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Welcome to the blog of Catherine Gayle, USA Today bestselling author of Contemporary and Regency Romance.

Another Sneak Peek: Free Agent

February 02, 2018

 

 

                      Chapter Two

Blake

“Let’s go,” she bit off. “We’re on the move, and I don’t have time to mess around.” She shoved her stack of files and envelopes into my hands. Before I could blink, she was barreling out the office door and power-walking through the hallways of the school.

My legs were a good six inches longer than hers, give or take, so I ought to be able to keep up with her without a problem. But Bea Castillo was apparently a woman on a mission, and I almost had to jog to stay apace.

“We in a race or something?” I asked. Because it seemed she was trying to run away from me.

Couldn’t say I blamed her, if that was the case. I wouldn’t want to be around me, either, knowing myself the way I did.

The moment the school secretary had told me the name of the teacher whose class I’d be volunteering with (ha-ha, not exactly volunteering, but whatever), I’d known my uphill climb would be even steeper than I’d already imagined.

We had a history, Bea Castillo and me.

Not a long history, per se.

But definitely an ugly one.

And once again, the ugliness all boiled down to stupid shit flying out of my mouth before I’d had the chance to think things through and realize what I was saying. If I’d taken the time to stop and think, I probably would’ve kept my mouth shut.

Some things just don’t need to be said.

That would apply to roughly seventy-eight percent of the things that fell from my lips, give or take. More if you asked my teammates, maybe a bit less if you asked my grandma, but whatever.

Well, maybe I would’ve kept my trap shut. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I’d said that had irked her so much. One minute, we’d been laughing and joking with one another and everything had seemingly been fine; the next thing I knew, she’d been glaring daggers at me—tear-filled daggers, no less, so I had known, without a doubt, that I’d said or done something that had hurt her.

But that had been something like a year ago, and I’d never figured out what I’d done wrong. Didn’t appear she’d be filling me in any time soon, either.

Just now, she spared me a glance for long enough to roll her eyes. “I don’t have time to waste. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I have to do. Especially now that I have to deal with you on top of the rest of it.”

After a couple of turns I’d never be able to remember in order to reverse the process, we entered an empty but brightly lit classroom filled with red apple décor covering half the room, while the other half was decorated with pumpkins and fall leaves. She must have been in the midst of changing things over from back-to-school to an autumn theme when she’d gone to the office.

Pointing to a chair better suited to a second grader, she said, “Sit.”

I sat, but my knees nearly landed in my armpits because I was about ten times too big for the chair in question.

Ignoring me, she set about sorting through the stack of files and envelopes she’d been carrying, shoving some papers into an in-tray and emptying the contents of other envelopes to file in a drawer of her desk.

Sitting still was not conducive to me being on my best behavior. Especially not if we weren’t even talking. I needed to get up. To move around. Already, my feet started bouncing with my overwhelming urge to do something. I didn’t even care what, at this point. Sitting still was one sure way to land me in hot water, and the water I was already in was hot enough, thank you very much.

“Where are the kids?” I asked after a moment of silence other than the sounds of Bea shuffling her paperwork around.

“We’re picking them up from the music room in ten minutes.” She didn’t even bother to look over at me when she responded, her focus squarely on the work in front of her.

Well, lucky for her she had something with which to occupy her mind.

Me, on the other hand? I was liable to go nuts if I couldn’t find something to do with myself. Ten whole fucking minutes. That might as well be an eternity.

Seemed like she ought to be telling me her rules, then. How the hell was I supposed to follow her rules if I didn’t know what they were?

But instead of filling me in, she turned to her computer monitor and clicked her mouse a few times, then started typing.

I couldn’t just sit still for this long. Especially not in that chair made for miniature humans.

My eyes scanned the room again, almost of their own accord. There was a large bulletin board on the other side of the room. Orange paper had been stapled over it, but the brown, red, orange, and gold leafy border was only half in place. The end of it was dangling, and a stapler was resting on a step stool.

The clatter of her fingernails on the keyboard and her occasional sighs were the only sounds in the classroom. It was enough to make me crazy. Well…crazier than I already was, which was more than enough to be getting on with, thanks. I couldn’t freaking deal with the silence and the lack of anything to do with myself, so I got up and crossed over to the partially finished bulletin board. No reason I couldn’t finish this up for her while she was working on something else, right?

“What are you doing?” she demanded, but I already had the stapler in hand, and I was shoving her step stool out of my way because I didn’t need it. The damned thing would only make me trip.

I didn’t bother to answer, because anyone with eyes could see that I was taking over the job she’d left unfinished. Lifting the border into place with one hand, I opened the stapler and pressed it into position, then pushed down hard so it would shoot out a staple.

“You can’t just—”

“Are you going to tell me your rules or not?” I demanded, cutting her off and slamming the stapler a bit harder than was necessary.

“Fine,” she said. “Rule one: you don’t pick up items that could be used as projectiles or weapons unless I give you permission to do so.”

“Used as a weapon? Seriously?” I spun around, stapler in my hands, and let the border dangle again. “I’m trying to help you out.”

“I didn’t ask you to.”

“So I’m going to be punished for tackling a job for you? You just told me there aren’t enough hours in the day for you to get all your work done. I’m trying to cut down on all the work you have, since you haven’t given me anything else to do.”

“Doesn’t mean I want you to touch anything in my classroom without my permission.”

“It’s not like I grabbed your ass or anything.”

Well, hell. And there I went again, letting my mouth get ahead of my brain.

She glared so hard I was glad the stapler was in my hand and not hers, because I could envision it flying straight for my head. And yet I was the one supposedly in danger of launching things as projectiles? Whatever.

But then a timer of some sort started making noise on her desk. She reached for it and pressed a button to make it stop beeping. From a cabinet behind her desk, she took out a pill minder and a protein bar. She tossed back a handful of pills, took a swig of water from a refillable bottle on her desk, and ripped open the bar.

Then she glared at me again. “Put the stapler down where you found it, and let’s go.” Without waiting for me to comply, she backed away from her desk and headed out the door.

“Time to pick up the kids?” I asked, fumbling to remember where the stapler had been when I’d picked it up. Was it on the table next to the bulletin board, or on the step stool?

Fuck if I knew. I closed it and set it on the table, and then I busted ass to catch up with her since I didn’t know where anything was in this school, and I’d never be able to find my way around, otherwise.

Hell, I didn’t even remember where she’d said they were. Art? Phys ed? No telling.

Once again, she was power-walking through the halls, this time eating her bar. I couldn’t exactly ask her questions now since she had her mouth full. Besides, I doubted she’d give me a straight answer even if she wasn’t trying to eat.

I kind of liked walking just a bit behind her, though. Gave me a nice view of her ass. Her pants hugged it in all the right ways, and the bright-orange cardigan she wore didn’t hide it completely from my view.

I wanted to squeeze that ass—a thought that had no business cropping up into my thoughts just now. Hell, there was no appropriate time for a thought like that.

Because she sure as hell wouldn’t ever be allowing me to squeeze her ass or any other part of her. This chick wanted nothing more than to turn me into roadkill.

We arrived at another classroom and she spun around so suddenly that I almost ran into her back. “Wait right there,” she demanded, pointing to a spot next to a couple of water fountains. “Don’t touch anything. Don’t go anywhere. Definitely don’t open your mouth to speak to anyone, because I don’t know what sort of awful things you’ll say. Just stand there. Got it?”

“Got it,” I bit off, returning her glare in equal measure. I wasn’t any happier about this than she was, but I didn’t have much choice.

She scowled and then opened the door to the classroom. A cacophony of bells, chimes, and recorders greeted my ears in the few moments until the door closed behind her. Music class, apparently.

Somehow, this was becoming even worse than I’d imagined at first, and that was saying something.

Bea

I knew why he couldn’t sit still, so there wasn’t any good reason for me to keep snapping at him. It was the ADHD, plain and simple. The man needed something to do, and if I asked him to sit quietly, I was asking for trouble. That meant it was on me if he couldn’t follow my simple directions, because I was asking him for something he couldn’t give me.

It was the same with my students. I could always tell when it was time for us to switch gears, maybe get them up out of their seats so they could move around a bit, because their inability to sit and focus would have half of them fidgeting—or worse.

Yet, despite my knowledge, I’d tried to force him into doing something I’d known he couldn’t do, and then I’d snapped at him when he’d tried to use his restless energy to help me.

Did that make me a bitch? Maybe.

Get through today, I thought to myself as Mrs. Cutler supervised the kids putting their instruments back into their proper homes. Get through this next hour or so while he’s here, and then the rest of the day will be better. And then tonight, I could call Dani Williams to moan and complain about my predicament. She’d be on board. These early months of her pregnancy had her hormones all out of whack, so she was always down for a good gripe session, just as long as chocolate was involved—and her husband had been making sure to keep her in a fresh supply at all times lately.

Once the kids were in a line, I held one hand straight up in the air, started a countdown of my fingers, and pressed the forefinger of my other hand to my lips. By the time my fingers were all tucked into a fist, my class had quieted down. For it being so early in a new school year, I had to admit, I was impressed. But then again, as soon as they realized we had a guest in the room, all hell would break loose. I’d been mentally preparing myself for a chaotic afternoon since last night.

And that was when I’d still been expecting Riley and Mackenzie Jezek, who were well used to the needs of my students.

“We have a special visitor today,” I said once my class was attentively looking my way. “But I need each of you to be on your best behavior so we can all benefit from his visit, all right? Can everybody do that for me?”

Fourteen heads bobbed up and down in answer. I bit down on the inside of my cheek to keep from saying something about the fact that Blake Kozlow hadn’t agreed to be on his best behavior, even though my kids had. But that wouldn’t help matters, and I needed to present some form of professionalism into the situation.

“All right, then,” I said. “Restrooms first. Let’s form two lines, one for the boys and the other for the girls.”

The kids sorted themselves out readily enough. But gradually, I felt the weight of fourteen pairs of eyes falling on him, and then the whispering started. And the pointing. At least a few of them knew exactly who he was, and their excitement was starting to get the best of them.

But then I caught a glimpse of his response to their reactions. He was shifting in place, alternatively crossing his arms and then trying to hold them straight down at his sides. Something told me someone in his past had constantly told him to keep his arms straight, that putting them in front of him made him seem standoffish. But whatever was behind it, he couldn’t handle their scrutiny just now.

I had to wonder what was going through his head and how the kids’ excitement and curiosity was striking him. But instead of trying to find out, I sent my students into the restrooms in groups, focusing on my job, even if he couldn’t focus on anything.

When Tanner Watson came out of the boys’ room and went for a sip at the fountain, I couldn’t help but notice the awe in his eyes—and the discomfort in Blake’s.

“Are you a hockey player like Mr. Jezek?” he asked.

Blake shot a glance over at me, as if asking my permission to speak. Good grief, I had to have been beyond horrible to him if he was scared to even answer a simple question from one of my students. I needed to get myself in check, every bit as much as I needed to keep an eye on him. It wouldn’t help anyone if the man was too nervous to answer a simple question when asked.

I gave him a curt nod of encouragement, hating myself for the mingled look of relief and worry that passed through his expression. The man was freaking out about every tiny question, every simple response.

Yeah, I wanted him to be aware of himself and his actions, and of what sort of effect he could have on the other people around him, but I didn’t want him to panic.

“I am,” he finally croaked out, and I turned my back so I could keep an eye on the rest of my kids while still listening in on their conversation.

“I’m gonna be just like you,” Tanner said. “I’m gonna play hockey. For the Storm. Mom said I could. She said I could do anything.”

It took a long moment for Blake to respond, which made me wonder what offhand response he was forcing himself to keep inside. But then he said, “Bet you will. And your mom’s right. You can do anything.”

I couldn’t stop myself; I shot a look over my shoulder at him, but for once, it wasn’t a glare.

Maybe there was a kernel of a decent human being inside him—somewhere deep inside, granted, but it was there.

Didn’t mean I was ready to forgive him. And it definitely didn’t mean I would be leaving him with any of these kids unsupervised.

But for the first time, I had a smidge of hope that this wouldn’t turn out to be as awful as I’d first imagined.

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