Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5
What about “no” couldn’t the hulk understand? Shelby Coltman grimaced and lowered her head, ducking through the first door on the right. Not that she could do anything to disguise her thick veil of apricot hair or pale complexion.
The normally bustling hall of Beaver Pond High School was deserted this late in the afternoon.
She could only hope the football coach didn’t see her. With her back pressed against the door, she closed her eyes and listened to the footsteps echo in the quiet corridor, the electronic tablet clutched to her chest. Please keep going. Don’t stop. She needed to have a heart-to-heart with the burly coach. It was only early February. She couldn’t dodge him for the rest of the school year.
“Make it a habit to visit the men’s restroom, Ms. Coltman?” The amused voice, velvety and deep, cut through her admonition.
The men’s bathroom?
Her head popped up, along with her eyelids. Her nose verified her location. Ammonia and citrus collided. She wrinkled her nose, glancing at the sinks, stalls, urinals, and…Tate Malone.
The guy she always wanted to see. Except in the men’s bathroom. She winced and her words came out squeaky. “Only when I know you’re in here.”
Heavy dark brows lifted over warm, cinnamon-tinted eyes, and he continued wiping his hands on the paper towel, but other than that, he didn’t respond to her teasing. He never did. Her attempts to get him to open up only made him tighten that cloak of reserve.
Unlike the coach who kept spewing unwelcome date invites.
Sighing, she loosened her chokehold on the tablet, her arm dropped to her side. “Coach Joe’s out there. I didn’t want to run into him.”
Tate nodded. One slow, long, knowing look.
Did he not believe her?
“It’s really not what it sounds like. He’s asked me out and I’ve told him no, especially after I heard about his reputation.” Shelby shuddered. A guy like that just didn’t line up with her purity vow. “He’s definitely persistent. Probably what makes him such a good football coach. I can’t seem to make him understand that I don’t want to go out with him, but the school hallway just doesn’t seem like the right place for that conversation.” She could just hear what Tate didn’t say.
So the men’s bathroom was a better spot?
Why was she babbling to a guy who didn’t care about her not wanting to date the coach? She pinched the bridge of her nose. How did she get herself into these situations?
“Come on.” Tate flicked the towel in the trashcan and cupped her elbow.
“Let’s take care of this situation right now. Before it turns ugly.” Determination lined Tate’s lips as he opened the door. Why did he look as if he was upset with her? “I know just the right place for this discussion. The principal’s office.”
She was being sent to the principal’s office again? Memories of her high school years flooded back. The principal’s repeated warnings to stop daydreaming in class and start paying attention, or she’d risk not graduating. Shelby closed her eyes and groaned. If the principal canned her, she might never be able to open her storefront.
“It’ll be OK.” Tate reassured.
His brief touch on her arm was enough to propel her into the hallway, squeezing through the opening, catching a whiff of Tate’s clean, woodsy smell. Close enough to feel irritation vibrate from Tate’s limbs, to hear the pressure in the hitch of his breath.
She licked dry lips as Tate followed her into the hallway.
“Hey, Joe, wait up.”
The hulk turned. Heavy brows hiked up, and then narrowed when he spotted Shelby standing next to Tate. His gaze shot to the sign above the men’s bathroom. Scorn gleamed from his eyes as they made a slow trip from her chest to her legs and back again.
She tucked the tablet against her blouse.
The giant sneered. “I didn’t know you two were an item.”
Shelby sucked in a breath “What? We’re not—”
Joe’s gaze speared her mid-section.
She glanced down. Tate’s fingers were curled around her arm. When did that happen?
“Coach, Ms. Coltman and I are headed to Principal Winecoff’s office. I thought you might like to join us.” Tate didn’t move his hand.
“Why?” The coach practically snarled.
“Because we’ll be discussing sexual harassment.” Tate’s tone was firm, and although the burly coach had about a hundred pounds on him, Tate never flinched or backed down from the big man’s glare.
“Thanks, but I have better things to do with my time.” Coach Joe whirled and stalked away.
Claiming sexual harassment?
Dread boiled in her belly. That sounded like the kiss of death for her teaching career at Beaver Pond. And her dreams of opening her store, From Junk to Treasure.
Shelby turned to Tate, the man responsible for the demise of her dreams. She wanted to be mad at him, so she avoided his cinnamon-flecked eyes, choosing to focus on the mole just below his cheek. Next to his lips.
Big mistake. “W-we are?”
“But why? The words ‘sexual harassment’ never came out of my mouth.”
“They didn’t have to.” His fingers curled around her arm again, guiding her towards the administrative office.
Shelby gulped. “Tate, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I can’t afford to lose my job.”
“You won’t lose your job, Shelby. Trust me.”
She’d heard those words before. A few times from her ex-boyfriend. When he wanted something precious that she wasn’t willing to give. Could she trust Tate? Or was he just like all the other guys she’d dated?
Why was she so worried about losing her job? She didn’t need it. Not like he did, or the countless other teachers who supported families and barely survived from one paycheck to the next.
She cast a worried look in his direction. “But—”
“You said Coach doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, right?”
Long apricot locks rippled against her shoulders as her pretty head wobbled.
“I don’t want this situation to escalate into something much worse.” Or to risk her being hurt by the heartless jock. Not that he’d mention that.
They reached the administration office. The place was dark, except for the principal’s office, and the only sound was the occasional chatter of the custodians over the radio. Tate rapped lightly on the door.
“Come in.” The heavy door muffled the principal’s response.
Shelby’s fingers pressed lightly against his hand on the doorknob. Her head tilted at an angle, desperation clouding her expression.
“Shelby, I can’t not report this.”
Her head dipped to her chest.
He nudged her chin up with a thumb and found himself gazing into beautiful blue eyes, as clear and pristine as a cloudless North Carolina sky. He breathed deep, but all he could smell was an alluring combination of roses and some kind of citrus. He exhaled and vowed not to breathe until more than a couple of feet separated them.
He’d managed to keep a healthy distance between them for the entire first semester of staff meetings. This was the closest he’d gotten to Shelby, and he didn’t like it. Didn’t welcome the intense longing that hummed through his body from being so close to her. Didn’t appreciate how being around her awakened the dreams of family, the possibility of a forever love that he’d squashed to oblivion along with his parents’ desertion fourteen years ago. No. Those dreams were best left dormant.
Shelby Coltman was born into wealth, obvious from the expensive car she drove, the elegant clothes she wore, the perfectly straight teeth and flawless complexion. Even her exquisite creations.
He made it a point to wander past her classroom every afternoon on his way to the parking lot and peek in at her artwork.
She couldn’t possibly know what it felt like to move twenty times during one year, to be yanked from one school after another. To wear the same clothes to school day after day because that was the only set of pants he owned. Or to lug a bucket to the park at night to transport water home so his sister could bathe because their water had been disconnected. Or to carry toothpaste and shampoo because he never knew when he might have the opportunity to wash. Or to sleep in their coats because the electricity had been cut off for non-payment. His life had been ugly.
Until God cleaned it up.
No. He had nothing in common with the pretty art teacher. Shelby would never understand the poverty he came from. Not that he wanted her to, but he’d do well to remember they came from two completely different worlds. His frustration came out in a huff. “Hey. It’ll be OK.”
She nodded, resignation drooping her shoulders.
What was she so upset about? Didn’t she say she wanted to put an end to the coach’s unwanted advances?
So did Tate. He didn’t want to see her fall for Joe’s charm like the countless other females who’d succumbed to muscles and ego. But if he were truthful, it was more than that. He didn’t like the way Joe looked at Shelby, the way he leered at her. Tate wasn’t willing to risk her safety. If that meant keeping tabs on her to see that she was safe, he intended to do just that.
He pushed the door open and gestured for Shelby to enter first. She slid past him, and he got another whiff, this time of her hair. She was all about berries and springtime. Dreams and…forever. She made him think about the future.
OK. Maybe it would be best if he kept tabs on her from a distance.
“You guys are working late.” Principal Winecoff looked up from the paperwork sprawled across his desk, his reading glasses hanging low on his nose. He scratched his balding head and removed his specs. The chair squeaked as he leaned back. “Have a seat.”
Shelby settled in the chair, her tongue sliding out to lick her lips.
Tate lost his train of thought.
“What can I do for you?”
Tate flicked his attention back to the principal and sank into the other chair. “Shelby’s experiencing an issue with Coach Joe.”
Understanding hardened the Principal’s face. He scrubbed a hand across his jaw and shot forward, his chair emitting another obnoxious screech. “I see.”
“It’s not really a problem—”
“He keeps asking her out after she’s refused his invitation to the point where she’s avoiding him.” Tate interrupted.
“That is a problem then, Ms. Coltman.” The principal pulled a desk drawer, tugged out a note pad, and slid it on the desk. “We will not tolerate bullish behavior, especially if it borders on sexual—”
Shelby gave her head a vigorous shake. “I wouldn’t call it by that name, Mr. Winecoff. I’m sure once we have a heart-to-heart, Coach Joe—”
“How about if I have a chat with him?” The principal said, jotting some notes on the paper. “And remind him of the consequences of this type of behavior.”
“I really don’t want to get him in any trouble…” Shelby nibbled on her fingernails and shot Tate a glare as close as her pretty face could come to a glower.
Tate bit back a grin.
“Coach Joe makes enough trouble for himself. You’re not responsible. Now, you be sure to let me know if this continues to be a problem, you hear?” Principal Winecoff stood.
That was their cue that the meeting was over.
“All right.” Shelby didn’t look as if it was all right. Anything but.
Tate followed her to the door. He opened it and gestured for her to go first, trying not to breathe, or grin, while she stalked past. Her shoulders pressed back and fire shot from her glare.
The principal halted his progress with a hand to Tate’s shoulder. “Tate, would you mind keeping a close eye on this situation for me? A rather discreet eye.”
“Sure.” He’d planned to. The principal didn’t need to ask.
“Thank you. I’m not sure I trust Ms. Coltman to let me know if the situation continues.”
“Yeah. Me, either.”
Shelby was too sweet, too naïve for her own good. None of the ladies had refused Coach Joe before. He might not take rejection well. Coach Joe was blunt. Tate wouldn’t put it past him to sling hateful words.
Much like Tate’s last girlfriend. Decent and sweet enough until he refused her advances. Then, she’d called him a “freak” and quite a few other vile names.
Yeah. He’d look out for Shelby, but he’d do his best to avoid her and the tender, protective feelings she evoked in him.