One Major Distraction
Linda Winstead Jones

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Flynn headed down the hall to the teachers’ lounge. He had fifteen minutes between classes. If Austin was watching, he had to look like one of the guys. If Austin was already here, he needed to find the bastard before someone else got themselves killed. It was possible the thief had come and gone, but Max was willing to bet otherwise.

The Frances Teague Academy was situated on well-manicured grounds, with a number of ancient oak trees growing here and there. The place screamed of old money. It had once been a small private college, and that’s what it looked like. For a period of several years, the place had stood empty. Had something of value been hidden here at that time? Maybe. Flynn hadn’t been able to think of any other reason for Austin to be there.

Six redbrick buildings, all of them square and massive and studious-looking, made up the bulk of the campus. There was even ivy growing on the old walls. Two buildings were used for classes—one for girls of middle school age, one for high school. Two buildings were dormitories, for the girls who lived on campus and the female teachers. One, the smallest building, was housing for the male teachers and employees who opted not to live in town. The downstairs of that building sported a lounge of sorts, with an old television and a few mismatched chairs. Upstairs there were four small apartments, which were now occupied by the Benning agents.

The main building at the center of it all was where the administrative offices, the cafeteria and the gym were located. It was also the site of both break-ins.

The school’s only security to this point had been a service from the small town nearby—two men who drove through slowly a few times a day. While it was tempting to ratchet up security, such a move would surely scare Austin away, if he was watching. Best to keep things as low-key as possible, until they had something concrete to work with.

The old buildings had been well maintained, but they were still old, and showed their age here and there. The room Flynn stepped into looked like teachers’ lounges everywhere. There was a sagging couch someone had decided they no longer wanted, a round table with one leg that was slightly shorter than the others, a few mismatched chairs, a battered counter with a coffeepot and all the fixings, a narrow window that looked out over the grounds, and, of course, a few teachers.

A few suspects? Flynn didn’t even know with any certainty that they were looking for a man. They had assumed the thief and killer was a man, they referred to Austin as “he.” But that wasn’t necessarily the case. For all they knew, the blond hair had come from Austin. Was she here right now, searching for some sort of valuable hidden in the main building? Something worth spending months here to find? There were a handful of teachers who were new to the school this year, who could have come in for the express purpose of gaining access to the school. Two of them were in this room.

Serena Loomis was a math teacher, and she looked the part. Her dark hair was very short, her glasses were small and black-rimmed and she was always dressed very precisely, in tailored shirts and neatly pressed slacks. The woman looked like she didn’t ever wrinkle. Or smile. Her records said she was thirty-six, and she looked to be that age, or close to it.

Stephanie McCabe was a polar opposite from the math teacher. She taught English and was irritatingly bubbly. According to her file she was twenty-nine. She was pretty, blond and wore froufrou dresses and too much makeup. She also sold makeup, as a sideline, and had already tried to sell Flynn skin care products made especially for men. She hadn’t taken kindly to his response that where he was from skin care products for men were called soap.

Both women were new faculty members, which had moved them to the top of Flynn’s short list of suspects. Even though Loomis looked tough, neither of them actually looked like they were capable of murder, but you could never tell. Getting prints from Loomis and McCabe should be easy enough, but the move had to be subtle. No one had ever accused Flynn Benning of being subtle. He eyed their coffee mugs and wondered if it would be possible to scoop them up and retrieve usable prints.

As he crossed to room, Loomis nodded to him. McCabe’s smile died, and she made a dismissive huffing noise. Harry Kaylor, biology teacher, hovered over the almost empty coffeepot. His greeting was even less enthusiastic than McCabe’s. Kaylor was not one of Flynn’s prime suspects. He was getting close to retirement—had in fact passed retirement age—and had been at this school for more than twelve years. Unfortunately, none of the handful of male employees had been here less than four years, which all but eliminated them from suspicion.

It was just as possible, perhaps more likely, that Austin was living in town, watching and waiting for the right opportunity to break into the main building once again. All Flynn had to do was find out what he was searching for. And wait.

The door behind Flynn swung open, and a woman bearing a tray of cookies stormed in. She wore a shapeless white uniform, comfortable shoes and no makeup, and still she caught Flynn’s eye. There was something very pretty about the curve of her cheek and the color of her skin. Auburn hair, thick and wavy, had been caught in a ponytail, and something about it just begged to be set free. Made Flynn’s fingers itch.

“I baked more cookies than we need for lunch,” she said, her Southern accent soft but unmistakable, “and I thought y’all might like to help me finish them off.”

The response she received was much warmer than the one Flynn had gotten when he’d walked in. Of course, he hadn’t brought cookies. He also wasn’t nearly so pretty. The woman skirted past Flynn and headed for the counter by the coffeepot, where she deposited the sweets. Without asking, she took out the old filter and wet grounds and began to make a fresh pot.

“Bless you,” Kaylor said. “Your coffee is always so much better than mine. I’m not sure why.”

“I have the magic touch,” the woman teased.

She glanced over her shoulder to Flynn, and her smile dimmed. They hadn’t officially met, but he had noticed her in the cafeteria last night, dishing up grilled chicken breasts and steamed broccoli and rice. Last night her auburn hair had been caught in a hairnet that had not been particularly flattering. He liked the ponytail better.

When Dr. Barber had presented Flynn with a roster of the employees who had arrived in the fall, there hadn’t been any cafeteria personnel listed. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to be thorough.

He stepped forward and offered his hand. “Flynn Benning. I just started teaching here yesterday. History.”

She continued to make coffee, ignoring his offered hand. “Tess Stafford.”

“Tess works in the dining hall,” Kaylor said unnecessarily, when it became clear that Tess didn’t intend to offer any more information about herself. “She takes good care of us, and brings us cookies and brownies and such, now and then.”

Flynn glanced down at the heart-shaped cookies on the platter by the coffeepot. Kaylor had already grabbed one, and Loomis and McCabe were both headed this way. “Hearts?”

“It is Valentine’s Day,” Stephanie McCabe said as she reached past Tess Stafford and grabbed one of the pink-iced cookies.

“Is it?” Flynn asked. “I hadn’t realized.”

Loomis snorted as she reclaimed her seat. “Don’t you watch television, Mr. Benning? Or listen to the radio? Or read the newspaper?”

“I don’t watch much television,” he admitted. And when it came to the newspaper, he usually read the first page and skimmed the rest.

Stephanie remained near the counter, standing right next to Tess Stafford. “When are you going to let me give you that makeover?” she asked, her eyes on the cafeteria lady’s face. “You have such good bone structure and such excellent skin tone, if you’d just get started with a good, daily skin care regimen…”

“I really don’t have time,” Stafford said as she finished with the coffeemaker and backed away. She came inches from running into Flynn. He did a quick recon. Age: probably mid-thirties. Height: five foot five inches, or thereabouts. Physical condition: above average. There were nicely sculpted muscles in her upper arms, and underneath that baggy white uniform she looked to be in excellent shape. Socially: awkward, cautious. She definitely hadn’t been eager to make friends with him.

Stafford scooped up the dirty mugs, much to Flynn’s dismay, and left the lounge with an awkward wave for the other teachers and the instruction to make do with the foam cups until she got the mugs washed and returned to the lounge. Tempted as Flynn was to tackle her and snag the fingerprinted crockery, he dismissed the idea. There would be other chances.

He headed for the coffeepot and the cookies. “She seems to know her way around the school pretty well. How long has she been here?”

“This is her first full year,” Kaylor said. “She settled in real nice, though, so it seems like she’s been here a lot longer.”

“Does she live on campus?” Some teachers and other personnel did. Others didn’t.

“She and another cafeteria worker have rooms on the second floor of the main building. The part-timers live in town, but Tess and Mary Jo have to start so early and work so late, it just makes sense for them to be close by the dining hall.”

“Makes sense.” Flynn took a bite of the Valentines’ Day cookie. His instincts where people were concerned were highly tuned, and he always listened to them. Tess Stafford had the look of a woman who was hiding something. Something big, something she didn’t want him to uncover. She put his senses on alert in a way the other women—who made more viable suspects—didn’t.

In preparing for this job, Flynn had seen crime scene photos of the murder in Austin. He wanted to believe it was unlikely a woman could commit such a brutal and bloody murder, but he had learned never to be surprised. Accepting that lesson had made life so much easier.

Tess had a good grip on the mugs, grasping them all by the handles as she hurried toward the main building. She thought, more than once, that she should’ve grabbed her sweater before heading out to deliver cookies. Some days the cold weather took her by surprise. In just a few weeks, the spring warmth would move in and everything would change. For now, there were cold days and colder nights.

The new history teacher set her teeth on edge, and she wasn’t sure why. He was extremely nice-looking, with very short blond hair, a chiseled jaw and a fit body. He had to be six foot two, at least, with wide shoulders and long legs and more than his share of muscle. He was old enough to be interesting, but was young enough to be, well, interesting. Late thirties maybe, judging by the lines around his eyes. He didn’t exactly look uncomfortable in his khakis and button-up shirt, so why did she get the feeling that the casual but professional outfit was not his usual garb? Maybe because he wasn’t built anything like the other male teachers around here. He didn’t look like any teacher she had ever known, here or in her own academic years.

Looks aside, he was undoubtedly one of those guys—those macho men who thought they could do anything and everything better than anyone else, who always felt compelled to fix everything that was broken, who expected women to fall at their feet if they smiled at them, who expected that everything in life would always go their way.

She’d had her fill of those guys.

In addition to his size and his build and his chiseled jaw, Benning also had great blue eyes that were too curious for Tess’s liking. She didn’t need curious at this point in her life. If anyone found out who she was and why she was here…

Before she reached the main building, something caught Tess’s eye and she stopped. Out by the soccer field, the new coach was talking with great animation to the new janitor. The back of her neck prickled, and it had nothing to do with the cool weather. Neither of them were quite right for their new jobs. Coach Calhoun was tough as old leather, even though he was years younger than Benning. His eyes were too sharp for a girls’ soccer coach, and he moved too quickly and precisely. He could be an athlete himself. A job as coach at a small all-girls’ school shouldn’t attract this type of man, and yet here he was.

The new janitor was definitely out of place here. He had long, thick dark hair, intelligent dark eyes and a body that would not quit. He also had a number of tattoos on his person, most of which she could only see a corner or an edge of. One just barely peeking over his collar, another on his forearm. Both were mostly hidden by an unflattering gray uniform. From what Tess knew of Dr. Barber, the woman would rather clean the place herself than hire a man who looked like this one. Didn’t make any sense at all.

Sean Murphy had come to work here at the same time as the other three. If not for that fact, she might not think him at all out of place. He was almost pretty, and did not have the toughness of the other three. He smiled often, unlike the others, and he actually looked like a computer nerd. A pretty computer nerd, but still…a nerd. But the fact that he had come in at the same time, combined with the fact that she’d seen Murphy talking to Benning last night after supper, raised her suspicions.

Something was up. She wasn’t sure what, exactly, but she didn’t like it. First the break-ins, where nothing was taken, and now this testosterone invasion.

From the soccer field, two heads lifted at once and turned her way. The two men were too far for her to see those eyes to know if they were really looking at her, and still she felt a chill. She rubbed her arms and started walking toward the main building once again.

As long as they weren’t here for her—and how could they be?—she didn’t care what they were up to.

Benning and his team were closed up in one small apartment—his—for the moment. No wonder Kaylor and most of the other teachers opted to live in town. These rooms assigned to the teachers were small—one-bedroom apartments with a sad little kitchenette in the main room and a very small bedroom attached. The bathroom was the size of a postage stamp.

“We need to gather as much info as we can as quickly as possible so we can finish this up and get out of here. We don’t know anything concrete about Austin, so we’re taking nothing for granted. Not even the supposition that he’s a man.”

“Do you know something we don’t?” Cal asked sharply. Cal would prefer to be searching for his sister Kelly. For the moment he was allowing the newly married Sadie Harlow, Flynn’s only female agent, to work that cold and frustrating case.
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