My right eyebrow rose. My eyebrows were, as I liked to say, my built-in bullshit meters. The more crap I heard, the higher they arched.
"Who are those boys?"
"Friends of mine."
I stared at him. Blinked. "Those weren't the clothes you had on when you left this morning."
Gone was the red and green, replaced now with black from head to toe.
The bell rang.
"Hey, man, you coming?"
That from a boy wearing a charming metal-studded black leather coat and spiked dog collar. His lip was pierced and his hair was black with blonde polka dots. Very original. Now I knew where Riley's latest hairstyle had come from.
Riley caught my gaze and muttered something under his breath I couldn't understand. He swiveled and walked away without answering me. My stomach twisted as he blended in with the group of troublemakers and disappeared down a corridor.
I let him go.
A second later, I stepped into the office.
"I'm Nina Quinn," I said to the secretary, trying to keep the snap out of my voice.
"Mr. MacKenna is running a bit behind, Mrs. Quinn. If you'll have a seat." She gestured to a bench against the wall.
"You haven't seen my . . . er, husband yet, have you?" I nearly choked on "husband."
"Oh, I forgot to tell you that Detective Quinn called and said he couldn't make it."
I was going to kill him with my bare hands.
"Did he say why?" I asked, my tone sugary sweet.
"I'm sorry." She shook her head. "No."
I slumped into a chair. Heat rose up my throat, dampened my armpits. I silently fumed. At Riley for getting involved with kids who were no good, at Kevin for leaving me to do what was rightfully his dirty work.
How was I going to handle it all? And for that matter would I even get the chance to try?
If I was smart, I'd start pulling away from Riley, not become more entwined with him. My heart was already broken from his father leaving. It was going to shatter when he left too.
But I couldn't distance myself. Riley needed me. More now than ever. And distancing myself seemed so cold because, unfortunately for me, I loved the little bugger. Dammit.
I knew one thing for sure. I didn't want to meet with the vice principal alone. To the secretary, I said, "I'll be right back." She nodded as I pulled open the door.
In the hallway, I fished my cell phone from my backpack, punched in familiar numbers.
Ana answered on the first ring. "Ana Bertoli, underpaid and overworked."
"Still one of those days?"
"You need to ask?"
"Guess not. Hey," my gaze swept down the long hallway, past the trophy case and the standard artwork covering the white cinder-block walls, "do you have a few minutes? I mean, if you don't have the time it's okay, I know you're busy and all, probably on the lookout for those probationers out there running loose, needing your guidance."
Swaying a bit, I leaned against the wall. The municipal center was just five minutes from here. Knowing the way Ana drove, she could be here in three.
"What's wrong? You're rambling. I know something's wrong if you're rambling."
"I need backup. Riley's in some sort of trouble and there's this meeting with his vice principal and Kevin bailed on me."
"You're there now?"
"Standing in the hallway looking at some really bad self-portraits."
"I'll be right there."
Before I could even say thanks, the phone went dead. Reluctantly, I dragged myself back inside the office.
"Mrs. Quinn?" The secretary was waiting for me. She gestured to follow her down a carpeted hallway. "Mr. MacKenna's ready for you."
"Thanks. I'm, uh, expecting someone. Could you point the way when she gets here?"
"Sure thing," she said over her shoulder as she led me along.
My legs went spongy as I dutifully followed. Incomplete thoughts swirled. I pressed a hand against the wall to steady myself when a wave of dizziness nearly knocked me down.
I readjusted my backpack straps on my shoulders and took a deep breath, willing air into my lungs. The door at the end of the hallway stood open. I walked in, feeling the tension of my day rising like tsunami.
"Mrs. Quinn? I'm Robert MacKenna."
I heard the door close behind me as the secretary stepped out.
"It's nice to meet you," I murmured politely. I was lying through my teeth. I didn't want to be here. I knew what he was going to say, and I didn't want to hear it. I didn't want to have to defend myself, my actions.
"Have a seat." He motioned to a chair opposite him.
Silence ensued. Was this some form of vice principal torture?
Finally, I looked up from studying my shoelaces.
His eyes were a light blue. There wasn't anything too unusual about the color, but what he was able to portray with just a glance was highly extraordinary.
Sympathy. Empathy. Concern.
Completely different from Kevin's heated, passionate looks that had made my knees quake when I first met him. But there was something similar to Kevin in this man's gaze. An underlying current ready to zap me from my seat and into his arms. I shifted my gaze to look out the window.
My imagination was running wild, I reasoned. It was on overload. Robert MacKenna wasn't even my type. He was too all-American for me. I've always been drawn to the bad boys.
His hair was too blonde and cut too precisely over his ears for my tastes. He wore a suit and tie that looked as though it had been designed—and made—in the sixties, and when he came around the desk to sit in the chair next to mine, I noticed he wore—of all things—cowboy boots!
I needed some sleep, was all. About a week's worth.
Pointing to a coffee pot on a small table near the window, he asked, "Coffee?"
I noticed he wore a wedding band. I didn't know why I noticed—okay, maybe I looked for one. So sue me. But that settled whatever my overactive imagination had planned. He was off-limits. Not that I wanted him. I didn't. I was on the rebound. That's all this, this . . . reaction was about. I was trying to figure out if I was still appealing to the opposite sex. Speaking of sex, the lack of it might also be the cause of my raging hormon—
My temples began to throb, and I shook my head, clearing my thoughts. I would
I tugged at my V-necked collar. It had to be ninety degrees in his office. Didn't anyone have air-conditioning anymore?
"Coffee?" he said again.
I bet he was thinking he knew why Riley was so screwed up. Where was Ana when I needed her?
"No thank you. What's going on?"
He crossed one leg over the other, pulling his foot up onto his knee. The boots looked like they were made of snakeskin. My eyebrow arched, studying them. I instantly liked them better.
"Mrs. Quinn," he began.
That name grated on my nerves. Mr
s. Quinn. Detective
Quinn's wife. Nina Quinn, Nina Quinn, Nina Quinn.
Blech! "Please, call me Nina." My voice rang through my ears.
. I'm very concerned about Riley."
very concerned about Riley. I wondered what he'd say if I told him about the gun magazine under Riley's mattress. Then I'd like to see how
"Is that so?"
My voice had an edge to it I couldn't identify. It sounded . . . snippy. Which caused immediate alarm. I'm never snippy. Perhaps sarcastic or smart-mouthed, but never snippy. My sister Maria was snippy. She could snip about anything. From the smell of strawberries to the shade of platinum on her three-carat engagement ring. Snip, snip, snip.
"Nina," I snapped.
The room whirled. Spots danced before my eyes.
"It's okay." MacKenna stood at my elbow.
What was okay? Why was there suddenly two of him? And why did he sound muted, echoey? My ears rang, and I blinked to clear my double vision.
"Close your eyes," he said, snippy-like.
No, my inner voice whispered. Not snippy, commanding.
One of these days I was going to see someone about that inner voice.
My eyelids fluttered closed. I felt his cool hand curve around the back of my neck. With gentle pressure, he pushed. I opened my eyes and was surprised to find that I was staring at the floor.
Keds vs. snakeskin-kick-ass-cowboy boots.
Those boots were definitely growing on me. I was going to have to ask him where he got them once I could find my voice again. Maybe he had hunted the snake himself . . . A girl could hope.
His hand rested reassuringly on my shoulder. "It's okay."
I pressed my forehead on my knobby knees. The dancing spots faded.
"Get Mr. Quinn on the phone," I heard him say into the intercom.
I swayed as I jerked up my head. "No! No, no."
MacKenna grinned. "Cancel Mr. Quinn."
He pressed a glass of water into my hand. I drank slowly.
"When was the last time you ate?"
I tried to think, but the gurgling of my stomach was so loud it made it hard. "I had a Snickers last night at nine."
He gave me that look a parent gives a child when the parent knows something's bad for the child, and the child knows it's bad for the child, but the child does it anyway.
My God, I was rambling to myself. The water felt cool as I took another sip.
"It's satisfying," I muttered, using the candy bar's motto.
"It's unhealthy. You ought to eat three regular meals every day. And lots of fruit."
Opening a desk drawer, he rummaged around inside. Finally, he pulled out an Almond Joy. Sliding it across the desk, he said, "Emergency supply." He smiled at me, fine lines appearing around his eyes.
"Is this a test? After that lecture you just gave me about healthy foods, you expect me to eat that candy bar?" I asked, a teasing lilt to my voice. I was
flirting. I wasn't. Honest.
"Do as I say, not as I do. Unless, of course, you don't want it." He reached across his desk for the Almond Joy.
I slapped his hand and grabbed the candy bar.
He smiled a knowing grin as I tore open the package.
He was kind enough not to stare at me as I inhaled the two sections of the Almond Joy in three seconds flat. The back of my hand served as a napkin.
Quite a first impres
"About Riley," I said, suddenly mortified by my behavior.
The vice principal smiled as if he knew why I had suddenly changed the subject, then his expression turned serious.
A loud knock echoed and the door flew open. Ana stood there, doubled over, panting, her C cups heaving beneath a white camisole and linen suit coat. Her long dark hair fell forward as she gasped for breath.
I jumped up, helped her over to a chair. "Mr. MacKenna, this is Analise Bertoli, my cousin." I opened my mouth to explain that I hadn't wanted to take this meeting alone, but decided he really didn't need to know I was a big wuss.
MacKenna poured Ana a cup of water. His eyebrows dipped. "Are you okay?"
"Fine, fine," she said in between gulps of air. "Need to bump up those trips to the gym."
"Water?" MacKenna held out a cup.
She glanced up at him, her eyes going wide as paper plates as she got a good look. "Thanks." Turning to me, she wiggled her eyebrows.
"Married," I mouthed.
"Damn," she said into the cup as she took a sip.
To a puzzled MacKenna, I said, "Ana's here because Kevin couldn't make it. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all."
Ana looked around. "Whoa. This is like déjà vu."
A half smile playing on his lips, MacKenna leaned back in his chair. "Spend a lot of time in the principal's office did you, Ms. Bertoli?"
"Too much. You know, if you're free sometime, I could share—"
I kicked her shin beneath her linen skirt.
"Married," I mouthed again.
Rubbing her shin, she frowned. "Testy. And after I rushed over here and everything."
I swallowed hard over a sudden lump in my throat. "Thanks for coming."
Forgiven in a blink of her brown eyes, she took my hand. "Now what's this all about? Riley's in trouble? That new hair color affecting his brain cells?"
MacKenna leaned over his desk, his hands clasped. "Since the start of the fourth quarter, my staff has noted changes in Riley. He has become uncooperative, mouthy, and his grades pale in comparison to last semester."
Here it comes . . .
"Is there anything going on at home that our counselors should be aware of?"
it was coming.
Of course Riley's change in attitude was about Kevin and me. It's always the parents. It couldn't just be normal adolescent rebellion. It had to be my fault. His father's.
I grit my teeth. "There's been some tension."
Ana snorted. "What?" she said at my perturbed stare.
MacKenna pressed on. "Involving Riley?"
Resentment swelled. I didn't want to have to admit my marital problems to this stranger.
"Tangentially." Was that really a word? I wasn't sure, but it sounded good.
His eyebrows arched as his eyes widened. I wondered if he had the same bullshit meter I had.
, I mimicked silently. I didn't want to do this, to have this conversation. But he
given me his candy bar.
Ana answered for me. "Nina and Kevin are divorcing."
It sounded so final coming from Ana's lips, that it stole my breath for a second.