Authors: Noelle Adams Samantha Chase
The Protectors: Book Three
Noelle Adams and Samantha Chase
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Noelle Adams and Samantha Chase. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means.
A church, organ music
and flowers. These are not a few of my favorite things.
No matter how hard I try, it reminds me of a funeral. I knew I was here for a wedding
but the tone right now made me think…funeral. Not that I was going to share that thought with anyone—particularly Levi.
I was still kind of shell-shocked by the whole thing. I mean, it didn’t seem like that long ago that we were standing in the middle of the desert and just praying we’d come home in one piece
And now? Here we were—four instead of five—standing in the front of a church wearing tuxedoes and waiting for Harper to walk down the aisle.
Toward their future.
I guess it was all good—for them. I still didn’t see the point in it. Love, marriage, kids…what was the point, anyway? We’re here on this earth for a short time. Some shorter than others. Why waste that time trapped in a relationship that most of the time just ends badly?
I looked over at Levi, and he was smiling from ear to ear. Moron. Sure everything was great right now. They were happy, and they were in love. And they just found out that they were going to have a baby. It still blew my mind that it even happened for them. After all, it was a death that brought them together.
And now we’re back to funerals.
I shook my head and closed my eyes, trying to force the images from my mind—the desert, the explosion, the funeral. We were standing, not much differently than we were right now, waiting to get into position. We were supposed to stay together. We were supposed to have each other’s backs
even when we got the signal to move into place. And
suddenly, it all went wrong.
There were four of us standing at the altar
and there should have been five. I was standing in as the best man, but it just felt wrong. This was Gavin’s spot. His place. He would have been Levi’s best man—after he kicked Levi’s ass for messing with his little sister.
That was the kind of guy Gavin was. He could be pissed off at you one minute, beat the crap out of you
and then buy you a beer. I think we all had a little bit of Gavin in us
but there were times when it hit hard. He wasn’t here. And he was never coming back.
I was so lost in my own thoughts that I didn’t even realize what was happening until Sebastian elbowed me in the ribs. I looked up and saw that everyone was on their feet and watching Harper walk down the aisle.
I didn’t miss the irony
I wasn’t paying attention that day in the desert either. Christ. I was seriously losing it. That was probably why the guys were putting me in this new, cushy job. It was idiot work. Glorified babysitting. I didn’t understand what Sebastian had meant when he complained about his cushy job—the one where he met Ali—but now I did
At least he had been babysitting adults.
Somehow I got stuck with an actual kid. Me. The guy who avoided anyone under the age of twenty-one. I was the one being thrown to the dogs.
Or the six-year-olds. Same difference.
Somehow I had drawn the short straw and was having to go undercover to protect a kid. Undercover as a teacher. Unbelievable. The kid already had personal security at home, but I had to watch out for her at school in a way that didn’t draw unwanted attention.
Right. Like having a guy who basically hates kids and doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing wasn’t going to stick out like a sore thumb.
Suddenly my tie was too tight, and I felt myself breaking out in a sweat. I looked out at the rows of pews. They were filled with people with sappy grins on their faces, sitting there looking at this ceremony as some kind of fairytale.
I wanted to smack each and every one of them.
Life isn’t a fairytale, and most people don’t get their happily-ever-afters. It just doesn’t work that way. I mean, I wasn’t begrudging or wishing anything bad on Levi and Harper. Hell, I hoped they’d have a good life together. But if they thought it was going to be perfect and all sunshine and unicorns, then they were wrong.
Especially when you threw a baby into the mix.
I had to control myself from rolling my eyes. Kids. Babies. It was like the kiss of death to a relationship. I guess I could have gotten on board with the marriage thing—for other people. Not me. But the whole idea of having babies and kids and doing that whole domestic world…you might as well just hang it all up right then and there because your life would be officially over.
How the hell did I let myself get into this?
I knew that Levi was out of commission for a couple of weeks for his honeymoon
so that left him out of taking my place. Sebastian was knee-deep in an embezzlement case. I glanced over at Cole
who looked as uncomfortable as I felt
and realized that even I couldn’t do that to a group of kids. I may not have liked kids, but I could probably fake it.
Cole would just scare the shit out of them.
So basically I was screwed.
Another elbow to the ribs reminded me that I had the rings and that I had to get out of my damn head and pay attention to what was going on. Levi looked at me with a stupid grin, and I knew he wasn’t mad that I missed my cue, but now I felt like a complete jackass for slacking off. One freaking job to do and I blew it.
Why did people keep trusting me with important things when clearly I just screwed them up? I already might have cost someone his life. Maybe they thought I’d get better from there. I guess
in comparison, missing my cue for the rings was an improvement. I felt sick to my stomach at even trying to make light of it—even if it was just in my own head.
I was an idiot. I didn’t deserve to be up here. Anyone who knew me knew that this was not something I was on board with. The mere fact that Levi asked me to be his best man just showed that he didn’t pay attention either.
It should be Gavin.
I was a lousy damn substitute.
How much longer were we going to be up here anyway?
“I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride.” The words were barely spoken before Levi had Harper in his arms and was kissing her as if his life depended on it. The preacher stepped back, the organ music swelled, and the whole church stood up and clapped
I joined in. Why not?
Levi and Harper turned and faced their guests, and they were both smiling so damn much that their faces had to hurt. I slapped Levi on the back and congratulated him. He shook my hand and then reached beyond me to shake Seb’s hand and then Cole’s before turning back to his bride and kissing her again
I could play the part of the happy groomsman. I could play the part of the guy who believed that people can live happily ever after.
And I guess I was going to have to play the part of the guy who liked being around kids.
“Mommy, would you please hurry up?”
The question was posed with impressive gravity and earnestness, despite the fact that it was asked by Lily, my six-year-old daughter.
I piled up the homework handouts I needed to grade tonight and stuffed them into my bag. “You know you have to be patient after school, since I can’t always leave right away.”
Lily gave me a long-suffering frown. “I know. I’m being ex-treme-ly patient.”
I tried not to giggle at her conscientious pronunciation of the word.
Lily had long
dark, wavy hair that was presently styled in two, very neat braids, and her pink backpack was propped up against her legs. Her hair and blue eyes were like mine, but her seriousness and her smile were just like her dad.
She wasn’t showing me the smile at the moment. I knew it was hard for her to have to hang around after school until I was ready to go. Over all, it was convenient for me to teach fourth grade at the same small, private school my daughter attended, but this last half-hour as I was scrambling to get things done always dragged for her
I clasped my bag and then noticed books all over the floor near the bookcase. “Can you run pick those books up for me? I’ll just finish erasing the board
and we’ll be all done.”
She sighed dramatically but didn’t argue as she trudged over to the scattered books.
To distract her, I asked, “You had a substitute today, didn’t you? How did you like him?”
“Mr. Curtis. He was strange.” Lily had squatted down and was busily collecting books.
I paused and glanced over at her. “Strange in what way?”
“He only wanted to play.”
I’d only seen the substitute teacher briefly from down the hall. He wasn’t on the regular sub-list, and I didn’t know anything about him. He looked fairly young and had golden brown hair and an athletic body. Not the typical substitute for a first-grade class. “Well, playing can be fun, can’t it?”
“But we didn’t do spelling words or math or
.” Lily paused from neatly shelving the books and gave me a solemn frown. “I’m going to forget all my subjects before Mrs. Bradbury comes back.”
you won’t.” I made my voice sound cheerful, but I was secretly worried. I’d seen a number of substitute teachers who mostly just filled the day with busy work to make it easy on themselves. If it was just a day or two, then it was no big deal. But Eileen Bradbury was out on maternity leave and wouldn’t return for six weeks.
Lily might just be in first grade, but she couldn’t lose that much of her schooling.
“He was probably just getting to know everyone on the first day
and you’ll get into your subjects tomorrow.”
I slung the strap of my bag over my shoulder and smiled as Lily placed the last books on the shelf. She was very intelligent, and she did everything with infinite seriousness. Sometimes I thought she should have some more fun, since she was just six, but reading and schoolwork seemed to be what she found the most fun.
“Ready?” I asked her.
“Yes.” She straightened up and pulled on her backpack, which looked almost as big as she was. “I’m ready.”
“We can do some reading tonight to make sure you don’t forget anything.”
She seemed to perk up at this news, and she reached for my hand as we walked down the hall and outside toward the car.
The school was quiet now, since students had been dismissed almost an hour ago. The staff parking lot was about half-empty.
“There he is,” Lily announced, as I was searching for the keys in my bag. “Mr. Curtis.”
I glanced up and over in the direction she indicated and saw a tall man leaning against an SUV across the lot.
He was talking on the phone, and he didn’t seem to be aware of our presence.
He really was very good-looking, with broad shoulders, long legs, and that hair that shone a dark gold.
I knew it wasn’t right to stereotype, but he didn’t look at all like any other substitute first-grade teacher I’d ever seen.
He had to be around thirty. If he wanted to be a teacher, then he’d certainly had time to get his certification and get a full-time job by now. I wondered why he hadn’t. Maybe he was some kind of a slacker, just hanging around and taking on substitute jobs because they were easy
“I’m sure things will be better in class tomorrow,” I said to Lily, who was frowning in the man’s direction.
“I hope so.” Lily looked up at me with big blue eyes. “I asked him why the sea was salty
and he said I should look it up because right now was play time.”
I hid my immediate indignation at this half-hearted answer to a genuine question from an intelligent girl. “We can look it up when we get home. How about that? I’ve always wondered why the sea is salty too.”
We both climbed into the car, and I glanced once more at Mr. Curtis as I started to pull out of the parking lot. He was still on the phone, and he didn’t appear to be having a happy conversation. He was scowling, as if he were angry.
Fight with his girlfriend or something. He was probably really popular with women.
I dismissed the man from my mind as I turned onto the street.
“Do you want to go pick out a Christmas tree this weekend?” I asked, glancing at Lily in the rearview mirror.
I saw her face break into a smile. “Yes! Can we get a really big one?”
“We can get as big a one as will fit in our living room.”
“How big is that?”
“I’m not sure. We’ll measure it before we go out and look, so we’ll know exactly how big we can get.”
She nodded, obviously thinking deeply on this issue.
I was glad she was excited about the Christmas tree. About Christmas.
Last year had been really hard—being the first Christmas without Nick.
My husband, Nick, had been a SEAL, but he died on a mission a year and a half ago. We’d been married seven years. Sometimes I looked at myself in the mirror and couldn’t believe I was a twenty-eight-year-old widow.
But I was. That was me. Living the rest of my life without Nick, who’d been just as sweet and serious as Lily.
As if she’d read my thoughts, Lily said into the silence, “Remember when Daddy brought home the tree that didn’t fit.”
My throat ached slightly at the memory of Nick cursing under his breath as he tried to get a too-big tree into our small house. “I do remember. He had to chop off the top to make it fit.”
Lily giggled. “He wasn’t happy.”
“But it still looked good, didn’t it?”
“Yes. It was pretty. I picked out a bigger star for the top, so it didn’t look so silly.”
“Your daddy always wanted the best for you.”
“Yes.” She was giving a little nod when I glanced to the mirror to check her expression. “Even the biggest Christmas tree.” After a pause, she added, “I remember he liked to read to me.”
“He did. He loved books just as much as we do.” Nick had loved his job, but he hadn’t been what most people thought of in a SEAL. In fact, he’d been thinking of getting out so he could go to graduate school. He’d just about decided on that plan when he’d been killed in action.
If he’d made the decision a little sooner, he might still be alive.
I shook the thought out of my head. Nick had always done his best—in his career, for his family—and there was no use thinking about could-have-beens.
For some reason, I pictured again the handsome substitute teacher, leaning against his SUV
But he was clearly nothing like Nick.
The next morning, I made a point of dropping by Lily’s classroom before school started to have a few words with the substitute, so I could get a better sense of him
The kids weren’t in the room yet, so I stopped in the open doorway to glance inside. The room was kind of messy, with toys and books not all put up from yesterday. Mr. Curtis was standing in front of the blackboard with a piece of chalk in his hand. He hadn’t written anything yet. He was just staring at the board.
Something in the set of his shoulders looked tense, like maybe he didn’t want to be here.
I cleared my throat.
He whirled around, obviously surprised, but his face almost immediately relaxed into a smile.
His smile really was amazing—broad and warm and transforming his entire face. Women must just swoon away at the sight of that smile.
Women more vulnerable than me.
“Good morning,” I said, feeling strangely awkward for no good reason. I stepped into the room. “I’m Kristin Andrews. I teach fourth-grade here, and my daughter Lily is in your class.”
He reached to take the hand I extended, his grip warm and strong. He paused a moment before he said, “Oh. Lily. Great. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Declan Curtis.”
I wondered if he even remembered there was a Lily in his class. His hesitation made me wonder.
It wasn’t fair to expect him to know all the kids’ names in just one day, but still…I felt a rising of annoyance that I tried to stamp down.
He could be a very nice guy and a perfectly acceptable substitute teacher. No need to jump to conclusions.
“I teach just down the hall. I just wanted to introduce myself.”
“I’m glad you did.” He was still smiling at me, and still holding my hand, but it felt almost reflexive. As if this was just what he did. Flirt with women, as the only way he knew to relate to them.
My annoyance rose even more as I pulled back my hand. “How long have you been teaching?”
“For a while. What about you?”
I wanted a more specific answer to my question than “a while,” but I wasn’t sure how to ask it again without sounding outrageously rude. “I’ve been teaching for eight years. Five years at this school. It’s a nice place to work.”
“It seems that way.” He was still smiling, but I saw that tension again in him. Maybe I was imagining it, but I kept thinking he didn’t want to be here.
“Anyway, Lily is already a really strong reader. I’m sure you’ll discover that soon. Any extra encouragement you can give her would be great, since she really wants to keep advancing. She loves school.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” He hadn’t lost that smile. In fact, it broadened even more
He held my gaze without breaking it.
I suddenly wondered if he was one of those smarmy, charismatic guys who charm their way through life but don’t really invest in anything serious.
I’d met my fair share of them, and I was starting to recognize the signs.
I took life serious. So did Lily. We’d both had some really hard things happen to us, but we were getting through them as well as could be expected. It sometimes grated on me that some people could ease through life without taking serious things seriously.
I tried to stamp down the reaction, since it was probably not fair. I’d just known this guy for two minutes, after all.
But I felt like I had a measure of him, and I didn’t like it.
“Okay,” I said. “Let me know if you need anything. I know it can sometimes be a challenge getting used to a new place.”
“Nah,” he said, overly casual. “First grade is easy.”
I stiffened instinctively. First grade was
easy—not if the teacher understood it was important. “Okay. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
I turned around and stepped on a book that shouldn’t have been on the floor. It was one of the very thin children’s books with slick, paperback covers. There was no traction between it in the floor, and my foot slipped forward slightly.
Maybe I shouldn’t have worn these shoes. Teachers at this school could dress fairly casually, but I always tried to dress nice, since I was small and looked young, so dressing nice gave me a little extra authority. Even with fourth-graders, I’d found it mattered.
Today, I wore a straight gray skirt that I thought was flattering without being sexy and a stylish blue top that looked almost vintage and brought out my eyes. My heels weren’t super-high and they were fairly comfortable, but they weren’t made for stepping on books that slid on the floor
I gasped as my whole body jerked with the slide
I would have caught myself, no trouble, but Declan was there before I knew it, putting an arm around my waist for support.
And, damn it, I liked how it felt. He was big and strong and masculine, and he smelled absolutely delicious—nothing strong or obnoxious, just nice. I leaned against him instinctively for just a minute.
“Are you okay?” he asked, a texture to his voice that made me shiver.
Then I suddenly realized what I was doing, and I straightened up and pulled away quickly. “I’m fine,” I murmured. “Thanks. You might want to pick up your classroom.”