Annaliese Harper approached the threshold of the ornate library, a live wire of anxiety and anticipation. In mental preparation, she’d donned her mask of fake composure and steeled herself against the inevitable onslaught of awkward introductions. Still, nervous tension twisted her gut as she checked out the staff of Fullerton Academy of Higher Learning from the safety of the hall.
Before she could make her move, Liese’s phone chimed in her purse, the volume loud enough to startle her. She whirled from where her colleagues were gathered, muttering a cleaned-up curse. The cavernous hallway had amazing acoustics, judging by the impressive echo of her heels on the marble floor. She glanced over her shoulder, but no one seemed to have noticed the noise.
She rooted around in her purse and located the device; palming the phone, she muted the volume before it could chime again. Too wound up to head back toward the library straight away, she keyed in her password and clicked on the message. An image appeared on the tiny screen.
“Oh my God,” Liese snorted. She slapped her palm over her mouth to stop from laughing aloud as she gawked at the photoshopped image. In a perverse gesture of camaraderie, her best friend had sent an interesting picture of Liese’s new boss, the incredibly attractive principal at FAHL, Ryder Whitehall. The face, at least, was his, but based on the substantial endowment hanging a little to the left, the body belonged to a porn star. She couldn’t wait to get home to view the full-screen version in her email.
“Ms. Harper?” The voice came from behind her.
She jumped and fumbled with her phone. In a protective, graceless move, she clutched it to her chest for a moment before frantically punching the off button. She shoved it back in her purse and turned to find the principal in question standing mere feet away.
Her eyes were level with his chest, and his brilliant red tie seemed to function as an arrow, pointing down to where she shouldn’t be looking. Despite herself, Liese took a moment to appreciate the fit of his suit and the way it hugged the long, muscular lines of his body. His shirt had to be tailored with the way it pulled across his chest, highlighting broad shoulders that tapered into a narrow waist. She imagined he must be cut under all those clothes, a thought she knew she shouldn’t ruminate on overly much.
She looked up; at five-foot-seven Liese wasn’t particularly short, but her principal had a good six inches on her, forcing her to tilt her head back to make eye contact. She made a concerted effort to keep her eyes on his face, lest her gaze wander lower, her mind still stuck on the pornographic image she’d been ogling.
Not that looking at his face was a problem. His eyes were a vibrant, rather mesmerizing shade of aquamarine, sucking her in. His short, dark hair was neatly styled, and Liese had the inexcusable desire to run her fingers through and mess it up. The straight line of his nose contrasted sharply with the soft, full curve of his lips.
“Mr. Whitehall, hi, hello.” Liese cringed internally at the high, edgy tenor of her voice.
Mr. Whitehall leaned in, close enough that she could feel the apocalyptic heat he emitted. “It’s just Ryder unless there are students present, Ms. Harper.” His amused smile should have helped relax her, but it flustered her more. As did his proximity.
“Right, of course, Ryder.”
He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “You have nothing to fear. You’ll fit in perfectly here.” He inclined his head in the direction of the library. “If you find it helpful, we can discuss any additional questions after orientation.”
“That sounds great.” Liese gave him a genuine smile as he guided her down the hall and through the door, his fingertips brushing the back of her arm. The unexpected contact sent a shiver down her spine. He motioned to the right, where a table had been set up. Liese signed the attendance sheet while Ryder bent next to her and located her orientation package.
Unfamiliar colleagues milled about, many finding a place to sit. Worried about the seating arrangements and not knowing anyone, Liese scanned the room for empty chairs while also scoping out her coworkers. Her unease must have been obvious because Ryder took pity on her and introduced her to several staff members. She tried to pay attention to her colleagues’ names and disciplines rather than fixate on the number of times Ryder touched her arm. She was almost relieved when Harvey Little, the assistant principal, motioned him to the front of the room. Ryder flashed Liese an encouraging smile and joined his second-in-command.
Dry mouthed, she grabbed a refreshment and set her things down at an empty table. She didn’t like the way Ryder’s touch affected her ability to think straight. The raw attraction that accompanied such benign contact with him caused alarm bells to ring in her head. Having a good-looking boss was one thing; crushing on him was entirely another.
Liese pretended to be interested in her orientation packet to pass the time. She hated the initial discomfort that accompanied meeting new people. Her goal wasn’t just making friends; she needed to suss out her colleagues. High school teachers, like high school students, could be cliquey. The last thing she wanted was to take up residence beside the chatty teacher who would talk through the entire meeting and made her look bad.
“Hey, mind if I sit here?”
Liese looked up to find a tall, lean, well-dressed man with sandy blond hair and brown eyes smiling down at her. He looked safe. “Sure. Go ahead.” She returned the grin and motioned to the empty seats.
“You must be our new librarian.” He dropped into the chair opposite her and leaned back, stretching his legs out.
“Um, yeah, that’s me. How’d you know?” She held out her hand. “I’m Liese Harper.”
“Blake Stone, lone drama teacher.” He leaned forward and shook her hand before reclining in his chair once again. “There were only two new hires this year. The other guy teaches science, and I met him when I was grabbing a coffee,” he said.
“Oh right. Well, it’s nice to know I’m not the only new person here.” She glanced around the room. No one else looked as out of place as she felt at that particular moment. Nonetheless, Liese steered the conversation, asking questions about Blake’s program and what it took to run a full production as the sole drama teacher. “It must be a huge time commitment for you,” she prompted.
“Sure, but I love doing it, and so do the students, so it’s worth it. If you want to help out with this year’s play, let me know. No pressure, though.” He winked and looked over her shoulder, waving enthusiastically.