One Major Distraction
Linda Winstead Jones

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She laughed out loud, surprising him and herself.

“It’s not funny,” he said, almost seriously.

“It is, actually,” she answered.

“Well, I probably won’t be here more than a couple of weeks. That’s what I was told, anyway. If I can get through this assignment without making any of the little girls cry, I’ll be fine.”

Well, crap. She liked him. The fact that he would stand up to an administrator who wanted to run things in a way he didn’t care for was one thing. But he was actually worried about making little girls cry. There was something unexpected about that, coming from a big man who was undeniably gruff.

Her pie was gone, her coffee cup almost empty. She’d told Flynn everything she could think of, about the faculty and staff he’d be dealing with in his time here. And she wasn’t quite ready to leave. Evenings were the toughest part of the day, for her. Alone in her apartment above stairs, the hours went by too slowly, and her imagination ran wild. She thought about getting caught, about losing everything she’d worked for.

But this was nice. She liked Benning, he apparently liked her, and even though it could never go anywhere it was nice to have someone to talk to. A friend, he said.

“So, Flynn. That’s an unusual name. Is it a family name?”

He grunted slightly and took a big bite of pie. The last bite. She waited patiently while he finished it off with a swig of black coffee. “Not a family name,” he finally said. “As a matter of fact, I was suppose to be named John William Benning III, but my mother had other ideas.”

“So, where does the Flynn come from?”

He pushed his plate and cup aside and leaned onto the table. He’d rolled his sleeves up, displaying utterly masculine forearms. She really, really wanted to touch them, just for a moment, but of course she didn’t.

“That’s enough about me,” he said. “What’s a woman like you doing working in a cafeteria? You’re smart, you’re pretty, you’re energetic and everyone likes you. So, why aren’t you married and raising a half dozen kids, or running a corporation, or teaching home economics or…”

Tess’s smile died. The man was way too curious about her. She grabbed the dirty dishes and stood, keeping her gaze on the last little bit of coffee that was left in the bottom of Flynn’s mug. “It’s getting late,” she said. “And I have to be up early in the morning to make biscuits.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“You didn’t do anything,” she interrupted. “I just didn’t realize how late it was. The time got away from me.”

A very large, very warm hand shot out and gripped her wrist, and for a moment she was frozen. Flynn’s fingers were like a warm, soft vise. An unexpected electricity worked through her body. It had been a long time since she’d allowed any man to touch her, even in such a simple way.

It was so stupid, to stand here and imagine what it would be like to lay her fingers on that hard forearm, or fix the little crinkle in his collar, or run her palm against his short, fair hair. There wasn’t time for any of that in her life…not today, and not tomorrow. Maybe never.

“I’m sorry,” he said, letting his hand fall away. “I didn’t mean to push. Friends don’t push.”

Maybe he would be smart and not push now, as she hurried toward the kitchen. “I’ll see you in the morning,” she called back without looking over her shoulder. “Do me a favor and make sure the door is locked when you leave?”

“Sure,” he said softly as he left the dining hall. “I’ll double check to be certain the building is secure.”

Somehow that assurance made her feel a little better, even as she climbed the stairs to her little apartment.

Flynn didn’t rush back to his quarters in the men’s dormitory. The night was cold, the air downright icy, and yet the chill didn’t bother him at all.

Tess Stafford didn’t belong here, not in the cafeteria, anyway. She was hiding something, and he wanted to know what it was. Was she a natural blonde who hid her true colors under auburn hair color? Could someone who lied so badly be Austin? Could someone who didn’t dare look a man in the eye while she made a hasty escape kill a man for a painting and a handful of very nice jewelry? Could a woman who trembled at the innocent touch of a hand on her wrist be here planning another crime?

He didn’t think so, and Dr. Barber’s argument that she had no need to break into the building where she lived was valid enough. But until Lucky came back with a report that cleared her, he compared her fingerprints to Austin’s and he got hold of a strand of hair to compare to the one taken from the scene of the crime in Texas, Tess Stafford would remain on Flynn’s list of suspects. He couldn’t take her off the list just because he—unexpectedly and against his better judgment—wanted to sleep with her.

Tess might not be Austin, but she was hiding something. Something big. Something that kept her here.

There was to be a meeting in his room at ten o’clock—fifteen minutes—and he didn’t feel compelled to hurry. Instead he looked around, studying the darkened buildings where classes would resume in the morning and the dormitories where students and female teachers were either already asleep or getting ready for bed. Some of them would be asleep by now, he imagined. The windows that were still lit up were probably rooms of the teachers and the older girls.

He hadn’t been lying when he’d told Tess that he was terrified of making the girls cry. Most everything else had been pure fabrication. The military school, the background that had been manufactured for this assignment, it was all false. But he was truly terrified of coming face-to-face with a sobbing teenage girl.

His own little girl would be fourteen, if she’d lived. Denise would be thirty-eight. There were days when it seemed like ages ago that he’d buried his wife and daughter, and there were other days when it seemed like yesterday. His job didn’t normally require him to face his past. He’d grieved, and then he’d moved on as best he could. He hadn’t forgotten, but he had relegated that long-ago pain to a safe and remote place. These past two days had brought it all a little closer than he cared for. All these little girls reminded him too sharply of the one he’d lost.

All the more reason to find Austin and get out of here ASAP.

Cal and Murphy were right on time for the meeting, but Dante was running late. Flynn was in no mood for waiting, but he hated having to do anything twice. The three of them made themselves comfortable, Cal and Murphy on the couch, Flynn in a sagging chair.

Cal thought Leon Toller was just a sad, weird little man who didn’t have many friends because he spent most of his time in his own world. He was divorced, no surprise, and had three boys he didn’t see very often. That matched the info they had on him, so far. Cal had snagged a porcelain doodad from the man’s class, and it was already on the way to Max for fingerprint comparison.

While Cal was talking Murphy kept rubbing his cheek, until Flynn finally snapped. “What’s wrong with your face?”

“Stephanie gave me a facial. My skin feels different. It’s smooth.”

Cal started to laugh, then noted that Flynn was not amused and went silent.

“A facial,” Flynn repeated in a low voice.

“Yeah. It’s the only way I could, you know…”

“Get into her pants?” Cal asked when Murphy faltered.

“No,” Murphy said. “She’s not that kind of girl. She’s very passionate about her English classes and this line of makeup and skin-care products she sells. Most of it’s all natural. The makeup, not the English classes. She gave me a sample of a skin cream for men. It smells pretty good.”

“You are a metrosexual,” Cal said.

Murphy muttered beneath his breath, “I still don’t know what that means.”

Dante arrived, to Flynn’s great relief, slightly red-faced and not his usual cool self.

“Where the hell have you been?” Flynn asked.

Dante walked into the room, but didn’t sit. Instead, he paced. “The math teacher is a freak.”

Cal and Murphy both leaned forward, unduly interested. “In what way?” Cal asked. “She has six toes on one foot? She used to work at a sideshow as the bearded lady? What?”

“Not a freak in a bad way,” Dante said. “She’s aggressive. She knows what she wants and she goes for it. Man, does she go for it. I thought math teachers were supposed to be shy and repressed, but not Serena Loomis. No, there’s nothing repressed about her. Man, I’m sorry I’m late, but I didn’t think she was going to let me go.”

“You’ve been in her room all this time?” Murphy asked.

Dante shook his head. “No. She was afraid one of the students would see me going to her room, or leaving. There’s a gardener’s shed out back, so we went there. If Austin is a man, it’s not Serena Loomis. She’s, uh, also not blond. Natural brunette.”

Flynn leaned back in his chair, on edge and impatient. “Murphy is a woman and Mangino got laid,” he said sharply. “Did we manage to gather any other useful information tonight?”

A breathless Dante nodded his head. “Maybe. Serena mentioned that there’s a parents’ weekend coming up in two weeks,” he said. “Considering how much it costs to attend this school, we have to look at every parent who’s going to be here that weekend as a potential target. Maybe what Austin wants to steal isn’t here, but will be. He took jewels before.”

“Killed for ’em,” Cal added.
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