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Protecting His Own Part 24

WHEN BETH WAS little, her family would sing the Over the River and Through the Woods, to Grandmothers House We Go song. Beth would bounce up and down in the backseat with anticipation, because Nana had been the sweetest person in the world.

Beth shook her head as she parked behind Nolans truck and got out. Mrs. Brun didnt seem likely to win any awards for grandmotherly behavior.

On the sidewalk, she paused to consider the house and yard. Some people evaluated others by the contents of their bookcases; Beth used a landscaping yardstick. In this case The clapboard houses paint was a stark, almost industrial white. The sole landscaping was the ruthlessly pruned Japanese privet across the front. The grass had been trimmed almost too short to survive. No flowerbeds. No color.

Conclusion: the owner wasregimented and lacked both joy and spontaneity. How would this person do with the chaos that came with children?

With an unhappy sigh, Beth walked through the open front door. The acrid scents of bleach and cleansers almost drowned out the musty, older home smell. The sound of voices led her to the living room.

Price, Nolan, and Mrs. Molina faced a stick-thin woman in a darkly patterned, shirtwaist dress. Her long gray hair was tightly pulled into a bun. No makeup. According to the reports, Mrs. Brun was about the same age as Beths mother but appeared a decade older.

Beth scanned the room. No children. Her heart sank. Have you found them?

Nolan turned, and his grim face softened. With his back to the others, he gripped her shoulders, preparing her. She says they ran out of the house right after they arrived. His voice dropped. Before Galens man got here.

And she didnt notify anyone? Beths voice rose.

Price turned and glared.

No. Nolan put his arm around her.

Mrs. Molina frowned at Mrs. Brun. I do wonder why you didnt call either the police or Mr. Price.

The old womans hands were clasped tightly at her waist. She turned a hostile gaze on Mrs. Molina. Theyre my grandchildren. My business. Im their grandmother, and Mr. Price said the state keeps families together. She glanced at the wall clock, and her mouth pinched. Theyve made me late for church.

Will God strike you dead for being late? Beth bit back the words; a fight would get them nowhere. Have you checked under their beds?

Mrs. Brun blinked. The bed? Why would I? They ran outside.

Beth glanced at Mrs. Molina. Under a bed is their favorite hiding spot. If Mrs. Brun left the house, the children mightve sneaked back inside. Lets double-check the house before searching the neighborhood.

Good plan. Mrs. Molina nodded.

Who do you think you are? The grandmother stared at Beth with cold eyes.

Im someone who is concerned for the childrens welfare. That is what were here for.

The old woman huffed. Theyll return when they grow hungry.

Mrs. Molina looked appalled. Nolan growled.

Of course they will. Beth raised her chin. Just like when Drusilla ran away. No, wait"she didnt return, did she?

Mrs. Bruns affronted expression was dreadfully satisfying.

Ignoring her, Beth headed toward the back of the house. When Nolan joined her in the kitchen, she put her hand on his arm. What if they manage to get back to our house? Were not there.

True. You should return and He obviously noted her obstinate expression. I guess that might be asking too much. Pulling out his cell, he punched a number. Galen, I know its Sunday, but"

Even at a distance, Beth heard Galens rude retort, Dont be a dense asshole. What can I do to help?

Thanks. Were both at Bruns house, which means if the kids go to our home, no one is there.

Beth could barely hear Galen say, Its quite a ways to Carrollwood.

Grant knows how to ride a bus, and theyd earned spending money, so he could afford a ticket. Nolan shook his head. Any chance you could ask Anne or Sally to housesit till we get back? Ill pay for their time.

Galen said something.

Thanks. Nolan hung up and told Beth, Sallys heading for our place right nowand Galen told me where to shove my money.

Oh, she did love her friends. Cmon, lets do our search.

You take the bedrooms. Ill check here and the backyard.

Beth pointed to the doors under the kitchen sink. Dont forget they like to tuck into tiny places.

Got it.

In the hallway, Beth headed for the first bedroom and halted when Mrs. Molina stalked out of the living room.

Red streaks of anger darkened her face, and she let out a quiet string of Spanish curses Beth hadnt heard since the last time Cullen annoyed Andrea. Upon seeing Beth, she stopped and composed herself. Mrs. King, please excuse me.

I totally understand. Beth motioned toward Mrs. Bruns bedroom. Since Im not official, youd better be the one to check her room. Bear in mind, the boys will use boxes to barricade and conceal themselves.

Mrs. Molina glanced back at the living room. I wouldnt blame them. She stepped into the master bedroom.

Beth took the smaller bedroom. Spotlessly clean, the room held a nightstand, a folding chair, and a single bed covered in a dark blue quilt. Over the bed was a picture of Jesus bleeding on the cross. The other wall had a picture of the Last Supper. No toys, no books. Nothing.

Beth scanned the room again in disbelief. How could the two active boys have tolerated this place?

She opened the tiny closet. Completely empty.

Dropping to her knees, she checked under the bed. Not even a dust ball.

Where could they be? Her stomach tightened, and all she could think about was Connors tiny hand in hers. About how Grant would cry, so, so silently as if afraid to be heard. The trust in their big brown eyes.

I want my babies back.

As she pulled the curtains aside, she saw Nolan already in the back yard. She should tell him to search under the porch steps, too. She pushed on the windowand it didnt move.

She checked the lock"no lock"and shoved the window more forcefully. Nothing budged. A closer study revealed someone had nailed the window shut. A chill ran down her spine. What if there was a fire?

No children? Mrs. Molina stood in the doorway.

No. Beth moved aside and pointed to the nails in the frame. Is this legal?

NO CARS WERE parked in front of Mamas duplex, and relief swept through Grant. Jermaine wasnt there. With Connor trudging behind him, he walked up to the front door and used his key to get inside.

When he stopped, Connor ran into him. Grant? His fingers clutched the back of Grants shirt.

Itsugly. Almost like it was when theyd left. Grant felt sick. Unless she was being crazy, Mama kept stuff picked up, kinda. Jermaine never had.

Grant took another step. Beer cans and frozen food trays dotted the carpet. The room stank like the day Connord been sick and thrown up.

Mama isnt here.

Tears turned the room watery. He knew Mama was gone, buthed still thought shed be here.

With a wail, Connor slid down to sit on the floor and cry.

Hey. Its okay. Swiping his own tears away, Grant hauled Connor up and slung an arm around his shoulders. Lets get Mamas money before the douche comes back.

Wrinkling his nose as they passed the stinky bathroom, he led the way to the big bedroom. The closet door stood open, and his eyes filled with tears again. Mamas clothes were gone. The dressing table held only Jermaines stuff"no makeup or perfume bottles.

Dont cry. After rubbing the wet off his face, he tipped the tall pole lamp sideways and lowered it to the floor. Kneeling beside the lamp, he ran his hand inside the curved, black metal base, unstuck the adhesive tape, and pulled out a baggie stuffed with money.

At Connors gleeful sound, Grant almost cheered with him. Now Beth and Nolan would keep them.

He stuffed the bag into his backpack and grabbed Connors hand. Lets go home.

To Beff and Nolanman?

Yeah.

Theyd reached the living room when the front door opened.

Jermaine stepped inside.

QUIETLY, BETH LEFT the house, leaving Price, Mrs. Brun, and Mrs. Molina arguing behind her. It sounded like a nasty battle.

Good job, Sir.

Before leaving to search the neighborhood, Nolan had pulled the supervisor aside and told her about the childrens bruises and their worries. Then hed tossed Price to the wolves, saying the investigator had blown their concerns off. As he walked out the door, Mrs. Molina had called Price and Mrs. Brun over.

Once in her pickup, Beth sat for a minute and tried to think like a frightened child. Their most likely destination was back home.

Or not. She and Nolan had turned the kids over to Price. Betrayed them. Guilt felt like lead balloons in Beths stomach. Maybe they should have taken the children and run. But how would running have helped?

No one believed the children would return to their mothers duplex. After all, Drusilla was dead, and surely the boys knew Jermaine or someone else would be living there.

But But shed seen Grants duplex key when shed emptied his backpack to do his laundry. If the boys were running, what better location to hide than in their old neighborhood?

Yes. She started the truck and headed for Drew Park.

With worries about the boys filling her head, shed gotten partway there before realizing shed goofed. Nolan would be unhappy"call that royally pissed-off"that shed left without talking to him. Oh boy. Punching a button on the steering wheel, she called his cell phone.

Hey. His deep raspy voice filled the cab and warmed her chilled skin. I saw your pickups gone. You heading home?

Uh. He wasnt going to be happy with her. After a quick detour. I know we decided the kids wouldnt return to Drusillas place, but I want to check anyway. After all, its the one place they know, and maybe they have a friendly neighbor or hiding place around there.

Fuck. Its possible. She could almost hear him scowl. But I dont want you there. Not in Drew Park, not anywhere near Drusillas. Stop and wait for me.

Anxiety danced through her. What if the children had gone there? Their neighborhood was a really scary one, especially for two little boys. I cant wait; I just cant. But Ill only swing by the house"and Ill call the cops if anything seems scary.

He let out an exasperated huff. Youre fucking stubborn.

Yes, Sir. Im afraid so.

I love you, Beth. Im on my way, so be careful for my sake, okay?

I will. And I love you, too.

AS JERMAINE PAWED through their backpacks, Grant wanted to cry. His chest was so tight he could barely breathe.

He and Connor had tried to run past Jermaine out the door, but the douche had shoved Connor across the room. Then hed ripped Grants backpack away and slapped Grant to the floor.

As Grant pushed to his feet, his hip and shoulder burned like fire. A few feet away, Connor wiped his eyes and watched.

Well, look at this! Jermaine held up the bag filled with dollars. Score.

Mamas money. So they could live with Beth and Nolan. Hands in fists, Grant took a step toward Jermaine. You leave our money alone. Its ours!

Dream on, buttwipe. Jermaine shoved the stack of bills in his back pocket. His brown eyes had turned mostly black. As he kept moving from side-to-side, unable to stand still, Grant knew he was in the crazy place, just like Mama.

Connor scowled. Im gonna tell Nolan you stoled from us.

And the cops, Grant added. Well tell Max. And Dan.

Jermaines face changed"got hard and ugly"and Grant edged away. You little fucker. I talked my ass off last month to keep from getting busted, and now youre gonna call the pigs down on me? Again? Know what I think? I think the gatorsd love to eat two shit-headed brats who"oops"fell into the ditch.

Grants insides started to shake, and he grabbed Connor and backed away. The front door wasnt closed completely. If they could Jermaine grabbed Connors shirt and Grants hair.

As Connor screamed in fear, Grant kicked at Jermaines legs. Let go! Let us go!

You bastard! Like Wonder Woman, Beth charged into the room and punched Jermaine right in the mouth. Let them go! She tried to pry his hand from Connor.

Fuck! Jermaine threw Connor to one side and slapped Beth across the face.

She staggered back, hand to her cheek, and her other hand up as if she knew hed hit her again. Tears were in her eyes, and she was scared. Awful scared.

Chapter end

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