Authors: Kay Stockham
So much for no one noticing him. The woman's cheeks filled with color and her hand moved protectively over her heavily rounded stomach. “C-c-coffee?”
Joe's neck prickled from the multitudes of stares brought on by her behavior, but he ignored them as best he could and nodded. The pot shook wildly as coffee splashed into his cup. The pregnant waitress hurriedly waddled away with an audible sigh of relief.
Comments came to him then, the whispers getting louder and easier to hear. The words
at the forefront.
Let them talk all they wanted. Threaten. He wasn't going anywhere, except to see his dad at the nursing home, and thenâ
Then he'd have to do what he'd done for the past ten yearsâkeep his head down and figure out how to survive in a place where everyone hated him.
We've all made mistakes, but have you ever been accused of something you didn't do? Ever had to piece together the remaining shreds of dignity while trying to go about your business and live your life when you're surrounded by people you'd thought of as friends when the reality is they never believed in you?
Man with a Past
is about family and community, but more important, it's about relationships and all the little idiosyncrasies that come with living in a small town where everybody supposedly knows your business better than you. It's also about hope, faith and all the emotions that surround the loss of a child.
Joe's story was one I found intriguing, one that had to be told. When I researched Shaken Baby Syndrome, I found it nearly impossible to fathom why, better yet
someone would shake a child to death. But even more unfathomable to me were the lesser-known, and admittedly rare, stories of men convicted of murdering their children by SBS, men who'd served time, who were then released many years later when new evidence was brought to light that proved their innocence. By that time many had lost the support of marriages, family and friends on top of the loss of their child.
I hope you enjoy
Man with a Past.
I love to hear from readers, so please write to me at P.O. Box 232, Minford, OH 45653, or e-mail me at [email protected] To sign up for my e-newsletter, check out my Web site at www.kaystockham.com. I can't wait to hear from you!
Enjoy Joe's story,
As always to my husband, Chad, for being the kind of man to walk beside me, not in front of or behind me. Fifteen years is a long time, but I'm looking forward to
To Karen Solem for being so excited about my stories, and to all the Harlequin Superromance authorsâwhat a welcome you gave me and the other newbies. Thank you.
To Bill and Ryan, who want so badly to be on my coversâwill this do? ;)
And to family, friends and everyone who has ever mourned the loss of a child. My heart is with you.
I hope you'll hold them again one day.
no baby killer to work in my store.”
Joe Brody ground his teeth together at Mr. Thompson's words and reminded himself he needed a job more than he needed his pride. “Your ad says you needâ”
“I don't need somebody like you.” Short and squatty, the middle-aged man rocked up on the balls of his feet as though trying to impress. Or intimidate. Either way it didn't work because the hardware store owner refused to meet his gaze.
Since he'd stepped off the bus this morning everyone in town, the women especially, had avoided looking Joe in the eyes. Glancing at him frightfully as though one glance would taint them for life.
“Look, Mr. Thompson, I served time I didn'tâ”
I said no
. Now git before somebody sees you.” The heavy man's chins bounced as he did that rocking thing again and jerked a thumb toward the door. “Business is bad enough without you scarin' off customers.”
The bell attached to the door jangled loudly and footsteps clicked against the cheap tile floor. Joe glared at Thompson even though he'd focused his attention on the newcomer.
“Ah, hell, what do
Surprised someone besides himself warranted such a response, Joe glanced at Thompson's customer then did a quick double take at the woman presently returning the man's baleful glower with one of her own.
She slammed a box on the counter. “This didn't work.”
Her voice was rich and husky and laced with sheer fury. Thompson remained by the cash register, and as the two faced off, Joe used the moment of invisibility to his advantage.
Thin but stacked, the woman was a sight to behold after his ten years in prison. He guessed her to be in her mid to late twenties, a few years younger than his twenty-nine.
Her jet-black hair was pulled away from her angular face and the dark hue tinging her cheeks hinted at the temper she barely held in check. If Thompson held true to form after all these years, he typically responded more favorably to women willing to flirt with him. Obviously she didn't know that.
She flattened her palms along the top of the
counter and leaned forward, her height giving her a distinct advantage over Thompson. “You
sold me the wrong product.”
Thompson didn't acknowledge her accusation. “No returns if the box's been opened.”
Long, straight tendrils teased the length of her jaw and she brushed them away in irritation. That's when Joe noted the presence of a plain silver wedding band.
“Of course I opened itâ
said it would work.”
“Did I? Can't remember.”
Her gaze narrowed, and Joe had a hard time holding back a chuckle. Not many people had ever stood up to Thompson's dictatorial ways, but this woman was the exception.
“Look, I know you're still mad at me for buying the houseâ”
“But you can't change the fact it
for sale to you.”
“Shouldn't have been for sale to outsiders, either. You city folk think you can move in here and buy up whatever you want. You tricked that old fool, but you ain't gonna trick me!”
“You have no
what I want, and I didn't trick anyone. Now, you guaranteed this part would fit that old sinkâ”
Thompson waved her toward the door. “Go bother somebody else.”
“You'd like that, wouldn't you? But I'm not budging until you give me my fifty dollars back.”
Joe eyed the box. Fifty dollars? He gave a small cough.
Thompson glared. “Why ain't you left yet?”
“Mighty pricey part,” he drawled, shooting Thompson a look that stated clearly he was on to his game. “Can't help but wonder how business would suffer if folks thought your prices had a tendency to
depending on who was doing the buying.”
The woman frowned as she caught on to what he implied. Then she flashed Thompson a quelling smile. “Oh, really? Fluctuate, huh? Maybe I need to call the local paper instead?
the Better Business Bureau?” Her tone left no doubt that she would do just that and relish every minute.
The little man sputtered a moment. He fumed at Joe, his bushy brows nearly obscuring his eyes they pulled so low. “You stay out of this,” Thompson grumbled.
The woman leaned over the counter and grabbed the phone receiver off its base.
Eyes wide, her expression changed to one of innocence. “Would you like to call the BBB yourself?” She glanced around the otherwise empty hardware store before she gave Thompson a shrug. “Looks pretty dead in here, but I imagine it'll only get worse once word gets out.”
The threat of losing money darkened the man's complexion to a dull maroon. Mouth pursed, Thompson made a noise deep in his throat and stomped his way around the counter.
“Man can't make a decent living. Folks always whining and complaining and not willing to abide by the law. Sign says no returns and it means no returns.” He pointed a finger at her. “Don't you be tellin' folks I done this now, you hear me? I'll have all sorts of kooks in here wantin' money.”
She made a face at the word
but nodded as Thompson stalked by. “I won't say a wordâ¦so long as you don't try this again. I want the right part at the right price.”
The man complained some more as he waddled a wide path around Joe and headed toward the plumbing supplies.
Joe turned back to the woman, figuring it was about time for her to recognize him and go running like all the others. She dropped the handset back on the base, her gaze sparkling with amusement and lingering irritation, the almond-shaped eyes completely without fear or condemnation.
“Thanks for the backup.”
Hesitant, still waiting for her to call him names, Joe tried for a smile. “No problem.”
The woman took a step in Thompson's direction but hesitated, one hand on the counter. “Soâ¦exactly how much does âfluctuate' mean?” Almost
as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she stuck her hand up in the air. “No, never mind. Forget I asked. I don't think I want to know how badly he took advantage, but I'll watch him in future.
I come back at all.”
Joe glanced over his shoulder at Thompson and saw the guy still muttering to himself as he sorted through plumbing fixtures. “Demand store credit if he tries to charge you more than thirty bucks.”
Her full lips parted in shock at the price difference, and after a deep inhalation that caused his attention to stray south, the fire reappeared in her eyes.
“O-kay,” she said slowly. “Well, I see how he works.” She nodded again. “Live and learn, right?”
That motto he knew well. “Right,” he agreed, watching as she squared her shoulders and headed toward Thompson. The sway of her jean-clad hips forced him to remember the silver band on her finger.
Exhaling a breath he didn't know he held, Joe shook his head and grabbed his duffel from the floor. Time was wasting away.
Outside, the muggy morning air latched on to his skin despite the shade covering the storefront. August was a hot, hot month in southern Ohio. The humidity nearly unbearable as it was trapped between the valleys and hills. Days like this were best spent on the water, boating, swimming. Picnicking somewhere private with a beautiful girl in a bikini top and Daisy Duke shorts.
All in good time.
After all, he'd served his and at least he wasn't on a job site somewhere with an armed guard ready to fire should anyone try to make a run for it. Still, as he walked down the sidewalk and people scattered into shops or crossed the street to avoid passing him, he wondered how well some of the other guys would do when they made it home. Not many people liked the state releasing inmates for time served due to statute reorganizations. Especially not those convicted of killing a child.
Joe glanced at the clock in the town square and grimaced. Eleven-ten. Thompson's Hardware had been the fourth job listed in the Help Wanted section of the paper. Four of four, and after pounding the pavement walking the distances between locations, he'd been turned down by each and every one of them.
On the corner of Main and Elm, he hesitated outside Pat's Diner. Back in high school it was the popular place to hang out, and pretty much the only place to eat downtown.
Through the glass door he spotted an empty bar stool well away from the patrons who occupied the booths, and he grabbed the handle before he could change his mind. If he kept his head down maybe no one would notice him.
“Good morning, what can I getâ” The waitress's mouth dropped open. “Oh. My. God.”
So much for no one noticing him. The woman's cheeks filled with color and her hand moved protectively over her heavily rounded stomach. She looked familiar, but he couldn't put her face with a name.
His neck prickled from the multitude of stares brought on by her behavior, but he ignored them as best he could and nodded. The pot shook wildly as coffee splashed into his cup.
She still hadn't let go of her belly.
“Black's fine, thank you.”
His thanks seemed to throw her. She bit her lip and then said, “You, um, want something to eat?”
Joe shook his head and stared down into the murky depths of the rich-smelling brew. The pregnant waitress hurriedly waddled away with an audible sigh of relief, meeting up with another waitress at the end of the counter.
Comments came to him then, the whispers getting louder and easier to hear. The words
at the forefront. Josie's name.
. His manslaughter charge and how he'd gotten off easy when an eye for an eye would've been better.
The diner door opened behind him and Joe immediately shifted his back to the wall on his left. Old habits were hard to break even though he'd been in a workhouse most of the last ten years.
Still, once the other inmates had discovered what he'd been convicted of, things had a tendency to happen. So-called accidents. If not for his height and build he probably wouldn't have lived long, but as it was he'd gotten used to putting his back to the wall for protection.
Head down, Joe took a sip of coffee, but just when he thought his morning couldn't get any worse, Taylorsville's police chief took a seat two stools down from his.
“Mary, can I get a cup to go?”
Mary. Mary Bishop. That was her name. She was John Bishop's little sister, and that explained the familiarity. She looked like John, who'd been one of his buddies in high school, but was a good bit younger. Seven or eight when he'd been convicted, which put her around eighteen now.
Like magic Mary reappeared out of nowhere and handed the lawman a plastic-capped cup as though she'd already had it ready and waiting. Known he was coming as though he'd been called.
“Here ya go, Hal.”
“Thanks, hon, I appreciate it. That baby doin' okay?”
Joe watched as her gaze darted nervously to him before she placed both hands over her front.
“Fine now. The doc says I'm okay so long as nothing more goes wrong.”
It was almost comical how quiet the diner was compared to when he'd walked in. Not even the normal sound of banging and clanging pots and pans could be heard from the kitchen. The proverbial pin could've dropped and the most hard-of-hearing would have flinched from the noise.
“Nothing's going to happen,” the chief stated firmly as he pulled the perforated tab off the top of his coffee, giving the task more care than it needed. Casually, his leather holster creaking as his badge flashed beneath the lights overhead, Hal York turned to face him.
“Isn't that right, Joe? Nothing's going to happen because as soon as you drink your coffee, you're going to leave town.”
Joe didn't move. “I heard about Melissa,” he murmured softly, acutely aware their audience listened to every word. “I'm sorryâ”
“Don't,” Hal ordered, his voice gruff. “Don't you even say her name. Maybe one day God'll forgive you, but I won't and neither will my daughter.” He leaned toward Joe. “Leave town and don't ever come back. Do it, or I'll make you wish you'd stayed in prison.”
Several people in the diner seconded the chief's sentiment, and Joe tried to ignore the slight tremor in his hand as he lifted the cup and finished off his coffee before reaching behind him. More than one person gasped as the occupants of the diner waited
to see what he was reaching for, and bitterness filled him. It took some doing to ignore them all as he pulled a few bills from his wallet and tossed them onto the countertop, leaving Mary a tip he couldn't afford.
Joe told himself it was to prove a point, but he couldn't lie to himself. She reminded him too much of Melissa's overwhelming panic when she'd found out she was pregnant. Pregnant and unwed, and having to face her father the cop.
Without a word to Hal, he grabbed his duffel and left, wincing when the diner erupted into a small roar of voices just before the door swung closed behind him.
Let them talk all they wanted. Threaten. He wasn't going anywhere except to see his dad at the nursing home and thenâ
Then he'd have to do what he'd done for the last ten yearsâkeep his head down and figure out how to survive in a place where everyone hated him.
decided that when she had a bad day, she
had a bad day. She'd been up nearly all night with her teething toddler and finally settled him only to see her chance at getting any sleep disappear with the rising sun.
Downstairs she'd discovered the coffeepot had chosen today of all days to die, and then she'd been so distracted by Mr. Thompson's two-faced,
childish prank of deliberately selling her the wrong item, she'd forgotten to stop by the diner to splurge on her much needed caffeine jump.