Jim Harrison. Tall, blond hair, big baby blue eyes. And dimples that showed off every time he flashed his dashing white smile. Everything about him screamed American Dream—broad shoulders and a finely defined jaw, well-fitting Levi jeans, and the kind of face that made me envision a life where we got married, bought a condo in Jersey, and adopted a Golden Retriever named Buddy. Jim would train him to heel, sit, and stay. I’d let him sleep at the foot of the bed. We’d argue about it, but Jim would eventually forfeit and lose a quarter of his half of the bed. Buddy deserved the best.
I’d been crushing on Jim on and off for the better part of a year, but so had every single other teacher in the Ardmore, Pennsylvania district. Yet, somehow, on a sunny Thursday afternoon in October, Jim walked me out to my car after our students left for the day and started flirting with me. Reality turned to sand, running between my fingers.
“Sera?” He laughed, waving a hand in front of my face. I snapped back to the real world in an instant, totally aware of the way my cheeks burned.
“Long day,” I mumbled, flashing him a warm smile as I adjusted the heavy weight in my arms. “Did you say something?”
“I was just asking what you have planned this weekend.” He gave me another smile that showed off the extensive and expensive dental work he’d had done as a teenager. He had a million-dollar smile most actors would envy.
“Grading,” I replied, shrugging as I adjusted the numerous folders I was carrying in my arms. “I’ve been at it all week. Midterms, you know.”
Jim smiled again, that dimple making my knees go a little weak as his eyes met mine. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to empathize with the hell that was middle-school midterms. He was the beloved gym teacher, after all. While all of the teachers at Jefferson Middle School slaved away for a week straight, our fingertips stained with red ink and our eyes rimmed with dark circles, Jim threw dodgeballs at unsuspecting thirteen-year-olds and drank coffee in the teachers’ lounge.
“What about the dance?” he asked, leaning on his shiny blue Subaru.
“What dance? Oh, God. The Fall Formal?” I set my papers on the hood of my beat-up Volvo station wagon and sighed heavily, running my hand over my face. “Is that this weekend?”
“Didn’t some of your classes do the posters for the dance?”
“We might have done some editing.” I massaged the crinkles between my eyebrows. The days had been blending into the weeks lately. How it was already October, I had no idea. I’d just been getting my footing at Jefferson as the eighth grade reading teacher. There were protocols and structures my education hadn’t set me up for, not to mention temperaments and behaviors of students. The last six weeks had been dedicated to trying to bond with said students. It had been a tricky task, but I finally felt like I was finding my footing. Perhaps I’d gotten a little too cocky. After all, I was supposed to chaperone the dance.
There go my weekend plans.
“Well, I’m going,” he mused, and something in his eyes gave me pause. “Maybe we could—I don’t know—Grab a drink afterward?”
My heart started to race. “Like, all of us chaperones?”
“I was thinking just me and you, if you’re cool with that.
I felt pretty smug all of a sudden as I causally leaned on my car, stealing a glance at my reflection in the frosty windshield. My thick, gently curling dark brown hair had fallen loose from the claw-clip I was in the habit of wearing, dark tendrils falling over my shoulders. I met his gaze again, noticing the way his eyes dipped to follow a single curl that rested above the swell of my breasts and curved over my tight sweater.
“Sure.” I grinned. The crush I’d been harboring for him rushed to the forefront of my mind. Jim was a good guy. The kind of guy who took you to get ice cream and who you’d want to bring home to meet not only your family, but your Nonna. Well, maybe not my family, including my Nonna, but still.
“Cool, it’s a—it’s a date,” he stammered a bit, cheeks shimmering a pale rose as he winked at me and climbed into his car.
“See you tomorrow,” I said with a short wave as he pulled out of his parking spot. I sighed as I turned back to my car and fished for my keys, grumbling under my breath as the cold started to bite my skin.
I’d just put my key into the driver’s side door when I heard a vehicle peeling into the parking lot. I looked up, alarmed, and spotted a white van with heavily tinted windows barreling over potholes in its haste to drive right at me.
Shock clouded my senses as I yanked on my door, but it was too late. The van hadn’t even come to a complete stop before two men hopped out and rushed at me, their faces hidden by black masks. I yanked on the door again, prying it open, but one of the men grabbed me by my hair and pulled me backward so hard I lost my footing completely as I was dragged over the gravelly parking space between me and the van. I tried to get traction with my heels, digging them into the ground, but the searing pain in my scalp was distracting, and I grabbed at gloved fingers wrapped around my hair.
A hand pressed against my mouth before I could scream, and before I had time to register what was even happening, a bag came down over my head and a rope was tied around my neck. The gloved hands yanked the rope tight, securing the bag around my neck. I choked on a yelp as I was thrown into the van, my head cracking against something hard, cold, and metal.
“Wait,” I pleaded, the word tasting of acid and coming out in a hoarse, desperate cry.
You have the wrong girl!
“You sure she’s the one?” came a male voice somewhere nearby.
“Yeah, that’s a Bianchi, alright. I could spot one from a mile away.”
My blood ran cold. Maybe they didn’t have the wrong girl. Maybe they had exactly who they were after. But why now? After all this time…