Authors: Elisabeth Naughton
“I don’t usually dance.”
“You should,” he said. “You’re not half bad. You haven’t stepped on my toes once.”
She frowned up at him. “We’ve only been dancing for fifteen seconds.”
“And I’m already mesmerized.”
She shook her head, but the smile on her lips said she liked that. Liked him the same way he liked her. And even though it was crazy, considering where he was and all that had happened to him in this town, he only wanted to see her smile like that for him again. As many times as he could.
“You’re a charmer, aren’t you, Dr. McClane?”
“No, I’ve been charmed. By a beautiful chemistry teacher I didn’t expect to meet.”
Her pulse picked up, he felt it where he held her hand in his, but something darkened in her eyes just as her feet stopped moving. “Ethan, I’m not good at . . . ”
“At this. Relationships, dating, any of it.” She sighed and backed out of his arms, and though he only wanted to go on holding her, he let go because he didn’t want to push too fast too soon. “My track record with men is shit.”
“I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
She huffed a sound that was both humor and disgust. “It is. I have the inherent ability to get involved with all the wrong sorts of men at the most inopportune times. Did you ever watch
“Sure. Who hasn’t?”
“Well, you know how Jerry always found something wrong with every woman he dated? That’s me. I
manage to screw things up.” He smiled, but she only frowned up at him. “I’m completely serious. I’ve never been in a relationship that’s lasted over a month. My last therapist called it a fear of commitment.”
He reached for her hand. “Maybe you just haven’t met the right guy, Samantha.”
“Yeah, well, it certainly wasn’t the therapist. I broke it off with him when I found out he was married.”
She’d been involved with her doctor? That explained her animosity toward Ethan’s profession the first day they’d met. “Holy crap.”
She grimaced. “See. Told you. Really bad judgment.”
Things she’d said, the way she’d acted . . . it was all starting to make sense. He slid his fingers around her other hand. “Not all guys are like that, Samantha.”
And that particular guy should be shot for taking advantage of her.
“I know. I’ve even managed to get involved with some nice ones along the way. My ex-husband can attest to that.”
His mouth fell open, but he closed it quickly, realizing he probably looked like a fool. Of course she could have been married. Why not? She was gorgeous and smart and absolutely entrancing.
“Shocked, huh? It lasted all of three weeks before I managed to screw that one up.”
“No.” She sighed and looked toward the car. “Back when I was in college. He was a great guy. It wasn’t his fault. I’m just not relationship material.”
For some reason, he sensed that wasn’t the least bit true. “Sam—”
“I’m not trying to brush you off, Ethan. I’m completely serious. And I like you—more than I probably should—which is why being honest is the best way to go at this point. I’m damaged goods.”
The fact that she was admitting she was attracted to him set off an odd fluttering in his stomach. But knowing she didn’t think she was worth taking a chance on made something deep in his chest tighten. “No, you’re not. You’re cautious.”
He moved closer and slid one arm around her waist. “Prudent.”
She didn’t fight him when he lifted her arm and drew her back into a slow dance. “Completely insane.”
His whole body tingled as hers brushed his in the dim light. “You’re definitely not that. I think you’re just afraid. That’s normal.”
Her gaze drifted to the collar of his sweatshirt, and she sighed. “I love the way you say my name. Nobody calls me by my full name anymore.”
Warmth seeped through his chest and circled his heart.
She looked up. “But I don’t need or want a relationship right now, Ethan.”
Those words were too easy. He’d said the same to himself a thousand times. But now, here with her, he didn’t want to let fear or worry or even common sense control what was happening between them.
“So we’ll just be friends who dance in the moonlight now and then.” When she pushed her lips out in a sexy little pout, he slipped his other hand behind the small of her back and drew her even closer. “Let’s not label it, Samantha. Let’s just see where it goes.”
Her eyes softened, a look that called to something in his soul. He’d always had a weakness for wounded animals, maybe because he was one himself. And there was definitely something in Samantha Parker that yearned to be healed. The therapist in him suddenly wanted to help. But the man in him wanted to be the one to jump-start that healing—and in some insane way, maybe help him through his own ongoing recovery.
“I don’t think I can do that,” she said. “I’m not a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl. That’s always gotten me into trouble.”
“Trouble doesn’t always have to be bad.”
The look in her eyes said she didn’t agree, but when he pulled her closer, she didn’t fight him. He moved again to the beat of the music, and as she rested her head against his chest, his heart turned over.
He wasn’t looking for a relationship either. Not with someone in this town, not when he didn’t know how long he’d be around. But he wasn’t about to pass up something that might just be amazing.
It was crazy. It was reckless. It made absolutely no sense. But if nothing else, maybe he could show this amazing woman she was worthy. And maybe, somehow, he could learn to believe the same thing about himself too.
A cool November breeze blew across the valley the following Wednesday. The weather forecast called for a slight chance of snow—almost unheard of at this early-November date. Sam’s kids were in an uproar about it, hoping for a day off from school, and she had to admit, she was too.
“Settle down.” She turned from her Chem I class and picked up her marker. Keeping them on track was a constant struggle, especially with Misty Sloane wearing the hot-pink, skintight number she’d picked out today. The boys in the room were practically sweating.
“Kristen, explain the difference between atomic mass and atomic weight.” Sam jotted numbers on the whiteboard, and glanced back at her students.
“One’s how big it is, and one’s, like, how much it weighs?”
Clever. Smashing her head against the board would be easier than explaining this for the umpteen-millionth time. Sam’s gaze swept over the room, searching for any student who might have been paying
sort of attention during the last half hour. She paused when she reached the far side of the room.
Thomas looked back from the window where he seemed to be daydreaming. “Atomic mass is the total of protons and neutrons in a specific atom. The atomic weight is the average mass of all the isotopes of an element.”
Definitely not daydreaming. Or if he was, he already knew this subject matter. “Thank you. Atomic weight is an average, which explains why it’s generally a decimal.” She turned back to the board. “I’m putting your homework up here.”
Groans resounded behind her just as the bell rang.
Papers rustled while pencils scribbled furiously to get the last of the problems. Footsteps shuffled toward the door.
“I’ll be on prep for the next hour if anyone needs help on yesterday’s lab,” Sam called over the hum of activity.
She filtered through the rush of exiting students and dropped into the chair behind her desk. Thankful for some peace and quiet, she reached for her water bottle.
She hadn’t seen Ethan since their impromptu date on the football field. He’d given her his number before they’d said good night and told her he was leaving it up to her as to where they went next. She’d thought about calling him over the weekend but couldn’t actually bring herself to do it. What would she have said if she’d called? That was fun, let’s do it again? She was in no position to get involved with anyone when her goal was to get out of Hidden Falls as fast as humanly possible.
If she was being honest with herself, though, she had to admit that she’d expected to see him this week at school doing observations, just as she’d expected this whatever-it-was between them to work itself out. But by Wednesday, he still hadn’t shown back up at school, and part of her was starting to wonder if he was ever coming back.
Sam blinked twice as Thomas strolled into the room. “Oh, hey, Thomas. What can I do for you?”
“Mr. Elkins said I could cut PE and come down to get some help on my lab.”
“Sure.” She rose and rounded the desk, happy for something to think about besides his supersexy shrink. “Let’s see what you’ve got there.”
They moved to one of the lab stations, and she studied his paper a second before saying, “Here. Your equation isn’t balanced correctly. Check your coefficients and subscripts.”
His brow wrinkled, and he picked up a pencil, working through the problem.
She leaned back as he worked. He was an attractive kid—slightly-too-long light-brown hair, dark eyes, good skin, and a long, lanky body that would one day fill out and probably drive the girls crazy. Sure, he was quiet, but from everything she’d observed, he was also respectful and considerate of those around him. If she hadn’t known he had a troubled past, she wouldn’t look at him any differently than she did any of her other students.
He frowned. “Like that?”
She glanced back down. “Yes. Better. Now look at your work, compare it to your observations, and write up your results.”
He flipped his notebook closed. “I hate that part.”
“Everyone does. If it were just about mixing chemicals and watching reactions, mine would be the most popular class.”
He bit his lip, as if he had something else to say.
His fingers clenched around his pencil. “I didn’t take that key. And I definitely didn’t trash your room.”
“I didn’t think you did.”
“You didn’t? Why not? Everyone else does.”
“Call it a gut reaction. You’re too careful with the materials in here, and any idiot knows you don’t leave evidence behind in your locker. You don’t strike me as an idiot, Thomas.”
“Mr. Burke thinks I did it. Even Dr. McClane’s been giving me a hard time about it.”
“Yeah. He thinks I know who did.”
“And do you?”
He hesitated just long enough to make Sam suspect the same thing. “No.”
He didn’t trust her enough to confide in her. Not yet at least. The fact he was sitting here though made her think someday he might. “I spend a lot of time in Mr. Burke’s office myself.”
“Mm hmm. When he’s not worried I’m going to blow up the school, he’s jawing at me for leaving my keys lying around, or because I’m being difficult and unyielding in staff meetings.” She smiled. “I’ve only been here a few weeks, and I’m already on his bad list.”
“Does he have a good list?”
“I’m not sure. Mr. Ralston seems to be on his good side.”
“Ralston-Purina? Man, kids chew him up and spit him out for lunch. He spends more time snoozin’ in class than he does teaching. Manny Burton’s talking about getting him one of those cedar dog beds and leaving it in his room as a joke. Even I could teach calculus better than he does, and I hate the stuff.”
Sam couldn’t stop the laugh that slipped from her lips. Reginald Ralston looked suspiciously like an old basset hound. Sounded like one sometimes too. “Don’t let Mr. Burke hear you. They’re related.”
She nodded. “I think it’s his uncle. Did you ever try to tell an older relative what to do? Doesn’t usually work.”
The laughter died from his eyes. “I don’t have many relatives.”
Sam was immediately sorry she’d mentioned family. She knew what it was like to be alone. In that respect, she and Thomas were alike.
He rose quickly and grabbed his papers. “I gotta get back to class. Thanks, Ms. Parker.”
He darted for the door before she could ask why he was in such a hurry. Just as he reached the threshold, Margaret Wilcox appeared and shifted to the side. “Whoa. Watch where you’re going.”
“Sorry, Ms. Wilcox.”
“You should pay closer attention to where you’re going, Adler.”
Thomas rushed out the door. Sighing, Sam pushed to her feet, wishing she could follow. “Hey, Margaret.”
Margaret wound through lab stations with a perturbed expression. “Freaky thing, that boy. Aren’t you worried about being alone with him?”
“No.” Sam drew in a calming breath. She always needed a calming breath when dealing with Margaret. “I’m here for the students, and he needed help on an assignment.”
“Well, I’d tell him to find it somewhere else. That kid’s strange.”
Of course Margaret thought he was strange. She thought all kids were strange. Not for the first time, Sam wondered why Margaret remained in education.
“What do you need, Margaret?”
Margaret picked up a glass paperweight shaped like an atom from the corner of Sam’s desk. “Where’s that sexy doctor who’s always hanging around in here?”
Sam’s stomach tightened. He wasn’t always hanging around in her room. He’d observed in her class two, maybe three, times tops. “Dr. McClane?”
“That’s the one.” Margaret leaned a hip against Sam’s desk. “I’d let that one analyze me all he wants. Yummy.”
Since Margaret was married, Sam decided to ignore that comment. “I don’t really know.”
“Oh, come on now, Sam. Rumor is you’re seeing Dr. Delish.”
“Who told you that?”
“I don’t remember. David, Kenny, someone who saw you together. So are you?”
Sam’s face grew hot as she looked back down at her papers. “Am I what?”
“Doing the delectable doctor?”
“God, Margaret. We’re at school.”
“That answers that question.” Margaret rolled her eyes. “Get a life, Sam. Ninety-eight percent of the student body’s having more sex than you.” She set down the paperweight and eased off the desk. “If you need some pointers, just ask.”
Right. Like Sam was about to go there with her archenemy. Margaret didn’t care about Sam. She was digging for info on Ethan, though why, Sam didn’t know. “What do you need, Margaret?”
“Nothing. Just wanted to let you know that Jeff and I are having a little get-together at the house Friday night.”
Sam would rather pull her eyelashes out one by one. “Gee, that’s awfully nice of you to invite me, but—”
“I’m not inviting you. Jeff is.”
Margaret didn’t try to hide the ice in her voice. God, the woman could hold a grudge. Ten years later, and she was still pissed her husband had taken Sam to Sam’s senior prom. Forget the fact that Margaret had already been off at college, sleeping with half the baseball team at the time, or that she hadn’t even developed an interest in the gangly guy until years later when he’d become a successful lawyer. Just knowing he and Sam were still on friendly terms grated on the woman’s nerves to no end. And was the root of the reason she and Margaret didn’t get along.
“It’s really nice of him to offer, but I can’t.”
“Your mother made a sizeable contribution to Jeff’s campaign before she died. He’d like you to be there. Seven o’clock at our house.” She turned for the door, brushing off Sam’s excuses. “And bring that sexy doctor with you. I’d love to spend some one-on-one time on his therapy couch. Or mine. Either works for me.”
As soon as Margaret disappeared out the door, Sam’s head hit the hard surface of her desk. She needed to come up with a life-threatening illness between now and Friday. Since she only had two days, odds weren’t in her favor.
Ethan tapped a pen against his thigh and glanced across the table toward Thomas. The minute hand on the wall clock of the school counselor’s office moved to the right, a low din reverberating through the room. They’d been at it for fifty minutes, but Thomas’s eyes kept darting toward the clock, judging the minutes to freedom.
Shifting in his seat, Thomas let out a sigh. “We done yet?”
“Not quite. Let’s talk about friends. Hanging out with anyone?”
“A few teachers mentioned they’ve seen you around campus with Manny Burton.”
“Some. He’s okay.”
Thomas’s face flushed. “None here I’m interested in.”
Ethan nodded, not believing that for a second. “You going to the football game Friday night?”
“How about the dance after?”
“Don’t know. Not sure I can stay out that late.”
Ethan made a note. “How are things at home with your grandmother?”
Thomas’s shoulders tensed. “Fine.”
“You two getting along okay?”
There was more there. The kid’s eyes were fixed on the wall as if it might just jump out and bite him. Ethan made a mental note to pay a visit to his grandmother.
“I’ll be meeting with Judge Wilson sometime next week to discuss your progress.”
The minute hand of the clock snapped again. Thomas straightened and reached for his bag before Ethan even mentioned their time was up.
Sighing, Ethan closed his notebook and tossed his pen on the table. An hour-long session, a couple of words here and there from the kid, and a blistering headache. They were making progress.
“I’m going to be around tomorrow,” Ethan said as he stood. “We’ll catch up at the end of the day.”
“Sure. Whatever.” Thomas hooked his backpack over his shoulder. “We done now?”
“Yeah. We’re done. Go on home.”
When the door closed, Ethan rubbed a hand down his face. The kid wasn’t blatantly defiant, but he wasn’t exactly opening up yet either. They should be further along than this, but the speculation surrounding that theft last week had caused Thomas to shut down. He was still wary of everyone around him, including Ethan.
Ethan gathered his papers and stuffed them in his briefcase. He wanted this over. He wanted to get to a point where he only had to see the kid once a month—maybe. Since he’d had appointments in Portland earlier in the week, this was the first day he’d made it to Hidden Falls, and his anxiety had shot up as soon as he’d driven past the city limits. But he knew if he was going to make any kind of progress with Thomas, he needed to spend more time here, observing the kid and getting to know him better.
Which meant he should probably come back early tomorrow. Talk with some of Thomas’s teachers before school about how he was doing, pay a visit to that grandmother Thomas seemed to be having issues with at home. Hell, he was already here. He should probably just find a hotel and stay the night.
Except staying in this town was so not what he wanted to do. Of course . . . his thoughts drifted . . . if he stayed tonight, he’d have an excuse to run into Samantha.