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ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Unmasked Secrets Copyright © 2017 Brenna Zinn


Edited by Linda Carroll Bradd

Cover design and photography by Croco Designs

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

Smashwords Edition

The publisher and author(s) acknowledge the trademark status and trademark ownership of all trademarks, service marks and word marks mentioned in this book.



Chapter One


If he was truly serious about being a stripper, he’d have to invest in a better mask. Preferably made of something soft, like leather, rather than the cheap plastic one he’d used for the Iron Rods strip club audition. The phantom marks of rough edges cutting into his face from the disguise still lingered on his cheeks and around his eyes though he hadn’t worn the damned thing since yesterday’s practice.

Mack Garner sat back on his friend’s couch and traced the line of abraded skin above his cheekbone. Although his flesh burned slightly at his touch, his well-earned placement on the entertainment team for Austin, Texas’ one and only strip club for women was worth the sting and the roughened red marks on his face.

Yes, indeed. They certainly were.

And, if the appreciative looks or hoots of approval he’d received from the crowd of women while unbuttoning his tuxedo shirt and revealing his abs at the audition were accurate indicators, he’d have the paying clientele on Iron Rods’ opening day eating from his hands—not to mention stuffing money in his thong. Especially when they saw his opening number. His dancing, the mask and the props chosen specially for his act would slay the ladies. Simply slay them.

“Here.”

Something cold and wet made contact with the side of Mack’s neck, scattering his thoughts of women and stripping.

Neal Gordon rounded the couch and handed off a Shiner Bock. “Do I even want to know what you were thinking?” he asked before pushing thick glasses up his freckled nose. “The grin on your face made me want to lock up my neighbors’ daughters.”

“Just the Iron Rods audition,” Mack said in his lazy drawl. He raised the beer in thanks, then drank. The cold brew flowed down his parched throat and hit the spot below. A perfect drink to celebrate his new summer job and relax his overtaxed muscles. After practicing his strip routines for over a week, his arms and legs were sore. He’d have to do a lot more stretching to avoid feeling as though someone had beat him with a hammer while he worked in the club. Plus, a lot less drinking if he wanted to look hot in his thong.

He frowned at the brown bottle in his grip. Beer and sculpted biceps didn’t mix. Not at all. With only a few months to earn cash as a stripper, he’d have to work out even more and watch what he ate. The kids were counting on him.

Sighing, Mack took one last, long swig. He had to learn the choreography for his team’s dance number in a few hours, anyway. Better to arrive sober and ready than have the other guys strut circles around him. Especially if Angel, the guest stripper from Miami, was there. For some reason, the guy already had a major chip on his shoulder about Mack. No need to give him any ammunition.

Mack pushed aside several old newspapers and X-box wireless joysticks on the coffee table with the back of his hand before reluctantly setting down his drink.

Adios, drinking buddy. At least, until the end of August.

“I can’t believe you’re actually going to take off your clothes and dance around with your butt cheeks hanging out for a bunch of strange women.” Neal settled on a nearby chair and adjusted his perpetually wrinkled button-down shirt over his belly. As usual, the many creases made his khaki pants look as if he’d worn them five days in a row. “I mean, gosh, that’s a lot of exposure. Even for you.”

“Even for me?” Mack raised an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

His friend shrugged, the curls of his shoulder-length red hair catching in his unkempt beard. “You’ve always been rebellious. You know, ‘fuck authority’ and all that. But stripping in a club is…it’s just insane is what it is. No. Strike that. You are insane. Aren’t you afraid you’ll lose your teaching job if someone finds out?”

“Nope.” Mack crossed a leg over his knee then casually stretched his arm across the back edge of the sofa. “To begin with, no one will see through my act. The guy on the stage is the masked man from Scotland who doesn’t look a thing like me. I’m a man of the south. The other guy is a Scot. Big difference.”

“I’ve heard your Scottish accent, Mack. It’s horrible. The worst.”

“No, it’s not. I sound just like Gerard Butler.”

Neal shook his shaggy head. “Not even close.”

“Yes, I do. And what does a techie like you know about Gerard Butler, anyway? You spend all of your time on your computer watching YouTube and Doctor Who on Apple TV.”

“For the record,” Neal pointed his beer bottle in Mack’s direction, “Doctor Who number twelve happens to be Scottish.”

“And he speaks with a Scottish accent on the show?”

“Yes.”

Mack threw his hands in the air. “Whatever. I’ll have the ladies so mesmerized by my six-pack and dance moves, they won’t even notice.”

“But what if someone does? What if someone recognizes you?”

“Santana is ninety miles from Austin. Plus, I’m putting temporary dye in my hair and will be wearing brown contacts and a mask when I strip. My costume is bulletproof. You worry too much.” Mack glanced at the half-empty longneck on the cluttered coffee table. One more sip wouldn’t hurt. Not if he worked out a few extra minutes in the morning.

“And you’ll be running around naked to make money for your after-school program? Your job, not to mention your dignity, is a lot to risk for a handful of high school students.”

“I won’t be naked. I’ll be wearing a thong.”

Neal rolled his eyes. “We’re talking about your teaching career here. You’re thirty-five, not some immature kid. The job market is tight, especially for professionals. I should know. I get calls from people looking for work all the time.” The big guy leaned forward, holding his bottle of beer between his knees. “Take a moment to reconsider what you’re doing before it’s too late.”

Mack had taken an entire day making up his mind to audition for one of the twelve available slots on the Iron Rods stripper team, plus ten minutes to find a mask at Lucy in Disguise costume shop on South Congress Avenue. Way more time than he’d given any other career decision, including his short stint as a movie stuntman. But even that job, and the bones he’d broken because of it, hadn’t been a mistake. The experience had simply helped him re-evaluate his priorities.

His priority was now helping the kids at Santana High stay in school and out of trouble. Since the new principal cut the funding for the Thespian Club, not to mention the budget for next year’s theater productions, Mack had to find money to keep the programs alive. If that meant secretly dancing for women who might also want him to show up at their motel rooms for a night of down-and-dirty sex, so be it. No one could ever say he hadn’t given his all to help his students. Then again, hopefully, no one would ever know what he’d done.

“Okay. I’ll reconsider.” Mack slowly scratched his chin and made a show of looking as though he was giving serious thought to the situation before nodding. “Done. I’m still doing it.”

“I don’t know why I bother. There’s no sense talking to you.” Neal raised his beer to his lips and gulped. After wiping his wet mouth with his forearm, he added, “Why can’t your students sell wrapping paper and cookie dough like everyone else? I get kids coming to my door all the time selling fundraising stuff.”

“You live in Travis Heights. You can afford to buy that crap. Look at this place.” Mack waved an open arm around Neal’s living room. “Compared to the average home in Santana, this is a palace. A filthy palace, but a palace nonetheless.” He picked up his beer. The damn Shiner Bock was too good to let go warm and practically a sin to leave unfinished. “Santana’s one of the poorest communities in the state,” Mack added after a last pull of the tasty brew. “Most of the students have one or both parents working minimum-wage jobs. Those families can barely afford to put food on the table. Buying stuff to raise funds for school activities is beyond their reach.”

“That’s not your problem. You’re the drama teacher, not a social worker.”

“Really? Did that just come from your mouth?” Mack’s jaw clamped and he sat up. “You, of all people, know what growing up in a poor family is like. We both know neither of us would be where we are today had it not been for Mr. Farley. He may have only been a math teacher, but he kept our asses busy and out of jail.”

“Although that might be true, Farley didn’t put his johnson in a banana hammock and parade around a strip club in order to get us the help we needed,” Neal countered. “Have you even considered how to get the money you make from stripping into the school’s books? Do you think you can just hand a bag of cash to your principal and say, ‘Here. I want to donate this to pay for next year’s production of Wicked. Don’t mind the damp bills. It’s only sweat from my balls.’?”

Mack let the question marinate in his head. His friend had a point. One he hadn’t considered. How would he get the money to the school to pay for production royalties, script rentals, costumes, sets and everything else that went into a high school play? Shuffling money into the Thespian Club wouldn’t be a problem. It was only an after-school club. He should be able to pretend the students had earned it through some kind of fundraising event like washing cars. Granted, the money he hoped to pump into the club would be substantial, but he could remind everyone that Texas was a hot, dusty state filled with dirty vehicles, and it had been one hell of a carwash.

“After hearing the stories you’ve told about your new boss, I just don’t see how you will do it,” Neal added. “Didn’t she fire someone because he hadn’t reported a second job after she instituted a new job declaration policy? I’m telling you, buddy, you’re playing with fire, and you will get burned.”

Ah, yes. Ms. Armstrong. His beautiful blonde principal with the long legs and an equally long stick up her tight ass. No way he could forget her. That particular woman had appeared in his wet dreams on more than one occasion. Too bad she was colder than Siberia in the winter, not to mention being his boss. Given the chance, he’d warm that ice queen up from the inside out. In a way, he probably already was, considering the aggravation he caused.

Tit for tat, baby. You take away my program’s money, I’ll be the biggest nightmare on your staff.

“First of all, I’m not one hundred percent sure why Mr. Bridges was let go. Could have been because he was a fuck-up who happened to have a second job that he hadn’t reported. I mean, come on. The man was stoned more often than his students.” Mack uncrossed his legs. This conversation was getting far too serious for his liking, making his Southern drawl more pronounced, even to his own ears. “Second, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Aren’t you supposed to be showing me what needs to be done around here while you’re working in Malaysia?”

“Fine. I’m done. Just don’t expect me to cry you a river when Armstrong cans you.” Neal pulled his considerable girth from the chair and gestured to the kitchen. “Let’s start in there.”

“Wait a second, bro.” Mack picked up a Home Slice pizza box from a pile sitting next to the sofa. Something shifted inside. Probably a piece of fossilized pizza crust. “Please tell me you’ll have the house cleaned before you leave. Since your divorce, you’ve really let this place go to hell.”

A look of sorrow filled his Neal’s eyes. His shoulders fell.

“Sorry. I’m a little lost without—” Neal paused a moment while his chest expanded then contracted. “Without Jen. I’ll get someone in here this week.”

Damn.

Way to go, Mack, you thoughtless prick.

He shouldn’t have mentioned Jennifer. Though the ink on the divorce papers with Neal’s ex had been dry for a while now, he was clearly still hurting on the inside. “No. I’m the one who’s sorry, buddy. I didn’t mean to bring her up.” Mack dropped the box back on the pile, self-disgust kicking him in the pants, as it should. His friend was a sensitive soul who only wanted to please. Always had been. Just like in high school, he would take care of Neal until the big guy found his feet again.

“It’s okay. I’m good. One day at a time, right?” Neal didn’t wait for a response before trudging off to the kitchen.

Jesus. How would Neal survive living alone for two months in a foreign country like Malaysia? The poor guy didn’t even know the language and had no support system there. He would be a total fish out of water.

For several minutes, they discussed the water main cut-off valves, keys, security codes and trash service, and then stood on the patio and looked to the backyard where live oak trees provided dappled shade. Despite the natural canopy, the Texas heat and humidity brought sweat to Mack’s brow. He took in his friend. Wet spots already formed around the armpits and chest of his untucked Oxford shirt.

“May as well show you the shack. Knowing you, it’ll be the first place you snoop through when I leave.” Neal nodded to the large shed constructed of natural stone near the fence line.

“That’s not true. You’ve asked me not to go back there, so I won’t.”

Neal frowned.

“Ah, come on. I’m not that bad.”

“You don’t take no for an answer. You have zero respect for authority. And you don’t follow rules.” Neal raised a pointed finger for each tick off his list. “You’re like a kid in a grownup body sometimes. I know you better than you know yourself, man. But,” he sighed and glanced at the stonework structure, “you don’t know everything about me.”

That comment caught Mack’s attention. “What? Like you’re a serial killer? A closet hoarder? Will I find some woman chained to the wall in there?”

Though he’d only been kidding, Neal flinched.

“Not exactly.” He took a step toward the tin-roofed building.

Mack grabbed his shoulder. “You don’t have to do this. If it’s all that bad, I don’t want to see it.”

“Come on. I know your little masked secret. You may as well know mine.”

The hairs on the back of Mack’s neck stood on end. His senses jumped to high alert. Whatever Neal had in the shed, he was pretty sure he’d be better off not having anything to do with it.

“Come on, you big wuss.” Neal beckoned, waving his chubby hand. His friend pulled a loaded keychain from his pocket. He took only a second to find the one he wanted, a red novelty key covered with yellow flames. After unlocking the deadbolt, he pushed open the door.

Following Neal inside, Mack slowly stepped into the dark space.

Neal brushed his hand against a wall and clicked a switch, then everything in the room came into dim view.

Mack blinked once, shook his head, and then blinked again. His brain had difficulty comprehending what he saw.

Aside from the stone walls and brown cement floor, the room had metal sconces with flame-like bulbs befitting a medieval castle. The fixtures provided just enough light to keep the space from being pitch black. In one corner of the shed, metal climber hooks dangled from a large wood X attached to the wall. At the opposite corner sat a tall padded bench. In the middle of the two, various-sized floggers and paddles hung in four neat rows.

Mack turned and noted an unremarkable set of black cabinets near the door. “You want to fill me in on what I’m seeing here?”

“This…” Neal began as he walked to the bench, “is a private dungeon.”

“Oookay.” The word dragged uneasily from his lips as he rubbed the small space between his eyes, not sure he wanted the answers to the questions his mind generated. Some things a man simply didn’t need to know about another man and his sex life. But, the expectant look on Neal’s face when he turned back suggested they’d have a discussion about the shack whether Mack wanted one or not. “And you have a dungeon because—”

“Because Jennifer is a Domme,” Neal said simply.

“Because Jennifer is a Domme,” Mack repeated, as though saying the words out loud would make them easier to accept. It didn’t. Neal’s ex was a successful psychiatrist and a Domme. The secrets in their marriage were deeper than he could ever have dreamed.

“She wanted me to be her submissive.”

Mack bobbed his head and did his best to school his features. He’d already upset his best and oldest friend once today. He wouldn’t let it happen again, regardless of how absolutely uncomfortable and weird things got. And things felt particularly funky at the moment. “I’m not sure where to go with this.”

Neal hoisted himself onto the bench and sat.

Mack’s stomach dropped. Apparently, their conversation would last longer than he’d hoped.

“One of the main reasons Jennifer and I split was because she wanted me to be a full-time submissive. I only wanted to be a sub in the bedroom. I like being dominated sexually. It helps me not be awkward when it comes to sex, plus it’s a turn on.”

Mack let out a quiet moan as his stomach continued to fall. He cared for Neal like a brother, but, Jesus, this was too much information. “Well, I can see how that might be a problem,” he finally managed to say.

“She’s also a sadist. She likes to inflict pain.” He pointed to the floggers hanging from the rack and shrugged. “I’m not into pain, at least, not a lot of pain. Mainly just domination.”

No surprise there. Neal had always been a follower, not a leader. He’d trailed behind Jennifer as though he were a lost puppy. But Mack thought that had more to do with her being a strong, intelligent woman than anything else.

“I’ll be honest with you, buddy.” Mack ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry you and Jen couldn’t make things work in the ol’ dungeon, but I really don’t know much about this stuff.”

“Which is one of the reasons we need to talk about it.”

Huh? “You completely lost me.”

“Didn’t you say that your stripper stage name is going to be The Dom?” Neal arched an eyebrow.

“Yes. It’s only a stage persona though. The manager of Iron Rods and the woman designing the costumes concocted the idea. They said BDSM is very hot right now. Loads of women are reading books about it. They think having a ‘Dom’,” he curled his fingers into makeshift quotation symbols, “will be huge and will draw in a lot of ladies. Hell, even the crazy old coot who owns the club loved the idea.”

“That crazy old coot is Lyle Truitt, who happens to be one of the richest men in Austin. And yes, BDSM is extremely popular.” Neal nodded. “But also misunderstood. You’re dabbling in something you, and most likely the people from Iron Rods, have no expertise in.”

Mack snorted, blowing off Neal’s concern with a whisk of his hand. “Me playing a Dom is only a stage thing. No one is taking this seriously, especially not me.”

“You said you are giving away pink dog collars to the ladies who pay you for a lap dance.”

“So?”

Neal’s round face turned solemn.

“Do you have any idea what collaring someone in the BDSM world means?”

“Kind of, but stripping as The Dom is only a gimmick. You know, a way to make more money. The collars have fake diamonds in them. They’re pretty and fun. It’s no big deal.”

“In the BDSM community, being collared can mean being a submissive, a slave or even married to a Dom. You’re playing the part of a Dom in a strip club and put collars on a bunch of women you know nothing about.” Neal cocked a bushy eyebrow. “You think that’s a good idea?”

The whole stripping thing probably wasn’t a good idea, but the opportunity to save his theater programs and keep the kids he’d grown to care for out of trouble and in school was staring at him like a gift horse. Pretending to be a Dom as his stage persona would only help him make more money. If dealing with a woman or two who took things a little too seriously was the price of meeting his goals, he was more than willing to take his chances.

“I really do.” Mack patted Neal’s knee. “I think the collars are a hell of an idea. Don’t worry about me, buddy. You just run along to Malaysia and leave me your keys. I got this.”

Neal shook his head and huffed a breath.

“I got this,” Mack repeated.



Chapter Two


Hannah Armstrong exited the boy’s bathroom and shook her head, her nose crinkling. Why were teenaged males so disgusting and destructive?

Taking a few steps from the foul smells wafting from the lavatory, Hannah opened the case of her iPad, retrieved the stylus and added another two tasks to her to-do list. These particular to-dos fell under the “janitorial” category as line items twenty-three and twenty-four—remove the giant-sized spitballs from the ceiling and unclog stalls four and five in the north-wing boy’s restroom.

Heaven only knew the number of young men it took to completely fill two toilets with excrement and toilet paper. As to why the stunt had been pulled, the answer most likely had something to do with the short amount of time remaining in the school year. With just a few days left, the juvenile pranks performed by the youth of Santana, Texas would inevitably spike. She’d seen similar antics while teaching English and literature in Houston. Now, as the principal of this underachieving high school, she had to resolve the issue and take steps to ensure this type of behavior didn’t happen again.

Inwardly smiling, Hannah added another item to her growing checklist before sending a text to her secretary asking her to arrange a meeting with the head of hired security. Being in charge of nearly three hundred students and staff felt nothing short of exhilarating.

She was making progress as the new principal, too. That much was clear. Hallways were empty and quiet between classes, scuff marks and graffiti no longer marred the gray cinderblock walls, and no trash littered the gleaming linoleum floors. Just standing there and taking in the remarkable scene filled her with pride. Although the changes she made and would be making might not be popular with some, the results spoke for themselves. Aside the physical alternations, attendance at the school stood higher than it had in years and the drop-out rate was coming down. The scores from the STAAR tests, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams, wouldn’t be available for a while, but they should also show improvement. As long as she continued to put the school’s focus and money toward the core, basic subject areas of reading, math, writing, science and social studies, Santana High would crawl out from the “Improvement Required” status it currently held.

Speaking of which…

Hannah opened her “staff” to-do list, and then checked her watch. In just a few minutes, the end of fifth period bells would ring. She needed to be at the Theater Arts room to corner Mack Garner before his teacher preparation period began. Though having to chase down the intolerable teacher made her teeth grind, getting him to come to the office for a brief conference had proved too much of a challenge. If she didn’t need him so badly, she would have written him up for insubordination days ago. Why the school staff and students thought so highly of Garner, she hadn’t a clue. Yes, he might be attractive, charming and genuinely cared about the students, but he was nothing less than a royal pain in her ass. Luckily for them both, he also possessed a teaching certificate she valued at the moment.

She quickly scrolled through other items on her list and grimly noted the task of going to the bank and picking up cash for her sister Rebecca’s bachelorette party. As distasteful as going to a strip club in Austin might be, if she didn’t attend the party, her younger sister would never forgive her. She might be forgotten in the gaggle of women making up Rebecca’s pre-marital entourage, but as the Maid-of-Honor responsible for organizing the event, Hannah had to be there.

Hopefully, none of the ladies in the bachelorette party had relatives living in Santana. Although she might fulfill her sisterly obligation by attending the festivities, that didn’t mean the town residents would approve of their high school principal being inside a club where men stripped down to next to nothing. She would go for an hour, see that everything was set for her sister and her friends to have a good time, and then leave. No harm. No foul. No stain to her exemplary reputation.

With a final smart tap of her stylus, she closed the pad and proceeded down the hallway where her high heels produced a satisfying click-click-click on the tile floor. She smoothed down the hairs of her tight chignon before opening the door to the theater room.

Garner and his students immediately stopped speaking. They turned from their activity onstage to watch her walk down the aisle.

Disbelief and indignation stiffened her spine. Once again, the drama teacher wore his ball cap, and his shirttails had not been tucked into his trousers. How could such a poor role model be so beloved?

“Good afternoon, students,” Hannah addressed the assembly before unfolding one of the red velvet theater seats and depositing her iPad. “Please, don’t mind me. I’m here to speak with Mr. Garner after the bell rings.”

The students, who hadn’t moved since her arrival, looked to their teacher.

Garner smacked his lips before slowly lifting his booted foot from its perch on a metal chair and coming to a stand. “Y’all go on and collect your bags. Class is dismissed.”

Not needing to be told twice, the group grabbed their things and exited the theater without a backward glance.

“Mr. Garner,” Hannah said, tugging on the hem of her suit jacket. “I’d like to have you accompany me to my office.”

“You could have sent a student aid to come and get me,” he drawled in his slow Southern accent while crossing his arms. “No need to have you come all the way across the building yourself.”

“Oh, I think you and I both know that wouldn’t work.”

A hint of a smile pulled on his lips. “I suppose you might be right.” He sauntered across the stage and stepped down the small flight of stairs to the seating area.

As he made his way to her side, she found herself marveling at the deep blue of his eyes. Dark and cool, they were reminiscent of the water near Cozumel. His mouth a ripe peach waiting to be bitten and tasted.

The end of period bells rang.

So did the warning bells in her head. Why did the cocky drama teacher always have this effect on her? He couldn’t be any further from the type of man she wanted. The kind of man she craved.

“You sure this can’t wait until after school?” he asked, coming closer. “I have some things I need to take care of. This is my prep time.”

The urge to step back and create more space between them taunted, but she held her ground. Many men had tried to intimidate her by their size and strength. Garner would not succeed with his good looks and enticing cologne. Or did the alluring smell of evergreen come from his body wash? All those fragrant little bubbles sliding over his wet skin…

“I assure you,” Hannah lifted her chin in defiance of her willful hormones and overactive imagination, “I’ll make our meeting as short as humanly possible.”

“Okay.”

Garner brushed past so close she felt the heat radiating from his muscular body. She bit her lip to keep from nipping his.

“Let’s get this done.”

“Mr. Garner.” Hannah leveled her voice to avoid sounding piqued. “Your hat.”

He turned. “Yes?”

She counted to three before speaking. He was doing his best to be sexy and irritating and was succeeding at both. Squaring her shoulders, she reinforced her resolve. Garner would not get the best of her, no matter how hard he tried.

“Please remove it. The staff dress code prohibits the wearing of a cap during school hours, except for gym teachers. I believe we’ve discussed this already.”

“We have?”

Her chest tightened. She could sense her blood pressure rising and her cheeks growing warm. The feelings of irritation and ardor that had battled since first meeting Garner at the beginning of the school year still raged.

All internal reactions, she reminded herself. Her body language had to stay neutral. Any effects he had on her simply could not be displayed. The tall Texan with the overly-inflated ego did not need encouragement. “Yes. We have.” Hannah picked up her iPad, flipped open the cover, and then found her notes. “According to my calendar,” she paused to search the information on the screen, “we spoke about this subject two weeks ago.”

“Let me look at that thing.” He came from behind and angled himself to stare over her shoulder. Pressing his broad chest against her back, Garner molded his body to hers then reached around her waist to grab hold of the pad. “Well, son of a gun,” he crooned into her ear. “You might be right.”

A shiver rippled up her arms and down her chest, converging at her breasts. Her nipples contracted, creating an ache so acute, she nearly moaned. She forced herself to swallow, relieving her throat which had suddenly gone dry. How could a respectable woman like herself fall for such cheap, degrading tactics to weaken her defenses? When she returned home, she would erase all the books recommended by her friend from her Kindle. Reading and rereading those novels, those erotic romances with their lust-filled acts, only wet her secret desires. And those dark desires could only lead to danger, both personally and professionally.

“I’m almost always right, Mr. Garner.” Stepping away, Hannah filled her lungs to calm her aroused nerves before snapping closed her case.

“You all right?” He offered a lopsided smile. “You seem to be having a hard time breathing.”

The corner of her eye twitched.

Then twitched again.

She clenched her fists, fighting the irksome twinge and her desire to let out a cathartic scream.

“Please remove your hat before we walk among the students. They need to see that everyone at this school, including the staff, follows the rules.”

“I don’t understand what the big deal is, but if you prefer my head bare, I’ll follow along.” Tipping the hat forward from the rim, Garner slipped off the offending item before tossing the cap onto one of the folded theater seats.

Although the shade of his well-trimmed blond hair wasn’t as light as hers, his fair mane definitely brought out the azure in his eyes. Those damn bedroom eyes.

Hannah turned her attention lower. “Would you mind tucking in your shirt?”

Garner bent his head. “I don’t recall policy about having my shirt in my pants.”

Pants. Shirt. Bare. Did all the words Mack Garner spoke have to tempt her into thinking of the man naked?

She drew in another chest full of air. “No. However, doing so makes you look more professional. School staff should provide an example to the students. Show them how one looks when dressed properly. Modeling appropriate attire for them to use as a guide after they graduate and enter the job market is our responsibility.”

“You saying I’m not dressed properly?” He tugged at the first button of his shirt.

The fabric pulled from his chest, revealing smooth, sculpted terrain.

A headache hinted on the right side of her skull near her temple. Why was standing near him, let alone getting him out of the theater, so difficult?

All she needed was to have him go to her office for what would, hopefully, be a short conversation and then have him sign some papers. Dealing with the local rival gangs proved much less troublesome or hazardous.

Refusing to acknowledge his question, she skirted past him and made her way to the theater entrance. She opened the door. “After you, Mr. Garner.”

In his mind-numbingly slow manner, he moseyed up the aisle. But, instead of walking out, he reached a hand above her head and held the door.

Another whiff of evergreen enticed her senses.

“After you, Ms. Armstrong.”

No doubt she would need to see her dentist and a gynecologist after their meeting. Her teeth were grinding down to the roots, and the way her panties were becoming drenched when he stood so close simply couldn’t be normal.

They walked through the crowded school hallways, Garner always several steps behind. The trip to her office that should have taken less than five minutes ended up taking three times longer as student after student stopped the popular teacher to say hello.

Hannah impatiently tapped the tip of her pointed shoe when a group of young ladies, books clutched tightly to their breasts, surrounded Garner and asked him the names of next year’s theater productions. Considering the tight budget she placed the drama program under, most likely only be one play would be performed the next school year. Like the other arts and foreign language programs, the drama department fell outside the core curriculum. There simply wasn’t enough money to fully fund any class that didn’t help the school come out from under its “Improvement Required” status.

They finally arrived at the front office, and her secretary grabbed the sides of her desk and stood. At almost seventy years old and thin as a number two pencil, Gertrude Swaters might have difficulty standing, but her mind couldn’t be sharper.

Gertrude fussed at the tight white curls on her head with an age-spotted hand.

Thanks to the help of what had to be half a can of hair spray, not a single hair budged.

“Well, looky what the cat dragged in,” the amiable secretary said.

Hannah turned to see Garner produce a dazzling smile before offering up a wink at Gertrude.

“How’s my favorite girl?”

“If you came by more often, you’d know.” Gertrude, her pale skin now stained a light pink, gestured to a gray metal filing cabinet. “I’ve had some treats hidden for several days.”

“Your homemade pecan turtles?”

The old woman swatted away the question. “Like you need to ask.”

“Gertie, you sweet thing, you’re the best.” Garner leaned across the desk, placed both hands on Gertrude’s cheeks and kissed her wrinkled forehead. “I’m still looking for a date to the graduation ceremonies. You want to go with the school’s most eligible bachelor?”

“Does that invite include dinner?”

“Only if we don’t have to eat before five.”

Gertrude scrunched her face, and then nodded. “Deal. But I need to be home before Dancing with the Stars comes on. The season finale is coming up.”

“It’s a date.”

Hannah loudly cleared her throat. Just how many delays must she endure before finally getting Garner into her office for a brief meeting? “Ms. Swaters, are the files I asked for and the papers I had you draw up on my desk?”

“Did that before I got your text about setting up your meeting with the head of security. He’ll be here first thing in the morning.” Gertrude plopped back into her chair.

For such a frail-looking woman, the old gal had amazing agility.

“Excellent. Thank you.”

“By the way,” her secretary continued, “He wanted me to let you know the two of you will need to discuss the recent rise in gang activity around town. He’s concerned it will eventually hit the school.”

Hannah shoulders tightened. “This sounds quite serious.”

Gertrude shrugged. “We live in Santana and gangs are everywhere. What can you do?”

“We’ll have to see, won’t we?” Hannah walked into her office. Bright, neat and organized, the spacious room offered a place of power, as well as a welcome respite. Here she conducted business, and did so well. “Please close the door behind you, Mr. Garner. This should only take a few minutes.” When she heard nothing but silence, she turned to find the aggravating drama teacher had not followed her inside.

Her right eye involuntarily squinted as the slight tapping at her temple burst into a round of head-splitting pounds. Maybe she had pulled her hair back too tightly today. “Mr. Garner. If you don’t mind,” she ground out through clenched teeth, taking her seat. Pulling out the top side drawer of her desk, she thanked herself for being orderly. Just behind a box of paperclips and a tidy stack of Post-it Notes, a bottle of aspirin lay on its side. She plucked up the bottle, dispensed two small tablets and swallowed them dry as Garner rounded the doorframe.

“Head hurt?” he asked, his mouth full. In his hand, he held several chocolate-covered pecan caramels. Without waiting for an answer, he bumped the door with his hip, and then pushed it shut with his butt. “Okay. You got me here. How much more money are y’all taking away from my program now? Can I at least have enough to buy scripts?”


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