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When Holly McAvery signed on as a teacher for the U.S. military, she expected new adventures, but nothing prepared her for what she encountered. Between being a civilian on a military base and finding her way around a new country, Holly learned to navigate her new life with a sharp tongue and quick wit. When she discovers she has a stalker, however, the adventures take a dangerous tone.
Luckily, Holly has her personal bodyguard in the very bossy, very arrogant Logan Daniels. From the moment he barged into her life, she knew that he would be her greatest challenge.
Holly McAvery walked briskly behind the man in uniform ahead of her, head held high but her knuckles were white as she gripped her one bag. For the millionth time since she clicked “submit” on her online application, she questioned the impulse decision. Sure, Holly had always wanted to travel. Wanted to see the world. After all, she was a history teacher, and what could be better for the classroom than a teacher who had really been to those places?
But picking up her life and moving to Europe to teach on a military base? Or was it a post? She could never remember.
“Here you are, Miss McAvery,” the young man said, stopping at a small house similar to every other house on the street. “Number 17 is all yours.”
Holly fished out a radiant smile for the… what was he again? Dammit, she couldn’t even remember what branch of the military he was in. Blue was Navy, right?
“Thank you,” Holly said, clutching her keys tightly. The young man nodded and turned back down the sidewalk, leaving Holly alone to conquer her very first house.
Taking a deep breath and hitching her purple carry-on bag on her shoulder, Holly marched up the two stairs to her small porch and stuck the key in the lock. The door swung open to reveal a plain but furnished living room, which opened into a kitchen and a hallway to the right. It smelled slightly musty and despite the furniture seemed very bare. Feeling the beginnings of panic grip her stomach, Holly pasted a big smile on her face for her invisible audience.
“I love moving in,” she announced to the empty room. “It’s like college. I get to decorate however I want!” To punctuate her forced enthusiasm, the phone rang and, desperate for a diversion, Holly ran toward the noise, skidding to a stop in the kitchen where an old phone hung on the wall.
“Hello?” Holly exclaimed, far too cheerfully.
“Good afternoon, may I speak with Holly McAvery please?” a pleasant woman’s voice greeted on the other end.
“This is!” Holly chirped.
“Oh, good,” the woman said. “Holly, this is Joann Valerio. I’m glad to hear you’ve arrived safely. Have your boxes come yet?” Joann was the only person Holly knew in Italy, and she didn’t even really know the woman. They had communicated mainly through email, with two phone calls in the past six months to finalize details. Joann was the liaison for the DoDEA in the city and in charge of placing Holly in the high school.
“I just walked in,” Holly answered. “I haven’t seen any yet.”
“Well they should be there soon. We try to ensure that all of your stuff gets there before you do as a welcome. Feeling the jetlag yet?” Joann asked.
“No, I took a sleeping pill on the plane to help me adjust to Italian time,” Holly said, omitting that she had been slowly adjusting her sleep schedule over the past two weeks. Homesickness and loneliness were bad enough without sleep deprivation.
“Smart idea,” Joann replied. “Well, anyway, tomorrow morning we’re having a brunch at the school to meet our new hires. You’re the only new teacher this year, but we do have some new staff. Starts at ten-thirty.”
“Great, I’ll be there,” Holly said, relieved. Just then, someone knocked on her door. “Oh, Joann, I think my boxes are here. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
“See you then! And welcome to Italy!”
“Thanks!” Holly replaced the phone and ran to the door, grinning. She opened it, only to find two women standing on her front porch.
“Hi!” one woman with black hair said, a sweet smile on her face. “I’m Ava Grant, and this is Caroline Tygiel. We live on either side of you, and thought we’d drop by and welcome you!”
Holly, surprised, beamed at the women and moved aside. “I’m Holly McAvery, come on in, please. You’re my very first visitors.” She closed the door as they walked in, and they all took a seat in the living room.
“I’d offer you something, but I don’t even have my boxes yet, let alone food!” Holly apologized, trying to ignore the panic tugging at her insides at her words.
Caroline waved her hand, rolling her pretty blue eyes. “Oh no, never mind that,” she dismissed, a Southern lilt in her voice. “We actually meant to bring you something, but my husband got to the cookies before you got here. You know how that is. Military men are always hungry.” Ava nodded sympathetically, but Holly shrugged sheepishly.
“Actually, I don’t know,” she admitted. “I’m not married.”
“Oh,” Caroline said, surprised.
“Then… you’re in the military?” Ava asked, eyeing Holly’s plump curves. Holly laughed.
“Oh no, no I could never survive the military!” she protested. “If I had someone yelling in my face, demanding I run more than a few blocks, I’d sit down and cry. No, I’m with the DoDEA. I’m the new history teacher at the school.”
“Oh,” Caroline said, eyebrows raised, her tone positively gleeful at potentially juicy gossip. “What made you decide to do that?”
“Caroline!” Ava admonished, glaring at her friend who shrugged defensively.
“What?” Caroline asked. “It’s a reasonable question! I mean, it’s not every day when a woman moves half way ‘cross the world to teach a bunch of Navy brats.” She turned a sweet smile on Holly. “You aren’t offended, are you?”
“No,” Holly stuttered, a bit bewildered by the women. “Not at all. I decided to do this because it was the best way to do some traveling and teaching at the same time. All on the government’s dime!” She grinned. “Besides, what’s to hold me back? I’m young and single, so why not?”
“Not for long, honey,” Ava commented and Caroline nodded beside her sagely. Holly’s smile faltered.
“Huh?” she asked, dumbly.
The women exchanged looks. “Have you been around many military men, Holly?” Ava asked, her tone indicating she already knew the answer. Holly shook her head, and Ava continued. “Look, you’re a single woman on living on a naval base. The men are going to chase you like you’re the only woman left on the planet.”
Holly looked at each of the women, stunned, before bursting out into a fit of giggles. “I really doubt that’ll be an issue,” Holly assured them between laughs. “I’ve never really been the chased-girl type.” That was an understatement. In high school, Holly had been convinced she was fat and therefore ugly, and preferred the company of books to people, despite her outgoing manner. In college, she was far too intense for most of the boys. After all, she wasn’t going to find anything more than a one night stand at a bar, and her male classmates were more impressed by her organization and willingness to help with schoolwork than her other assets. Two years out of college and Holly still only had one boyfriend to her name, and she wasn’t really sure he counted, since the majority of their relationship was long distance. No, being chased wasn’t her problem.
The two women exchanged knowing looks again, but neither pressed the issue. Holly was saved by a knock at the door. She jumped up from the chair and ran to the door, flinging it open.
“Holly McAvery?” the man asked.
“That’s me!” Holly replied enthusiastically, eyeing the truck parked at the curb in front of her house.
“Please sign here, and we’ll bring your boxes right in,” the man instructed, handing Holly a clipboard. Signing eagerly, she beamed at the man as she handed it back.
“Well, we’ll let you unpack,” Caroline said, standing. “But if you need anything, or just get lonely, come on over. If I don’t answer, I’m over at Ava’s. Come on over anytime.”
“Thanks, I definitely will!” Holly waved as they left and stood aside while the men carried in box after box. She bounced on the balls of her feet eagerly. There was nothing Holly liked more than to arrange all her stuff.
“No wonder I’m single,” Holly muttered, but she preferred her nerdy excitement to homesickness and panic and as soon as the men left, she indulged herself by ripping into the first box to begin the nesting process.
* * * * *
“Oh, don’t worry about that, you don’t need to speak Italian. You really don’t ever have to go off base for anything, and all the tourist spots around here have people who speak English.”
Holly nodded at the man speaking to her the next morning at the school brunch. Robert Brack was a physics teacher from central Illinois, brought to Italy after his divorce. He had been on base for nearly two years and offered to show Holly around. She politely declined, insisting that getting lost was half the fun.
“Excuse me,” Holly murmured, heading for the buffet table. She yawned as she reached for a scone and wished for the zillionth time in her life that she drank coffee. Hoping to induce a dreamless, bone-tired sleep, Holly had unpacked feverishly until one in the morning. She worked her way through all of her boxes and had everything in the correct room, even if it didn’t have a home yet. Despite that, it had taken Holly nearly an hour to fall asleep and she woke with a start, pushing herself half out of bed at six am before remembering where she was. Unable to fall back asleep, she attempted to set up her electronics. Having now been awake nearly twice as long as she was asleep, Holly was longing for her new bed and a solid nap.
“I see you managed to escape Bobby,” someone said softly beside Holly. She jumped and looked to her right where a man around her age was grinning.
Holly gave him an embarrassed smile. “Yeah, he’s very… friendly,” Holly said politely, drawing a short laugh out of the impeccably dressed man. He was only slightly taller than Holly’s 5’8” and very slim.
“Friendly is one way to put it,” the man said. “Just wait until he finds you using a new piece of chalk just because yours broke, or lending the students pencils. Then watch out! He’ll be breathing down your neck and shooting you the evil eye in the hallway.” Holly giggled, looking over at Robert as he cornered another teacher and was clearly very emphatic in his speech.
“I’m Max West,” the man introduced, holding out his hand with a grin.
“Holly McAvery,” Holly said, shaking his hand.
“So you’re our new social studies gal, huh?”
“That’s me!” Holly answered.
“Well, don’t you let those scary math and science teachers bully you,” Max said. “We English and history people have to stick together.”
Holly grinned. “Haven’t you worked in a school before? Social studies teachers are the bullies. We harass others!”
Max laughed. “Of course, silly me. It’s just that our last teacher was a Bible-thumping football coach from northern Alabama,” Max explained. “He wasn’t exactly leading the reform wagon.”
“Ah,” Holly nodded. “Why did he leave? I would think he’d find a happy home here.” Immediately regretting her words, Holly blushed. “I just meant—”
“No, you’re right,” Max said, waving her off. “He transferred to a school in Germany. Better pay or something.”
“Gotcha.” Holly yawned again.
Max winced sympathetically. “Jetlag?”
“Nah, I never sleep well in new places,” Holly explained.
Max nodded. “It gets easier,” he said simply.
Holly felt her eyes fill with tears at his simple, kind words and looked away in embarrassment.
Max pretended he didn’t see and gently touched her elbow after she wiped away the tears. “Come on, come sit with the cool kids,” he joked.
“The cool kids?” Holly laughed, following him over to the table pushed to the farthest corner of the room, but still close to the buffet table.
“Hell yes,” Max scoffed. He snagged another chair from a nearby table for Holly and gestured for her to sit before sinking into his own. “Holly, these are the cool kids,” Max introduced, swinging his arm at the people sitting at the table. “Guys, this is Holly McAvery, our new social studies teacher.”
The woman across from Holly leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms, eyeing Holly critically. “Where are you from?”
Holly hesitated, unsure if she wanted to respond hostilely to the woman’s judgmental manner or give her the benefit of the doubt. “Chicago.” She went for a neutral tone, unwilling to rise to the bait either way.
“What made you decide to work here?”
“I wanted to travel and this way the government pays for it and I still get to teach.”
“The Blackhawks are the best team Chicago has.”
The woman leaned in, never taking her eyes off Holly. “Do you like football?”
“Never found an interest in men in spandex jumping on top of each other and smacking each other’s butts, but tailgating is a blast,” Holly answered. She and the woman held the other’s eyes for a moment longer before the woman grinned and sat back, relaxed.
“Welcome to the cool kids table, I’m Monica,” she said cheerfully. Holly was speechless. Had she just been hazed? Looking to Max for some kind of decoder ring, Holly still didn’t speak.
Max leaned over and whispered, “Monica wasn’t a fan of the guy you’re replacing.” He moved to sit up straight, then moved back over to Holly and continued, “In fact, I’m pretty sure if she worked one more year with him we’d be watching her story on some true crime show.”
Holly nodded. She was slowly introduced to the rest of the table in a more typical manner, and for an hour or so, Holly forgot to be homesick and lonely. When people began to leave, Monica hung back with Holly.
“Hey, two nights before the first day of school I always have some people over,” Monica said, her previously abrasive tone completely gone. “It’s kind of our end of the summer booze bash, where we drink summer away and pretend for one night that we’re back in college and that we don’t have to be adults in front of teenagers for the next nine months. Interested?”
Holly let out a loud laugh. “Sounds phenomenal.”
Monica grinned broadly. “Beautiful.”
They parted ways, and Holly pulled out her map of the base before leaving the school building. She hated walking around with a map in her hands, but the base was huge. Finding her route on the map, she neatly folded it back up and stowed it in her purse.
The walk home wasn’t long, but it was warm with the Italian summer sun beating down on her. She could feel her cheeks turning red and her hair begin to frizz with the moisture on her face. Good thing she wasn’t trying to impress anyone, she thought as she nodded to the two men walking by her.
She turned the corner and saw the commissary down another block, and she realized she didn’t have a single item of food in her new little house. Deciding to make a quick stop for the basics, she sighed as she was hit in the face with a blast of air conditioning.
While Holly strolled the aisles, she missed the familiarity of her home stores, which seemed silly.
“Who misses a grocery store?” she muttered to herself, putting a box of macaroni and cheese in her basket. This is just like shopping at home, she convinced herself. Upon exiting the store, however, she realized one big miscalculation on her part.
She didn’t have a car.
“Well, here’s my workout for the day!” she declared, straightening her shoulders and hoisting the grocery bags a little higher in her arms, and prepared to finish the four blocks back to her house.
By the end of third block, she realized her extreme absence of arm strength.
“God damn son of a bitch!” Holly yelled, barely resisting the urge to stomp her foot. She bent down and scooped her groceries into her bag, praying her chips weren’t crumbs and her bread wasn’t mashed. The cans were a little more forgiving. Her hair fell into her eyes and her jeans slipped low on her back, only adding to her frustration. A big hand easily lifted the bag from the pavement.
“That’s quite a mouth you’ve got there,” the owner of the hand commented, handing her the rogue grocery bag.
Holly blushed slightly, accepting the bag in one arm, shifting her other bags to accommodate. “Thank you.”
“It wasn’t a compliment,” the man said, a stern expression on his face. Holly stiffened, lifting her chin haughtily, and blew the hair out of her face.
“I was thanking you for your help, not your scolding,” she clarified in her best teacher voice. “However clearly your manners need more work than my swearing. Excuse me.” She tried to walk around him, but the very large man blocked the sidewalk, a smug grin on his face. Holly tried the other side, but he managed to take up the whole sidewalk by just shifting slightly. Truth be told, Holly had never seen such a large man. He had to be 6’5”, and his broad frame filled every inch of his uniform in a good way. A very good way.
Shaking her head at that thought, Holly stepped off the curb and neatly sidestepped him before skipping back up on the sidewalk to continue on her walk home, the smug grin now on her lips, spite giving strength to her tired arms. Her two largest grocery bags were snatched out of her arms easily from behind.
Whirling around, Holly considered dropping her plastic grocery bags to punch the man, but he continued walking in the direction Holly had been.
“Hey!” she snapped, practically running to catch up with his long strides. “Where are you going with my groceries?”
“You’re obviously having some trouble,” the man answered simply, not looking down at her.
“So… what? You’re going to steal them from me?” Holly demanded incredulously, panting a little to keep up with him.
This time he did frown down at her, still walking briskly. “Don’t be insulting,” he scolded, his deep voice dark with disapproval. “Lead the way, I’m just helping you get them home.”
Holly was absolutely stunned. How did the man manage to make something so chivalrous so incredibly irritating and rude? “I never asked you to!” Holly spluttered.
He shrugged. “You were having trouble. I’m just helping out.”
Well, now what was she supposed to say to that? She couldn’t protest without coming off as a jerk, but she could hardly thank the man! In her frustration, Holly marched along beside him, fuming. When they arrived at her door, she turned abruptly to face him.
“Thank you very much for your help, but I can handle them from here,” Holly said through clenched teeth. The big man looked amused and just stood there patiently.
“Just open the door,” he instructed.
“I don’t even know you,” Holly pointed out. “I don’t make a habit out of letting strange men into my house.”
He gave a pretend solemn nod. “Admirable trait, but seeing as how my arms are full of your groceries, I probably won’t be assaulting you.”
“This is ridiculous!” Holly exclaimed in sheer frustration. “This is a stupid argument. Thank you for your help, I do appreciate it, and I’m quite capable to take them inside. I’m not quite as feeble and weak as you seem to think.”
The man said nothing, just stared down at Holly with that smugly amused expression on his face. After a few very awkward moments of staring expectantly at each other, Holly growled in exasperation and shifted her bags to fish out her keys. She ungraciously did not hold the door for him and stomped into the kitchen, dropping her heavy bags on the floor. The man set the bags down on the counter and moved out of the way, leaning against the far kitchen wall and crossed his arms across his broad chest.
When Holly noticed he wasn’t leaving, she shoved her wild brown curls out of her face to glare at him. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” she asked through her teeth.
“Nowhere important,” he replied. Holly muttered under her breath, slamming a cabinet closed.
“You know, if you’re going to mutter insults, you should do it quieter so I can’t hear you,” the man suggested, grinning.
Holly looked up defiantly, enjoying how his dark brown eyes crinkled in his smile despite herself. “If I didn’t want you to hear them, I wouldn’t have spoken them at all,” she retorted. “Besides, you are in my house uninvited.” Holly closed the refrigerator door with more force than necessary and threw away the last of her grocery bags.
“Very thankful for the help, I see,” the man commented. “Your husband should work on your manners with you.”
Holly glared. “If I had a husband, he certainly wouldn’t be in charge of my manners,” she shot back. “And my manners are just fine with people who have manners themselves!”
“Such a sweet temperament,” the man murmured, grinning.
“Oh!” Holly looked around for something to throw at him but nothing looked right. “You’re a bully!”
“My name is Logan Daniels,” the man said, as if they were having a pleasant conversation.
“Well, Mr. Daniels, you are a very trying man, did you know that?”
“Usually, when someone introduces themselves, they expect a name in return,” Logan said, as if explaining to a small child, his warm brown eyes fairly twinkling in humor.
Holly charged at him, poking him roughly in the chest. “Oh, pal, I got plenty of names for you!” she ranted. “But I can promise that you don’t actually want to hear any of them.”
“How about yours?”
“Unbelievable!” Holly stared up at him, an unusual requirement for her. “If I tell you my name, will you leave?”
“Sure,” Logan shrugged.
“Fine. Holly McAvery.” Holly glared at him, and wondered if he would actually feel it if she punched him.
“Holly, it’s nice to meet you,” Logan said, delighted at the fiery woman standing so close to him. “Well I should get going, but I’ll see you later.” He strolled to the door and before he closed it, he said, “Make sure you don’t let any strange men into your house.”
As Logan walked down her sidewalk, he could hear her scream of frustration and chuckled.