Today’s five pages come from my romantic suspense story, Covert Lessons.
“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,LowellHigh 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? Yeah right.
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.
Criminy. 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.
Cocky bastard. 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.”
Ah, smooth. 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 to 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.”
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