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Protecting His Own Part 7

A WAILING SIREN woke Grant up. His eyes were puffy and sore as he gazed around the empty lot. The sun had crossed so far to the other side of the big tree that he and Connor were almost out of the shade. Theyd been asleep for a while.

The lot was filled with man-high, sharp-leaved plants called palm-something-toes. Nasty, mean things, which meant no one came here. Only him and Connor, because while exploring, theyd discovered a winding path to the humungous tree in the center of the lot. Even in a downpour, the leaves kept most of the rain off. Theyd named it Father Tree.

Still curled in a ball, Connor yawned. Itd taken forever to get him to stop crying. To stop bleeding. His SpongeBob shirt"the one hed gotten from the shelter"had blood all down the back. Grants T-shirt had Iron Man on the front, and the blood barely showed.

Neither of them had wanted to go back home"not right away"so theyd used sticks to build fences around beetles, and watched ants carry stuff to their mounds, and eventually they fell asleep.

Connor sat up, moving carefully.

You okay? Grant asked.

Im hungry. And firsty. Connors chin quivered. Is Mama gonna still be mad?

Dunno. Theyd been here a long time, but was it long enough? Grant was hungry, too, and his mouth was so dry he couldnt swallow, but he could wait longer. Connor couldnt; he was still a baby.

Before Daddy got dead as a hero, hed said Grants job was to protect his little brother.

Sometimes it was awful hard. Lets go back.

Keeping a wary eye out for bad guys or gators, Grant led the way along the water-filled ditch, past the neighbors chain-link fence, to their wooden fence. After peeking through the gap in the boards, he squirmed through and into the backyard.

Connor followed right after.

Moving to the center of the yard, Grant listened for a second. No shouting. No screaming. Nothing. Maybe Jermaine and Mama had left? Stay here and wait for me.

No. Connor took his hand in a determined grip.

You need to He frowned and glanced at the hole in the fence. Could one of the gators get through the hole? What was more dangerous for Connor"Mama and Jermaine or a gator?

Okay. Grant went up the two sagging steps, opened the backdoor a crack, and listened.

Silence.

Jermaine was never quiet. Even when he slept, he snored. Maybe he wasnt here. Thatd be good.

So quiet. Maybe Mama wasnt here either, cause when she got wild, she was always muttering and slamming stuff or laughing at nothing.

Shed been scary crazy this morning.

Grant squeezed Connors fingers and let go. Stay here while I check inside. When Connor nodded, Grant edged through the back door. In the kitchen, he stopped in shock.

Connor appeared and his eyes got big.

Grant couldnt seem to move. Hed seen a TV show about earthquakes that destroyed towns, and the houses had looked like this. Food from the cupboards was scattered across the counters and floor. The dishes were busted. The fridge door was open, and milk pooled on the floor beside shattered bottles of booze. The booze stank worse than the ditch water.

Connor took his hand again, swallowing hard. Mama was really mad, wasnt she?

Yeah. Walking through the mess, Grant hung on tight, his stomach wanting to throw up.

In the living room, the coffee table lay on top of the smashed television. Tears burned Grants eyes. No more TV. No more Simba or the shows with the little girl who lived in the country and had pigtails and did funny stuff.

I gotta pee, Connor whined. His breathing hitched as he backed away from the mess.

Me, too. Cmon. Grant led the way to the bathroom where they both used the toilet and then drank so much water their stomachs bulged.

Whats that? Connor lowered his glass and pointed.

A stripe of funny red and blue lights danced on the wall.

Weird. Grant turned. The lights came through a gap in the curtains. After clambering up on the toilet seat, he peeked outside. An ambulance and two cop cars with flashing lights sat at the curb. A bunch of people were bent over someone lying on the ground. Mama?

Is Mama there? Connor jostled for position beside him.

Was she hurt? Bad hurt? She didnt move, not even when they rolled her onto a long thing and put her in the ambulance. And drove away. Fear choked his throat, and Grants hands fisted on the curtains. Mama.

Whered she go? Panicking, Connor started to get down from the toilet top.

Grant grabbed him. She went in the ambulance. To see doctors.

Is she sick?

Grant didnt know. I guess. But shell come back as soon as they give her a pill.

Another man lay kind of twisted on his back, and the sidewalk beneath him was all red. Even though his eyes were open, he didnt talk or get up. Didnt look right.

A cop in a uniform walked over to some people who were watching. Their neighbor from the other half of the duplex"Jermaine called her a nosy bitch"talked to him and pointed toward the house. The cop started toward their door.

That was bad. Jermaine said cops would drag Connor and Grant away, put them in horrible houses apart from each other, and big, mean boys would hurt them. Cut them up. Even cut their tongues out if they cried.

We got to hide. With Connor behind him, Grant dashed into Mamas bedroom and, for the first time, hoped Jermaine was home, was sleeping or something.

The room was empty.

The front door handle rattled.

Daddy wouldnt want the cops to get Connor. Bed. Now. Pushing Connor in front of him, he ran to their bedroom. They skidded under the bed, and he shoved the suitcase back in place, enclosing them in.

Hands over his mouth, Connor was trying not to cry.

Grant wasnt crying, but he was shivering so hard his bones hurt, and he wasnt even cold.

ON THURSDAY, IN the beautiful upstairs office Nolan had remodeled for her, Beth printed out an alternative design for Alastairs property. The first draft was her favorite, maybe because shed put in a tranquil koi pond to help him de-stress from his job. She wondered if his cousin, the cop, would use it.

She looked forward to meeting Max. When shed stopped at an array of photos on the fireplace mantle, Alastair had pointed out one of him and Max"two teens crossing rapiers. Both in identical protective gear yet very different. Black and white, sophisticated and rough, streamlined and powerful. But both young men had devastating smiles.

Another photograph showed Alastair as a child beside his tall, aristocratic black mother in front of a stately English manor. One showed Alastair hugging a lean white man in a cowboy shirt, jeans, and boots. His father. Alastair said his summers were spent at the Drago family ranch in rural Colorado, winters in London with his neurosurgeon mom. Talk about culture shock.

But, travel or not, families were a blessing. She couldnt imagine not talking with her mother every week or two. All of Nolans huge family called and visited and expected return visits to Texas. Shed enjoyed last Christmas there, although the delicate hints about children had beenpainful. When the quiet pressure had abruptly stopped, she knew Nolan had explained and put his foot down.

Her knight in shining armor. On Monday"after insisting she have a snack"hed held her hand when they called the social worker and the lawyer about pulling their applications out of the HOLD files.

Full speed ahead.

In fact, she had better assess what was needed to convert the downstairs guest bedroom into a nursery for a baby girl. She trotted down the stairs and past the kitchen to the guest room. Hmm. The two queen beds should go, but the shelves were fine. They should buy a crib and changing table. A rocking chair for feeding and snuggling. She could almost feel the baby in her arms. Oh, yes.

Vibrations hit her upper thigh, and she pulled her cell phone from the pocket of her khaki overall shorts. Unknown number. It was probably one of her yard workers calling in sick. Honestly, didnt they know she was daydreaming here?

This is Beth.

A short silence. Beth? The whisper soundedchildish. Scared.

Beth frowned.

Is that Beff? another voice whispered.

Beff. Is this Grant? And Connor?

The gulping sound was from a little boy fighting tears. Her hand tightened on the phone. Oh God, what had happened? Honey, are you hurt? Are you safe?

Connor answered. Mama, she outside and medics tooked her. And there are cops here. He emphasized cops the same way someone else might say serial killers.

Are you with the police now? Or with someone? She forced her voice to stay calm despite the alarm screaming in her head. Wasnt there anyone caring for the children? A neighbor?

Uh-uh. Were under the bed.

Under the bed? Because Jermaine is there?

Beff, there are cops here.

You can trust the police, honey. Theyre"

No. Grants voice came over the phone.

Dear sweet heavens. Youre at home in your bedroom, right?

Uh-huh, Grant said.

Im coming to get you, honey. You stay put and I should be there Thank goodness shed gotten their address from the shelter files. Drew Park wasnt far away. Maybe fifteen minutes or so. Can you two wait that long?

Yes, Grant whispered, and the relief in his voice made her eyes sting.

Yes, Beff, Connor agreed. Im hungry.

She always carried treats for the children at the shelter. Children responded to food. But these boys"theyd been scared and called her. She didnt have words for how their trust filled her heart. Ill bring sandwiches, baby.

HOMICIDE DETECTIVE MAXIMILLIAN Drago jotted notes on a pad as he walked through the empty duplex. Removed from the front yard, the male victim, street name Python, had been bagged and tagged and was on the way to the coroner. Considering the smashed skull and the bloodied, concrete pelican statue upended in the yard, the cause of death was pretty straightforward.

Drusilla McCormick had a hell of a swing.

The renter on the duplexs other side had reported hearing screaming and shouting. It seems the dealer had demanded a blowjob as well as money. When Mrs. McCormick had turned him down"loudly and with insults"he hadnt reacted politely. The fight had turned physical as he attempted to take what he wanted. Another neighbor saw Mrs. McCormick flee out the front. Python caught her, tried to drag her inside, and McCormick had nailed him with one of the neighbors garden statues.

A pelican.

Fuck. What a way to go.

Mrs. McCormick had collapsed immediately afterward. Before shed been transported to the hospital, the EMTs told the responding officer her blood pressure was through the roof and they suspected a stroke.

Crystal meth had some real unpleasant side effects.

Shaking his head, Max resumed his study. Aside from the uniformed cop checking the duplex for the children, no one else had been in. Nice intact crime scene.

Max, you got anything interesting? Dan Sawyer crossed the living room. The dark brown eyes were cold, his jaw hard. Maxs new partner didnt like drug-related deaths.

Besides the place looking like a war zone and stinking like a city dump? Jesus, he hadnt seen such a mess since viewing the aftermath of a meth lab explosion. Drug paraphernalia was scattered among all the broken crap littering the room. Blood had spattered one wall next to a fist-sized hole in the drywall. Nope. The neighbors say McCormick and her boyfriend had been fighting earlier"sounded like a fucking tweaker rampage. The boyfriend took off by himself about an hour before Python showed up.

The dealer picked the wrong time to visit. Dan glanced at his notes. Boyfriend is a Jermaine Hinton. McCormicks two kids are four and seven years old.

Hinton didnt have them. No ones seen them. The sound of an argument outside drew Max to the open door.

A woman in bibbed overall-type shorts and a form-fitting blue T-shirt had ducked under the police tape. Maybe five-seven and weighing one hundred and fifteen pounds, thick auburn hair with the freckles to match. The pretty little thing was trying to push past the officer minding the perimeter.

Thats one determined woman. Reminded him of his mamas terrier, all fight, no surrender. She didnt resemble any reporter hed ever met, and if she wanted in that badly, maybe she had something interesting to tell them. Officer, let her pass.

When the uniform stepped aside, the redhead hurried through the door. Early thirties, hed guess, with beautiful blue-green eyes and a flush on her freckled face.

Can I help you, maam? Max asked politely.

Yes, you can. She glanced at the trashed living room. Rather than disgust, worry filled her face. There are two"

Beth. What are you doing here? Dan stepped past Max. Not a good place for you right now, pet.

Pet. Max studied her more intently. His partner was a stickler for confidentiality, both in police work and in BDSM. By using the pet designation, hed quietly let Max know that Beth was club member"and submissive, despite the determination in her stance. Interesting.

Dan, Im glad youre here. The little redheads smile turned to a frown. But it would help if you guys were a lot shorter and smaller. And female.

Well, there was a hell of an insult. Whys that, maam?

She tilted her head. I bet youre Alastairs cousin, arent you?

Guilty as charged.

Ah, right, introductions, Dan said. Beth, this is my partner, Detective Max Drago. Max, Beth King. Her husbands a friend.

Pleased to meet you, she murmured before turning to Dan. Grant and Connor are here, Dan. The kids from the shelter.

Chapter end

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