“A childhood friend,” Niko explained. “And the school principal.” He looked over as Ike Jr. sighed and once again used his thumb to tap the phone screen. “No answer?”

Ike Jr. shook his head. “Busy signal.”

“Every parent who has his number is probably calling,” Ike Sr. commented as he turned to look at Ike Jr.

Monique noted that he looked as worried as those he was trying to calm.

“We’ve all known him for years,” he said to Monique as if reading her mind. “I’m good friends with his father. Lawrence is someone we’re all proud of, an upstanding citizen and great dad.” He looked out the window. “Everything is going to be all right.” By now, Monique assumed, he was trying to convince himself as well as the other riders.

She was trying to persuade herself of something as well—that the shortness of breath and butterflies she was experiencing were from nerves about the fire and not the fact that Niko’s strong leg kept brushing against hers, and in the cramped quarters of a full-back seat she couldn’t escape the raw male heat emanating from his body or the musky, sensuous smell of his cologne. One whiff of it had conjured up memories of the beauty salon and the first time she’d shared space with him, had revived the amorous feelings that she forced down now as she had the day of their fateful meeting. Trying to force her thoughts back to the potential catastrophe at hand, she rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath to still a heartbeat quickened by Niko’s nearness, not knowing that this simple act would only make matters worse. A shaky finger tapped the phone screen.

“Calling someone connected with the school?” he asked her.

She nodded. “My mentee, Devante. He works there. I’m getting voice mail.”

“It’s late. More than likely, there was no one in the building when the fire started,” Niko said, placing his arm around her.

“He’s the janitor and works after hours.” Her voice was soft, strained, as she fought against the urge to remove his arm from around her shoulders. A part of her knew that in no way should she ever feel any part of his anatomy while another part of her wanted to cuddle into his embrace.

Ike Jr. looked at Monique. “Lawrence told me about him. Said there was a young man working at the school who he’d talked to about becoming a gym teacher. Naturally athletic, great personality and said the kids all looked up to him, especially the boys.”

Monique nodded. “That’s Devante. Had circumstances been different, he could have played pro sports. He’s that talented.”

“I sure hope he’s all right.”

“Me, too.” Once again, she dialed the number. This time she left a message. “Devante, this is Monique. Please give me a call as soon as you get this message. There’s a fire at the school. I’m worried about you.”

They covered the few remaining miles in silence, with Monique battling against thoughts of demise and desire. She didn’t know what she’d do if anything happened to the young man she’d decided to mentor and had convinced to come here. Similarly, she didn’t know how she’d survive this night, let alone this town, if this strong, relentless desire for the man sitting next to her didn’t go away.

Chapter 11

They reached the street where the school was located, now crowded with onlookers watching the firefighters battling the massive blaze. Everyone exited the vehicle. Niko looked over to where two police cars blocked off the part of the street closest to the fire. “There’s Randy,” he said over his shoulder before walking toward the officers standing beside the patrol cars. He’d known Randy for most of his life. Monique followed closely behind.

“Hey, Officers, Randy.” Niko nodded toward the burning building. “That’s a nasty blaze.”

“Sure is.” The officer’s eyes remained on a firefighter who’d just opened up another forceful stream of water to combat the flames.

“Any idea how it started?”

Randy shook his head. “Neighbors reported hearing an explosion. But we won’t know anything for sure until the fire is out.”

“Was anyone inside?”

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