Her Dangerous Promise - Part 2: (Romantic Suspense Serial) (3 page)

BOOK: Her Dangerous Promise - Part 2: (Romantic Suspense Serial)
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Chapter Six

With the hectic Monday morning energy spilling off her twenty-two students, Mary managed to set aside her anxiety over the ordeal from Friday night. At ten o’clock the principal called the assembly and Mary herded her class like goslings to the auditorium.

Settling all the students into the auditorium ate nearly half an hour and then Mary and the other teachers assumed their monitoring positions around the perimeter of the room. The lights dimmed and the presentation began with three short safety films with characters dressed in the height of Seventies’ fashion.

After the films, Thom ascended the stage steps carrying a cordless microphone. He handled the microphone and crowd like a pro and he looked like a movie star’s portrayal of a cop. The older girls in the back gasped, giggled and whispered and Mary knew how they felt. Thom wore his badge on the breast pocket of his jacket. The gun on his belt peeked out from under his jacket when he gestured. Besides those indications of authority, Thom’s easy manner won the attention of the children who bombarded him with their questions. Thom smiled winningly at each one, answering even the silly questions with thoughtful answers. The overhead lights glinted in his dark hair. When he glanced in her direction, a tornado of butterflies swirled in Mary’s stomach.

“Is he hot or what?” Nancy mumbled to Mary.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in the library shelving books?”

“And miss this fine specimen?” Nancy grinned. She looked like a perfectly normal librarian, dressed much like Mary in a floral patterned, floor length summer dress. After Nancy turned thirty last year, she’d confessed her personal fear that she’d never marry and have kids. Since then she’d cranked up her efforts by dying her hair husband-hunting blond, discovering the value of makeup and joining a gym. After school, she switched to a considerably shorter skirt, teased her hair into a flirty style and hit every singles gathering in the city. Nancy winked at Mary. “And look at you, as if you aren’t all hot and bothered yourself.”

“What?”

“You’re blushing.” Nancy smirked. “Plus, I know about the little lip-lock in the hall this morning.”

Mary crossed her arms, pretending to concentrate on Thom’s question and answer session with the students. “Lip-lock? Who told you that?”

“A little fourth grade birdie.”

“Sorry to disappoint you but no lips locked this morning.”

“Come on, Mary,” Nancy teased. “How was he?”

The corners of her mouth twitched before curving upward. She bit her lower lip, reliving the tender caress of his thumb on her mouth and the feeling of his mouth by her ear. Her insides felt molten just from the memory.

“You’re smitten. I recognize all the symptoms.”

“Shut up.” Mary tried not to smile.

“And is Romeo hot for you too?”

She sighed, “I’ll let you know.”

The assembly ended a short while later and Mary oversaw the semi-orderly exodus of her students. From the corner of her eye, she’d noticed Thom cutting through the crowd with a little girl in tow. Mary recognized the fifth grade girl as Jena Milhone. She’d taught Jena two years ago.

Nancy nudged Mary as if she hadn’t already spied the tall, dark and handsome cop bearing down on her. “Here comes Romeo now. I’ll keep an eye on your class. You put the moves on him before somebody else snatches him up.”

Nancy slipped away before Mary could object.

Thom, his hand on Jena’s shoulder, wedged through the last of the children on his way to Mary. In moments, the last straggler left and Mary found herself alone with Thom and Jena. He said, “Jena here asked me a question and I thought maybe you’d be a good person to answer it for her.”

Mary smiled encouragingly to Jena, “What’s your question, Jena?”

Biting her lip, Jena looked from Thom to Mary and then said, “If someone knows something. Something bad. But was told not to say anything, is that wrong?”

A chill shivered through Mary. “What do you, I mean this person, know?”

Jena glanced to Thom again. “Like if someone did something bad but they said not to say anything.”

Mary knelt in front of Jena so they could speak on eye level. An uncomfortable twist pinched in her gut. Softly, Mary asked, “Did someone hurt you, honey?”

Jena twisted her foot so the toe of her shoe dug into the carpet. She shrugged.

“Honey, if you know it is something bad…” Mary squeezed Jena’s little hand between her own. Such a small, delicate hand, Mary thought too fragile to fight back. What monster could harm this sweet, defenseless child? “Or even think that it might be bad but you are not sure, you should tell an adult you trust. They can help you decide what you should do about it.”

“So I should tell, if I know something bad, even if I promised not to?”

Mary scanned the girl for obvious marks. Had someone hurt her? Frightened, angry tears burned in her eyes but she forced them down. She didn’t want to upset Jena any more than she already was. “Jena, sweetie, if this person did something bad, you need to tell someone right away. You can talk to me, or Inspector Brady, or the nurse.” Mary lifted Jena’s chin so their eyes met. “Who did the bad thing, dear?”

Jena cracked a small smile, “I don’t know. I have to go to class now.” She beamed up at Thom. “Did I ask it right, Uncle Thom?”

Mary frowned. “Uncle Thom?”

With mild chagrin, he glanced over to Mary. His expression seemed to say he’d learned his lesson about employing a grade schooler for an undercover mission. “You did great. I’ll see you later.”

Jena hugged him around the middle and he patted her on top of the head. “Bye, Miss Seeton!” Jena called and she raced after her class, leaving the auditorium empty, except for Thom and Mary. The clamor of children’s voices receded as they bundled back into their classrooms.

Crossing her arms, Mary stood up and glared at Thom. “Would you care to explain yourself, Uncle Thom?”

“She asked a valid question. I think you should take your own advice and tell what you know.”

“Here’s the difference. She is a child. I am an adult. I can make my own judgments about when and with whom I should speak.”

“Really? Then why are you acting like a frightened child?”

“I am not acting like a child. Nor do I need children to lie for me in order to do my job.”

“We are on the same side, Mary.” Thom reached for her but she twisted away.

“I’m on my own side, thank you.”

He grabbed her elbow before she could get away and forced her to listen. “If you’re expecting everything to magically go back to the way things were, you’re a fool.” He cut off her squeak of protest. “If you think we are going to find and arrest this guy without your help, you’re dead wrong. Forensics came up empty. The only evidence we have that anything even happened to you at all are those injuries you so carefully disguised with makeup.”

Mary shook free of Thom’s grip and self-consciously felt her neck. No one had noticed the marks. No one had even asked her about Friday. Everyone else was willing to pretend nothing had happened. Why couldn’t Thom?

“I can’t keep protecting you.”

“Protecting me? You left me on my own yesterday.”

“I had a black and white patrolling your neighborhood the whole time.”

“You can’t do that.” Mary felt as if the room tilted. “You can’t have police cars driving past my home a hundred times a day.” God, had her attacker seen those cars? Was he watching to make sure she kept her word? If he saw those patrol cars, what would he make of them?

“How can I help you if you won’t let me?”

“I can take care of things myself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my class is waiting.” Mary brushed past Thom. She stomped down the hallway, fuming. How dare he manipulate her that way? To send his niece to trick her into talking with him, how despicable was that? And what about that almost kiss this morning? Had that just been another trick to weasel past her defenses? He probably didn’t even find her attractive. He probably thought she was just some helpless, foolish, old schoolmarm who would swoon at the touch of a man and spill her guts.

And the fact that she had swooned ticked her off. Why wouldn’t he just take her word for it and trust that she had taken care of the whole incident herself? Even the guy who snatched her had at least trusted her at her word. And she’d kept her promise, hadn’t she? Everything was going to be fine, if only Thom would quit prying at her emotions.

Chapter Seven

The rest of the morning and all through lunch, Mary thought of a thousand things she could have said to Thom. None of them were about the abduction and none of them were very nice. It wasn’t until recess that her thoughts finally strayed from Thom.

The playground twisted around the school building in an L-shaped pattern. Even though a fence surrounded the playground, it only stood waist high and in several places bushes and trees planted outside the schoolyard grew against and over the fence. Mary and the other teachers who shared the recess period patrolled the area. The usually relaxing duty today filled Mary with gut-twisting tension.

The faculty parking lot, where Mary had been snatched, lay just a few feet from the playground, near the slides. She couldn’t keep from glancing in that direction, checking and double-checking for anyone who appeared out of place. Just standing so close to that parking lot sent knives of dread through her. If she could have justified it, she would have ordered all the children to stay away from that side of the playground but that pushed the bounds of sanity.

Being careful and living in fear, were two different things. She couldn’t let her own paranoia affect the whole school. In time, she assured herself, the fear would fade. In time, she’d feel safe on the school grounds. She’d survived so far, hadn’t she?

Then why did she feel so vulnerable? Why did she have to dig her nails in her palms to keep from screaming? Why did she wish Thom had stayed to scare away all the boogeymen?

“Just relax,” she mumbled to herself. “The kids can sense when something is wrong. That will only upset and distract them. Put on a happy face.”

Mary forced herself to wear a plastic smile; certain it fooled no one who gave her a second look. She hummed the “happy face” song the children sometimes sang in music class. Gradually, she did relax slightly. Her children were safe and happy, she told herself. She was safe and happy. Nothing was going to happen. It had all been a bad dream and it was behind her now.

“Miss Seeton?” Tricia Woods, one of her students, skipped up to her.

“Yes, Tricia?”

Tricia held up her balled fist. “I’ve got something for you.”

“What is it?” Mary asked, trying to affect an interested tone of voice, even though she cringed at the thought of some slimy, creepy critter squeezed in Tricia’s hand.

“That man over there gave it to me.” Tricia twisted around to point and then frowned. “Where’d he go?”

Mary felt phantom hands closing around her neck, squeezing, making it hard for her to speak. “What man?”

“He’s gone now. He was mostly in the bushes. I couldn’t really see him.”

“What did he give you?”

She opened her hand and showed Mary a button. “He said to tell you to keep your promise.”

Mary lifted the button and examined it. The mother of pearl button had an engraved cameo on it. She recognized it as one that had come from the sweater her kidnapper had kept. He was here. He was back.

Chapter Eight

Mary barely stifled her urge to cry out but a strangled squeak of panic escaped her throat. If he suspected she’d broken her promise, he might have done more than just send her a button as a warning. Would he snatch a child to further prove his point? Somehow he’d managed to speak with Tricia and even reach out and hand her a button without anyone noticing. Mary’s guts clenched, knowing he could have easily grabbed Tricia if he wanted.

The chilled air, smelling of Halloween and dead leaves, seemed to close in around Mary. Malice hid among the innocent sights and sounds of the playground, like a snake slithering in a barnyard full of unsuspecting baby chicks, ready to gobble one up.

The playground spun around Mary as she twirled, scanning for a man who didn’t belong and listening for the panicked scream of a child over the playground noise. There was too much movement, too many people, too much noise. Too little protection for the crowd of children.

Mary fumbled with the whistle she wore on a ribbon around her neck and blew it in three ear-piercing bursts, signaling the end of recess. The groans of the children, followed by the bustling commotion as they stampeded toward the entrance further camouflaged any sign of the kidnapper. The other teachers monitoring recess huddled up around Mary.

“They still have five minutes. What’s up?” Sam asked as he consulted his watch.

“We have a security problem,” Mary managed to explain through the chatter of her teeth. “Do a head count and get your kids inside. I’ll explain later.”

Mary didn’t need to promise to explain later. The mere mention of a security risk had been enough to mobilize the teachers. The rash of school shootings over the years and the resulting in-service emergency training provided enough incentive to go into lock-down mode now and ask questions later. Not to mention the recent attack on Mary herself. The kind of dangers that people believed never touched a small town school like Stony Bend now lurked in every shadow. The other teachers assembled the children and marched them into their classrooms in under two minutes. After double-checking her headcount, Mary guided her students not back to their room but to the hallway outside the principal’s office.

She rapped impatiently on the half closed door and poked her head in, “Juwanda, I need to speak with you right now.” Belatedly, she added, “Please.”

Juwanda rushed to Mary, her heals clicking like castanets on the teal gray floor tiles. She grabbed her arm with concern. Her too thin fingers curling in the fabric of Mary’s sleeve. “Did something happen? Are you okay? You look so pale.”

Mary knew her friend blamed herself for what happened the other day, partly because as the principal she would always feel responsible for her teachers but also because if she hadn’t run back in to get the schedule Mary wouldn’t have been alone in the parking lot. That was ridiculous, of course and when things settled back to normal, Mary would have to reassure her. That was, if things ever returned to normal. The prospect of that seemed slimmer every second.

“I need to go,” Mary glanced at her class, their attentive faces all turned up as they listened to her every word. “I can’t go into it right now but don’t let anyone else out for gym or recess for the rest of today. I have to leave.” Lowering her voice, she added, “They are not safe if I stay.”

“Mary…” Juwanda stiffened, fear deepening the lines on her face. “Should we contact the police?”

“No!” Mary snapped. She couldn’t let her abductor see squad cars pulling up right after his warning. “No. Just keep the children inside.”

Impulsively, Mary hugged Juwanda goodbye and felt her fragile, bird-like frame trembling. Mary couldn’t explain, not yet, for the safety of the children, she could never return. As long as this maniac fixated on her, no one around her was safe. If he followed her and she thought that he would, she had a chance to lead him away from the children, no matter what that meant for her own security. Without trusting herself to say another word, Mary hurried away.

At the side exit leading to the teacher’s parking lot, Mary froze. She’d wanted nothing more than to flee like a scared rabbit ever since she’d received the button, which she squeezed so hard that it would leave an imprint in her palm. She wanted to throw it away but she couldn’t pry her fingers open and see it again. If she couldn’t face that just yet, at least she could put some distance between herself and the school.

Mary gripped the cold, metal bar that would open the door, if only she’d press down on it. She wished Thom had ignored her assurances and stayed. With him by her side, Mary knew she could face the terror head on. His confidence, his strength, his conviction, made her believe they could overcome this situation, even if it wasn’t true. And now, she had to face her fate alone.

Outside the glass door, the faculty parking lot appeared still. This morning even with the activity of arriving teachers, Mary hadn’t had the courage to face the site of her attack. Only with Thom watching over her had she managed that extraordinary feat.

Now there was no one. No teachers. No parents. No Thom.

At least no one she could see. Her attacker could be waiting, lurking behind a car or crouched behind a bush.

He watched her every move, just like Thom had warned that he would. He followed her back to school. Saw the children in her class. Waited for his chance to strike. He almost certainly lurked in the parking lot, expecting her to make a run for it.

Better to lead him away from the school and the kids than to risk him punishing her by hurting one of her students. She must leave school now and never come back. Maybe then the children would be safe.

Mary dug her keys out of her pocket. With her car key poised at the ready, she ran flat out down the walkway to the parking lot. She darted between the cars, running for her own white Subaru.

Once she reached it, her hands trembled as she fought to stab the key into the lock. Was it her imagination, or did she hear footfalls in the parking lot? Her skin tingled as she expected to feel the strangling hands closing around her throat. Choking. Choking.

Mary stifled a sob of relief as her key finally slipped into the lock. She swung open the door and practically dived in. The forgotten cup of coffee from that morning tipped, sloshing on the floor. Without thinking, Mary snatched the cup and flung it outside before slamming and locking the door.

Fumbling with the keys, Mary dropped them on the floor. She snatched them up and crammed the key into the ignition. The engine roared to life. She shoved it into reverse with a terrible grinding sound and then stomped on the gas and lurched backward out of the parking space. Barely hitting the brakes long enough to shift gears, she slammed it into drive and peeled out of the lot like a scalded dog.

Giving no heed to the speed limit, Mary raced away from the school. A moment later, the squeal of tires shattered the peaceful suburban atmosphere. In the rearview mirror, she saw a monstrous dark truck lunge after her.

It was him. He was coming after her. Thom had been right. He was never going to leave her alone.

Mary hit the gas and sped away, with the dark truck closing in behind her. Its larger engine roared like a hell hound running down its prey. As she jerked around a corner, Mary glanced back at the truck. She couldn’t see the driver, just the flash of the bright headlights aimed at her. It flew around the corner without even slowing down.

“Go away!” Mary screamed. Her heart slammed in her chest as fast as the pistons in her engine.

The truck accelerated, swerved out into the passing lane and raced up beside her. It honked wildly at her. Menacingly, it inched into her lane, squeezing her car toward the curb. On instinct, Mary hit the brakes. The truck shot past her, spun in a wild U-turn and drove on the wrong side of the street straight for her.

Mary threw the car into reverse and stomped on the gas. She didn’t even glance in the mirror to see where she was driving. The grill of the truck closed in on her like the jaws of a beast snapping closer with each second.

Her scream ripped through the air as the car jumped the curb backward. Fighting with the wheel, the vehicle zigzagged through the grass. With the deafening crunch of metal, the car crashed to a stop against a tree trunk. The force of it ripped through Mary like a body blow, snapping her neck backward.

Mary gasped, trying to regain her wits. The engine still revved uselessly, shoving the car harder against the tree. She fought with her shock frozen mind to tear her foot off the gas.

Not deterred, the dark pick-up truck followed Mary over the curb and chewed up the lawn until it nosed up against the front bumper of her car.

“No!” Mary screamed. She cranked the car into drive and gunned it against the truck, trying to push it out of the way but to no avail. While she desperately struggled to dislodge her car and escape, Mary noticed someone leap out of the truck and run to her passenger side door.

Her tires spun in a high-pitched whine but the car only shuttered against its bonds.

“Mary!”

“Go away!”

The window of the passenger side door shattered under the blow of a gun butt. The man reached in the broken window and unlocked the door. He jerked the door open with enough force to rock the car.

Mary screamed and struggled to unlock her own door.

The man climbed in and grabbed Mary before she could escape. “Mary! Stop!”

“Thom?”

With a tight grip on her shoulders, he held her at arm’s length and examined her. The sharp green gaze slashing rapidly over the length of her made Thom appear dangerous and scared at the same time. His gun, momentarily forgotten, rested on the seat between them. Despite her sharp words, he’d not left her to fend for herself. Thom gathered Mary to him and hugged her tight. “Are you all right?”

“Oh, Thom!” The tears ran hot rivers down her cheeks. She buried her face in the curve of his neck and inhaled his warm, masculine scent, feeling unaccountably safer simply enclosed by his warm aroma. She shivered, feeling small in his strong arms and pressed against his muscled chest. The presence of him filled her car like a larger-than-life super hero and crowded away her spiraling fear. His hands rubbed up and down her back, soothing away her panic. With a shuddering sigh, Mary surrendered to Thom’s comfort, allowing her tension to uncoil.

As if she weighed nothing, Thom lifted her out of the passenger side of the car and set Mary on her unsure feet. Her legs felt boneless and he caught her before she could sink to the ground. Thom scooped her into his arms and carried her to his vehicle. Without the paranoia blinding her, Mary could see that he drove his SUV. From the grillwork on the front, she’d confused it with a pickup truck. Her anxiety twisted her perceptions and her judgment, making her see danger everywhere. She’d run from Thom because she hadn’t been thinking straight… in more ways than one. Being honest with herself, she realized she hadn’t been able to think clearly since the abduction. A layer of fear hung over her, affecting her every thought. In her heart, she felt as though part of her still remained tied to the headboard in a maniac’s basement. He still wielded his control over her and obviously intended to continue to do so. And what of her role in all this? Should she keep running? Leave town? Leave the country? Could she ever run far enough to escape that basement? Would she choose to remain a victim of it forever? Did she even have an alternative?

Thom settled Mary sideways into the passenger seat, so her legs were dangling out of the doorway. She felt his presence reassuringly close around her as if they were the only two people in the world. With one foot resting on the running board and his arms leaning against the opened door and the frame, he encircled her, blocking out the rest of the world with his bulk. The space he created sheltered her from prying eyes and dark fears.

“Why were you driving like a lunatic?” A mixture of rebuke and relief strained Thom’s voice. “I thought someone in the car with you had forced you to drive that way.”

“I saw you come after me when I left the lot. I thought you were him.” Mary felt something on her face and wiped at it. Tears. They coated her face.

Thom dug a paper napkin from his glove box and handed it to her. While she mopped her face, he combed back her tangle of hair with his fingers. Under his caress, the trembling fear subsided. “You were running before you got to your car. I was watching.” He waited for Mary to stop dabbing at her eyes before he scooped her face in his gentle, yet unyielding, touch and angled her so she sank deeply into his velvety green eyes. Those eyes snared her, pried past her defenses and laid her soul bare. He wouldn’t let her sidestep the question this time. Since the beginning, Mary dodged his help but he’d seen her through anyway. Even if her promise barred her from telling him everything, perhaps if she could explain why she couldn’t talk, why he shouldn’t have police cruisers patrolling her neighborhood, perhaps together they could find a way to keep the children safe.

Mary held out her fist, palm up and opened her hand. The button glistened innocently in the sunlight.

“What’s this?”

“This is a button from my sweater,” Mary whispered. She didn’t feel strong enough to uncoil the secret she’d been carrying in a louder voice. “The sweater that he kept.”

Thom lifted the tiny button between his forefinger and thumb but from the relief she felt when he removed it from her hand it should have weighed a ton. “Go on.”

“At recess, one of my kids brought this button to me.” Mary wiped her nose on the tissue again before continuing, “She said the man who gave it to her had said…” The words choked in her throat. Hands, grabbing her throat and squeezing. Mary reached up but found no physical hands crushing her windpipe. Thom slipped his fingers under hers, caressing her neck, gently soothing away the rising panic. She could breathe. She could speak with effort and she forced the words out. “He reminded me to keep my promise.”

Thom’s touch slid down to on her shoulders and massaged reassurance and strength right into her blood where it sent a zinging vibration into inappropriate regions of her anatomy. No matter how hard she tried to shake off the memories she only managed to push them into a corner of her mind where they waited, crouching, poised to spring out again at the first unguarded moment. Thom claimed he could protect her if she let him. She wanted to believe him. Thom watched her and, by the sheer force of his expectation, she found herself explaining.

BOOK: Her Dangerous Promise - Part 2: (Romantic Suspense Serial)
9.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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