you.”
“Thank you,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.
Mr. Edwards squeezed her shoulder in support and then went back to the auditorium where he and everyone else would go on with the program. Without her.
Vanessa walked like a zombie to her classroom, where she stared at the empty desks and the absolutely clean chalkboard. She always loved decorating her door for the new school year and writing her name on that perfect board for the first time every September. She would have all of the kids come up and write their names on it, too, to introduce themselves.
This year, someone else would be welcoming her students.
But Mr. Edwards was right. She couldn’t risk even the slightest chance that she could upset or bring harm to her students. Her bruises had already worried sweet Kayla, and Vanessa felt a pinch of guilt.
Blowing out a breath, she went to her desk and started cleaning it out, packing the few things she had in there in a box that she found in the supply closet.
It was only for a month or so, until the police closed the investigation and found the person who ruined her house. She’d start rebuilding, her bruises would fade and she’d be back to work. Maybe the leave was a blessing in disguise. This way she could focus on starting again, and—
A noise in the hall stalled her thoughts, making her freeze in place.
“Hello?” she called out into the hallway.
No one answered.
Shaking off the momentary panic, Vanessa returned to packing her desk but then jumped as the door behind her clicked shut and the lights in the room went dark.
Before she could turn around, someone grabbed her from behind and covered her mouth, and she felt something hard jab into her ribs. She twisted, a stinging pain in her side making her cry out.
Vanessa fought and managed to grip the hand holding the knife, pushing it away from her and stomping hard on her assailant’s foot. He yelled, bending forward. His hold loosened as she threw her head back and caught him in the face and then turned to bring her knee up into his groin.
Down he went at her feet.
She was breathing so hard that she thought she might pass out. Vanessa grabbed the weapon and turned to run, but her attacker’s hand closed around her ankle. She fell hard. The knife flew out of her hand, sliding somewhere into the darkness under the desks.
On a surreal level, what crossed her mind was that she didn’t want any of the kids finding it, even though she was still struggling to get away. He was strong, and he managed to drag her closer even as she fought and screamed. No one could hear her—her door was closed, and she was on the far side of the building, away from the auditorium.
He must have been watching the whole time.
“Who are you? Did you set the bomb? Why are you doing this to me?” she managed, landing a rough kick to his forehead as he pulled her closer.
Unexpectedly, the door swung open and the lights went on. Vanessa looked up into the face of Luke Berringer, whose expression was so fierce that she was afraid of him all over again.
He jumped on the man holding her and yelled, “Go!”
Vanessa wasn’t sure what to do. She couldn’t leave Luke here with this attacker, and she watched as both men stood, facing off.
“Vanessa, get out,” he repeated through his teeth, not taking his eyes off the other man, who was completely covered, face and all.
Vanessa could see only his very, very cold eyes, now trained on Luke.
But then, as the two men began to grapple, a flood of voices in the hallway made them all stop. The man fighting with Luke broke away and ran back out the door, disappearing down the hall.
Luke took off after him.
She heard the kids’ voices coming closer, all being given a tour of the school with their parents. She found the knife that had skidded across the floor, grabbed her bag and headed for the nearest exit.
Outside, she didn’t see anyone. Luke and the other man had seemed to completely disappear. Searching around the lot, she called his name, scanning the dark shadows beyond the lit field with no result. Both men were gone.
But for all she knew, Luke Berringer could be lying dead in the shrubs somewhere. She couldn’t leave him. If not for him, she might be dead. Again.
She thought of using her cell to phone the police as she continued to search, but then hesitated. If she called them, they might not give her a choice about being in protective custody now. She didn’t want that, to be hidden away. She wanted to know why this was happening.
Continuing to poke through the bushes that surrounded the large field, she gripped the knife tightly in her hand and ignored the pain in her side. It wasn’t serious; she’d avoided the worst of the knife’s edge.
“Luke? Mr. Berringer? Are you there?” she called out in a low voice. No response.
At wit’s end, Vanessa started heading for the school. If Luke was hurt, he might need help.
As she got her phone out of her pocket, she barely lifted it up to see the screen when it went flying out of her grasp as she was grabbed from behind, a strong hand clamping over her mouth.
“SHH. QUIET. IT’S ME, LUKE. What are you doing? Do you have a death wish? Why didn’t you get out of here?”
His face was pressed against her hair, his fingers still over her mouth as she attempted to answer. The rest of him was pressed against the back of her body. She wiggled, mumbling something against his palm, and he let her go.
“Sorry. I didn’t want you screaming or drawing more attention to yourself,” he explained.
As she turned to face him, she winced.
“It’s nothing. A scrape. I think my jacket and shirt took the worst of it. And I just bought them,” she lamented.
He couldn’t check her wound here, and he figured he had to trust that she was telling the truth until he could get a closer look.
“I don’t know where that guy went, but we need to get out of sight, fast.”
As she ran briskly with him across the lot, he thought he heard her giggle. Or was she hurting?
“Are you okay?” he asked, slowing.
“Um, yeah, sorry. I think the day is catching up with me. I feel...punchy, I guess. Like I’m in an action movie.”
“You’re probably in shock. We need to get you somewhere safe. Fast. Where’s your car?”
“Can you drive?”
She straightened, glaring at him as if she were offended by the question. She’s tough, he thought with a flicker of admiration. And still gorgeous, even dirty and banged up, pale and probably scared out of her wits.
She eyed the car speculatively. “Could there be another bomb?”
Luke didn’t think so, but it wouldn’t hurt to check. He quickly scanned the undercarriage and under the hood, finding nothing unusual.
“You’re good. I’m in that black SUV. Follow me.”
“To the police. Where you can get into protective custody.”
She stepped forward, grabbing his arm with more strength than he’d given her credit for. “No.”
“No protective custody. I don’t want to be locked away, not knowing what’s going on. And who’s to say these people won’t find me, anyway? What if the police can’t stop them?”
“I don’t think that would be the case. I’m sure they can put you in a safe house, and that’s the best thing to do until this is resolved.”
“I want to know why this is happening, Luke. The detective told me that you’re a bodyguard. I want to hire you. You can be my protective custody while we figure out what’s going on.”
Luke shook his head. There were too many problems with that. When he was pressed up against her, smelling her hair, every nerve ending in his body had reacted. If he was going to find out what was happening, and why, he had to keep a clear head, which meant handling this on his own.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Listen,” she said, stepping closer. “I’m not going into protective custody. I’m asking for your help. And maybe I can help you.”
“What do you mean?”
“The detective told me you came to my house because you thought I was someone else. Nicky? Maybe that’s who these people are after, too. Everyone seems to think I’m her. So, if you have me, maybe you’ll stand a better chance of finding her.”
“You’re volunteering to be bait?” he asked incredulously. “Absolutely not.”
“No, not that. Not bait. But I’ve been looking for someone, too. I know what it’s like. Maybe we can work together. Help each other. And you’ve saved my life twice already—who could keep me safer than you?”
Luke’s mind scrambled. There were five hundred reasons this was a bad idea and that he should bundle her into the car and off to the police.
But if she went off on her own, she probably would get killed. She was also right—whoever was after her probably thought they’d found Nicky, too—and maybe that would lead him to his target, as well.
“I bet I’ll regret this, but fine. If you want me to be your personal security, there are rules. You have to follow my lead. No arguments.”
She bit her lip before she nodded. “As long as I don’t have to go with the police, okay.”
Getting into his truck, he left the spot where he had parked by the curb. Luke adjusted the rearview mirror to keep an eye on her car. He didn’t put it past her to duck away from him, but maybe almost being killed a second time had really made her decide that he was her best bet.
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