Hunter’s Shadow Excerpt

The man had a world-class tush. A freaking Greek-god tush. Oh, yeah. That tush that should be carved in marble and mounted in the Acropolis.

“Excuse me, may I speak to you for a minute, Mr. Price?”

Mile-wide shoulders stiffened. Like the tush, the shoulders were prime. No two ways about it, God had blessed the new boys’ gym teacher with an incredible body.

“Sure. When I get a minute. If I get a minute. Which is doubtful.”

Right before He cursed him with the personality of a three-pound dumbbell.

Exasperated by the attitude he seemed to reserve for her, personally, Candy jammed one hand on her waist and canted a hip. Her head cocked as she ran her tongue across her teeth. Any one of the thirty or so teenagers milling around the volleyball court or scattered across the bleachers could have interpreted the signals for him. Watch your step, pal.

Candy drew a breath through her nose. “I’m afraid it can’t wait. I have to talk to you before the match starts.”

Heaving a sigh, he turned. At five-ten Candy looked most men in the eye. The fact that she had to look up to this six-foot-three-inch bozo counted as one more mark against him.

“All right, Ms. Price,” he rumbled in that deep-as-the-ocean voice, “you have the floor.”

Maybe, but a couple seconds ticked by before she could remember why she wanted the floor in the first place. Price’s voice never failed to ruffle her nerve endings and leave her flustered, mostly because her idiot ears couldn’t seem tell the difference between a well-built moron and Sean Connery.

Fortunately, thanks to seven years working in the shark tank known as Donnerton High, she had her poker face down pat. She’d rather eat dirt than let Price know he could stud her arms with goose bumps with one bass-clef word from those chiseled lips.

As she waited for her mental gears to mesh, her eyes took an unauthorized side trip, traveling from his broad chest—currently painted fire-engine red in a tight Donnerton High t-shirt—to his strong neck and granite jaw, snagging briefly on the aforementioned lips before climbing to meet his smart-assed gray gaze. At that point, she barely suppressed a wince.

In addition to withholding anything remotely resembling a personality, God had coupled the face and body to die for with fashion anti-flair. Price’s clunky black glasses were a sad blast from the long past. The nerd-strap belting them to his thick skull bisected black hair slapped flat with a pound of grease.

“Well? Is there a point to this interruption? Or do you need another minute or two to memorize my face so you can paint my portrait?”

Candy snorted. “I’d rather draw flies.”

A disconcerting glint of … amusement? Nah. The ability to be amused was limited to intelligent life forms, and Price didn’t qualify.

“Huh. Well, in that case, what can I do for you, Ms. Johnson?”

God, she hated it when he called her Ms. Johnson in that snotty tone. Obnoxious twerp.

“As I said, I’d like to talk to you.”

“I’m all ears.”

“Not here. In the hall.”

When he rolled his eyes, she had to quash an almost overwhelming urge to brain him with her clipboard.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” he drawled, “but this game between the boys’ and girls’ JV teams was your idea.”

She shook her head. “What does that have to do with wanting to talk to you in the hall?”

“I figure you want privacy, so you can save face when you back out. No problem. Just say the word, and we’ll all go home.”

“I’m not trying to back out! Why would I?”

“Because you’re finally ready to admit your women don’t stand a chance in hell against my guys?”

Candy narrowed her eyes. “Why you—”

“Okay,” he said, holding up a hand, “not backing out. In that case, I suggest we get this cockeyed battle of the sexes underway. The sooner I prove my point, the sooner I take the team out for pizza.”

She jerked her chin toward the gymnasium door. “In the hall, Price. Now.”

Pinhead smirked and followed her across the hardwood floor to the double doors. Once in the hallway, he braced one foot against the wall and leaned back, casually turning the ball cradled in his big hands.

“Okay, we’re in the hallway.” He hoisted a brow. “Why are we in the hallway, Ms. Johnson?”

“Well, George,” she began, smiling sweetly, “we’re here to discuss your balls.”

His hands went still. “Excuse me?”

“I said, we need to talk about your balls.”

The moron actually grinned at her as the orb in his hands resumed its rotation. “You surprise me, Ms. Johnson. I didn’t think you’d noticed.”

“Hard not to. Them being so wrong and all.”

His brows beetled. “I don’t follow.”

And couldn’t if I drew you a map. “You know that they say about bringing a knife to a gunfight?”

“Yeah?”

“Same goes for bringing soccer balls to a volleyball game.”

His size thirteen Nike Air plunked down on the floor. He glowered at the ball in his hands. “Soccer balls?”

“Uh-huh. You do know the difference, right? Adds up to about two PSI and half dozen broken fingers.”

He stuck out his chin, a tempting target, but she restrained herself. “I knew that. I grabbed the wrong equipment bag, that’s all. Could happen to anybody.”

“Hm.” Yet you didn’t actually cop to the foul until I called you on it. And that made her wonder.

Candy was a born wonderer. Also a first-class suspecter and hypothesizer. Granted, she’d yet to be tested against a genuine mystery, but she was ready to pit her deductive reasoning skills against Sherlock Holmes, Harry Bosch, and Eve Dallas any day. Unfortunately, fate had mistakenly trapped her inner PI—sharp, shrewd, and gutsy as hell—in a small-town gym teacher’s life.

But wait. Maybe that was about to change, at least, marginally. Temporarily. Price could be her first case. After all, what could be more suspicious than a surly, sarcastic nerd who, for no logical reason, seemed to hate perfectly likable people like her on sight? Who was trying to pass as a phys ed teacher, despite an implausible disrespect for, possibly even ignorance of, standard athletic equipment?

Granted, it was a micro-mini mystery at best, but every investigator had to start somewhere, right? Besides, poking into Price’s business beat the hell out of grading last week’s quiz on badminton. Already riding on the thrill of the chase, she eased into interrogation mode.

“You know, you’re right. It is an easy mistake to make,” she said, giving him rueful and sympathetic. “Got turned around myself, when I was a newbie. I couldn’t even find the gym my first day.”

“Who said I was a newbie?”

Hot on the scent of something rotten in Denmark, she shrugged. “I assumed. So this isn’t your first rodeo, huh?”

“Nope.”

“When was your first?”

“Five years ago this fall.”

“So we’ve been teaching about the same length of time.” She smiled winningly. “Where’d you get your degree?”

“What is this? Twenty Questions?” He tossed a hand toward the gym doors. “We left thirty overactive, hormone-crazed teenagers in there. Unsupervised. Isn’t it about time we—”

“UCLA?” she guessed quickly.

“Are you always this nosy?”

“Just trying to get better acquainted. You know how that’s done, right? I share something, then you share something. It’s called a conversation, George. You’re probably familiar with the concept. In theory, at least.”

“Hah. Hah. I went to USC, if you must know.”

And just like that, she got sidetracked. “Hey! Me, too!”

“You don’t say.”

“How about that? We’re both Trojans!”

“Whoopee.”

“And gym teachers.”

“Must be fate,” he muttered.

“Must be.”

Which only confirmed her suspicion that Fate dealt underhanded and from the bottom of the deck. In her experience.

She was, after all, a natural athlete descended from a long line of natural athletes. A woman who loved sports. Baseball, basketball, volleyball, you name it, Candy was all about the game. Her family had expected her to follow the rest of the clan into the record books, and God only knew, she’d given it her best shot. A half-lifetime of best shots. But she’d never quite measured up.

She’d been eighteen—pinched by feelings of inadequacy, miserably frustrated, and smothered in guilt—when her problem was finally diagnosed, catapulting the entire family into immediate, vociferous denial. But lackluster performances in college basketball, fast-pitch softball, and track and field finally forced three generations of champions to accept the truth. Olympic-level competition could never be more than a pipe dream for an athlete born without the killer-competitor gene, and Candy inexplicably lacked the Johnson drive to win at any cost.

Because that was old and painful news, Candy redirected to Price. “Degree in Kinesiology?” He shrugged. Was that a yes? Pretending to take it as such, she wrinkled her nose. “Me, too. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” More like her family’s idea of the most palatable compromise. “You know, practical.”

Her family didn’t have the first clue about Candy’s Walter Mitty wild side. If they had, if they’d ever actually tuned in to her, they would’ve realized insatiable curiosity combined with an active imagination and a thirst for adventure did not a happy gym teacher make.

“You don’t like teaching?”

“It’s all right.” Until—please, God—something better comes along.

Too bad the Donnerton Crier didn’t run help-wanted ads for careers fraught with danger and intrigue. She almost snorted at the thought. As if. The Crier didn’t have the words danger and intrigue in its spellchecker. Why bother with nouns they’d never need? Life in Donnerton was uneventful, bordering on rut stuck. Which was why, for the past two years Candy had been saving to move someplace—almost anyplace—else.

“Like what?” said Price, and she blinked.

“Huh?”

“You said until something better comes along. What could be better than riding herd on a gym full of teenagers?”

“Um.” Crap. She’d babbled that bit out loud. Granted, babbling was part of the plan, but he was supposed to be the one doing it.

Candy straightened her shoulders. “Never mind. Okay. Degree in Kinese from USC, and you’ve been teaching five years.” She smiled, moved in for the kill. “So how come you don’t know your volleyballs from your right butt cheek?”

“I grabbed the wrong bag of balls, because I had other things on my mind,” he snapped. “Like selling one house, moving to a new town, buying another house, and starting a new job. All in two weeks’ time, I might add.”

His explanation sounded entirely plausible. Dammit. “Um-hm. And you had to make this move so suddenly because?”

“And that would be your business because?”

“Just wondering. Guess I can always ask Dr. Carmichael.”

She wouldn’t, of course. Next to Hank Redman the science sot, Candy was Principal Carmichael’s least favorite person. But who knew the man would hold a three-year grudge simply because she’d once told him to keep his moist, pudgy pink paws to himself? Not her fault the hands-off call went public. Only an idiot tried to cop a feel standing in front of an open mike in the middle of a pep rally.

Still, the Carmichael threat should’ve done the trick. And it did … sort of … in a weird, out-of-left-field kind of way. Pinhead went absolutely still as his gaze grew oddly intent. He started to tumble the ball in his hands again—very slowly. One might almost say, threateningly.

“You know what they say about cats and curiosity, Ms. Johnson.” His voice had gone dangerously soft.

The hair on the back of her neck stood straight up in response. Shocked by the sensation, she shook her head.

One black brow lifted. “You don’t know what they say about curiosity and cats?”

He was playing her. Irritation crackled back, as her spine straightened with an almost audible snap. Damned if she wouldn’t talk to Carmichael, she decided on the spot. No fashion-impaired grease ball in K-Mart track shoes was going to best Candy Johnson. Not in this lifetime, brother.

She daggered him with her eyes, swung toward the gym doors. “I know what they say about cats and satisfaction, George.” Smacked the release bar and fired a final glare over her shoulder. “Better watch your butt.”

God bless wheezing pneumatic hinges and tight budgets. The door slammed behind her with a satisfying crash.

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