“Thanks.” Laura squirmed as if the compliment made her uncomfortable. “My dad sent it to me last week.”
“It looks nice and warm, and that green is your color.”
Laura wrinkled her nose. She definitely did not like talking about herself.
“And Bev, you look fabulous in blue. It brings out your eyes.”
Bev gave in to an odd sort of smile, but it didn’t last.
“I saw you talking to Mr. Benning,” Laura said. “Do you like him, or something?”
“No,” Tess answered precisely. “I do not like him. In fact, the man really gets on my nerves.”
“He gets on my nerves, too,” Laura said.
“He’s a little scary,” Bev said in a low voice Tess had to strain to hear.
“He doesn’t do things the way Mr. Hill did,” Laura said in a slightly louder voice. The changes in her history class obviously upset her. Laura didn’t like change. And at thirteen, everything was changing, or soon would.
“Maybe Mr. Hill will have a quick recovery and be back in class before you know it,” Tess said optimistically.
“I hope so,” Laura said as she continued down the line.
“Me, too,” Bev said, cutting her eyes to Tess and trying that uncertain smile once again.
Tess’s smile died as the girls headed for a table in the dining hall. Laura and Bev were both awkward, but then they were at an awkward age. Neither of the girls thought they were pretty, but they would be, as soon as they grew into themselves and gained some confidence. She saw them glance at the table where the more popular girls sat, giggling and whispering and posing. They were either older than Laura and Bev, or else they had matured at an earlier age. There was no awkwardness at that table of pretty, self-assured girls.
Tess often found herself trying to help the girls in this school, above and beyond the duties of a cook. So many of them had been shuffled off because their parents didn’t have time for them, or because divorce had split up the family and boarding school seemed a safe and easy alternative. They all came from money, or else they wouldn’t be here; that new sweater Laura was wearing probably cost more than a week’s salary for Tess.
Tess’s head snapped around to find that Flynn Benning was back and offering his plate for a refill of scalloped potatoes. The fact that he’d surprised her counted against him. Had he noticed her staring at Laura and Bev?
No, he was much too self-absorbed to notice any such thing. That grin of his was wicked and just short of smarmy. If he winked at her, she was going to throw the potatoes at him. How would he look wearing his second helping? He didn’t wink, and she scooped up enough scalloped potatoes for four men his size and slopped them into his plate with a twist of her wrist. “How’s that?”
“Thank you,” he said. “There’s just something extra special about these potatoes. I’m not sure what it is.”
Tess rolled her eyes and turned away, but not before she caught a glimpse of something unexpected in Benning’s blue eyes.
He was a good judge of character, he trusted his instincts, and something about Tess Stafford raised more than one alarm. She was too savvy to be working as a cafeteria cook, server and dishwasher in a private school. In his day they had been called lunchroom ladies, and none of them had looked anything like Tess Stafford. She didn’t make much money here, the living quarters left a lot to be desired and making heart-shaped cookies for little girls and teachers might be fulfilling in some basic womanly way, but it definitely wasn’t challenging.
Not for the first time, Flynn wondered what the hell he was doing here. Only for Max would he put himself in this situation. Sadie Harlow—Sadie McCain, now, Flynn reminded himself—would be perfect for this assignment. It would be much easier for her to work her way into the closed circle of women employees without rousing suspicion. But Sadie had gone and gotten herself pregnant, and for some reason her husband, Truman McCain, had a problem with letting her hunt down murdering thieves in her current condition. Flynn almost snorted just thinking about it. He’d never imagined that anyone could forbid Sadie to do anything. Just as well. If she was here and pregnant, he’d have to worry about her himself. Besides, anything Sadie could do, he could do. How much of a challenge could Tess Stafford, who made heart-shaped cookies and served up three meals a day, be?
Tess was presently wiping down tables in a deserted dining hall. The students and the teachers who lived on campus had all headed for their dorms, and the other woman who worked in the cafeteria had retired for the night. Stafford was lost in thought as she wiped down a table where some of the messier girls had eaten supper.
“Need any help?”
Her head snapped up at his softly spoken question, and she stopped wiping. “What do you want?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “There’s not much to do in my room. I thought I’d help you out here so you can get to your late date. We wouldn’t want you to be tardy.”
She started scrubbing again, harder this time. “Okay, let’s get something straight, Mr. Benning. Just because I work in an all-girls’ school, doesn’t mean I’m desperate for a man to come along and charm me out of my orthopedic shoes. I’m not desperate for anything. I’m not looking for a man, and if I were it wouldn’t be you because you’re not my type.”
“Does that mean there’s no late date?”
“No,” she finally admitted, “there’s no late date. Not only that, I don’t want a date, late or otherwise.”
Tess Stafford was pretty and she knew how to stand up for herself, and she was also angry. A man was the cause, most likely. Wasn’t that always the story? It was like some sad country song. A good-for-nothing fella had broken her heart and stolen her life savings, and run off in the night with her dog and her pickup truck.
Charming her was going to be more difficult than he’d imagined.
“Okay, you don’t want a date, you don’t need a man. How about a friend? Got more of those than you need?”
Tess stopped wiping, but kept her eyes on the table. Had he touched a chord with her? Anger just beneath the surface aside, she seemed to be a nice person. The others who worked here liked her, but she didn’t let anyone get too close. He could see that from here. Hell, he’d seen it at first glance.
“You can start by calling me Flynn,” he said. “I get enough Mr. Benning during the day. Usually like this.” He raised his hand and waggled his fingers, “Mr. Benning, Mr. Benning, Mr. Benning.”
He saw the start of a reluctant smile. It just barely turned up the corners of Tess’s nicely wide mouth. “Kids can be relentless.” She began wiping again, slower this time.
“Tell me about it,” he said, leaning against the doorjamb and watching her work. Relaxed this way, she was very pretty. Very out of place in this stark room. “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll help you clean, and then over leftover apple pie and some of your fabulous coffee, you can tell me all about the other people who work here. It’s tough being the new guy in town.”
She lifted her head and looked him square in the eye, as if trying to judge his intentions. “Sure,” she finally said. “Why not?”
Tess told herself that if she could figure out why Flynn Benning was so curious, if she could reassure herself that his being here had nothing to do with her, it would be worth spending a little extra time in his company.
Over coffee and apple pie, they started an awkward conversation. She had never been one to make friends easily, and he didn’t strike her as the gregarious type. Confident, yes. Gregarious, never.
She told Flynn what she knew of some of the teachers he’d be working alongside, general information that he could have gotten anywhere, and he listened carefully. Maybe too carefully, for someone who was a sub who wouldn’t be here very long. He was either way too interested in the goings-on at the Frances Teague Academy, or else he was way too interested in her.
“You’ll only be working here until Scott Hill is better, right?” she asked.
“Where do you usually teach?”
It was a perfectly natural question to ask a new teacher, but it looked as if he bristled a little. “I used to teach at a military school south of Atlanta.”
Military school. That she could see. The size, the bearing, the way he took charge of a room just by walking through the door. Military. “What happened?” she asked. “Why aren’t you teaching there this year?”
For a moment, she thought he wasn’t going to answer. His shoulders squared, his spine straightened, and those eyes…the blue was almost electric.
“A new administrator comes in and decides she wants things done her way,” he finally said. “We were supposed to be sensitive and new-agey and it was all crap.”
Tess smiled, she could see it so well. “You told her so in just those words, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” he answered, visibly calmer and almost sheepish. “Now here I am teaching at an all-girls school, which is ironic, I suppose. I look at some of these girls the wrong way, and I swear they’re about to burst into tears. I don’t do tears.”