Sydney sucked in a deep breath and tried again to pry her carry-on from the shuttle door. Her feet ached and her stomach growled, the hair that had sprung from its clip was either tickling the sides of her face or plastered to her forehead, and she suspected her deodorant had quit on the job somewhere over the Atlantic. Not that she wanted to check too closely.

Someone tapped her back, and she glanced over her shoulder at a shocking mess of a face, battered features twisting in some distorted, devilish version of a grin. Whatever the terrifying stranger said to her was drowned out in the blare of a passing car's horn, and all she could manage was a tiny squeak and a confused nod as she scrambled to process what was happening.

A mugging.

He reached past her to grip her case and unhook it from the door. She grabbed for the dangling zipper tag and yanked hard, trying to snatch it away. A tactical error. Toiletries and lingerie geysered up and rained down over the pavement of Tottenham Court Road.

He loomed over her intimate apparel, his shaggy black hair waving around his five o'clock—no, forty-eight-hour shadow, the startling white of his crooked grin slashing through a deeply tanned complexion, and his dark eyes glinting with whatever muggers' eyes glinted with.

He certainly was a good-looking criminal specimen. But he was also eyeing the lacy pink bra draped over the curb. That made him either greedy, or a pervert, or both.

A greedy pervert with a slightly swollen purpled eye and a nasty gash in his upper lip. Someone had recently given him some trouble. And at that moment she was jet-lagged and caffeine-charged enough to want to give him some more, especially when he reached for her underwire with the front clasp.

"No!" she shouted as she leaped into action to rescue her bra. The strap on her shoulder slipped, and her hefty tote swung in an accidental but impressive arc. A thick London street guide, electronic organizer, tour paperwork, collapsible umbrella, camera, bottled water and the latest Dick Francis mystery novel connected with his jaw. It all made a satisfying thwack. He grunted and staggered, and then slipped on her black half slip and went down, hard.

"Help! Thief!" she yelled.

"Hey! Ms. Gordon!" Two of her students raced down the steps at the entrance of the Edwardian Hotel. The teenage boys skidded to a stop and stared, wide-eyed, at the stranger. "This is so, like, whoa, you know?" said Zack.

Sydney knelt to cram her bra back into the wreck of her carry-on. "I hit him with my purse."

"Cool!" said Matt. He pulled a video camera from his fanny pack. "Hit him again."

He aimed the camera at Sydney and then panned toward the lingerie littering the street. "Whoa. Edit."

Zack reached for the slip but snatched back his hand. "Hey, Ms. Gordon, I'd like to help you out here, but I don't think we should be touching this stuff, you know? Sort of messes with the student-teacher relationship."

The thief dabbed blood from his lip as the camera angled down for a close-up. "Get that thing out of my face," he growled.

Sydney froze at the sound of his gruff American accent. She peered more closely at the handsome man she'd knocked to the ground—a man who was making no effort to flee the scene of his foiled crime. Levi's jeans, Nike shoes, Philly Cheese Steak T-shirt. And a scowl registering annoyance rather than guilt.

Oh, dear. Maybe she'd overreacted, she considered with a familiar sinking feeling. Maybe he was a gentleman trying to assist her with her luggage. Not a thief.

Not a mugger.

Oh. My. God. Her cheeks torched up like road flares, and she stifled a mortified groan. I'm the mugger.

Her victim squinted at her though his swollen eye. "These kids belong to you?"

She nodded and swallowed a big gulp of guilt. "My students. Matt, Zack, this is...I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."

She knew she should also introduce herself, but she wasn't sure of the proper etiquette following assault and battery. Should the introductions come before the apology, or after? Right now would be a handy time to grovel, since she was already on her knees. "I'm so, so—"

"'Help, thief' works for me." He stood and slapped gutter grime off his jeans. "That's Mr. Thief to you," he told the boys.

"I'm Sydney. Sydney Gordon. And I'm so, so sorry about the misunderstanding." She got to her feet and made a grab for her Bugs Bunny nightshirt, but he beat her to it. "Thanks," she said, "but I can finish this myself."

"Now I know why chivalry is dead. Women like you keep knocking it on its ass." He shook out the nightshirt and stared at Bugs. "I was only trying to help you with your luggage."

"I just figured that out. And I really am terribly sorry." She retrieved the shirt and stuffed it into her case with shaky hands, averting her eyes and wishing she could stuff herself down the nearest sewer grate.

Before she could offer another apology, a balding, rumpled version of Mr. Thief stepped through the hotel entrance and ambled down the steps to join them. He stopped behind the boys and watched her knight in shining shiner pluck her butterfly print panties from the bus fender.

"You're losing your touch, Nick," said the stranger. "You don't usually have to work this hard to get your hands on a woman's panties."

"She thought I was a thief." He ran a hand through his thick hair and chuffed out an exasperated-sounding breath. "Do I look like a freakin' thug?"

The newcomer studied the bruised face with a frown before shoving a wide hand at Sydney. "Hi. Joe Martelli. The criminal's brother."

His brother. She took his hand and pasted on a faint smile. "Sydney Gordon. How do you do?"

"I'm doing okay." He frowned at Nick. "Where have you been? The desk clerk said you checked in hours ago. And what happened to your eye?"

"I walked into a door."

"What about the lip?"

Nick flicked a glance at Sydney. "It was a double door."

© Terry McLaughlin

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Copyright ©2008 by Teresa A. McLaughlin
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