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Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.
—Often attributed to
Juan held the camera and filmed his wife as she spoke. Angie had come up with this idea of making videos for their unborn daughter so that when she grew up she would know how wanted and loved she was at the start.
"I love you, baby girl, and I love your daddy." Angie spoke to the camera. "This is me and you before you were born. See?" She pulled up her shirt and showed the basketball-sized bump from her seven months of pregnancy. She grinned up at him. Her love for their baby was so bright that sometimes it hurt to look at her. "We're so happy to be having you."
Juan stared at his wife of two years. Love shone from her blue eyes, and a smile of pure happiness added a glow to her expression. A halo of blond hair rested on her shoulders. She was indeed an angel. His angel.
He wasn't sure what he'd done to deserve her, but if fate ever realized it'd screwed up and tried to take her back, he was prepared to fight. And fight dirty. He was keeping her. She made the bad things in his past feel small. She made the bad things he saw every day feel less horrible.
She waved him forward. "Now put the camera on the stand and come be in the video."
"I'll ruin it."
She made her cute face and gave him a come-here wiggle with her index finger. "Don't be shy."
He did as she said, because telling her no was impossible.
She wrapped her arm around his waist. "This is your daddy. Juan, say something to your daughter." She playfully bumped him with her hip.
"I'm camera shy," he said, but it was a lie. The truth? This whole parenting thing made him nervous. It wasn't that he didn't love the idea of having a child. It just didn't feel real. Sure, he'd placed his hand on his wife's middle and felt the baby move, he'd seen the fuzzy sonogram video that showed the child was a girl, but it still didn't feel…true.
And that worried the hell out of him, too. He saw what Angie felt for their unborn baby. As hard as he tried, he couldn't tap into those emotions.
Ricky, his older brother and a father of two, assured him it'd change when he held his daughter in his arms. He hoped like hell Ricky was right. He hoped losing his parents the way he had hadn't somehow damaged him and prevented him from being the kind of dad a kid deserved.
"Juan." She touched his arm. "Say something."
"Okay." Pause. "I think you're going to be the luckiest little girl in the world. Your mama makes everyone she loves feel special, like they have everything they'll ever need. She's smart and so beautiful. And I'm sure you'll grow up to be just like her."
"Right," Angie said. "Like you aren't easy on the eyes." Angie looked into the camera. "Your dad's friends call him Pretty Boy. He even did TV commercials while he was going through school."
"Don't tell her that." He'd only done it to pay tuition.
Angie laughed. "But I don't love him just because he's a hottie. The day I met him he was getting a kitten off the roof of my apartment building for an elderly neighbor. He was kind to the kitten. He was kind to the neighbor, who was being a pain in the butt. And as a cop, he still helps people every day. It's why I fell in love with him then, and why I love him even more now."
Juan leaned down and kissed her.
The kiss lingered. "Okay." Angie pulled back. "Let's cut off the video."
"And then what?" He waggled his brows.
She stopped taping, pushed a few buttons to send the video to the cloud, then shot him a sexy smile. "If you get the tools and put the crib together, you might get lucky."
"You want to tape that, too?" he teased.
She swatted his ass.
He laughed and went to the garage to get his tools. Their new puppy, Sweetie, followed him out.
He'd just found the wrench when his phone rang. Anonymous number, it read. He still took the call. "Yeah?"
"You didn't think you'd get away with it, did you?"
The voice, Guzman's voice, yanked the joy right out of his chest. How had the gang leader gotten this number? It could mean only one thing: his cover was blown.
He'd taken one step toward the door, toward Angie, toward everything that mattered in his life, when a massive blast blew him back. The wall of the garage imploded, throwing him over his car.
"Angie? Angie? Angie." Her name fell from his lips like a litany. For one second, he could swear he heard her call his name. Felt her sweet touch to his face. He got to his feet. The taste of his blood thickened his tongue. His ears rang.
Disoriented, he fought his way out of the collapsed garage. Pieces of his roof were scattered over the lawn. Fire claimed what was left of his house.
"Angie!" he screamed, and ran inside.
Three years later
I love you, baby girl, and I love your daddy."
Sweetie's barks woke Juan up. He must've fallen asleep watching the video again…Crawling out of the recliner, he gave the television screen and everything he'd lost another glance. He walked to the back door. All seven pounds of the dog stood in attack mode.
"What? A firefly up to no good?"
"Fine, go save the world." He opened the door. The white toy poodle, in desperate need of a haircut, raced out. He should take better care of her. Angie would've. Hell, if Angie were alive, the dog would have painted nails and pink bows.
She'd have done the same for their daughter. If they hadn't died.
Leaving the door open, he turned to reclaim his recliner, but Sweetie's growl had him retracing his steps. Thick summer heat brushed over his bare chest. Moving under the covered patio, he focused on Sweetie. Front paws on the wooden fence, she barked as if something, or someone, was behind it.
He started to call her, but swallowed the words when a figure lunged up and over the fence. Not landing in his backyard, but in his neighbor's. The house had been vacant until a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, he'd heard a kid talking to Sweetie through the fence.
In full cop mode, he ran back through the door, grabbed his gun, and hauled ass outside again.
He bolted over the fence, his bare feet landing in his neighbor's yard with a thud. Blinking to adjust to the darkness, he saw someone at the back door as if trying to break in.
"Anniston PD." Juan's dead-serious tone echoed in the night, joined by Sweetie's barking. "Don't move. Hands over your head. Now!"
The guy, measuring over six feet, turned. Light-colored eyes stared through a ski mask.
Holding his gun in a firm grip, Juan moved in. "On the ground. Do it!"
The man's hands shot high, and he started to get down on one knee. But before his second knee hit the concrete patio, the asswipe grabbed hold of a rusty three-legged charcoal grill and flung it.
The metal slammed against Juan's head. Burnt coals and ash that smelled like dead hamburgers rained down on him. The smell he could handle, the gritty blindness not so much.
Blinking, trying to rid the black dust from his eyes, he saw the perp haul himself over the side fence. Partially blind, pissed, and maybe stupid, he stuck his gun in his pants and gave chase.
He had one leg over the wooden slats when something—no, someone—yanked him back. He landed hard on his ass.
Two perps? How had he missed that?
He rolled once and stood. A kick to his right eye socket took him down again. He gazed up, but could make out only a blurred figure looming over him. A figure holding a baseball bat.
Juan reached for his gun, but saw the bat swing. He caught it, yanked it from his assailant, threw the weapon away, then continued for his Glock but was flattened by a kick to his gut. Pain spasmed through his stomach. Charcoal-flavored ash caught in his throat. Unable to breathe, he watched as his gun was pulled from the waistband of his jeans.
Since he'd lost Angie and his daughter, dying had been one of the multiple-choice options on his what's-next test, but the idea of being taken out by some lowlife home invader, and with his own gun, put a fire back in his belly.
He grabbed an arm. The perp struggled. The gun dropped. Juan, giving everything he had, tossed the asshole off of him. The perp was small. Light. Shit. Was this a kid? When the guy hit the ground, a moan filled the dark air.
Fighting the urge to rub his eyes, Juan lunged to his feet to find his gun. A big mistake. A kick slammed into his ribs, stealing his breath.
Still standing, he body-slammed the guy, landing on top of him.
Then bam, Juan had to retract that thought. No, not a guy. A woman.
"Stop!" he spit out. "I'm police."
Her squirming stopped. He shot up on his knees. She scooted a foot away from him.
"That's good." His words came out breathless. "Just calm down."
Forced air filled his lungs. She shifted, and before he could stop it, her right foot slammed into his nuts. "Damn! Shit!"
She stood, then quickly dropped down on all fours and ran her hands over the ground—no doubt looking for his gun.
He tried to stand, but he puked instead. Okay, so maybe he was about to join Angie after all.
He fell back on his butt, blinked, and spit out the bitter taste of charcoal. The woman, a few feet from him, stood, a gun—his gun—aimed right at him. A splash of silver moon shifted from behind a cloud, and his vision cleared a bit. She wore a nightshirt. White with black script that read ANGEL AT REST.
He'd hate to see her when she wasn't at rest. What was she doing wearing pajamas to break into…Crap. She wasn't the perp. She was his neighbor. She must've thought he was the burglar.
The taste of blood brought on another realization. He'd just gotten his ass kicked by a resting angel who, standing on her tiptoes, didn't reach his shoulders.
He held his hands up. "I'm police."
"I don't care if you're the pope."
"So you don't trust the pope or the police?"
"Not if they're breaking into my house."
"I wasn't…The guy who tried to break in jumped the fence. I came to help you. I live next door."
"Then why did you attack me?" Her tone came armed with snark.
"Whoa. You attacked me." His throbbing balls were all the proof he needed.
"What's on your face? Why did you run?"
"I didn't…I wasn't. I was chasing the guy breaking into your back door." He ran a hand over his face, flinching when he touched his swollen eye. "And I'm covered in ash from that grill that the asswipe slung at me."
"Riiight." Her grip tightened on the gun. "You think I don't know why you're here?"
"Obviously, you don't. I'm your neighbor, and I work for APD. You don't want to shoot me. Call the police—"
"I already have."
"Good." Then he flinched at the thought of his police buddies seeing him beaten up by a tiny angel.
"Move and I swear I'll shoot you."
A wave of nausea hit. He pushed it back. "I'm not moving. But I'd appreciate it if you'd take your finger off the trigger. It doesn't take much pressure to—"
"You think I don't know how to use this?"
"Okay. You're right. I've underestimated you already. But I don't deserve to be shot."
"Then shut up and don't move."
"I'm not." But it became a lie when his throbbing balls insisted he readjust his crotch.
"My balls hurt, okay?" he growled.
Neither of them said another word for several minutes. The only noise in the night was Sweetie whimpering on the other side of the fence. "Where did you learn to fight like that?" Was she an officer herself? Ex-military?
The scratchy sound of her back door opening had her bunching up the nightshirt to hide the gun. As the material rose, his still-watery gaze got a nice view of her outer thigh.
"Au— Mom?" a young voice called.
"Go back inside." The woman looked away from him. "I'll be there in a minute."
Juan considered pouncing to retrieve his weapon, but the child spoke again.
"What are y-you doing?" The fear in the voice gut-punched him.
"Go inside, honey. Now!" Her voice grew stern. Sweetie's bark echoed again. The door closed.
"I'm really the police." Juan softened his voice. "Go inside and check on her."
"Not happening." Sirens and tires screeching sounded in the dark.
"Let them know we're back here before they break the door down and scare your kid," he snapped.
"Get up!" She motioned with his gun. "Walk to the side gate. Now!"
He got to his feet, his balls pulsing with pain. His eyes stung. "Put the gun down or they'll shoot us both."
He moved forward, pushed the gate open. "All's clear," Juan yelled. "APD, Detective Acosta here. All clear!"
Two officers rushed around the corner. Juan recognized Billy Johnston, a fellow poker player, followed by Officer Smith.
Billy yelled out, "Gun!"
Shit. The little ballbuster hadn't listened to his advice.
"Drop the weapon," Smith ordered.
Freaking great. Juan might die tonight after all. "Don't shoot!" Juan yelled. "She thinks I'm the bad guy."
One hand held out to the cops, he scowled at her over his shoulder. "Drop the gun before you get us killed!"
She did, but cut him a look that was equally lethal. Billy and Smith rushed forward. Juan moved in front of his neighbor, stopping them from taking her down. "It's okay. It was a misunderstanding."
He looked back at her. "Go see about your daughter."
Smith stepped in front of her.
"Let her go," Juan said. "She's got a scared kid inside."
Smith backed off, but followed her into the house.
After explaining about seeing the man jump over the fence and getting attacked by his neighbor, then being ribbed by Billy, Juan went inside his neighbor's house. While his fellow officers stood, he pulled out a kitchen chair. The house was almost like his. His neighbor, a frown on her lips and fear in her eyes, stepped out of the bedroom. Oddly, she appeared more concerned now than when she'd been held at gunpoint.
As she spoke with Smith, Juan studied her. Jeans and a pink T-shirt now hugged her petite, well-toned body. Dark auburn hair framed her pretty face.
Smith's six-foot-four frame could be intimidating, but she faced the officer with a kind of bravado hard not to admire. "As you know, all of this was a misunderstanding."
"Your name, ma'am?" Smith asked, holding a clipboard.
"Nikki Hanson. It's late, so if we could just call it a night…"
"Ma'am, you called us. And we have to make a report."
Juan ran a hand over his sore lip. It was clear his neighbor wanted them gone. But was it the late hour, or something more?
Her gaze met his. She flinched, walked into the adjoining kitchen, and grabbed a damp towel.
"Your head's bleeding." She stepped back. As he pressed the towel to his wound, he noticed she had blood on her elbow, but before he could point it out, she turned back to Smith. "Do I need to sign something?"
"Yes. But I have some questions first. Can you tell me exactly what happened?"
"I heard a noise. I called 911 and ran outside. When I did, I saw"—she looked toward Juan—"him, and—" Her eyes widened. He knew why, too. With some of the charcoal wiped away, she'd gotten her first look at his face. At his scar. "And I thought he was breaking in." She glanced away, a hint of embarrassment spotting her cheeks. He was used to the reaction. From women especially. Oh, the irony. He'd once been dubbed Pretty Boy, and now women couldn't look at him. "And we fought and then you got here."
Was he grateful she'd left out the part where she'd kicked him in the balls? Hell, it didn't matter. It would've been nice if she'd believed he was police, but he couldn't blame her. Not when he was barefoot, shirtless, and badgeless.
"I see." Smith scribbled down information. "Is there anyone you know who would've tried to break in? An ex-husband? Boyfriend?"
He wasn't sure if anyone else noticed, but her lips tightened. Her eyes flinched. She blinked. Once. Twice. Three times. "No. I'm new in town. Just moved from Colorado."
You think I don't know why you're here? Her words played in his head. "What about someone from outside of town?" he asked.
She faced him. "No."
She didn't flinch that time, not from the sight of his scar or from a possible lie. He still didn't believe her.
"Mama?" The young voice echoed from down the hall.
Conversation stopped. The little girl, wearing a pink nightgown, entered the room. She was four, maybe five, with dark brown hair, brown eyes, and light olive skin. He winced. She looked…she looked how he expected his daughter would've looked. His next breath swelled in his chest.
"I'll be right there." Nikki faced Smith and Billy again. "I'm sorry to rush, but my daughter has her first day of school tomorrow. And she's not going back to sleep until you're gone."
Frowning, Smith looked over his papers. "Right."
Juan stood. He offered a quick nod to Nikki as he walked out.
Billy and Smith followed.
The second they cleared the door, Billy grinned. "I can't believe you got beat up by a girl."
Billy coughed to disguise a laugh, then asked, "Do you need stitches?"
"No. It's just a scratch."
"That's a lot of blood for a scratch."
"Head wounds bleed a lot."
Billy frowned back at the neighbor's front door. "Did she seem skittish to you? Almost as if she didn't want us here."
So I'm not the only one thinking something is off. "She's probably worried about the kid." His own words of defense surprised him.
On the way to the car, Smith stopped to take a call. He spoke for a few seconds, then turned around. "Officer Lewis caught a guy in Glenloch subdivision breaking into a house. He had a ski mask on. We're pretty sure it's the same perp. Lewis knows him. Says he's homeless. Usually only breaks into empty houses. We'll need you to ID him to make sure he's our man."
"Yeah, she only just moved in, so he probably thought this place was still empty, too." Juan looked at his neighbor's house. "You going to tell her you got the guy?"
"Why don't you? I gotta assist Lewis with this arrest. I think she liked you better anyway."
"I'll swing by when we head back to the station and let you ID him," Smith said.
Juan watched him and Billy drive off before walking back to his neighbor's porch and pushing the doorbell.
He heard Nikki on the other side of the door, and said, "It's Juan. Detective Acosta."
"Yeah?" Her voice lacked the earlier edge. She opened the door.
He met her eyes…brown, or were they?…"I wanted to let you know that they caught the intruder. He was breaking into an empty house a few miles down the road."
Her shoulders dropped and a soft breath sounded on her lips. "Are you sure it's him?"
Her tone, filled with both relief and disbelief, notched up his suspicion. "Who did you think it was?" he asked.
"You said something about knowing why I was here."
"I…I was scared, and when I'm scared I ramble."
"Look, Nikki, if you're worried about—"
"I'm not." Her answer came quick and with a sharp edge. Not very convincing.
"The guy the cops caught was trying to break into an empty home and was wearing a ski mask, just like the guy I saw here. I thought you'd want to know."
She cupped her hands together. "Thank you."
The gratitude sounded sincere. He stood there until he realized he didn't have anything else to say. While still suspicious, he offered her a nod in lieu of goodbye, then turned to go.
"I'm sorry." Her soft-spoken apology had him turning back around and burying his hands in his pockets.
Their eyes met. "Me too." He motioned to her arm. "For your elbow. You should probably wash it."
She stared at her arm as if she hadn't known she'd been hurt.
"I will." Their eyes met again. She closed the door while he stood there.
What was his neighbor hiding?
And who was she hiding from?
Her head was swimming after dodging all of the cops' questions. Her neighbor had asked if she was worried.
Worried? No, she was petrified. But she had to fake it. Her whole life was about faking it. Most of her résumé was fake. She'd never lived in Colorado. Even her name was fake. Her real name was Vicki. At least "Nikki" was close enough to avoid too many slip-ups. But the biggest lie of all? She was faking being Bell's mom.
"Why were the police here?" Bell asked.
Vicki pulled the sheet up to Bell's chest, forcing a smile. Not that she didn't feel a hell of a lot better knowing the man trying to break in was a common criminal.
"I told you. The neighbor lost his dog and was looking for it in our backyard. I thought he was a bad man and called the cops. I didn't know he was the police." It was a lie, but the truth would only scare her niece. And she'd been scared for way too long.
"You don't like police," Bell said.
Vicki flinched. She'd never said that, but her niece was way too smart. "Not all police are bad, sweetheart. Look, it's late. And you have school."
"I don't want to go."
- On Sale
- Nov 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 576 pages