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ELISABETH paused, listening, her knuckles hovering over the surface of the food technology classroom door.
Inside it was completely silent.
She checked her watch: ten-thirteen, midway through period three. She'd passed by here last week during her free period and it had been far from silent-downright noisy, in fact.
The silence disturbed Elisabeth more than any screams would have done. In theory, a silent classroom was A Good Thing. In real life, a silent classroom meant that the students inside were absorbed in something besides cooking.
Which was A Very Bad Thing. "Please let there not be any blood or fire," she muttered. She shoved the stack of reports she'd brought for Tasha Cutter to sign underneath her arm, leaned forward, and listened.
She heard the rustle and cough of children. The sound of a chair being scraped back. And softly, just at the limit of her hearing, a cluck.
Okay, this was weird. Elisabeth slowly opened the door. The room was still. About thirty twelve-year-old students were sitting in a circle, their eyes fixed on the centre of the room. Some of them had their mouths open. She heard another cluck.
A man stood in the centre of the circle with his back to her. He was tall, dark-haired, wearing trousers tailored to his long legs, a midnight-blue shirt that fit his broad shoulders, and Elisabeth didn't recognise him. He certainly wasn't Tasha.
A strange man, in a teacherless classroom, clucking? Maybe she should investigate, but, as odd as this man was, he seemed to have the children under control. He was standing motionless, his hands held out to his sides at shoulder height as if he were about to conductan orchestra. From the doorway, looking at the backs of his hands, she could see they were strong and sculpted. The thumbs were well developed, the fingers long, the nails clean and blunt, even the veins somehow precise. They were hands that looked good at doing things, even now, as they were poised in the air, empty.
Elisabeth wanted to touch them.
The thought was so unexpected that she leaned a little harder on the doorknob. The door opened another inch. The hinges creaked. And then the room exploded.
Something shrieked, and a streak of white feathers flew across the floor, between the children's legs. The students jumped up, knocking over chairs, crying out.
"It's there!" "Lookit that thing go!" "Over there, get it!"
A boy she recognised as Jimmy Peto launched himself off a desk, arms outstretched to catch his feathered prey. A white, beaked, madly clucking thing flapped its wings and ran away from him, over Elisabeth's polished shoes. Its claws briefly stung the bare top of her foot before it was gone.
It was a chicken.
The bird wedged itself underneath one of the kitchen units. Immediately six children surrounded it, trying to poke at it with hands and wooden spoons taken from the utensil drawers. The chicken made a panicked sound and pecked at its tormentors.
It was only a matter of time before somebody lost an eye. Or discovered the knife drawer.
Elisabeth stepped into the room, opened her mouth, drew in a breath from her diaphragm.
"Get back. Now."
She hadn't said it. It was a male voice, deep, gravelly, with cut-glass enunciation. The students who clustered around the chicken responded to the authority in the voice. They shuffled back, and then the chicken squawked again.
"Year seven," Elisabeth ordered. "Go back to your seats." "Who are you?"
The man was standing in front of her, facing her now. He was tall, and that was saying something, because Elisabeth was five feet ten and didn't often have to look up at people. He had grey eyes, a dimple in his chin, and he smelled like fresh lemons.
Attraction hit her like recognition, with a thump of her heart and a catch of her breath. She swallowed, mouth suddenly dry, world suddenly not making sense any more.
"It's Miss Read," said little Jimmy Peto, who had given up chasing the chicken and now stood at Elisabeth's side. "She teaches English."
"Glad to meet you, Miss Read who teaches English." The man's lips tilted up into a smile, and his grey eyes sparkled at her. "I have things under control here, if you want to go back to your Shakespeare."
Elisabeth swallowed again. No. She was not supposed to feel this way, as if she'd run a marathon while she'd stood here, her heart straining and her breath shallow, her legs trembling beneath her. Not supposed to feel this way ever, and certainly not because of a man.
She shook her head. Remember where you are, she told herself. School. Your world. Everything makes sense here.
"You've got thirty children, a roomful of dangerous equipment, and a live chicken on the loose," Elisabeth said. "I don't think this is under control, Mr-"
"MacAllister, miss," Jimmy supplied. "Mr MacAllister." The name wasn't familiar; he wasn't a regular supply teacher at this school.
Talking like this, setting things in order, reasserting her world, made her feel more like herself. "Perhaps you should fetch your chicken," she said.
Her eyes met his grey ones again in a wordless challenge. She saw him raise his eyebrows, and his mouth quirked with humour. "All right," he said. And then he smiled, a broad, full-face, eye twinkling smile.
Elisabeth's stomach turned to quicksilver. His smile transformed his face, lit up the entire room. It was blinding, brilliant, beautiful, and Elisabeth forgot the children, the chicken, the classroom, her own name.
She did recognise him.
With a swift movement, he covered the distance from the front of the classroom to the unit underneath which the chicken cowered. "Come here, MacNugget," he murmured, sweeping the bird out from under the unit and into his arms. In seconds it was shut away in a plastic animal carrier on one of the kitchen counters. He winked at her as he closed its door.
"Angus MacAllister?" she gasped.
He was no supply teacher. "He's that chef off the TV, miss," Jimmy told her. "My mum watches him every Tuesday night. And my gran."
Angus MacAllister. TV chef, celebrity cookbook author, owner of one of the most expensive and highly rated restaurants in London. She'd watched his programme a few times and noticed vaguely that he was attractive, in the way that everybody on television was attractive.
He looked different in reality. Much more-real. And a million times sexier. She tried to breathe deeply to calm down, but she only smelled his scent, and that didn't help.
"What are you doing at the Slater School?" she asked. "And why have you got a chicken?"
The students had all subsided. The chicken was out of sight in its box and these two adults sparring were more interesting than mayhem.
"Until you frightened MacNugget, I was using her to show these kids where their breakfast had come from."
Elisabeth doubted many of the children in this room had had an egg for breakfast. Chances were that a lot of them didn't get breakfast very often, full stop.
Many of the Slater School's pupils came from low-income households, families where both parents had to work-if both parents were around and work was to be had. For many of these children, she knew, their school lunch was their main meal of the day.
The chef was smiling at her with his white, even teeth, his clear grey eyes, his freshly shaven skin, and she tightened her fists because he was gorgeous and everything about him expected her to smile back at him.
"Year seven," she said firmly to the students who were watching them, "please go back to your seats."
Reluctantly the students turned back to their chairs and talked among themselves. Angus MacAllister stayed where he was, smiling at her with that smile, looking at her with those eyes. A TV celebrity, waiting for the world to swoon at his feet.
And, of course, Elisabeth wanted to. Because she was a sucker for tall, classy men with cheek and self-confidence and with English accents like that, and she always had been.
But chaos lay in that direction. Unpredictability, risks and danger. Her whole life had been a lesson to resist the urge to follow her impulses.
And the impulse to touch this man was the strongest one she'd ever had in her life.
She folded her arms to make sure she kept her hands to herself. "I didn't frighten your chicken," Elisabeth said to Angus MacAllister under cover of the noise. "And anyway, you shouldn't have an animal like that in a school if it frightens so easily."
""Frightens easily' is rather the dictionary definition of the word "chicken"," he said.
Why did his voice hook her, deep in her chest, as if her own body were echoing its gravelly sound?
"And you have to admit that the children are enjoying themselves," he added. "Are you?"
She straightened her back. "I assume this exercise has some sort of educational value?"
"Fun isn't enough, is it, Miss Read? We need an educational aim for everything? Something that can be tested and assessed?"
His words were teasing. Who'd made a chef the expert on education, anyway? "You have a point," she said. "Maybe we should put "Chasing a Chicken" on the national curriculum."
He laughed, his smile getting broader, and she had to look away before she melted. She glanced down and saw Angus MacAllister's hands again.
And she didn't just want to touch him. She wanted him to touch her.
She wanted one of his hands to grasp her hip, its fingers reaching to the small of her back. She wanted the other one to slide up her waist, under her blouse, the palm stroking her ribs, and then curling round the side of her breast.
Okay. Either her parents'capricious genes had suddenly taken effect in her at twenty-six years of age, or she had lost her mind. She didn't know this man. She'd never even tried one of his recipes. And she was in a classroom full of children.
She needed to get a grip, and fast. "Did Tasha Cutter arrange for you to speak with her class?" she asked, keeping her voice neutral and professional. "It's a wonderful opportunity for these students to meet somebody who's made a success of himself." She smiled at him, tightlipped and cold. "Where is their teacher, by the way?"
"I arranged this visit myself. And Tasha just popped out for a moment. I assured her I could keep control until she got back." His eyes sparkled. "Of course, I didn't anticipate your turning up and throwing everything into chaos."
"I didn't-" she started before she realised he was baiting her. "Well. I'll go find Tasha and let you get on with it, then. Very nice to meet you, Mr MacAllister."
"Likewise, Miss Read. I'll be sure to look you up if I need any English lessons." He held out his hand to her.
His half-smile, his eyes steady on hers, let Elisabeth know he was mocking her. Probably because she was acting like a stereotyped uptight schoolmarm. Possibly because he'd detected her Canadian accent. Maybe-she felt herself flushing all over her body-because he was flirting with her.
And she wanted to touch his hand far too much to let herself touch it.
It's a handshake, Elisabeth, she thought. It's not sex. She swallowed, licked her lips, and reached out. Made contact. His hand was warm, large, wonderful, clever, and, though Elisabeth kept her spine straight, her expression cool, she felt herself going pliant. She wanted to be putty in his hands.
She saw his eyes dip, briefly, to look at her body, and then she knew he was flirting with her.
Oh, he was sure of himself. They were in a room full of children and he still thought he could get anything he wanted. Elisabeth pulled her hand back, nodded at Angus MacAllister, and left the room.
Quickly, before she could forget where she was and who she was, and give him anything he wanted.
A silver convertible screeched to a halt in front of Elisabeth as she stepped outside the school gates.
"I'm taking you for a drive," Joanna said through the open window. "We need to talk." She grabbed a set of exercise books from the front seat and threw them into the back.
Elisabeth climbed in, fastened her seat belt and steeled herself to withstand the constant low-level panic that was endemic to sitting in the passenger seat of Joanna's car.
When Elisabeth had moved to London, she'd discovered most people didn't bother to drive in the capital. It was expensive, and it was dangerous, and it was stressful. Elisabeth's friend Joanna Graham, who since her recent promotion was in charge of Upper School at Slater, seemed to regard it as an extreme sport.
"What do we need to talk about?" Elisabeth asked. "Among other things, this." Joanna tossed a leaflet into Elisabeth's lap. She turned the key in the ignition and pulled away from the kerb without discernibly checking her mirrors.
Elisabeth looked down at the leaflet she held in her hand. She read aloud.