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Protecting His Own Part 1

Protecting His Own.

Masters of the Shadowlands.

Cherise Sinclair.

Acknowledgments.

Lets start with the usual suspects. My crit buddies, Bianca Sommerland, Fiona Archer, and Monette Michaels get warm, squishy hugs and kisses for wading through rough drafts and helping unearth the actual plot.

Many thanks go to Red Quill Editing for polishing this book into readability. They even worked on weekends to get the book finished quickly. Blessings upon Saya and her crew.

A big hug to Ruth Reid who vetted the psychology for me. Youre awesome, Ruth!.

In the past, three readers have (ever so tactfully) pointed out errors that escaped my various editors and publishers. Well, a job well done means someone hands you a new job, right? This time, I recruited them before the manuscript was published. Thank you, Lisa White, Barb Jack, and Marian Shulman, for your incredibly sharp eyes, your knowledge of grammar, and your wonderful suggestions.

To all of you who have survived abuse, as children or adults, and struggled through the aftermath, I know it can be so very tough at times. Hang in there, my dears. Get help from friends and family and therapists. And know that slowly, but surely, there is healing.

Authors Note.

To my readers, The books I write are fiction, not reality, and as in most romantic fiction, the romance is compressed into a very, very short time period.

You, my darlings, live in the real world, and I want you to take a little more time in your relationships. Good Doms dont grow on trees, and there are some strange people out there. So while youre looking for that special Dom, please, be careful.

When you find him, realize he cant read your mind. Yes, frightening as it might be, youre going to have to open up and talk to him. And you listen to him, in return. Share your hopes and fears, what you want from him, what scares you spitless. Okay, he may try to push your boundaries a little"hes a Dom, after all"but you will have your safe word. You will have a safe word, am I clear? Use protection. Have a back-up person. Communicate.

Remember: safe, sane, and consensual.

Know that Im hoping you find that special, loving person who will understand your needs and hold you close.

And while youre looking or even if you have already found your dearheart, come and hang out with the Masters of the Shadowlands.

Love, Cherise.

Chapter One.

BEFF?

In the center yard of the Tomorrow is Mine domestic violence shelter, Beth King smiled at the four-year-old boy. Each time he couldnt pronounce the th in her name, her heart melted. Had any gardener had such an adorable assistant? Yes, sweetie?

He set a tiny dandelion on the weed pile, and his little brow furrowed as he frowned. Lamar tooked my coloring book, but Grant made him give it back.

Im glad Grant was there. Connors brother was seven and as protective as they came.

But Connor shook his head to show shed missed the point. Lamar doesnt like to color.

Ah. The problem wasnt the attempted theft, but the illogical behavior. She removed her gloves to stroke his ear-length, dark brown hair, and he tilted his head into her hand. Always so grateful for affection. Maybe Lamar saw that coloring made you happy, and he hoped your book would make him happy, too.

Connor scrunched his face up in thought. Uh-uh. He hates sitting still.

Hell learn. People dont always know what makes them happy, but stealing is a sure way to get a big helping of unhappiness.

Worry gone, he giggled. Grant yelled at him, and he runned away.

There you go. Heart full, she hugged him. When the boy had first arrived at the Tampa shelter last spring, hed rarely spoken. Now, in mid-July, he chattered like a magpie in his little-boy-speak.

He hugged her back and whispered into her shirt. Beff? We going home.

She froze. Today?

Uh-huh. Going back to our and Jermaines place cause Mama needs to get from here. She says here is driving her crazy.

Im"Beth steadied her voice"Im sorry to hear that, honey. Their departure wasnt a complete surprise, after all. When Drusilla McCormicks boyfriend, Jermaine, had completed the court-ordered anger management classes, hed asked her to return. Dammit. With Drusillas history of drug abuse, shed do better to dump him and find new friends.

This was Drusillas second visit to the shelter since May. The first reconciliation with Jermaine had succeeded until they fought over money, and he put her in the hospital. Drugs and abuse"the combination went hand-in-hand and was never good for the children.

Please, let the anger management classes have worked for the jerk. And let both of them stay clean.

She rested her cheek on Connors head and held him close. Although still too skinny, hed gained weight at the shelter. Are you leaving this morning? she asked past the lump in her throat.

He nodded and rubbed his face against her shoulder.

Darn it, shed miss him and Grant so much.

As if conjured from the air, his big brother trotted across the yard. Mamas ready to leave, Connor.

Hey, you. Beth held her hand out.

He hesitated, far too reserved to push for affection as Connor did. But, when she put her arm around him, he soaked up the hug like a rain-starved plant. His mother wasnt affectionate. In fact, when the shelter had given Grant a party for his seventh birthday, Drusilla appeared only long enough to eat some cake.

Yet, from what Grant said, she had been a good mother before her husbands death in Iraq last year. Before shed started drinking and then using meth. Beth couldnt even imagine the pain of losing the man she loved; just the thought was like being stabbed in the chest.

However, Drusilla had two children who needed her care. Didnt the woman realize what precious gifts shed been given? Beth had spent the past year trying everything she could for the chance at one child.

Beff, we gots to go.

I know, baby. She hugged the boys harder, wishing she could surround them with a protective shield. What if they run into trouble? She should at least give them her phone number. Her overprotective Master would grumble, but he was so softhearted, hed understand. And he wasnt here to fuss, anyway. Do you know how to make phone calls, Grant?

Sure. He waited. Brown eyes the color of rich milk chocolate were steady on hers. He was the first-born. The tough guy. Hed told her it was his job to protect his little brother and his mother, too.

As a child, Nolan had probably been just like him. The thought of her husband brought an ache of loneliness. Ill give you my number. If you need me or want to talk, you call, okay? Or you place the call so Connor can talk.

Connor bounced in agreement. Grant would never call to chat; like Nolan, he was all action, no words. However, if Grant dialed, Connor could get on the line and babble at her, and shed know they were all right.

Grant considered. Okay.

Beth let out the breath shed been holding. Good. My numbers easy. 555-1234. Can you remember it?

555-1234, he returned. To her amusement, Connor echoed him in his higher voice.

Such bright kids. Perfect.

Their mother appeared in the door, shoving her brittle blonde hair back over her shoulders. Connor, Grant. Her voice was like sharp ice. Get your butts in here. Now.

Beths eyes burned with tears. Im going to miss you two a whole, whole lot.

Two hard squeezes. She heard their choked sobs before they ran into the building. Their mother raised a hand to Beth in farewell before disappearing. No long goodbyes for Drusilla. Then again, the woman had spent most of her time getting off drugs, not making friends.

With blurry eyes, Beth watched the door close. Oh, shed pine for those boys, as would Nolan.

Like many abused children, the boys were wary around men, and her Master was scarred, big, and scary. But hed patiently worked to earn their trust. Grant used to follow him around everywhere. His own silent, little shadow.

Please, be safe, babies. Beth rose, brushed off her khaki shorts, and headed inside to do her part to achieve that goal.

In the office, the gray-haired secretary pulled up the childrens file for her and grimaced. Poor kids. Looks as if Clifford E. Price is the DCF investigator assigned to their case. Ill write his number down.

Seriously? Price? Beth heaved an unhappy sigh. The man should have retired or changed careers at least five years before. Burned-out, indifferent, arrogant. And lazy. A social worker whod rather do paperwork than actually get off his rear end and check on his cases, he was a glaring exception to the caring nature of the other Department of Children and Family investigators and supervisors. Over the past year, shed butted heads with him so often that shed tried to have him reassigned. Unfortunately, shed failed.

Fraid so. Isnt it the kids bad luck to get him? Shaking her head sadly, the secretary jotted down the phone number.

They deserve better. Beth walked out into the yard as she punched in the number.

DCF. Price. He sounded as impatient as if shed interrupted a call from the governor or something. In all reality, shed probably interrupted his cigarette break.

This is Beth King at the Tomorrow Is Mine shelter. As she moved toward the picnic area, her arm brushed the blue flowering plumbago hedge, and she remembered how Connor had danced in delight at the way the butterflies rose in the air before resettling again. Drusilla McCormick and her sons, Grant and Connor, are on their way home. Drusillas boyfriend, Jermaine, still lives there.

McCormick? Hold on. The sound of typing came over the phone. I have it. According to the file, Jermaine Hinton completed his anger management class, and Mrs. McCormick agreed to return. I dont see the problem.

No staff or resident was in the quiet area, so Beth perched on a picnic table. The problem is Drusillas history of substance abuse"meth, to be specific. Her boyfriend has a history of drug abuse and violence. The children are at risk. Why had the woman gone back to him? Maybe she worried shed end up homeless or broke. She sure hadnt kept any job for long.

More tapping. Drusilla received counseling for substance abuse while she was in your shelter. All the bases have been covered, Mrs. King.

Beth bit back a rude response. Im not as concerned with the bases as I am with the children. Can you, please, see your way clear to check on them? Her words, somehow, came out more a demand than a question.

Prices tone chilled. My time is extremely limited, Mrs. King. However, Ill attempt to fit a call in somewhere in the next few weeks.

Next few weeks? A call? I was hoping for sooner and a visit in person. After all, this is the second time the family has been in the shelter.

Which is why Jermaine was forced to take classes. She heard his fingers tapping impatiently on the desk. Now, excuse me, but I have other work to attend to.

Silence.

Beth took the cell from her ear and stared at it. The bloated, self-indulgent toad of a man had hung up on her. Well, fine. If the children didnt call her soon, shed simplyhappento be in their neighborhood and drop by for a sociable visit.

After checking her watch, she jumped to her feet. The shelters director had asked her to lead a morning session since the psychologist had called in sick. Talk about the wrong person for the job. Just because shed donated money to the shelter didnt mean she knew anything about counseling.

She was a gardener, for heavens sake.

AN HOUR LATER, Beth brought the session to a close. It broke her heart to see so many lives disrupted"not ruined, shed never use that word. Nevertheless, these women had endured far too much pain and suffering. For some, their physical recovery would take a long time"Melody, her cheek scarred from the scalding coffee her husband had tossed in her face; Sandra, her arm broken from her husbands boot; Juli, her throat bruised from her boyfriends big hands.

Their mental recovery would take much longer.

If only she could help them see themselves as they really were"lovely, bright, and unique, each and every one of them. But, as she knew all too well, physical and emotional abuse could grind self-esteem right into the dirt. A few months ago, shed believed herself completely recovered from her sadistic first husband. After all, itd been over three years since he died.

Yet, all summer, shed fought the return of her miserable self-loathing.

Shaking off her worries, she rose and smiled at her small group. Marta should be back tomorrow, so today, make a note of any derogatory thoughts you find lingering in your head. In the next session, you can share and come up with ways to counter them.

All of them knew her history, and she collected hugs and thanks as they filed out the door. They were already chatting about the afternoons plans and chores and sessions as Beth gathered her notes and bag. She had a lot to do yet today. First, landscaping plans for a bank in Carrollwood. Then shed swing by Egypt Lake where a newly constructed B&B required a front yard makeover.

As she stepped from the air-conditioned room into the heat and humidity, she felt herself wilting like an unwatered violet. Honestly, shed been in saunas that were less intense than Florida in August.

The children in the grassy square enclosed by the shelter buildings didnt seem to notice. In the sandbox, two giggling toddlers were filling red plastic pails. Older children played happily on the playground swings and monkey bars.

As Beth entered the administration buildings foyer, she spotted Jessica with her baby perched on her hip.

Hey, Beth, I was hoping wed see you. Her friends blonde hair had been pulled up on top of her head"and undoubtedly, her four-month-old daughter was the reason most of it was now in tangles.

Another friend stood behind Jessica. Holding her sons hand, Kari pointed. Look, Zane. Its Beth. The toddler let out a high scream of delight and danced forward to be picked up.

So, so cute. Beth couldnt help but think that a child of Nolans would probably have dark hair like Zanes"and be every bit as adorable. Please, give me the chance. She bent to hide her face and scooped the toddler up. Whos a big boy? Whos the best boy in the world?

Me, me, me. His certainty was a bittersweet joy; for most of the children in the shelter, their answer would never be me.

Exactly, my boy. She raspberried his neck.

His infectious belly laugh made her lips curve upward. Settling him on her hip, she offered a finger to Jessicas baby. Sophia had a grip like steel, which wasnt surprising with Master Z as her daddy. What are you and Kari doing here?

We dropped off a bunch of donations from the last fund-raiser. Jessica waved her hand toward the storage room.

Those boxes stored in Karis garage had been huge. You hauled everything here by yourselves?

No way, Kari answered. Its Dans day off, and Jessica talked Z into a long lunch break. They carried; we supervised.

Chapter end

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