Angel to the Rescue Excerpt

 

Chapter One

 

 

"Emily, come on! Get down here! Your mother will be mad if we're late," a masculine voice hollered from downstairs.

The sound rippled a shudder through Em.

"Just..." She hated that her voice squeaked. She cleared her throat, and with more volume, she shouted, "Just a minute!"

She checked her reflection in the bedroom mirror. The layered attire -- tank, then polo shirt, then thick sweatshirt, and finally jeans -- was designed more to combat Stanley's ogling than protect against the outside chill. Her cheeks and neck flushed bright pink at the moment, and the color wasn't from the warmth of the extra clothes.

Large brown eyes stared back from the mirror, and Em wished she had beady eyes like the mean girl in her gym class. Those beady eyes always scared her. Em's mother always bragged that her daughter's doe-eyes made everyone want to hug her like a lost puppy. Unfortunately for Em, that included the man downstairs -- Stanley Nolan, her mother's boyfriend.

"Emily!" his deep voice boomed.

She pulled in a halting breath and moved toward the door. With a last glance back at the safety of her room, she grabbed her coat and headed for the stairs.

Stanley waited at the bottom step and watched as she descended -- one step at a time. He leaned on the balustrade, and dark, bushy eyebrows jutted out over his glittering eyes to give a sinister quality to his present leer.

Em hated when he looked at her like that, and her steps grew hesitant as she neared the bottom of the stairs.

She wondered, for the thousandth time, what her mother could possibly see in this man she called her boyfriend and more recently, her fiancé. Getting past Stanley's bulky frame on the stairs would be difficult if he refused to move.

In the early months of her mother's new relationship, Em hadn't minded Stanley so much, but her opinion of him had slowly turned to disgust. The last few months had stretched like an eternity. Searching for reasons to get her alone, Stanley constantly offered to play chauffeur or babysitter when her mother had to work.

As a realtor, Connie Miles's schedule varied from week to week often with evening client meetings and social engagements. She covered the Sweetwater section of town for Best Realty, and that required wining and dining commercial clients to secure a listing or celebrate a sale. Stanley always volunteered to look after Emily in Connie's absence.

Even at a naïve thirteen, Em could tell Stanley's intentions weren't anywhere near honorable. His blatant stares during her mother's absence gave her goose bumps -- the creepy kind.

While her mother had dined with clients one evening, Stanley had asked if Em would like him to come upstairs and tell her a bedtime story, offering a "real good fairy tale about how a little girl finds a boyfriend who was older and real nice and took care of the little girl."

Then just last week, he'd appeared at her friend's condo on the other side of the complex and walked her home instead of driving over to get her. He'd insisted Emily hold his hand, so he could keep her safe.

Walking at an excruciatingly slow pace, Stanley had continuously rubbed a finger on the hand clutched in his and stared at her with a strange look on his face. As always, he had reminded Em of how much Connie loved him and thought him to be perfect, and no one could ever convince her mother otherwise. His plan had worked to perfection. Em had talked herself out of complaining to her mother, yet again.

Her fear had culminated in a horrific episode two nights past when Stanley had entered the bathroom while she was taking a bath. Using a key kept above the doorframe for emergencies, he had sauntered in without knocking. Mortified, she'd jerked the shower curtain around her.

Stanley had laughed and said, "It's okay for me to see you in the tub now that I'm part of the family. I only came in to check on you since you've been in here awhile, and you weren't making a sound. I got worried, and I promised your mother I'd keep you safe while she was out tonight."

Em had held her breath so long her head had begun to pound. Eventually, he'd backed out of the room, never taking his eyes off her until the door had finally closed.

Now, three steps separated them on the stairs. Em held her position and prayed Stanley would move aside.

He didn't budge.

Two more steps and she stopped -- eyes wide -- and held her breath. His leering smile seemed to reach out and touch her.

"Come on, your mother will wonder where we are." His beefy hand reached out to close the distance between them. "I told her we'd pick her up for dinner at six."

Em shrank back from the outstretched hand, still hoping he would turn and go. Impatient, he stretched through the inches separating them and grabbed her upper arm to pull her close.

"Come on, Em. Get a move on." He retreated down the bottom steps and turned to cross the foyer, hustling her alongside.

"My name is Emily! Don't call me Em." She tried her best to sound defiant.

Stanley reached for the front door with his left hand and snuggled his right in against her upper torso.

She felt her neck flush with mortification as his knuckles intentionally rubbed the outer edge of her adolescent chest. She shot him a glare and attempted to pull away.

His lascivious stare remained glued to the spot where his knuckles caressed her.

She struggled mightily, but he gave her arm a painful twist to keep the contact in place and leaned in close. His stale breath swathed her cheeks.

"Don't get smart with me," he said, his voice husky and low. "Your mother will always take my side."

He yanked the door wide and shoved her outside.

 

*****

 

"You want me to take on two more kids?" Rachel frowned at her best friend.

The White Wolf Café was hopping at lunch, waitresses scurrying everywhere, the chaotic din of glassware being loaded into dish tubs and silverware clattering against dishes.

Eyes wide, Jill maintained an innocent expression.

"You can't be serious." Rachel had to raise her voice a bit to be heard over the noise. "My schedule is already full, and several of those clients are your referrals I might add."

Dr. Rachel Kelly was a child psychologist and specialized in both middle school and high school counseling. Four of her clients attended Cherokee Middle School where Jillian Henry was the school guidance counselor. The two women had met at an education workshop a couple months after Rachel moved to College Park and had been best friends ever since.

Jill had the good grace to wince. "I know and I wouldn't ask, but these two students are... different."

"Different how?"

"They've both changed dramatically from last year."

"Go on."

Jill pulled a slight frown and looked thoughtful as though lining up her words. "They're both withdrawn. Two kids, eighth graders -- a boy named Jay and a girl named Emily. The girl I know very well, so she's the bigger shock for me. Last year she participated in several after-school activities and now this year, nothing. Every time I see her, she's alone and looks despondent. Doesn't hang with any friends. The boy Jay, I'm not as familiar with, but a few of his teachers have expressed grave concerns. One of them was John Parchment."

Rachel arched an eyebrow. "I thought he retired."

 "No, Parchment says he'll stay till he's seventy, and frankly, I'm glad. I've grown fond of the old guy, and I trust his instincts. Only yesterday, he submitted a counseling referral form to my office. He wanted to document that Jay had more potential than most of his students, yet the boy was growing more withdrawn every day. Parchment wanted something done, some type of investigation initiated to find the cause of the boy's lapse. On the form, he wrote, the boy's defiant and volatile attitude could decimate his potential."

Rachel sighed. “The man is an excellent teacher.”

“Not only that,” Jill went on, as though Rachel hadn't spoken, “but I substituted in the boy's class early last year during flu season, when we couldn't get anybody on short notice, and I'm telling you the boy was a shining star -- bright, alert, and anxious to participate. This year, Parchment says the boy just sits like a statue and never opens his mouth. There's a look in the boy's eyes that worries me, too, but I can't prove a thing."

"Prove?"

Jill leaned across the table and said softly, "Abuse of some kind."

Rachel measured her words carefully. "Eighth grade is a tough time as you well know. Early adolescence and puberty make well-balanced children a little nuts until they get a handle on things. There's also the possibility that both kids are already involved in a relationship, which could make them withdraw into the company of their new chosen crush. At this stage, my only advice is to watch the students until you can determine if it's something temporary or something serious. You can't get involved unless you have definite proof. You know the rules."

"Yes, I do, and thanks. I felt like I could tell you since you're Cherokee's referral counselor. I'll watch the students like you suggest, but there's something wrong. I just know it."

"Remember the proof. And I'm always available for questions."

"But if the situation gets more serious, will you talk to the students to verify my suspicions?"

"My calendar is already full, and I'm referring clients to Dr. Whitcomb."

"I don't want these kids to go to Whitcomb." Jill schooled her expression to sufficiently pitiful and then begged. "Pleeease?"

Rachel knew Jill would never give up if there was a kid in trouble who needed her. It was one of the reasons the two women were best friends.

"I suppose I could."

"Thanks." Jill beamed, then turned serious. "The parents of these students have never come in to talk to me. That's part of my concern. The parents either haven't noticed or don't care that their kids have changed so much over the last year or so. Besides, I doubt either set of parents could come up with the fees needed for even one session."

"Let me get this straight." Rachel narrowed her eyes. "You want me to talk to two new clients to verify your hunch they need help and you want me to do it pro bono. Have I got that right?"

Jill beamed again. "Pretty much."

"And I should do this for you because..."

"Because I'm your best friend?"

She shook her head and then chuckled, "You're impossible is what you are."

"--and still your best friend." Twinkling blue eyes held Rachel's gaze.

"How do I let you talk me into these things?"

"I won't bring the kids in unless things get more serious. You'll be able to tell if my hunches are correct, and if I'm right, I'll know what action to take."

Jill reached across the table to grab Rachel's hand. "You're the best! You won't regret this. I promise."

"I already do," Rachel muttered when the waitress stopped to take their order.

The girls both ordered the special, a Cobb salad and the soup of the day. When the waitress moved on, Rachel asked Jill how the rest of her job was going. Anything to keep the conversation away from Rachel's personal life today.

Jill rolled her eyes. "It's the end of the first month of school, and I'm where I should be after the first week of school. Same old story this year -- more kids for the same number of teachers and the same amount of space and money. But we'll get by somehow, just like always."

The waitress deposited two iced teas and left them alone again.

"So, how are you?"

"All right," Rachel dutifully responded. "More clients and still just me in the practice. The only afternoon I have off now to do my research is Wednesday -- that and the evenings or Saturday."

Jill steered the discussion to the College Park Art Festival in the historic district that weekend and their plans to go together, for which Rachel was grateful as she had no desire to discuss a certain personal subject yet -- not even with her best friend.

Jill took a sip of iced tea. "So how's Jake?"

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

She should have guessed her best friend would kamikaze on the one subject she didn't want to discuss. If she talked about it, the stabbing ache in her heart would return.

"What's wrong, Rach? You got a little pale."

She sighed.

"What is it?"

"I, uh..." She searched for the right words, then gave up. "Jake and I broke up."

"What!" Jill exploded. "You and Mr. Perfect? No way! I don't believe it. What happened?"

How could she calmly explain the impossible, that which boggled the mind when considering the odds? How did she explain to Jill what she hadn't yet accepted herself? Yet she'd witnessed the act with her own two eyes. Never had she expected this outcome for her relationship with Jake -- the only man she had ever loved. Or ever would love? That thought brought only despair.

"Rachel? Are you okay?"

Jill had grabbed hold of her hand, and she hadn't even noticed.

"I'm..." The lump in her throat had grown too large.

"When, honey?"

She took a big gulp of tea to force the lump back down her throat. "Six weeks ago," she managed.

"I've left you alone these past weeks because you said you were buried at work. You never said--"

Jill caught herself, obviously figuring out on her own that Rachel wouldn't or couldn't talk about Jake now. She released Rachel's hand when the waitress dropped off their orders with a promise to come back with an iced-tea refill.

"When you're ready," Jill said, after the waitress left, "I'm here if you want to talk."

Rachel swallowed hard and nodded. "Thanks. I'm just not ready yet."

Jill started to say something when her cell phone chimed. She took the brief call, made a few curt comments, and clicked off with a chagrined look. "There's an emergency back at the school, and Principal Weathers is tied up off-campus. I have to get back."

Rachel waved her off. "Go, go. I'm fine, really. As long as I don't talk or think about him." Her big, handsome Jake with the slow, sexy smile.

Jill flagged down a waitress for a To Go box and was gone in minutes.

Rachel had no appetite and no desire to remain in the bustling restaurant. She had a research tome to turn back in at the library downtown and decided to finish her lunch hour there.

She found a metered parking spot on the street about a block from the library. She grabbed her purse and the research book and stepped out onto the sidewalk, then beeped the lock on her Honda. She made it halfway down the block, and froze.

Just past the library, conversing with a security guard in front of the First National Bank building, stood Lt. Jake Dillon. Her big, handsome Jake.

Correction. Big and handsome maybe. Hers... not anymore.

She couldn't take her eyes off him. Her gaze drank in the probably-not-regulation-length dark hair, the broad shoulders, and narrow waist. She didn't need to re-memorize his features. The man haunted her dreams in explicit detail.

She hadn't seen him in three weeks, since that all-too-brief glimpse she'd caught of him walking into the police station -- when she'd driven by and tried to talk herself into going inside to see him. Only now, with him standing but yards away, did she realize how much she had missed seeing that easy casual way he had about him.

Jake towered over the security guard, but leaned back with his hands in his pockets so the obviously-agitated man wouldn't feel intimidated. The ploy worked. The short bank guard babbled on and waved his hands about to punctuate his story.

Another man hovered at Jake's right. Rachel hadn't noticed him at first. A stranger. The man was the same height and build as Jake, and judging by the way he hung on the security guard's words, the stranger must work with Jake.

Rachel couldn't move closer to the security of the library, or Jake would spot her. She couldn't bear to have a confrontation with him today, not with her wounds still so fresh. She'd need to build up some scar tissue first. And by then, he'd be gone.

No, she was perfectly happy to stand here and just watch him for a few minutes. Who knew when she might get another opportunity to see him? Their parting hadn't been exactly amicable, and yet, she found she harbored no anger over the situation, only a profound sadness.

The three men turned as one to go into the bank, and Jake's gaze locked onto hers. She gasped. He hesitated there on the sidewalk and stared right at her, a blank expression on his handsome features. Her legs felt wobbly and her fingers tingled, dying to reach up in a wave or reach out for him. And just like that, he shrugged one shoulder and followed the guard into the bank.

Rachel felt that shrug like a slap and had to grab onto the nearby light pole for support. She took several deep breaths to slow her heart and lose the light-headed feeling. Not even a wave. Just a So what? shrug, and Jake was gone.

Somehow she made it up the steps to the library and sank onto one of the wrought-iron benches that flanked the entrance. How had everything come to this -- and so fast? Two months ago they were buying a house together, planning a future together, and today, all she got was a cast-off shrug.

She leaned back, closed her eyes, and turned her face toward the sun to ward off the chill that encompassed her. She could still see the two of them that day last summer on the beach at Daytona -- their last happy time together.

 

*****

 

"You're beautiful." Jake rolled over to stare down at Rachel as she lay on the beach blanket, basking in the bright, hot rays pelting the beach.

She smiled and gently touched his stubbly cheek.

The sun shone from a sky devoid of clouds, and cars lined up, bumper to bumper, to cruise down the world-famous Daytona Beach. Record crowds had congregated on the second Sunday in June. Sun worshippers of every size, shape, and gender sprawled on chaise lounges or beach towels beneath oversized umbrellas. The smell of coconut oil permeated the air, and brightly-colored coolers peppered the sand between cars. The constant throbbing crash of waves provided a melodic backdrop for the festive scene.

 "Silky hair, stop-me-dead green eyes, and a dazzling smile," he murmured softly in her ear. "Oh, and lest I forget... your oversized heart." He flicked the tip of his tongue along the shell of her ear until she quivered. "What are you thinking so hard about?"

She felt her smile stretch. "You."

His eyes glittered and grew dark. "What about me?'

Her smile ebbed. "Will you be disappointed if you pass on that Atlanta job again?"

A prestigious corporation, with a dozen mental-health clinics in the greater Atlanta area, had offered a job to Jake for the second time, and he had told her scant minutes earlier that he would probably turn them down. She hadn't liked the word probably stuck in the sentence. She would have preferred definitely.

He leaned in and lightly brushed his lips across hers. "I'm right where I want to be, here with you." He tucked a stray wisp of hair behind her ear. "Everything okay?"

"Sure, I was just lying here thinking about the first time you passed on that Atlanta firm."

A sudden gust of wind ruffled his dark hair as he watched her intently. He rested on a well-muscled arm and leaned in close until his face was inches from hers. "You mean when I traipsed across three states after graduation just to find you?"

She kissed the end of his nose. "I was so surprised to see you."

"You always say that, and here I thought I was so obvious in school, always hanging around you."

She sat up and frowned down at him. "Obvious how? You barely noticed me, rarely talked to me, and never asked me out."

"You were always with Jason Loverboy," he growled.

"Jason Loveland," she corrected. "And he was my best friend and quite gay."

"Neither of which I knew at the time," Jake said. "So I just hung around in case you showed up without him."

"Really?"

"Don't give me those big eyes. You had to know. God knows I stared at you enough."

"I didn't know. I swear."

He stared at her and shook his head. "I hated that last year of grad school after you graduated and moved on. I kept looking up and expecting to see you walk into class, and all I saw was old Jason Loverboy."

She gave him a quelling glance.

"Okay, Loveland. I guess I owe the guy for finally telling me the truth about you two."

"He did? You never told me that. I didn't know Jason knew you well enough to approach you, let alone discuss my personal life with you."

"He didn't." Jake looked chagrined. "I, uh... might have cornered him and forced it out of him."

"Jake! You didn't!"

"After he explained things, I passed on Atlanta and came looking for you."

Rachel narrowed her eyes at him. "I can't believe you passed on Atlanta. That firm had been waiting over a year for you after they sent their recruiter to sign you up. And that day we talked at the Employment Fair, you were so excited about the fat starting salary they offered."

He shrugged and leaned in to kiss her. His tongue slid along her lower lip until she parted her lips to let him in, and he took full advantage of the welcome opportunity, beach or no beach, crowd or no crowd. She learned to expect the unexpected with Jake, and she melted into him just as she had done the first time he kissed her and every time since.

"Well, you know now," he said against her lips. His voice had gone husky.

Her heart squeezed with emotion. Jake had wanted her back in college, and she hadn't known. He'd never shared that secret with her before.

She had discovered him in the registration line on the first day of graduate school. He was older, early thirties to her mid-twenties, and though he was big and broad and tough-looking, one look from Jake had stolen her breath. Her fingertips had tingled with the desire to run them through the thick dark hair that curled sexily over his ears and collar.

She'd struck up a conversation just to hear the sound of his voice and hadn't been disappointed -- a deep baritone that even now could send little sizzles up the nerve endings along her spine.

He told her he'd been a police officer and got his Masters degree in psychology at night at a local college. He'd saved enough to quit and come to North Carolina State for his doctorate. He'd inquired about her background as they moved up in the registration line and had just asked her to go for a cup of coffee sometime when Jason had joined her in line, effectively shutting down their conversation with his welcoming hug. Jake had turned to face forward. She never got her cup of coffee.

"You really did surprise me," she persisted.

He snorted and rolled onto his back and tucked his hands behind his head. "I remember it a little differently.

"Oh really."

"I remember knocking on your office door and only getting time to tell you that I'd passed on my Atlanta gig and moved to College Park before you threw your arms around my neck and kissed me."

"I kissed you after you said you moved to College Park because you wanted to make a difference in the world." She playfully poked him in the ribs. "And you kissed me back."

"Like this?" He slid his body alongside hers. His lips pressed to hers, and he melted her with another kiss.

Breathless, she pushed him back. "Jake, we can't make out on the beach like teenagers. It's not like we're at home and alone."

He leaned back on an elbow and gave her a devilish grin. "Tell me you didn't like it."

"I can't. You know I can't." She ran both hands through her hair, more for something to do while catching her breath.

A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, then stretched to a grin. "That first kiss must have been great. You went out with me that night and almost every night since." He rolled onto his back again and closed his eyes, his grin receding to a half-smile. "Except when your clients have you working weekends and taking up my time with you."

She raised an eyebrow he couldn't see. "Don't start, Jake. I've had a lot of work to do these last couple of months. That meant working some Saturdays. But I'm here this Saturday."

The half-grin all but disappeared, and he opened his eyes. "I know it was my idea for you to rent that fancy office at the Azalea Center, but not if it meant you working longer hours. I never get to see you. Other child psychologists have half the clients and make twice the money you do."

 "I charge what parents can afford. My kids need me." She turned away to watch the swimsuit parade ambling past. "And can't we just have some fun without arguing about my job?" She started to get up, but he pulled her back down.

Immediately penitent, he leaned in close. "I'm sorry, honey."

Before she could answer, he cupped her cheek and slowly brushed his lips across hers. The tip of his tongue slowly traced her lower lip, and a shiver snaked up her spine.

"You're forgiven," she whispered.

He smiled, but didn't move back. "Why did you bring up Atlanta if you didn't change your mind about wanting to move?"

She sighed and kissed the end of his nose. "I just worry about you working for the police department and all the dangerous spots you get yourself into."

He looked as though he would kiss her again. "That's what police negotiators do. You don't have to worry about me. I'm your big, strong man, remember?" He growled the last few words.

She laughed on an exhale. "I remember very well."

He eased away, and she thought he was going to lie back on the blanket again. Her gaze returned to the swimsuit parade when suddenly he reached out and pulled her tight to his chest.

When their eyes met, she saw a look that surprised her. No teasing grin or devilish dare to stir her emotions.

"I love you, Rachel." His voice rumbled low with an intensity that made her ache to the core. "You're all I ever wanted. There will never be another woman for me. You know that."

He leaned in till their lips almost touched, startling her into a gasp of anticipation. "Marry me." He brushed his lips against hers and pulled back. "You said you wanted to care for kids of your own."

She gazed into his midnight-blue eyes -- so serious -- and yet she could see vulnerability, too. He wasn't sure of her answer. Her always-confident, always-daredevil Jake looked unsure.

She laid her hand against his cheek, and he turned his face to kiss her palm. "Yes, Jake. I will marry you."

He tumbled her to the blanket and kissed her like a starving man shown a buffet, all relief and need. A kiss to seal their fate as one.

He pulled back and stared hard into her eyes. "I've wanted kids for a long time."

She laughed. "Me, too."

"I want to make kids with you, Rachel. Now. I don't want to wait. I want to get married right away."

"Really?" She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him hard.

He tugged on her hair to pull her back. "I'm serious."

She smiled. "I know."

"I mean it. I can't wait to make our kids with you. I love you."

She cupped his cheeks, placed a gentle kiss on his lips. "I've waited forever for you, Jake Dillon."

"Thank God." His voice had gone all husky again, and her heart jittered. "The closing on your cottage is next week."

Confused now, she nodded. Her little lease-to-own bungalow in the quaint northeastern district was slated to become hers on Thursday.

"Change the loan," he said. "Put me as co-signer. We're a family as of right now."

She felt a sudden chill. "What about Atlanta? You only said you would probably turn them down, not definitely turn them down."

"Screw Atlanta. My place is here with you. There'll be more high-profile jobs later."

Her confident, take-the-world-by-storm Jake grinned and got to his feet. "Come on, I've got a hankering to see my new soon-to-be-half-mine cottage, so I can carry you over the threshold."

He handed her a beach towel and brushed his lips across hers. "How do you feel about girls?"

She grinned. She knew she would love this man forever.

Jake had made it home in record time and true to his word, carried her over the threshold to "seal their deal" as he called it. And then came the phone call that shattered her world.

 

*****

 

Jake worked hard to get his focus back so he could concentrate on the pint-sized security guard yammering in his ear. Seeing Rachel standing in front of the library had felt like a punch to the gut. He couldn't breathe for a minute until he shrugged off the shock and pulled back to his duty.

She'd looked beautiful. She always did, even covered with dirt while gardening behind their cottage.

Their cottage.

An acid taste filled his mouth. His name was on the mortgage all right. Fat lot of good that did him. Rachel didn't want him, didn't want to marry him, didn't want his kids. Had she ever wanted those things, or had she just fooled him? Or had she just fooled herself?

He exhaled hard. It hurt too much to think about. He'd need to do something about the mortgage. He'd let it go because making a change would put a final period on their relationship, on their chance at a life together.

"You all right, Jake?" his new partner Wally Keaton asked.

"Yeah, I'm good."

"You sure? You seemed a little out of it back there."

"I saw my ex-fiancée is all. Over by the library."

"Ahh." Keaton made three syllables of the word, and the security guard glanced back looking nervous.

"I'm good," Jake ground out sullenly, and the three men headed through the front door of the bank.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

"What are you doing out here in front of the library?"

Rachel's eyes flew open. Jake Dillon stood in front of the bench, staring down at her. One side of his mouth quirked up in the smile she loved so well.

"Did I wake you?"

"No. I, uh..."

Great. She was tongue-tied when she needed desperately to sound glib, so Jake couldn't see she still suffered -- suffered with stabs of pain to her heart so sharp they could hijack her breath at times.

"You look good," he said softly.

No, don't be nice to me. Or the pain will start over from scratch.

"Thanks," she managed, without stuttering.

She caught movement behind Jake. The man who'd entered the bank with him earlier now waited at the bottom of the library steps.

Jake noticed her gaze shift. He glanced over his shoulder and seemed surprised to see the man there.

With an impatient sigh, he said, "Rachel, this is Wally Keaton, my new partner."

She stood to greet the man. Wally moved to the top step and extended a hand.

"Wally, this is my--" He stopped for the span of a breath.

Her gaze shot to his face. What would Jake call her?

"--my friend, Rachel Kelly."

The word friend stung. All they'd meant to each other had just been reduced to one ubiquitous word, safe enough for half the world's population. She felt twinges of anger.

Jake wouldn't look at her. Had the friend comment hurt him at all?

"Pleased to meet you," she said, shaking Wally's hand. Anger gave her confidence. "I thought maybe that was the case when I saw you two go into the bank with the security guard."

There. She'd let Jake know she'd watched him -- but calm, as though nothing mattered.

"Was there trouble in the bank?" she asked lightly.

Wally grinned. "Guy didn't like his loan being revoked and tried to throw his weight around. Tossed a few threats out so the bank hit the hidden-alarm button."

Jake glowered at his partner's information dump.

Wally either didn't see the look or ignored his frown. "You should've seen Jake here. Within a few minutes, he had the perp blubbering like a baby and apologizing to everyone in the bank." He gave Jake's shoulder with a friendly bump. "Asked all the right questions. I was impressed."

"Enough!" Jake snapped. He frowned hard at Wally, leaving no doubt as to his opinion on the replay. "Give us a few minutes, all right?"

"What? Oh, sure thing." Wally descended the steps and took up a spot at the curb.

"Have you two been together long?" Rachel asked.

Jake scrubbed a palm across the nape of his neck. "Three long days."

She smiled. "New to the crisis team?"

"Yeah."

"You weren't in any danger were you? In the bank?" The words slipped out before she considered the consequences.

Startled, he stared hard into her eyes for long seconds.

Had his expression softened or had she imagined that? He looked as though he had a question of his own. It was an old argument between them -- her constantly worried about his safety, him always claiming it was his duty to protect and serve. She'd always suspected the thrill of danger played a part in there.

He gave up his curiosity and shook his head. "Not really. Guy just needed a good talking to. Bank didn't even want to press charges once he started to cry."

They stood quietly for several moments, each content to gaze at the other -- each waiting for the other to make the first move. The air between them felt electrified like a force field vibrating with emotion. Could he feel it, too? Her fingertips tingled, wanting to reach out and touch him -- to make the inevitable connection. One step closer and she could reach him.

He didn't move.

A standoff.

Jake gave up first. "Well, I just wanted to stop and say hello." He turned for the steps.

She couldn't let him go yet. "Jake, wait."

He spun back, eyebrows raised.

No, no. Don't go all tongue-tied again!

She swallowed the lump forming in her throat. "It was good to see you," she said softly.

His eyes widened almost imperceptibly. She would have missed it, if she hadn't been staring into his midnight-blue eyes -- staring so hard at his eyes, she hadn't noticed his hand move. She jerked slightly at the touch of his fingers to her cheek.

His pupils darkened just a bit, then he blinked and glanced away. Had she imagined that shred of desire, too?

With a curt nod, he headed down the steps toward Keaton without a backward glance.

She let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Dare she hope?

Her cell phone gave a single chime denoting a text message received, and she pulled it from her purse.

The text had come from Jill. Things are escalating already. I'll be in touch.

 

*****

 

"Want to tell me what that was all about?" Wally asked, when they climbed into their Crown Vic.

"No."

"You said ex-fiancée."

Jake ignored him, hoping he'd shut up. Seeing Rachel -- touching her -- had shaken him.

"She's gorgeous."

He shot Wally a fulsome glare.

"Just saying is all. Kind of hard to believe you'd let somebody that gorgeous get away."

"Drop it," he growled.

"But we're partners. Partners talk."

"We've only been partners for three days."

"We can still talk about stuff that bothers you," Wally prodded.

"Nothing's bothering me," Jake snapped. "Come find me in three months. We'll talk then."

"But as real partners, we're supposed to share--"

"No, we're not," Jake bit off. "You don't need to know everything about me."

Wally stuck his palms up. "Okay, okay. Gees! Doesn't matter anyway. Some things I can see for myself."

Jake glowered at him again. "What are you talking about?"

"I thought you said to drop it?"

"Spit it out," Jake snapped.

"I can see you're not over your ex-fiancée. Yet."

Jake swung the Crown Vic hard into traffic. "You're crazy."

Wally shrugged. "I don't think so."

Jake's hands tightened on the steering wheel till his knuckles turned white. Silence descended into the car's dreary gun-metal gray interior. For all of two minutes.

"Want to talk about it?" Wally asked.

"Hell, no!" Jake barked and took a right onto Mills Avenue where the police station was located.

"Just thought you might."

"Well, you thought wrong."

Wally calmly stared out the passenger window and without warning, added softly, "Cause it was plain as the nose on my face, you're still in love with her."

 

*****

 

Students continued to file into Mr. Parchment's math class as the tardy bell rang. "Quiet students!" His voice rang out. "Hurry to your seats. I'm going to give out last week's test."

Math students at Cherokee Middle School had endured Parchment's instruction for twenty-nine years and knew he brooked no disruption in class. Silence reigned as he strode to his desk to retrieve the papers on which all eyes now focused. Swiftly moving up and down the aisles, he set graded test papers on desks to the communal groans and gasps of his captive audience.

He placed the last test paper in the stack on the desk of Jay Elledge. The young man never looked down and trained his eyes on the blackboard at the front of the room.

Parchment was bewildered by the boy's lack of interest in his test results. The young man had more potential than any three students in the room, evidenced by his participation when prodded. Always, he showed a depth of understanding far beyond the level presented or question posed. In recent weeks, the boy's performance had deteriorated enough Parchment felt the need to send a counseling referral form to Jill Henry.

Ms. Henry had sought him out and admitted she'd already spotted a pattern emerging over the last year or so as Jay transitioned from an eager, productive student to a sullen powder keg, riling at the least provocation. She had assured Parchment she would seek help for the boy. Parchment hated to see a young life wasted.

Backing up, he leaned over and whispered, "You can do much better than that, Jay. I know you can."

The boy glanced up to meet his gaze, and his eyes glistened in the morning sunlight streaming in through the classroom windows. Abruptly, Jay looked away.

Parchment sighed and moved to the front of the room to begin the day's mathematics exercise.

 

*****

 

The schoolyard at Cherokee Middle School hummed with the first session of lunchtime students either eating their lunches on benches outside or searching for friends and a bit of fresh air. Dust kicked up in thin clouds as the youthful crowd scuffled here and there.

A six-foot chain link fence ringed the yard on two sides with the gymnasium and the southern wing of the school bordering the other two sides. The containment created an open area about an acre in size, used for physical education exercises and general milling about between classes. Shade from ancient live oaks and younger holly trees scattered around the perimeter, coupled with intense daytime use, rendered the yard grassless.

As usual, Jay Elledge sat off in an unoccupied corner of the yard and watched the rest of the students from a distance. He'd chosen a bench set back in the shade of one of the large old oaks where the air felt cooler and wind buffeted leaves and debris nearby.

Allowed to wander, his mind took its usual path to an imagined life at a different school with different parents and loads of friends. His dream visualized a girlfriend to hold hands with in the schoolyard, and when the final bell rang, he headed home to a mother who baked cookies in the kitchen and a father who played catch in the backyard. A father who hugged him, when Jay missed a catch or dropped the ball, and told him, "Don't worry, son. We'll keep trying till we get it right."

Cruel reality always cut his peaceful daydream short and seeped in whether Jay liked it or not. He always felt lost, when his dream dissipated, or overwhelmed like a hot woolen blanket, stifling and uncomfortable. The beatings had gained in frequency and intensity during the last year, but Jay had far greater difficulty dealing with them in recent months. Fears for his younger brother Will had compounded his own worries. The incident a few days earlier had shaken Jay to the core.

His father had attempted his first real swing at Will, and Jay's anxiety stemmed from the fear this would become a habit. He had managed to step in and take the beating for Will by antagonizing his father and redirecting the attack. But how long would his ploy work? He could take anything his father dealt out, but Will was not as strong. Jay had the beginnings of the same husky frame his father possessed while Will took after their petite, dark-haired mother.

Jay had slept little the last few nights, ravaged by the now-too-frequent dream where he saw Will at the mercy of one of his father's beatings. The dark dream dredged up rage from the depths of Jay's soul and left him badly shaken.

Cheep!

Torn from his musing, Jay popped his head up and scanned the ancient oak tree overhead.

Cheep!

The sound came again, a little clearer the second time. Was that a baby bird? Loving birds since he was a child, Jay knew October was early for nestlings. He peered through the mesh of oak branches overhead and then scanned the nearby holly trees.

Cheep! Cheep!

Straining, he zeroed in on the sound. On his feet, he eased over to the base of the farthest holly tree. A few feet from the trunk lay a tiny bird's nest, with three fledglings huddled inside, crying for their mother.

Squawk!

Before he could stoop to rescue the nest, he heard the mother bird hidden in the branches above his head. He spied an English sparrow nervously hopping from one spot to another, obviously terrified by his presence near her young.

A smile swiftly spread across his face. "Easy there, Momma," he cooed to the adult bird still flitting about. "I won't hurt them."

The fledglings chirped wildly upon hearing their mother close by. Jay stooped next to the nest and studied the occupants, wary of the nervous mother overhead.

"It's okay," he cooed to the nervous babies. "I'll put you back in the tree with your Mom."

Thinking the mother sparrow's squawking was due to his proximity to her nest, he had missed the approaching footsteps. Intent on rescuing the baby birds, he never detected movement until he reached for the nest. His peripheral vision picked up an object nearing his hand -- one second too late.

The shoe pummeled both hand and nest in one destructive swoop. Kicked aside, Jay's hand flew upward as the nest tumbled forward, end over end.

"Playing with birdies?" The loud taunt came from behind.

Leaping forward a foot or two, Jay righted the little nest and tucked the flailing babies back inside before squaring off with his assailant.

Harmon Roder, the stocky school bully, faced him -- fists on his hips and an evil glitter in his eyes. To Harmon's left stood his faithful companion, Billy Candler. Together, the two wreaked havoc with the weaker members of the seventh- and eighth-grade classes. By keeping to himself most of the time, Jay had avoided any confrontations with the two though he'd witnessed enough attacks on other students.

"Those are my birds," Harmon commanded. "Get out of my way."

Meeting the bully's gaze, eye to eye, Jay straightened to his full height, though still a half head shorter than his opponent. "No."

Harmon's eyes narrowed. "What did you say?"

"No."

Harmon took a step forward. His cheek twitched. Billy hung by his side with an equally menacing stare.

"I said those birds are mine. You got one more chance to get out of the way."

Stoic, Jay refused to budge.

"Put the birds out of their misery, Harmon," Billy urged. "They already fell out of the tree." He turned a deviant smile on Jay.

"Yeah, I'll put them out of their misery." Harmon took another step and closed the gap between him and Jay to a few feet.

"Don't," Jay said menacingly.

The underlying threat was all the catalyst Harmon required, and he lunged for the nest. As Harmon's body surged forward, Jay juked to his right, skilled at bobbing and weaving from years of ducking his father's blows. Catching Harmon square in the chest, he flung the big boy backward and smacked him flat on the ground. Then Jay piled on top.

With his leader down on the ground, Billy's courage waned, and he stood by watching as the other two boys exchanged blows.

Within seconds, shrieks of "Fight! Fight!" reverberated through the schoolyard, and screaming onlookers raced to circle the pair.

Harmon got in a good hard punch and succeeded in throwing Jay backward, but soon lost his temporary advantage. With one hand pinning Harmon's throat to the ground, Jay began to whale with the other, now balled up in a fist. The bully flailed his arms and managed to deflect only half the blows.

Rage welled up from a place in Jay's soul he never knew existed. He knew pummeling the bully beneath him was wrong, but he couldn't stop. Every swing he had wanted to take at his father came now, one after another. Almost incoherent, he looked down and saw he'd bloodied Harmon's nose.

The trickle of red shocked Jay and brought a swift cessation to the fight. Suddenly, he felt arms jerking him off Harmon's stomach.

A meaty fist grabbed his collar and twisted it tight. "Mister, you're going to the office."