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By Maddie Jane
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2017 Maddie Jane
All rights reserved.
The woman standing outside his classroom door wasn't his usual type of student.
Dominic Grayson saw her at the other end of the old community centre corridor, her glittery pink top a marked contrast to the grubby, flaking paint on the walls. She stood there, hand outstretched towards the door handle, like a life-sized Barbie doll, seemingly without joints — or the ability to open the door herself.
Dom slowed his steps, taking time to breathe in the scents from the Italian cooking class already underway a few doors down. Tomato and basil-infused air filled his nostrils and he made a mental note to introduce himself to the cooking teacher before this, his first day on the job, was over.
And still the woman stood, hand hovering in mid-air, her long, long legs in spray-on jeans and her tumbling golden-blonde hair doing nothing to convince him she was anything other than plastic.
Sighing, he tightened his grip on his briefcase. Just because he'd promised to teach his sister's six-week summer school course didn't mean he was going to enjoy it. It was a far cry from the London university he was used to, in more than just geography. And he'd put his comfortable life on hold for what?
For a summer teaching Barbie dolls rudimentary business skills.
Very rudimentary perhaps, given this one had yet to master the mechanics of a door handle.
He coughed politely to warn her of his approach. She turned her huge, doll-like eyes towards him and her hand wavered before gracefully dropping to her side. Definitely jointed then. And real. Close up her skin looked peachy soft, not the cold, hard plastic he'd illogically expected. He resisted the urge to touch her cheek to check.
Then she smiled and it was as if he'd been blasted back down the corridor and body slammed into the wall. He dragged another breath of tomato and basil into his scorching lungs, fighting to hide the loss of his usual composure. Despite the urge to loosen his tie he choked out some words. 'Are you coming or going?'
She tossed her head, the golden sweep of her thick hair falling perfectly back into place. 'You're going into Business for Losers?' she asked, giving him the once over.
He couldn't stop a grunt of surprise. 'Yes ... Are you?' It was hard to drag his gaze away from her, despite the rude question throwing him a little off kilter.
He cleared his throat and tried again. 'Are you?'
'I'm working up to it. It's early. The other losers aren't here yet.'
How did she know? She still hadn't opened the door.
Fascinated he watched as she tossed that glorious hair again, watched it fall back to its former perfection, not a stray strand in sight. She gave him another once over, brazen yet somehow endearing. Not two words he'd ever used in the same sentence before.
Once he'd thought Janine, his ex-fiancée, endearing, but these days she was more of an a-brasion. And very ex; as in previous, past, erstwhile ...
He pulled himself together. This might not be a London university but he still had a professional responsibility and shouldn't allow himself to get distracted.
'In we go, then,' he said, leaning past the young woman to give the door a push. A warm sweetness emanated from her too-close soft skin, which he tried to ignore as he held the door open, indicating she enter before him. With a slight hesitation she shot a quick look back up the corridor, then took a deep breath and walked into the classroom.
'I knew we were the first ones here,' she said, as he followed her. 'I help out up the hall in the DIY class and I can see when anyone goes by. I should've stayed there till the last minute.'
'Someone has to be first loser through the door.'
'Yup, that'd be me.'
Their voices sounded too loud in the empty classroom but he smiled at her, dazzled into forgetting he was trying to appear professional. He watched her, standing in the middle of the room gazing uncertainly at the rows of empty desks. A glorious willowy creature with mouth-watering lush curves and sun-kissed golden skin. Her perfect blonde hair smooth and glossy and flowing like liquid gold over her shoulders.
He swallowed hard, relieved when she turned away from him and headed towards the back row of desks, picking the one furthest from the whiteboard. Her knee bumped as she sat and the old, graffiti-scarred desk wobbled on uneven legs.
'Why sit so far away?' Dom asked, dumping his briefcase and discarding his jacket at the first available desk in the front row. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck and he resisted the urge, again, to loosen his tie. He might have grown up here in Auckland, but he'd been away so long he'd forgotten how humid the summers were.
'I prefer the back,' she said in a tight voice. 'I always sat in the back row at school.'
'And how did that work out?' He tried to keep his tone neutral.
She flinched. 'What do you think? I'm twenty-five years old and I'm sitting in a crusty old classroom, on a beautiful sunny day, talking to a guy being strangled by his own boring tie. I should be anywhere but here.'
Dom couldn't help but stare down at the tie Janine had given him for his last birthday. It was his standard work tie. Blue silk, by the feel of it. He wore it to the university with a jacket. Usually his navy jacket. Blue tie, navy jacket. Janine had said that worked.
But Janine had said a lot of things. Most of which he chose to forget.
The temptation to rip the tie from his neck and bin it must've been written all over his face. The woman was looking at him, her expression aghast.
'I'm sorry, that was awful. Just the thought of being a student again makes me feel like a bitchy fifteen-year old.' She was deathly pale, a visible sheen on her flawless skin, but she tried to laugh. 'There's nothing wrong with your tie. Did your mother buy it? It looks ... excellent quality.' She crossed, then uncrossed her endlessly long legs, flicked her hair and smiled, somehow managing to make each movement flow gracefully into the next. Dom couldn't help thinking her perfect body had a language of its own, but it was one he'd never have a hope of understanding.
Hot and baffled, he turned his attention to the window next to the whiteboard and snapped a latch open with a quick flick of the wrist, closing his eyes as a cool refreshing breeze wafted gently into the room. It was stifling being in the presence of this woman, who in mere minutes had filled him with such a rush of conflicting — arousing — thoughts his head was spinning.
Dom was saved from any further hellish interactions by the sound of footsteps stomping down the corridor and the bang of the classroom door opening. Eagerly, he turned away from his feigned interest in the window, and away from the alluring young woman sitting up the back and looked towards the shuffling group of newcomers.
'Come in and take a seat,' he said, picking up his briefcase again. He moved to the front of the classroom and placed his belongings on the teacher's desk. Skoolsux. The words carved on the table top were all the reminder he needed that he was teaching a simple community course to a small adult group of twenty and not presiding over two hundred students from behind an antique lectern in a London lecture theatre.
Oh well. He'd promised he'd do this thing and he had every intention of doing it properly. For his sister, if nothing else. He forced a smile onto his face.
'Sit wherever you like ... no need to hide in the back ... if we have to spend three days a week of our summer indoors we might as well make the best of it. Hopefully you can have some fun getting to know each other as well as picking up some business savvy.'
He nodded with encouragement, pointing to available seats only to be distracted again by a flash of moving colour up the back where the lady in pink had jumped to her feet. 'That's right, move forward,' he said, forcing eye contact with her.
Blue. Her eyes are the same blue as my tie.
'There's a spare desk here in the front.' She walked towards him, zigzagging through the crooked rows of desks, right to the front. She looked as if she was about to sit, but at the last step, swerved towards the door. She crashed it open, slammed it closed again and she was gone.
What the hell?
An excited murmur swept through the classroom, reminding Dom he was meant to be in charge. But he couldn't help walking to the door, opening it and looking left and right up the corridor. But no. Barbie had left the building.
He stood rubbing his hand helplessly through his hair. Scaring off a student before the class had begun didn't bode well, even if the student didn't look as though she belonged there. He should feel relieved, except that his runaway student brought back unpleasant memories of his runaway bride ... which was laughable, as the two women were poles apart on every level. Barbie's type, despite her obvious attractions, had never held any appeal for him.
Aware of his other students shuffling with restless curiosity behind him, he let all thoughts of the strange woman go, and turned to face them with a smile fixed firmly on his face.
* * *
Annie Cassidy had to get out of there. She raced down the corridor as if pursued by the hounds of hell. She slammed the community centre's front doors behind her and stumbled into the sunshine, dragging oxygen into her lungs. Her car, a beaten up VW Beetle was in her sights as she ran across the car park, and it wasn't until she'd fumbled her key into the lock, opened the door and jumped into the driver's seat that her heartrate slowed and her chest stopped heaving.
With a violent stab she thrust the old key into the ignition and twisted it to start the engine. Her fingers skidded, her hand clutching metal. It took her a couple of seconds to register that what she held in her pink manicured fingertips was only the top half of the key. Confused, she looked more closely, searching for its shank. Nowhere. It was nowhere to be seen. Unless ...
With a screech of frustration Annie peered into the ignition. There it was, a glimmer of silver, snapped off, stuck out of reach. She threw the top of the key to the floor, freeing her hands to pound angry fists against the steering wheel.
Then with a defeated exhale she laid her head down, closed her eyes and tried to imagine another life. A parallel universe, where she drank champagne out of a glass slipper and there were no schools, teachers or classrooms.
But for once the fantasy couldn't be summoned on demand. Her blood still pounded with the humiliation of what she'd done.
She pulled out her cell phone and rang her co-worker, Gabi.
'Gabs,' she shrieked. 'You wouldn't believe my bad luck.'
Gabi snorted down the line. 'I only saw you an hour ago and you were going to walk four doors down to the business class. Even you couldn't get waylaid in a brightly lit corridor, surely?'
'I wish I had got waylaid.' Annie swung her long legs out of the hot car. 'It all went wrong before I even opened the door.'
'We talked about this already. You need to get past those old, crippling fears. You said you wanted to do this ... for Harper, if not for yourself. Harper's expecting you to complete that course this summer. She needs you to step up. You want a promotion, don't you?'
'Of course I do. It's just ... it's just the strings attached. Too many strings. I love my sister, but I work for her, rent her villa and when she says jump I jump. It's just never high enough or in the right direction.' She picked moodily at the seam of her jeans, working away at a loose thread. 'I'll never please her. I just know it.'
'That's a bit unfair,' Gabi, always the voice of reason, spoke sternly in Annie's ear.
'Your sister is giving you a fantastic opportunity.'
Yes, she was. But ... And there was a giant but, if she understood Harper's subtext correctly: that even a whole summer of business administration wouldn't be enough to vanquish Annie's many shortcomings. That would take untold years of night classes, professional development and counselling. Not to mention a fashion makeover; apparently Annie's clothes were as unprofessional as she was, and gave off the wrong 'vibe'.
Annie looked down at today's outfit of expensive skinny jeans and her favourite fitted t-shirt. This was just how she dressed. Maybe it wasn't the person Harper wanted to see, but generally this look worked for her. Other people told her she looked hot.
But for all her extreme hotness she still hadn't been able to bring herself to open the door to the biz ad classroom and step inside earlier. She'd hated high school and left before finishing her final year-better to drop out than fail, huh? Yet, here she was, eight years later, attempting to step her pink-sneaker-clad foot back into a classroom.
She'd been about to run then, until that man had snuck up behind her, done that fake cough thing. 'Are you coming or going?' he'd said, his voice rich and deep.
'I totally insulted the teacher, Gabi.'
'I'm sure you didn't. People have thicker skins than you seem to think. What did you do?'
'I called biz ad business for losers.' Annie heard a splutter of laughter, quickly stifled, from the other end of the phone.
'More insulting to yourself, than him,' said Gabi.
'He was included, believe me.' Annie moaned.
'He'll get over it.'
'I criticised his tie.'
'He'll get over that, too,' came the calm response from her wise friend.
'Gabi,' Annie's voice was a hysterical screech now, 'I stood up and ran from his class.'
Gabi's silence spoke volumes. Then, gently, 'It seems you were determined to make an impression.'
'I didn't realise he was the tutor, I just thought he was a man. I mean, he is a man. And then when I realised ... I couldn't stand it and I walked out before the class started. Everyone stared. It was awful.'
'Oh.' Even Gabi didn't have anything useful to say to that.
'What should I do? Harper's going to go off at me.' Annie examined her nails, waiting for her friend to reply. Knowing there was nothing Gabi could say or do to fix this.
She kicked at a stone on the ground and watched as it bounced under a neighbouring car in the lot.
'You need to go back and apologise,' said Gabi. 'No man on this planet can resist you when you're in full eyelash-fluttering mode.'
Annie understood Gabi meant this as a joke, but still, her stomach clenched at the suggestion. Because in that classroom Annie had felt her powers — the shallow eyelash- fluttering feminine wiles she'd always relied on in the past to pull her through life — dissipating like a cloud of chalk dust on the wind. Leaving her empty-handed and powerless.
Gabi couldn't possibly understand how she felt. No one did.
And now she had to face Harper's disappointment and tell her she'd messed up.
Dom stared down at the class list in front of him. The introductory session hadn't gone quite as smoothly as he'd anticipated. His students came from a variety of different backgrounds and what they knew — or rather, didn't know-varied greatly from student to student.
Two names on the list in front of him were unchecked. Hadley Brackhurst and Annie Cassidy. His bolter, he assumed, was Annie. He certainly didn't see that tall, blonde creature as a Hadley; though he supposed the name Hadley could go either way.
Annoyance bubbled inside him and he scrawled a big, black cross beside Annie's name, the unnecessary force pushing the tip of the pen through the paper. He didn't know what to make of Annie Cassidy. She was outside his experience altogether.
Definitely not the right kind of student. A time-waster? Or maybe she thought she didn't need traditional qualifications because she was blessed with such stunning good looks that men dropped whatever they were doing to present gifts and treasures at her feet in much the same way his mother's tomcat presented mangled birds and mice.
He frowned, forcing himself to put the pen down before he ruined the page beyond repair. With a shake of his head he flipped the book closed, neatly slotted it into his briefcase and headed out.
It took a while to make it back out into the sunshine, after being accosted by the scent of basil and the jovial cooking teacher. He strode out to his car, a black Ford with grunt he'd hired for the duration of the summer. There was only one other car remaining in the carpark: an old VW Beetle parked directly to the right of his SUV. Its passenger door lay wide open and a pair of denim-encased legs poked out. Feet in pink sneakers tapped the ground, keeping time to a rhythm he couldn't hear.
Excerpted from Transfixed by Maddie Jane. Copyright © 2017 Maddie Jane. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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