Michaela Becker’s heart sank as she reached for The Scarlet Letter. Sure, she loved discussing the fate of a woman branded by passion, the issues of male-dominated religion run amok, of government repression, stoic women, and sex, sex, sex! But she doubted her classroom of sneering, giggling, or comatose high school kids were going to engage in spirited debate. At this point, she’d be thrilled if any of them had read the American classic. Even the comic book version.
Putting on her perkiest smile, she stepped out from behind her teacher desk and began the last class of the day. Please, she prayed, let them listen. Let me reach someone today. If that’s not possible, please let someone’s hair burst into flames so I can cancel class while I put them out.
No one listened, not even God. At best, her questions on the story received nonresponsive stares. At worst, well… heads in the back bobbed to “hidden” iPods while other students texted each other on their phones. And nothing burst into flames, except perhaps her dream of being an inspiring teacher.
As the period wound toward its inevitable dreary end, Michaela understood why she’d been nicknamed “Micki Mouse.” She was a complete failure as a teacher. She’d wanted to revolutionize education; instead she was just another ineffective warm body standing uselessly amidst the chilling tide of teen boredom.
Maybe she should strip naked and stand on her head; that might be better than setting someone’s hair on fire. A dozen other maybes filtered through her thoughts, but Micki didn’t act on any of them. She never acted on them. Instead, she stuck to her initial plan: kill them with kindness. Surely just a little more effort on her part, a little more understanding and compassion, would do the trick.
The bell rang—thank God—but Micki wasn’t done yet. There was one student whom she still hoped to reach: Lucy Varner, a smart girl with a bad boyfriend. Last year, Lucy’s brother had gotten high and shot a cop. Now the boy was in jail, her single-parent mom was exhausted from working two jobs, and Lucy was at loose ends. Or she had been until she hooked up with her brother’s best friend and fellow druggie. But the way she was headed… If only Micki could connect with the girl, maybe the child would see that she could do so much more.
“Lucy, could you wait a moment, please?”
The dark-haired girl looked up from collecting her things, and her brown eyes blinked beneath ragged bangs. Unlike some of the other girls in class, she had yet to develop a woman’s curves. In truth she appeared very average for a fourteen-year-old brunette, especially in her Goodwill jeans and tee, though her skin and eyes held a hint of Mediterranean beauty. One day the girl could turn into a willowy Sophia Loren, but for the moment she was just a little kid without makeup, without confidence, and without a real friend.
“I wanted to compliment you on your short story,” Micki said. “It was wonderfully written, but so sad.” The piece had been about a young girl who looked for a protector in a world that betrayed her at every turn. She found her answer in a fairy godmother who ended up getting raped and murdered by a drug lord. Then the magic wishes turned bad, and the heroine ended up dying of an overdose. If fiction was a window to the spirit, then Lucy’s soul was in dire need of a miracle. Micki so wanted to be that miracle. “Can you tell me a little about why you wrote it?”
Lucy said nothing.
“You know, when I was your age, I really got into Mae West. You’ve probably never heard of her, but she was beautiful, busty, and bold. She did and said things that nobody dared do, and she’ll be remembered forever for it. I desperately wanted to be her. I even used to strike a pose and say her lines.” Micki dropped a hand on her hip and tried to look sultry. ” ‘His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.'” It was the least risque Mae West quote she could think of right then, but one look at Lucy told her she should have just gone for a sexy line. The girl was clearly bored.
Micki sighed dramatically as she straightened. “Yeah, a complete disappointment. I would look in the mirror and see this.” She waved generally at her tiny chest and boyish curves. “The point is that I was looking at the wrong thing. Magic doesn’t come from big boobs or a magic fairy godmother; it comes from inside. And if I had only known to look at what I could do instead of what I couldn’t… well, I would have found something amazing. I just had to look inside.” She searched the girl’s face, wondering if she was getting through. “What do you think?”
Nothing. Wait! Was there a spark in the girl’s eye? An almost-comment? She’d lifted her chin and taken a breath, but she didn’t say anything. Still, there was hope. After a long pause, Micki chose a different tack.
“How’s your mother doing?” She relaxed back against the edge of the desk. Maybe if she was on a more equal height with the girl, it would help. “She didn’t make it in for parent-teacher conferences, but I could maybe meet her at Starbucks. My treat. Do you think she’d like that?”
“Lucy’s mom don’t like rich-people coffee,” sneered a voice from the hallway. Damian Ralston, Lucy’s bad boyfriend, sauntered into the classroom and wrapped his muscular arm around her shoulders.
Micki kept her smile bright, but inside she knew all hope was gone for today. An English teacher just couldn’t compete with a handsome gangbanger. Sure enough, Lucy’s entire demeanor shifted from anxious teen to sneering rebel. “My mom don’t have time to meet you.”
“Surely she has some time off,” Micki pressed. “We don’t have to go for coffee. I know, how about we meet at the mall? You could bring her.” She glanced at Damian, and tried to think of a way to exclude him. “We’ll make it a girls’ night out.”
Score! There was longing in Lucy’s eyes. She started to straighten, even lean forward a bit, but that was as far as she got. Faster than Micki expected, Damian whipped his arm off the girl. He stretched just like a football player, bristling, and on him, those muscles looked really intimidating.
“She said she don’t have time for you!”
“She doesn’t have time,” Micki corrected without thinking.
“That’s what I said!” Damian shot back, stepping forward. “She don’t have time—”
“Naw, that ain’t what you said,” cackled another voice from the hallway. Three more of Damian’s gang loitered near the door, watching and commenting on every move. “She don’t think you talk right. She don’t think much of you at all.”
“You gonna take that?” challenged one of the others.
Great. A Greek chorus of testosterone. Micki’s smile was beginning to strain, but she directed all her attention to Lucy—only Lucy. “Any time you like, you just give me the word.”
“The word is ‘no’!” Damian growled. His arm wrapped like a vise around Lucy’s shoulders, but that was nothing compared to the jeers and catcalls from the hallway. Micki couldn’t even tell who they were jeering at—herself or their leader. Either way, it wasn’t good. And yet, she just couldn’t leave it alone.
“Do you like how he treats you, Lucy?” She took a step forward and dared to challenge Damian eye to eye—though still from a prudent five feet away. “That’s not how a real man handles a woman.”
Curses flew out of the boy’s mouth, but his fists were faster. Micki had deluded herself into thinking that he couldn’t attack her from that distance. She knew he was the local gang leader with incredible power in this inner-city school. She knew as well that he had a hair-trigger temper and issues with anyone—teacher or otherwise—who challenged his macho image. He was absolutely the wrong person to get in a pissing contest with, and yet here she was trying to take his girlfriend away. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
She barely had time to rear back from his fist. Lucy screamed, “Damian!” and then Micki’s foot lost traction and she began to fall, her body tensed and her eyes slammed shut.
Her right foot reared high. It was the one that had lost traction. It flew upward—really, really high—and impacted with something solid. Micki’s eyes flew open, but her leg was still moving while the rest of her body followed. Hell, she had been falling backward, but now gravity was rushing her forward, into Damian’s fists.
Micki thrust out her hands to catch herself—or to block one of his blows—only she moved her hands too high. She struck Damian’s jaw with the heel of her hand. His head snapped back while her other hand—the one that was trying to grab onto something, anything, to steady herself—slammed down hard on his neck. She blinked. Had her hand been straight, like in a karate chop to his neck? There wasn’t time to wonder.
She scrambled to the side, her hand numb. But that was nothing compared to Damian. His momentum was carrying him forward to where she had been standing before she slipped. But now she was well out of reach, and he apparently couldn’t move his arm to protect himself. Micki watched in stunned slow motion as he staggered forward to bang painfully into her desk.
If she could have spoken, she would have gasped out an apology. Something. Not because she really cared if she beat the crap out of Damian, accidentally or not, but she was trying to connect with Lucy. Giving her boyfriend a black eye was counterproductive. Getting herself beaten to a pulp by that same boyfriend and his goons wasn’t all that helpful either.
She turned, thinking she had to get both herself and Lucy out of there before it got ugly, but all she managed was a too bright “C’mon, Lucy, let’s go shopping!” before the room exploded into chaos.
In the hallway, the boys started hooting and pointing while simultaneously blocking the exit. Lucy was staring wide-eyed at Damian who—oh hell—was just straightening from his face-plant on the desk. His lip was fat and bloody, but there was nothing wrong with his fists or the burning anger in his eyes. Worse, he had obviously recovered from his surprise.
“Look, Damian. I’m sorry. I kinda slipped,” Micki started to say. She stood between herself and Lucy, slowly trying to back them both out of the classroom. Maybe if they pushed, they’d get through the group at the door. But Lucy wasn’t cooperating.
“Damian, baby, she’s not worth it. Let’s just get out of here. We can go make out.”
“Lucy—no!” Micki was not going to have a child trade sexual favors for her! “Lucy—”
“Is there a problem here?” A deep male voice cut into the chaos, and automatically Micki’s breath eased. Looking to the doorway, she watched Damian’s posse magically melt away as Joe DeLuce—school cop—stepped into the room. “Miss Becker?”
Micki smiled gratefully at the man. He was the hottest detective on the force, but a bullet in the knee took him out of the game for a while. Instead of taking light duty, he chose instead a job as the high school cop. So now all the girls—Micki included—lusted after the man from afar. All the gangbangers thought twice about causing problems on school grounds. He was a boon to the school, and at this second, the answer to Micki’s prayers. “Mr. DeLuce,” she said way too breathlessly.
“Damian just got his ass kicked by the Mouse,” sniggered one of the retreating gang. “He should sue or something.”
From his position by the desk, Damian growled—yes, growled—at his friends, but his eyes remained on Micki. The sound was so terrifyingly animal that Micki nearly squeaked in response. As it was, she could only reach out for Lucy, trying to tug the girl back from her boyfriend.
It didn’t work. Lucy shrugged her off and wrapped her arms around him. “It ain’t nothin’, Mr. DeLuce,” Lucy said. “Me and Damian here were just screwing around. I think we frightened Miss Becker, but we’re real sorry.”
Damian, of course, wasn’t talking. He was just staring at Micki. It was a cold stare, filled with an inhuman violence that squeezed her chest tighter than possible. Which was ridiculous. She was a grown woman. A teacher, for God’s sake! She couldn’t let one boy—even a large, muscular senior—scare her like this. He didn’t even have a weapon. Or not one that she could see. And yet, she couldn’t speak. He was going to kill her and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that she could do about it.
“So it’s nothing, huh, Mr. Ralston?” Mr. DeLuce drawled as he moved slowly into the room. His limp was barely noticeable as he stepped between Micki and her assailant. “Hey, Damian! It’s nothing, right?”
Mr. DeLuce’s voice still sounded congenial, but there was an underlying threat in his tone. They were like two boxers squaring off against each other, and God help her, Micki was grateful. At that moment, she didn’t care what was between her and that cold stare, she was just happy for the breather. She knew it would bother her later: she needed to be able to stand on her own against these kids. But right now she was happy to hide temporarily behind Mr. DeLuce’s broad shoulders.
Lucy broke in. “Nothing at all, sir. We was just on our way to the Chem Lab,” she said with false cheer. “Damian’s real good with chemistry.”
A lie if there ever was one. As far as Micki could tell, the boy was failing every class. Truthfully, she didn’t even know why the kid kept coming to school—though she would bet her next paycheck that Mr. Gorzinsky had something to do with it. The older chem teacher had some magical way of keeping these kids in school way longer than anyone wanted them. Micki didn’t know what it was, but she envied him his skills.
Especially since a simple mention of the man’s subject seemed to defuse the situation. From her place a half step behind Mr. DeLuce, Micki could see Damian’s face shift into a disgusted grimace. “Come on,” he grunted as he started shuffling forward. “I got business that ain’t with no English teacher.”
Micki released a loud breath of relief, then immediately regretted it. Mr. Gorzinsky had told her to never let the kids see her sweat. That one puff of air had just told Damian she’d all but wet her pants. And a glance at the school cop confirmed her mistake. He was practically rolling his eyes.
“Move aside, boys,” he said to the gang in the hallway. “It’s obvious Damian needs a little help out the door.” It was a jab, no doubt about it, and it had its intended effect. The boys separated, snickering all the way. Damian threw an icy glare at DeLuce, and everyone ignored Micki. Everyone except Lucy. Shooting a glance at her teacher, she tucked herself tighter into her boyfriend’s side and preened.
“Damian likes me right by his side,” she said. And then they were gone, the boys and Lucy swaggering down the hallway.
“Great,” Micki murmured to herself. “Just frigging great.”
Unfortunately, she wasn’t alone in her classroom. Mr. DeLuce hadn’t followed the kids out. He’d stopped at the door and now turned back to her. She glanced up, struck by his presence. As usual.
He wasn’t handsome. Far from it, actually. He had a stocky build and a nose that wasn’t completely straight. His jaw was square, his eyes a pleasant brown, and his skin had that roughened look that should seem scruffy but was actually kind of sexy. Nothing about Joe DeLuce was exceptional. Common stock, Micki’s mother would say. And yet, when he walked into a room, everybody noticed him. He was quiet, competent, and impossible to ignore. He had Presence, and Micki couldn’t help but stare.
“So what really happened here?” he asked.
She answered, because that’s what you did when Joe DeLuce smiled, all friendly like that. “Nothing. I slipped and accidentally clocked him. If it weren’t for you, I’d probably be a bloody mess right now.”
“It’s difficult for outsiders to understand how much power these gangs have. They’re a law unto their own, and Damian’s just recently become the new leader. He’s going to be especially prickly, especially bold, or he’ll lose his position. It’s not the time to face off with him.”
“I know.” She sighed and looked at her hands, self-disgust riding her hard. “Thank you,” she murmured.
“You don’t sound very grateful.”
She glanced up, startled because his voice was so close. He’d moved silently in front of her. Close enough to kiss, she thought. Then she blinked, startled by her disconcerting thought. She’d given up such fantasies about Joe six months ago, right after she’d seen him with Sar-ahhhh, the blonde bombshell with size DDD breasts. She’d only seen them together one time, but the sight was burned into her memory.
“Um…yeah. No. I mean…” She swallowed, forcing her thoughts—and her gaze—away from his mouth. “Thank you. Truly. I’m just sorry I needed rescuing.” Then she made the mistake of looking into his eyes: soft chocolate brown and filled with sympathy. Before she even realized what was happening, her vision went wavy with tears. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” she confessed. “I try so hard, but I’m not getting through to any of them. Even the good ones.”
He didn’t answer. His eyes widened with a brief moment of panic. “You’re not going to cry, are you?”
Too late. Her lashes were already spiky with tears, and they both knew it. So rather than completely horrify the man, she bustled behind her desk to grab her purse. “Nah. I’m not the tearful type,” she lied.
“Yeah. Thought not,” he lied back.
She took her time gathering her things. She wanted to have herself completely under control before she faced the man again. He moved to stand on the opposite side of her desk. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the way his pants hugged his lean hips. Even with his limp, the guy obviously kept in shape.
“Um, hey,” he said, rather awkwardly. “I need caffeine. You want to go to a cafe or something? I know one close by.”
Micki straightened slowly, forcing her gaze to travel up his trim waist, past his white shirt and broad shoulders, to finally look him in the eye. At the beginning of the year, she had fantasized about just this event. She had dreamed that he would show up in her classroom one day and casually ask her out for coffee. It would be the beginning of a beautiful romance. But then teaching became unexpectedly awful, and he became notorious for taking certain teachers out for coffee and getting them to completely rethink their lives. They even had a name for it: pity coffee.
She swallowed and found a boldness that was completely new to her. “Pity coffee, Mr. DeLuce? What if I start crying again?”
He arched a brow, obviously startled. “I thought you weren’t the crying type.”
She shrugged. “Maybe I lied.”
He shifted his stance, his eyes lighting with humor. “And if you think coffee with you is a pity date, honey, you need to look in the mirror more. A gorgeous blonde—if anyone’s getting the pity, it’s me.”
Micki smiled, her legs growing steadier now that she was back on familiar ground. She’d mastered flirting in middle school. And yet, she wasn’t in the mood for this subtle dance of attraction, despite the chemistry she now imagined between herself and Mr. DeLuce. “Come on, Joe. We both know that petite blondes aren’t your type.” Her tiny, almost-B cups were well shaped in her Victoria’s Secret bra, but they were nothing compared to the women she usually saw him with.
He looked at her, surprise sharpening his features even more. Then he slowly folded his arms across his chest, making his biceps bulge and emphasizing the breadth of his shoulders. “And what would you know about my type?”
She considered answering. What better way to get back your self-esteem than engage in a spirited flirtation with a handsome lawman? But then her gaze caught on Damian—arm wrapped around little Lucy—as he and his buddies swaggered past her classroom window. The group couldn’t see her from outside; she was on the second floor and well away from the sill, but he still paused long enough to shoot her window a malevolent glare. She couldn’t help it. A shiver of fear ran down her spine. Lord, she was such a weenie.
Joe’s mellow voice interrupted her self-loathing. “Have you thought of taking some self-defense classes?”
“Already done,” she said, without shifting her gaze from the window. “But yelling ‘no!’ at a friend in padding isn’t the same thing as facing down an Indianapolis gang leader.”
“True, that,” he murmured in response.
Her gaze hopped back to him, startled by the teen slang he’d just voiced. For a moment there, she might have imagined it was one of the kids talking, albeit in a deeper, thicker, more manly voice. “Is that why you want to have coffee with me?” she challenged. “To tell me how to be stronger with the kids? How to face my fears and not let the little bastards walk all over me?” She did a fairly good imitation of Mr. Gorzinsky, who was always lecturing her on the subject.
“Would it help?”
She sighed. “Maybe.” She hefted her slim Gucci purse. “Come on. I’ll buy; you advise. But be warned: you’re not the first person who thought he could toughen me up. Stronger men than you have failed.”
He grinned, startling her with the mischievous twinkle in his eye. “I doubt that, Miss Becker. I most sincerely do.”