Authors: Elisabeth Naughton
Ethan wasn’t so sure. “We should call somebody. Hazmat, the gas company—”
She turned a slow circle, surveying the damage. “The valve wasn’t on that long. It should clear out in a min—”
She froze, and curious about what she was seeing now, Ethan followed her gaze toward the whiteboard. Large red letters spelling out the words “TAKE THE HINT.”
A whisper of foreboding rushed down Ethan’s spine, followed by a memory from nearly twenty years before. A frigid, moonless night. The roar of the falls. The slap of water again and again. Icy-cold liquid filling his lungs. And laughter, eerie and malevolent, echoing from the shore.
That whisper turned to a roar in his ears. But he reminded himself the words weren’t meant for him, that no one in this town knew who he was. So long as he kept his mouth shut, no one would ever know the truth.
His gaze drifted Sam’s way, and the haunted expression in her eyes shifted his concern from him to her. He stepped toward her, but before he could ask if she was okay, she turned away, then stilled.
Ethan glanced over his shoulder and spotted the open door along the back wall that gave way to nothing but darkness.
“Dammit.” Sam stepped over chairs and shattered test tubes.
“Hold on.” Ethan reached for her but she bypassed his grip. “You don’t know if anyone’s still in here.”
Her shoes crunched over broken glass as she disappeared into the darkness. Ethan quickly followed. Just as he crossed the threshold, a light flicked on, illuminating a storage closet lined with shelves of chemicals, most of which—thankfully—were still standing upright.
“Thank goodness,” Sam muttered from somewhere inside. “I was afraid they trashed this too.”
Ethan moved deeper into the supply closet that was smaller than his master bath at home. A locked glass cabinet filled with bottles and tubes marked “Dangerous” sat to the right of the door. A few canisters were knocked over on the open shelves, but nothing appeared broken.
He righted a plastic bottle filled with pink crystals. “What kinds of things do you keep stored in—”
The door slammed shut with a loud crack.
Ethan glanced toward the sound. “What the—”
“Shit.” The sexy teacher brushed past him and reached for the handle. “That can’t—”
Darkness descended as the lights went out, and a chuckle echoed from the other side of the door. A dark, ominous chuckle that slithered through the crack and sent the fine hairs along Ethan’s nape straight to attention.
One he was almost certain he’d heard before.
Eighteen years before to be precise.
Sam rattled the door handle but the knob wouldn’t turn.
“Sonofabitch.” She kicked the steel door as hard as she could and slapped her hand against the smooth, cool surface. “You asshole! When I find you, you’re gonna wish I hadn’t!”
She didn’t need this today. She’d had enough last night with that . . . whatever the hell it had been. She didn’t even know anymore, because after coming back from the police station with Will in tow, the words she’d seen on her door had been gone.
She’d stayed up all night trying to figure out if those words had existed or if she’d only imagined them, if she was slowly going crazy or if someone was messing with her. But now she knew the words
been real. As real as that message out there on her whiteboard. As real as the bastard who’d locked her in this closet.
She swore again and gave the door another hard kick.
Pain shot from her toes and spiraled up her leg. She shifted her weight and hopped on her good foot. Rubbing her injured toes, she finally gave in to the urge and screamed.
“You’re going to break your foot before you do any damage to that door.”
Sam froze. And a heartbeat passed before her eyes slid shut.
Crap. She’d totally forgotten she wasn’t alone. As if her life couldn’t get any worse.
In the darkness at her back, paper tore. “Life Saver?”
She drew in a calming breath that did little to settle her raging pulse. “No, Dr. McClane, I don’t need something in my mouth to shut me up, thank you very much.”
A low chuckle echoed in the darkness. And too late she realized how suggestive that sounded. She suppressed a groan. Shit, she’d been wrong. Her life
get worse. Way worse, apparently.
“Not trying to shut you up, Ms. Parker. Just thought it might help.”
“Help?” Sam turned his way and glared into the dark, even though she knew he couldn’t see her. “It’s close to five o’clock. Help is long gone by now.”
“Hopefully not.” A green light flicked on, one she realized had come from his phone screen. One that illuminated the angles and planes of his attractive face while he looked down and dialed. Rubbing her foot, Sam tried to avoid glancing at him. She might be on the edge of losing it, but she was still a woman. And upon first glance she’d noticed immediately that Dr. McClane was a thousand times hotter in person than he’d been in those pictures she’d pulled up last night.
Which only pissed her off more.
His brow furrowed as he studied the screen. “Damn.”
Sam fought the burgeoning
I told you so
. “Let me guess. No signal.”
When his gaze slid her way, she turned back for the door and jiggled the handle again. “This whole school’s like a giant dead zone. No one gets a signal here.”
Dammit, she did not want to be stuck in here with this guy all night. She slapped her hand against the door again. “Kenny!”
Nothing but the whir of the ventilation fan in her classroom met her ears.
Pounding on the door was as useless as wishing she’d never come home to Hidden Falls in the first place. “Janitor. But he’s probably on the other side of the school, and even if he’s not, he always wears those stupid headphones when he’s working.”
“What about the other teachers?” Dr. McClane stepped up next to her, and his fingers brushed hers against the door. Warmth spiraled across Sam’s skin. She quickly stepped out of the way, then bit her lip to keep from crying out when the pain in her toe spiked.
“Have you never been in a school before?” she asked as the pain subsided. “Most teachers cut out as soon as four o’clock hits. I guarantee there’s no one left.”
And why the hell had she just said that? Okay, she was
going mental. She’d just told a complete stranger—a guy who looked like he outweighed her by at least seventy-five pounds and who obviously worked out—that no one would be coming for them. That no one even knew they were locked in here.
Yeah, that was smart. She moved back until her spine hit the shelving unit.
He flipped on his phone’s flashlight app and shined the light across the door as he studied the lock. “What about that teacher you were talking with in the hall? The blonde black widow?”
Black widow. Great. She’d forgotten she’d called Margaret that in front of a shrink. She could only imagine what little nuggets of info he’d gleaned about her from that conversation.
She shook off the thought when she realized even Margaret would be gone. Most days she was the first out the door. She’d only stayed late today for an IEP meeting. But he didn’t need to know that. “Um . . . she could be out there, I guess.”
He turned toward her. And in the dim light she saw the way his green eyes narrowed. The way he was studying her like a lab rat, just as every other shrink had studied her.
Apprehension and fear gave way to anger. An anger that gave her strength.
Look all you want, head doctor. I’m not afraid of you.
He broke the stare down, heaved a sigh, and sank to the floor, his back against the steel door, his long legs stretched out in front of him. Sam stayed where she was, but after several minutes of silence standing on one leg to keep weight off her bad toe, finally gave in and lowered herself to the floor too. Leaning against the shelving unit, she pulled her feet up next to her and rested her arms on her knees, watching him carefully for the slightest movement, just in case.
“I’m gonna flip the light off to conserve my battery,” he said.
Sam didn’t answer. The room fell dark. Her pulse picked up again as she waited for her eyes to adjust. But even when they did, she couldn’t see more than the sliver of light coming from beneath the door. And in the dark, she was hyperaware of the cramped closet, of McClane’s closeness, of the room’s rising temperature.
McClane sighed. “So since we’re stuck in here together for God only knows how long, why don’t you fill the time by telling me who’s got a grudge against you?”
Considering the trouble Sam had experienced lately, that could be a hell of a list. One she wasn’t about to share with a shrink. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t have any idea?”
“No, Dr. McClane, I have no idea who hates me so much they’d resort to this.”
“My first name is Ethan.”
Sam clenched her jaw. She didn’t want to know his first name. She didn’t want to know anything about him. And why was it so hot in here? She unbuttoned her jacket and fanned the tank sticking against her chest.
Silence settled between them. A silence that was both intimate and unnerving. She tried to shift farther away but whacked her shoulder against a shelf. “Dammit.”
“Are you okay?”
“Fine.” Sam definitely didn’t like the concern she heard in his voice. Or the heat rushing over her skin that said he was closer than she’d thought. “Just stay over there on your side of the closet.”
“I sense some animosity, Ms. Parker. I’m just trying to help.”
There was that word again, “help.” Why did everyone think she needed help? “That’s what all shrinks say,” she mumbled, rubbing her shoulder.
“Mind expanding on that?”
Sam stopped rubbing, thankful it was too dark for him to see her frustrated expression. “Look, it’s not personal, it’s just been my experience that most shrinks—”
“Therapists,” he cut in.
“Fine, therapist. Most
end up causing more trouble than they set out to cure. I have issues with shrinks . . . therapists,” she corrected before he could, “doling out advice when they don’t have a clue what repercussions their words may have down the line.”
“And what does that mean?” she snapped before she could stop herself.
“Just means it sounds very personal.”
Yeah, it sounded personal to Sam too. She cursed her short temper and quick tongue, especially when she was locked in here with a total stranger.
Paper tore again, and the sweet scent of cherry filled the room. Sam’s stomach grumbled. She hadn’t eaten breakfast because she’d been too stressed about the vandalism at her house last night. Had skipped lunch to help a couple of students redo a lab. And the handful of crackers she’d munched on after school wasn’t cutting it.
“Okay, fine,” she said after several moments of listening to him suck on his candy. “Give me one of those.”
He chuckled. Seconds later, his fingers bumped hers in the dark, and heat spread across her skin just before the small, circular candy fell into her palm.
She pulled her hand back quickly, popped the candy into her mouth, and forced herself not to moan at the sweet cherry taste. That was all she needed to do. Moan in front of a hot shrink who obviously already thought she had issues.
“How long have you been teaching here?” he asked.
“Six weeks.” Sam cringed at her quick answer.
“Only six weeks? Wow. How long have you been teaching in general?”
Couldn’t they just not talk? Would that be too much to ask? Sam rubbed her throbbing forehead again, wishing for silence, but in the darkness she knew she was stuck. She had two choices: either keep quiet and tick this guy off by being rude, or try to ease the tension by attempting to be nice. He hadn’t made any aggressive moves toward her. In fact, if she remembered correctly, he’d tried to keep her from darting into her classroom when she’d seen that intruder. He’d even warned her not to go into the closet when she’d noticed the open door, but like the moron she was, she hadn’t listened.
A little of her apprehension eased. She could do nice. Even if he was a shrink—correction,
She moved the candy to the other side of her mouth and worked to keep the animosity out of her voice. “Yes, only six weeks. I was hired as a temp to fill a vacancy. The last chemistry teacher had a nervous breakdown.”
Fitting, really. Good God, what was it about this school? This town?
“Nice. And you don’t think taking someone’s job is any reason for him or her to want you gone?”
Sam’s brow lowered. She’d automatically assumed a kid had trashed her room and vandalized her house. Was it possible it was the guy she’d replaced?
Her mind ran back to the menacing chuckle they’d heard when the door had slammed shut, and a shiver raced down her spine. “Flip your flashlight app on. I have pepper spray in here somewhere.”
The light flicked on, illuminating the room in a warm white glow. She pushed to her feet, stepped over his long legs, and found the stool in the corner. After dragging it to the back of the closet, she climbed up and pawed through a shelf.
“Now that makes me feel safe.” He rose behind her. “A teacher with a dangerous weapon. I think I had nightmares about this in high school. What are you doing with pepper spray around kids?”
“David was concerned for my safety. The last teacher had a few run-ins with the police after he was let go. The pepper spray was a precautionary measure.”
“I see. Just promise you won’t use it on me. My teacher fantasies usually involve a ruler, a short skirt, and the occasional whip. Nothing as masochistic as pepper spray.”
Sam couldn’t help it. She smiled. Then nixed it quickly. “If you keep your hands to yourself, I promise. Ah, there it is.”
She pushed up on her toes, reaching toward the back of the shelf. Her fingers grazed the canister. She could almost reach it. Grabbing the edge of the shelf, she rose higher. The stool beneath her feet rocked.
“Crap.” Metal clanged. Air whooshed up Sam’s back. Her fingers grappled for the edge of the shelf but the stool clanked to the ground. And then she was falling . . .
Sam hit the ground on her butt, and grunted. Pain shot straight up her spine. She looked up at the swaying shelving unit. Bottles and canisters rushed straight toward her.
Sam shrieked and shielded her head with her hands. The light went out. A crash echoed, but, surprisingly, nothing hit her.
She blinked several times, sure that shelf should be on top of her, and lowered her arms. “What hap—”
“That’s gonna leave a mark,” McClane grunted from somewhere above her. “Several probably.”
Sam pushed up on her hands only to crack her forehead against something hard.
“Dammit,” McClane muttered. “That’s gonna leave another mark.”
Sam winced and rubbed at her head. McClane was directly above her. She’d smacked her head against his. Two seconds was all it took to realize he’d put himself between her and danger.
“Hold still.” Her hands and feet scattered bottles and cylinders along the floor as she scrambled out from under him where he was braced on his hands and knees.
Her fingers closed around the metal brace of the unit, and she strained to push the shelf back upright.
The unit clapped against the back wall, and Sam exhaled hard. Turning, she stepped McClane’s way, but her sensible flats slipped in some kind of powder, and she wobbled. “Whoa.”
“Don’t move.” McClane shuffled across the floor at her feet. “Let me find my phone.”
Canisters rolled along the floor. Sam imagined him on his hands and knees searching for his cell, which could be anywhere in this mess. Just when she was sure he’d never find it a white light flicked on.
Sickness rolled through Sam’s belly when she took in the broken jars and powders spilled over the ground. Luckily, there hadn’t been any dangerous chemicals on that shelf, but her relief was short-lived when she spotted McClane.
“Oh my God. You’re hurt.” She stepped over a jar of powder to reach him. His white dress shirt was ripped at the shoulder, his hair covered in fine white powder, and something wet and black ran down the side of his face. She touched his forehead only to realize the liquid was warm and sticky. “Don’t move. I have towels.”
“Trust me. Not planning on it.” He rolled back to sit on the floor. “Damn. My day is not improving.”
“Mine either.” Sam took the phone he offered so she could shine the light over the shelf. Grabbing a stack of towels, she knelt at his side and pressed the cloth against his forehead. “I have no idea how that happened. Those shelving units are bolted to the wall.”