First Chapter Excerpt – Protecting Paige

Excerpt from

Protecting Paige

Book 3 in the Serve and Protect Series


Norah Wilson

Copyright © 2010 Norah Wilson

Published by Norah Wilson

All rights reserved.






Derek Weaver ran a hand across his shaved head as he waited for the weekly call. His hand came away wet.

His eyes darted to the clock on the wall of his Union Street apartment — the nicest address he’d managed since being released from prison two years ago — then back to the silent satellite phone lying on the coffee table. He wished he could spark up another doobie, but the Big Guy would hear it in his voice. Bastard knew everything.

Cursing, he wiped away a fresh sheen of sweat before it could trickle down his face.

The phone rang. He lunged for it.


“Good evening, Mr. Weaver. I trust you have a promising report for me?”

The Big Guy was always polite. Formal, even. But Derek was no fool. He’d never met his boss, but he recognized the ruthlessness which underlay those soft, foreign-accented tones.

Derek closed his eyes. “I lost him.”

A chilling pause.

“I think perhaps you’d better explain.”

“He won’t do it.”

“Ah, but that’s where you are wrong, my young friend.”

“But he’s a straight arrow, sir. I’m not making a lotta headway with the usual tools.” Again, Derek cursed his luck. Trust him to run up against the only 18-year-old in the western world who wasn’t eager to be seduced with mega-doses of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.

“Of course he’s of sterling character. If just anyone could do the job, I’d simply have you do it.”

“But I can’t cross the border. Even if I could hide my convictions, they’d take one look at me and tear my car apart  —”

“Precisely. Which is why you’ll have to bring our young man around to our way of thinking.”

“But I told you, he ain’t having no part of it.”

“Then you’ll just have to adopt new tactics, won’t you?”

“New tactics?” Distaste, the kind he’d thought he was long past feeling, rose in his throat like bile. “What kind of tactics?”

“Why, whatever tactics are required, of course. We have just three weeks left and no time to recruit a new candidate of such impeccable quality. There must be no — how do you say? — foul-ups. Are we clear, Mr. Weaver?”

Derek dug the fingers of his free hand into his knee. Hard. “Perfectly, sir.”

The line went dead. Derek closed the phone and hurled it to the other end of the sofa. Goddamn raghead! Piece-of-shit camel-jockey. By the time he exhausted his considerable lexicon of derogatory insults, his rage had passed and fear seeped in to take its place.

Shit. How’d he get himself into this mess?

He should run, dammit, and to hell with the mysterious boss he’d never laid eyes on.

But what would he do if he gave up this gig? All he knew was crime, and with his record, if he made one more appearance before Her Majesty, the judge would lock him up for a good long stretch. And Derek had good reason to want to avoid prison. Several of them, in fact. He’d gotten on the bus, sold out some cell-mates to shorten and sweeten his own stint. If he got sent up again, he just might find himself bunking down with a roommate who’d stick him with the sharpened point of a toothbrush first chance he got.

No, he couldn’t give this job up. It was his ticket out of here. All he had to do was stick to it long enough to see the big payday, then he could clear the hell out of town. Get right out of the country.

But how was he going to secure the kid’s cooperation?

He reached for the fattest of the joints lined up like little soldiers on the table’s glass surface. The answer would come to him. And if it didn’t, at least he’d be too stoned to be as scared as he knew he should be.



Chapter 1


Constable Tommy Godsoe’s blood sang.

His breath rasped harshly in his ears as he pelted along the concrete sidewalk, but he wasn’t winded. Not yet. Not even close. Max, the four-year-old Belgian Malinois straining at the business end of the thirty-foot lead, lent Tommy extra speed. Even now, backup was falling further and further behind, but Tommy couldn’t check Max’s momentum or the dog would think he was being corrected.

Suddenly, at the mouth of an alleyway, Max slowed. Without conscious thought, Tommy took up the slack in the lead even as he studied the dog nosing the asphalt. The dog wheeled in a tight semi-circle, then turned away from the alley and shot off again down the sidewalk. Tommy fixed the location in his mind. Max had eliminated the alleyway as a direction of travel. Always had to remember the last negative sign. If they lost the trail further on up ahead, they could come back to this spot, so Max could pick up the scent again.

At the next alleyway, Max did the same check, but this time he bounded off down the narrow passageway. Tommy raced after him, his heart rate kicking up another notch.


Max cleared it in one leap, and Tommy vaulted over it right behind him. Over the sound of his own breathing, he heard backup in the mouth of the alley now. Good. No need to radio his location. He could save his breath for —


What the hell?

Tommy jerked awake, struggling up into a sitting position. The sheets, cool with sweat, pooled in his lap, and his heart pounded against his ribs as though he’d run a marathon.

Ah, Jesus wept. A dream. It was just a dream. He wasn’t a cop anymore. He wasn’t a dog handler. Bitterness, familiar as the pain in his hip, curdled his stomach.

A light tapping at his door.

“All right, all right, keep your shirt on.”

Throwing off the sheet, he swung his legs gingerly over the edge of the bed. He thought about scooping up the blue sweat pants from the floor and hauling them on over his boxers, but another peal of the doorbell dissuaded him. Grabbing his cane, he lurched to his feet and hobbled toward the living room, grimacing with every step.


Cripes, that’s what his doorbell sounded like? Something from a 50s Avon commercial? He’d lived here four years and couldn’t remember ever hearing his own doorbell. No doubt the ‘Beware of Dog’ sign had something to do with that. He and Max never stayed indoors when they could be outside, and they sure as hell never waited around for life to come to them.

Until now.

The doorbell sounded again, and he wished he still had his service weapon. He’d happily put a round into that little speaker by the front door.

Reaching the door at last, he tore it open. “What?”




Paige Harmer took an instinctive step backward.

When she’d moved into this duplex last month, the other side had been vacant. The landlady’d said its occupant was in hospital recovering from surgery. But even after her neighbor had come home nearly two weeks ago, the unit next door had been unnaturally quiet. No visitors came or went, and no music thrummed through those walls. If it weren’t for the small bag of garbage that materialized at the curb beside hers every Tuesday morning, and the occasional muted sound of a television deep in the night, she’d have sworn the other apartment was deserted. Now, her neighbor stood framed in the doorway, wearing a pair of white boxers and a thunderous expression.

And oh, Christmas, he was most gorgeous thing she’d clapped eyes on in years, outside of a Calvin Klein ad.

Despite their current storminess, his eyes were blue as the July sky. Black hair, a startling contrast to his pale complexion, stood up in all directions, all the sexier for its dishevelment. Thick, black eyebrows slanted over those killer eyes. More dark hair crowned his chest in a liberal thatch, tapering to a thin line that arrowed out of sight beneath his boxers.

Runner, she thought. Endurance athlete. Just a hair over average height, with a leanness that shaded toward too thin. Yet the conformation of arms and chest disclosed enough wiry muscle to give the impression of power.

“Can I help you?”

Mister, if you can’t, there’s no help for me.

The thought barely had a chance to form before her internal censor roared to life. He was way too young for her to be ogling, for goodness sake. Hardly much older than Dillon, by the look of him.

There, that did it. Though he was clearly nowhere near as young as her son, the mental association was enough to clamp a firm leash on her imagination.

Unfortunately, the extra seconds it took to channel her thoughts in more pure directions didn’t go unnoticed. One thick eyebrow arched inquiringly, reminding her she hadn’t yet stated her purpose.

She felt a flush begin to climb her neck. No chance he’d miss that, either. Her skin was almost translucent, at least the stuff between the freckles. She lifted the foil-wrapped plate she held. “I thought you might like some dinner.”

He looked at the plate. “Thanks, but I’m not a big eater.”

“I can see that,” she said, injecting her tone with the same censorious note she might use with her son when he ignored his body’s nutritional needs. He shifted, and she finally noticed the cane, which he appeared to be leaning on pretty heavily. “Don’t worry. It’ll freeze nicely if you can’t handle it all right now.”

“Look, lady, that’s real nice of you, but  —”

“I’ll just put it in the refrigerator for you, shall I?”

She angled sideways and slipped right past him before he could finish brushing her off. No way was she going back to her lonely unit to worry about Dillon. Not tonight.

“That way, I presume?” She indicated the direction the kitchen must be, if the place were laid out in the mirror image of hers.

“Uh … yeah.”

Seconds later, Paige stood in front of a white dinosaur of a refrigerator, a twin to the one that rattled and hummed in her own kitchen, right beside the commercial refrigeration unit she’d installed for her business. That’s where the similarity ended, she discovered, as she opened the refrigerator’s door.

Five bottles of beer, domestic. Some Chinese takeout cartons that bulged ominously as though approaching an explosive state. A drying chunk of cheddar cheese, circa 2008. A few bottles of condiments. No eggs, no dairy, no vegetables, no fruit.

Hearing him arrive at the kitchen door — the thumping of the cane on the linoleum-covered floor announced his progress — she glanced over at him.

“Is this the part where you tell me you’re really one of the undead and have no need of sustenance beyond human blood?”

He didn’t smile. If anything, he scowled more fiercely. “I’ve been meaning to get to the grocery store.”

“It must be hard.”

He followed the drift of her gaze. She could tell by the way his hand tightened on the cane’s handle.

His jaw hardened even further, if possible. “I manage.”

“Are you hungry? The food’s still hot.” She waggled the foil-wrapped plate temptingly. “Stuffed pork chops with mashed potatoes, glazed carrots and gingered parsnips.”

“It’s okay,” he said, after a split-second hesitation. “You can just put it in the fridge.”

Fat chance. She’d caught the fleeting look of indecision in his eye as she’d described what was under the foil. He was hungry, all right. “Aw, come on, sit down and eat. I need the distraction.”

Those cigar-thick eyebrows soared. “You want to stay and watch me eat?”

“Relax, fella. Nothing kinky. I just don’t want to go back over there yet. I’ve done two loads of laundry, vacuumed the carpet within an inch of its life, baked three cheese cakes and seven pies. I have nowhere to put any more baking and nothing left to clean. So if I go home now, I’ve got nothing left to do but worry about Dillon.”

“Who’s Dillon?”

Ah! A question. And she hadn’t even dragged it out of him. That was an improvement. “My son.”

“Where is he?”

She blew out her breath, lifting a strand of auburn hair off her face. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be worried, would I? Or maybe I would, at that,” she amended, thinking about the hard-looking young man Dillon had been hanging with lately.

“He’s missing?”

The sharpness of his tone drew her glance to his face. His eyebrows were drawn together again in a frown.

She shrugged. “He’s seventeen, almost eighteen. I can hardly describe him as missing every time he slams out of the house in a foul mood.”

That surprised him. She could see him doing the mental arithmetic, calculating her minimum age. That’s right, son. Old enough to be your mother, even if I don’t look it.

Okay, that was an exaggeration. A huge exaggeration. But older than him by quite a few years, she’d wager.

“Sit.” She pulled a tea towel off the oven door handle where it had been hung to dry after its last use and flopped it on the table as an impromptu place mat, then plunked the plate down on it. “I nuked the ceramic plate before dishing up the food so it would stay nice and warm.”

“I don’t even know your name.”

Way to go, Paige. Barge in and take over the man’s life without an introduction.

“Sorry.” She wiped her right hand on her jeans and extended it. “Paige Harmer. Your new neighbor.”

She regretted her gesture immediately, as he had to lurch forward to grasp her hand. He didn’t grimace, but she could feel the tension in his grip. Pain.

“Tom Godsoe.”

“I know.” At his enquiring look, she hastened to add, “Mrs. Graham mentioned your name.”

Paige had been impressed at how close-mouthed her landlady had been about her tenant’s private life. As a prospective new tenant, all Paige had needed to know was that her neighbor wasn’t a creepazoid. She’d found her landlady’s discretion commendable at the time, but now she couldn’t help but wish the other woman had been a little less discreet. For instance, what did Tom Godsoe do for a living? How had he sustained the injury that made crossing a room the grueling ordeal it appeared to be?

“Okay,” he said at last, “if I’m going to have an audience, I think I’d better get dressed.”

Not on my account.

Before something like that escaped her mouth, she averted her eyes from those square shoulders and lightly-muscled expanse of chest. “Take your time. I think I spotted some coffee beans and a grinder. I’ll just brew us a pot of java.”

“Be my guest,” he drawled, then turned and thumped away.

A smile tugging at her lips, Paige reached for the gourmet coffee beans.




A film of perspiration slicked Tommy’s brow before he’d made it halfway to his bedroom. Damned useless leg. He paused by the couch and leaned on the back of the hulking piece of furniture for a few seconds. Gritting his teeth against the white-hot shards of pain he knew would explode in his hip and lower back with each step, he resumed the trek to the bedroom.

Why hadn’t he given that crazy, wild-haired woman the boot? He wasn’t that hungry. He still had waffles in the freezer, and dry Fruit Loops were a perfectly adequate source of nutrition.

Yeah, right. The hospital food he’d subsisted on for so long was better than anything he had left in the cupboards. A pork chop and actual vegetables sounded like heaven. He only hoped the price of dinner wouldn’t be too high. She had the look of a hard customer to move along, if she wasn’t of a mind to go.

Of course, she’d never experienced Tommy’s post-injury brand of hospitality. He’d managed to chase off friends and fellow officers — no, make that ex fellow officers — even before he’d checked out early from the rehab center. Getting rid of one slip of a woman shouldn’t be too hard.

When he reached his bedroom, he sank down on the edge of the bed and cursed his trembling leg. Weak as a damn baby. It took another few minutes to drag the sweat pants on. By the time he’d located a t-shirt and pulled it over his head, his whole body was slicked with sweat. Pitiful. Completely done in by a twenty-foot walk.

He grabbed the pill bottle off the night stand, dumped two tablets into his palm and dry-swallowed them. His hip was gonna kill him tonight, for all this activity. Already, he pictured himself lying on the mattress in the dead of night, going quietly crazy while the pain radiated down to the soles of his feet.

Kitchen, he reminded himself. If he was going to sell his soul, or at least his privacy, for a home-cooked meal, he’d better get there before the food fossilized on the plate.

By the time he made it back to the kitchen, the crazy woman — Paige? — not only had a pot of coffee brewed, but she’d cleaned out his refrigerator as evidenced by the armload of inedible stuff she was dumping in the garbage can when he hobbled in.

She glanced up at him. “I hope you weren’t too attached to any of that stuff.”

“You cleaned my refrigerator?”

She grinned. “Couple more days, that stuff would have walked off on its own, anyway.”

As he lowered himself onto a chair, a laborious proposition in itself, she washed her hands under the tap and dried them on a clean towel she must have found in a drawer. Then she zoomed in on him again, removed the foil covering from his meal and rotated the plate so the meat was within easy reach. The delicious aroma that rose up from the hot meal was almost enough to take the edge off his irritation at her hovering solicitousness.


“I swear to God, if you pick up those utensils to cut my meat for me, I won’t be responsible for my actions.”

She started at his tone, and although she didn’t evacuate the physical space she occupied by his left shoulder, he felt her take a mental step backward. And she looked at him, really looked, which she’d managed not to do since she’d inventoried him in the doorway earlier. He met her gaze, keeping his expression flat. Best way to discourage sympathy, he’d found.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He picked up his fork. “If I detect the merest whiff of pity from you, you’ll be taking that coffee to go, good deeds notwithstanding. Understood?”


She blinked at him in what appeared to be genuine disbelief. Her eyes were green, he noticed. Not the improbable green of those tinted contacts women wore, but a soft, mossy green.

“Mr. Godsoe, I assure you it hadn’t occurred to me to pity you. It was just the mother in me coming out.”

He stabbed a parsnip. “I don’t need a mother.”

“That’s going around, I guess. Neither does Dillon.”

She turned away to grab a mug, but not before he caught a glimpse of the worry lines creasing her forehead.

He went back to eating as she fixed her coffee. By the time she plunked down opposite him at the small pedestal table, her brow was smooth once more. He’d also devoured half the pork chop.

“This is wonderful,” he said around his food. “Where’d you learn to cook like this?”

“My fourth and final foster home. I finally figured out you had to bring value-added if you wanted to stay put.”

His question had been rhetorical; he certainly hadn’t expected an answer, let alone one like that. With her wide, inviting face, freckled complexion and burnished hair, she looked like apple pie and picket fences, not the product of an underfunded and overburdened child protection system.

Dammit. It was no concern of his who she was and where she came from. He had more than enough of his own problems to worry about. Instead of uttering one of the half-dozen questions that sprang to mind, he nodded and went back to his meal.

“Actually, I make my living cooking,” she said. “Desserts, specifically, for some of the nicer restaurants around town. Cheesecakes, pies, flans, tarts, you name it. Speaking of which, would you like a piece of lemon meringue pie? I could run home and get you one.”

Homemade lemon pie sounded great, but he wouldn’t send her out for it. “No, this is good.”


He felt her gaze on him as he used the last morsel of meat to mop up any lingering traces of juice from his plate.

“Please.” God, it felt good to have a hot meal inside him. He could almost forget the insistent throb of pain that was his constant companion.

Once again, almost.

She put a mug of steaming black coffee before him, along with a half-pint of cream and the bowl of lumpy sugar she must have found in his cupboard.

He shot her a look. “Where’d the cream come from?”

“I ran home and got it while you were changing. Eggs, too, and whole-wheat bread. Some dry cereal. A couple of bananas. Wish I’d thought of the pie.”

It was his turn to blink in disbelief. Until twenty minutes ago, he’d never laid eyes on her. Since then, she’d pushed her way into his home, fed him, cleaned his kitchen and done her level best to restock his cupboards.

“Okay, this must be the part where you smile disarmingly and tell me you’re some kind of Pacific Heights-type psycho and I’m never gonna get you to leave.”

A smile lifted the corner of her lips, making a dimple flash on the right side of her mouth. “I guess this wouldn’t be the time to confess that I really loved Michael Keaton’s tenant-from-hell character in that movie?”

Irritated with himself for noticing her mouth, he grated, “Dammit, I told you, I don’t want your pity, or your groceries. I let you in the door, and now you’re making yourself at home, digging through my cupboards —”

“Look, Tom — can I call you Tom? Tommy?” Without bothering to wait for a reply, she forged on. “I can see you don’t get around very well, whereas I do. Your cupboards were bare. Mine aren’t. No biggie. Heck, you can replace the groceries, if you feel that strongly about it.”

He scowled at her reasonable tone. “I just don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. I’m doing fine, dammit.”

“I didn’t mean to imply you weren’t.” Her green eyes narrowed. “Do you have some tragic story I should know about?”

“Hardly.” He said it without hesitation, and just to prove how tragedy-free he was feeling, he lifted his coffee cup to his lips and took a sip.

“Good, because now wouldn’t be a good time to talk about it. It’d just ruin your digestion. Let’s talk about me instead.”

He choked on his coffee.

She turned those big eyes on him. “What? I thought we’d established you don’t want to talk about your accident or your surgery or whatever, so why not me? Or my suddenly difficult son.”

Why talk at all? He could plead a bone-deep agony in his hip and leg, which would be no lie. The pain pills hadn’t kicked in yet. Then he remembered the look on her face when she’d first mentioned her son.

“Dillon, right?”

She brightened. “Yes, Dillon.”

“What’s his problem?”

She shrugged, but it wasn’t the same nonchalant gesture she’d displayed before. This shrug spoke of helplessness.

“I wish I knew. We used to be really close, but now … his moods are so … changeable.”

“He’s eighteen.”

“Not for another couple of weeks.”

“My point is, being surly and uncommunicative is par for the course.”

“I know. But he’s always been such a sweet kid.”

He watched her absently stroke her coffee mug. “Boys grow up.”

She shook her head. “That’s part of it, for sure. Maybe even the biggest part of it,” she allowed. “But he really didn’t want to make this move, or at least not as fast as we did. Consciously or not, he’s punishing me for disrupting our lives.” She chewed the inside of her lip a moment. “Maybe I should have postponed the move. But I’d already held off until he finished high school, and he’d have had to move somewhere in the fall anyway, for university, so I figured why not here, right?”

He realized she was looking at him as though she expected some kind of reaction. “UNB’s a good school. He’ll like it.”

She looked down into the depths of her coffee mug again. “Besides, I’d won a major contract that pretty much required me to relocate here. Not that he had to pick this university just because I was coming here. He’d been accepted by three different schools, and we could have stretched the budget to pay for residence, but this one really does have the best computer science program.”

What was he supposed to say? “I’ve heard very good things about it.”

“I know it was a wrench to leave his friends so soon after graduation, but I figured he could use the time to get to know the city, make a few friends here.”

Man, she’d obviously been over this ground a few times, rationalizing, regretting, second-guessing. He knew all about that. “His father around?”

Another shake of the head. “Not since Dillon was little.”

“Maybe he needs to connect with his dad.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he recognized that he’d slipped into problem-solving mode. Dammit, he wasn’t a cop anymore. And he sure as hell wasn’t a social worker.

“That’s not in the cards.”

He pushed back his own too-raw emotions. She clearly needed to talk to someone, and he’d been elected. What had she said? Oh, yeah. The kid’s dad was out of the picture. “Dead? Dillon’s father, I mean.”

“Deadbeat,” she corrected, lifting her gaze from her mug.

“What about Big Brothers?” He found himself looking away. “It’s a good program. A lot of kids from single-parent families benefit from the influence of a male role —”

She held up a hand to stop him. “You’re preaching to the converted, here. We were in the program for four years, until Dillon’s Big Brother moved to Halifax. Now, he thinks he’s too old for that kind of stuff.”

Tommy gingerly shifted in his chair. “Again, he’s nearly eighteen. It’s natural for him to look to his peers rather than an adult.”

“I think he found something else to fill the void.”

Of course. “Girl, eh?”

She grimaced. “I wish.”

Whoops. “I see.”

“Oh, no! It’s not like that. Dillon dates girls. There’s just no one special.”

“You know, a lot of mothers might be glad there was no one special. I seem to remember my mother getting uneasy when I was that age and stuck on a girl.”

That drew a weak smile from her.

“Afraid one of those sweet young things was going to whisk her son off to the altar, was she?”

Shotgun marriage? There’d never been much chance of that. Not that an accidental pregnancy had been out of the question. He’d just been far too immature and self-involved for marriage, as had the girls he’d run with. His father would have just pulled out his checkbook. Of course, his father also would have given him a hearty thump on the back as though he’d finally done something praiseworthy. Well, at least this proves you’re not a queer.

“Something like that,” he muttered, taking a sip of his coffee. Lord, even her coffee was incredible. “So, if it’s not a girl, he must be hanging with a bad crowd.”

Her hand tightened on the handle of her mug. “Bingo.”

“It’s probably not that bad,” he offered. “Kids that age talk a good line of trash, but they’re not nearly as bad as they’d have the world believe. I’ve seen ’em fold pretty quick when —” Damn. Talking like a cop again. “What I mean is, it’s usually just posturing. He’ll grow out of it.”

She slanted him a look. “You don’t have kids, do you?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Adults.” She sighed and pushed back in her chair.


“He’s hanging around with adults. I only got a good look at one of them. He was relatively young, I suppose, but still a lot older than Dillon. Mid-twenties, probably, and way, way harder than my son, from the look of him.”

Tommy frowned. That kind of age differential usually spelled bad news. He could too easily picture unscrupulous adults feeding a troubled kid’s ego and thirst for attention until the kid was ripe for exploitation. Drug-dealing, auto theft, pornography, prostitution…. All the ugly possibilities flashed through his mind.

“And you think they’re up to … what?”

“No good,” she said darkly. “Although since I haven’t had an actual conversation with any of these men, I have to admit I’m basing that judgment entirely on prejudice and stereotypes. Which makes me feel like a total hypocrite, since it’s exactly the kind of thing I’ve tried to teach Dillon not to do.”

“Let me guess — shaved heads, baggy pants, shirts buttoned at the neck and open at the bottom, tattoos?”

“Not to mention the cold eyes. Oh, yes, and the chopped pick-up with the tinted windows, and the kind of stereo that sets off minor earthquakes with the bass notes when it drives by.”

The cynic in him said she’d probably nailed the demographic accurately, but he stayed silent.

“So?” She looked at him expectantly.

“So, what?” He shifted again, just a few millimeters, to ease the ache in his leg. The relief was exquisite. Unfortunately, it lasted about a tenth of a second, then started throbbing again.

“So, are you going to pat me on the head and tell me I’m being a paranoid, over-protective mother?”

“No,” he said. “No, I won’t do that.”

She sagged. “Damn. I was hoping you would. Hoping even harder that you could make me believe it.”


Their gazes locked for a few seconds, and Tommy felt an unexpected surge of sexual awareness rocket through him.

His first reaction was relief; he’d begun to think of his libido as KIA. Then the inappropriateness struck him. This was a distraught woman, a worried mother. A mother whose son, technically speaking, was old enough to make her a grandmother.

She jumped up and carried her cup to the sink, where she rinsed it and set it on the draining board. “Look,” she said, turning back to him. “I can see you’re in pain. You probably need to lie down or something. I’ll get out of your hair.”

“The leg’s gonna hurt no matter what. You don’t have to rush off, if you don’t want to.”

Christ, was that him talking? Had he just invited the original Velcro woman to stay?

Her green gaze caught and held his again. “Really?”

“Really,” he heard himself say. Oh, Lord, he must have taken too many of those pain pills.

“That’s very generous of you, especially after I pushed my way in here.”

“You did feed me.”

She tilted her head in an attitude of listening. “Looks like you’re off the hook. That must be Dillon now.”

He heard it too, the sound of a car’s engine. At the end of this cul-de-sac, just barely inside the city limits, they didn’t get much drive-by traffic. Good. The kid was home where he belonged, and now he could have his solitude back.

“Thanks for holding my hand,” she said, turning to pick up her plate. “No offense, but I hope it’ll be the last time.”

The latter was delivered with a wide smile, but he could see the tension and worry beneath it.

“Look, do you want me to talk to him or something?”

Oh, hell, where had that come from? She looked just as stunned by the offer as he was about making it.

“Thanks, but I don’t think so. I know my son. If I just spring you on him, it’ll be worse than if I just leave it alone.”

“Well, if you change your mind….”

She smiled at him again, and he was struck once more by a pang of desire, this one even stronger than the last.

“Thanks, Tommy.”

She let herself out, and the sound of the door closing echoed behind her. For a split second, her absence felt like a hollowness, in his house and in his chest.

Damned lust. Now that the relief had passed, he almost wished he’d stayed dead that way. Didn’t he have enough aches without adding another?

Pulling himself to his feet, mainly by dint of his upper-body strength, he picked up his cane and clumped toward the bedroom. He’d almost reached his customary resting spot by the sofa when he heard the scream, shrill, female and clearly terrified.


Adrenaline ripped through his system like a shot of juice from a live electrical wire. He covered the distance to the door in a flash, with no sensation of pain. Endorphins. He’d pay for it later. Tearing the door open, he lurched out onto the step.





A hand still clamped to her mouth to stifle the scream she’d been unable to suppress, she swiveled her head toward Tommy’s voice. He stood on the steps outside his unit, looking like he was ready, willing and able to use his cane as a weapon, if need be.

“What it is? What’s the matter?”

She pointed to her doorstep.

“Jesus. What’s that?”

“I don’t know.” Her stomach did a sick little flip, but her voice was surprisingly steady. “But it’s dead and it seems to be minus its fur.”

He swore, then hobbled a few feet closer. “I take it that the car we heard wasn’t Dillon coming home?”

“Dillon’s car’s not home,” she replied, choosing her words carefully. These days, she couldn’t rule out anything where her son was concerned, even his participation in something as ugly as this. He’d closed himself off so completely from her. Not that she thought he’d lead something as gruesome as this, but he might go along for the ride, especially if he didn’t know in advance what the plan was.

“You’re welcome to call it in from my place,” he said, gesturing toward his unit. “Phone’s on the wall just inside the kitchen.”

Call the police? Without talking to Dillon?

“Ah, that’s okay.” She took a step backward, closer to her own doorstep. “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll just deal with this myself.”

“You’re making a mistake, Paige.”

His tone was quiet, without any detectable inflection, but it arrested her retreat in a way a forceful command might not have.

“What do you mean?”

“By not reporting this. You think you’re protecting your son, but if his new friends did this, with or without his involvement, you’d do better to tackle it head on. He needs to know that his choices have repercussions.”

He was right and she knew it, but it wasn’t that simple. Dillon was her son. He was all she had, and getting further away from her every day. She didn’t know how to guide him toward a better path without driving him to worse rebellion. Her frustration boiled up into anger.

“Who said I thought this has anything to do with Dillon?”

“So, you think it was what? Random sicko? Or maybe a customer who didn’t like your Tiramisu?”

She glared at him. “There’s no need for sarcasm.”

He sighed. “Okay, let’s say it has nothing to do with your son. All the more reason to call the cops right now. They might be able to get impressions from the car’s tires. Presuming somebody carried it to your doorstep, there could be footprint evidence. But that stuff is transitory. You have to act fast.”

She snorted. “You sound like a cop.”

“That’s because I am.”

Oh, shit.


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