Authors: Kathleen Lash
“Heather!” A woman rushed from the sidewalk.
Heather dropped the bag and Keith caught it.
“Sorry, Whisper,” Heather replied. “I thought you’d be napping. I’m sorry.”
“Where were you?”
“I…went out. And I—”
“Go inside. Immediately!”
Heather started backing away after taking the bag from him. “Thanks. You’ll be paid, I promise. I’m sorry for any trouble.”
When he closed the back hatch on the SUV, he waited until Heather stepped inside before turning to regard her sister. Heather’s quick retreat made a really foul mood descend. Tired and feeling a little protective of the kid, he remembered he hadn’t gotten his damn beer.
“Look,” he said, “nothing happened to her, she’s home and safe. It’s late and she’s worn out. Let her explain and take it easy on her.”
“Anything else?” The woman’s voice didn’t carry far, but the menace came through loud and clear.
“Sure. Take better care of your sister.” He instantly regretted the words. It wasn’t his business.
“Who are you? Why was she with you?” He sighed. “She got in some trouble and I walked into it. She told me you were having a hard time and we went to the grocery store. It’s no big deal, so don’t turn it into one.”
“What do you want?” She spat enough accusation in her question to make the Pope re-think recent actions.
His mood wouldn’t tolerate her tone of voice. He took a step toward her and she backed away. He’d only wanted to get close so their voices wouldn’t carry. Heather stood in the doorway and she’d already been through enough for one night. “Listen carefully. Take better care of your sister,” he said.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
COPYRIGHT 2011 by Kathleen Lash All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Contact Information: [email protected] Cover Art by
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The Wild Rose Press
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Adams Basin, NY 14410-0706
Visit us at www.thewildrosepress.com Publishing History
First Champagne Rose Edition, 2010
Print ISBN 1-60154-897-4
Published in the United States of America
To my friend and critique partner Jenny for putting up with me
and patiently correcting my latest writing quirk.
who is buying an e-reader just for my books.
Miss you Dad and Mom —
I hope they have "highballs" in heaven.
Have one on me to toast another book.
Thanks to my husband, who gives encouragement and still calls me "sexy."
I promise, sweetie, next royalty check, we will get you better glasses.
To my family and children,
who are the absolute best!
And thanks to my editor, Cindy Davis for bravely taking on another project from me.
Keith Manchester stopped for a six-pack of his favorite beer to enjoy over the Labor Day weekend.
He wanted it, deserved it and damn it, he’d have it while busting his tail to get the large home repair project done. He didn’t need more complications or another kid to worry about, but caught himself speculating about the teenage girl at the front of the store. With her arms crossed, shoulders rolled forward and head bowed, he took an extra few seconds to look the situation over. Her hands shook as she slowly pulled items from where they’d been concealed under her shirt, in the waist of her jeans.
With the police involved, she stood knee deep in one hell of a mess. God only knew why, he couldn’t just leave her there. Her pitiful expression, rigid posture and those damned dripping eyes, made him forget the beer and stick his nose where it didn’t belong.
Of all the stupid stunts! She got busted
stealing two packages of hot dogs and a pound of
He wandered close, placed a hand on her shoulder and said to the cop, “Maynard, what the hell’s going on?”
Maynard Wilkins looked up and started laughing. After a firm handshake, Maynard replied,
“When did you roll into town?” Keith hadn’t seen him in six months. A decade of patrolling for the Cleveland police gave Maynard some deep wrinkles and an abundance of gray hair.
“Touched down about an hour ago.” 1
“Then you haven’t even been home yet.”
“No. Figured I owed myself a few cold ones. I’m only here for two days this trip, and you know what the short visits are like.”
“Can you squeeze a night out with the guys?”
“Next time for sure.” The visits could be more than a few days in duration and there still wouldn’t be time to hang out with men he’d known since childhood. Maybe the situation would change in a few years when responsibilities lessened.
The girl squirmed beneath his hand and he tightened his hold. The kid trembled and hunched over slightly. Things would definitely take a turn in the wrong direction if she puked on Maynard’s shoes. If she managed to hold it together, he’d see what he could do. “Looks like I might have my hands full the next few days. What’d she do?” Maynard looked at the girl with disgust. “Theft.” The stolen packages of meat lay on the counter in front of them.
Keith shook her slightly and she looked up.
Wide, wounded, unusually shaded emerald green eyes brimmed with tears. He tried to sound stern and asked, “Jesus, Terry, what’s gotten into you!” Her mouth opened before snapping shut. Tears kept rolling as she bowed her head.
“She one of your kids?” Maynard asked.
One of his kids
would consist of at least twenty juveniles, some of them delinquents who ran the streets of Cleveland. Claiming one more wouldn’t make a difference. Everyone deserved a break, and by the look of her, she needed one.
“Yeah, she runs with my pack from time to time,” he replied, not liking the lie, but figuring he’d pay for it in the long run.
Keith gestured toward the manager and Maynard followed him to the checkout counter. Out of earshot of the girl, he asked, “Miguel, any chance 2
you’d give her a break?”
The older, gray-haired man shook his head.
Before Miguel verbally confirmed he wanted her arrested, Keith added, “If it was some kind of prank, I’d say bust her chops and teach her a lesson. Look at her.” They all did. “Does she look like she came in here as a dare or she’s pulling some sort of stupid stunt?”
“No,” Miguel said, “she don’t seem like the type.” He figured playing up her obvious fear and remorse would gain some sympathy. That along with the constant flow of tears might get her a second chance. An occasional soft sob added just the right effect.
“The kid doesn’t eat regular. Mark’s getting an earful when I get home. I told him to keep an eye on her.” “Come on, Keith,” Maynard said, instantly coming to his younger brother’s defense. “You know he does whatever you tell him to. She probably didn’t say anything about being hungry. You know how kids can be.”
“Yeah, they’re stubborn and independent and most of ‘em are street smart and tough at her age.
Not her, though.”
“No, she ain’t. You can see she ain’t,” Miguel agreed.
It was why Keith stuck his neck out in the first place. “So what do you say, Miguel? Maynard? I’m home and I’ll see she gets fed and I’ll get Mark to keep better tabs on her.”
“Where do you know her from?” Maynard asked.
“The shelter.” Damn, he hated lying to Maynard.
He did it to compel Miguel to have some compassion.
Using the local homeless shelter and food bank as an alibi wouldn’t condemn him to hell. He’d supported their efforts through good times and bad, and he’d bet his bottom dollar the preacher running the 3
establishment would look at the girl’s situation and give him a blessing to do whatever it took to lend her a hand.
Miguel sighed loudly. “I suppose it’d be all right, but only because she belongs to you. In the future, if she’s hungry, she tells me and I give her food. No more stealing.”
“I’ll explain it to her. You’re a good man.”
“Yeah, yeah, so you say.” Miguel kept staring at her and his annoyed expression relaxed. A lot of people Keith knew had a soft spot. Sometimes it took a little nudge to get them to show it. “You think she’s hungry?”
Keith laughed because Miguel wanted her arrested two minutes ago. “I’ll take care of it and get her squared away.”
Maynard shook both their hands as he got ready to leave. “The next time you’re in town, Keith, give me a call. It’s been a while since we played pool and had a few brews. Miguel, you’ve got me on speed dial. Call anytime.”
“I’ll see what I can do. And say hi to Nancy for me.” “I owe you for walking away from her.” Keith didn’t do the
in the breakup. In hindsight, Maynard winding up with her hadn’t even strained their friendship. It all worked out. “She’s a fine woman and you’re a lucky guy. Good night.” When he walked close to the girl, he kept his voice low. “You have a choice. Get arrested or come with me.”
Damn it, the kid actually started shaking. To her credit, she didn’t freak out or jerk away when he placed a hand on her back and gently pushed. Once outside, he kept her walking to his older, black Ford Explorer. She froze when he opened the passenger door.
“It’s still up to you,” he said. “Maynard’s across 4
the parking lot watching.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“Two blocks down. I said I’d feed you. I will. Sit with me in Steve’s diner, eat something, and I’ll take you home.”
When he got a look at her expression, he took a step back. God only knew why, but most kids trusted him on some level. She didn’t, not one bit and it surprised him. About to call Maynard over to take her home, she stepped into the SUV and reached for the seat belt. He walked to the driver’s side and got in. He caught glimpses of her eyeing him warily.
Words wouldn’t take that kind of mistrust away, so he stayed quiet until he pulled into the restaurant and turned off the engine.
Only a few booths remained open at eleven at night. The number of people surrounding them should take her mistrust down a notch. Situated in a booth close to the window, the waitress walked up and offered menus.
“Evenin’, Keith.” She winked at him. “What’ll you have to drink?”
“Coffee would be great, Cheryl,” he replied before looking at the girl.
“Water, please,” she said.
Cheryl walked away and he casually read the menu. “Are you going to eat?”
“Not hungry, thank you.”
He wouldn’t mention the food she tried to steal.
That’d probably be rude. “You like milk shakes?” When she didn’t answer, he asked, “Peanut butter?”
He’d had similar one or two word conversations with other kids. “Do you like it?”
“Yes.” This answer was more spontaneous.
Silence between them ended when Cheryl came with the drinks. He closed the menu and looked up at the haggard woman he’d gone to school with. “Is Steve cooking tonight?”
“He sure is.”
“Good. Double cheeseburger, salad with ranch dressing, and fries. And the young lady wants a Steve’s special shake. Tell him I asked for it.”
“Will do. That it?”
She walked away and he got comfortable by turning sideways in the booth and leaning against the partial wall. Damn he wanted a beer and his bed, in that order. After five minutes, the girl asked,
“Do you know everyone?”
He smiled because her voice didn’t sound so shaky. Maybe she figured out he wasn’t some predator who knew a cop, a convenience store owner, and made a deal so he could get her alone. God he hoped so. The kid looked like she needed the thousand-calorie shake.