Authors: Bronwyn Green
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Thriller
“That’s your neighbor?” Aidan gaped as he watched Tessa leave the building. He moved as though to follow her, but Zander gripped his shoulder, stopping him. If anyone went after her, it sure as hell wouldn’t be Aidan.
“Seriously?” Aidan said. “
Zander glowered, but the other man continued undaunted.
“Here I’ve been picturing you living next door to some ancient spinster, and instead, you’re—”
“Excuse me, a moment.” Zander shut the door on his waiting students and turned to his friend.
Aidan’s expression grew thoughtful. “I imagine she’ll be at the show tonight.”
“So?” Resentment and irritation tore through Zander’s gut.
Aidan shrugged. “She seems a bit of a priss, but I bet underneath all that, she’s a wild woman just waiting—”
“Stay away from her,” Zander practically growled.
“Down, boy.” The other man laughed and walked to his desk.
Zander sighed. He could see the headlines now:
Criminal Psychologist Murders Colleague.
That would take him off the tenure track for sure.
“Clearly, there’s more going on here than you’re willing to admit,” Aidan said.
“Go to hell.”
His friend raised his brow and studied him. “So why haven’t made your move? What’s stopping you?”
“I think you’re a little confused. I analyze people. You take pictures. That’s how it works.”
“Avoid and deny all you want, mate. It’s your life, not mine.”
“I hear they’ve got office space in the Math Department,” Zander muttered as he opened the door to admit the next student.
He wasn’t in denial; he was practical. He wanted to keep Tessa in his life. Starting a relationship with her would eventually drive her away. Besides, she deserved someone who could offer her love. That wasn’t something he was prepared to offer any woman. He’d seen the devastation love left in its wake. Ending up like his older brother wasn’t part of his life plan.
He wasn’t an idiot. He knew not all relationships ended that badly, but he also knew Niko hadn’t been the same since his wife had died. Zander had loved Julia like a sister. He could only imagine Niko’s pain. He pushed aside any lingering fantasies of Tessa. It was better for everyone involved if he kept it light.
* * * *
Tessa surveyed her to-do list. Two more boxes of books to inventory, and she could go home and get ready for Annie’s gallery party. And find out what on earth Zander wanted to talk to her about. Remembering his odd behavior reminded her of the notes. She wasn’t sure which unsettled her more.
Sighing, she tried to focus on unpacking and shelving books. Rather than the titles in front of her, she saw the heat in Zander’s eyes. He’d looked as if he’d wanted to kiss her. Actually, he’d looked as if he’d wanted to do a hell of a lot more than that. Her nipples tightened and ached at the thought of Zander’s mouth on her. The expression on his face and the way he’d stared at her mouth was burned into her memory. She’d definitely be calling it to mind later when she went to bed. He was her favorite fantasy. She’d lost track of the number of times she’d made herself come thinking of him.
Sighing, she pushed the thoughts away. She had work to do, and fantasizing about Zander wasn’t getting it done. Tessa scanned the shelves, and a regular patron winked at her from the other side of the double-sided bookcase. A chill crawled across her scalp. Great. Mr. McFeely. Okay, that wasn’t his real name, but the guy had as many arms as an octopus, and they all moved constantly. His MO was to ask the female employees for help finding books on human sexuality, then attempt a less-than-subtle grope.
She placed several books into the empty spot blocking him from her vision. She
concentrate on honing her reflexes to better avoid McFeely’s tentacles. Instead, she fantasized about the shape of Zander’s mouth. His lips begged for a woman’s kiss—but not necessarily hers. She’d seen the women he dated. Gorgeous, secure and carefree—everything she wasn’t.
Idly, she wondered how many of his students he’d slept with. The answer came before she’d finished forming the question, and guilt assailed her for thinking it in the first place. He had more integrity than to abuse his position as an educator. He loved teaching. Besides, she thought with a smile, she wasn’t convinced he actually realized why so many of girls had set up camp outside his office.
Tessa returned to the front desk. What was with him today? The phantom weight of his hand still settled on her waist. Her body clenched with long suppressed desire at the memory of his warmth heavy against her skin.
This isn’t helping.
She should just chalk up his weird behavior to the fact that he hadn’t been seeing anyone lately. Months, if she remembered correctly.
More important than what was wrong with Zander, what was wrong with her? Getting worked up over a guy wasn’t something she allowed herself to do. Of course, her usual dates were about as intimidating as milquetoast. Zander didn’t fall into that category. Therein lay the problem. He was the first man in years who’d threatened the death grip she held on her self-control.
A shadow fell across her vision. McFeely. She’d almost forgotten about him. Predictably, he approached the information desk and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet until she acknowledged him.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I can’t find
A Woman’s Erogenous Zones
.” His nasal tone grated on her nerves.
I’m betting you can’t, buddy
. She tried to stifle a smile.
“Can you help me?” he asked.
Tessa typed the title into the computer. “Sorry, it’s been checked out.” She scrolled down. “It’s due back next Monday.”
“Do you have anything similar?”
Sighing, she stood and pointed. “Far left-hand corner.” She’d learned the hard way that walking near him was a huge mistake and stayed safely behind the desk. She didn’t need to add being groped to today’s list of weirdness.
Tessa’s errant thoughts vanished at the haunted expression of the young woman approaching the desk. It was Karen, one of the girls she mentored at the shelter. Tessa usually met with her once a week, but Karen had missed her appointment Wednesday.
“Are you busy, Tessa?” Her voice wobbled as though she held back tears.
Concern for Karen eclipsed any worry she had about McFeely or her misbehaving hormones. “I’m just finishing up. Why don’t we go into my office?”
Tessa called her assistant, Emily, to the front desk. “I have to take a meeting, and Jessie’s repairing books in the back room. Can you take over here?”
Emily nodded, her short pink dreads bobbing like rows of dancing mushrooms. “Sure thing, boss-lady.”
“Be careful,” Tessa cautioned. “McFeely is in the back section.”
Her assistant sighed dramatically, and her multiple facial piercings glinted under the fluorescent lights. “When isn’t he? Doesn’t he have a job or anything?”
Tessa shrugged then led Karen into her office. Turning, Tessa noticed that the girl’s eyes were wide and troubled as the girl followed closely behind her. Tessa knew that look. She’d worn it before. For a moment, she saw herself at eighteen—self-assured and trusting. That had all changed in the space of a few, nightmarish hours. Now, at twenty-eight, most of her confidence had returned, but she doubted her trust ever would.
Karen paced the small office, her arms wrapped around her middle, tension radiating from her thin body. She walked to the window and peered around the blinds before she turned to check that the door was securely closed. She looked more like a little girl than the poised college student Tessa imagined she’d once been.
“Do you want some coffee?” Tessa asked. “You look exhausted.”
“I can’t sleep,” the girl said. “I feel him. I smell him.” Her voice trembled. She stopped speaking.
White-hot rage and memories filled Tessa, but she maintained an outward facade of calm. In her volunteer work, she faced her past on a regular basis. Particularly difficult cases would give rise to occasional flashbacks, but she’d moved beyond the victim stage long before she became an advisor. Nevertheless, the creepy notes she’d started to receive and her compassion for Karen set her nerves on edge and brought the bygone turmoil bubbling to the surface. Burying her past, she took a deep breath and focused on the young woman.
“I saw him,” Karen breathed. “I was at the mall, and I turned around. He was there. Standing right behind me. Smiling.” Her voice broke on that last word.
Tessa couldn’t count the number of times she’d run into her attacker afterward. He’d show up at a party or worse a class—always smiling at her as if they shared some treasured secret. She’d wished him dead constantly, but he’d still turned up often enough to destroy any peace of mind she’d managed to achieve in the months following the assault. Not for the first time, she wondered if she would have chosen a less self-destructive path if he had stayed away from her. Half-remembered faces of nameless men surfaced in her mind, but she pushed away the memories of her attempts to exorcise her demons. That portion of her life was long past.
She laid a tentative hand on Karen’s arm. “You can still report the assault to the police.”
“Did you?” the girl shot back, her voice gaining strength. “Did you report yours?”
Karen had her there. Tessa stifled a frustrated sigh.
“He’s got an airtight alibi, and all of the evidence is gone,” Karen whispered. “I feel like I’m losing my mind.” She twisted a lock of her short, black hair around her finger. “Every time I turn around, I think I see him.”
Goosebumps raced over Tessa’s skin. “Is he stalking you, or do you think this was a chance meeting?”
“Usually, it’s my imagination. If something about a guy reminds me of him, I immediately see Blaine’s face.” She sank into Tessa’s desk chair.
Tessa dropped to her knees at Karen’s side. “After extreme trauma, it’s not uncommon to hallucinate. It happened to me.”
Something as simple as white sheets could trigger the image of a narrow, blood-spattered bed. It had been ten years, and she still refused to use anything but patterned bedding.
“I thought I was imagining things again—at the mall—but then I heard his voice.” Karen visibly shuddered.
“What did he say?”
“That he couldn’t stop thinking about me. He wanted to know when we could get together again.”
Anger tightened Tessa’s fists. Blaine was toying with Karen the way Tessa’s attacker had toyed with her. Sometimes, the work she did with the shelter raised more personal demons than it banished. Other times, like now, she could see just how far she’d come. Her own mentors had fostered much of her healing. She owed it to them to do the same for others.
She knew she couldn’t change Karen’s past, but she could be here for her now. They talked until the Karen had to leave for class. Before she left, Tessa gave her an impulsive hug that the young woman gratefully returned.
Karen made her way from the building to her vehicle. Her movements were rushed and jerky as she unlocked her car door, as if she expected the boogeyman to jump out and grab her. Bad analogy. Tessa rubbed the goose bumps that peppered her arms.
Karen drove past the entrance, past Tessa’s car.
Past the envelope pinned to Tessa’s windshield.
Ice seeped through Tessa’s veins. Forcing herself to stay put, she finished her shift. After saying goodbye to Emily, she hurriedly gathered her belongings and punched out. Hand on the doorknob, she slowed to a more sedate pace as she exited the building. If the person who’d left the notes watched, she didn’t want to give the sicko the satisfaction of seeing her bout of nerves.
Head held high, she walked to her car, casually removed the envelope and tossed it onto the passenger seat. It didn’t take much effort to pretend she didn’t care about the messages. Though her insides twisted with worry, she’d mastered the skill of feigned indifference after her assault. Her hard-won domination over the suffering she’d endured wasn’t up for grabs just because some sick bastard wanted to play games. She wouldn’t lose control of her emotions to anyone.
Tessa took the long way home, turning down numerous side streets. She might pretend carelessness, but she wasn’t stupid. If the guy was disturbed enough to leave her notes, he might attempt to tail her. Of course, she was assuming her stalker was a man. She sighed and circled her block a few times. Satisfied she hadn’t been followed, she parked behind Zander’s black jeep.
Zander. A sensation of comfort and safety settled around her when she thought of him. She shook her head. He was about as safe as a half-starved grizzly bear. He exuded the take-no-prisoners kind of confidence of a man accustomed to assessing a situation and doing whatever needed to be done. While she trusted he’d never hurt her, she couldn’t think straight around him. If nothing else, she’d learned to always keep up her guard—especially around men. She pushed away her idiotic desire to seek shelter in Zander’s arms and collected her belongings.
Inside her apartment, she opened the third message.
Don’t forget to wear my gift to the gallery tonight. I’ll be watching.
How did this person know about Annie’s show?
Okay, that’s it. Time to call the police.
Tessa snatched her cell phone from her purse, and her finger hovered above the keypad. While this might be an emergency to her, it wouldn’t be in the eyes of the authorities. Grabbing the phonebook from the shelf, she paged through it until she found the general line for the Oakdale Police Department.
Twenty minutes and several voicemail boxes later, she disconnected. Having wound her way through the voice activated labyrinth three times and leaving just as many messages, she’d given up. She’d have to bring the notes down to the station and hope someone would be there to file her complaint.
In the meanwhile, she studied the message. Who the hell was it? Someone she’d come into contact with at the shelter or the library seemed most likely, but she couldn’t think of anyone in particular. She ran through a mental list of people who were aware of the showing and her friendship with Annie. The list was alarmingly short. Her co-workers, Annie’s family, her and Annie’s friend Cat, Aidan, the date who’d stood her up and, of course, Zander.