Chapter One

 

“HE’S A drug lord. The youngest one ever!”

Matt Dermond eavesdropped on Elaine delivering an address to her fan club of Central High junior girls attending her Monday morning audience, the first one after the summer break. She was spreading up-to-date rumors about the new senior student. From what Matt had picked up so far, he had to worry about this one, and knowledge was his only weapon. Over the past few years, he had learned how to listen without being noticed. Keeping the correct distance, the right point to look at, not drawing attention at all. If he was accomplished in one ability, it was the art of inconspicuousness. A skill absolutely required for filling the role of the school’s punching bag.

“You’ve seen that scar on his cheek?” Elaine asked, and her court shook their heads with mouths gaping open. She bowed forward and lowered her voice. “He got it from a knife fight with another drug boss. The other one didn’t get away with a scar only.”

The girls gasped, and two of them grasped each other’s hands. Matt clutched his own lower arms and held them so tight it hurt.

“Every tattoo on his body is for one of his victims, and he’s inked all over.”

Matt’s heart tried to squeeze itself through his ribs. He hadn’t seen the new student yet. But even if there were only some truth to these rumors, he would end up as one of those tattoos. He attracted bullies. Like an anglerfish, he had some sort of lightbulb dangling from his forehead, leading every thug his way.

“In his former school, he broke both arms of the quarterback because that poor guy looked at him a moment too long.”

The sound of cracking bones wormed into Matt’s mind. That crunching noise a neck made when it snapped. Granted, he only knew that sound from movies, but it could well be he would learn about it firsthand when it was the last thing he ever heard.

“O-M-G, there he is…. Shane McAllistair.” Elaine grabbed an invisible necklace. “Don’t stare!” she added in a whisper.

The girls’ heads sank down, and they studied the gray floor tiles. The bolder ones risked a peek or two.

Amateurs!

Matt had perfected the art of watching without looking like it. It was impossible to miss Shane in the crowded hall, for he towered well over most of the other students at six feet seven, perhaps six feet eight. A people-free bubble extended around him. Elaine had done a perfect job in spreading her gossip, and the other students kept their distance in fear for their limbs and more. Matt hadn’t seen such a muscular man for real. The white tee Shane wore bulged out at all possible and impossible places, and one of his arms was thicker than both of Matt’s legs together. That beast of a man could rip him apart without breaking a sweat. Matt swallowed hard.

Some of the tattoos peeped out from under the shirt, colorful tattoos he couldn’t discern from that distance. Was that a fishing pole on his upper left arm? A shiver slithered down Matt’s back as his mind came up with some things Shane might do to him with a fishing pole. He raised his head, risking another peek. The scar ran down on the right side of Shane’s angular face from his cheekbone to the middle of his jaw. It was just a thin line, but it shone in a bright crimson shade. The brilliance of the scar contrasted with the dark intensity of Shane’s eyes. They were deep brown, almost black. His gaze was alert, observing.

Matt took pride in his skills at reading emotions from eyes, honed by years of practice, but he failed at spotting the cruelness in that blackness. Instead a gleam radiated from those eyes, friendly and not sinister at all. So Shane was the worst type of all. Only the most psychopathic people pulled off amiable and cruel at the same time. Matt bit down a sigh. The spikes of Shane’s hair pointed upward like reckless spears, and their color matched the dark shade of his eyes. That guy was capable of tearing a heart out and laughing as it still beat in his hand.

Shane stopped before one of the lockers. Such a giant should rip out the door and hurl it across the hall, but he opened it like anyone else. How disappointing! A demonstration of power would have provided more lifesaving knowledge, though Matt could count on finding out about Shane’s strength the hard way soon enough. He shook his head, flinging those unsettling thoughts out of it. Nevertheless, even turning the knob of the locker created an ever-changing pattern of flexing and unflexing in Shane’s muscles. The sight mesmerized Matt. Those movements inhered a certain grace, a subtle choreography, hinting at the power lying dormant in that mighty body.

The smashing of a locker door thundered, and Matt’s mind crash-landed on the reality of the school hall. The two pieces of coal being Shane’s gaze rested on him. Shane raised the corners of his mouth for a fraction of an inch only. Droplets of sweat flowed down Matt’s back while his skin felt covered with frost. He knew better than to look at anyone in this school for any longer than a blink, and he was staring at the most dangerous guy of all when he forgot about this rule. His legs felt like pudding, but he had to get away. Fast. Before Shane had time to memorize his face.

 

 

SHANE DIDN’T intend to smile, but that boy next to the bunch of girls clustering around a cheerleader and pretending not to stare reminded him of Jer. This was crazy because they didn’t look remotely alike. The color of that one’s hair was a dark blond, sticking out in all directions, and his eyes had the faintest hue of blue, like the sea around a tropical isle. That boy was even tinier than Jer if that were at all possible, and still they shared that gaze. The gaze of someone who knew he was the prey, someone haunted by fear. Shane hadn’t thought about Jer like that for what? Three months? First day in the new school and he got all soppy.

Don’t get involved! Not this time.

His plan was simple and easy, and Shane would stick to it. He had picked up some of the rumors going around about him and swallowed down a chuckle. It’d be easy to keep a distance in this school. He’d spend only one term here, and college would mean a fresh start. Some hauntings could be left behind.

The small guy had taken to his heels because Shane had scared him off. Good. One more person who told everyone how frightening he was, though his churning stomach begged to differ with that reasoning. It’d take some time getting used to being the badass here. Like a new pair of shoes, he had to break in this unfamiliar role. Who was he kidding? He’d never stand to intimidate anyone, especially if that someone was such a cutie.

Don’t get involved!

The plan also included not hitting on anyone, though it didn’t make much sense denying that the guy was attractive. Shane had always been a sucker for the small type, and soft features like that boy’s crawled under his skin and replaced the churning in his guts with the been-there-done-that butterfly tingling. He stifled a sigh. That wouldn’t pose much of a problem anyway, if he judged that guy right. The small one would do everything to stay out of his range. Though it served his purposes, Shane didn’t have to like it. Yet a small disappointment now was still better than a huge disappointment later. The Jer lesson had stuck at last.

Shane’s cell vibrated in his pocket, his reminder for the appointment with Principal Wagner. If he arrived on time, that might give her impression of him a nudge in the right direction. It’d take more than petty gestures to smooth out the picture his records drew, but he would make do with small steps first, like finding out where Administration was. He couldn’t ask his fellow students, not if they kept a minimum safety distance of three yards and avoided eye contact at all costs. Grabbing someone by the collar and scowling the answer out of him might work. Moreover, it’d fire up the rumors, but even that amounted to more violence than Shane intended to use ever again. Causing an all-out panic on his first day would definitely send the wrong message to the principal, yet he liked the overall idea. It just needed a little adjustment.

Shane walked over to the group of girls, who were still busy pretending to be busy. How cheap a cardboard copy of a bad cheerleader cliché could one be? The ringmaster of this menagerie wore her costume in the school colors of maroon and white, complete with a skirt so short it bordered on a Japanese-Manga-schoolgirl spoof. Adding a final touch to the comical impression, blonde pigtails dangled from the sides of her head. Since she was staring at the ground, Shane glimpsed only part of her all-American porcelain face. That was the type—clinging to a half-witted quarterback while giggling like she’d lost it. With a little luck, she acted as the local gossipmonger too.

His audience was assembled, and the show could begin. He tilted his head, squinted his eyes, and just stood there for some seconds. He fixated on the cheerleader, whose gaze was still glued to the floor. “Administration?” Perfect. Shane hit the sweet spot between a rasp and a snarl in his voice.

All color drained from the cheerleader’s face until she turned almost as pale as the white of her school uniform. The other girls swallowed, twitched, or moved a step away from Shane, some of them doing all three at once. Slowly, the cheerleader looked up. Shane flexed the muscles in his chest slightly. Her eyes widened, and she let her head sink down again.

“Around that corner. On the left,” she said, her voice breaking several times on those few words. Her arm trembled as she pointed in that direction.

Shane almost thanked her, ruining his performance. He grunted instead, turned away, and trotted off.

A moment of perfect silence ensued. The girls even stopped breathing. A collective sigh of relief was the only warning sign for the outburst of squealing and chattering that followed. Mount Chatterbox had erupted.

Mission accomplished.

This would be more than enough fuel for the rumors. Shane bit his tongue to not laugh out loud. That little demonstration already yielded results, for the other students added an extra yard to their safety distance.

 

 

SHANE KNOCKED on the door before entering the office, and the smell of coffee and old paper welcomed him. A single desk surrounded by a small fort of file drawers and chairs cluttered up the room. Behind the desk, a woman in her forties hammered away at the keyboard of a computer, a golden sign on the desk identifying her as Mrs. Temple. She knitted her brows in concentration, and the hue of the monitor reflected in her glasses, attached to a cord of an eye-numbing shade of pink.

“Yes?” She didn’t even look up from the screen.

“I’ve got an appointment with Principal Wagner. My name’s Shane McAllistair.” He used the very opposite of the voice he had given the girls: low volume, sweet, and mellow.

She took her eyes off the screen at last and looked at Shane’s midsection, where she would’ve found the face of most other students. Her gaze wandered up. A little bit of very recent history repeated as her eyes widened and she rolled back her office chair. It was funny with the girls, but it put a damper on his mood when it happened with adults. He was fed up with security people in banks hooking their thumbs into their belts, pointedly close to their weapons, when he entered. He was fed up with salesclerks scurrying away and seeking shelter in the aisles farthest away from him. He was fed up with parents hiding their kids behind them as he passed them on the sidewalk.

Mrs. Temple put on her look of professional disdain again. That look office people gave when being interrupted while performing a task a thousand times more important than the foolish question asked. “McAllistair?”

Her snarl made Shane’s toenails roll up. “Yes, ma’am.” He smiled so hard that his cheeks hurt.

She mistreated the keyboard, her gaze still boring into him. After a short glimpse at the screen, she snorted and pointed at a chair. “Sit down!”

Overcompensation always followed those first reactions. People acted either overly friendly or overly aggressive once they recovered from their initial shock. Perhaps Mrs. Temple just gave him her standard reception for students.

“Thanks, ma’am.”

If Mrs. Temple’s demeanor were any indication for the sentiment the administration had for the student body, the talk with Principal Wagner would be a rough ride. Shane sat down. The tingling in his stomach returned, though the butterflies had been exchanged for angry mosquitoes. The new principal terrified Shane at least as much as he had terrified the small one, and he had to appreciate the irony in this reversal. Unfortunately, running away and hiding weren’t options for him.

Shane flinched as the door to the principal’s office flew open and a woman stormed out.

“Sorry for keeping you waiting. The superintendent and I don’t share the same view on next term’s budget. Shane McAllistair?”

Principal Wagner was tall for a woman, standing only half a head shorter than he did. Wisps of blonde hair framed her slender face, a curly mane she had tried to tame into a plait, but strands of it stuck out everywhere. Her green eyes shone with a strange mix of friendliness and agitation. Hopefully the superintendent was the target of the latter. She extended her hand.

“Yes, ma’am.” Shane got up and shook her hand, careful not to squeeze it too hard.

“It doesn’t happen often that a student is taller than me.” She chuckled.

It also didn’t happen often that he didn’t scare the shit out of someone. Or she carried it off very well. In either case, Principal Wagner behaved more maturely than most people he met, and Shane just had to like her.

“Come in and sit down, please.” Principal Wagner made an inviting gesture with her arms while her chuckle toned down to a smile.

The interior of her office was spartan, though that description already came close to an exaggeration. Besides her desk—on which everything aligned perfectly—and a file cabinet, there was a small table with hockey trophies, which was the only nonpractical thing. One of the plaques read “National College Masters, 1994.” She still was in very good shape, not athletic but wiry.

They both sat down, and she placed a hand on a file on her desk. “I make appointments with every new student, but I have to admit that I was especially interested in meeting the guy described in this record.” She paused for a moment. “And I have to admit that I imagined you—differently.”

Her smile didn’t waver. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?

“I know I look….” Shane thought of words that described his outer appearance. Sadly, he only came up with a single one that did him justice. “Dangerous.” Was it clever to call himself that in front of his new school’s principal? With the sportswoman before him, however, honesty felt like the right approach. “But I’m not.” That sounded weak even to his ears. Coming from a scarred and inked muscleman, it verged on ridiculous.

“You seem to prefer honesty, so I hope you won’t mind what I say now. If I had the impression you were dangerous, you wouldn’t be attending this school.” Her other hand joined the one on the file. “I had my fair share of jumping to conclusions just for growing a little more than usual. Please accept my apologies if my remark about your looks came across as judgment.”

No one had ever apologized to Shane, not even the people who had later become his friends. They had simply swept that topic under the rug. He may not have been happy with those reactions, but at least he knew how to deal with them. What should he say now? “Thank you.” Not witty, perhaps inappropriate, but gratitude couldn’t be wrong either.

The corners of Principal Wagner’s mouth rose a little more. “You’re welcome.”

Definitely not wrong.

“Back to that guy from the record.” She let her eyebrow shoot up for a moment. “He volunteered for virtually every school activity, from collecting cans to selling cupcakes at the school festival. There isn’t a single entry about being late. No detention. He presided over the LGBT alliance club and was repeatedly commended for that job. Heck, compared to this, my school record reads like a felon’s.” Her fingers clenched into the cover sheet of the file. “And then, without a warning, this model student breaks both arms of a guy who happens to be the school’s best hope for winning the football championship.”

The record left out that Hayden had also been the best hope for winning the title of “Formidable Asshole in a High School.” Breaking Hayden’s bones had been an accident, but feeling regret about it? Nope. This lack of remorse still made Shane’s blood go cold and frightened him more than actually hurting that pisser. The best reason for not getting involved with anyone in this school.

“You’re expecting an explanation, I assume.” Shane lowered his gaze to his hands. “But I can’t.” The accord between Hayden, Jer, and him surprisingly worked. He wouldn’t be the one jeopardizing that dearly bought truce. Shane raised his head again.

Principal Wagner stopped smiling and pressed her lips into a thin line. “I hoped for some details, though I didn’t expect you to tell me. You didn’t even tell the court.” She flipped open the record and scanned one of its pages. “Your silence got you a hundred hours of community service.” Her smile returned, accompanied by a sigh. “That’s a pretty hard sentence for a first-time offender.”

Hard maybe, but Shane had deserved punishment. For letting himself go. For forgetting about his strength. For knowing he’d act the same way again in the same situation. He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

Wrinkles formed on Principal Wagner’s forehead as she furrowed her brows. “The court didn’t suspend you from school, did it? The… incident… was over a year ago.”

“I needed some time off to digest the—” Shane paused for a moment. “—incident.” Digest? A strange term for getting over Jer and for convincing himself that he wasn’t a thug after all. “That year I worked full-time at the retirement home where I had done my community service.”

“You’re still a part-time employee there, aren’t you?” She flipped through some more pages of the record. “Here is a letter of recommendation from the home. You’re working for minimum wage and doing unpaid overtime, a lot actually. There’s a quote from one Mrs. Vespucci calling you the best grandchild she never had.”

Meeting Estelle had alone been worth the hundred-hour sentence. A grin found its way onto Shane’s face, then toned down to a smile. He shrugged. “She’s an adorable lady.”

Principal Wagner mimicked Shane’s half-demented facial expression. “And you’re a good guy. You may have strayed from the path a little, but you’re a good guy. It’s my task to get you back on track and to keep you there. Of course, that can only work if you help me with it.”

She didn’t ask him a question, but her pause demanded a reply. “I only want to finish high school, get a diploma, and go to college. That’s what’s most important to me.” He needed to forget about Jer at last, survive the hassle that was high school, and prove to himself he could function around people of his age. All these things were at least as important, perhaps even more pressing, but the inner would follow the outer. One of Estelle’s lessons. He could try to heed this piece of advice.

Still smiling, Principal Wagner nodded once. “Don’t mutilate any of our football players and we’ll get along fine.” She bent over the desk and placed her hand beside her mouth to whisper, “Ripping out their arms wouldn’t do much harm to their game anyway, but this info is confidential.”

Principal Wagner and he would get along just fine. With the help of his dad’s handpicked list of schools and his mom’s annotations, Shane had chosen the best place to help him with getting a grip on his life and reaching his goals. He extended his hand. “Their limbs and your words are safe.” Principal Wagner shook his hand, and his knuckles cracked in her powerful grasp. This tough woman deserved nothing but his admiration. Neither giggling cheerleaders nor scowling secretaries could bring him down. If Shane also succeeded in keeping cute little guys out of his life, there was a real chance that everything would work out at last.