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Authors: Susan Andersen

Present Danger (22 page)

BOOK: Present Danger
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Oh, what the hell. She’d let him take over—for the time being at any rate—
and
as long as he didn’t attempt to force her into doing something she didn’t want to do. At worst, she might learn something. At best …

Well, at best, she would at least get to see more of him.

Aunie was involved in an animated debate with two of her fellow students as she exited her last class of the day. They paused in the corridor outside the classroom, and she hefted the strap of her bulky book bag to a more comfortable fit on her shoulder as she leaned forward attentively to listen to the argument being presented by one of her companions.

“Aunie.” The voice was a deep rumble and her head whipped around in surprise. Otis lounged against a nearby wall, a huge, dark, monolithic presence who drew sidelong stares even as those watching were careful to skirt around him. The overhead light picked out the ridge of scar tissue on his hard, ebony skull, and the small golden hoop with its tiny bead
of onyx that Aunie had given him for Christmas gleamed in his ear. Even covered by a lightweight sweater and jeans, his physique was formidable. Aunie excused herself from her wide-eyed classmates and crossed the hall to him.

“Hi, Otis,” she said with a smile. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve come to escort you home,” he said in a deep, soft voice that nevertheless carried, and Aunie almost laughed at the preponderance of dropped jaws around her. She spotted Mary in the distance. Her friend’s cocked eyebrow seemed to ask, What’s up? and she headed in their direction. But before she could successfully navigate her way to them against the flow of student traffic, Otis had wrapped one meaty hand around Aunie’s elbow and steered her toward the exit. She looked over her shoulder and grimaced, shrugging in response to Mary’s bewilderment as she allowed Otis to guide her out the door.

“Just one more of James’s little plans, I take it?” she commented mildly as he opened the passenger door of his illegally parked candy-apple red Thunderbird for her. She made no move to get in.

Otis eyed her warily, but before he could respond Mary raced up. She skidded to a halt before him, out of breath. “What’s going on?”

“Where are you parked?” was his only reply.

“Over by the reservoir.”

“Get in,” he said and flipped the seat forward for her to climb in the back. “I’ll drive you over.” His expression and tone clearly said
Don’t push me,
and both women climbed into the car.

“Now,” he said as he pulled into a parking spot that had just been vacated behind the reservoir, “here’s the deal.” He turned to Aunie. “We only have
your supposition that your caller is Wesley. Could be you’re right. But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you’re wrong.” He waited, wondering if she’d argue with him.

Aunie shrugged. “True.”

“If it should turn out that your caller is not your ex-husband, but rather the same person who’s been harassing the other students at this college,” Otis continued, “and if, as seems likely, he is a student here himself, then Jimmy feels a show of strength is called for.”

“And that’s you.”

“And that’s me. Today. If your caller is a student here, he’s gonna see for himself that you are not unprotected.”

Mary slapped the back of the front seat. “I love it!”

Aunie didn’t share her enthusiasm, but she had to. admit that it made sense. That was the damnable thing about James’s plans. She always felt an instinctive desire to protest his interference, but she never did, because his ideas always made sense.

And she always wished she’d thought of them first.

James stuck his head out into the hallway when Aunie returned from her workout at the gym. “Where y’ been?” he inquired, and she knew she would have bristled at his presumption if his tone hadn’t been so friendly.

She found he was a hard man to resist when he was feeling friendly.

“Workin’ out with Leon.”

He stepped out into the hall. “That’s right. Otis mentioned something about that.”

Aunie shrugged uncomfortably. “Yeah, well … I don’t know if it’ll do me much good if it ever comes down to hand-to-hand combat with Wesley, but …”

“Hey, it builds endurance,” he interrupted her. “It can only help.”

“That’s what I thought. If nothin’ else, I can always outrun him.”

He came closer and reached for her hand. He studied it for a moment, then let it go; transferring his gaze from her fingers to her eyes. “Grow your nails.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Your fingernails. Let ‘em grow. Long nails are an excellent weapon.”

“Oh.” She studied them herself. “Okay.”

“What time you gettin’ home tomorrow?”

She looked at him askance but politely replied, “About the same time as now, I imagine. After school I usually study for a while and then I go to the gym for a workout.” She tilted her head to one side inquiringly. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m gonna teach you some of the basics for fightin’ dirty.” He grinned at her expression. She was looking at him as if he had suggested she dance topless on a gin-joint tabletop. “Wear something comfortable.”

“You’ve had some really good ideas, James,” she replied with a certain inbred haughtiness, “but this is not one of them.
This
is certifiable.”

“Yeah?” In a flash, he had her pinned to the wall, her hands pulled high above her head and rendered immobile by one large fist, her lower body trapped by the strength of his legs. “So whaddaya gonna do?” he breathed into her hair. Closing his eyes, he inhaled her scent.

“Spit in your eye?” she suggested between her
teeth. She hated it when he was right. Hated it, hated it, hated it.

She felt warm and soft and smelled even better, pressed between his body and the wall, and James’s body responded enthusiastically. His erection was painful and immediate. Dammit! What was it about this one little woman? He didn’t understand this at all.

Oh, not the hard-on; that came as no major surprise. But these feelings all churning around inside of him … Something had to be done about those. They were so damn intense. The only other thing he’d ever felt this strongly about was his ‘toons.

And that didn’t make a goddamn lick of sense.

He stepped back and released her. “Wear something comfortable,” he reiterated with studied casualness. Then he turned and walked away.

Aunie walked out of her last class on Friday expecting to see Otis once again. But it was Bob who leaned against the far wall.

“Hiya, kid,” he said, pushing himself erect. He offered his tattooed arm. “Your chariot awaits.”

“Oh, no,” she protested weakly moments later when he stopped in front of a huge, black Harley Davidson. She had never ridden on a motorcycle in her life.

“You’ll be safe as houses,” he assured her, patting the bike seat with pride. “She’s a full-dress hog, and I brought a helmet just for you.” Rummaging through the saddlebag, he extended it to her. Out of the other one, he pulled a wadded-up leather jacket. “Here. Jimmy thought y’ might need this, too.” He took her book bag and arranged it in the storage space, then watched as she donned her borrowed safety apparel.
Grinning at the picture she made in Jimmy’s jacket, which was large enough to wrap around her twice and had sleeves that dangled well below her fingertips, he flipped up the tinted visor to her helmet. “You’re okay, kid,” he said, peering in at her wide brown eyes. “Climb aboard and hang on.” He flipped the visor closed again and boarded his motorcycle.

Aunie gamely climbed on behind him and put her arms around his waist. She saw several of her fellow students eyeing Bob and her with amazement as he roared away from the curb. Mary had gleefully informed her yesterday that the new word around school was that Aunie Franklin kept dangerous company.

James would be tickled to hear it, she was sure. Wait until her schoolmates got a load of
him.
They hadn’t even seen him yet, and he was probably the most dangerous of them all. She was beginning to think that facile mind of his was downright scary.

James watched from his apartment window as she climbed off his brother’s bike a short while later. Seeing her in his jacket, he got another of those weird churnings in his gut. As he watched, she reached up with invisible, leather-covered fingers to remove the helmet and hand it to Bob. She shook her head as she spoke to him, and her expensively cut, shiny brown hair flew gently around her face until it gradually all swayed smoothly into place, once again hugging her nape and jaw. Whispering an obscenity, James turned away from the window.

Down in the yard, Aunie voiced the question that had just occurred to her. “Shouldn’t you be at work, Bob?”

“I’m headin’ back now,” he replied. “I took an hour off.”

“Just to get me? Oh, Bobby, you shouldn’t have.”

“You took care of my brother when he needed it.” Bob shrugged. “Jimmy said he wants everyone at your school to know you’ve got friends who’ll take care of you. I owed you, kid, and I wanted to do it. It’s no big deal.”

“It is a big deal,” she insisted and rose up on her tiptoes to give him a quick peck on the cheek. She followed it up by gently dabbing at the small smear of lipstick she’d left behind, erasing it with her thumb. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” He handed her the book bag and grinned once again at her small figure in its big jacket. “I can trust you to return Jimmy’s coat to him, right?”

“Right.”

“Okay, then. See ya around, kid.” He turned and lumbered over to his bike. Mounting up, he gave her a small salute and roared away.

James acted rather testy when she returned his leather jacket, so Aunie didn’t linger. She let herself into her own apartment and called the telephone company to report her list of dates and times from the previous week’s calls. She was instructed to start a new list.

The week that followed was much like the last. Each day when she left her final class of the day, she was met outside her classroom by one of the men. Otis met her twice, Bob once, and James twice. They brought her home; she studied; she worked out with Leon … and she had lessons in how to fight dirty.

Out of all James’s multitudinous plans, those lessons were her least favorite. They were too … difficult.

In every respect.

Yes, she was learning to function under pressure, to redirect emotions, to concentrate her awareness. But it was difficult to be with him, know herself to
be in love with him, and have him treat her like his not-so-bright little sister.

And that was usually the highlight of the lessons, when he was encouraging her.

When he tested her with a practical application of the knowledge he’d been hammering into her, he raised difficult to an entirely new dimension.

She knew her emotions were overloading. The disparate sensations he raised in her made her feel schizophrenic. When he was her instructor he touched her, he pinned her down; he gave her directions in his usual blunt way, in his usual blunt language. She absorbed and she learned, but underneath it all Aunie itched with a need for a different kind of recognition. He made her crazy with his intimate touches that held no trace of intimacy, his sexual references that had no real reference to her. Unknowingly, he taunted her with the weight of his body on hers, the feel of his skin as she grappled to break his hold, his scent, his voice … Gawd. And because he wanted her to learn, he was never satisfied to show her a move once and let it go at that. Oh no. He had her repeat the movements over and over again until she thought she’d scream with pure, unbridled frustration.

But when he staged practice attacks to test how well she had absorbed what he’d taught her, sex was the furthest thing from her mind. That was not the vacation it might have been, however, because at those times, he just plain frightened her. He stalked her, regarded her with someone else’s eyes, talked to her in a voice devoid of his usual intonations, and she felt genuinely threatened. Knowingly, he took personal knowledge that she had given him and goaded her with her own fear.

No, the lessons were not a picnic, not in any respect. If she wasn’t tormented in one manner, she was tormented in another.

On Friday, she snapped.

“Once more,” James said as he pushed off her prone body and climbed to his feet. He extended a hand to her, and wearily, Aunie reached for it to be briskly hauled erect for the umpteenth time that day. “Now, pay attention, dammit,” he growled and she gathered herself. “Concentrate on what needs to be done. Wesley’s just busted through the door and his only desire is to hurt you. You’re scared; it’s okay to be scared. But… what did I tell you about emotions?”

“Control them; don’t let them control you. Don’t lose your temper. Don’t panic,” she droned automatically. She knew what he said made sense. She should … God knew he’d drummed it into her often enough. He’d told her repeatedly not to allow herself to be taunted into losing her temper and not to give in to panic.
You can’t fight effectively, Aunie, if rage or terror is ruling your brain.

Her mind was stuffed full of such advice.
Take that adrenaline surge and turn it to your own advantage … it can give you strength. Watch every move he makes, Magnolia. Read the damn body language to learn which way he’s gonna move. He’d
told her all kinds of stuff, demonstrated even more, but she was tired … dead tired and sick of the whole business.

One more time. She’d do this one more time this evening, and then she was through. She hadn’t had a night to relax and do absolutely nothing in much too long.

“Okay, sit at the table,” he instructed. “You’re studying.”
She tensed. Instruction was over. It was practical application time. She sat as instructed and he walked out into the hall. Suddenly, he reappeared from out of nowhere, the way she’d told him Wesley used to do. “Hello, Aunie,” he said in a monotone, staring at her with emotionless eyes. “I told you I’d be back for you.”

Aunie’s awareness of everything around her was suddenly heightened, and she stood. Keeping her eye on him, she edged for the panic button on the end table.
Use a moderate tone of voice, Magnolia. Don’t spook him into action.
“Wesley,” she said calmly. “What are you doing here?” She reached the table and paused with her back to it, blocking it from his view. Casually, she curled her fingers around the edge, one of which reached out and touched the switch. If this actually had been Wesley, the alarm would now be on and he wouldn’t know it. James’s voice in her head said,
Unless it’s unavoidable, don’t broadcast what you’re doing.

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