Roberto stalked to the far side of the room, his back to Brynn.
She wasn’t entirely certain what was happening. Now wasn’t the time for explanations, but she knew Father Grady would explain everything to her later.
“I’ll take you home now,” Roberto announced starkly to Brynn.
She followed him through the crowded hospital corridor outside. The cold night air hit her like an unexpected slap. The wind stung her face and eyes as she hurried to keep pace with Roberto.
For Brynn’s sake, Roberto tried to control his anger, but he couldn’t think of his younger brother and Modesto facing a nameless gunman on the same streets where children had played only hours earlier. His anger went deep and bordered on rage.
He focused his resentment on the neighborhood and the frustration he felt each time he’d tried to make a better life for himself and Emilio.
It could have been his brother lying in that hospital bed. He could have lost Emilio. The thought terrified him. He’d promised his mother that he would watch after his brother, raise him right. He had failed her in other ways, but not this time. By heaven, not this time.
Roberto glanced over at Brynn, who sat next to him stiffly. She’d never seen this side of him. She didn’t know he could be an angry, frustrated brute. This was what happened when those he loved were threatened.
Just mentally saying the word made him squirm. He was dangerously close to falling for the pretty Irish teacher. He didn’t need anyone to tell him what a mistake that would be. It went without saying that a college-educated beauty like Brynn Cassidy had nothing in common with the likes of him. She should be dating a stockbroker or an attorney, not someone who had trouble getting the grease from beneath his fingernails.
He was living in a dream world if he thought anything could develop between them. God had delivered that message loud and clear. Roberto knew what he had to do next.
First off, he had to stop thinking about Brynn as a friend. They’d never been that. As for making her his lover, however much he would like to entertain the notion, she was off-limits. He’d make excuses not to see her again, and soon enough she’d get the message. Their relationship would be over before it ever started. Whatever it might have been was gone now.
Having made that decision, Roberto felt some of the hard ball of anger dissipate. He was in control again. His life was back in order.
One thing he vowed. Somehow, some way, with God’s help, he was going to find his way out of this neighborhood.
Brynn’s class was quiet and subdued on Monday. Normally her students tested her patience by chattering like monkeys long after the bell rang. Not this day. They filed into the room and sat at their desks and stared at her as though they anticipated some great revelation from her.
“By now most of you have heard about what happened to Modesto,” she said.
“It ain’t fair, Miss Cassidy,” Yolanda said.
“Life isn’t fair,” Denzil answered.
“Modesto wasn’t doing anything.”
“He isn’t bad, you know.”
“Of course he isn’t.” Brynn felt at a loss as to how to answer their fears, nor did it seem right to dig into her lessons when it was obvious her students needed to talk about what had happened to their friend.
“I went to see him at the hospital,” Emilio announced, his voice void of emotion. “They wouldn’t let me in.”
“Modesto’s in intensive care. I know because I called,” someone else claimed.
“He’s going to live, isn’t he?”
Brynn couldn’t answer that, so she repeated as best she could what the physician had said. “His chances are very good, but there’s always the possibility of complications.”
“We weren’t doing nothin’,” Emilio said to no one in particular. “The police tried to make it sound like we were on the prowl looking for trouble. Man, if I was looking for action, I’d take my posse with me.”
There were murmurs of agreement.
Emilio leaned forward and placed his hands over his face. He looked both vulnerable and afraid. Wanting to comfort him, Brynn walked over to his side and placed her hand gently on his shoulder.
He shrugged it off viciously and glared up at her. “Don’t touch me,” he snapped.
Such behavior wasn’t like Emilio. If she considered any one student an ally, it would be Roberto’s brother.
She stepped back, but not before Emilio slid out of his seat and stormed out of the room. The glass panel in the door rattled as he slammed it closed.
“Emilio.” She started after him. If he was caught in the hall without a pass, he’d be sent to the principal’s office. If he mouthed off to Mr. Whalen, he was likely to be suspended a second time, and if that happened, it was doubtful he’d be back.
Brynn stopped at the door. “Suzie,” she called, “would you take over for me for a few moments?”
The teenager’s eyes widened with apprehension before she nodded.
“Thank you,” Brynn whispered, and left the classroom. She was breaking another cardinal rule by doing so. If she was discovered, she would receive another formal reprimand. She weighed the decision carefully before stepping into the hallway. Something was very wrong with Emilio, and she had to find out what.
She found him crouched on the floor next to a dented beige locker at the end of the hall. His head hung between his knees.
“Emilio.” She said his name gently.
He didn’t look up.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“Leave me alone,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically hard and cold.
“You can’t blame yourself for what happened to Modesto,” she offered.
This time he hissed something in Spanish, and for once Brynn was grateful for her limited language skills. One thing was certain: he wasn’t inviting her to talk matters out.
“You can’t stay here,” she said, looking both ways down the hall. “Please, Emilio, come back into the class.”
He shook his head.
“If they find you—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll get suspended. Do you really think I care, Miss Cassidy? I don’t.”
“Am I supposed to appreciate that?”
He looked away, and it seemed that he was wishing her back into the classroom. “Leave me alone.”
“You’re hurting, Emilio. I want to help.”
He lifted his head and stared at the ceiling. “Modesto’s the one who’s in pain, not me.”
“Do you think Modesto wouldn’t be in as much pain if you’d been shot, too?”
“Yes,” he shouted, and slammed his fist into the locker directly beside him. The noise exploded in the silent hallway like a cannon shot, echoing off the sides.
For sure they’d be found now. Brynn closed her eyes and inhaled a deep, calming breath. Emilio didn’t want her help, didn’t need her.
“I’m sorry this happened to you, Emilio,” she said softly. “So very sorry.” Knowing he wouldn’t accept her help, she turned and started back to her classroom.
She paused. So that was what this was all about. Emilio thought himself a coward because he’d deserted his friend and saved his own life.
Brynn turned back and squatted next to him. Her legs ached before she spoke. “I would have run, too. It was probably what saved you from being shot as well.”
Emilio said nothing.
“Do you think Modesto wouldn’t have tried to escape had you been the one hit first?”
Again Emilio didn’t respond.
“You acted instinctively,” Brynn tried again. “You had nothing with which to defend yourself. The option had been taken away from you.”
A parched cry worked its way through his throat, and he buried his face in his arms with a muffled sob.
Brynn longed to touch him, but she was afraid that her comfort was the last thing he sought. Because her muscles were cramping, she placed her knees on the cold floor.
“There’s no shame in what you did,” she whispered.
His shoulders shook, and unable to watch him and do nothing, Brynn braced her hand against the curve of his shoulder.
The pain, the doubt, the fears and self-recriminations, broke like a fire hydrant inside him. His shoulders shook violently with uncontrollable sobs. One after another tumbled from his lips until his cries became those of an injured animal.
Kneeling at his side, Brynn gently tucked his head against her breast and held him. Gently she rocked back and forth, fighting emotion while the pain poured from Emilio Alcantara’s heart.
“Will you be seeing Trey this afternoon?” Michelle asked Jenny.
“I don’t know.” They hadn’t made plans to get together, and she had to work later in the day. She’d told him her schedule and had expected to hear from him. Thus far she’d been disappointed.
Michelle wandered into their living room, a plastic trash bag in hand. She picked up an empty wine bottle and tossed it inside. “Your friend certainly generated a lot of interest.”
Jenny had noticed that much herself.
“I had to tell Julia Leonard to wipe the drool off her chin.”
“That guy’s a hunk, girl. How come you never mentioned how handsome he is? It’s like he walked in directly from the range. Someone asked me if he’d left his horse parked outside.” Michelle ditched a paper plate in the trash bag. “There was something else I noticed.”
“What’s that?” Jenny asked, tossing a beer can into the accumulated garbage.
“He only had eyes for you.”
“I’ve known Trey LaRue nearly all my life,” Jenny explained.
Michelle straightened and studied Jenny for a couple of moments. “By the way, what kind of name is Trey, anyway? It sounds like it’s French or something.”
“His real name’s Mark.”
“Mark? How’d his family get Trey out of that?”
“His grandfather’s name was Mark and his father’s name was Mark, and when he was born the story goes that there were so many Marks floating around, they decided to call him Trey.”
“Oh, I get it now. Trey for the third Mark,” Michelle murmured.
“Right.” Jenny returned to picking up the clutter left over from the party.
“Are you going to marry him?” her roommate shocked her by asking next.
“Why not?” Michelle asked flippantly. “It’s as clear as melted snow the guy’s in love with you. When I first met him I thought it was rather sweet of him to travel all this way to see you. It’s a definite boost to a woman’s ego to have a man from her past idolize her. I could certainly do with a couple of men like Trey myself.”
“He’s never once mentioned marriage to me, nor will he.” Jenny’s reply was defensive, and she knew it.
Michelle’s eyebrows flirted with her hairline. “You’d be tempted to accept his proposal if he did, wouldn’t you?”