Protecting His Own Part 8

What shelter? Max asked.

The Tomorrow Is Mine domestic violence shelter. Dans face darkened. Seems like they barely left the place.

Mrs. King, Max said gently. There is no one here. Ms. McCormick was transported to the hospital. Jermaines location is unknown. No one knows where the children are.

I do. Without hesitation, she sidestepped Dan, assessed the house layout, and strode into the narrow hallway leading to the bedrooms. She walked past the master bedroom into the smaller one. The empty one.

Stubborn, wasnt she? Maam, theyre not here.

Yes, they are. She went to her knees beside the ratty-looking twin bed. After dragging a suitcase out from under the bed, she bent and called, Hey, guys. Its Beth.

A couple of puppylike squeaks sounded, and two skinny boys squirmed out. Ear-length brown hair, brown eyes, lightly brown skin. Hed guess a Hispanic/Caucasian mix. They hurtled into Beths arms, almost knocking her over.

Well, damn, Dan muttered.

No shit. The uniform had checked the rooms. He and Dan had checked the rooms. But the bed was so fucking low and so packed with shit under it, no one would have fit. No adult.

He shouldve searched more carefully.

Ill have childrens services meet us at the station. Dan pulled out his cell.

Mrs. King, how did you know they were there? Max asked.

Make it Beth. She had an arm curled around each child, and the boys clung to her so tightly, it was a wonder she could breathe. They phoned me.

Dan tucked his phone away. The uniformed officer called for them since the neighbor thought they might be in here. Worry carved lines into his hard face. Were they unable to answer? Are they hurt?

HURT? THE IDEA made Beth freeze. She hadnt even checked. Connor was clinging to her too tightly to dislodge, so she kissed the top of his head and asked Grant, Are you guys all right, honey?

Grant nodded and stood up, although he stayed close to her. All seven years independent, he watched the two men with wary eyes. Understandable. The detectives were both over six feet, and Max was as power lifter, muscular as Master Raoul. With jackets off, they had all their police regalia"weapons and badges"on full display.

Actually, even without the gear, Dan was a bit scary with his coldly detached cop-expression. And his new partner was equally intimidating.

Guys, this is Connor"she rubbed her cheek on brown hair soft as kittens fur"and his brother, Grant.

As he studied the cops, Grant wrapped his hand around her wrist as if to ensure she wouldnt leave them"and her heart hurt for him. Children older than toddlers should be bold little explorers, filled with the courage that came from knowing they were loved and adorable and amazing. This little boy shouldnt be afraid of a couple of detectives.

She squeezed Grants shoulder. My boys, meet Detective Sawyer and Detective Drago.

Decktives? Connors head lifted from her shoulder, and he stared at their badges with open fear. Beff, theyre cops.

Yes, they are. But theyre also friends of mine. Its okay to talk to them. She tucked him against her side and did the same with Grant, making it clear to everyone they were under her protection. Dont worry, honey. If they scare you, Ill yell at them.

Dans mouth quirked. Although the other detectives face rivaled Dans for hardness, his eyes lit with laughter.

But Connor gasped in unfeigned terror and put his small hand over her mouth. Shhh. Theyll hurt you.

The detectives lost any trace of amusement.

Dan sat down on the bed, instantly appearing less threatening.

Max took two steps back and went down on one knee, resting his forearms on his thigh. Interesting how much his face resembled his cousins. Both had squared-off chins, sharply carved cheekbones, and straight noses. But Alastairs mother had bequeathed him the chocolate-colored skin, fuller lips, and slight Oriental tilt to his light hazel eyes. Max had sharp blue eyes and light skin, despite an outdoorsmans tan. Alastair moved like a big, lean cat. Max was powerfully muscled"and his rough and tough attitude matched Nolans.

When Max smiled at her, she had to say both cousins had incredibly gorgeous smiles. Beth, can you give us a rundown on what you"and they"know?

Sure, but theres not much. Snuggling the two boys against her, she hoped the detective proved as nice as his cousin was. They told me how the paramedics took their mother away and that they were under the bed.

The men stayed silent, probably trying to find a non-threatening way to ask why the kids hadnt come out before. How come you hid from the cops, Grant?

He looked at her as if she were an imbecile. They take kids away. And dont let them stay together.

Theyd send us to places wiff mean boys and knives, and the boysd hurts us, Connor confided, his brown eyes earnest.

If were not together, I cant watch out for Connor, Grant whispered.

Beth hugged him. Best big brother ever. I can see why youd worry. But these are good cops. And I wont let anyone split you apart. If Dan and Max couldnt protect the boys, darned if she wouldnt.

Can you tell us what happened today, guys? Dan pulled out a notepad.

When Grant didnt speak, Connor said, We were watching TV, and Mama and Jermaine came home, and they were mad at each other, and then they were mad at us.

He called us fucking beggars and said we stole food. He hit me. Flushed with anger, Grant touched his bruised cheek and nose. Dried blood still showed on his lip and chin and the stains trailed down the Iron Man T-shirt.

The memory of how much a mans big fist could hurt would never go away completely, Beth knew. She tugged him a little closer.

Mama called Jermaine a name, and they fighted, and she throwed things. Connors waving hands showed someone grabbing anything and throwing anywhere.

No wonder the living room was a disaster zone.

A dish got Connor, Grant said.

Connor craned his neck to look over his shoulder where the back of his shirt was stiff and sticky with blood.

Beth touched the hem. May I see? When he nodded, she pulled it up, turning him so the men could see as well. A nasty gash was no longer bleeding, but purple bruises were forming around it.

Fury lit Maxs blue gaze, but his tone was mild. I bet that hurt. Your mom didnt give you a Band-Aid or anything?

We ran out the back. Grants hand clamped down on Beths. Did Jermaine hit her cause we ran away? Is that why she had to go to the hospital? His voice shook. Is it my fault?

Oh, no, Grant. Beth shook her head.

No. Dans voice deepened. A Shadowlands Master in full dominant mode sounded much like God. She wasnt injured, Grant, she was sick. Thats why she lost her temper. Thats why she went to the hospital.

Sick or overdosed? Crystal meth could be bad if a person had too much. Beth caught Maxs gaze and raised her eyebrows. He understood and the grave shake of his head answered her question.

As Beth looked down at the little boys, worry nagged at her. What would happen to them if Drusilla remained in the hospital or rehab for very long?

Chapter Six.

WITHIN AN HOUR, Beth sat between the two boys in a small interview room in the Tampa police station.

Fidgeting uneasily, Connor had pulled his chair right next to Beths. Before leaving the house, shed used Maxs first aid kit to bandage the boys gashed back, and he was comfortable enough to lean against her, almost in her lap.

Grant had a chair on her left, also pulled as close as it could get. Although the investigator from the Department of Children and Families had shown up, the children werent about to leave Beths side.

She couldnt blame them"she wouldnt sit anywhere near Price either. The DCF social worker sat on the other side of the metal table. His unbuttoned suit coat revealed a beer gut, and his light brown hair had been combed over in an unsuccessful attempt to hide a bald pate. The jerk hadnt concealed his boredom as the two detectives quizzed the boys about the days events.

Arms folded over his chest, Max leaned against a wall. Using a laptop, Dan sat beside Price.

A tug on her arm made her bend down to Connor. He whispered, I wish Nolanman was here.

Nolanman. The name made her smile. When shed met the children, shed called Nolan her Iron Man, her hero whod saved her from a bad guy, and the boys had dubbed him Nolanman. Sir was uneasy with being elevated to hero status, but in her opinion, that was where he belonged.

Nolan is coming as soon as he can. Shed phoned him before leaving Drusillas house.

He needs to hurry, Grant told her solemnly.

I think were about done here. Dan pushed the laptop back, then glanced at her and Price. Do we have a next-of-kin for Drusilla?

Darn it, Drusilla. Why didnt you stay clean? For the boys sake, if nothing else. When Price didnt speak up, Beth answered, According to the shelter records, there are no relatives. Their father died serving in Iraq. Jermaine Hinton moved into the apartment last spring and he was a"she remembered the children"wasnt nice to her.

Why the hell did she go back to him? Dan asked.

His ruddy face darkening, Price shot Beth a look of dislike. Mr. Hinton had completed the court-ordered anger management class. Mrs. McCormick felt she and the children would be safe.

Guess not, Max muttered.

You ready to take charge of them? Dan asked Price. Theyll go into foster care?

The small bodies on each side of Beth went rigid.

Foster care, Grant whispered with the same terror as hed uttered cop.

Youll keep them together, right? Beth asked quickly. They need"

I will, of course, try. Prices indifferent tone said he wouldnt try. The lazy bum would do whatever came easiest.

Beth hardened her voice. I want to know youll do more than just try.

No need. The deep, rough voice came from the doorway behind her. Beth and I are licensed. Nolan strode into the room, his black T-shirt, jeans, and work boots covered in dirt.

The boys turned, saw him, and squealed in delight. They hit him so hard he actually rocked back a step.

Hey, men, he said in his guttural growl that to her always meant safety. The children obviously felt the same. When he went down on one knee, they burrowed against him like puppies.

He winced when Connors head bumped his shoulder, but being Nolan, hed push through the pain to give comfort.

As Beth watched, she tried to pull her thoughts into order. Foster care. Why hadnt she remembered that she and Nolan had obtained a foster care license? Would the certification allow them to care for boys who werent up for adoption?

Andshould they? Beth bit her lip. Her heart wanted to take them home, keep them safe, feed them, and give them everything theyd been missing. But Drusilla wouldnt be in the hospital forever and shed take her boys back. Theyd return to a place where they werent safe, and Beth wouldnt be able to save them.

Max gave her an understanding look and pushed off the wall. Hey, guys. Come and help me buy some drinks. I think Beth is thirsty.

Two pairs of worried, young eyes studied her. Afraid shed leave them.

Nolan and I will be right here when you get back. She made herself smile.

Reassured, the boys took Maxs hands. Connor told him solemnly, Beff always brings us juice. We can get her something this time.

So sweet.

Once theyd left the room, Dan started a low-voiced conversation with Price.

Beth turned to Nolan. Sir No reason not to help these two out while were waiting for our own, is there? His dark gaze moved over her face, and understanding filled his eyes. Ah, thats not what youre worried about. Its because itll break your heart to give them back. Not be able to keep them safe.

She nodded.

Can you handle the pain? His expression didnt change as he rested his hip against the table and waited for her to decide. Not pushing, not ordering. Her Sir, master of patience.

She remembered how Connors tiny hand had twisted in Nolans shirt. Holding on. They were terrified of what was to come, where theyd go. Jerkface Price might very well split them up.

She pulled in a slow breath. Losing them after loving them, guarding them, having them close would surely destroy her"and that didnt matter. Not when weighed against the welfare of two little boys. Yes. Well take them.

Nolan nodded as if hed known her answer already.

Im sorry, but the children need to be placed quickly. Prices mouth pinched as if hed sucked on a sour lemon. I dont have time to review and inspect your home.

Inspections were done already, Nolan said.

Nonetheless, Price snapped. There are procedures, protocols, other"

The boys know us, Nolan said. Placement with us would be in their best interest.

Because of past altercations, Price didnt like her. And one time, Nolan had gotten in his face about not moving faster to help a battered mother, so he didnt like Nolan either. She wasnt surprised he was putting up obstacles.

Im sorry, but" As Price blathered on, Nolan pulled out his cell phone and punched in a number. Z? Could use your help here.

Beth blinked. Well. Master Z"Zachary Grayson, the owner of the Shadowlands"was an extremely wealthy, child psychologist as well as a powerful force in Tampa. Talk about bringing in the big guns right away. Poor Price had no clue what he was in for.

Chapter end

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